Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Misunderstood Success of the Detroit Pistons

For many basketball purists, the dominant Detroit Pistons teams from 2001-2006 served as a metaphorical hat tip to the halcyon days or yore, when it was allegedly teams, not superstars, who won dominated the league by sharing the load, prioritizing “we over me” and generally playing the “right way.” When the 2004 Pistons bested the heavily favored and star-studded Lakers, it served as a coronation for the grouchy pundits who had long lamented the (alleged) new shift of emphasizing individual superstars over teams. For a generation of hoops fan, these Pistons were living proof that you didn’t need a superstar to win it all, let alone a “Big 3,” so long as you had a strong “team.” 

All of this philosophical pontificating is well and good and serves as excellent fodder for Thanksgiving debates with your uncles. Unfortunately, for those old-school hermits who are adamant that you can (and should?) win without a superstar and that good teams beat great individuals, the 2000-2006 Pistons teams happen to provide excellent support…for their opposition.

You see, dear reader, the Pistons featured one of the best players in the league. In order to demonstrate this point, I built off of the excellent research produced by Mr. Arturo Galletti. A few years back, Arturo crunched the numbers and developed a chart delineating the average distribution of wins among a given team. I opted to compare this average distribution of wins to that of the Detroit Pistons to determine whether the Pistons really were successful because of their depth. If the Pistons really were a starless team who won because they featured 5 (or more) good players, one would assume their breakdown of wins to be somewhat equitable among the starters (~16% each) or at least for the contributions to not skew heavily towards one player. The data, on the other hand, suggests something completely different:

As you can see, the Pistons relied heavily one afroed man, who contributed an absurd 36% percent of their wins: Mr. Ben Wallace.

So what have we learned from this exercise? Not only that the Pistons were actually more top heavy than than those frequently cited 2004 Lakers, who produced 62% of their 51.55 wins from their top three slots (Shaq, Kobe, Payton), but that the Pistons did indeed feature a superstar; his name was Ben Wallace and he had excellent hair and a proclivity for airballing free throws. Don’t believe me that Ben Wallace was not only the Pistons best player, but also among the handful of top players in the league during that time? Check out where Wallace ranked in the NBA in terms of Wins Produced each year from 2001-2006: 1, 1, 1, 2, 6 and 2.

In reviewing the success of the Pistons, it’s important to remember them as an excellent team who owes much of their success to team defense, a facet of basketball that is more attributable to the efforts of the entire team than any individual (1). However, the prevailing narrative of the Pistons as the quintessential example of how “teams beat stars” is downright inaccurate. The story of the Pistons isn’t one of ultimate teamwork or the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Rather, it’s about a team dominating its opposition by relying on great team defense as well as the otherworldly production of Ben Wallace and the occasional brilliance/consistent contribution of Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince.


(1) For the record, Ben Wallace was their best individual defensive player, too...'

Thanks to Xquach for pointing out that while Ben Wallace was a superstar and the Pistons were more top-heavy than average, they were not an exceptionally top-heavy roster.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Beyond the Big 3: the Spurs Real Secret to Success

Since the Spurs began their incredible run of success under Coach Gregg Popovich, fans and pundits alike have sought to define the root of San Antonio’s unmatched consistency within the paradigm of a familiar basketball narrative. When the Spurs won their first champion ship in 1999, experts attributed their accomplishments to the popular “Twin Tower” model, which featured the historic duo of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. When the Spurs won again in 2003 with an older (but extremely productive) version of Robinson, the narrative shifted to emphasize the individual brilliance of Tim Duncan, while still highlighting the emergence of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as key contributors. When the Spurs won again in 2005 and 2007, the narrative shifted once more, this time attributing San Antonio’s success to the all too familiar “Big 3” model (Duncan, Ginobili and Parker).

All of this is well and good and makes life easy for lazy sportswriters and prognosticators who would rather recycle a recognizable storyline than uncover a new one. Unfortunately however, any explanation that attributes the Spurs success to simply having the best player in the league or the best "Big 3" is incomplete at best and more likely downright inaccurate. In truth, the Spurs success is owed to a number of factors, two of which are criminally underemphasized, likely because they lack the sex appeal we all covet.

So what are these two hidden factors that enable the Spurs to consistently outclass the competition? Simple: the Spurs don’t allocate any minutes to bad players and consistently surround their stars with stronger supporting casts than those of their opponents’.

Since I’ve already written about the way in which the Spurs avoid giving away wins via playing unproductive players, this post will focus on the Spurs consistently excellent supporting casts.

Is it really the Big 3 or the Big 12?

In order to demonstrate that the Spurs differentiator for success is more attributable to their remarkable depth than their top players simply being superior to those of other teams, I sought to show that the Spurs didn’t typically boast the best “Big 3” in the league, even during their championship years.

As a proxy for demonstrating this theory, I investigated the Spurs three most recent championship rosters (2003, 2005 and 2007) and compared those rosters to the rest of the league. Specifically, I calculated the aggregate average per-minute production (1) of each team’s top 3 win producers, the goal of which was to objectively isolate the teams in the league who boasted at least three highly productive players. I then investigated the production these teams received from their "other" players (e.g. non-top 3 players) in order to determine if those teams couldn’t match the Spurs success on account of employing lesser top talent or an inferior supporting cast. The results show that the Spurs model for success is much more nuanced than simply attaining better top talent than their competitors (2):


According to the data, San Antonio has indeed featured one of the league’s better “Big 3’s” in each of its championship years. In fact, in 2007, San Antonio’s “Big 3” of Duncan, Ginobili and Barry (3) boasted the highest aggregate production rate in the league. That said, in both 2003 and 2005, numerous teams employed more productive “Big 3’s” than San Antonio, both in terms of per minute effectiveness and total wins produced.

However, it should also be noted that, compared to its competition, San Antonio has received more contributions from the rest of its roster relative to other teams who boast three strong performers. For instance, in 2005, San Antonio's "Non-Big 3" players produced nearly 12 more wins than the average of their counterparts on the other teams investigated. In fact, San Antonio’s “Non-Big 3” players contributed more wins in 2005 and 2007 than any of the other teams reviewed.

So what has this little exercise taught us about the Spurs model for success?

In the world of sports punditry, there is no room for humble agnosticism. Each victory or defeat is traced to precise variables, some of which may be as unquantifiable and nebulous as “intangibles,” “team chemistry” or simply “wanting it more.” In the case of the San Antonio Spurs, however, a more nuanced explanation for success is required, and no explanation is complete so long as it overlooks the significant contributions of San Antonio’s “other” players.


1. In this case, average production is measured via Wins Produced per 48 minutes WP48 (WP48).

2. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that is hardly a foolproof methodology: for example, it doesn’t account for instances when a top player may not have produced a top three win total for his team due to injuries. Moreover, defining "top talent" by looking at top 3 players (as opposed to top 1 or 2 players, for instance) is pretty arbitrary, and it should be noted that in each of the Spurs championship years, Duncan was among the best players in the league. Caveats aside, this exercise provides a decent proxy for determining if San Antonio comparative advantage is on account of its top tier talent or its depth.

3. If you substitute Tony Parker (the assumed 3rd member of San Antonio’s “Big 3”) the aggregate WP48 drops to .238 although the absolute wins produced stays roughly the same as Parker played many more minutes (albeit less effectively) than Barry in 2007.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

7 "Busts" who are better than you thought they were

"Space Jam" had it right - Shawn Bradley was a "star!" 
Every year, NBA teams devote massive resources in order to make the right selections in the draft. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, most drafts yield underachievers and even some “busts” - players who produce considerably less ROI than would be expected from their draft slot and ultimately go on to lead unproductive careers (see, Bargnani, Andrea for more information).

Occasionally, however, highly-drafted players will be misbranded as busts simply because the player blossoms later in his career or because his contributions don’t align with what the fans and media perceive as valuable (points). For this poor NBA soul archetype (1), any successes will bear a scarlet footnote denoting that the player was drafted early.

Here are 7 examples of players who have been unfairly mislabeled as “busts” as well as a few honorable mentions who may not be deemed busts, but nonetheless took more flak than they deserved.

Shawn Bradley – Pick #2 (1993)

Gangly? Yes. Goofy? Absolutely. A bust? Hell No!
No, I’m not kidding.

Although he’s best remembered for manning the lower half of posters, serving as Tracy McGrady’s in-game dunk prop and having his hysterically oversized bicycle stolen by a thief who clearly has a better grasp for humor than he does for pawn-shop demand, Shawn Bradley actually put together an admirable career as a productive center who rebounded and blocked shots at high rates while shooting a high percentage.

In fact, from 2000-2004, Bradley was 80% more productive than the average NBA player, including one year (2003) in which he produced 2.6 times the number of wins per 48 minutes compared to the average NBA player! That’s legit star-level production from an alleged “bust!” (2)

Shawn Bradley was a lot of things to a lot of people. Most notably, as a 7-foot 6-inch goofy looking, German-born, white, Mormon, he was every NBA player’s favorite trophy for the NBA version of Slam-Dunk Buckhunter. One thing he was not? A bust.

Tony “El Busto” Battie – Pick #5 (1997)

Poor Tony Battie never overcame his "premature bust" problem.   
Former Nuggets star Dan Issel loved shooting so much, that when he retired and had to stop shooting hoops, he opted instead to shoot himself in the foot. In one of the more charmingly short-sighted interviews of all time, Issel, the soon-to-be new GM of the Denver Nuggets, went on a local radio station and referred to rookie Tony Battie as “El Busto.” Besides hilariously torpedoing the trade value for what would soon become his own asset, Issel labeled Battie a bust prematurely (pun could not be more intended).

In his prime years from 2000-2003, Battie was a strong performer, boasting a Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) that was 75% higher than the average NBA player. Although he didn’t score frequently, Battie made his shots at a very high percentage and collected a high percentage of offensive rebounds (a highly undervalued skill, as it’s of the only ways to “create” a shot).

Eddie Griffin - Pick #7 (2001)

Jeff Van Gundy wonders aloud whether Eddie's headband is restricting blood flow to his brain
More well-known for his tragic, premature death and for being a headcase who missed team flights, Griffin had a short and inconsistent career. However, he was actually a league average player who even produced at a 40% above average clip in 2005, after missing all of 2004...while enrolled at an alcohol rehabilitation center.

True, Griffin did not produce as many wins over his first few years as can be expected from the average #7 pick: per the inimitable Arturo Galletti, the #7 pick can be expected on average to produce 15.3 wins over their first 4 years (the length of their rookie contract) while Griffin only mustered 10.33. However, when you take into account that Griffin did this in only 3 years (he was in rehab for his 4th year) and that his WP48 during this time frame was identical to what could be expected from the #7 overall pick (.098), I find it an exaggeration to call him a “bust.”

Finally, can you really consider a player a bust when he fails for the exact reason he was considered a risky pick in the first place? Calling Griffin a bust because his well-documented questionable attitude and “off the court” issues caught up to him is the equivalent of labeling Royce White a bust because his anxiety and fear of flying made “NBA basketball player” possibly the worst occupation he could pursue, right behind “pilot.” There’s a difference between high-risk/high-reward players that don’t work out and flat out busts who never lived up to the hype. Griffin is one of the former.

Josh Childress – Pick #6 (2004)

Once his teammates introduced him to Google Hangouts, J-Chill cut his cell phone(s) bills by over 75%!
Josh Childress temporarily held the title as the most divisive player between basketball purists and statheads like yours truly. True, his “range” is basically offensive rebounds and backdoor cuts, he has trouble staying healthy and he kinda looks like a flamboyant, stoned T-rex when shooting. But, J-Chill regularly posted strong True Shooting percentages and leveraged his long arms and athleticism to put up great rebounding numbers (particularly on the offensive glass where he was a monster) and generate his fair share of steals while seldom fouling.

Add up all of Childress’ undervalued contributions and you get a player who produced 46.7 wins over his first four years. That’s a shade over 3.5 times as many as the average #6 pick has historically produced!

Unfortunately, Childress then wasted the rest of his prime in Greece when he opted to sign a lucrative contract with Euroleague’s Olympiacos Piraeus during the 2008 NBA lockout. When he finally returned stateside, everyone remembered why they hated him in the first place and stopped giving him minutes. Now he’s out of the league, leaving one of the NBA’s all time silliest ‘fro wearers at home waiting for a call on one of his numerous phones :(

Martell Webster – Pick #6 (2005)

Martell Webster is the only known example of a player who improved once joining the Wizards
Martell Webster is better known in Portland as the guy who should have been Chris Paul/Deron Williams (the Trailblazers traded down from the #3 pick to take Webster, despite having a glaring need at point guard, one they called Sebastian Telfair) and the guy who became the center of one of the biggest legal settlements ever between two NBA teams when the T-Wolves sued the Trailblazers for trading Webster without fully disclosing the extent of his back injury.  

Yes, Webster’s first 7 years in the league vacillated between being injurious (to his own team) and injury-ravaged, but times have changed. Call it what you will – a mid-career epiphany, a much needed change of scenery (again) or simply the results of some late blooming – but there’s no disputing the fact that Martell Webster has been ballin since he got to Washington (3). However you choose to define it, the source of his improvement is irrefutable: he’s shooting the lights out and sporting a robust 59.9% True Shooting percentage over the past two years by taking more than 50% of his shots from behind the arc and hitting them at a healthy 41% clip.

In fact, over the last two years, Monsieur Webster has been producing 50% more wins per 48 minutes than the average NBA player and given that he’s still only 27 and has found his niche as 3-point shooter who can guard bigger wings (a skill set that tends to age like a nice Yellowtail, if not a fine wine) all signs point to his producing at an average or above level for the next few years.

Brandan Wright – Pick #8 (2007)

A candid shot of Brandan as he goes through pre-game stretching 
If you want to call Brandan Wright a bust, be my guest. If you’re the type of person who values accuracy, however, call him injury-prone or unlucky.

Wright has averaged just fewer than 38 games per year (not including this year) and missed the entire 2009-2010 season to injury, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been extremely good, producing 2x as many wins per 48 minutes as the average player throughout his career.

So how has Wright, when healthy, generated so much value? It really comes down to two areas in which he excels: blocked shots and shooting percentage. Wright is routinely one of the leagues better shot blockers and annually reigns among the league leaders in shooting percentage. Naysayers will point out that Wright should lost points because he’s assisted on a high percentage of his field goals attempts (86% according to but these folks are missing the forest for the trees: there’s great value in having a tall guy with super long arms who:

A) can finish at a high clip and
B) doesn't take shots he likely won’t make

There’s a reason not many guys, including other centers who only take shots around the hoop, shoot that percentage - it’s really freakin’ hard to do!

Al-Farouq Aminu – Pick #8 (2010)

The best player on the Nigerian national team,
Al-Farouq Aminu has never actually been to Nigeria. He wants to go real bad though!
Aminu is yet another example of a productive player whose is constantly undervalued because he can’t shoot. And yet, for all the folks who complain about the spacing he’s ruining (without citing any data or studies, mind you) as if he’s some child abductor, no one seems to mention the fact that he’s a rebounding machine who plays good defense without fouling (4). For God’s sake, in the last 2 years alone, Aminu’s produced nearly 5 more wins than the average #8 overall pick does over his first 4 years! Oh, and did I mention the fact that at 23 years old, he still has him prime years ahead of him?

As an aside, could the Chris Paul trade look any worse now? If the Pelicans realized at the time that Aminu would be the only good asset they would receive in return for the prime years of one of the world’s top 3 players, they likely would have just held on to CP3 and let him walk as a free agent. Well, at least their mascot no longer looks like this!

The Honorable Mentions

Although these players avoided the scarlet letter "B," they still got a bad rap despite producing some pretty damn good seasons.  

Raef Lafrentz - Pick #3 (1998)

Raef Lafrentz had the misfortune of suffering a number of injuries that forced him out of the league by age 31 and of being selected in the draft before superior players like Vince Carter, Kansas teammate Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki (who was acquired by Dallas in one of the sillier draft day trades that have ever taken place). Objectively speaking, however, Lafrentz went on to have a fine if unspectacular run, capped by a late career renaissance in Boston.

Drew Gooden – Pick #4 (2002)

Drew Gooden was not a strong performer in his first couple years and was, for the bulk of his career, a slightly below average NBA performer. However, I find it an exaggeration to label any player a bust when they produced at the level Gooden did foe a three year span: from 2005-2008, Gooden produced at 180% the level of the average NBA player.

What I find most intriguing about Gooden’s case is that he was involved in just about every smart
move the Cleveland Cavaliers have made in recent memory: Cleveland acquired Gooden and the highly productive Sideshow Bob (going by Anderson Varejao now) in a steal of a deal with the Magic in which they gave up only a couple 2nd round picks and fellow mislabeled bust Tony Battie. The Cavs subsequently resigned Gooden to a bargain of a deal (3 years for $23 million) and traded him at the tail end of his prime for a perennially undervalued Ben Wallace. These Gooden-related transactions represented perhaps the only underrated moves the franchise has made in recent history (ever?), particularly amidst a flurry of myopic transactions that typically proved fruitless but were glossed over by the magnificence that is Lebron James.

Nick Collison – Pick #12 (2003)

Nick Collison is not only not an underachiever - he was kind of a steal.

The average #12 pick is expected to produce 10 wins over his first four years, while Collison produced 12.9…in 3 seasons because he missed his rookie year with injuries to both shoulders. Moreover, throughout his career he’s produced at roughly 20% better than the average NBA player.

Jordan Hill – Pick #8 (2009)

Hill is yet another player who is more accurately described as injury prone than unproductive, having produced very well, but only averaging 47 games per year (not including this year). In fact, over his last two years with the Lakers, Hill has produced more than 2 times as many wins per 48 minutes compared to the average NBA player.

Hill blocks shots and shoots at a slightly above average rate, but his productivity really boils down to his spectacular rebounding numbers, particularly on the offensive end. To wit, the average power forward this year is averaging 11.7 rebounds/48 minutes, 3.5 of which come on the offensive glass. As for Jordan Hill? He’s pulling down a cool 17 boards/48 minutes, 6.3 (!) of which come on the offensive glass.

Tristan Thompson – Pick #4 (2011)

With all this talk about Kyrie Irving trying to bolt the Cavs (ain’t happening, by the by) everyone seems to have neglected the Cavs player whose really deserving of an extension. I’ll give you a hint: he’s Canadian, switched shooting hands during the 2013 offseason and gets his shot blocked nearly as frequently as any player in NBA history. That’s right, it’s Ontario’s pride and joy, Tristan Thompson!

Thompson is yet another example of a player whose skill set (rebounding) simply doesn’t align with the casual fan’s concept of productivity. That said, over the past two seasons he’s been far more productive than his highly touted pick and roll partner and is far more deserving of an off-season extension.

Let me know who I left out in the comments section or via twitter!

All Wins Produced numbers are cordially borrowed from or


1. They’re quite rich, actually, until they spend it all 3-D diamond renderings of their own Predator-like faces (or Whoopi Goldberg, depending on your movie preference).

2. Unfortunately, because he was so goddam big, gangly, etc… Bradley rarely played an injury-free season and couldn’t play typical starter minutes, thereby decreasing his absolute productivity. Alas, such is life when you’re in the .00000001% of the population in terms of height.

3. This very well may be the only known time any player has significantly improved since joining a Wizards team that is hardly renowned for its player development (or for its front office acumen…or for its players skill level…). 

4. Why do critics speak so dismissively about players who have limited shooting ranges? Sure, it’s a problem, but it can be overcome by contributing in other ways, as evidenced by the number of highly productive players who were considered offensive burdens due to their limited range (Ben Wallace, Dennis Rodman, Dikembe Mutombo, etc…). You’d think these players had forced themselves on a female hotel worker in Colorado or something.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Simmer down Cleveland – Kyrie isn’t going anywhere, but you might be better off if he does.

Uncle Drew ain't going anywhere...unless Cleveland really wants a ring.

Kyrie Irving caused a stir in Cleveland when he became the latest athlete to hold the city hostage, threatening to leave for greener pastures. Although he never admitted as much on record, word on the street is that he’s already champing at the bit to leave the Paris of Ohio.

Lucky for Cleveland fans, I know two secrets that should put a smile on their faces (no, the secrets have nothing to do with the citizens of Cleveland no longer having to live in Cleveland (1)). 

OK, ready, Clevelanders? Know how Kyrie Irving is threatening to leave? Truth is, he has 0 say in the matter, so he isn’t going anywhere for the next couple years unless Cleveland chooses to move him. There you go, Clevelanders, I can see you’re smiling already!

OK, but now are you ready to really have your mind blown? The second secret is that it’s actually in Cleveland’s best interest to trade him now, because his market value (especially coming off the All-Star game MVP) exceeds his productivity.

Don’t believe me, guys who call this “hating?” Fine, I’ll walk you (slowly) through these 2 “secrets,” by playing another round of: “3 truths, ball don’t lie!”

Truth #1: Kyrie Irving cannot leave on his volition until 2016 at the earliest.        

Because the NBA is essentially a legalized cartel with no real competition for talent (like most major American sports league, mind you), the rules that govern the league are very much skewed in the favor of team owners.
Subsequently, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that dictates league rules has mechanisms in place to minimize any free-market activity that would take money out of the owners’ yacht funds and put it into the player’s “Roth IRA’s” (that’s what the players call their Bourré fund) (2). One such mechanism is the draft, in which players entering the league aren’t allowed to offer their services to the highest bidder (you know, like roughly every other industry in our capitalist democracy), but are rather selected by a team and offered what essentially amounts to a “take-it-or-leave-it” contract (3).
But wait, it gets better! This non-negotiable contract gives the team control of the player for a minimum of 2 years with team options that enable the team to control the player’s right for up to 4 years (4)!

In other words, Kyrie can’t even begin to think about ditching Cleveland until 2016 at the earliest.

Truth #2: The number of players who have declined a max-level contract extension to their rookie contract is a robust 0.

And you thought we were done discussing the slave trade that is the CBA – pshhh, lovely reader, it only gets better!

You see, the CBA has this other fun clause known as the “Early Bird Extension” that enables the team that drafted a given player to offer that player both a longer contract and more money than other teams are allowed. Moreover, the drafting team can offer the player that guaranteed money before competitors can even put in a bid. In the case of Kyrie, Cleveland will be able to offer him said max contract this summer and you can bet your favorite Pog slammer that he’ll take them up on their offer (5).

What makes me so confident that Irving will accept an extension? How about the fact that no player in modern history has ever turned it down? Because turning down guaranteed millions in a profession where careers are short and can end abruptly is loonier than the Pelicans mascot’s creepy face (pre-surgery).  

Truth #3: Kyrie Irving is a good, young player who may turn into a great player. But he is not the superstar many perceive him to be and likely never will be.

Kyrie Irving’s ungodly handles, unconscionable shooting range and frequent trips to the line make him a highly effective scorer. Unfortunately, just about everything else he does reeks of “meh.” Namely, his defense ranges from average to porous and his possession statistics (rebounds, assists, turnovers, steals, etc…) all scream “average.”

Add up the total package and you get a pretty good player who has a change to be very good player…but Kyrie ain’t a superstar and he probably never will be. To wit, I compared Kyrie’s first three NBA seasons to other perimeter players who entered the league at 19-20 years old. What you’ll see is that while Kyrie has performed better than some other players who went on to have highly productive seasons (and he’s one of the more productive high-usage perimeter players to enter the league at 19), he is nowhere near the superstar levels of the NBA’s best:

As you can clearly see, even accounting for the fact that Kyrie has a very high usage rate, he's much closer to the Tony Parker/Mike Conley star-level player than he is the Chris Paul/Rajon Rondo superstar-level performer.

To be clear, none of this is meant to imply that Kyrie Irving won’t be a valuable player for the foreseeable future. At 21, he’s still very young and again, his turnover rate can be somewhat justified by his high usage percentage, which portends well for this future. 

But at the end of the day, he’s not the current or burgeoning superstar much of the league perceives him to be.

If Cleveland really wants to capitalize on their best asset, they should sign Kyrie Irving to an extension…and then trade him to some sucker who thinks Irving will be the type of superstar who leads his team to a championship.  

(1) Kidding. By all accounts Cleveland is a lovely town...especially if you ask someone from Cleveland :)

(2) Thankfully for the players, NBA decision makers are dumb enough that a free market isn’t even necessary for teams to totally overpay players! There’s nothing better than having the league owners lockout the players because the owners can’t control their own absurd spending habits ;)

(3) This rule is cleverly veiled as a means of promoting parity (which the league incorrectly believes is important to attracting fans) as the league claims its improving competitive balance by rewarding the worst teams with the best picks (unfortunately, this doesn't work nearly as well as the media would have you believe). Because rewarding incompetence and undesirable behaviors (like losing on purpose to improve draft position) is how incentives are supposed to work…right?

(4) I’m referring to first round picks here. There are differing rules for 2nd round picks and undrafted free agents as well as additional minutiae that you’re welcome to dive into here.

(5) It should be noted that NOT all players accept the maximum number of years available. For instance, in 2006 Lebron James signed a 3-year max extension with the Cavaliers rather than the 5 year deal he was offered. Sorry Clevelanders, bad example L  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Danger of Following Bad Stats

“Some individuals use statistics as a drunk man uses lamp-posts — for support rather than for illumination.”

It’s an annual rite of passage around this time of year for NBA pundits to generate countless columns bemoaning the fact that certain players were undeservedly selected to the All-Star game while other more deserving candidates were robbed of the honor (1). I typically ignore this cacophony of kvetching (2) given that I’ve come to view All-Star selections as a reflection of popularity and Q score rather than production, plus I’ve been advised by my doctor/Father to cut down on the snarky tweets.

There was, however, one such post that piqued my interest. Said article aimed to determine the “25 Worst All-Stars” of the last ten years according to advanced metrics. Unfortunately, the advanced metric employed was none other than ESPN’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER), the ubiquitous algorithm developed by the renowned John Hollinger.

In scrutinizing this list of allegedly undeserving All-Stars, I was surprised by the number of egregious false positives: truly great and sometime elite players that PER deemed unimpressive. Rather than angrily tweeting at the author (doctor’s orders), I instead opted to use the flawed list to illustrate yet another truism that flies over the heads of most fans, even the more well-researched ones: not all advanced stats are good and many can even be (gasp!) misleading!

To illustrate this point, I’ve taken the players PER deemed the worst All-Stars of the last ten years and compared their PER that year to two other advanced metrics that are more comprehensive and more highly correlated with wins: Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) and Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) (3). What you’ll see is that while there are some players that all the metrics agree were merely average (or even below average) there are others on whom the metrics vehemently disagree:

*2012 WP48 not available 
What’s important to note about the players PER undervalues is that they each marvelously reflect the flaws in PER’s model: in overvaluing scoring totals and undervaluing the worth of a possession, PER rewards players who employ many possessions at the expense of more productive players who don’t shoot as frequently but boast high True Shooting Percentages (Allen), or absurd rebounding and shot-block rates (Wallace) or guards who do just about everything else at an elite level (Rondo, Kidd).

So what lesson should we take from this experiment, endearing reader? When it comes to advanced metrics, there is no democracy – certain measures are better than others and deserve greater input.
So the next time you read some pundit (looking at you, ESPN) point out this Player X has a surprisingly good PER or +/-, kindly explain that they are using statistics the way a drunk uses lamp posts – for support, not illumination.


1. And yet I can help myself: How the coaches selected the wildly overrated Iso-Joe Johnson over the far more deserving Kyle Lowry or Lance Stephenson AND missed out on both DeAndre Jordan (the league leader in rebounding and fg% on a great team!) and Anthony Davis (until injuries forced the latter into action) is literally mind-boggling to me. Seriously, I had to take off work for a week, my mind was so boggled. 

2. Great name for a Jewish rock group.

3. For the math behind why PER is an inferior metric, check out this FAQ.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Melo isn't scoring more or winning at all, but 2014 is easily his best year

It only took 10 years, but Melo has finally put it all together!
On January 24, 2014, Carmelo Anthony did the unimaginable: he temporarily distracted me from ruminating on Justin Bieber’s painfully predictable DUI. Carmelo accomplished this miracle by recording 62 points (on an insane 66% shooting) along with 13 rebounds and 0 turnovers (NSFW XXX: basketball porn).

Melo’s scintillating performance inspired me to first practice my jab step and then reflect deeply on what has been the most bizarre season in Melo’s divisive career; specifically, I laughed uproariously to myself about how Melo’s 2014 serves as the quintessential case study to elucidate two misunderstood NBA truisms.

    1. A player can improve his productivity without improving his scoring total or efficiency 

    2. Evaluating the performance of an individual by looking at his team performance is      
        noisy at best, misleading at worst and almost always just plain asinine.  

So how does Carmelo’s 2014 season illustrate the above axioms? Come along with me, charming reader, as we explore this question by playing the 2nd best game ever invented (1), “3 truths, ball don’t lie:”

Truth #1: This season, Carmelo’s scoring rate and efficiency are right around his career averages.

Truth #2: Carmelo’s Knicks are playing poorly and not meeting (unrealistically high) expectations.

Truth #3: Carmelo Anthony is undoubtedly playing the best ball of his career…and it’s not even close.

Wasn’t that fun?! We can play again soon (promise!); but first, let’s reconcile the coexistence of these 3 seemingly conflicting truths and then explore how they demonstrate that Carmelo’s having his best year despite not improving his scoring and playing for an underperforming team.


Truth #1: This season, Carmelo’s scoring rate and efficiency are right around his career averages.

Whether you prefer conventional or advanced statistics (or swing both ways), the numbers tell a similar story: aside from his fantastic 3-point shooting percentage (regression much?), Melo’s 2014 scoring numbers are only slightly above his career norms. To wit, before he went off for his big night, Melo’s scoring rate was at exactly his career average (24.8 points/36 minutes) and his efficiency hadn’t really changed, with both his True Shooting percentage (TS%) and effective field goal percentages (eFG%) barely edging out career norms

Truth #2: Carmelo’s Knicks are playing poorly and not meeting (unrealistically high) expectations.

Although some knew better, the general consensus was that this Knicks team, coming off of a 51-win season, was at the bare minimum a top-6 playoff team who might even steal a game or two off the Heat or Pacers. Well, we’re more than halfway through the season and the discrepancy between the Knicks’ projected win totals and their actual record is massive, leading many to determine that the Knicks (and subsequently Carmelo) have underperformed, particularly since the team plays in an Eastern conference that is so decrepit the league is considering canceling it next season in lieu of 80’s reruns (kidding… I hope).

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that these expectations were unreasonable to begin with (2) and that injuries, particularly Tyson Chandler’s annual injury vakatsye (3), have cost the team wins. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the Knicks have greatly underwhelmed the mainstream media and fans this season and moreover, that anyone who chooses to measure a player’s performance according to his team’s performance would have to conclude that this is far from the best season of Melo’s career. 

Truth #3: Carmelo Anthony is undoubtedly playing the best ball of his career…and it’s not even close.

Carmelo Anthony is one of the more polarizing players in recent NBA history. For the majority of fans and pundits, Melo is perceived as an elite scoring savant who combines elegant footwork, overpowering physicality and a soft shooting touch to overwhelm any and all defenses. When he’s at his best, like he was during his 62 point outburst, Melo’s amalgamation of power and grace manifests in a dominant player who can seemingly score at will.

For statheads, however, Melo has long represented all that is misunderstood about peachball. Sure, he’s always scored a lot of points, but Melo has historically done so with middling efficiency and without offering much additional value to his team. 

This year, however, has been different. Melo’s overall productivity (WP48) in 2014 is 155% better than his career average and 56% better than his 2nd best year! 

What’s particularly strange about this improvement (aside from the fact that it’s happening at an age at which players tend to decline) is that Melo has done it not with his offense, but by doing everything else better:

 Bold = Career Best

As the above table illustrates, Melo has upped his productivity to a career high not by scoring more or more efficiently; rather, Melo’s upped his productivity by improving his possession stats - you know, those “little” things that determine who wins and loses. 

So the next time an ignorant coward proclaims that basketball is strictly about “getting buckets” or that player X can’t be that good because his team is underperforming, tell said dum-dum that they are moronic, then calmly point to Melo’s bizarro 2014 season as exhibit A of their naiveté. 

1. For those who are curious, studies show that the best game ever was actually Mario Tennis for N-64. It’s science.  

2. This is what happens when you lose players who produce wins and replace them with players who are so bad they produce negative wins.

3. Don’t get me started on the asshats who use injury-prone players’ absences as an excuse for a team’s poor performance. Tyson Chandler has a history of injuries and an enormous body - it’s safe to assume he’s going to miss games every year for the rest of his career, so plan accordingly and quit complaining! As far as I’m concerned, this rule applies to the following impact players: Tyson Chandler, Ginobili, Wade, Eric Gordon, Curry and Bogut. Leave your recommendations in the comments section or tweet at me!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Demystifying the destructive myth of the “Shot Creator”

While recently reading an ESPN piece by Kirk Goldsberry, the brilliant and thought-provoking spatial analytical guru, I came across a seemingly innocuous sentence that was so galling, I was impelled to stop reading, turn down my Puddle of Mudd compilation and tweet my disgust:

“I always say that the hardest part about shooting in the NBA is actually getting a shot off, something normal people and many NBA players have trouble doing.” – Kirk Goldsberry

Given Mr. Goldsberry’s impressive CV, I’m confident in declaring that this is likely the dumbest thing he has ever written. You see, smart, attractive, analytically-minded reader - next to committing a turnover, taking a field goal attempt is literally the easiest action any player can make on offense that’s tracked in the boxscore. Moreover, there has literally never been a player in history who was talented enough to play in the NBA, yet unable to “get a shot off.” For Christsakes, Tyrone Muggsy Fucking Bogues averaged 7 field goal attempts per game for his career, and he’s no bigger than your standard squirtle (1)!

When a Squirtle gains enough EXP points it evolves into a Muggsy Bogues!

Unfortunately, Goldsberry is hardly unique in exaggerating the skill needed to take a shot. In fact, this facacta belief is so widespread among pundits, the media and therefore fans that it has culminated in the “Shot Creator” myth, in which high volume shooters are credited with “creating” the shots they take. While this myth and its accompanying narrative may sound like a harmless misunderstanding, it has actually damaged the game by cultivating generations of misinformed fans, journalists and coaches and encouraging the widespread practice of an isolation-heavy NBA offensive “system” that is inefficient at best and downright repelling at worst. But before we can dig into the impact of this myth, let’s briefly dive into its flawed logical roots.

The crux of the “Shot Creator” myth can be traced two basic issues:
  1.     The media’s fetish for raw point totals
  2.     Credit (rather than a penalty) being given to a player for taking a shot

The first issue is fairly simple. The mainstream media tends to emphasize the number of points a player scores far more than the efficiency with which the player scored said points. This leads to inefficient high-volume scorers getting far more credit than they deserve.

The roots of the second issue, however, are far more complex in nature. Essentially, players are given credit for choosing to take a shot, when in actuality players should be docked credit for spending a precious team resource (a possession). This is because, unless a player generates a shot attempt off a defensive steal or an offensive rebound, he really hasn’t “created” a shot; rather he has chosen to employ his team’s possession. And yet, pundits, the mainstream media and consequently fans, consistently overvalue high-volume low efficiency scorers by crediting them for the points they score, without docking credit for the resource (a possession) that they’ve expended!

So now that we’ve seen that the roots of the “Shot Creator” myth can be traced to an obsession with point totals and misunderstanding of how field goal attempts should be (dis)credited, let’s see how the myth has hurt NBA basketball.

Well, first off, it’s led to the aforesaid “dumbing down” of NBA fans, coaches and media. Want proof? Check out this list of players who were selected for an NBA All-Star game and try not to laugh:

All-Star Year
WS/48 below average (.100)
Antoine Walker
Allen Iverson
Kevin Duckworth
Juwan Howard
Latrell Sprewell
Chris Kaman
Jrue Holiday
Joe Johnson
Glenn Robinson
Vin Baker
Mitch Richmond

Notice a trend? Each of these players took a ton of shots and scored a lot of points, but produced a Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) below the NBA average of .100. And yet, these high-scoring players were rewarded for their subpar play by being honored as one of the world’s best players!  
But glorifying players who don’t deserve it is not the only problem the “Shot Creator” myth has perpetuated. Additionally, the “Shot Creator” myth has led far too many teams to overvalue their high volume “Shot Creators” and subsequently encouraged these naive teams to run inefficient, ugly, isolation-heavy offenses that emphasize low-percentage shots from “Shot Creators” in lieu of higher percentage shots produced by dynamic, team basketball. For instance, is anyone really that surprised that the Raptors offense has exploded since it traded Rudy Gay and redistributed his low-efficiency isolation shot attempts to more efficient team-oriented sets? In fact, forget efficiency – do you think any Atlanta fans miss watching Iso-Joe pound the ball into the ground for 15 seconds before taking a contested mid-range jumper? Didn’t think so.

So the next time you hear someone reference a “Shot Creator” or extol the value of a low-efficiency, high-volume scorer, tell them to quiet down and listen. Then calmly explain to that person that he or she is the reason NBA basketball is imperfect. 


1. Now, I will acknowledge that there are some players who are so inefficient at scoring that they choose to refrain from shooting, but this is very different from being unable to shoot. Moreover, this choice is likely influenced by their coach who would stop playing them if they shot frequently. To wit, what player in their right mind doesn’t want to shoot and accrue all the money and glory that follows? Have you ever heard of a player demanding a smaller role on offense?