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Monday, September 13, 2010

Kevin Durant Leads the Way as Team USA Wins FIBA World Championship for First Time Since 1994

FIBA World Championship MVP Kevin Durant capped off a spectacular tournament with a game-high 28 points plus five rebounds to carry Team USA to an 81-64 gold medal game victory over Turkey. Durant set Team USA FIBA World Championship records for points in a tournament (205) and scoring average (22.8 ppg) while shooting .556 from the field (including .456 from three point range) and .912 from the free throw line. In Team USA's 89-74 semifinal win versus Lithuania, Durant set a Team USA single game FIBA World Championship record with 38 points. The seemingly effortless way that Durant scored at will throughout this event was remarkable to watch and was reminiscent of how Brazilian legend Oskar Schmidt poured in points in FIBA play during his prime years.

I concluded my FIBA World Championship preview article with this statement:

Team USA can win the gold medal if they play smart and tenacious defense, force turnovers and score a lot of points in transition--but even if this team plays the best basketball that they are capable of playing they will probably have at least one or two close games; it should not surprise anyone if Team USA fails to win the FIBA World Championship.

Team USA followed the above prescription en route to posting a 9-0 record in the tournament but--as I expected--they had to survive a couple close games: they slipped by Brazil 70-68 in the third game of the preliminary round after the Brazilians missed a potentially tying shot at the buzzer and they trailed as late as midway through the second quarter in the quarterfinal game versus Russia before prevailing 89-79.

Team USA's defensive execution was inconsistent during the early part of the tournament but they used their depth, their athleticism and Durant's scoring punch to get victories. They hit their collective stride defensively in the elimination portion of the event but even at that stage I think that depth was an underrated factor in their success; while Durant was far and away the best player on Team USA, the other main players in the rotation were largely interchangeable (at least in terms of their overall impact in a FIBA setting): opposing teams could often hang with Team USA in the early going but when both teams went to their benches Team USA experienced little or no drop off while the opposing teams became significantly less effective.

After the 2008 Olympics, I authored a report card containing grades for each of Team USA's players. Here is how I explained my methodology:

Players are listed in order of minutes played because that statistic provides a hint about Coach Mike Krzyzewski's evaluation...It should go without saying--but I'll say it anyway--that it is not meaningful to compare a player's numbers in 40 minute games played under FIBA rules with his numbers in 48 minute games played under NBA rules...

The grades listed below represent how well a particular player filled his respective role on the team; obviously, some players had bigger roles than others, so a bench player's "B" does not mean the same thing as a starter's "B." Production when games were close is given a heavier weight than production that took place after the victories were already well in hand.

Using those same standards, here are my grades for the 2010 version of Team USA:

Kevin Durant (28.2 mpg, 22.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 13 steals, six blocked shots)

Durant led Team USA in scoring, three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage, he ranked second in both rebounding and steals and he tied for second in blocked shots. No opposing player had the right combination of foot speed and length to be able to guard him effectively; the only method that has a chance versus Durant is to play him very physically (a la Ron Artest in the first round of the 2010 NBA playoffs) and it is surprising that Team USA's opponents did not try that approach more consistently: frankly, while it is true that Durant made some very impressive one on one moves, it is stunning how often Team USA's opponents left Durant open for face up jumpers--particularly since Eric Gordon was the only other regular member of the rotation who was consistently making jump shots.

Grade: "A"

Chauncey Billups (23.1 mpg, 9.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 3.1 apg, 11 steals, zero blocked shots)

"Mr. Big Shot" looked like "Mr. Brick Shot" for much of this event: his .391 overall field goal percentage was the worst on the team and he fired up the second most three point attempts despite shooting just .318 (seventh on the team) from long range--and FIBA's "long range" (20 feet, six inches) is actually a midrange NBA jumper. As an All-Star and former NBA Finals MVP, Billups was supposed to be a stabilizing force for his younger, less experienced teammates but instead he seemed to be channeling the shot selection of his NBA teammate J.R. Smith; Billups attempted more than twice as many three pointers as two pointers, a ratio only approximated by Eric Gordon--but Gordon was this team's version of Vinnie "Microwave" Johnson off of the bench (particularly against weaker opponents), while Billups was misfiring from all angles regardless of how closely he was being guarded or how much time remained on the shot clock. Billups scored 19 points on 5-7 three point field goal shooting versus overmatched Angola but he had just four points and missed all five of his field goal attempts in the gold medal game versus Turkey. In the semifinal game versus Lithuania, Billups scored three points on 1-5 three point field goal shooting. Billups scored 15 points on 4-8 three point field goal shooting in the quarterfinal game versus Russia. One out of three may get you into the Baseball Hall of Fame but one good game out of three in the final stanza of this event when you are supposed to be one of the team's leaders is hardly impressive.

Billups ranked second on the team in scoring and assists, he had the best assist/turnover ratio among the team's primary ballhandlers and he played solid defense against bigger, slower opponents (though he struggled versus quick guards); those are the reasons that he started every game and played relatively heavy minutes but he was not nearly as efficient as he should have been as a scorer.

Grade: "B-/C+"

Derrick Rose (23.1 mpg, 7.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 10 steals, three blocked shots)

Rose led the team in assists but after playing very well in the first four games of the preliminary round he slumped in the next four games, culminating in a scoreless performance versus Lithuania during which he played just 12 minutes and was benched for the entire fourth quarter. He struggled to make outside shots and could not find his way to the hoop as consistently or as effectively as Russell Westbrook did.

Grade: "C-"

Lamar Odom (22.0 mpg, 7.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .4 apg, five steals, six blocked shots)

As I predicted in my preview article, Odom led Team USA in rebounding. Despite all of the talk about Odom's versatility, the reality is that the one skill set area in which he is significantly above average is rebounding. He is an erratic shooter (and therefore an inconsistent scorer) and his ballhandling decisions are at times questionable (leading to offensive fouls or other turnovers) but there is no doubt that he is a very good rebounder and he did yeoman's work for Team USA despite playing out of position as the starting center. One of Odom's best contributions to Team USA is that he attempted just four three pointers, making three of them; he is not a great outside shooter, so he showed good judgment with his shot selection.

ESPN's Fran Fraschilla heaped praise on Odom throughout the tournament, particularly during the final two games. There is no question that Odom played very well versus Lithuania (13 points, 10 rebounds) and Turkey (15 points, 11 rebounds); in those games he not only did excellent work on the boards but he emerged as the second scoring option behind Durant, connecting on drives, putbacks and cuts to the hoop. However, his 28 points in those two games nearly matches his scoring output in the first six games (36 points). Odom only had four total assists, though it must be noted that he made some outstanding outlet passes that fueled fastbreak scoring opportunities.

Odom is an excellent complementary player because he understands and accepts his role, something that proved to be as true when he played for Team USA as it is when he plays for the Lakers.

Grade: "B+"

Russell Westbrook (19.4 mpg, 9.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 12 steals, four blocked shots)

Westbrook ranked third on the team in scoring, assists and steals despite not starting a single game. There were extended stretches when he was Team USA's most effective guard. In contrast to Billups, Westbrook did not pad his stats against Angola but he scored in double figures in each of the final three games, though his two point field goal percentage versus Russia and Turkey was not great. Westbrook drew Fraschilla's ire sometimes for missing dunks or attempting flashy plays but overall he had a very positive impact off of the bench, providing a change of pace (literally and figuratively) that opposing teams could not match.

Grade: "B+"

Andre Iguodala (18.8 mpg, 5.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 16 steals, zero blocked shots)

Iguodala started every game at small forward and he emerged as the team's designated defensive stopper on the perimeter. Like Odom, he wisely limited his three point attempts (seven, making just two of them) and he pretty much restricted his shot attempts to dunks and layups. He led the team in steals and ranked fourth in rebounding. Iguodala is used to dominating the ball as an NBA player but he adjusted very well to being a complementary player for Team USA.

Grade: "B+"

Eric Gordon (17.6 mpg, 8.6 ppg, 1.6 rpg, .6 apg, eight steals, two blocked shots)

Gordon's main role on this team was to hit open jumpers, particularly from three point range, and he did an excellent job, ranking fourth on the team in scoring, second in three pointers made and second in three point shooting percentage despite not starting a game and ranking just seventh in minutes played. However, Gordon did most of his damage versus Tunisia (21 points) and Angola (17 points) while making very minimal contributions in the final three games, scoring six, three and zero points against Russia, Lithuania and Turkey respectively. He did what he was asked to do but his lack of production versus the top teams in the most important games lowers his grade.

Grade: "B-"

Rudy Gay (13.4 mpg, 7.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .8 apg, nine steals, eight blocked shots)

Gay is the kind of athletic, versatile forward who is perfectly suited for FIBA play and that is why in my preview I suggested that he could be an X factor for Team USA. He started out strongly with double figure scoring efforts in the first two preliminary round games but he did not score in double figures again except for the Angola game. Minutes were a bit hard to come by for him at times because he could not match Durant's scoring or Odom's rebounding.

Grade: "B-"

Stephen Curry (10.6 mpg, 4.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 2.1 apg, four steals, zero blocked shots)

I love watching Stephen Curry play and his father Dell Curry is one of my favorite non-superstar NBA players of all time--but it was quite predictable that Stephen Curry would have a small role for Team USA. As I have repeatedly stated in my articles about FIBA play, contrary to popular belief it is not necessary or desirable to stock Team USA's roster with players whose primary and/or exclusive skill is three point shooting; the FIBA three point shot is a midrange NBA shot anyway and it is much more important for Team USA's perimeter players to be able to defend and to be able to handle the ball against pressure than it is for them to be able to hit spot up shots.

Curry almost got whiplash a few times as he watched quicker guards drive around him and on other occasions he had some trouble defending screen/roll sets, either ending up out of position or switching on to a bigger player and getting abused in the post.

Again, I love watching Stephen Curry and I think that he has a great NBA future but Coach Krzyzewski's substitution patterns tell you all you need to know about Curry's role on this team: Curry played double figure minutes in the first game versus Croatia and in the blowout wins versus Iran, Tunisia and Angola but he did not play at all in the nailbiter versus Brazil and he logged just five, two and seven minutes respectively versus Russia, Lithuania and Turkey.

When the "experts" say that Team USA needs shooting specialists but Coach Krzyzewski wins gold medals while deadeye shooters like Michael Redd (in 2008) and Curry ride the bench except for garbage time are you going to believe the "experts" or are you going to believe Coach Krzyzewski?

Grade: "B-"

Kevin Love (8.8 mpg, 5.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, .8 apg, three steals, one blocked shot)

Fraschilla repeatedly raved about Love but I never quite understood the fuss; before the tournament I predicted that Love would "put up impressive per minute statistics during garbage time" and that is exactly what he did. Although I was not correct that he would be the team's 12th man (he logged 11 more total minutes than Granger and played two more total minutes than Chandler), Love--like Curry--saw very little action against the top teams: Love played just five minutes versus Brazil, three minutes versus Russia, eight minutes versus Lithuania and one minute versus Turkey.

I like Love as an NBA player and I think that he will be a better pro than many people originally predicted but the prototypical FIBA big man is lithe and mobile (Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, Lamar Odom, Rudy Gay), two words that do not accurately describe Love.

I am sure that "stat gurus" everywhere are salivating over Love's per minute numbers and wondering why he did not play 30 mpg but I'll trust my own eyes and Coach Krzyzewski's judgment over "advanced statistics" that are the product of Love's garbage time production against inferior opponents.

Grade: "A" (again, keep in mind that the grade is based on production relative to one's role, so this does not mean that I am equating Love with Durant)

Danny Granger (9.7 mpg, 4.1 ppg, .9 rpg, 1.0 apg, one steal, one blocked shot)

As I expected, Granger did not crack the regular rotation and most of his minutes came in garbage time--in two of the nine games he did not play at all. I don't see how to fairly give him any grade other than "incomplete."

Grade: "I"

Tyson Chandler (8.6 mpg, 2.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, .4 apg, two steals, five blocked shots)

Chandler was probably the most disappointing player on the team. Despite being the only true center on the roster he not only failed to hold on to the starting center spot but he dropped out of the main rotation entirely as Coach Mike Krzyzewski elected to go predominantly with a "small" lineup--a strategic decision that I predicted in my preview article, though I still thought that Chandler would be part of the regular rotation.

Despite his limited minutes, Chandler tied for fourth on the team in fouls committed. He failed to provide much of a presence defensively or on the glass and, as usual, his offensive repertoire was largely restricted to point blank shots.

Grade: "D"

Final thoughts:

I analyze NBA games from an objective perspective, not as a partisan fan, but as an American I am happy that Jerry Colangelo, Coach Krzyzewski and a dedicated corps of players (the 2008 Olympians plus the current members of Team USA) have helped USA Basketball earn respect not only by winning gold medals but by doing things the right way on and off the court. Basketball was invented in America, so it was embarrassing to go a decade and a half without winning the sport's world championship, but the exemplary way that this team conducted itself en route to the gold medal wipes out the horrible memories of the desultory performances of previous editions of Team USA (with the nadir being the sixth place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championship held in Indianapolis, Indiana).

While I enjoyed watching this team play, it is hilarious to read/listen to much of the mainstream commentary about FIBA play in general and Team USA in particular; we are consistently told that in order to win in FIBA events you have to have big men and you have to have shooters, despite the fact that both of these contentions have repeatedly been refuted: Team USA's winning recipe consists of stingy defense--particularly versus screen/roll plays and versus opposing three point shooters--forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. Team USA's halfcourt offense will never be as smooth or sophisticated as the halfcourt offenses of the other elite FIBA teams, true back to the basket big men are not as valuable as versatile, mobile forwards who can face the basket offensively and guard multiple positions defensively and the ability to hit three point shots is not nearly as important as the ability to defend against opposing three point shooters; reread the preceding sentence and you will understand why Michael Redd and Carlos Boozer hardly played for the 2008 version of Team USA and why Stephen Curry and Tyson Chandler reprised those players' respective roles on the 2010 version of Team USA--but I have no doubt that prior to the 2012 Olympics we will once again hear "experts" declaring how important it is for Team USA to add shooting specialists and big men to the roster.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:26 AM


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis, Part III

Gideon Rachman, a columnist for the Financial Times, declares "The vanity of economists needs to be challenged. Above all, their claim to scientific rigour--buttressed by models and equations--must be treated much more sceptically." Rachman explains, "When things were going well for the global economy, the prestige of economists rose steadily. They were the gurus of the age of globalisation. Governments, consultancies and investment banks rushed to hire economists, who were thought to possess vital skills and information...There has been some self-examination and soul-searching within the economics profession since the onset of the financial crisis." Rachman then quotes Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz: "If science is defined by its ability to forecast the future, the failure of much of the economics profession to see the crisis coming should be a cause of great concern." However, Rachman rejects Professor Stiglitz' tepid suggestion that economists should search for new "paradigms" (i.e., simply create more effective mathematical models); Rachman asserts that it is "misconceived" to categorize economics as a science.

What does this have to do with basketball? Many "stat gurus" received their formal academic training as economists and/or have been heavily influenced by the type of statistical modeling that economists do. While some "stat gurus"--most notably Dean Oliver, Roland Beech and Dan Rosenbaum--are candid about the limitations of basketball statistical analysis, others (particularly Dave Berri) act as if they have discovered the mathematical Holy Grail that unlocks all of the secrets to understanding basketball at an individual and team level. The problem with adapting economic mathematical modeling for use in analyzing basketball is that economic modeling is not even effective at what it was designed to do--namely, explain how economic markets work and predict how they will perform in the future--so it is quite a stretch to believe that something that failed in its primary function will somehow magically explain the inner workings of a sport as complicated and nuanced as professional basketball.

It is certainly a worthy goal to try to create an accurate mathematical/statistical method for player/team evaluations but that process is still in its infancy regarding pro basketball and it is counterproductive for anyone to assert otherwise; instead of media members and fan bloggers sycophantically praising the likes of Berri there is a need for strong, authoritative questioning of the methodologies used by "stat gurus." For instance, there is good reason to believe that box score numbers--the raw data used by "stat gurus"-- are not accurate. What, if anything, are "stat gurus" doing to improve the quality of the box score data and/or how are they accounting for the unreliability of that data when they create their "advanced" formulas?

Even in cases where the box score data is accurate it still does not tell the complete story: if Pau Gasol sets a screen for Kobe Bryant, two defenders trap Bryant, Bryant passes to Lamar Odom at the top of the key and Odom feeds Gasol for a dunk the box score will show two points and a made field goal attempt for Gasol and an assist for Odom and nothing for Bryant--but if Bryant had not drawn two defenders then the entire play would not have been possible (or, at the very least, Odom's pass would have been contested to a greater degree, as would have Gasol's shot). I am not suggesting that a new stat should be created to describe the impact that Bryant had on that play but rather I am just citing one example of how difficult it is to accurately quantify what happens even on a relatively simple basketball play. This is why I trust "advanced" five on five data more than I trust individual player data: if a given five man unit has played a large enough sample of minutes against a representative sample of teams (two big "ifs") then their collective plus/minus number gives some indication of their effectiveness as a five man unit--but you cannot parse that data to figure out why that group was effective; to determine that you still have to watch video with an educated eye and break down what exactly happened on the court.

The "hard" sciences--like physics and chemistry--make progress because strong-minded, intelligent people question previous theories in order to either strengthen or topple those thoeries; even though Isaac Newton's Theory of Gravity provided a useful model for many centuries Albert Einstein questioned it and ultimately replaced it with a more complete theory (Special Relativity). Can any intelligent, open minded person really believe that within the past five to 10 years the "stat gurus" have "solved" basketball to the extent that their mantras should never be questioned and that all one needs to do to understand the sport is to stop watching games and start devouring spreadsheets? "Stat guru" advocates like Henry Abbott tend to refer to my articles about this issue as "cranky" and they suggest not too subtly that I am some kind of anti-stat Luddite who is stubbornly clinging to outdated notions but the reality is that the field of "advanced basketball statistics" would benefit more in the long run if its practitioners critically examined their methodologies instead of basking in Abbott's praise while snobbishly dismissing valid critiques.

As Rachman mentioned, before the global economy tanked economists were in high demand and the field garnered a lot of prestige--but the stiff wind of economic mayhem has trashed the thin facade of that Potemkin Village and the glorification of economists will likely be viewed by future generations as nothing more than strange reverence for a cult; many of the practitioners of "advanced basketball statistics" will have to become more rigorous in their methodologies and more conservative about their assertions or they will ultimately suffer the same fate, regardless of how many writers ride the short term gravy train by becoming "converts" and praising every utterance of the "high priests."


posted by David Friedman @ 1:40 AM