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? 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

4 reasons the Trailblazers should feel free to make summer vacation plans

During my recent Birthright trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to meet two gentlemen from Portland, OR. Despite being knee-deep in culture, history and hummus, our conversation quickly turned to the Trail Blazers. While my two new friends extolled the virtues of LaMarcus Aldridge’s sweet (albeit inefficient) midrange game and predicted great success for the team going forward, they were perplexed by my tepid forecast:

“2nd round at best?!” they yelled at me (and the rest of the population visiting the Western Wall). “Are you insane or a hater? The Blazers are a contender!”

After adjusting my disheveled kippah and assuring the guards at the Wall that there was not a problem, I gave my friends four reasons the Trail Blazers should be thrilled with their surprisingly successful season but not expect it to extend into May:
    1. The Blazers aren’t as good as their record

Cheers to Arturo Galleti (@arturogalletti) and the good folks at for putting together this fantastic chart. All their material is must-read.

To start, Portland’s current record is due for a correction. Win/loss records are a fickle beast greatly impacted by randomness and luck. Subsequently, predicting future performance by strictly measuring wins and losses is at best myopic and at worst misleading. Thankfully, to combat this unpredictability, we have a measure known as “Pythagorean expectation,” or in laymen’s terms, “expected win-loss record.” This metric leverages a number of key stats (e.g. opponent’s played, win/loss margin, etc…) to determine the number of games a team was “supposed” to win, minus luck and randomness.

So what do we see when we looks at Portland’s expected record? Portland, even when they’re playing at their Kilimanjaro (ceiling does not do it justice) is one of the luckiest teams in the league! Therefore, even if the Blazers do continue to play at their current blistering pace (more on this in a minute) we should expect some regression.

2. The offense will slow down

So the Blazers have won a few more games than they “should” have, is that all we’re worried about? Well, not exactly – in addition to their record, their performance, primarily on offense, is due for regression as well. Although they are torching the league right now, there are two disconcerting aspects of the Blazers offense that should make fans nervous:


  • They’re reliant on jump shooting: The Blazers shoot a lot of jumpers and don’t get to the rim. they are 23rd in the league in shot attempts from 0-5 feet** and consequently 22nd in FT attempt rate (FT/FG). This reliance on jump shooting is fine when you’re flinging the 2nd most 3-point attempts/100 possessions and hitting them at the highest percentage in the league, but therein lies the second problem
  • And that jump-shooting is ripe for regression The Blazers have a free-flowing offense and good 3-point shooters, but even if the whole team wears 3-point goggles they won’t continue to shoot 4% better on 3’s than the NBA average. A closer look at the overachieving 3-point shooting of Portland’s top chuckers supports this claim, as the Blazers most frequent 3-point shooters are hitting well above their weight and are due for some regression:
3. Portland is already playing its playoff rotation!

A glance at the top 9 teams in the Western conference shows that the Trailblazers are allocating a greater percentage of minutes to their top 8 players than are their peers:

Although I’m not overly anxious about Portland tiring out its best players, this graphic does speak to two important concerns:

  • The Blazers have avoided the injury bug to a startling degree: Given that injuries are pretty random (unless you have the mystical Phoenix Suns training stuff) it’s safe to assume Portland is not better at avoiding injuries than competitors and to wonder what will happen to Portland when it suffers its first injury.
  • They can't shorten their rotation any more: The most crucial variable differentiating playoff basketball from regular season basketball is the percentage of minutes teams allocate to top performers. Come playoff time, teams shorten their rotations and typically ride their best ~7 players for the whole game. This reallocation of minutes from players 8-10 to players 1-7 enables teams to kick their game up a notch. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they’ve already used that bullet, so when other teams are hitting their NOS button, Portland will be stuck Tokyo Drifting(1).

     4. The Western conference is really, really (really) good!

Even if I’m wrong about the expected regular season regression (interestingly, I’ve been wrong many times before), the Blazers are hardly out of the woods.

Let’s be optimistic and assume the Blazers continue to outperform their expected win/loss record, keep up their hot shooting and avoid injuries. Even if the Blazers manage all of this and secure the 3 or 4 seed, they’ll basically earn a coin toss series against one of the West’s stacked lower seeds (Minnesota, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, etc…) who will be playing their stronger playoff rotation. Even if they then win that coin toss (man, a lot has gone right for these theoretical Blazers!) they’ll have earned a cordial invite to get trounced by one of the West’s top seeds.

Call me a crazy, call me a “hater,” hell, you can even call me Al. But when it comes to the Blazers maintaining their success, I’m not buying.

Are you?


1. I stopped watching those movies after the first one - apologies if my reference makes no sense.