We are deep into November now, and the NBA season is firmly established. At this point, we’re starting to see serious questions about the contenders: the new ones and the ones from last season that aren’t looking like contenders. The results so far are more illuminating than one would think even though we’ve only had a handful of games — be wary.
I believe that cognitive dissonance exists because we only know the previous season and none from the future. Perhaps when we see the next few seasons we’ll understand Houston’s slide down the standings or the Bucks ascendance. Of course, there’s still a chance those two are aberrations, and that’s why we need to actually watch and track these games. And with that, let’s look back at a slightly late look at the last week in the NBA.
Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia
I have to address this superstar trade. I know everyone else has already, and we’ve had multiple angles on it. But there are a couple points I wanted to address. First of all, we are a league of armchair GMs, and we all have opinions on who should have been traded and who is more valuable. But we don’t know for sure who was on the table and what could have happened. Potential trades may have been possible at one point in the process but later pulled from consideration, or maybe the rumors, you know, were just rumors. I know there are some reporters who are fairly accurate with which other deals were possible, but I think people generally exaggerate on what could have been done. Remember, we can’t evaluate these deals in a vacuum.
As for the actual content of the trade, I’ll start with Philadelphia. I am of course one of the first people to mention and highly value spacing, but that’s only one component of the game. Ben Simmons does not have to be guarded on the perimeter, and the team lost a lot of shooting with the departure of Dario Saric and Robert Covington. But Jimmy Butler isn’t a liability outside the arc, and Joel Embiid has range too.
Plus, those three stars fit well on defense, and it’s easier to add more shooting around that core to create the spacing when none of those three are sieves on defense. The famed “Process” was concerned with adding star players to the team because those are scarce commodities. Essentially, grab as many of those stars as you can, and figure out the rest of the roster from there — that’s the blueprint for most of the great teams in the modern NBA. That’s not to say role players are unimportant; it’s just that they are more replaceable and fluid as team pieces.
If you think the 76ers could have gotten a better (younger) player or deal using their cap space, then you obviously won’t like this deal. But I did not believe that. We have all seen (far too often) a team prime itself for a summer free agency period, targeting well-known stars, and they either come up entirely empty or overpay for a second or third choice. They may not have been able to add another star to the core and feared this would be one of their last chances, and I do understand that. My major quibble is that they let Robert Covington, who I think is vastly underrated, go while they held onto Markelle Fultz, a developing player who doesn’t fit well with the main core and may be losing his value.
As for Minnesota, again, we don’t entirely know what was on the table. If Jimmy Butler has to leave, his trade value will only fall as the season progresses, and with a player option for 2020 you could lose him for nothing — not to mention all the damage possible keeping an unhappy player on the team. When the hand is forced, the trades aren’t ideal. But they at least got two useful players and weren’t hampered by bad contracts. I, and others, would have preferred getting back younger talent and more potential. But I don’t know what was offered, and maybe we should be asking why didn’t other teams beat the offer from Philly. Plus, my concerns with the Wolves lies with the commitment to Andrew Wiggins and the coaching — let’s track those. The team has more work ahead.
I thought I’d share this fun tweet about clutch stats. I wouldn’t read too much into who’s at the top of the list because the variance is so high. But look at some of those usage rates. When the game slows down, you can cram possessions down the throat of your star. How that defines end-game situations is crucially important, and I wonder if that partially explains why those possessions are so inefficient. Is it too predictable?
Boston Celtics: Victims of regression to the mean?
Intuitively, after a season in which Boston won 55 games and went the full seven games in the Conference Finals, one would expect that a healthy Gordon Hayward, and another year of development for their young core, could lead to a truly inspiring season. Instead they’ve just been solidly above average and worse overall than last season. Can you just blame this on Gordon Hayward’s poor shooting or could this have happened even if he returned to form?
Let’s take this back to one of my favorite examples and a true basketball experiment. Kevin Durant joined the Warriors after they had won 73 games, yet they haven’t hit 70 games with him yet. Does that mean he’s a net negative? Of course not. A lot of the circumstances with the team went perfectly well in 2016 — the stars aligned. It’s looking like, for example, Draymond Green will not be reliably shooting 39 percent from 3-point land any time soon.
I believe that happened to a smaller extent last season for the Celtics. Jaylen Brown shot 40 percent from outside the arc, and he’s been sub-30 percent so far this season. Since he’s yet to hit over 70 percent from the free-throw line, that 40 percent mark might be the anomalous one. Once you add up a few more circumstances like that and you can explain a large regression. This doesn’t mean I think they’ll be a lower seed. But it’s possible they could be worse than last season, and it’s really not all that strange.
Is LeBron James still the “best” player?
Inertia is a crucial property in the NBA. LeBron James has been a great player and an MVP candidate for so long — arguably since 2006 — that it’s tough to convince people of his shortcomings and anoint younger players over him. While he’s barely slipped in any of the visible statistics, acting as the box-score Old Faithful in many respects, his defensive issues are being swept under the rug. I’m afraid because of his history and the combined weight of being with the Lakers and already famous could catapult him over others in the MVP standings, like Anthony Davis or Damian Lillard.
Again, and this is already becoming a tired topic with me, James’ defense has been a lot worse than most people could imagine. Compare him to the aforementioned Damian Lillard, for example. People may state that James’ duties are just as large as Lillard’s on offense, and both are efficient playmakers where the difference is that Lillard is a guard known for poor defense; and thus, James has been more valuable. But they’re closer in value on that end of the floor than anyone feels comfortable admitting.
Let me define something clearly here. I don’t mean that LeBron James’ skills on defense are below average or lacking in general, or that he’s never been good. It’s just that given his age and huge workload, and historic amount of playing time, he’s infrequently applying those skills to defense and is often taking plays off to rest. He can’t hit fifth gear on every possession, and that’s okay. It just means he can’t be a write-in candidate anymore.
Create your all-time list
I just had to share this great piece of development. Using a few different slides, like peak performance and rings, this tool will give you an all-time list based on your input. This is a great way to conceptualize a great player list. We all have our own preferences, and they feed into who we see, often “objectively,” as the best players ever. Let’s advertise our biases; the league will make more sense that way.
Deandre Ayton: The year so far
In the NBA, we generally put our best prospects in the worst situations. Deandre Ayton, the promising big man built like Atlas, is spending his rookie season with the Phoenix Suns, who are digging deep into the lottery yet again. He’s at least getting a lot of playing time, but the team does not have a competent, starting-caliber point guard. He doesn’t have a lot to work with in terms of simple pick-and-roll options, where he can use his massive frame and hands with his agility to attack the rim more often. He has more potential there the more you dig into his rookie season so far.
Even reviewing Ayton’s basic stats, the appraisal is striking. He’s standing out in a few ways already. He’s rebounding well and he has a shot usage rate near league average, which is actually above average for a center — and he’s been highly efficient. He’s been a solid shooter from the line, consistently staying above 70 percent (including in college), but he’s been taking too many mid-range shots. Where he’s created his value, however, has been at the rim: he’s shooting around 80 percent within three feet of the basket. That is a top-tier percentage. For comparison, only one player last season hit over 80 percent of his shots with at least 30 attempts, and that was Ante Zizic with a mere 45 field goal attempts. This season, the list is small as well, and Ayton is near the top.
Turning to the video, you can see how Ayton uses his size well but he also has the right tendencies. You can see a video here showing his highlights against Anthony Davis. What’s notable to me is that he knows when to be at the rim and how to position himself, using his large frame to bully his way in or darting to the rim at just the right time, either for an alley-oop or a rebound chance. You can see more of his shots in the video below. I’m not the biggest fan of his form on those jump shots, but he’s at least showing versatility and has even shown low-post moves.
As for his defense, Ayton does have one area where he should be doing better: rim protection. His block numbers are low for a player of his type, and while that’s not always indicative of interior defense his stat-tracking rim defense numbers aren’t great either. He’s simply too big and athletic with enough awareness at least on offense to be mediocre there. But the dude was born in summer 1998 — there’s no reason to panic. That is where I’d be tracking his progress though for the immediate future. Otherwise, he does appear to have fascinating, star-level potential.
The NBA: Where all teams are above average
Advanced stats in the league are only as advanced as they’re executed. Simply using a new, or relatively new, stat does not make it better than any other. For instance, one of the most commonly cited ones in recent years has been the net rating of the starters. Sometimes it’s used to spell out the potential of certain teams, stating that if the starters are outscoring opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions, then surely the core has the makings of a title team. But this is misleading for several reasons.
First of all, almost every team improves if only the starters are playing. That’s why they’re the starters. One may argue that starters play against starters so a strong rating is still overly impressive, but think of it this way: if you’re not playing against the starters, you’re likely playing against a worse lineup. And you can’t only play opposite another starting lineup — there are too many lineup changes during a game. Thus, the competition level will always be lower than starters, and often significantly so.
Also, whenever you see a new stat, you need to see the full range before you can evaluate it. You may think Bob Pettit averaging 18.7 rebounds per game is godly in 1962, but he didn’t even lead the league. He was fourth, where both Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were over 23 a game (and did so for multiple seasons.) Saying that a team will be great because their starters outscore opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions is meaningless if you don’t have the information from the other teams.
For a real example with starters’ numbers, I grabbed some team and lineup stats from 2018. I used net ratings per 100 possessions from Basketball-Reference, and to simplify and standardize I used only the most common starting lineups. Now, when you take something like the average of a net rating, or say margin of victory, it should be zero across the league as long as you’re counting every minute. It’s a net zero sum game. But the average rating for the starters that year was 3.9 points per 100 possessions. You can see a summary of this in the bar graph below.
You can see that many poor teams, like the Nets or Knicks, look a lot better when you only look at the starters. But great teams generally look better too. Unfortunately for the Nets or Knicks, every minute of the game counts, not just when your starters are in. Also, you can see the great degree of volatility. Don’t read too much into all the numbers — Philly’s starters rating didn’t translate into them being a playoff powerhouse, and it didn’t mean that Dallas could fix its issues just with the starters. Lineups naturally have a lot of variation.
All numbers need context. If there’s no context, the numbers, untethered from any frame of reference, have no real way of stating value. A number by itself is just dressing, but a number compared other teams across the entire league might be able to teach you something useful. Let’s just hope other people understand this too.