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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Interesting Results in NBA GM Survey

NBA general managers annually participate in a poll about league-wide issues prior to the season. You can check out most of the questions and answers here; you will have to do some extra pointing and clicking because NBA.com apparently does not possess the necessary editorial and/or technical know-how to place all of the material coherently on one page (I had a dream that they hired some competent editors but then I woke up and nothing had changed).

Blowhard commentators and fans make a lot of declarations about who is the best player in the NBA in various categories but GMs make their livings figuring out such things. That is not to say that the GMs' evaluations are perfect but their judgments are more informed than those made by people who only see part of the picture or whose statements are shaped by ignorance and/or their rooting interests. It is interesting to see how the NBA looks from the perspective of the 30 people who helm the league's franchises.

The Lakers are the choice as the team most likely to win the 2009 championship, receiving 46.2% of the votes, followed by the Celtics (19.2%), the Hornets (11.5%), the Rockets (7.7%) and the Spurs (7.7%). The Pistons and Magic were the only other teams who received consideration.

Kevin Garnett easily is the GMs' choice as the best defensive player in the league, capturing 44.4% of the vote, doubling second place finisher Ron Artest's total (22.2%). Kobe Bryant ranked third.

When only perimeter defense is considered, Bruce Bowen topped the charts, Bryant ranked second and Artest came in third, which is a bit odd since Artest finished ahead of Bryant overall but neither player ranked among the top interior defenders (Kevin Garnett ranked first in that area, with Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard tying for second); perhaps Artest finished ahead of Bryant in the overall defensive voting because he can guard four different positions while Bryant can guard three different positions.

Bryant edged out Artest, Bowen and Rajon Rondo (three way tie for second) as the best on-ball defender in the NBA. Allen Iverson led the way in terms of defending passing lanes, with Trevor Ariza and Caron Butler tying for second and Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul tying for fourth-sixth.

Artest was voted the toughest player in the NBA (37.0%), followed by Bryant (14.8%). A total of 13 players received at least one vote in this category.

Bryant had two of the biggest landslide wins in the voting: he received 88.9% of the votes for the player you would most want to take a shot with the game on the line (Gilbert Arenas, James and Paul Pierce were the only other players to receive any votes). This is the seventh straight year that Bryant has won this category. Bryant received 81.5% of the votes for being the best player at getting his own shot. Tracy McGrady came in second (7.4%), with Manu Ginobili, Ben Gordon and LeBron James also receiving votes.

Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times reported that most of the GMs (56%) expect James to win the MVP, with Bryant (37%) and Chris Paul (7%) receiving the remaining votes. Apparently, NBA.com forgot to include that portion of the ballot when they posted the results; you cannot find those numbers at the NBA.com link that I provided above. It turns out that NBA Media Central, which can only be accessed by media members, has the complete survey results and they managed to place them all on one document; consulting that source, I not only found the MVP numbers that Bresnahan mentioned but I also discovered that James easily wins as the player who GMs would choose first if they were starting a franchise today (66.7%), with Bryant finishing second (18.5%). However, it is obvious that this has more to do with James' youth than a skill set comparison with Bryant, because the GMs decisively chose Bryant as the player who forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments (63.0%), with James placing second (25.9%). Why would the GMs say that James will win the MVP if Bryant is the most difficult player to coach against? This should also be obvious: the GMs were not asked who they expect to be the best player but rather who they expect to win the MVP; James has inherited from Bryant the distinction of being the best active player who has not won the MVP and, barring an injury to James or an absolutely mind-blowing season by Bryant, I also expect James to win the MVP, even though James will probably still objectively be the second best player in the league behind Bryant.

Bryant and James each received 92% of the votes for best player at their position (shooting guard and small forward respectively). Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade received the only other votes at shooting guard, while Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce received the remaining votes at small forward.

Paul (88.9%) beat out Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Deron Williams as the league's best point guard.

Tim Duncan (51.9%) still is considered the best power forward, beating out Garnett (25.9%), Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard.

Howard (55.6%) won as the best center, finishing ahead of Yao Ming (25.9%) and Duncan. Howard and Duncan apparently were the only players who received votes at two different positions.

James received 59.3% of the votes for most athletic player in the NBA, with Josh Smith (22.2%) ranking a distant second. Bryant, Shawn Marion, Jamario Moon, Dwyane Wade and Gerald Wallace also received votes.

Ray Allen (61.1%) decisively won the election for best shooter, followed by Jason Kapono (14.8%), Peja Stojakovic, Kyle Korver and Michael Redd. I am surprised that Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki did not receive more consideration.

Gregg Popovich is the landslide winner as the best coach (53.8%), with Phil Jackson ranking second (23.1%). It is pretty clear exactly how the GMs made that determination: Jackson placed first as a manager/motivator (Popovich is second) but Popovich is the leader in terms of making in-game adjustments while Jackson did not crack the top five in that area. Popovich also won decisively as the best coach in the last two minutes of the game, while Jackson tied for third. Larry Brown ranked second in both of the latter categories.

What do all of these numbers and rankings tell us? The categories that are most interesting to look at are the ones involving individual defense, creating a shot under pressure and defining who the league's best player is. Media members and fans sometimes suggest that Kobe Bryant is overrated as a defender but knowledgeable basketball observers do not agree with that assessment:

1) The NBA's head coaches annually vote Bryant to the All-Defensive Team.
2) The NBA's GMs consistently list Bryant as one of the league's top defenders.
3) Everyone associated with Team USA--from managing director Jerry Colangelo to the coaching staff to the other players--mentioned that Bryant's defensive performance was a key factor in returning the Olympic gold medal to the United States.

The main reasonable objection that is sometimes brought up about Bryant's defense is that he carries such a heavy offensive burden for the Lakers that he does not play lockdown defense for 40 minutes per game but that he chooses his spots. It is undeniable that Bryant could more readily play lockdown defense in a handful of Olympic games at 20-25 mpg than he could in 82 regular season games at 40 mpg but I would like to know who exactly in the NBA plays lockdown defense for 40 mpg during 82 games a year; that is an unrealistic standard to expect from anyone.

Bryant's decisive victories in the balloting concerning creating one's own shot and taking a last second shot are tributes to how fundamentally sound his game is. Bryant is not the most athletic or explosive player in the game--though he still has plenty of explosiveness left--but he is rightly considered to be a far deadlier late game option than anyone else and the reason for that is that Bryant's footwork, fakes, shooting range, dribbling skills and ability to move without the ball make him a scoring threat from anywhere on the court.

As noted above, the GMs expect James to win the 2009 MVP over Bryant but by a significantly wider margin they selected Bryant over James as the player who creates the most problems for opposing coaches. The much younger James understandably gets the nod over Bryant as the best player to build a franchise around but it is actually a tribute to Bryant's status that he was considered at all in that category: one does not usually think in terms of "building" a team around a player who is older than 30.

Taken as a whole--considering defense, shot creation, last second shots--these voting results simply reinforce and confirm the assessment that I have made regarding Bryant and James for quite some time: Bryant is the best player in the NBA right now but James is certainly gunning for that number one spot and he has youth and athleticism on his side to counter Bryant's edges in skill set and fundamentals. James could certainly surpass Bryant this year but what is more likely to happen is that they will continue to be a close 1-2, and simply being close to Bryant may be enough for James to capture his first MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:45 AM


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At Thursday, October 23, 2008 7:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting results indeed. Fascinating that GM's consider him such an amazing last second shot taker. He has won this award for seven straight years? Because the last time 82games did a study on this, he came out very poorly. Between 2003 and 2006 he had 32 game winning opportunities and made 9 for a percentage of just 21.9%. He was one of only 2 in the top 25players who were below 30%. Also, zero assists in these situations.

Honestly, Kobe may be clutch, but I have never seen any statistical evidence to prove it. And stats are pretty accurate at answering these kinds of question. There may be a reason his performance is so dismal, like bad teammates, but there seems to ba a lot of evidence to contradict the opinions of the GM's.

Last year, the clear answer to this question was Manu. And its shocking he didn't receive consideration, since he was the clutch guy for one of the best teams in the NBA. He has in fact been the clutch guy for about five years during two championship runs. Apparently the ts% of 78% he posted in the clutch last year didn't merit any consideration.Small sample size as you said before, but still...

You know, the last time 82games did a study on overall clutch performace, weighing all aspects including counterpart defense, Manu came out on top. That was in 05 I think. They should do another one, it would be very interesting. Kobe finished in the 30's.

At any rate, I think there is good reason to question GM's on this particular question.


At Thursday, October 23, 2008 11:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Manu is an excellent clutch player and a very good choice to take a last second shot.

I don't think that Kobe's lack of assists in the situations that you mentioned is very meaningful; he is expected to take those shots and during those years his passing options were not plentiful--you can't pass to Shaq because the other team will immediately foul him and let's not even talk about the Kwame-Smush era. I suppose that at certain times Horry would have been a viable option but we'd have to look at those stats to see if Horry was on the team/in the game in the situations in question.

If by "05" you mean the 2004-05 season, then it is important to remember that Kobe was playing MVP caliber ball the first couple months but then he sprained his ankle, missed a lot of time and was not quite the same. Stats--including, I would assume, "clutch" stats--from that year are hardly representative of his career overall.

I don't believe that field goal percentage in "clutch" situations really is a very accurate measure, for two reasons:

1) Small sample size
2) Contextual considerations, which are exaggerated by small sample size

In other words, if even just three or four of Kobe's 32 shots in the study you mentioned consisted of heaving the ball at the hoop against two players from long distance with very little time remaining then this is hardly a measure of his ability to receive the ball with 10 seconds left down by one, two or three and then create a good shot. THAT is the skill about which the GMs were voting and I don't think that any serious, objective observer of the NBA would dispute that Kobe is the most dangerous player in the league in that situation. The problem with "clutch" stats is that the small sample size includes too much noise. I can recall a Lakers-Cavs game that I went to in which Luke Walton messed up the play and Kobe ended up taking a difficult shot that he missed (I did a post about the game on March 20, 2006 if you want to search the site and look it up). Does that reflect badly on Kobe's "clutchness" or on Walton's execution? Yes, that was just one play but the point is that the study consists of a small number of plays, so the results are skewed.

Kobe is the most dangerous player in such situations because he has no skill set weaknesses. The problem with "clutch" stats is that a lot of the shots that are tabulated in those numbers are basically desperation heaves.

Look at it this way: on a team full of All-Stars and MVP candidates in the Olympics, when things got tight in the gold medal game, Coach K called a timeout and told Kobe it was his time. That may not be scientific or quantifiable but that pretty much tells you who the best player is.

At Friday, October 24, 2008 4:15:00 PM, Anonymous Mountain said...

Manu's strong "clutch" rating (using 82games definition close game / last 5 minutes) last season does appear to be an outlier to his 6 year history where he was otherwise just very good 2 times and nothing special to weak 3 times. But how knows if that is his reaching his peak maturation or if it just a stat fluke.

I do think Kobe is overrated by the visual given what the numbers show though year after year about his actual conversion rate / FG%.

Manu was actually third of this overall clutchness study http://www.82games.com/clutchplay3.htm
(not just shooting). Bryant indeed was 35th but again this wasnt just shooting.

At Friday, October 24, 2008 5:44:00 PM, Anonymous Mountain said...

Many measures of clutchness.

For career both Bryant and Ginobili lose about 9% off their regular season stats in the playoffs according toi a stydy by Mike Goodman, putting them both blow average on a study of 600_ players who played enough to study.

For last regular season both performed about the same against the west's top 8 as they did on average, commendable though Brynat was in a bigger role and probably facing more defensive pressure.

Both their teams won about 2/3rds of gamed that entered the clutch zone, namely "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points"

Bryant stepped it up in the 08 playoff run and had a good for him and fine for anyone but not otherworldy 50% efg% in the clutch. Sure he took more attempts and more tough attempts so don't over react to the about of significance I put on this but I think it worth noting that Gasol, Radmanovic, Odom, Farmar and Walton all had better clutch FG%s. Certinly in large measure do to pressure on Kobe but still something to think about instead of giving him all the shots.

while Ginobili hobbled by injury had a poor playoffs, especially in the clutch.

At Friday, October 24, 2008 6:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


"Clutchness" is even more hard to quantify--or even define--than overall effectiveness. I think that looking at fg% on last second shots is not all that meaningful, because of sample size issues and also because all last second shots are not created equal--some are wide open shots created off of someone else's dribble penetration, while others are desperation heaves. If Kobe (or LeBron or Manu or anyone else) drives to the hoops, draws two defenders and makes a great pass to a wide open role player who makes a last second shot, the superstar who created that shot deserves some kind of "clutch" credit.

Goodman's study does not tell us anything that is not readily apparent: pace slows down during the playoffs and the competition is tougher, so team and individual stats tend to decline.

MJ did a commercial once in which he referenced all the last second shots that he had missed and how those shots had helped him succeed later. As I indicated above, I'm not convinced that quantifying last second shot numbers is all that meaningful--it is interesting, but I would not make any evaluations based on such data unless it were accompanied by video footage of each play so I could see exactly what happened (like the Walton/Kobe play that I saw live and mentioned above).

Kobe's 81 point game--in which he took over when the Lakers were down by double digits and virtually single-handedly carried them to victory--is more "clutch" in my opinion than someone making one shot at the end of a game; what Kobe did is sustained dominance. I don't mean to suggest that only Kobe is "clutch" in that way; LeBron and the other top players have also taken over games in that type of way, if not quite so dramatically or in record-setting fashion.

I would be interested in seeing more data about what baseball stat gurus call "late and close"--the 4th q and OT, down by five or less with five min. or fewer remaining. I don't know if there is enough data to be statistically significant but that data is more meaningful than last second shot data, in my opinion.

At Friday, October 24, 2008 10:37:00 PM, Anonymous Mountain said...

Clutch ultimately is about winning, whatever it takes.

Win % or team win improvement while on the court especially in the playoffs matters more than box score average stats.

Kobe is clutch, maybe not my #1 but room for different opinions.

Many ways to slice the stats or the film or view it live so probably won't ever be settled.

At Saturday, October 25, 2008 12:35:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

One question I have to ask about this survey is, how on earth did Kobe and LeBron not get 100% of the votes for best player at their position? I'm particularly flabbergasted that someone (Danny Ainge I presume) gave a vote at SG to Ray Allen. Nothing else was really surprising to me, especially the MVP prediction - LeBron seems to come out on top every year these days.

At Saturday, October 25, 2008 1:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mountain - I was mistaken. Bryant finished 35th in PER, but finished 21st in the combined rating. Ginobili finished third in PER, but the article concludes that he was the most clutch player overall, see the last section:

"a lot of people would balk at the notion of Manu Ginobili as the NBA's most clutch player. The facts though are he is very productive on offense (#6 in the league in points per minute during clutch stages)...." and it goes on from there.

I think it's safe to say Kobe was not good in the 2003-6 period. As a poker player, I can tell you that a sample of 40 pots is meaningless. You can't really draw conclusions about Kobe's ability in the clutch from that.

But you can say this. There is no evidence that Kobe is better than anyone else in these situations. Because if he had been, it would be readily apparent.

I agree it's high time the 82games people got off their asses, actually did some work for once, and posted an update to that study....


At Saturday, October 25, 2008 2:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I would actually be a lot more confident saying that Kobe is the best player in the league than that Kobe is definitely the best "clutch" player, particularly since "clutch" is so hard to define and quantify. Kobe has to be considered one of the best "clutch" players based on the championships he helped the Lakers win and the number of games that he has won with late heroics, including one in which he hit multiple tough shots versus Portland to clinch a division title near the end of the Shaq era.

It is also worth mentioning that the 2003-06 period does not include the three years in which Kobe helped the Lakers win titles, nor the most recent season in which he led the team to the Finals.

I think that the GM polling reflects the fact that Kobe has a complete skill set that makes him very difficult to defend in any situation. The sample size of the studies that we are discussing is small but the reality is that Kobe's skill set enables him to create a good shot for himself or one of his teammates in just about any situation other than a last second heave situation.

At Saturday, October 25, 2008 2:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Perhaps some people just like to be contrarians or they were very influenced by the fact that Pierce and Allen just won a championship.

At Saturday, October 25, 2008 3:38:00 PM, Anonymous Mountain said...

anon I didnt stop and reread that article carefully, thanks for the followup

David I agree the superstar deserves a good share of the credit for shots made by others after the pass- if there is a pass.

Kobe deserves respect for his ability to receive the ball with 10 seconds left down by one, two or three and then create a shot regardless

but he may not pass enough and may go 1 on 5 too much.

Getting a 40% FG shot in the clutch isn't that rare or hard.

Getting a 50+% shot is the important thing however you can and Kobe has the resources now that he doesnt need to force as many

last season he struck a pretty good balance but the Kobe that wants to be the 1 man show is still a threat to bite the Lakers
in a critical spot

At Saturday, October 25, 2008 5:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that Kobe gets a bad rap for, as you put it, trying to be a "one man show." Kobe's primary goal is and always has been to win. He has always been a willing and able passer when he has teammates who are able to make shots and make plays. As Phil Jackson has said more than once, when Kobe's teammates do not step up then Kobe definitely tries to fill that void. Kobe going one on five will absolutely not be a problem for the Lakers this year. The one sticking point--other than injuries, which can derail any team--will be Odom's role and the degree to which he accepts it as Jackson defines it for him.

At Saturday, October 25, 2008 8:57:00 PM, Anonymous Mountain said...

David you are correct that Kobe is very very driven to winning title in a way that a Vince Carter is not.

He might make a few mistakes but it is still in laser pursuit of that goal.

Odom is a key and maybe the difference but lots of people have to hold up their end. Including the PGs... and Jackson.


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