DeAndre Jordan and the Crunch Time Conundrum

by Blake Murphy 26. November 2012 19:01

DeAndre Jordan is a worse free throw shooter than some players are three-point shooters.

With a 44% career free throw rate, Jordan is a huge liability late in close games, enough so that coach Vinny del Negro has to be wary of playing him in such situations.

In fact, Jordan averages 26.5 minutes per game but has played just 4.5 minutes per fourth quarter, well below what you’d expect for a starter and one of a team’s core players. He’s been protected on the offensive end such that he’s actually yet to take a free throw in the fourth quarter, and has only been afforded 0.5 field goal attempts per fourth quarter. Basically, when Jordan plays in the fourth, he is there for defense only.

I was interested to see if Jordan (a) is in a unique situation with limited fourth quarter minutes and (b) should be a better free throw shooter given his shooting rates elsewhere.

Is this unique?

For the first point, I used NBA.com’s Advanced Stats Tool to find players in “crunch time” (last five minutes, ahead or behind five points) who had the lowest usage rate.

We are, of course, dealing with very small samples at this point in the year, so Jordan is one of many players with a miniscule usage rate in small crunch time minutes. He’s certainly not unique in this regard, but it warrants further and more detailed study controlling for FT%, position, etc.

Should he be better?

For the second part, I had planned to compare Jordan’s shooting percentages from different distances and come up with a sort of “expected FT%.” However, Jordan shoots so exclusively inside of five feet that the exercise would have been pointless.

Just how limited is Jordan’s range? Well, he’s taken just 23 shots outside of five feet this season, and just five outside of nine feet. He’s a 65% shooter within five feet and shot 66% from there last year (when he took just 32 shots outside of five feet and just 10 outside of nine feet). It makes sense for him to stay there since he’s so effective, and the samples are too small to know if he’d be any good from elsewhere (anecdotally, I doubt he would).

Are they right to bench him?

So the question for the Clippers becomes whether Jordan’s defense (and other offensive tools, such as screen settings, providing the threat of post offense, etc) is worth enough to keep him on the floor despite his free throw shooting.

The Clippers are actually better offensively with Jordan on the court, by 5.5 points per 100 possessions, but this is almost certainly due to him spending all of his time with strong teammates. Defensively, the team rebounds and blocks slightly better with Jordan on the floor but allows a significantly higher eFG%. The net effect is that the Clippers have been 7.1 points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Jordan off the floor.

Overall, the Clippers have been +4.3 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on and +5.9 with him off. He’s a slight net loss if we don’t control for his teammates, which is nearly impossible since he’s played 332 of his 344 minutes with Chris Paul.

Basically, you can’t fault Vinny for gluing him to the bench when the game is on the line. He hasn’t proven enough that he’s a better option than Turiaf, Hollins, or a smaller lineup, and until he can more reliably hit the freebies or more definitively prove himself a defensive presence, there’s not enough evidence to cry foul on del Negro.

And even if you could cry foul, Jordan would likely miss the free throws.

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Defense and the "Fifth Factor"

by Blake Murphy 25. November 2012 14:13

On a recent Raptors Republic podcast, a show I host each week, one of the panellists suggested that he thought the Raptors’ decline in defense may have been due to them playing at a faster pace this season.

No, the analysis wasn’t based on a faulty mathematical basis – he was not mistaking, as many did during the D’Antoni-era in Phoenix, that a faster pace led to more points and more points were indicative of a bad defensive unit. Instead, he was suggesting that, even for an efficiency stat like defensive rating, pace could still have an impact.

It’s a fair point. Basically, if a team was successful slowing the game down and forcing teams to operate in the half court more, speeding up the game could expose things like poor transition defense, less capable individual defenders, and more.

So, taking his comment and running with it, I pulled some defensive data from Basketball Reference for the past few seasons, dating back to 2007-08. I was first interested to see if teams who played at a faster pace tended to have a worse Defensive Rating. The relationship between pace and defensive rating is shown in the graph below – the relationship had a correlation of 0.29 and an R2 of 9%. The p-value was insignificant, meaning that, even though the relationship isn’t strong, it still exists, and faster-paced teams do tend to be of poorer quality on defense.

I found this to be a bit interesting, as my initial assumption was that, while my panelist’s argument made sense intuitively, pace is normally not discussed as a factor in defensive rating. In fact, the “four factors” that are most commonly discussed are Opponent’s Effective FG% (eFG%), Turnover Percentage (TOV%), Defensive Rebound Rate (DRB%) and Free Throws per Field Goal Attempts (FT/FGA). The “Four Factors” of defense had individual correlations with Defensive Rating as follows.

You can see from the table that an opponent’s eFG% has by far the strongest correlation with Defensive Rating, which makes obvious sense. Adding pace to our “Four Factors” to give us a “Five Factors” model adds very little to our understanding of what makes a good defense, so it seems a waste.

However, is it possible that pace has an impact on eFG%? This would be helpful, since a team looking to improve its Defensive Rating can’t really just say “get more stops” to improve defense. Instead, if pace has an obvious impact on eFG%, teams can then look to slow things down to improve their defense, along with forcing more turnovers, fouling less, and doing a better job on the boards (essentially, I wanted to know if we can replace “get more stops” with a more practical suggestion for teams).

Like with pace and Defensive Rating, we see a somewhat weak but statistically significant relationship. Thus, we can safely suggest to coaches that slowing down the pace should have a small positive impact on defensive rating.

Thus, our “Four Factors” should now be: *Defensive Rebound Rate – crash your own boards harder, box out more, leak out less *Turnover Rate – force more turnovers *Free Throw Rate – send teams to the line less *eFG% - get more stops, which can be aided by slowing down the pace

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Jeremy Lin's Shooting Woes

by Omar Shaik 23. November 2012 19:10

When Jeremy Lin got injured earlier this year, I believed he had the skills to make a strong return. In his brief but successful stint last season, Lin did not rely solely on athleticism, as many NBA players do. Instead, Lin was taking advantage of a very strong jump shot. The threat of his jump shot often forced players to play up on him, which helped Lin to get by perimeter defenders more easily. This has been Chris Paul's formula for success since returning from injury, and it's allowed Steve Nash to remain elite offensively despite slowing down with age.

Last season, Lin ranked in the top-7 in the NBA among point guards in FG% from 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet. He was more accurate from these distances than many household names, such as Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook. He demonstrated a jump shot that deserved to be respected, and teams adjusted accordingly.

After shooting a spectacular 45.9% on 2-point jump shots through his first 23 games as a starter last year, Lin shot 20% on 2-point jump shots through his last three games. The suddenly awful jump shot seemed inexplicable at the time, but it was passed off as a brief shooting slump. After all, three games are nearly meaningless statistically. Later, however, an MRI revealed that Lin had a torn meniscus, which sidelined him for six months. It was possible that his awful shooting was related to this injury.

Thus, there were no major red-flags regarding Lin's jump shot coming into this season, if looking only at his NBA resume. Everyone knew about the turnovers, but he has managed to take care of the ball better than last season (18% turnover percent, down from 21%). His assist percent to turnover percent ratio is not that different from the ratios belonging to Mike Conley and Brandon Jennings. Despite this improvement, he's been a much worse player; the crux of his offensive repertoire, his jump shot, has disappeared.

What started as a three-game problem last season has now extended through twelve games this year. Lin is shooting 22% on jump shots this season, and it doesn't get any prettier regardless of how you break it down.

Of the 16 jump shots Lin has made this season, 11 have been assisted. That may not sound strange, until you consider that only 12 of his 75(!) 2-point jump shots last season were assisted. Last season's Lin possessed a very rare skill, which is precisely why I thought he could bounce back strong from his injury.

He had the ability to make jump shots off the dribble at a very high clip, which is arguably the most difficult thing to do in the NBA. This season, Lin can't hit any kind of jump shots. He's 2 for 17 on short jumpers, and he never was a great 3-point shooter. He's shooting terribly whether he spots up or pulls up off the dribble.

It is possible that Lin simply isn't healthy yet, as some suggested at the start of the season. Maybe his problems are psychosomatic; perhaps the injury is holding him back mentally more than physically. Or maybe Lin isn't very good. After all, Linsanity lasted about 26 games, and Lin wasn't very good at the end of that stretch, as I mentioned earlier. It is still too early in this season, and in Lin's career, to truly know which is correct. I know many in the NBA and in New York are rooting for Lin to be awful, but I thoroughly enjoyed his rise from obscurity to prominence last season. For Lin to experience success again, he has to start by regaining the shooting success he had last season.

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The Rare Decline of Tyreke Evans

by Blake Murphy 21. November 2012 07:13

Tyreke Evans is putting himself among some unique company. In this case, I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Evans currently has the unique distinction of being one of a small group of players in the three-point era to have failed to match his rookie performance in his next three seasons.

That is, Evans looks to be one of a rare group of players to peak as a rookie.

To determine this, I used Basketball-Reference’s Player Season Finder to find all qualified rookies (in terms of minutes) in the three-point era. I then pulled the second, third and fourth seasons for each of these players to determine who else had failed to meet the bar they set as a rookie.

To avoid including great players who may have fluctuated around a strong level of play, I took out all players who had a Win Shares Per 48 (WS/48) of greater than 0.100 in subsequent seasons (this is a somewhat random cut off, as all cut offs are, but 0.100 roughly splits the league at 150 players). In essence, I eliminated any players who remained “starting quality” beyond their rookie years to find players who began as capable rookies but failed to remain effective.

For Evans, he appeared to be a superstar in the making as a rookie. He was just the fourth player ever to average 20-5-5 as a rookie, joining Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson. He had an 18.2 Player Efficiency Rating and was worth 5.4 wins according to Basketball-Reference. In his sophomore year, though, he fell off a cliff, coming in at just 1.6 wins, a 14.4 PER, and declining efficiency across the board. He had a slight rebound to 2.7 wins and a 16.4 PER last year, though his rates didn’t match his rookie season. And so far this year, his WS/48 is nearly identical to his terrible sophomore year, with his PER at a career low 13.9.

So how rare is it for a player to appear a potential star as a rookie, only to become a hardly usable player in the three years thereafter?

I found eight such players, and the list isn’t pretty.

Sam Mitchell - a 26-year old rookie, Mitchell basically settled in as who he would be right away, though he would have small spikes in Year 6 and Year 9.

Manute Bol - had his highest WS/48 as a rookie and only remained an effective player for his first three seasons, primarily since his terrible offense negated much of his shot-blocking prowess.

Ron Mercer - using basic stats, he was an adequate player for some time, but advanced stats show that his usefulness was based almost entirely on volume. He would never post a league-average PER and his rookie season was by far his best in terms of total contributions (WS/48).

Courtney Lee - has remained on the periphery of usefulness thanks to some decent defensive acumen and floor spacing, but his rookie season was his best thus far. In his fifth year, the Celtics mark his fourth team and, while he’s off to a very rough start, there’s certainly evidence he can stick as an outside-shooting defensive rotation player.

Popeye Jones - had a great rookie season and didn’t drop off too much in subsequent years, though his fifth season (with the Raptors, of course) was an injury-shortened disaster. He bounced back afterwards and essentially produced at the same level in Years 1-4 and Years 6-9, so he probably doesn’t fit here.

Herb Williams - had a spike after the fourth year with a strong fifth and sixth season, but once again fell off until an odd resurgence in small-minute efficiency with the Knicks at age 34. If he were a guard, he’d be a nice glimmer of hope for Kings fans, but it’s not clear if a guard has the same potential for a bounce back.

Danny Vranes - great as a rookie, good as a sophomore, okay as a junior, and on his way out of the league shortly after. He fits the narrative of a rookie-peaker best, enjoying a steady decline thereafter.

Tyreke Evans - his fourth year isn’t done so maybe it’s not fair to include him yet. But a few notes on how Evans has changed since his rookie year, courtesy of his Hoopdata page:

*In Evans worst seasons, he’s shot more from 16-23 feet. Not a surprise here, as he is a terrible shooter from this range, hovering around 30%. It’s probably in his best interest to give up the long-two pull-up (less than 20% of these shots are assisted).

*Evans hovers around 60% at the rim but, not surprisingly, got there much less often in his two down years. This has also led to steadily declining free throw rates.

*He’s decided to try and get himself going more this year, posting a career-low assist rate of 17%. He has also used his penetrating ability to create for others less, assisting on only half as many threes as usual.

So not only is Evans in unique company as a player who peaked as a rookie, but he also appears to be trending in the wrong direction. This isn’t a matter of shots just not falling, but an apparently declining skill set and an eroding basketball IQ.

There’s certainly still time for Evans to turn things around, but teams should be wary of tendering him a sizable restricted free agent contract this summer unless he shows a turnaround between now and then.

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Are the New York Knicks For Real?

by Omar Shaik 16. November 2012 19:03

While it's still early in the NBA season, the New York Knicks have looked very impressive so far. Their performance is even more impressive when you factor in the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy on the NYC metropolitan area, prompting the cancellation of the Knicks' season opener against the Brooklyn Nets. Indeed, when the Knicks finally got on the court and blew out the Miami Heat, I wondered whether their energetic, feisty performance was a cathartic release of the city's frustration stemming from the hurricane. New Yorkers were in misery, and the Knicks were determined to give them something to celebrate.

As the Knicks continued to blow out 2011 playoff teams, my original hypothesis became increasingly less likely. No, the Knicks aren't simply playing hard for the beleaguered Sandy victims; they simply are very good. They are dominating on both ends, coming in first in Points Scored per 100 possessions and second in Points Allowed per 100 possessions through six games. They were the first team in the last 25 years to start 5-0 with double-digit victories. After narrowly defeating the Spurs on the road in a tough, playoff-like atmosphere, their average margin of victory is now 13.67 points, which is the best differential in the NBA. They are winning by the largest average margin in the NBA despite having played one of the toughest schedules. Their SRS (Simple Rating System), which incorporates both schedule strength and margin of victory, is an incredibly high 15.13, albeit only through six games. For comparison, the best full season SRS in NBA history belongs to the famous 72-win '96 Bulls, at 11.80.

Does this mean the Knicks are better than the '96 Bulls? Not even close in all likelihood, but it provides a good indication of just how shockingly dominant they've been in this young season. I say shockingly because it has been my conviction that any team built around Carmelo Anthony, because of his over-commitment to offense and under-commitment to defense, will always have an upper limit on its potential success. This conviction has served me well for the last 9 years, as Anthony's teams have alternated between mild success and unmitigated disaster.

This year could finally buck this trend. New York brought in multiple reputed defenders that could fit seamlessly into Coach Mike Woodson's defensive system, which was already one of the best defenses in the NBA last year. NBA teams primarily pay for points per game, so players who carry tremendous defensive value can often be signed for bargain-bin prices. Ronnie Brewer holds opposing players to a 36.1% FG%, according to Synergy Sports Technology, yet he's only costing the Knicks $1 million this season. To put Brewer's defense into context, note that All-NBA defender LeBron James is allowing players to shoot 31.3% against him.

Despite fielding one of the best defenses in the NBA last year, the Knicks parted with some of their worst defenders, such as Mike Bibby, Toney Douglas, and Bill Walker. They replaced them with better defenders in Brewer, Kidd, and Pablo Prigioni. Although Prigioni is new to the NBA, he has held opposing players to a 41% FG% so far, the same as Jason Kidd. The defensive emphasis from Coach Woodson has also influenced notoriously lazy defenders such as Carmelo, Felton, and J.R. Smith to buy in, at least so far. Indeed, Felton is holding opposing players to an even lower FG% than Brewer, at 30.9%, while Carmelo is holding players to a commendable 39%. Even JR Smith has been active defensively, as opposing players shoot 43% against him.

This defensive solidarity will be tested when Amare Stoudemire returns to action. Last year, the Knicks were significantly better with Carmelo, without Amare (+6.3 differential), than when they played together (-1.8 differential). Amare has suffered from major leg injuries throughout his career, which has sapped his lateral mobility, negatively affecting his defense. It could be a challenge for New York to maintain its league-leading defense with Amare playing extensive minutes. In addition, because some Knicks players are on the wrong side of 35, durability could become a concern, and their defensive tenacity could wane as the season moves along. It is also possible that the players' interest in exerting energy defensively could decline, too. This was a factor in their game against Orlando on Tuesday night, in which Carmelo repeatedly left shooters open and lost his player on back-cuts. This prompted Coach Woodson to call Carmelo over to scold him for these lapses, so it is uncertain whether Carmelo will actually play this level of defense for a whole year.

Even though the Knicks' defense was built by the GM to last, the offense remains unproven. Many players are scoring more accurately than they ever have. Jason Kidd shot 36% from the field over the last 2 seasons, and is somehow currently shooting 59%. This will not continue. Likewise, Ronnie Brewer is shooting 47% from 3, even though he has always struggled with his jump shot in the past. Ultimately, an offense that features Carmelo (Career FG% = 45.6%), Felton (41.2%), and J.R. Smith (42.8%) taking 50 shots a game is not likely to maintain its current top-7 FG% of 56%. In fact, last year the Knicks shot 44% as a team (18th in the NBA) with many of the same key players, so time will tell if things come back to Earth in New York.

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