Mar 9, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh speaks to the media before a game between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
As some teams rest entire starting units and playoff positions solidify, the games go on. We’re waiting for the “real” season to start, and all these formalities are in the way. But during this denouement there’s still a lot of basketball going on and a few stories we can’t ignore. For some teams, this will be the last we see of them in their current incarnation. And then there are all the young players out there trying to prove themselves. The season is almost gone. It’s just not done yet.
Miami’s Nightmare Season
In some ways, Miami’s ineptitude is a sign of LeBron’s value, who’s apparently a one-man contending team. Bosh suffered a season-ending injury, sure, but Whiteside was a surprise and they traded for Dragic. Whatever value was lost with Bosh should have been at least partially replaced with those two — plus Miami’s been better since the all-star break. It’s unclear how much Josh McRoberts would have helped, but the team had depth issues and he certainly would been useful in replacing Bosh. The season hasn’t gone to plan at all, and it’s not even the same team.
Miami is most likely not making the playoffs. They’ve been passed by a Boston team with no star-talent and a disheveled Brooklyn cast. It’s been win or die with them for a few weeks, and they’ve been losing games like the one to Chicago even with Dragic, Wade, and Whiteside playing. Unfortunately, Wade and Deng shot a combined 7 for 33, and that’s been par for the course for the season. After a string of four years of outstanding offensive power, Miami’s suffered through a lame-duck offense. Some of this is the bench — they are truly horrid when starters like Wade and Deng aren’t on the court — but this high-turnover, low offensive rebounding team (they inherited this from the LeBron era) has no punch now when it comes to actually making shots, and it’s killing them. The absence of LeBron means you get more things like silly shots from Chalmers. Since they don’t have a great defense, they can’t have plays like this sloppy Deng post-up that ends in an awkward fadeaway. There’s a good team in here somewhere, and hopefully next season they can remain healthy enough to find it.
Mar 15, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard (11) during their game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Canada Centre. The Trail Blazers beat the Raptors 113-97. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
The Last City of the Northwest
On the other end of the country, Portland was proclaimed the city of “black roses” despite locking up the four seed with an adjusted point differential around +4.8, even while dealing with injuries. They’ll go into the post-season with two of their best players — Aldridge is basically going to rest the last part of the season — and if they’re lucky they’ll be matched up against a flailing team like the Grizzlies, not the Spurs. It’s been a weird season, and any hope at a deep playoff run vanished when Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles tendon. However, I doubt the team would have been taken seriously even if they were fully healthy — no one was buying it. There was one smart reason to discount their defense: opponents were missing an unusually high percentage of three-pointers, and it didn’t look sustainable. This wasn’t going to be a top-five defensive team, but not every contender is. Plus, their offense was slumping, mainly because of Batum. Earlier in the season, I noted that Batum’s shooting percentages were bizarrely low from outside and how his slump preceded a December injury. Three-point percentages are volatile, and I ended up being right: he’s been shooting 42.9% since the all-star break and 27.2% before that. Hence, even with all the issues lately, their offense has been a lot better since the break.
The question is, what’s the future of the team? The core is clearly very good — Lillard as the scoring guard and ballhandler in a Curry-lite role, Matthews as the 3/D player, Batum as another scorer/outside shooter and secondary ballhandler, Aldridge as the lead scorer and midrage master who draws a lot of defensive attention, and Lopez filling out a few roles from boxing out to setting screens to protecting the rim — but there’s another summer of free agency to suffer through and it’s unclear who’s going to be retained. The good news is that C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard look, at the very least, like intriguing, valuable prospects. If Leonard can play center full-time as a real stretch 5, he’ll be worth his weight in gold in today’s NBA. Their bench, which used to be a laughingstock, is pretty decent, but it’s also full of replaceable guys, as Afflalo is clearly not as valuable as people thought and Steve Blake and Kaman are old vets who don’t even command much money anyhow. C.J. could be a foundational piece of their bench for a while as a sixth-man scorer type; he’s had a few good games lately with the vacuum at shooting guard due to the injuries.
There’s a really good team here, even if the rest of the country ignores them. Lopez, Matthews, and Aldridge are set to be free agents, but I don’t really expect Aldridge to bail on them; he’s playing through an injury for the team and he didn’t really have to. If Wesley comes back at close to full strength next season — and this is a major question — there’s no reason to deny they’ll be very good. I’m just not sure what the team will look like next season. And I don’t know what to make of this 50/40/90 seven-footer they have now, especially since his release is pretty awkward.
Apr 12, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) sets the play during the game against the Houston Rockets during the second quarter at the Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
A Round of Applause for Mr. Davis
In a feat of Herculean strength, Anthony Davis led his team to a victory over the Warriors, which is rare especially given that they weren’t resting and Curry and Bogut were playing. It was clutch Davis once again, who’s helped his own team win in valuable possessions more than anyone else. His development is surprising not because of his blocks but because his offense and outside jumper are better than expected. Given his length and athleticism, it’s impossible to contain him in a pick-and-roll, and the Warriors here drop back but Davis goads them into an and-1. His defense is still scary, and it could get even better; here he masters the nuances of swatting away a dunk and controlling the loose ball to start a fast break. He was instrumental down the stretch, securing a key rebound with a few seconds to go and a one point lead. They foul him, and he calmly knocks down both free throws — they win soon after. Davis could steal the playoffs from Westbrook, who’s been getting all the acclaim for his one-man performance; but we can’t forget what Davis is doing with limited support.
Apr 4, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa (19) shoots as Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) defends during the second half at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Dirk Nowitzki: a Living Legend, a Myth, a Statue on Defense
Back in Dirk’s prime, he was regarded as a poor defender and even a liability, despite evidence to the contrary — he was pretty decent, actually, given his size and a strip move he had when people backed him down in the post. But now that he’s old, he truly is a liability. He’s too slow to guard the perimeter and any quick power forwards, and he’s not an interior defender you can place in the middle. In the best case scenario, you hide him on an inert offensive player, but that still might entail position shuffling and you can end up with mismatches. Dallas defends much better when Dirk is off the court, which is concerning since he plays with Tyson Chandler a lot. Dirk’s no longer an offensive force to make up for this either. His role is smaller on offense, and the action often goes around him. Due to this, and Dallas doesn’t really get better or worse when he’s playing, which is not something we normally hear about with him. You can do fancy adjustments, like with RPM, and come up with the same conclusion (his overall RPM is +0.34, which is barely above average.) His porous defense cancels out his offense.
Dallas unfortunately has little depth inside, and they picked up Amare for the backup center slot. Thus, you have one of the worst defensive frontcourt pairings imaginable. It wouldn’t have been ideal ten years ago; today it’s a trainwreck. In this play, Lawson drives to a back-peddling Amare, and Faried dives inside for an easy dunk as Amare offers no resistance and Dirk is too slow to help. A little while later, Faried sprints down the court and jumps up for an alley-oop while Amare watches from below. Via NBAWOWY, when Dirk and Amare share the court opponents score 114.7 points per 100 possessions largely due to a scorching rate inside, 67% at the rim, and outside the arc at 43%. They’ve only played together for 201 minutes, but I doubt Dallas wants to see much more of them together if at all possible. Dirk is no longer the kind of player who can prop up an entire team, and after failed attempts to bring in a second star like Bosh the future could be rough for the Mavericks. They may swim in mediocrity for a while, pining for elite free agents and fighting for the playoffs alongside up-and-comers. Nowitzki made the all-star team this season, but he’s a star no more.
Gallinari, by the way, had 47 points in that Dallas-Denver game that spilled over into two overtimes, and 17 of those points were in the extra periods. He has a year left on his contract after this season, and he could be really useful for a team in search of a forward who can work as a stretch four while hitting three’s and getting to the line like few others.
Apr 10, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) reacts after a play during the second half against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. The Spurs won 104-103. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Duncan’s consistency is so abnormal that my original graph detailing this fact is now fairly outdated. The Spurs have been a 50 plus win team since Jordan’s last title — it’s been a long time. In fact, the Spurs have had only one season with an adjusted point differential under +2 since 1990. Duncan has been a metronome on the court and even as he nears his 39th birthday he’s still a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. His block and rebound rate are basically unchanged from when he was a young kid and and even when he won the MVP. The major change is his role on offense, as he’s been scoring fewer points as he ages. I don’t know how much longer he’ll play, but he’s now in the rarefied stratum with Kareem, Malone, and Stockton with his play as an old man.
Noah Vonleh Sighting in Michigan
After being picked 9th overall, Vonleh hasn’t seen much time on the court for Charlotte and we really don’t know who he’ll be as a pro yet. However, that didn’t stop people like Bill Simmons labeling him a bust. But he’s a 19 year-old long, athletic prospect with the necessary defensive rebounding skills for the frontcourt and with size, due to his wingspan, that’s usable at center. Let’s not write off someone who’s barely eclipsed 200 minutes and can’t drink alcohol legally for 18 months. We do this a lot in basketball, ignoring the history of the game. We really shouldn’t judge a draft pick until the guy is 23 years-old and has played at least two seasons in the league. And even then you have late-bloomers like Whiteside and Dragic.
In a game versus Detroit, Vonleh had 16 points and 12 rebounds in a mere 28 minutes. He was active in the pick-and-roll, all gangly limbs and bounciness. He’s awkward rumbling toward the basket, but there’s potential there, especially with that reach. He’s working on a post game too; here’s an example of a hook shot. At the very least, he can be a prototypical energy guy, crashing the boards. He’s even taking three-pointers, which could sell his game to almost every team if he becomes a respectable shooter. He’s still a raw player, but he’s starting to pick up some skills on offense to rough out the edges. Don’t forget about him just because some of his peers have bigger roles.
Mar 25, 2015; Memphis, TN, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) attempts a shot defended by Memphis Grizzlies guard Courtney Lee (5) in the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Off-the-Dribble Shooting Prowess: Is It a Myth?
Last year, when SportVU data was given to the public, some people consumed its contents voraciously and spat out some of the results. For instance, we were given data on pull-up jump shots and catch-and-shoot jump shots. We could cite how Irving shot 37.6% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers and a scintillating 45.3% on pull-up attempts, and how that means he’s a poor fit next to a primary ballhandler like LeBron. But we can’t base solid opinions on one case, so let’s use the two seasons wisely and examine whether or not an off-the-dribble skill exists.
Looking at players with at least 50 attempts in each category in both years, there’s a list of 55 guys to study. This is only looking at three-pointers to make this more of an apples-to-apples comparison — I wanted to eliminate the chance of, say, a player whose pull-up attempts were much closer to the basket. The first observation here is that players shoot about 5.3% better on catch-and-shoot three-point attempts, which is a huge difference. It’s the same disparity you see between the Warriors behind the three-point line and the Knicks. The next step is finding the statistical significance of this difference for each player from year to year using linear regression and the simple correlation (Pearson) coefficient. (The dependent variable was 2015 and the independent 2014, so I was basically trying to explain the percentage difference using last season’s results.) I also weighed the results by the geometric mean of attempts from all four categories. This gives more weight to players with even distributions and more attempts.
Usually when I present results like these I have to explain the nuances of the trends and all the various effects I can’t capture that may have distorted things. But here it’s pretty simple. The correlation coefficient was 0.035. For reference, a coefficient of 1 means there’s a perfect positive relationship, and a 0 means there’s none at all. So yes, there’s a tiny, virtually meaningless correlation here.
Using linear regression with the weights, and you get a model with an R-squared of 0.000017, which means 0.0017% of the variance in the numbers are explained. The coefficient in the regression model was actually slightly negative, and the p-value for the variable was 97.6%. Traditionally, you need a p-value of 5% or lower for significance. You don’t want to rely on p-values alone to light the way statistically, but the results here are clear. Simply put, there is no relationship at all.
You can see this in the graph below. It’s just a blob of a scatterplot. Some guys shot better on pull-up attempts than catch-and-shoot ones in 2014 and worse in 2015; some guys shot worse on pull-up attempts and better in 2015. Some guys didn’t change at all. (For what it’s worth, when I used the SportVU shotlog data and analyzed shots based on things like defender distance, there was only a small boost to a player’s percentage with a catch-and-shoot attempt. But my method here is looking at it from the perspective of the player and how those differences were significantly different, not throwing everyone into the same bin, and the effect is pretty obvious.)
There could be other factors at play here, but I’m looking at the difference for each player year to year. Guys don’t drastically change their playing styles that much that quickly. It’s quite unlikely some other variable, like how close the defenders were, is burying the effect here. Maybe there’s a small subset of players who are better at these shots. And pull-up shots are generally tougher for other reasons. But to study that you need more seasons, and I want to confront the myth that arose from people observing the SportVU data displayed on the NBA’s own stats site. Kyrie Irving, by the way, is shooting 8.6% better on catch-and-shoot attempts this season, which is a complete reversal of what happened last year. Some guys look amazing on pull-up shots, but it appears they’re better off catching-and-shooting it. Even Stephen Curry is.