Week 19 in Review: Moving In


Feb 25, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (14) dribbles around Portland Trail Blazers guard Arron Afflalo (4) as Spurs center Aron Baynes (16) sets a screen at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

I’m resurrecting my week in review series as a way to dump my thoughts that are too long for Twitter and too short for an article of their own. This is hopefully a good balance of stats and qualitative discussion with actual video links. (Yes, NBA stats-people watch the game too.) And now, moving onto a few short topics from around the league….

Arron Afflalo’s Defense

After the news broke that Wes Matthews had suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, some fans stated that the Portland Trail Blazers were lucky they had just traded for Arron Afflalo and could plug him into the starting lineup. While he’s better than the alternatives, I’m not optimistic about his value, especially his defense. He receives a lot of praise for his defense: “He helps a team win games with his defense and outside shooting.”  “Defense-first guard.” “Capable defensive player.” “Afflalo is a lockdown defender that plays slightly bigger than his position.” In fact, his defensive reputation goes all the way back to when he was named outstanding UCLA defensive player. And he may have made a name for himself in the NBA in the 2012 playoffs against Kobe Bryant.

However, there are no numbers available that validate his defensive reputation. As of the March 8th update, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus has Afflalo as a -0.5 player (points per 100 possessions) on defense, which is a bit below average. But that’s good for him. Last year, he rated as a -3.0 on defense and ranked 64th out of 75 shooting guards. Then you can check his ratings using the precursor to RPM: he was a -2.1 in 2013, a -1.0 in 2012, and a -1.1 in 2011. You can compare this to his disappointing numbers in a plus/minus only model here and with Basketball-Reference’s new box-score metric BPM. What’s going on with the numbers? Why do his teams play better defense without him? This isn’t context dependent either — he did that playing with a good Denver team with Carmelo, then without Carmelo, then in Orlando as the number one option, and then back again in Denver in a smaller role.

I’d like to see an independent appraisal of his defense because I’ve never been impressed by his defense. Plus his steal numbers are mediocre and he may have three seasons in a row with single digit block totals. Others are as mixed as I am. Going into the video, I don’t see anything exceptional from him, and you can find a few errors like this play where he gets hung on a screen and gives Ellis daylight for a jump shot and he just doesn’t appear to be quick enough for the fleet-footed guards out there. For whatever it’s worth, Portland’s starting lineup (before the Matthews injury) outscored opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions; with Afflalo in Wes’ place that dropped to -15.5. Let’s hope for their sake that this trend is reversed.

Mar 8, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) take the opening tip off during the first quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Rudy Gobert’s Path of Destruction

Since the All-Star break when the Utah Jazz traded Enes Kanter and made Gobert a full-time starter, they’ve had a 92.1 defensive rating, via Basketball-Reference, which is a ludicrously great rating and a couple levels beyond the Golden State Warriors. It was a stretch where they did things like hold a fully-armed Portland team to 76 points. A full game from Gobert does wonders, as he’s emerged this season as the premier rim protector in the league and a surprisingly agile defender for his size outside of the paint. Here’s an example from their win against Memphis where he doesn’t net a block but forces Jeff Green into changing his shot at the rim and rebounds the miss. And if you want to see his nimble feet, here’s a video where he contains Conley in a pick and roll and is quick enough to get back to Gasol before he can roll to the basket, forces a tougher shot, and grabs the board.

Mar 3, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Ryan Kelly (4) drives the ball around Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) during the first half at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Team Defense Nominee: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

With the award season looming, it’ll be time for everyone to attack the tricky issue of individual defense. Reputation takes you far with these awards, so it’s tough for young defenders to crash the party without eye-popping stats like blocks. Thus, I’d like to use my faint spotlight on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who was already a good defender, in my view, last season and has improved by a considerable degree this season (which should be natural given his age). He’s a small forward with a long frame who rebounds like a power forward. He’s known for his trouble shooting the ball, but Charlotte only looks like a playoff team when he’s on the court.

Looking at some quick stats, Charlotte defends 10 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court, which is the best on the team. The team has been atrocious on offense and even worse when centerpiece Al Jefferson plays. The saving grace has been their defense and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with a couple others, like Bismack Biyombo, deserves a lot credit here. For some video evidence, here’s a link of a textbook contest with a hand in DeRozan’s face and a defensive rebound. Then there’s this flashier play where he stuffs Reggie Jackson on a drive and recovers the ball. Unfortunately, Michael is a forward and competition for the all-defense team is steep there. Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Ibaka, and Kawhi Leonard are too tough to supplant. But he deserves an honorable mention and to be in the general discussion.

Mar 6, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; The Atlanta Hawks bench reacts after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 106-97. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks as the Epitome of the No Superstar, Stat-savvy Team

Speaking of awards, whenever the basketball world talks about All-Stars and general value awards, there’s usually an argument about how a team “deserves” an X amount of All-Stars given how many games they’ve won. MVP discussions can be shut doen once someone brings up the argument, “If he’s so good, why can’t they win 50, 55, or 60 games?” The answer, of course, is that it’s a team game and single players are, surprise, not worth 50 games on their own. Also, you can have strong playoff teams with only one, or even zero, true all-stars and you can have lottery teams with one or more All-Star caliber guys. It all depends on the supporting cast. This is actually pretty simple math — we’re not going into regression territory here.

Let’s say we have a balanced team with good passing and shooting everywhere. There’s no clear star, and they have six players with a rating between +2 and +4. The rest of the team has an average rating of -2.4. Even with some modest minutes for their best guys, their top six players can take about two-thirds of the total minutes. Thus, this team can have a team rating of roughly 6 or higher: the team rating is two-thirds a top-six guy, and let’s call that +3, and one-third a -2.4 guy, and then you multiply that by five players, since you do play five at a time, (5*3 – 5*2.4 = 6.). And that is, essentially, what the Atlanta Hawks are. A player with a rating of +4 (makes the average team 4 points better per 100 possessions) is right on the border of being a top-15 player, depending on what system you’re looking at. We’re going to see a lot of arguments about how the Hawks are “supposed” to have a representative on an all-NBA team because of their record, but it shouldn’t be that way. It’s perfectly fine if there are 15 better players in the league and the Hawks just happen to have four more guys who are in that next 16 to 30 range. But if a player deserves it based on his own merits, then he deserves it — no more of this silly team record talk, please.

By the way, if anyone inquires as to what “analytics can do,” I’d suggest this team as an example. They have no traditional superstar. They don’t play isolation ball or force-feed the post. They take a high number of three-pointers and pass the ball magnificently. In fact, they’re devout believers of the powers of a stretch big man, and they let Pero Antic shoot like he’s Curry even though he’s a center. Houston is the lightning rod for being the stat team, but Atlanta is constructed like an analytics experiment. And it’s working.

Feb 11, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter (22) looks on against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Wizards 95-93. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Otto Porter’s Lapse

Everyone’s talked about this play and video of this has circulated everywhere, but I don’t think I’ve seen this view of the event: here’s the movement diagram of what happened. From the time that Snell (number 20) moves to when Porter finally does, I count about 1.8 seconds. That’s quite a lapse in attention, especially in a crucial moment, but Porter was talking to his guard Temple at the time and I wonder how far we’re taking these errors that make the rounds on the internet. This leads to a few thoughts. Are we in danger of rating players on single plays or highlights we see? How bad would previous eras have looked if we scrutinized their defense and in particular the awful teams? And what does this say of the NBA, where a delay of a second makes you look like a fool?

Feb 7, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic (44) drives past New Orleans Pelicans center Jeff Withey (5) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Bulls defeated the Pelicans 107-72. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Morey Index

Before the dawn of the season, I created a metric dubbed the “Morey Index” to show the type of players who have misleading field-goal percentages and go for the more efficient plays. My definition is simple here: it’s the sum of three-point and free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts. I named it after Morey because of its love for his subset of players and how his greatest catch, James Harden, is a master in this respect.

This season, Harden is again doing well in this respect, but looking at players with a minimum of 1000 minutes it’s Nikola Mirotic at the top. The rookie forward is a healthy offensive cog who alternates between taking outside shots and slashing to the rim. In fact, another European forward holds the unofficial record in the Morey Index: Gallinari had a score of 1.069 in 2011. (If Gallinari had enough minutes this season, by the way, he’d rank right ahead of Smart.)

0.985 Nikola Mirotic
0.949 Kyle Korver
0.936 Louis Williams
0.915 James Harden
0.879 Marcus Smart
0.854 Robert Covington
0.847 Isaiah Thomas
0.842 Jason Terry
0.827 Devin Harris
0.818 DeAndre Jordan

Korver actually gets to the line at a decent rate for a sharpshooter and, of course, his offense mainly consists of three-pointers. These lists are often populated with slashing guards who throw up three-pointers too. James Harden is the king of those guys and the highest scorer listed near the top, although Isaiah Thomas is a big scorer too. Finally, there’s DeAndre Jordan, who’s only this high because his free-throw shooting is so terrible opponents put him on the line intentionally — that’s not what I had in mind creating this stat.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have players who basically only take two-point field goals. Amusingly, Bogut is at the bottom even though his team has a great offense and is known for three-pointers. The list here is usually filled with unathletic low-post big men who often take a lot of midrange shots. It’s no wonder Al Jefferson is here; he’s inefficient because even with his post skills he doesn’t draw fouls. Plumlee is an exception here with his athleticism, but I imagine  he doesn’t play through a lot of contact and dunks in open space. Livingston is the only guard and, in fact, he posts up a lot.

0.153 Andrew Bogut
0.160 Dante Cunningham
0.177 Al Jefferson
0.188 Miles Plumlee
0.204 Nikola Vucevic
0.204 Chris Kaman
0.207 Al Horford
0.217 Carlos Boozer
0.218 David West
0.228 Shaun Livingston

As for the leading teams, Houston, no surprise, is at the top with a score of 0.691 and no one is close. The Cavs, Clippers, and 76ers are all a little above 0.6. Lastly, Washington brings up the rear. With Wall, their pick and roll potential, and all their shooters, that’s a misuse of skill. Everyone talks about how three-pointers are the ideal shot in the analytics area, but let’s not forget how efficient free throw trips are.