When you miss the big game
How to get a feel for what mattered
BY DAVID THORPE with HENRY ABBOTT
The NBA preseason is usually around 100 games. The regular season is 1,230, plus whatever shenanigans happen with the In-Season Tournament. The playoffs are up to 105 games. If a game lasts an average of two-and-a-half hours, watching every game would be 3,600 hours, which is approaching two full-time jobs’ worth of time. There are people who have many televisions and watch it all.
David Thorpe comes close.
But the point is, everyone misses games. There’s no shame in it. It’s healthy, in fact.
When I got the ESPN editor job, I asked a little collection of NBA GMs at some All-Star event: “What would you most like to have?”
The consensus answer was that they needed a cheat sheet—a way to know what they missed without spending hours on it: “Everywhere we go, one of them said, everybody thinks we see every game. It’s anxiety-producing because it feels like the wrong answer to say: ‘I didn’t see that game.’”
On Tuesday, December 19, while I was sleeping, my stepfather texted me, excited the Blazers had beaten the Suns to end a big losing streak. The next morning, I immediately wanted to know what had happened. I knew it was on my DVR, but I had like eight minutes for this project.
At that moment, I received the Cleaning the Glass automated email—usually a great first glance at who had an outlier game—but in this case the answer was: nobody.
My not-so-secret weapon—because I’ve been telling everyone about it forever—is Popcorn Machine. No one ever likes it; it’s just my thing. I might be the only one left.
Popcorn Machine has a feature called “Game Flows,” where all the runs from the game are visually summarized. An 18-4 second quarter run, 22-3 in the third, 18-6 in the fourth. Those are interesting times of the game, and you can easily see which 10 players were on the court.
And you can see that while Matisse Thybulle was plus-17, he lucked into sitting on the bench the vast majority of the time Kevin Durant was off the floor. You can see that the Suns’ big runs came against the Blazers’ starters, and that when the Blazers played Malcolm Brogdon in place of Shaedon Sharpe to start the third, it touched off a firestorm. About two minutes in, I already had some valuable qualitative information.
That’s cool, but as I was considering my own next-morning process, I suddenly remembered that I was decades into knowing David Thorpe, but had yet to ask how he tackles this very problem.
As always, David was happy to share. Here’s what he does when he misses a game, and how he connects what he sees to what will matter down the line. — Henry Abbott
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Simple start: scan recaps and box scores
I’m usually running four TVs (five if there’s a G League game I need to see), my tablet, my laptop, and my phone. If I’m really trying to track one game, I narrow that down. Otherwise, I’m looking for close games. I try to keep up with the social media emanating from the games, too. And it feels like I have 100 people texting me about that during any game.
If I miss a game completely and need to get a good sense of the game narrative, here’s my normal routine:
First, I’ll check out ESPN’s game recaps, especially when they’re from the Associated Press. Typically, they focus on runs and box-score blips. I’ll then check the Gamecast information to see which quarter shaped the game’s narrative. I’m looking for big runs that led to big quarters.
As Henry points out, the beautiful thing about Popcorn Machine is that it’s free, but it’s also just as informative and easier to navigate than ESPN’s Gamecast.
Film study on Synergy (and other sources)
If a team won a quarter by 15 points, let’s say, I’ll go to Synergy Sports, which has a feature that allows you to isolate the actual possessions—no non-plays or free throws, just actual action. (Synergy has a public subscriber option that I highly recommend.) That will normally reveal a ton of valuable information like how a player or team scored and whether the opponent made successful adjustments. I also want to see how the scorer got his points, if he’s added new moves or new ways to score, or if a cool set play got a big bucket. Before Monday’s podcast, I followed this routine to see how in the hell the Clippers ended the game on a 22-0 run (answer: Kawhi, some lucky breaks, and locked-in help defenders).
If the game’s a tug-of-war throughout, I definitely watch the entire fourth quarter. That’s the most fun for fans anyway, especially when you’re not rooting for anyone. I’ll watch every possession of the quarter—again, no free throws, no non-plays. With an itchy trigger finger on the fast forward, I can do that in six-to-eight minutes.
If subscriptions are cost-prohibitive, YouTube offers a few good condensed-game options. Combined with box scores and recaps, that’ll paint a general picture. It does take a bit more work and time to scroll through the plays and find the runs, but you can use Popcorn Machine to pinpoint key stretches.
Something to remember: highlights feature outlandish makes, big blocks, high-flying dunks, but tell us little about what’s going to happen in the next game. They’re just outlier moments. But other things happen in games that do tell us something about what matters in the league this season or what might happen in the future—for example, seeing Magic Johnson play center well before the playoffs. Like, we can learn something.
So, on the one hand, you’re trying to see what happened. On the other hand, you’re also trying to see what mattered—not just how a team won but how the way they won informs future success or affects they’re ceiling.
Getting a feel for a player on film
When I study film, I’m assessing a player’s feel for the game. How can you tell, you ask? How a player moves off the ball reveals everything you need to know:
Is the player running or dribbling into space (good) or into crowds (bad)?
Is he cutting when he should be cutting?
Is he setting real screens or bullshit screens?
Is he shooting because he can get a shot off—or is it a shot he expects to make because it’s in his wheelhouse?
For individual defense, I’m looking at a player’s fight level:
Will he try to make a play or take a charge when faced with a 2-on-1, or concede the bucket?
Does a young guard stand and fight an All-Star when it gets physical, or does he give the star whatever he wants to avoid possible embarrassment (and/or a foul)?
If the defender is in a bad spot to keep his man off the glass, does he keep fighting anyway? Even if you can’t get the rebound, there’s a lot you can do to make sure the bad guys don’t get it.
For team defense, I can only guess what a team is supposed to be doing on certain shooters, but here are some things to look for:
Navigating screens—I like to see players go over the top when they should or use their footwork to prohibit the offensive player from using the screen.
Racing to take away open men as opposed to allowing the man to catch a pass then starting to defend.
Screeners racing to screen; it makes it more difficult for his man to do his job. (I love seeing defensive bigs who match that hustle and stay connected to the action.)
Feet, hands, eyes
This is the fun part:
Where are the defender’s hands? Are they wide? Are they high on early contests?
Is he always late to contest? I love spotting guys who don’t race to contest. The Raptors are mediocre, but not due to the effort of Scottie Barnes. I watch him race to his spots and communicate. Pascal Siakam did that in Toronto, too—it’s contagious—and I’m watching the Pacers closely to see if it catches on there.
In transition, I love big guys who are already looking for the outlet pass as they’re rebounding. They land and it’s gone. It really jumpstarts their team’s transition game; guys who don’t kill fast-break opportunities—or worse.
Transition situations are great indicators of whether players are well coached.
In the G League, you’ll see bigs rebound and then try to dribble the ball up-court, like they’re Al Horford or Anthony Davis, instead of tossing it to a guard. Then, nothing happens because they dribble too slowly or can’t get by anyone. Now, the break is squandered.
Is that player being selfish? Sure. But if he’s routinely making the same bad decision, that’s a sign of coaching negligence. Nothing drives me crazier. The same thing can happen in the NBA.
A team's overall shot selection—just like overall defensive effort—can often be boiled down to how much they are listening to their coach. Of course, poor defense isn’t always a coach’s fault. If management wants a certain style to better evaluate the roster, then it may not work while those players are still on the court. But, at the very least, a coach has to demand and get his players to compete at a high level.
When a team takes a lot of open shots with a variety of players and just doesn't shoot well, that’s a management or development issue. When bad shooters take lots of shots or good shooters take too many bad shots, that’s on the coach. No player ever took a bad shot from the bench.
That’s probably a bit deeper than most people are looking into things, but that’s what catches my eye.
Recognizing added skills
There’s adding a skill, and there’s enhancing a skill. They’re probably equally important. For some skills, it’s as easy as looking at percentages. Before this season, Scottie Barnes couldn’t shoot; now he can. LaMelo Ball never made 53 percent (or better) of his shots at the rim in three seasons, but this year he’s at 57.6 percent. One guy added a whole new skill; the other enhanced a key part of his game. Simple. Here are some other points of reference:
Is the player finishing from the second box?
How is the player shooting at the free-throw line?
Is there a particular move that he wasn’t using previously?
Are a player's turnovers down while his assists are rising?
My favorite thing is to examine the way a player is finishing his shots, and the relationship between form and execution. Sometimes, everything looks great mechanically, but the shots just aren’t falling. In other cases, it’s how talented players find ways to get off difficult shots.
Jalen Brunson has what I call a “quick floater.” He’s a little man who can’t really jump, but he’ll bully you into the paint and suddenly just release a half-hook floater. Even though defenders know it’s coming, Brunson still finds a way to get it off. That’s talent.
But Brunson has also enhanced that attack over time. Now, if you’re too aggressive on his floater, he won’t shoot it; he’ll fake you and then step through you, draw a foul, or both.
Perhaps the biggest point of analytics was that no one can mathematically watch 40 hours of basketball a night. Rick Carlisle can’t worry about watching other teams—he’s coaching the Pacers. So, analytics are a great way to discern where to focus his limited time to watch video.
Here’s where I go to dive deeper into player or team performance:
Each site offers different metrics; using them together helps me develop a three-dimensional picture of a game and monitor larger league trends. The caveat is that a single game carries little weight. For instance, on Dunks and Threes, a player’s Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) is greatly affected by who’s on the court with him.
Plug into podcasts
Listening to podcasts are another great way to stay abreast of the entire league. Here are some of my favorites:
My friend Zach Lowe talks to insiders daily and has great guests weekly. I tend to focus mostly on relevant title-chasing teams; Zach offers a broader approach. Sometimes what I learn from him or his guests causes me to do more studying myself.
My former ESPN colleagues, Brian and the two Tims (Bontemps and MacMahon), make me laugh. But they also have three smart pairs of eyes—and more importantly, are gifted writers who know how to listen. Combined with Zach and his guests, the trio gives me a far more universal, albeit slightly shallow, view of the NBA landscape. When it’s clear I know too little about a topic that might pop, I go right to Synergy.
John Hollinger and I go way back. In fact, I was the guy who helped get him to leave ESPN and join a front office. If I owned a team he’d be my first hire. Few people chart the salary cap landscape as well as Hollinger and his partner, Nate Duncan—and I get a deeper understanding after each podcast. I also listen to Dunc’d On, Nate’s show with Danny Leroux, mostly skipping to when they cover a game I’ve missed. Between Dunc’d On and The Dunker Spot pod, if a deeper dive is your thing, you can’t go wrong.
Every day, I walk 3.3 miles. When I’m not listening to NBA pods, I’m usually listening to political discourse, Malcolm Gladwell, or old shows featuring Christopher Hitchens. That means, until draft season, those three NBA shows are all I have time for—besides our own. I have a long list of occasional pods I tune into when time allows. Tune in to the TrueHoop podcast for more recommendations.
Read the writers who know
Substack features some of the finest NBA writers on the planet. I read whatever catches my eye, typically what’s topical. I don’t read many pure opinion pieces, unless it’s written by a strategist that backs up assertions with clips or X-and-O sessions. (So, when you read my opinion and hate it, there’s no one to blame but me.)
I’m a paid subscriber to several examples of fine basketball journalism here on Substack, including:
NBA Big Board (Rafael Barlowe)
The Finder with Tom Haberstroh (Tom Haberstroh)
The Stein Line (Mark Stein)
Outside the Substack family, I make sure to read everything by these writers:
The best sportswriter in the business—we just need her to focus more on the NBA!
Jonathon Givony, ESPN
Givony was like my little brother when he first started at ESPN. Along with Rafael Barlowe, Givony is a must-read for NBA draft content.
A truly gifted writer, Sohi’s piece on Siakam’s departure from Toronto is the best NBA content I’ve read all season.
One final note: there’s nothing that can take the place of watching a game, start to finish. I know it’s a commitment. To see the game more clearly, try doing what I do: watch with the sound muted. Put on some music that delights you—for me, it’s “Sade Radio.” Create your own narrative for the ebbs and flows of the game. The next day, when you read the recap, you’ll be thinking: “Yeah, but they forgot the way the losing team couldn’t guard the one-four pick-and-roll for an entire quarter!”
Nothing would make me happier!
Thank you for reading TrueHoop!