Blount's production comes at a low cost

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29

Matt Slocum/AP PhotoIn two playoff games against the Colts, LeGarrette Blount has seven rushing touchdowns.
A key component of managing a roster is finding value in how resources are allocated, both in draft-pick management and navigating free agency. It’s hard to argue that the New England Patriots haven't done that with LeGarrette Blount -- not once, but twice. His production has been inconsistent (matching his career path), but given the minimal investment in Blount’s services, the Patriots have found good value.

It took two games against the Indianapolis Colts for Blount to become the Patriots’ all-time leader in playoff rushing touchdowns (seven). Between those performances were two playoff games in which Blount had a combined eight rushes for seven yards.

The Patriots signed Blount for the veteran minimum before Week 12, and he had 12 rushes for 78 yards in his first game back in Foxborough, a 34-9 win against the Lions. Blount stepped up his production down the stretch with the Patriots, ranking 13th in the league in rushing yards since Week 12 (including playoffs). Only DeMarco Murray and C.J. Anderson (eight) had more rushing touchdowns since Week 12 than Blount (six), a solid return given that his 2014 salary-cap hit ranks 155th among running backs.

Low-cost acquisition
In 2013, New England traded the rights to running back/return specialist Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick (which turned out to be defensive tackle Everett Dawkins, who is out of the league) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Blount, an undrafted free agent signed by the Tennessee Titans and claimed off waivers by the Buccaneers before the 2010 season.

Blount’s 944 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns led the Patriots in 2013 (including playoffs), with a 5.2 yards per rush average that trailed only Andre Ellington (5.5) among qualified running backs.

Blount capped his successful year with a 24-rush, 166-yard performance against the Colts in New England’s 2013 divisional playoff win before the Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Blount signed a two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers for almost $4 million, but was released after 11 games.

Tough to tackle
The numbers support Blount as a key contributor in New England’s Super Bowl game plan. No back in the league has been harder to bring down than Blount: He averaged an NFL-best 2.6 yards after contact per rush in the regular season.

One common theme for the teams that beat the Seahawks this season has been a successful ground game. Each of the four teams to beat Seattle rushed at least 27 times and for more than 100 yards.

Irving dominates, but Cavs lack continuity

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
ESPN Stats & InformationKyrie Irving was one point shy of tying the Cavaliers' franchise scoring record.
Kyrie Irving scored a career-high 55 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 99-94.

Irving's 55 points are the most in Cavaliers franchise history by a player not named LeBron James, and just one point shy of matching James for the most by a Cavalier.

If you're a Cavaliers fan, it's been a while since you've seen a performance like that in Cleveland. In fact, it's the most points scored by a Cavalier at home in franchise history.

LeBron has eight 50-point games with the Cavaliers, but all of them have come on the road. The only previous 50-point game by a Cavalier at home was by Walt Wesley in 1971. The only visiting player to score more than Irving's 55 at Cleveland was Michael Jordan, who scored 69 points in 1990.

Irving made a franchise-record 11 3-pointers, breaking the record of 10 previously set by C.J. Miles last season. Irving joins Joe Dumars as the only players in NBA history with at least 10 3-pointers and 10 free throws in a game.

It was just the Cavaliers' second win in 10 games this season without James. Irving has stepped up in such games with 27.3 points per game, compared to 20.7 when James is in the lineup. Irving has eight more field goal attempts per game without James, but he has also been less efficient (lower field goal percentage and more turnovers per game).

Lack of continuity for Cavaliers
Another missed game by James continues a theme of inconsistency for the Cavaliers in terms of their lineup. Throughout the season, the Cavs have dealt with injured stars and trades.

Their 25-12 record with James (.676 win percentage) would be second in the East behind the Atlanta Hawks.

But even that doesn't represent the current Cavs team at full strength. Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert recently joined the team. In the eight games with Mozgov and Smith after James returned from injury, the Cavs were 7-1. Their offensive efficiency in those eight games (115.9 points per 100 possessions) would rank first in the league for the season.

In their past five games together, it's even better. Not only would their offensive efficiency in that span rank first in the league (116.0), but their defensive efficiency (97.4) would rank second.

It's just a matter of continuity -- whether or not the Cavaliers can stay healthy and continue the rhythm they developed in those eight games.

The Cavaliers most used lineup includes Anderson Varejao, who is out for the season. Their next-most used lineup -- Irving, LeBron, Kevin Love, Shawn Marion and Tristan Thompson -- has played just 110 minutes together this season. The New York Knicks are the only team whose most used lineup has played fewer minutes together.

Top stats to know: Duke at Notre Dame

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28

USA Today SportsJerian Grant and Notre Dame host Quinn Cook and Duke tonight at 7:30 ET, ESPN2.
No. 4 Duke travels to South Bend to take on No. 8 Notre Dame in one of six remaining ACC games between current top-10 teams.

Offensive Firepower
When these teams meet, offense will be on display. Notre Dame leads the nation in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and Duke ranks fourth.

Notre Dame is the only team in the nation that has averaged at least one point per possession in all of its games this season, which is largely a result of its efficiency in the half-court. The Irish lead the nation in points per play in half-court sets and Duke is not far behind in ninth.

Top Players
Jahlil Okafor and Jerian Grant have had a lot to do with that half-court production. Okafor is shooting 65.1 percent in the half-court, best in the ACC (min. 20 att), while Grant leads the ACC with a 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Okafor and Grant both have an argument for Wooden Award honors. Which player has been more valuable to his team is up for debate, but depending on which advanced metric you choose, both players have been among the best in the nation.

Hollinger’s player efficiency rating (PER) is a rating that captures how efficient a player is while he’s on the court. Helped by his ACC-high 67.1 effective field goal percentage, Okafor ranks second in the nation in PER (33.9) behind Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky (36.0).

Another measure of player production is win shares, which uses advanced offensive and defensive stats to estimate the number of wins a player produces for his team. In part due to his ACC-high 31.6 percent assist rate, Grant is one of the top two in the nation in win shares (5.0) along with Utah's Delon Wright.

BPI Notes
Although Duke and Notre Dame thrive on the offensive end, they both could use some help defensively. Each ranks outside of the top 50 in defensive efficiency, which is one reason why neither team is ranked in the top five of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index despite their superb records.

According to BPI, assuming average pace, Duke is about 1.3 points better than Notre Dame on a neutral court. Duke has more wins against opponents ranked in the top-50 of BPI, and despite its double-digit losses to Miami (FL) and NC State, the Blue Devils have had more impressive wins than Notre Dame.

Game BPI is a way to measure the impressiveness of a win. It is a score for each game that accounts for pace-adjusted scoring margin, opponent and site of game. Duke has a higher average Game BPI and four more wins with a Game BPI above 90 than the Irish.

Despite Duke’s higher BPI rating, the two teams are so close that Notre Dame’s home court advantage gives it the edge tonight (7:30 ET, ESPN2); the Irish have a 59 percent chance to win according to BPI.

4-Point Play: Nets at Hawks

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28

Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesBrook Lopez and the Nets take on Kyle Korver and the Hawks tonight (8 ET, ESPN).

The 4-Point Play looks at the four analytics-based storylines that will make you smarter when watching Wednesday’s game between the Brooklyn Nets (22nd in BPI) and the Atlanta Hawks (10th in BPI). Our BPI gives the Hawks a 70 percent chance of winning:

1. The Hawks rely on Kyle Korver to be historically good. Only seven players in NBA history have taken more than 250 3-point shots and had a True Shooting % greater than 65 percent, and Korver leads them all with a TS% of 74 percent. When Korver has a TS% of at least 65 percent, the Hawks win 83 percent of their games. When he is below 65 percent TS%, they win only 71 percent of their games.

2. Defensively, the Hawks are at their best when forcing opponents into mid-range shots. When opponents are scoring 16 percent or more of their points off of mid-range shots, the Hawks give up only 97 points per 100 possessions. When opponents are at 16 percent or less, the Hawks give up an average of 102 points per 100 possessions.

3. The Nets rely on the offensive glass. When they are getting 23 percent or more of the available offensive boards, then they score 102 points per 100 possessions. When they are below 23 percent, they score only 97 points per 100 possessions.

4. The Nets are at their most efficient when Joe Johnson is launching threes. When Johnson is taking more than six 3-point shots per 36 minutes, the Nets score 102 points per 100 possessions. When he is taking fewer than that, they score only 98 points per 100 possessions.

4-Point Play: Wizards at Suns

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28

AP Photo/Alex BrandonThe Wizards look to extend their win streak to three tonight in Phoenix (10:30 ET, ESPN).
The 4-Point Play looks at the four analytics-based storylines that will make you smarter when watching Wednesday’s game between the Washington Wizards (13th in BPI) and the Phoenix Suns (14th in BPI). Our BPI gives the Suns a 66 percent chance of winning:

1. The Wizards are only an average offensive rebounding team, getting 25 percent of available offensive boards. When they are rebounding well though, they become a much more formidable team. The Wizards win 75 percent of games in which they get more than 25 percent of offensive rebounds and 50 percent of games where they get fewer than 25 percent.

2. The Wizards need Marcin Gortat to stay out of foul trouble. When Gortat is fouling less than 3 times every 36 minutes, the Wizards defense gives up 98 points per 100 possessions which is second only to the Warriors. When he is fouling at a higher rate than that, they are giving up 103 points per 100 possessions which is league average.

3. Despite playing a very small lineup, the Suns can play at least average defense when they are able to create turnovers. When they are creating turnovers on 12 percent or more of their opponents’ possessions, they give up the league average 103 points per 100 possessions. When they are not getting turnovers on at least 12 percent of possessions, they give up 106 points per 100 possessions.

4. As a team, the Suns need to be aggressive towards the basket and get to the free throw line. When they have a Free Throw Rate of 20 percent or higher, they score 108 points per 100 possessions, but when they are below that, they score only 104 points per 100 possessions.

Zach Randolph extends his range

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28

Wire photos

The Memphis Grizzlies continue to roll now that Zach Randolph is back in their lineup.

The Grizzlies, who are 4-5 without Randolph this season, improved to 29-7 with him after a convincing 19-point win in Dallas.

Randolph finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds. He has 10 straight double-doubles since returning from injury. The Grizzlies are 8-2 in those 10 games.

Randolph was 10-of-15 from the field and is now shooting 51 percent from the field this season, including 59 percent in his last 10 games. He is almost a lock to improve on his shooting from 2012-13 and 2013-14 (46 and 47 percent, respectively). Even if Randolph missed his next 40 shots, he would still be shooting better than he did last season.

The typical scoring method for the Grizzlies this season has been in the paint. They average 47.2 paint points, second-most in the NBA, led by Randolph’s 10.5 points per game in there.

But Tuesday was a little different. Randolph found a groove in a spot that he doesn’t typically shoot from -- outside the lane on the right side, from the top of the circle to the bottom of the circle.

Randolph, who had shot from that area only about once per game since his return, nailed all seven of his shots there on Tuesday.

Also worth noting about Randolph’s stellar play is that in a season featuring an increased emphasis of playing on back-to-back days, Randolph has fared well when he should be more tired.

He is averaging 20.2 points and 13.8 rebounds in the six instances during which he's played without a day of rest this season.

Defending Dirk
The Grizzlies also got things done on the defensive end, holding Dirk Nowitzki to 11 points, his fewest since an 11-point game on Dec. 9 ... also against the Grizzlies.

In three games against Memphis this season, Nowitzki is 16-of-42 from the field (38 percent), including 2-of-12 from 3-point range.


Seahawks, 2003 Patriots share similarities

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27

Wire photosTy Law was All-Pro in 2003 for the Patriots. Richard Sherman was All-Pro this season for the Seahawks.
Russell Wilson leads the 2014 Seattle Seahawks into Super Bowl XLIX in his third season as a starter, just as Tom Brady led the 2003 New England Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVIII in his third year starting. But that’s just where the similarities begin between the 2014 Seahawks and 2003 Patriots ...

No. 1 seed in conference
The 2003 Patriots finished the regular season 14-2 and were the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

The 2014 Seahawks finished the regular season 12-4 and were the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Both teams started slowly. The 2003 Patriots were 2-2 before winning their final 12 regular-season games. This season's Seahawks were 3-3 before they won nine of their last 10 regular-season games.

Accurate quarterbacks
Tom Brady threw 23 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in 2003, a ratio of 1.92. That was the seventh-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the NFL.

Russell Wilson threw 20 touchdown passes and seven interceptions this season, a ratio of 2.86. That was the seventh-best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the NFL.

Dominant defenses
The Patriots allowed 14.9 points per game in 2003, the fewest in the NFL and their second fewest in franchise history.

The Seahawks allowed 15.9 points per game this season, the fewest in the NFL and their third fewest in franchise history.

Both defenses relied on shutdown cornerbacks. Ty Law was first-team All Pro in 2003 for the Patriots, and Richard Sherman was first-team All Pro this season for the Seahawks.

Unheralded receivers
Deion Branch led the Patriots with 57 receptions in 2003, which tied for 42nd in the NFL.

Doug Baldwin led the Seahawks with 66 receptions this season, which tied for 42nd in the NFL.

The 2003 Patriots ended their season by winning Super Bowl XXXVIII, the same way the 2014 Seahawks hope to end their season in Arizona.

Lynch has second gear after first contact

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27

Kirby Lee/USA TodayMarshawn Lynch’s average yards after contact is higher in the postseason than in the regular season.
Marshawn Lynch rushed for 157 yards and totaled 183 yards from scrimmage in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers to lead the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

Both totals were career highs for Lynch and highly valuable in a game Russell Wilson posted the second-worst Total QBR (13.6) of his career.

Lynch will look to cap a career-best season with another big performance in Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots.

Better than ever
Lynch has rushed for 1,000 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns in every full season he has played with the Seahawks, but the 2014 season has been his best.

Lynch scored a career-high 17 touchdowns in the regular season, 13 rushing and four receiving. Lynch had five receiving touchdowns in the first seven seasons of his career.

Although he gained more yards from scrimmage in 2012 (1,786) than he did in 2014 (1,673), he made the most of his touches this season. Lynch gained a first down on 26 percent of his offensive touches this season, the highest of his career.

Of course, Lynch is best known for his physical running style. He averaged 2.53 yards after contact on 280 rushes this season. ESPN Stats & Info’s yards-after-contact data goes to 2009, and in that time there have been two instances of a player rushing 200 times and averaging more yards after contact –- and that includes Adrian Peterson’s MVP campaign in 2012.

Key to the Seahawks
Since joining the Seahawks during the 2010 season, Lynch has led the NFL in rushes (1,346), rushing yards (5,930) and rushing touchdowns (54).

As Lynch goes, so do the Seahawks. Including playoffs, the team has gone 39-11 (.780) in games Lynch scores a touchdown and is 14-0 when he scores at least twice. When Lynch doesn’t score, the Seahawks have gone 16-18 (.471, including playoffs), and that doesn’t include the one game Lynch missed since Seattle acquired him (a loss).

Lynch has averaged 107 yards from scrimmage, including 90 yards rushing, in Seahawks wins in his career. In losses, he has averaged 74 yards from scrimmage, including 62 rush yards.

That success has been magnified in the postseason, where Lynch has exceeded his regular-season averages. In nine postseason games, Lynch has averaged 5.0 yards per rush, compared with 4.4 in the regular season. The increase almost exactly matches his increase in rushing yards after contact from the regular season to the postseason.

Lynch has 815 career yards rushing in the postseason, which ranks 13th all time. He needs 77 yards to pass Larry Csonka and move up to eighth. If Lynch does so, he’ll be behind six Hall of Famers (Emmitt Smith, Franco Harris, Thurman Thomas, Tony Dorsett, Marcus Allen and John Riggins) as well as former Super Bowl and NFL MVP Terrell Davis.

Seahawks' trends equal Patriots' openings

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
The New England Patriots’ game plan seemingly changes week to week based on their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

In the divisional playoffs, the Patriots went an entire half without handing off the football to a running back. In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots rushed 40 times for three touchdowns.

The Seattle Seahawks provide the Patriots their biggest challenge to date. The Seahawks led the NFL in points and yards allowed the last two seasons, the first team to do so since the 1985-86 Chicago Bears.

So how should the Patriots’ offense approach the Seahawks’ defense?

Avoid the right
Richard Sherman has lined up on the offense’s right on 99 percent of his snaps this postseason, and his presence has made passing to that side a problem for opposing offenses.

When targeting receivers outside the right numbers against the Seahawks this postseason, opponents are 6-of-17 (35 percent) with a touchdown (Randall Cobb) and three interceptions (two by Sherman). Of the six completions, four were thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

On passes to the rest of the field this postseason, the Seahawks have allowed a 68 percent completion percentage and two touchdowns and have one interception.

When the Patriots played the Seahawks in 2012, Tom Brady was 3-of-10 with a touchdown and an interception throwing outside the right numbers.

At the time, Sherman was in his second year and emerging as a star. Brady didn’t avoid him much then, but he might this time if the divisional playoffs are any indication.

In the divisional playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens used inexperienced cornerback Rashaan Melvin almost exclusively on the left side (59 of 60 snaps). Brady threw 34 of his 50 passes left of the hashes.

Ground game is key
Running against the Seahawks is key, as they allowed 139 yards on 33 rushes on average in their four losses this season (an average of 73 yards on 22 rushes in 14 wins).

The Seahawks’ rush defense is strong, however, ranking second in yards per rush allowed (3.4) in the regular season. The Seahawks are particularly strong after contact, allowing a league-low 1.35 yards per rush after the first hit.

Against punishing runners such as Jonathan Stewart and Eddie Lacy this postseason, the Seahawks have softened up, allowing 2.27 yards per rush after contact. That’s good news for the Patriots, as LeGarrette Blount led the NFL with 2.57 yards per rush after contact this season.

Feed Gronk
The Patriots know where not to throw the ball, but to whom should they throw? Rob Gronkowski (naturally).

Gronkowski was the Patriots’ leading receiver this season and has a touchdown in five straight games, but going beyond that, tight ends have given the Seahawks’ defense issues this season.

The Seahawks allowed 11 touchdown passes to tight ends in the regular season, tied for third-most in the NFL, with six coming in their four losses.

Seattle ranked 22nd in Total QBR on passes targeting tight ends this season. It ranked first in passes directed toward running backs and wide receivers.

Hassan Whiteside does a lot in a little time

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25

David Banks/USA TodayHassan Whiteside (21) set a Heat franchise record with 12 blocked shots.
A player who entered this season with 19 games of NBA experience had one of the most impressive all-around games in Miami Heat history Sunday.

Hassan Whiteside came off the bench for the Heat and registered 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocked shots in their 96-84 win over the Chicago Bulls.

Whiteside became the first player with at least 12 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocked shots in a game since Shawn Bradley in 1997-98 with the Dallas Mavericks. In the past 25 years, the only other players to meet those marks have been Shaquille O'Neal (1993-94, with the Orlando Magic) and Dikembe Mutombo (1992-93, Denver Nuggets). Like Whiteside, Bradley came off the bench when he had his triple-dozen.

Whiteside broke the Heat franchise record of nine blocked shots (done by Alonzo Mourning six times). He had the first triple-double that includes blocked shots since Joakim Noah, who had 23 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocked shots on Feb. 28, 2013.

All 12 of Whiteside’s blocked shots were within six feet of the basket. Seven came when he was a help defender.

Taj Gibson was particularly affected by Whiteside. Five of Gibson’s 10 shots were blocked by Whiteside. No team had blocked five Gibson shots in a game before Sunday.

Whiteside's defense helped the Heat hold the Bulls to their third-worst field goal shooting percentage (35.6 percent) this season. The Bulls shot 33.3 percent in a loss to the Utah Jazz on Jan. 7 and 34.5 percent in a victory at Indiana on Dec. 29.

Whiteside played 19 games with the Sacramento Kings in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and was out of the NBA for two seasons. He became the eighth player in Heat history to post a triple-double, joining LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, O’Neal, Lamar Odom, Billy Owens, Steve Smith and Rory Sparrow.

Whiteside got all of that accomplished in 25 minutes on the court. The last player with 12 or more blocks in 25 minutes or less was Manute Bol in March 1989 for the Golden State Warriors against the Portland Trail Blazers (13 blocks in 20 minutes).

Stats to know: Thompson sets a record

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesKlay Thompson scored an NBA-record 37 points in the third quarter on Friday against the Kings.
Klay Thompson made his case to be a 2015 Western Conference All-Star and then some in 12 amazing minutes on Friday night against the Kings.

Thompson scored 37 points in the third quarter, the most in a quarter in NBA history, breaking the mark of 33 shared by George Gervin and Carmelo Anthony.

Perhaps more amazing than that: Thompson was 13-of-13 from the field and 9-of-9 from 3-point range. The nine 3-pointers set a record for a quarter. The 13 field goals tied the NBA mark. Thompson’s teammates were a combined 1-of-7 from the field for four points in the quarter.

Thompson finished with 11 3-pointers for the game, one shy of the NBA record shared by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall. He shot 73 percent from 3-point range, the best by a player with at least 15 3-point attempts in a game.

Thompson’s performance nearly mimicked that of his teammate, Stephen Curry against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in February, 2013.

Curry shot 64 percent from the field, made 11 3-pointers and finished with 54 points that day. Thompson shot 64 percent from field, made 11 3-pointers and had 52 points in this game.

Coincidence of the Night
Klay and his father, Mychal, each got to be a part of points-in-a-quarter history at Oakland Coliseum.

Mychal Thompson played in the game in which Sleepy Floyd set the NBA playoff record for points in a quarter with 29 for the Warriors against Thompson's Lakers.


Hawks continuing to prove themselves

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
The Atlanta Hawks don’t lose any more.

The Hawks beat the Thunder by 10 points on Friday. They’ve won a franchise-record 15 straight games and 29 of 31 overall. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that this is the first time in NBA history that there have been two winning streaks of at least 15 games prior to the All-Star Break. The only team with a longer streak this season is the Warriors, who had a 16-gamer

Though earlier this week, we noted the Hawks rank 10th in our BPI Rankings (hurt by a strength of schedule that ranked 20th at the time), they can still make a case for being the NBA’s best team.

The Hawks have shown themselves to be legit against the best teams. They are 11-2 against Western Conference opponents this season, including road wins against the Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Rockets and Clippers.

Each of the last two NBA champs (the Heat and the Spurs) had a win streak of at least 15 games during the regular season. However, the last team to start the season with at least 36 wins in the first 44 games (which the Hawks have done) was the 2010-11 Spurs, who got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Grizzlies.

Winning without a star
There is a case to be made that the Hawks lack star power. Their leading scorer both this season and on Friday, Paul Millsap (22 points), entered the day ranked 39th in the NBA in scoring. He also ranked tops on the team and 28th in the league in rebounds per game.

He has a legit, though not overwhelming case to be an All-Star, as does Jeff Teague, who entered Friday ranked eighth in the NBA in assists per game and 12th in’s Win Shares stat, which measures overall player value.

Where the Hawks are excelling is on defense. They held the Thunder to 41 percent shooting, During the winning streak, opponents are shooting only a hair better than that against them (42 percent).

Some media members have compared these Hawks to the last NBA team to win a championship without a megastar, the 2003-04 Pistons of Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton. Coincidentally, those Pistons had a similar win streak right around this time (a 13-gamer that ended Jan. 19). Their leading scorer, Hamilton, ranked 28th in the league in scoring at season's end.

The Pistons were also able to put up big streaks at the end of the season, winning eight straight twice in a six-week span. We’ll wait to see whether these Hawks can manage something similar and carry it into the postseason.


4-Point Play: Bulls at Mavericks

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23

Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images Pau Gasol, who has posted four consecutive double-doubles, and the Bulls visit the Mavericks tonight.
The 4-Point Play looks at the four analytics-based storylines that will make you smarter while watching Friday’s game (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) between the Chicago Bulls (11th in BPI) and the Dallas Mavericks (3rd in BPI). Our BPI gives the Mavericks a 74 percent chance of winning:

1. The Rondo effect on defense appears to be strong. When Rajon Rondo plays for the Mavericks, they give up 99 points per 100 possessions. Without him, they give up 105 points per 100 possessions.

2. The Mavericks' offense works best when Monta Ellis is not settling for midrange shots. When Ellis gets 20 percent or fewer of his points from midrange shots, the Mavericks score an average of 113 points per 100 possessions. When he is above that mark, Dallas scores only 109 points per 100 possessions.

3. The Bulls need Jimmy Butler to be a major part of their offense. When Butler has a usage rate of 25 percent or more, the Bulls win 70 percent of their games, compared with only 58 percent when he does not.

4. The Bulls play their best defense when Pau Gasol keeps himself out of foul trouble. When Gasol averages fewer than 2.5 personal fouls per 36 minutes, the Bulls give up 101 points per 100 possessions. When Gasol is fouling at a higher rate, the Bulls give up 106 points per 100 possessions.

ACC, Big 12 close in best conference debate

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23

Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesVirginia and Duke are two top-five teams that highlight a top-heavy ACC in college basketball this season.
One of the hottest topics to debate in this or any college basketball season is which conference is the best.

Most would agree that the argument comes down to the Big 12 and ACC. The Big 12 could potentially place eight of its 10 teams in the NCAA tournament, while the ACC could have four top-three seeds.

So which is the better conference? The answer depends on whether you’re looking for the deeper conference or the one with more potential to win it all.

Deepest Conference

The Big 12 is undoubtedly the deepest conference from top to bottom. Eight of its 10 teams rank in the top 50 of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and the conference has the highest average BPI ranking in the nation.

Sixty percent of the Big 12 is currently ranked in the AP poll (the highest percentage of any conference), and by the end of the season, two other teams could have an argument for inclusion. Even TCU, which lost its final 19 games last season, entered conference play undefeated (thanks in large part to a very weak nonconference schedule).

In nonconference games, the Big 12 has the best record in the nation but lacks a marquee nonconference win from a team other than Kansas.

The question surrounding the Big 12 is whether it has an elite team. No team in the Big 12 is ranked in the top eight of the AP poll or BPI.

Strongest At Top

Unlike the Big 12, the ACC has strength at the top, but the bottom of the conference has significant holes.

The ACC has four teams in the top 10 of the latest AP poll; no other conference has more than one.

This imbalance is captured in BPI. The ACC possesses five of the top 13 teams; the average BPI rating of those five teams is four points higher than any other conference’s top five. Put another way, the ACC’s fifth-ranked team in BPI -- Louisville -- ranks 13th overall. No other conference’s fifth-ranked team has a ranking higher than 20.

Even accounting for the fact that the ACC has five more teams than the Big 12, the average ranking of the top third of the conference is significantly higher for the ACC.

A case can be made that Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville or Notre Dame could win it all; all five of those teams were projected as top-four seeds in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology.

Combining It All

So the question remains: How do you balance conference depth with conference strength at the top?

ESPN Stats & Information has released weekly conference power ranking for college football the past few years (for a detailed description of the methodology, click here). In short, the system equally weights the ratings from ESPN’s Football Power Index (conference depth) and the AP poll (power at top) to determine the best and worst conferences in the country.

This formula has been adapted for college basketball with one change. Because such a lower percentage of college basketball teams receive AP votes, the weighting for these rankings is 25 percent AP voting and 75 percent BPI.

In a fairly anticlimactic ending, the Big 12 and ACC are tied atop the rankings. For those needing an answer, the Big 12 holds a 0.013 point edge over the ACC. The next three conferences are closely bunched, with the Pac-12 ranking third on the strength of its top two teams -- Arizona and Utah -- ranking in the top 12 of the AP poll.

Though not pictured, the bottom three conferences in the rankings are the SWAC, MEAC and WAC.

Lakers might be better without Kobe

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant has a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Kobe Bryant might be done for the season after MRI results showed a tear of the rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Is it possible that the Lakers could improve as a team without Kobe? The numbers show that the Lakers have been a more efficient team this season when Kobe isn't on the floor, scoring four more points per 100 possessions and allowing 10 fewer points per 100 possessions without him.

The Lakers are 14 points per 100 possessions better with Kobe off the court this season than they are with Kobe on the court. Among all players with at least 1,000 minutes this season, only Kobe's teammate Jordan Hill has had a more negative effect on his team's production than Bryant himself.

Kobe ranks among the worst players in the league this season in a number of categories:
• 124th in field goal percentage (third-worst among qualified players)
• 103rd in 3-point percentage (fifth-worst)
• 74th in player efficiency rating
• 361st in win shares

Kobe's 0.1 win shares are the fewest of the 73 players to play at least 1,200 minutes this season. Win shares are an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes to his team based on his offense and defense.

Among the players with more win shares than Kobe this season are:
• Jonas Jerebko
• Alexis Ajinca
• Joel Freeland
• Jerome Jordan
• Dewayne Dedmon
• Charlie Villanueva
• Austin Rivers
• Damjan Rudez
• Furkan Aldemir

If Kobe misses the rest of the season, he will have the worst field goal percentage (37.3) in the last 50 seasons for a player who averaged at least 20 points per game. The current mark belongs to Allen Iverson, who shot 38.7 percent in 2003-04.

After the injury news dropped on Thursday, the All-Star Game starters were announced, and Kobe is among them. The numbers show that some very good Western Conference guards did not make the cut as starters. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson all rank in the top 25 in PER, while Kobe ranks 74th.