Nylon Calculus Week 3 in Review: Gordon Hayward, Rose and mediocrity streaks

We’re into November now, and the NBA season is emerging into its form. The Raptors have taken over the East thanks to Kawhi Leonard putting them over the top, while the Bucks and Nuggets, league-pass darlings last year, have made the strides to be considered elite. The Warriors, of course, are dominating too, while other stand-bys are struggling, like the Rockets.

There’s a surprisingly high degree of correlation from the standings now to the final ones, so which changes will we see? Which team stats are the aberrations, and who will stabilize? This is the fun guessing game everyone’s involved with now, and it makes the young season more enticing. And with that, let’s take a look back at the last week in basketball…

Has Gordon Hayward recovered?

Gordon Hayward suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in recent memory, and many people were worried about his athleticism after his recovery. Thankfully, and this was counter-intuitive to many fans, his broken leg was less of a long-term concern than, say, a severe Achilles or knee injury. The recovery process has been well documented, but what’s the output? Has he regained the leg strength and athleticism?

With access to tracking data and, well, Gordon Hayward himself, there are some more comprehensive methods of evaluating his performance. You can compare peak acceleration times during running and jumping, for example, and measure flexibility, specific times on the court, etc. If you don’t have that exclusive information you can still use some decent athletic indicators.

You can see a summary of some of those key stats below. This is comparing Hayward’s three most recent full seasons to his current one so far. He’s actually doing better on all the stats I pulled per possession except for the scoring related ones. And yes, I know people will focus on his scoring now. Perhaps a lot of that is rust and confidence, and we haven’t had a big sample of games yet. That’s backed up by the fact that he’s picking up steals and blocks at above-average rates — those will go first, especially for wing players, when you lose a step. People will focus on his scoring and I believe they’ll miss those peripheral stats by not adjusting for his lower minutes per game average. I think we need some patience here in how he’s adjusting to playing this year because there’s evidence his body is there. He just needs to find the scoring punch again.

Tyson Chandler and the purgatory of veteran role players

The Phoenix Suns are some strange transitory place for veteran role players, having recently captured Trevor Ariza, Jamal Crawford, and Ryan Anderson. But Tyson Chandler has escaped, having agreed to a buyout with the team. We’ve already had people trying to project the kind of value he could bring to a playoff team, but there’s one confounding variable I want to point out: How do we deal with motivation? This is nothing against Tyson Chandler, who is not known for a poor work ethic. This is a general observation. Given the way human motivation works, you’d expect a lower performance level on a team with no playoff hopes since there are fewer incentives to play well. This would be a fun little project to quantify a simple but subtly complex effect — let’s see if someone publishes something on this publicly.

Houston’s defensive problems inside and out

The Rockets have been struggling in a myriad of ways. We can discuss their absence of perimeter stoppers, the importance of Ryan Anderson, Chris Paul’s age, Carmelo Anthony, and a league that’s closing the gap on their style of play, but there’s one glaring deficiency I thought I’d mention: rim protection. Jeff Bzdelik, who’s coming out to retirement just to try to fix the defensive issues with the Rockets, will have a lot to address, but rim protection is one area where they should improve.

As you can see in the graph above, the Rockets are bottom-five in both components of rim protection — they give up the fifth-most shots inside and allow the third-worst field-goal percentage. Last year they also gave up a lot of shots at the rim, but they didn’t give up one of the worst percentages in the league. They still have Clint Capela, but the loss of Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has given opposing players easier lanes to the basket. Rim protection isn’t just about your big guy; there are team-wide effects.

Market inefficiency: Injured draft picks

Jonathan Givony, known for Draft Express and now with ESPN, wondered why, or if, there were an inordinate amount of college players with significant injuries who ended up outperforming expectations. Caris LeVert was his example. He had three major foot injuries in college, and, understandably, his draft stock plummeted. But he recovered and has played well. Was he lucky? Actually, I think we’re too harsh on draft picks with major injuries because of how much better the younger body does at healing. Plus, if you pass up on talent and find a healthy player who can’t help you, was it really a win? Remember, you’d rather have Brandon Roy’s career than Randy Foye’s, even if the latter played more seasons.

Title or bust: The superstar

I wanted to address a topic that may come up again later in the season. When people talk about title contenders, they often say they “need” a true star, or superstar, in order to win. The 2004 Pistons are oft-cited as either an exception or a counter-example. But let’s phrase it like this. To beat another team, you just outscore them, and you can outscore them with any combination of good players. You can have a collection of multiple very good players, roughly all-star level but no true “superstar,” or you can have a superstar or two. Having one of those big stars is common because they help you quickly build up a strong team using only one piece instead of multiple.

There’s no magic here. It’s like packing enough water by either bringing eight 16 ounce bottles or two gallon jugs. Also, the Pistons were not the last “superstar-less” team. The 2013 Spurs are probably the best example of one. They dominated the league with 62 wins and beat a famous star-laden team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in the finals. Tim Duncan was 37-years-old at the time, and Kawhi was still a youngster who hadn’t even been to an All-Star game. Tony Parker was their only representative that year, and it was partly just so they’d have at least one player on the team. Parker averaged a mere 17 points per game with okay efficiency, and Leonard was only on Second Team All-Defense with no other accolades. No player on that team was operating at a superstar level for that season by any sane definition of the word. Yes, you can win without a superstar even with stiff competition. It’s just about your collection of talent.

Derrick Rose career high: 51 points

During Halloween night when many people were distracted, Jimmy Butler donned his Derrick Rose costume and scored 51 points against the Utah Jazz and their stalwart defense. That is actually one of the most probable explanations for what happened that night. Rose is still a big name, and some people still believe in him returning to MVP form, but this is quite outside the norm. He averaged 14 points per game during the season before the career-high, and as everyone knows he’s had a rough last few years. In fact, 2012 was the most recent season he averaged over 20 a game; that was so long ago it was actually Jimmy Butler’s rookie season on the bench for that same Chicago team.

How good was the game? Unfortunately, the more you dig into it, the more critiques you can find. We’re going to see a lot of high-scoring games this season if the pace continues to hold, and Rose benefited here, plus he played a full 40 minutes. He made a lot of tough shots that are virtually impossible to live on efficiently, like this running jumper over a defender or this one over Rudy Gobert. His jump shot is not usually that accurate, but to his credit he got to the rim frequently and drew a ton of fouls. Karl-Anthony Towns deserves credit too though, “earning” seven screen assists with actions like this.

Look at the history of Rose’s points scored since 2013.  You can see that in the histogram below. The most he had ever scored since his last elite season was 34 points. (I included only regular season games, but the pattern is the same with the playoffs: his highest there was 34 as well.) That game was an outlier in the truest sense of the word. By the Grubbs’ test, it was a statistically significant outlier with a p-value of 0.05% — in other words, there’s a slim statistical chance that outburst was a typical game from his oeuvre the past few years.

The game was so improbable that I’m faced with two conditions — either it’s a sign he has improved considerably, or it won’t be seen again. Rose fans, of which there are many, will argue he’s been back for a while and a boon for the Timberwolves. He’s still a controversial topic too, due to his MVP and long struggle through injuries. Other stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry wasted no time in praising him. But he followed up the 50-point game with three points versus the Warriors, and, sadly, on the wrong side of 30-years-old and continually plagued by injuries, we should expect more three point games than anything near 50-points. We can all hope that someone who’s gone through nearly a decade of recovery and setbacks will suddenly regain his All-NBA form, but reality isn’t what we wish. It’s the sobering morning after.

Washington is about to ends its mediocrity streak

The Washington Wizards Generals have been one of the young season’s biggest disappointments. At least with the Rockets, you can blame some of their struggles on a couple key defenders missing. This team returned its core with most of their role players remaining, save for Marcin Gortat and a couple others. What’s even stranger is that this has been one of the most consistent teams in modern history.

Sometimes consistency is a virtue, like the San Antonio Spurs circa 1998 to 2017. But for the Wizards, they’ve consistently been mediocre for years. Over a five-year span, from 2014 to 2018, their SRS, Basketball-Reference’s simple rating system, never rose above 1.4 and never dipped below -0.5. (An SRS of 1 would mean on a neutral court against an average opponent they’d be expected to win by 1 point.) In the real world, that translated to a high of 49 wins and a low of 41. In the Eastern Conference, that’s still enough to make the playoffs, but it’s disappointing for a team that was developing young players through that period.

While the Wizards were never impressive on the court during that period, that mediocrity streak was impressive in its own way. Only one team since 1952 has ever had five or more seasons in a row with an SRS between -1.5 and 1.5, my arbitrary SRS gates. The Knicks had seven such seasons in a row from 1954 to 1960. It was one of the more unmemorable stretches of their history, and soon after they sunk into a long period of incompetence before breaking through with the Walt Frazier and Willis Reed teams. I’ve got the list of all teams with at least four seasons in a row in the table below too.

A careful reader will notice that the Rockets near had a nine-year stretch (and weren’t far from tacking on another three seasons from 1971 to 1973.) Houston dipped by a couple points in 1978, partly due to Moses Malone missing a large number of games. And what happened after 1982? The team had a miserable season with an SRS of -11, one of the worst ever, because Malone left for the 76ers. Oscar Robertson also left his team after an extended run on the treadmill of mediocrity — but only after a season where they got even worse and managed a mere 36 games won. Then there’s the Magic who suffered an injury-filled 2004 season, losing starters like Grant Hill for the entire season.

Is the treadmill of mediocrity harmful? Some teams actually had a lot of success afterward. The Magic, for example, had that setback in 2004, but then they drafted Dwight Howard and built themselves into a contender. The Seattle SuperSonics actually won a title after four mediocre years. And the entire group of the Jazz, Blazers, and Hawks were successful in the later part of the 1980’s and even into the 1990’s. The Blazers actually embarked on one of the longest playoff appearance streaks in NBA history with 21 in a row. You can escape the treadmill.

This is obviously a critical point for the Wizards. This was just a simple exercise to identify teams that were “mediocre.” But what’s apparent is that often when teams can’t improve and hover around 0.500, they get blown up and important pieces leave or get traded out of frustration or a change to catalyze the team into higher production. That could happen in Washington, and we’re already seeing many rumors and hypothetical trades of their core players. The city could soon look back at those 40-49 win seasons with sentimentality.

The Washington Wizards have finally broken their mediocrity streak, but it broke the wrong way.