- Henry Abbott, TrueHoop, NBA
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Quantitative analysis has come to the NBA. Like when "Moneyball" came to baseball, it inspires a certain degree of skepticism. This contest was born to put the whiz-kid analysts to the test. What do those numbers say? How smart are they compared to conventional thinking? And to make it really tough do they have a hope in hell of beating my mom?
In the first two years, the experts in the Smackdown have done far better than more traditional "experts" like me. (They also have done pretty darn well compared to my mom.)
They have proven themselves so smart, in fact, that some of them are no longer available: Kubatko is now under contract with the Trail Blazers, who prevented him from defending his crown. (Jeff Ma, who is a returning participant, also works for the Blazers at times.)
The rules are simple: Based on stats, hunches and anything else, each person predicts the outcome of every playoff series, as the rounds unfold. Each correctly picked series is worth five points. Correctly predicting the number of games is worth two additional points. The winner gets something bizarre and arbitrary to be determined later.
TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD
TRUEHOOP'S STAT GEEK SMACKDOWN SCOREBOARD: FIRST ROUND
Series Predictions (click on the links below to see picks for each matchup)
ORLANDO MAGIC VS. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Magic-Lakers
In essence, every single stat expert thinks the Lakers will win this series.
(My mom does not. She is adamant that the Magic will win because, in her words, they play as a team and are not all about one player. With apologies to my mother, however, she is not a stat expert.)
Looking at the standings, however, and realizing they needed to mix it up to have a shot at advancing up the leaderboard, both Jeffrey Ma and Sandy Weil went against their best analysis and picked the Magic.
Weil is in particular trouble. His model seems quite good, but he already has overruled it with his human intuition five times, and three of those times he has been wrong. As a result, he heads into the Finals having to make a high-risk pick to avoid becoming the first Stat Geek to lose to my mom.
Said Weil, "Well, the model says the Magic in a photo finish if all games were neutral-court; but favoring the Lakers with home-court factored in. Given that my only hope to pull out of the basement of the standings is to go a different direction than Mom and Ilardi, and get it right, I'm going to take the Magic in 6. No one else will take that, I suspect. If the Magic win in six (my model's second-most-likely scenario, after Lakers in seven), I could pull it off."
The bad news for Weil: His fate is sealed. As luck would have it, the Magic in six pick he found unlikely to be popular was the exact pick my mom thought seemed most likely of all.
In the meantime, David Berri is in the catbird seat heading into the Finals, and he's not playing any games with his pick. "Assuming [Jameer] Nelson comes back, and he plays as he did earlier in the season (big if), I think the Magic can make this close. But I am still taking the Lakers since they have home-court for both Games 6 and 7."
Kevin Pelton also is taking the Lakers, and explains that Orlando's unforeseen win against the Cavaliers might be a different situation than what it's facing now. In hindsight, he writes, "Orlando's upset win in the Eastern Conference finals looks more predictable because of the importance of matchups in the postseason. The Magic had won the season series 2-1, and convincingly so. Orlando's upset meant every playoff series so far has been won by the team that won or tied the regular-season series, a trend the Magic certainly hope continues, having swept the Lakers this season.
"This time, however, the evidence isn't as strong in Orlando's favor. The two wins were both close, coming by a combined nine points, and the Magic relied heavily on the production of Jameer Nelson. The odds of his matching that even if he does play -- or any of the other Orlando point guards replicating it -- are long indeed. This time around, the matchups are not so strongly tilted in the Magic's favor. When the Lakers go small, they match up very well indeed -- with the notable exception of the middle.
Although it's possible to envision a scenario in which Dwight Howard is too much for either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol to handle, the shooters make their shots and the Orlando defense is solid enough to hold the Lakers at bay, the more likely scenario is that Howard will come back to Earth slightly after his conference finals, and the Lakers' offense will prove more potent."
As Hollinger and Berri have both picked the Lakers, Jeffrey Ma is the only person besides Berri with a chance to win. Once again, he writes, "I find myself in the unenviable position of making a pick simply to be contrarian and hoping for the best. Here's how it could happen: Orlando is able to spread the floor and hit its 3s, and Howard is able to get Gasol and, more importantly, Bynum in foul trouble. The 6-foot-10 wing players create mismatches, and Pietrus annoys Kobe enough to make him take too many shots."
(8) DETROIT PISTONS VS. (1) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Pistons-Cavs
The experts' explanations of their picks are all pretty similar. Neil Paine, for instance: "This is a total mismatch: Cleveland was the best team in the league during the regular season, and Detroit is an aging shell of its former self, a team that can't score, is mediocre defensively, and is without one of its best players. The Cavs will obliterate the Pistons."
"The Pistons," points out Sandy Weil, "haven't beaten a playoff team in over a month."
Kevin Pelton, however, says there is some good news for the Pistons. "Tayshaun Prince and company held LeBron James in check this season, limiting him to 25.8 points on .514 True Shooting in four games." So what's the bad news, Kevin? "Everything else. The Pistons are a mess, and they'll be lucky to take more than a game."
Jeffrey Ma says, "It's amazing how little Detroit seemed to care about playing the Cavs in Round 1 of the playoffs -- seemingly losing games on purpose just to set up this matchup."
(7) CHICAGO BULLS VS. (2) BOSTON CELTICS
Smackdown Breakdown: Bulls-Celtics
Kevin Pelton: "This series got a whole lot harder to pick Thursday morning. The Bulls have played better since the trade deadline, with a schedule-adjusted differential of +1.5 points per game with Brad Miller and John Salmons. Meanwhile, Boston's schedule-adjusted differential without Kevin Garnett is +2.9 points. That's close enough to allow Chicago to take the series to seven games, though I still think the Celtics should advance."
Neil Paine: "With Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon clicking they probably steal one at home, but unless Chicago can channel last year's Hawks, the Celtics should take care of business in this one."
David Berri's model likes several Boston players. "Boston doesn't have Garnett," he says, "but they still have Rondo, Pierce, Allen, Perkins and Powe. So they have other productive players.
Sandy Weil says "With KG, I'd see this as a stomping for the champs. But Boston does not force turnovers as well without KG; they also shoot and rebound a little worse. That is enough to bring Chicago in the mix, but not enough to get the Bulls over the hump."
(6) PHILADELPHIA 76ERS VS. (3) ORLANDO MAGIC
Smackdown Breakdown: Sixers-Magic
Jeff Ma predicts this will be the only sweep of the first round, and David Berri agrees that the Sixers won't even muster a game.
Kevin Pelton acknowledges that the Magic had a rough April, losing four games to lottery-bound teams. "However," he adds, "history doesn't show April performance to be much of a playoff predictor. Assuming Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are ready to go, Orlando should cruise in this series. The matchups look solid for the Magic, along with overall superiority."
Neil Paine salutes the Sixers' turnaround under Tony DiLeo. "But," he adds, "they don't have the talent to keep up with the Magic in this matchup. Orlando had the league's best defensive rating during the regular season, and the 76ers have been known to struggle offensively. Besides, no one can contain Dwight Howard if he gets the ball in deep, and they don't have an answer for him at the other end, either."
Sandy Weil notices that Orlando shoots a lot of 3s and shoots them well. Meanwhile, he also notices that "Philly doesn't defend the 3 particularly well. I'm not totally sold on the Magic, in general, but this seems like a good matchup for Orlando."
(5) MIAMI HEAT VS. (4) ATLANTA HAWKS
Smackdown Breakdown: Heat-Hawks
Kevin Pelton doesn't think the Heat's midseason trade for Jermaine O'Neal did all that much. "It improved the offense and helped launch Dwyane Wade's MVP-caliber second half. But the defense didn't keep pace, and the deal made a minor impact overall. One big potential problem for Miami: Opponents hit 38.9 percent from downtown against the Heat, and Atlanta shoots it pretty well [eighth in the NBA in 3s]."
Neil Paine acknowledges that Dwyane Wade has the potential to change everything (and Sandy Weil admits this factor alone informed his vote -- his computer model preferred the Hawks). "But the more likely result," he says, "is Atlanta winning both Games 1 and 2 at home (just like they did in the season series), taking 1 of 2 on the road, and finishing off the Heat in Game 5. If Miami wins both at home or somehow pulls the road upset, this series will go the full 7, but I think the Hawks are the better overall team and will advance in the end."
Jeffrey Ma says that "missing Marvin Williams hurts less than one would think, as the Hawks' D is much better without him anyway."
(8) UTAH JAZZ VS. (1) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Jazz-Lakers
Neil Paine things the Lakers simply have too many weapons. "Utah can pick and roll L.A. to death, but unless they prove they can stop Kobe AND Gasol AND Bynum AND Odom, etc. on a consistent basis, they're just not winning this series."
Kevin Pelton at least continues to respect Utah's home court. "Even though Utah limps into the playoffs," he says, "the home-court advantage at EnergySolutions Arena is strong enough that I don't expect the Lakers to win more than one game in Salt Lake City. Whether the Lakers can steal a win on their first visit to Utah may determine the length of this series, since the Jazz will be hard-pressed to win at Staples, where they lost twice by a combined 26 points."
(7) NEW ORLEANS HORNETS VS. (2) DENVER NUGGETS
Smackdown Breakdown: Hornets-Nuggets
Kevin Pelton says: "The Nuggets and Hornets posted nearly identical Defensive Ratings, but Denver had the slightly stronger offense. The difference isn't as dramatic as the seeds make it appear, but that and home-court are enough to make the Nuggets a solid favorite. It's funny that a pair of ex-Hornets (Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith) are the biggest reasons Denver's bench has been so strong this season."
Paine adds: "'N'awlins took an unexpected step back this season just as Denver took an unexpected step forward, but these teams are pretty evenly matched. In the past, this would be a series with 'upset' written all over it -- I mean, c'mon, the NBA's best point guard, Chris Paul, leading the way against a team that can't get out of the first round to save their lives? But with Chauncey Billups at the helm and a better efficiency differential than any time over the past few years, things feel different now."
Jeffrey Ma says: "Carmelo's new dedication to winning and addition by addition and subtraction (gaining Billups, losing Iverson) puts this team in a good position to move on."
Sandy Weil found the series very close: "Denver has performed better on the season as a whole, while New Orleans' performance against playoff teams actually looks better than Denver's. The Hornets don't seem to have been playing all that well recently, though. And Billups is about as good a matchup against Paul as one could hope for."
(6) DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. (3) SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Smackdown Breakdown: Mavs-Spurs
"If Manu Ginobili is healthy," says Neil Paine, "this is a no-brainer for San Antonio. But without him the Spurs could have problems in this rematch of the classic rivalry from a few years ago. Even so, I still don't think Dallas has enough depth or defense to beat the Spurs."
"San Antonio's health," Ma says, "is problematic. But they didn't have Manu for most of this season, and I think Duncan proved in the season finale that he is healthy. Dallas has been up and down all year and has always had trouble guarding Duncan."
Kevin Pelton says, "The Spurs' luck is bound to run out right? San Antonio went 12-7 in games decided by three points or less and 5-1 in OT, capped by Michael Finley's game-winning and OT-forcing shots this week. Without Manu Ginobili, however, their schedule-adjusted differential is worse than Dallas' over the course of the season, and the Mavericks have (for what it's worth) been playing their best basketball down the stretch."
For David Berri, this is the series that broke the mold. "I am essentially considering three pieces of evidence: each team's efficiency differential and home-court advantage." That's the basis of all of his picks. "The big exception," he adds, "is San Antonio and Dallas. San Antonio is without Ginobili, and he is a major producer of wins on this team. If San Antonio had not had Ginobili the entire season, I think the Spurs would have missed the playoffs. The Mavericks, though, underachieved the entire season. Specifically, Nowitzki and Howard underachieved. Had these players played as they did last year, the Mavericks would have been much closer to the Lakers. Dallas has played better recently, so I am thinking this team is better than their record (although that might be wishful thinking)."
Sandy Weil has his eye on the point-guard matchup. "I'm a bit skeptical that the Mavs can guard Tony Parker," he says. "It seems that he lives at the line in the playoffs. I'll take the Spurs."
(5) HOUSTON ROCKETS VS. (4) PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Rockets-Blazers
Jeff Ma, let's remember, has worked for the Blazers. He's friendly with all kinds of people in the organization. But he's the dissenter here, the one expert picking the Rockets: "This one is the toughest for me," he explains. "While I want badly for the Blazers to win this one, I still think they are a year away. This team is 10 deep and their second team outplays their first team at times, but that depth means less in the playoffs with no back-to-back games. I just think this is the toughest matchup for the Blazers (except, obviously, the Lakers). I hope I'm wrong, though."
Kevin Pelton echoes several experts when he says this is the closest of all the first-round series, by the numbers. "Only home-court advantage," he says, "makes this favor the Blazers. If the Rockets had won their finale to finish third, I'd have picked both teams to win. A series of wave-inducing blowouts at the Rose Garden (eight by 15-plus points since the All-Star break) have padded the league's fifth-best point differential. But Houston is right behind and was the only underdog to win the regular-season series. Two of those three games were decided by five points or fewer. This series should be thrilling."
Sandy Weil trusted his numbers, but not without some trepidation. "Something in me wants to pick against the model and take the Rockets. But the model predicts the Blazers, and the Blazers seem just a little bit better on a bunch of metrics. About the only things I can find that Houston outperforms Portland at are free-throw shooting and defensive field goal shooting on 2s. Those are important factors, for sure. It seems like this battle will be decided under the boards, especially under the Houston backboard."
(5) HOUSTON ROCKETS VS. (1) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Rockets-Lakers
"The Lakers have to feel comfortable with this matchup," Kevin Pelton says, noting they swept the season series. "Famously, Shane Battier has held Kobe Bryant in check, but in the two games since Michael Lewis spotlighted their matchup, Bryant has been very efficient, including 37 points on 14-of-23 shooting in a win at Houston (in which Ron Artest spent much of the time guarding Bryant). If that matchup still is relatively good for the Rockets, the matchup with Yao Ming has been equally favorable for the Lakers, who held Yao to 15.8 points per game this season without creating the opportunities for Luis Scola the Blazers surrendered in the opening round."
Neil Paine: "On paper, you'd think Houston's defense would at least offer some resistance to Los Angeles, but Kobe averaged 28 points per game against them during the regular season (including a 37-point outburst in March), and L.A. swept the season series. I don't expect things to be very different in the playoffs."
Jeff Ma says: "The question in this series will be, how many shots does Ron Artest take? The more he takes, the worse off the Rockets will be."
Sandy Weil says the Rockets are really good at preventing something the Lakers don't like all that much anyway: "One of Houston's defensive strong points is that they do a good job keeping teams from shooting 3s. But the Lakers depend less on 3s than most teams do."
(6) DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. (2) DENVER NUGGETS
Smackdown Breakdown: Mavs-Nuggets
Jeff Ma points out that Denver's length on defense will be a key advantage, as will the schedule of the playoffs: "Nuggets have been great when rested this year (not back to back), and they continued that dominance in their first series."
"If we focused strictly on the regular season efficiency differentials (Denver 3.51 vs. Dallas 2.09)," says David Berri, "and the fact Denver has home-court advantage, the Nuggets would be a clear favorite. But Dallas underperformed this year. Specifically, Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard underachieved. Had Nowitzki and Howard played as they did last year, the Mavericks would have challenged the Lakers this year. Towards the end of the season -- and in the first round against the Spurs -- Nowitzki and Howard returned to form. If this continues against the Nuggets, Denver is in trouble. So this is the dilemma facing someone trying to call the series. Will Nowitzki and Howard keep playing well? And will this be enough to overcome Denver's home-court advantage? My preference is to not pretend to know the answers to these questions. But the contest calls on me to make a call, so I am going to pick the Nuggets (and hope Dean Oliver has some great answers for Denver)."
Neil Paine: "The Nuggets swept the season series, and Dallas' first-round win over San Antonio didn't really do much to change my opinion of them -- without Manu, it wasn't really the Spurs they beat anyway, you know? Likewise, Denver's dominance over a Hornets team that had clearly packed it up and was ready for vacation doesn't really tell you a whole lot, except that Denver had the goods to really shut down CP3, and besides, the Nuggets were already a lot better than Dallas during the regular season anyway. No reason to even entertain the possibility of an upset here."
Kevin Pelton points out that the matchup has been closer than it appears: "An entertaining season series saw three of the four games decided by three points or fewer -- and the Nuggets victorious in each. The matchups also set up for a good series, from veteran point guards Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd to Kenyon Martin chasing Dirk Nowitzki around the perimeter to super sixth men J.R. Smith and Jason Terry. Denver's advantage is depth as well as the home court. The Nuggets were the stronger team in the regular season, and while both teams come into this series hot, they had the more impressive opening-round performance."
(3) ORLANDO MAGIC VS. (2) BOSTON CELTICS
Smackdown Breakdown: Magic-Celtics
Sandy Weil thinks fatigue could be an issue for the champions: "Even without the Celtics having effectively played an 8-game series against Chicago, I'd lean towards the Magic in this one. But the relative difficulty of the Chicago-Boston series increases the chance that Orlando will get one of the first two games in Boston."
"I really think this one is a toss-up," says Jeff Ma (who joins Mom in bucking the Magic trend), "but Orlando's fear of running late-game offense through Howard will come back to haunt them, as close games will undoubtedly go to the Celtics and their better execution. Home court is the difference here."
"If we focused strictly on the regular season efficiency differentials (Boston at 8.0 vs. Orlando at 7.1), and the fact Boston has home-court advantage, we would say Boston in six," David Berri says. "But Kevin Garnett is injured. Without Garnett the Celtics struggled against Chicago (which was to be expected). The Magic are better than Chicago, and consequently Orlando should be favored in this series."
Kevin Pelton says: "Boston's home-court advantage is enough to make this something close to a pick 'em. While the Celtics have concerns about fatigue, Orlando has to deal with the loss of Courtney Lee for an indefinite period. Boston might not be doomed quite as badly as is believed in some quarters. Still, asking the Celtics to win another series without Kevin Garnett seems like too much. I like the Magic to get the job done at home without having to mess with another Game 7 on the road.
(4) ATLANTA HAWKS VS. (1) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Hawks-Cavs
Rather than debating whether the Hawks can win the series, the debate among stat experts seems to be whether the Hawks will manage a single game.
Neil Paine is one of those who is not predicting a sweep: "I think Atlanta can stay within striking distance (after all, LeBron didn't own them as much as he did some teams during the regular season), but they're going to have to be pretty flawless and luck into a few bad nights from James' supporting cast (like they did back in December) to even push this thing to six or seven."
Kevin Pelton is also expecting the Hawks to manage one game: "Though Atlanta just got done dispatching one of the league's top players, things get a whole lot more difficult in this matchup. Not only is LeBron James much more difficult to contend with for the Hawks, the Cavaliers have a far, far deeper supporting cast than the Heat. Depth won't work in Atlanta's favor this time around. The Hawks did play Cleveland tough at home, winning one matchup and losing the other by one point. That should be enough to avoid the sweep and maybe push the series even deeper."
(3) ORLANDO MAGIC VS. (1) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Magic-Cavs
"By the numbers I'm using this year," explains Kevin Pelton, "this should be a seven-game series, in large part because of Orlando's 2-1 regular-season head-to-head advantage. So far, the team that has won the season series has won every playoff matchup, though certainly none of those outcomes predicted an upset of this magnitude. The fact that the Cavaliers have played so well in the playoffs, and that the Magic's path here hasn't been quite as easy as you might hope, makes me project a more comfortable Cleveland victory. However, I think anyone anticipating the Cavaliers romping again is underestimating Orlando's talent."
"Cleveland has a net 3.0-point advantage in adjusted team efficiency," writes Stephen Ilardi. "That's nearly enough to offset the homecourt edge of 3.8 points. Thus, the most likely scenario has the Cavs taking care of business at home for Games 1, 2 and 5 (where they'll be favored by about eight points) and splitting the two games on the road.
"Orlando is a lot better than both Atlanta and Detroit, so perhaps it could even win more than one game," writes Sandy Weil. "Orlando plays much better defense that either of those two teams. But Orlando has been pretty spotty in close games. LeBron's crazy playoff numbers have come against clearly inferior teams (Atlanta and Detroit). I suspect that Orlando will have more success against him, but that he will still produce. But the Magic need to worry as much about what the Cleveland defense can do to the Magic. I think that we'll see LeBron guarding Turkoglu in crunch time, the Cavaliers potentially sacrificing a bit of its own offense to keep the Magic out of their offensive rhythm."
Neil Paine doesn't think this'll be all that close: "C'mon, are we really expecting LeBron and the Cavs -- undefeated thus far in the playoffs and clearly the most dominant team in basketball during the regular season -- to be challenged by an Orlando team that struggled to eliminate a severely undermanned Celtics squad?"
(2) DENVER NUGGETS VS. (1) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Smackdown Breakdown: Nuggets-Lakers
To Neil Paine, this pick is not too complicated. "LA took three of four games during the season, and could make short work of Denver ... if motivated. But that's the big question, isn't it -- will the Lakers play to their talent level? I say they do, at least enough to win this series. Sure, Denver wins a few games, but it would take a whole lot of Lakers loafing for the Nuggets to advance to the finals."
Kevin Pelton is picking the Lakers, but he's wrestling with the fact that the Nuggets appear to be a better team, right now, than they were for most of the season. "A classic matchup, from a prediction perspective, of a hot team versus one which has been better over the course of the season," he writes. "Generally, those matchups have tended to favor the longer-term view, though my research for ESPN Insider last week did find value to finishing series earlier, whether because of rest or as an indicator of recent play. That's still not quite enough to bump this from a comfortable Lakers win to a Denver upset, but it does make me think this series will be a close one."
Sandy Weil is ignoring a lot of the spreadsheets and picking the hot team: "All the numbers from the regular season suggest that the Lakers should win this series -- not in a blowout, but that they should win it. But the numbers suggested the same for the Lakers-Rockets series. And then the Lakers lost three times to the Rockets, twice after Yao went out. Last I checked, the Nuggets have all their best players healthy and they are crushing teams. Denver has been unapproachable at home in the playoffs. And the way these teams are playing, I think that Denver is likely to get one victory in LA. I think that something is just off with the Lakers right now. I've heard mention that the Lakers play more like a collection of individuals, rather than as a team. I'll take the team that plays like a team. Denver in 6."
For Stephen Ilardi, a key factor is Lamar Odom's bad back: "While the Lakers hold a net 2.4-point advantage in adjusted efficiency over the course of the entire season, Denver has elevated its game following the Billups-Iverson trade. Further, the Lakers' success is contingent to a surprising degree on the play of Lamar Odom -- whose adjusted-plus rating of just over 8 points per 100 possessions actually leads the team this year. With Odom still battling the lingering effects of a lower back injury (and minimal time to rest following the grueling Houston series), the well-rested Nuggets look poised to dethrone the defending Western Conference champs."
David Berri is an associate professor of economics at Southern Utah University and lead author of "The Wages of Wins."
John Hollinger writes for ESPN.com. He created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and several other statistical measures.
Stephen Ilardi is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, a former statistical consultant to the KU men's basketball team under Roy Williams, and an expert on adjusted plus/minus.
Jeff Ma is co-founder of Citizen Sports Network in 2004. He was the protagonist, under the name Kevin Lewis, in the bestseller "Bringing Down the House," the story of the MIT blackjack team and the basis of the movie "21."
Neil Paine is a senior at Georgia Tech and a longtime presence on the APBRmetrics message board. As the lead blogger for Basketball-Reference.com, he also has the unenviable task of playing the Pete Myers role to Justin Kubatko's MJ in this year's Smackdown.
Kevin Pelton writes for Basketball Prospectus and moderates the APBRmetrics forum for statistical analysis discussion. He also covers the WNBA's Seattle Storm for storm.wnba.com.
Sandy Weil is an independent statistical consultant at Sportsmetricians.com, where he developed a new NBA analysis database that makes better use of NBA play-by-play data that provides context around all game events. He recently co-wrote a paper on the "Hot Hand in the NBA."
My mom: She hasn't watched all that much NBA since "JeRomeo" Kersey retired.