Welcome to the NBA’s Overreaction Olympics

The NBA season tips off Tuesday, and that means we’re already in prime ‘Overreaction Olympics’ time—that early-season period where fans across the land see great or poor performances, isolated incidents and scoring runs only to blow them completely out of proportion, extrapolating an entire season out of them.

That’s gonna happen in spades during the first couple weeks of the season, but a lot of has already occurred during the NBA Preseason slate⁠—despite everyone knowing better than to put stock in what happens during the tune-up matches.

So, whether you’ve been hearing these already or are inevitably about to, here are some words and phrases to watch out for as you’re reading through various articles and/or listening to talking heads during the opening weeks of the season.


At some time this week, you’ll read the sentence, “It’s a small sample size, but…”

No. Focus on the opposite of the idiom more often than not. Everything after the but is BSSample sizes matter. They don’t stop mattering because someone wants to illustrate a point.

To illustrate, in theory, it would take 1,024 ((1/2)^10) tosses to have a coin land heads or tails 10 consecutive times. Ergo, if you were to toss a coin 10 times, there’s a decent chance that you’d have one grouping of 10 like tosses in a row, or at least eight or nine. To say “small sample size, but” is to extract that series of unlikely but perfectly ordinary tosses and say it means something about the coin.

Most teams run about 20 lineups in a game, so most games have 40 lineups, which means that after every team plays one game, there will be around 600 lineups played, with almost none of them seeing even 10 minutes. The best of those lineups will have net-ratings of plus-40 or something ridiculous. But any early-season “assessment” of such things is really just selecting the “best lineup” out of hundreds, taking an isolated sample, and extrapolating it beyond its scope.

In other words, it would be like taking that 10-flip sample and then assigning significance to it before extrapolating to a 1,000 flip set.

Another way you’ll see this applied is early on/off numbers, though that’s a bit more veiled. The problem is that the off numbers for a starter are skewed.

Let’s say a player is on for 75 possessions and is plus-4.  He’s also off for 25 possessions and is minus-3. That comes out to a rating of plus-5.3 on and minus-12.0 off. And that’s how to turn a one-point scoring differential into a net-rating difference of 17.3.

Every extrapolated per-100 possession number early in the season is meaningless, even if you qualify it with the word, “but.”


Oct 14, 2019; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn (25) drives to the basket against Atlanta Hawks guard Brandon Goodwin (0) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Book it: An NBA player who was drafted late in the first round or second altogether is going to have a good game during the first week of the season. Immediately, the world will prematurely jump on him as the “steal of the draft.”

We’ve seen it with everyone from Norris Cole to KJ McDaniels. It’s important to note that single-game performances don’t mean much.

Look, Miami’s Kendrick Nunn dropped a 40-burger in the preseason finale against the Houston Rockets. That, in isolation means close to nothing. He might be a steal. He might have just had a great game.

To know how good a rookie is going to be usually takes more than a week or two.  And not all rookies selected late end up getting a lot of playing time early in the season.

While Norris Cole was touted as the steal a few years back, Jimmy Butler⁠ (the Chicago Bull taken with the next pick⁠) and Isaiah Thomas (the Sacramento King selected with the 60th pick) had far better careers.

Last year, Marvin Bagley (Kings) was taken second overall and got most of the “steal of the draft” recognition early on. And he may end up being it, but Mitchell Robinson (New York Knicks), who was drafted 36th, has Defensive Player of the Year potential.

The problem with jumping too early on a “steal of the draft” scenario is that it puts too much weight on a single game, as well as ignoring that other players may not have had the same opportunity to showcase their skills (yet).

Deciding who the steal of a draft takes at least a season, if not more. Making that determination after a week is just premature.


April 30, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the second quarter in game two of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Another favorite is when you read/hear: “Player X is on pace to be the fifth player to average 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists” or some such nonsense. While I think “clubs” like this do have their place in that they show a particular skill set, I find they are often misused early in the season.

Averaging something for the first two weeks of the campaign is a lot easier than doing it for the whole season. And when it becomes multiple criteria, it’s even harder to maintain the thresholds for a full NBA year.

For example, seven players had averages of 25/5/5 through November 15 last year. By the end of the season, James Harden was the only one.

You’ll also see this in terms of league trends.

One area to keep an especial eye on is pace, which has steadily been going up anyway.

Pace tends to be higher at the beginning of the season because players are fresher and running more. Plus, play starts off a little sloppier, so that results in a more transition plays.

Last year by November 15 (i.e. just a few weeks into the season), there were 22 teams with a pace over 100 and four teams above 105. By the end of the year, the Atlanta Hawks were leading the league at 104.56 while only 17 teams topped 100. While you can expect it to go up (as it has for the last seven seasons), it won’t be by as much as it’ll look at the start of the season.

Someone will nonetheless write an article about how pace is up, but any realistic estimation of what it will be for the season needs to wait until at least January.


May 7, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots over the reach of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the second half in game five of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’ll probably take about a week before we start assigning awards if tradition is any indicator.

Pay no attention to any of it.

Last year’s Week 3 Kia MVP Race to the MVP Ladder had the top-as: Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, in that order. That list didn’t have much resemblance to the final top-five, which included James Harden, Paul George and Nikola Jokic.

Sometimes, such as with the Rookie of the Year race last year, a guy leaps out to the lead and no one ever comes close.

But more often, this ends up being like preseason polls for college football, where preconceptions matter more than actual performance and players have to “leap” others. Unfortunately, that means an early-season favorite can often cement the award before the conversation should have even begun.

There’s a time to have these talks, but it’s not during the first three weeks of the season.

Disappointing starts

Oct 10, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) is greeted at the Clippers bench during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Some team that is currently considered a favorite will have an early-season struggle, and there will be an outsized reaction to it. Last year, the Houston Rockets started 1-6, due to a combination of tough scheduling, injuries and trying to figure out a new defense.

People even started questioning if they’d make the playoffs.

There are teams that could expect early season struggles this year. The Los Angeles Lakers certainly have the star power with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but they spent a grand total of 64 minutes together on the court this preseason.

So, talented as they are, they’re still going to have to learn one other’s preferences. We’ve previously seen similar adjustments with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving adapting to play with LeBron, as well as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

I’m not saying they will struggle to start. I’m saying if they do, I’m not going to read too much into it.

The L.A. Clippers will have a similar process of incorporating stars, and the NBA was hardly kind in its early-season scheduling. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George get to face off with nine teams during the first 11 games that made the postseason last year after opening up against the Lakers.

They’ll also be the first road team in the Golden State Warriors new stadium. They play the Utah Jazz twice, the San Antonio Spurs, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Portland Trail Blazers, the world champion Toronto Raptors and the Rockets.

That’s a heck of a way to start the season, and if they get through that with six wins, it wouldn’t be disappointing. But a 6-5 start might have people talking about whether the experiment is working!

Don’t buy into it. The combination of scheduling and learning is a tall task, and the Clippers will certainly finish the season stronger than they start it.