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Confession time: I have never played NBA 2K.
I fear that it’s probably a little late for me, too. Maybe someday you’ll see a digitized Stein Line doing some virtual reporting in the 2K realm, but I’ve found that video-game dexterity, at least in my case, does not improve when you’re old enough to start receiving A.A.R.P. literature in the mail.
Yet I do know enough about the powerhouse franchise to understand how much its individual ratings mean to N.B.A. players. This spawned a thought bubble: Perhaps today’s go-to virtual hoops title could help us start to answer some of the questions that this season of rampant mystery, post-Golden State Warriors dynasty, will soon start posing for real.
So I asked the 2K impresario Ronnie Singh if his team could simulate the 2019-20 season for our study. For balance with fans from my age bracket, I asked the same of my trusty colleagues at Strat-O-Matic, which was the foremost sports simulation game in my formative years.
Some of the highlights from the two simulations:
Both games were bullish on the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the NBA 2K20 simulation, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Co. romped to a 65-17 regular season, outlasted Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the neighboring Clippers in six games in the second round of the playoffs and ultimately defeated the Nets in five games in the finals to win it all. An illustration of the Lakers’ dominance: Rajon Rondo led the league in assists during the regular season at 9.8 per game — edging New Orleans’ Lonzo Ball (9.5).
The Strat-O Lakers, meanwhile, overcame a feared lack of shooting and the well-chronicled potential fit issues to stroll past the Clippers in five games in a Western Conference finals contested exclusively at the Staples Center. And that was followed by a four-game sweep of Philadelphia in the championship series.
LeBron scored 51 points for the Lakers in the Game 4 Strat-O clincher to complement his 2K regular-season and finals most valuable player trophies.
The Rockets’ experiment to reunite James Harden and Russell Westbrook plays out well — electronically.
Houston went 65-17 in our NBA 2K20 simulation to finish narrowly behind the Lakers for the West’s regular-season title thanks to a tiebreaker. That robust record netted N.B.A. Coach of the Year honors for Mike D’Antoni — after an off-season in real life in which D’Antoni could not extract a contract extension from Rockets officials.
The Strat-O simulation wasn’t quite as kind, but those Rockets posted the fourth-best record in the West at 52-30, with Harden winning the league’s scoring title at 34.2 points per game. Harden and Westbrook found a way to share enough of the ball to place third and sixth in Strat-O M.V.P. balloting.
The Lakers proved to be Houston’s playoff problem in both games, defeating the Rockets in six games in the 2K conference finals and four games to one in the Strat-O second round.
The Warriors are not going away.
In 2K, Stephen Curry won the regular-season scoring title at a sizzling 36.3 points per game and led Klay Thompson-less Golden State to the West’s No. 7 seed at 43-39.
Curry and his new backcourt sidekick D’Angelo Russell clicked to even greater effect in the Strat-O incubator, hushing skeptics (like yours truly) by leading Golden State to a 55-27 mark that placed them second in the West.
The Strat-O Warriors were swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Clippers, but not before Curry (421) and Russell (297) combined to sink 718 3-pointers.
The days of the Titanic Division appear to be long gone.
Philadelphia was the East’s only 50-win team in the 2K simulation, posting a record of 54-28 and outlasting Toronto in a first-round series that went a full seven games before a stunning (and I mean S-T-U-N-N-I-N-G) second-round exit to the (still can’t believe I’m typing this) Knicks.
The Sixers lived up to the loftiest of expectations in Strat-O conditions, posting 63 wins in the regular season — second in the East only to Milwaukee’s 66 — and advancing all the way to the N.B.A. finals. To do so, Philadelphia rallied from a two-games-to-none deficit against the Nets in the second round and ousted Milwaukee in five games in the Eastern Conference finals.
So much for Giannis Antetokounmpo winning both M.V.P. and the Defensive Player of the Year Award in Strat-O voting. (Giannis was the D.P.O.Y. selection in 2K voting as well.)
The Celtics are going to miss Kyrie Irving.
With Kemba Walker in Kyrie’s place, alongside his fellow U.S.A. Basketball teammates Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, Boston somehow finished 41-41 — and out of the playoffs — in both simulations.
There were a handful of eye-raising and flat-out crazy outcomes that are too fun not to share.
The Knicks and their many power forwards, as mentioned above, somehow made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals as a No. 5 seed in 2K. They went 43-39 — which is sufficiently inexplicable given that most real-world projections have them finishing with a win total in the 20s — and upset Detroit and Philadelphia before losing to the Nets in six games. Kevin Durant indeed played for the Nets in the 2K playoffs after missing the regular season while recovering from his torn right Achilles’ tendon. (The Strat-O Knicks, for the record, finished 25-57.)
With the injury function disabled by the Strat-O operator John Garcia, Oklahoma City’s Danilo Gallinari and Dallas’ Kristaps Porzingis flourished. In Gallinari’s case, “flourished” meant averaging 29.5 points per game to finish fifth in the league in scoring and earn All-N.B.A. second team honors. Porzingis finished third in blocked shots at 2.9 per game (behind Giannis and Indiana’s Myles Turner) and teamed with Luka Doncic to lead Dallas to the eighth and final playoff berth in the West at 43-39.
Orlando fans will be thrilled to hear that the long-suffering Magic, fresh off their first playoff berth in seven seasons, posted the second-best record in the 2K East (49-33) and also managed to win the Strat-O Southeast Division at 42-40. (There’s no need to dwell too much on the fact that the Magic were drubbed in the first round of the playoffs by the Nets in both simulations, going 1-8 in the two series.)
New Orleans’ Zion Williamson assembled a storybook rookie season in the 2K simulation overseen by Josh Tadlock, averaging 20.9 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor (.593) and a heady 37.7 percent on 3-pointers. And Memphis’ Ja Morant was right there with him in Strat-O, averaging 20.7 points and 6.4 assists after Garcia specially created a card for him and Williamson. Based so heavily on the previous season’s statistics, Strat-O-Matic games don’t normally include rookies.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Unfortunately that “who cares?” question does not just apply to this year’s FIBA World Cup. The United States news media and sports fans ignore all international competitions, except for the Olympics, in all sports — especially team sports. — Sead Camo (Hamtramck, Mich.)
STEIN: I’ve received this complaint in various forms since last week’s newsletter, suggesting that the FIBA World Cup would hold a more prominent place in our basketball landscape if only the American hoops press covered it more.
I write about the FIBA game all the time, which has elicited years and years’ worth of quizzical looks from editors who struggle to comprehend why I’m so into it.
This summer specifically, four American writers arrived in China before me and wound up writing about Gregg Popovich and Co. for 20-plus days straight — after a much larger group of media members covered the team extensively through the first two weeks of August when it held training camps in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The seventh-place Americans did not suffer from a lack of coverage. Not at all. I imagine ESPN would have moved more games onto its primary networks, away from ESPN+, if there was sufficient audience demand.
Interest, I’m afraid, is organic. People like what they like. You can’t make them care.
Q: I think FIBA should face three big problems before dreaming big: 1) Its World Cup qualifying schedule; 2) N.B.A. teams pushing their foreign players not to be part of it; 3) Way too many teams in the tournament. It’s not good for the game when matches end up with a margin of 50-60 points. — Mirko Gamberini
STEIN: You get no argument from me on the qualifying schedule. I have been railing against FIBA’s decision to adopt soccer-style qualifying since its inception, because it means that N.B.A. players can’t take part in the overwhelming majority of it.
But FIBA is convinced that its members need regular qualifying games at home to grow the sport, which weren’t possible when qualifying events were held in the summer at a central location. FIBA officials insist that they are largely pleased with the crowds that qualifying games attracted in many countries even without N.B.A. players on the floor.
Andreas Zagklis, FIBA’s new general secretary, made it a point to remind those at his recent news conference that FIBA is only halfway through its first four-year cycle of the new World Cup format. From his answer you can safely infer that changes won’t be seriously considered until after the completion of the first cycle — and even then I wouldn’t expect them to scrap the new format so quickly.
As for your second concern, there isn’t much FIBA can do about N.B.A. teams that covertly urge players to prioritize rest over international play. This has been happening forever and comes as much these days from the players themselves. In the Load Management era, it’s inevitable.
On your last point: I, too, have questioned the need for 32 teams in the competition — compared to 24 in 2014. But Zagklis made a worthy argument for such a big field when he pointed out how badly the Dream Team used to pummel opponents. FIBA contends that giving 32 countries an opportunity to play at the highest level is the best way to raise the median level of the world game. Fourteen of the 92 games played in China were decided by 30 points or more — not ideal but also not outrageous.
Q: What if you didn’t get to watch? Wait until the next day when the newspapers came out? Or stay up until SportsCenter was on? — @Celtics_Rise from Twitter
STEIN: This question came in response to my tweet last week about the difficulties in catching CBS’ broadcasts in the early 1980s. Much of the 1981 playoffs, just to name one example, was shown on tape delay.
From the late 1970s, until I reached high school in 1983, I have much more vivid memories of relying on the “The White Shadow” for my basketball consumption than actual N.B.A. games. And when I did start high school, only one friend of mine in our main group of 12 buddies actually had ESPN, which launched in September 1979.
Fortunately this friend (Dave Casarez) also had a Betamax console for taping purposes. His job was recording N.B.A. highlights from SportsCenter and CNN’s “Sports Tonight” so we could watch all the dunks from the previous night, which we lived for back then. I couldn’t convince my mom to bless the purchase of ESPN in our own house until 1986.
In other words: The Twitter generation is so, so lucky that every meaningful play in today’s N.B.A. gets circulated within minutes. Following #thisleague wasn’t always a layup.
Five N.B.A. teams (Rockets, Kings, Clippers, Lakers and Nets) are holding their annual media day Friday, with their first training camp practices scheduled for Saturday. The teams are permitted an early jump on things because they play exhibition games abroad in October.
The defending champion Toronto Raptors are holding their media day on Saturday, with the other 24 N.B.A. teams who do not travel abroad during the preseason reporting for work Monday.
U.S.A. Basketball has maintained its hold on the top spot in the FIBA world rankings for the past nine years, dating to the 2010 world championship in Turkey. FIBA’s rankings are based on an eight-year cycle, so the United States’ seventh-place finish at the recent FIBA World Cup in China couldn’t dislodge the Americans from the top spot — not after Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016 and a World Cup title in 2014.
The rest of FIBA’s top five: Spain held firm at No. 2 after winning its second World Cup; Australia climbed eight spots to No. 3 after a fourth-place finish; Argentina moved up one slot to No. 4 after its Cinderella run to the gold-medal game in China; and France fell from No. 3 to No. 5 despite beating Australia in the bronze-medal game.
The following eight countries, based on FIBA’s latest rankings, have received invitations to participate in last-chance qualifying for next summer’s Olympics in Tokyo: Angola, China, Croatia, Mexico, Senegal, South Korea, Uruguay and Luka Doncic-led Slovenia. Last-chance qualifying will feature 24 countries playing for four Olympic spots in June 2020. The Slovenians, remember, won the EuroBasket title in 2017 for the first time in their country’s history but did not qualify for the World Cup because qualifying largely took place during the N.B.A. season, which ruled out the participation of Doncic and Miami’s Goran Dragic.