This is a strange time for the US politically, but in the basketball world everything is fine and dandy. We have super-teams, an endless supply of MVP candidates, a great new generation of centers, the Toronto Raptors are an all-time offense, the Lakers are fresh and exciting, and lockout talk is mostly positive.
I want to believe a lockout won’t happen and an agreement will be reached. Let’s stay positive. Everything is great! Long live the empire! May it last 10,000 years! And with that avoidance of reality, let’s take a look back at the last week in the NBA….
Klay Thompson’s game was notable for its brevity: he scored 60 points in 29 minutes. Not shockingly, that was the only time a 60-point game has happened in under 30 minutes. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one else has scored at that per minute rate with at least 30 points since 1984, and it’s a rare occurrence for 20 points in under 30 unless you’re James Robinson, Henry James, or Anthony Trollope. (Okay, the last one was made-up, but there really was an NBA player named Henry James). You can see how Klay stands out in the graph below.
Klay was on a Wilt Chamberlain-esque scoring pace, and we haven’t seen much like it in recent NBA history. You may have noticed two other data points were clustered closely to Klay’s game. There’s the time Kobe Bryant outscored the entire Dallas Mavericks team through three quarters during the 2006 season; naturally, he didn’t need to play the fourth quarter. Then there’s the time Karl Malone crushed the Bucks with 61 points thanks to 21/26 shooting from the field and 19/23 from the free-throw line. You can actually find video here. And yes, Dale Ellis played 69 minutes, but hey, that game had five overtime periods, so you can excuse the minutes load.
Klay Thompson, who’s an exquisite catch-and-shoot, off-screens scorer a la Reggie Miller, made a number of pull-up 3-pointers during his outburst, but they were normally off one dribble and fired immediately. Explosive high-scorers on the perimeter are usually ball-dominant creators, but he only mixed in a few basic drives with his outside shots. He dribbled only 11 times for his field goals, and had the ball for a mere 90 seconds for the entire game. Klay is in a separate, rarer subset of extreme high points scorers, and it’s all the more brilliant when he erupts in those concentrated bursts of shooting prowess.
A while ago, Russell Westbrook argued with a scorekeeper that a tip should have been credited an offensive rebound, and won the argument to notch a triple-double. It’s not strictly his fault though; it’s the environment, due to the media’s obsessive love of triple doubles and other round numbers. Thus, you see a real effect where players push for a certain lofty goal when it’s within reach, and it’s emblazoned in the numbers. Mike Beuoy of the indispensable NBA site inpredictable tallied the numbers of triple-doubles and near-triple-doubles, and he found games with ten rebounds occur at unusual frequencies when players have at least 10 points and 10 assists. The observer phenomenon is significant in the NBA — how we watch and discuss the game changes the game itself.
Rating Andrew Wiggins
Amid a perplexing season where the Timberwolves struggle to win games while Wiggins becomes more of a scorer, there’s a growing divide in the perception of his value between conventional analysts and those who utilize advance stats. I’ve written about this issue before, but it’s cropping up more and more. Basically, while Wiggins has scored a notable amount of points for someone his age, he provides so little of anything else on the court that virtually every metric pegs him as average at best or much worse — he’s an empty calorie scorer. Players of his type have a lower ceiling, and his player comparison list is underwhelming, especially when you consider he has the lowest assist rates even among those guys. I’m not trying to say he’s a bust, but it’s disappointing for a player who was so highly touted when he was younger.
It’s rarer for players to improve some of their periphery stats like steals and assists, but there is a silver lining for Wiggins and his team’s shoddy season: many metrics are constrained by the team rating for every respective player, so when, or if, Minnesota ascends, so will Andrew’s own rating. Ironically, by some measures Minnesota is actually better than their record indicates: their expected win total is 9-15, compared to their actual of 6-18, via Basketball-Reference. But even the team’s improvement won’t solve all his issues. The problem with Wiggins is that he has all the attributes of the player type advanced stats warn us against, and it’s causing a stir in the discussion of his current value and future.
Nerlens Noel sighting in Michigan
After a lengthy rehab amid discussion over his future with the team, Nerlens Noel made his debut against the Pistons. He wasn’t dominant, but he was mobile enough to dunk in traffic and drive inside. He also showcased a jump shot, which will be crucial to his future with the team — and anyone other team, really. He’s not the blazing comet that is Joel Embiid, but Noel’s a great defensive talent whose offense looked worse in the bizarre Philadelphia environment. He could be a defensive solution for competitive teams or a building block. We’ll see how long he lasts with the 76ers — at least he’s back on the court.
Premature Knicks party
Phil Jackson has received some criticism following odd comments recently, but some people have swayed to the other side and praised him for turning around the team. I would, however, advise some caution in rating New York’s season so far. Although they have a winning record and a surprising standing in their division, they have a negative point differential and their big deals for Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah still look onerous, as those two guys are only going to age further. Their defense is performing worse than it was last season — they’ve had issues rebounding, causing turnovers, and keeping foul shots down, which are all mostly controllable actions.
The best thing the team has done recently was draft Kristaps Porzingis, and no one saw him becoming this good this early. In fact, it’s why I was so low on the team going into the season — I expected him to regress downwards. He’s been quite good this year, of course, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. It’s their larger moves recently that have caused concern, and most projections saw them as a mid-30’s win team — which is exactly what their point differential suggests. There’s no reason for celebration yet with the Knicks, but at least Porzingis is a legitimate building piece.
Your weekly Golden State highlight of Nirvana
The Warriors turned a humdrum Zaza Pachulia jump ball into a piece of art. I understand if some people are experiencing Warriors fatigue, and maybe a few people view them as the Evil Empire in the league, but years from now you’ll cherish every memory you have of this super-team. People were sick of the Bulls in the late 90’s — and now we revere them as part of the basketball mythos. This will happen to Golden State too.
The MVP in Wisconsin
I feel like this could be construed as an inflammatory, clickbait-ish statement, but it’s absolutely supported by the numbers: Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate. He’s fourth in Basketball-Reference’s VORP, and lest you think he’s exploiting the box-score he’s still 14th in Real Plus-Minus’ wins metric. The Bucks have been hovering around a 0.500 record with a positive point differential, despite the loss of Khris Middleton. He’s currently leading the team in total points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals, which has only been done by Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, Julius Erving, and LeBron James. (Dr. J accomplished that in the ABA). He’s also averaging over two blocks and two steals per game, and the list of players who have accomplished that is limited to Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Gerald Wallace. (Bobby Jones was a hair under qualifying for the 1977 season. If you round to the tenth-place, he makes the cut.) He has the length of a big man and plays like a point guard. He’s precociously gifted yet incredibly humble. What more could one want?
There are some concerns that the team record is a mirage right now. For instance, their opponent 3-point percentage is suspiciously low, which is propping up a defense that was much worse last season even though they had Middleton. That, in turn, inflates Giannis’ defensive numbers. You also always hear a complaint about his shooting abilities. He’s a reluctant 3-point shooter whose career percentages are awful, and he’s not a particularly good free-throw shooter either. That makes him easier to defend, in theory at least.
Read More: Chris Paul (finally) joins the 20-20 club
But no one else on the Bucks appears to be significantly above average — one could make arguments for, say, Jabari Parker, whose defense is still poor, or Greg Monroe, whose defense, again, is questionable, but the team’s success is almost entirely tied to Giannis. Even if the Bucks aren’t quite as good as they appear to be, they’re still ahead of schedule, and it’s thanks to his growth. He’s a do-everything, position-less monster. He’s only 22 years-old, but he has already truly entered the MVP conversation.
Shooting fouls and blocks
There’s a Pau Gasol problem in modern defensive stats — we know Pau has issues on defense and is a downright liability in some situations, but the stalwarts of advanced defensive stats in the public sphere, RPM and BPM, saw him as well above average on that end of the court. RPM had him at +3.07 in 2016 and BPM has had him around +2 to +3 in recent seasons. He’s definitely not a top ten defensive center though, and asserting that he is will make you a laughingstock. At least we have a box-score agnostic stat, RAPM, seeing him as a slight net negative in that area. But besides plus-minus, what are we missing in countable, usable stats? What do we need?
A couple weeks ago, I experimented with a block measure using foul types and goaltends. I, however, wanted to extend the analysis using shooting foul locations because I reasoned that shooting fouls have different values based on how close to the basket the attempted shot was. One of the most popular adages around the NBA is “don’t foul a jump shooter,” and it’s seen as a way to excoriate defenders who make a silly mistake. But fouling a guy who’s going in for a layup can actually be advantageous based on his free throw shooting proficiency, and there’s another popular philosophy about not letting an opponent score inside — they have to at least *earn* their points at the line.
However, looking at a list of the players with the highest frequency of shooting fouls from ten feet and out, it doesn’t appear to separate defenders by impulsiveness and foolishness. You can see that in the table below. Andre Roberson, Shaun Livingston, and Tony Allen should not be on worst perimeter defender lists, among other names. Rather the list appears to be about aggression and defensive usage — a lot of those guys defend high scorers and even the poorest defenders on the list fit an athletic, long-armed archetype for the most part.
Table: Most shooting fouls committed >10 ft, 2016, min. 1000 MP
|Player||Shooting PFs /48 MP|
|Larry Nance Jr.||0.53|
Here we have something noteworthy — a countable defensive stat where Pau Gasol ranks last. You also have a number of other slow-footed big defenders who aren’t at their best in open space outside of the paint, like Robin Lopez and Enes Kanter. Some of the other names are suspicious though. I could argue about LeBron James, who wasn’t committed to on-ball defense in the regular season, but Kawhi Leonard, among a couple others, is not in the same ballpark as Pau Gasol.
Table: fewest shooting fouls committed >10 ft, 2016, min. 1000 MP
|Player||Shooting PFs /48 MP|
|Jose Juan Barea||0.09|
As an experiment, I decided to include it in some alternative defensive measures focused on perimeter action and miscellaneous plays. It’s a simple formula: shooting fouls beyond ten feet from the basket, plus loose ball fouls, plus steals, plus blocked shots beyond ten feet per 48 minutes played. This is all data we have going back to 1997. Tony Allen reigns supreme in the table below, and a number of other defensive forces, like Paul George and Draymond Green, rank high too. Whiteside is there too, thanks to his incredible ability to block shots, but a number of other plus defenders are included as well.
Table: Top alternative perimeter defense scores, 2016, min. 1000 MP
|Player||Alt Perimeter D|
|Larry Nance Jr.||2.05|
Robin Lopez ranked lowest, which makes sense; he’s not comfortable defending away from the basket. Outside of a few awkward centers, there are a few interesting inclusions, like Barea and McDermott. Pau was just a few spots away from making the table, by the way, near Jamal Crawford and Kevin Martin.
Table: Bottom alternative perimeter defense scores, 2016, min. 1000 MP
|Player||Alt Perimeter D|
|Jose Juan Barea||0.49|
Analyzing the results further, there’s no relationship between shooting fouls on outside shots among big men, but for players listed as point guards to small forwards that stat alone — no other stat was included — explained nearly 20 percent of the variation in defensive RAPM alone. (This is only for 2016, of course. These are initial experimental findings.) In other words, there’s a surprisingly strong correlation between shooting fouls far from the basket and being a good perimeter defender.
This is probably because it’s a proxy for aggressive stoppers who contest a lot of outside shots — after all, the guys who rarely get those fouls called are the ones who are never even close enough — and with SportVU data there are better ways to evaluate defense. But we don’t have SportVU for seasons going back to 1997, which means there’s a greater wealth in the utility of these fouls by location, and we need all the armament possible to counter the notion that Pau Gasol is a great defender according to advanced stats.