With the NFL season over, more of the sports world will turn its attention to the NBA, where we’re in the midst of a wild and, dare I say, spectacular season. I’m sure there are still criticisms out there about how we already know the likely NBA finalists, but that didn’t stop everyone from loving a couple other eras in the NBA’s past — the Bird v. Magic 80’s and Jordan’s peak title years — and the league isn’t as predictable as it seems at first glance. The Cavaliers have been sliding, and last year’s immortal Warriors fell in the playoffs, ultimately, to a lesser team. Anything’s possible, and we can’t forget that.
Zach LaVine: The blessing in disguise
Last week, Zach LaVine suffered a torn ACL, and the general response has been one of regret not just for his season but for his future and his team’s. But, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, I think this could end up being a positive opportunity for the Timberwolves because he is a drag on their team. Sure, he’s averaging nearly 20 points per game, and he’s converting a nice number of 3-pointers, but there’s more to the NBA game than points. Minnesota, once again, is playing significantly worse when he’s on the court, even though he’s a starter. Stating that someone is a problem because of their on-off or plus-minus numbers from one season is pretty silly because of all the issues with those raw numbers, but this is a common pattern.
Going into the numbers, the reason there’s a divide in the perception of LaVine’s value between conventional wisdom and the advanced stats is his defense. He’s consistently been rated as one of the worst defenders in the league. Among guards, he’s 109th out of 139 guards with at least 500 minutes this season in steal rate, 93rd in block rate, and 84th in defensive rebound percentage. He also doesn’t do well on any miscellaneous stats, like loose balls recovered or charges. And once you adjust for how his team performs when he plays, he looks even worse.
Read More: The conundrum of the Miami Heat core
With LaVine out, Andrew Wiggins will move to shooting guard, where his size is more of an advantage, and Ricky Rubio will have the ball in his hands more. And if Minnesota’s horrible, no good luck at the end of games runs out, they could string together a nice run or two to close the season with a better win percentage than they have now by a significant amount. LaVine gets lost on picks and is too weak for bigger defenders, but contributes nothing of value that smaller defenders do, like steals or staying in front of ball-handlers. I understand Minnesota sees him as part of their core going forward, and his athleticism makes him an intriguing player, but he has yet to capitalize on his gifts and perhaps it would be best if the team saw how things operated without him for a while.
The price of a one-man wrecking ball
DeMarcus Cousins had an epic game versus the Warriors, single-handedly felling one of the greatest teams ever, and I still have to wonder: what’s all this matter? The Kings are likely going to miss the playoffs yet again, and I doubt they’ll get better in the future. They have few assets besides Cousins and a bumbling front office.
Cousins rates as an elite player regardless of your metric of choice, including my (updated) stats: Dredge and HBox. Players who pick up a lot of rebounds and assists are usually quite valuable, and he’s a high-usage, fairly efficient scorer too. His team has played significantly better when he’s been on the court the past few seasons, but there’s this lingering doubt people have due to his outbursts and his lack of team success. Unfortunately, we may never see him on another team, at least in his prime, because the collective bargaining agreement is a boon for teams who want to keep their stars — no one wants to leave that much money on the table. It may take a bold trade with a bucket of assets, and I really do hope it happens soon.
The Stifle Tower versus the…DeAndre
No, I’m not going to let this one go — the collective decision to pick DeAndre Jordan over Rudy Gobert for the All-Star team is a strange one. Logically, let’s break this down. Both guys have played similar minutes, and the Jazz actually passed the Clippers in win percentage recently. Rudy Gobert is one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, per most major sites, and DeAndre Jordan is rarely even mentioned in the conversation (see: Sports Illustrated, The Ringer, and Bleacher Report, et al.) Thus, if Jordan is better, it’s because of his offense, but it’s hard to find an argument there. They’re remarkably similar on offense: Gobert has a slightly higher usage rate and turnover rate, while DeAndre has a slightly higher assist rate. Rudy, then, has small leads in offensive rebound rate and free throw attempts. DeAndre’s biggest advantage is field-goal percentage, but that advantage is erased by his horrendous free-throw shooting. Rudy, ultimately, is more efficient. Therefore, there’s no objective argument for DeAndre; they’re similar and Rudy is just a little bit better at the very least.
Perhaps DeAndre got an advantage thanks to his ludicrous field goal percentage, which is flirting with 70 percent once again. But his free-throw shooting is notorious and he receives plenty of negative criticism for that. Maybe people wanted the Clippers to have at least one representative, since Chris Paul was injured, as that kind of “representative parliamentary” thinking has dominated past votes before. Whatever the reason is, it’s not logical, and Rudy Gobert should do better in the All-NBA votes anyway. It’s just another reason to ignore career All-Star selections as a measure of a player’s legacy.
Curry regaining some mojo
Stephen Curry was named player of the week, and in general he’s been playing better lately — are we seeing 2016 Curry returning to life? His percentages are trending upwards, but — and I feel this is the more important stat for representing him as a player — he’s been hitting more super long shots lately. He made four shots at 28 feet or further away recently against the Hornets, and another four versus the Clippers a week ago. It’s not quite 2016 Curry, however; they’re not blitzing opponents like they were in fourth quarters last year, which fueled to their magical season. But he’s going to crowd an already over-crowded MVP race.
You can see his 11 outside shots against the Hornets here; in particular I have to highlight this shot where he casually pulls-up from 30 feet and drains it. A guy who can reliably shoot from those distances, with that frequency, and off the dribble is an impossibility, and if he approaches his performance from last season I’m not sure how other teams even have a chance given that the number two weapon would be Kevin Durant. How do you guard that?
Speaking of Kevin Durant, I updated HBox, which you can view here, and I noticed he has an unusually high block to foul ratio for a perimeter player: 0.888. That’s something you’d see from a center who blocks a high rate of shots, not a high-scoring small forward. Going back to when blocked shots began being tracked, 1974, I could find only two other non-big men (i.e. power forwards or centers) with a ratio that high: Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith[1.]. I won’t say that makes him a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, or even all-defense, but Durant’s defense is still underrated at times.
Trust the Process: T.J. McConnell’s defense
Basketball researcher Steve Shea released a post about rating perimeter defenders, and while most of the top ranked players are not shocking like Tony Allen, there were a few surprises. I’m going to focus on one of them: T.J. McConnell. McConnell is a second-year point guard for the 76ers and it’s probably a really short list of NBA media writers who have him as a candidate for the All-Defense team, outside of people in Philadelphia. But would that be justified? What are the numbers seeing?
The aforementioned links from Steve Shea use the wealth of available stats from SportVU. McConnell fares well not just because of his high steal rate, but because he’s fifth in the league in deflections per minute, among players with at least 500 minutes, and fourth in loose balls recovered. His Defensive RPM is above average for a point guard, but it’s nothing special, while his team does indeed defend better with him on the court he shares a lot of minutes with Joel Embiid, so that’s not entirely useful information.
Going to the qualitative information, McConnell was pegged as an above average defender in college, even though he has a rare wingspan that’s not greater than his height. This is due to his quick hands and feet, in concert with his anticipation. He’s often given the task of the a tough point guard to cover, and he’s pretty good at staying him front of guys like Tony Parker and contesting the shot. You can see him here tag a defender’s pass and save the ball to a teammate. He’s a dogged defender; you can see him fight through a screen here to chase Goran Dragic.
Unfortunately, he’s not a good offensive player, which puts a ceiling on his value. But if he can become an above average outside shooter, he can come the perfect point guard next to Ben Simmons, who will likely be the lead ball-handler for the 76ers’ future.
The New York Times had an excellent article recently about Russell Westbrook and his personality, but one tidbit near the end started to bug me: to paraphrase, “stat-heads” said that if you adjusted Westbrook’s numbers for the pace of Oscar Robertson’s era, Westbrook would average 50 points, 17 rebounds, and 17 assists a game. I’m not exactly sure what they meant because if you do a simple calculation with the league average pace of 2017 compared to 1962, I get averages of 40.2/13.5/14.0. Maybe they also adjusted Westbrook’s minutes because stars of that day played more often: you’d get averages of 51.3/17.5/17.9 with Robertson’s minutes.
However, there are some subtleties that’ll change the translation in reality, and even the most basic “stat-head” should know at least one: there were more rebounds available back then because of the low shooting percentages; scorekeepers were a bit stingier with assists; and it’s arguable a slower pace makes it easier for stars to control the game and take more shots per possession. There are roughly 0.9 rebounds per minute in the NBA now, and back in 1962 that figure was 1.5; that translates to about 17.6 rebounds for Russell just for all the extra available boards. Doing the same for assists, you get only 11.2: assists weren’t as common, and most players had a poor shooting percentage. For points, a pace adjustment is probably best. But the toughest issues are how to deal with a potential change in minutes played and league quality — I’m not sure how to get precision there. But if you see other “advanced” adjustments in the future with Westbrook’s numbers, check the assist and rebound numbers; they shouldn’t be similar in Robertson’s era. Assists and rebounds came at much different frequencies.
Streaks of four or more missed 3-pointers
Recently, a terrible Lakers possession inspired a question: what’s the record for most missed 3-pointers in a row in the same possession? One original question someone posed was most in a single possession, but I thought it was more pertinent to look at these shots in a row, since that’s what happened during the Los Angeles game and it’s just a more bizarre basketball event that way. There’s no better example of futility than launching four shots of the same type in a row and missing every single one.
(You can see the shots at the 4:30 mark in the video below.)
Of course, I can only thoroughly answer this question through the play-by-play, and that means I can only go back to the 1997 season. But most 3-pointers taken in NBA history have come during that period, so I think that’s not a terrible restriction. I’m ignoring fouls, but not free throws — that’s a break in the chain. For curiosity’s sake, I’m including all instances where the shot is made. Luckily, it appears it’s quite easy to find these segments of a game, and they’re more common than I thought even in the 90’s.
Before the Lakers game there were 31 cases where a team attempted four 3-pointers in a row in the regular season and four in the post-season. Those fourth shots were converted at a percentage of 33.3, which actually seems pretty remarkable given the circumstances. One would think that psychology alone, after seeing so many failures, would invite a lower percentage. That means there were 24 cases, including the Lakers, where a team had a streak of four missed 3-pointers. I suppose it would be a decent assumption to assume the record for most in a row would be greater than that because there were so many opportunities. But, in fact, I could only find one case where the same team even attempted a 3 during the same possession after the first four, and it was a made shot.
You can see the game details here. The possession starts at the 10:39 mark for Portland in the fourth quarter, and it ends over a minute later at 9:27. Contained within are two outside shots from Sergio Rodriguez, three from Travis Outlaw, two rebounds from LaMarcus Aldridge, and, strangely, two personal fouls from Lamar Odom. Oddly enough, it was a game versus the Lakers, though this was during their championship season with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum starting[2.].
Both the aforementioned Blazers possession and the recent one from the Lakers happened during the fourth quarter, which is inordinately more common. Of these streaks were teams attempt four outside shots, 26 out of 36 were in the fourth quarter with another two happening in overtime. Thirteen of those occurred at the very end of a game where, naturally, teams were more desperate. I’d imagine at this point during an article with this subject, the author would note how improbable it is to have a team miss, recover, try the same shot again, and repeat two more times using average rates of taking 3-pointers and rebounding, but that’s a classic error of independence. Events can have inter-dependence, and there are all sorts of causes and relationships that change probability. If a team is down three points and they have the ball with a few seconds left, they’re going to keep attempting that shot.
3-point records are falling like rain in the Great Bear, but this one is still available. It takes the rare intersection of offensive rebounding and 3-point proclivity, and a team with enough grit to fight through the adversity of seeing four missed shots previously. A team would have to have the confidence of Dion Waiters to pull this one through, and maybe — just maybe — we’ll be lucky enough to see the unofficial record broken.
[1. Brandon Rush sneaks in there too, depending on where your minutes cutoff is.]
[2. Against Greg Oden, no less, as both big men somehow managed to play over 30 minutes in the same game. Fans of that era will delight in reading the names in the box score.]