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Thursday, April 12, 2012

What the "Stat Gurus" Say Does not Correspond with Reality

The "stat gurus" say that LeBron James is by far the best player in the NBA and that Dwyane Wade is--depending on which "stat guru" you ask--at least a top five player and quite possibly the league's second best player. "Advanced basketball statistics" suggest that James and Wade are "worth" a staggering amount of victories all by themselves--yet despite the fact that they are paired with a third All-Star (Chris Bosh) and a more than adequate supporting cast (including defender/three point shooter Mario Chalmers, spot shooters Mike Miller and James Jones, defender/corner three point shooter Shane Battier and energy/hustle players Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf) James and Wade have only managed to lead the Heat to the fourth best record in the NBA, hardly much of an accomplishment considering the breathless predictions that a James and Wade duo teamed with Bosh would produce a 70 win season (in an 82 game schedule, which is equivalent to 56 wins in a 66 game season--a number that the Heat will not come close to matching). The Heat have been fading fast since All-Star Weekend--posting a 13-9 record--and unless they turn things around in a hurry they will fail to win the title for the second year in a row after James boldly promised to lead Miami to "not one, not two..." but multiple championships. At some point, the "stat gurus" will simply have to explain why the gaudy individual "advanced basketball statistics" that James and Wade post--and the tremendous number of wins that James and Wade supposedly directly add to Miami's total--do not translate into more regular season victories in the real world and, more importantly, why they do not translate into playoff victories against teams that allegedly have clearly inferior talent.

"Stat gurus" generally do not believe in the value of shot creation; they just crunch numbers and note how many shots a player takes and how many shots that player makes, regardless of whether the player is a one dimensional big man who only dunks the ball or the player is a multi-faceted wing player who breaks down the opposing defense by attracting one or more extra defenders. A "stat guru" thinks that a team of five Tyson Chandlers would be unbeatable because such a team would shoot almost .700 from the field while hardly allowing the opposition to get off a good shot; it never occurs to the "stat guru" that a team of five Tyson Chandlers would not be able to dribble the ball up the court without getting it stolen and even if the Chandler Five somehow managed to get the ball into a half court set that group would not be able to create the point blank shots that enable the real Chandler to have such a high field goal percentage. Chandler's field goal percentage is high because he is a limited offensive threat who fully understands his limitations; the vast majority of his field goal attempts are dunks and putbacks, so it is ludicrous to assume that he would be able to maintain his field goal percentage if the volume of his shots greatly increased (an NBA offense can only generate a limited number of dunks and putbacks); it is equally ludicrous to use Chandler's field goal percentage (or his "true shooting percentage" or any other measurement of his shooting efficiency) as proof that he is a top five NBA player (according to at least one "stat guru") when the reality is that Chandler's field goal percentage is an indication of his limitations, not his dominance. "Stat gurus" insist that Chandler has somehow transformed the Knicks when the reality is that the team was 42-40 last season without him and the team is currently 30-28 with him. Yes, there are other factors that affected both seasons but if Chandler had truly transformed the team then the team's record would indeed be transformed and that is obviously not the case, much as I predicted before the season, declaring "Tyson Chandler's departure will likely hurt the Mavericks more than it will help the New York Knicks." Chandler is unquestionably a valuable player but, while it is good for the New York Knicks that Chandler understands that he should rarely attempt a shot outside of point blank range, the fact that Chandler has no shooting range makes it easier for opposing teams to guard him (or to double team a bigger offensive threat while making sure that a rotating defender puts a body on Chandler to prevent him from getting to the offensive glass).

Ever since Pau Gasol arrived in L.A., I have noted that he significantly improved in two areas in which an established veteran player generally does not significantly improve: field goal percentage and offensive rebounding. Gasol's numbers in those categories went up because Kobe Bryant attracts so much defensive attention that Gasol has a free run to the hoop for point blank dunks and putbacks. That does not mean that Gasol cannot score or rebound if Bryant is not on the court--but it does mean that over a large enough sample size of games a clear difference can be seen between Gasol's Memphis production and his L.A. production. Similar reasoning applies regarding Andrew Bynum, though the sample size with Bynum is smaller because injuries have limited his playing time until this season.

One of the big headlines in the NBA on Wednesday night was Bynum's 30 rebound game versus San Antonio as the Lakers defeated the Spurs 98-84 even though Bryant missed his third straight game due to a shin injury. It is certainly impressive that Bynum posted such a huge rebounding total (even though he padded that number a bit by tracking down his own point blank misses) and the Lakers would be well served if Bynum consistently focused on defense and rebounding as opposed to worrying about the number/distance of his field goal attempts but the real story about the Lakers during Bryant's absence--the story that the "stat gurus" and their friends in the media will ignore--is that Bynum and Gasol's field goal percentages have cratered. The "stat guru"/media theory about the Lakers is that Bryant is an inefficient gunner who should stop shooting so much and pass the ball more often to Bynum and Gasol; my theory about the Lakers is that Bynum and Gasol do not fight for post position as aggressively as they should on a consistent basis but when they do venture into the lane Bryant gets them the ball--and they are wide open because Bryant generally has two or even three defenders on him.

Why does Bryant shoot so much more often than Gasol and Bynum if I am correct that he is not just selfishly gunning? Bryant ends up with a lot of "hand grenades," shots that he has to take because the shot clock is about to "explode." Fans and media members often do not understand just how important a factor the 24 second shot clock is in terms of NBA strategy; veteran college head coach/NBA assistant coach Hank Egan once told me that the shot clock is "a monster" and that "some of the things that you do in the pros are, exactly as you said, trying to force the offense to burn time and get them in the late stages of the shot clock." When Bynum and Gasol "trot" down court (to borrow Jeff Van Gundy's quite apt description) and fail to quickly establish post position the shot clock is ticking; many times the ball goes into the post, the opposing team traps and when Bynum or Gasol pass the ball back out to Bryant there is not time for a re-post and Bryant is left with a "hand grenade." If Bynum or Gasol had posted up earlier then there would be time for a re-post and it is always more difficult to trap a second time without leaving someone wide open. After a few times of being stuck with "hand grenades" Bryant sometimes tries to preempt the "hand grenade" scenario by taking a shot earlier in the shot clock when he only has one defender on him and can clear out some space. Former Lakers Coach Phil Jackson used to refer to this as Bryant "filling the vacuum," meaning that if Bryant's teammates do not step up and do their part then Bryant will assume greater responsibility; Jackson often linked Bryant's so-called volume shooting to passivity on the part of Bryant's teammates.

It should also be remembered that during this season Bryant has played through a torn ligament in his right (shooting) wrist, a concussion and the recent shin injury (he battled that one for a few games before resting)--and, despite being a 16 year veteran who has already logged more than 50,000 regular season and playoff minutes, Bryant is averaging over 38 mpg because the Lakers generally fall apart when he is not in the game. The quality of Bryant's shots--judged, as Jeff Van Gundy would say, while those shots are in the air and not based on the outcome--has not been bad but Bryant's shooting percentage has suffered due to injuries/fatigue. Bynum and Gasol are clearly deadlier offensive weapons than Chandler but my theory would still predict that their shooting percentages would go down sans Bryant, while the "stat gurus" would insist that Bynum and Gasol's shooting percentages function independently of anything that Bryant does (otherwise, the "stat gurus" would have to change their formulas to somehow reflect Bryant's contributions to those shooting percentages but since no stat exists to do this the "stat gurus" either have to stubbornly insist that Bryant makes no such contribution or else admit that their formulas are flawed).

In three games without Bryant, the Lakers suffered their worst loss of the season to Phoenix--a team that will likely miss the playoffs--and then they barely beat New Orleans, which is not only the worst team in the West but is shorthanded due to the absence of Eric Gordon, Jarrett Jack and Trevor Ariza. The Lakers' win against San Antonio not only featured Bynum's extraordinary rebounding effort but an extremely anomalous shooting/scoring performance from Metta World Peace, who poured in 26 points (a season-high and just his second 20 point game of the season) while shooting five of eight from three point range; Peace's previous season-high for three pointers made in a game was three (on three different occasions) and prior to this game he had been shooting less than .300 on three pointers for the season. The Lakers needed those points from Peace because Bynum shot just 7-20 from the field and Gasol shot just 9-24. The Lakers' "problem" supposedly is that Bryant does not pass the ball enough to his big men but in three games sans Bryant those big men have seen their shot attempts skyrocket while their shooting percentages plummeted; Gasol has averaged 23.3 FGA/g without Bryant and shot just .471 from the field, while Bynum has averaged 21.3 FGA/g without Bryant and shot .375 from the field. Yes, Bynum's percentage on point blank shots sans Bryant is worse than Bryant's much criticized field goal percentage for the entire season! Overall, Bynum is shooting .564 this season on 12.9 FGA/g while Gasol is shooting .507 on 14.1 FGA/g (keep in mind that those numbers include the past three games, so with Bryant on the court their shooting percentages were even higher).

The sad reality is that far too many "stat gurus" are not conducting scientific research to figure out who are really the best players in the NBA; they are producing proprietary numbers that enable them to sell books and/or to write articles for big name magazines and websites. If a "stat guru" admits the flaws in his methodologies then he is killing the goose that is laying his golden eggs. That is why no "stat guru" who has published books and/or articles proclaiming that he alone knows how to rank players can possibly acknowledge that he is wrong (a "stat guru" who works for an NBA team and is trying to use numbers to help that team gain an edge can perhaps modify his theories to fit new data but you will never hear about this because teams do not want to publicly release such information and thus give away whatever edge they think they are gaining). Then there are the media members who have various personal and/or commercial agendas that prevent them from ever backtracking from supporting the "stat guru" orthodoxy (I would also not discount the possibility that some of the media sycophants for "stat gurus" are actually morons who really do not understand anything about math or basketball).

Therefore, I do not expect that if I write the perfect refutation of a "stat guru" he will respond by admitting the error of his ways; I have written many such refutations already and I have also pointed out the very real problems and inconsistencies with the box score data that forms the basis for "advanced basketball statistics" but I have yet to hear from a single "stat guru" who is the slightest bit interested in modifying his theories accordingly. What I hope will happen is that the large number of people who do not have a personal and/or financial stake in the success of a particular "stat guru" will consider the evidence on its own merits, draw the proper conclusions and be able to watch basketball with a better understanding of the strategic aspects of the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Bryant's Shin Injury Provides Laker Fans a Grim Look at the Future

I would be the first person to say that broad conclusions should not be drawn based on a small sample size of data--but it is equally important to draw proper and correct conclusions based on objective observations and analysis. The L.A. Lakers are not a legitimate championship contender; they have two gifted but flawed big men and Kobe Bryant, an aging MVP caliber player who elevates an otherwise nondescript supporting cast. Bryant played in every game this season until a lingering shin injury forced him to miss Saturday night's game against Phoenix; advanced mileage combined with a myriad of injuries have led to more variance in his productivity than we have previously seen: Bryant leads the league in scoring and has tallied a league-best five 40 point games (four of which the Lakers won--and he shot at least .452 in each of those five 40 point games, including .500 or better in three of them) but he has also authored two of the worst shooting games of his career, though he salvaged one of those games by scoring 11 fourth quarter points to lead the Lakers to victory.

Quantifying how much Bryant contributed to each victory and defeat is perhaps open to interpretation, though an informed, objective observer of the Lakers can plainly see that Bryant draws an extraordinary amount of defensive attention and he is also the quarterback of the Lakers' usually staunch defense. However, Bryant's absence during the Lakers' 125-105 loss to Phoenix--the Lakers' worst scoring margin and most points surrendered this season--certainly revealed that sans Bryant the Lakers are, to put it mildly, flawed. The Lakers are not a great team even with Bryant--they are well behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs and only because of Bryant's extraordinary efforts have they barely stayed ahead of the rest of the Western playoff pack--but they are clearly a pretty bad team without him. Andrew Bynum's 10-27 field goal shooting against Phoenix should put to rest the idea that if Bynum shoots 6-8 from the field in a game then he would shoot that same percentage if he attempted 20-plus shots; shot creation is a valuable skill that is completely misunderstood by "stat gurus" and their media apologists: it takes a high skill level--and a high conditioning level--to attempt 20-plus shots a game but Bryant has to do this because his teammates (with the exception of recently acquired point guard Ramon Sessions) are not able to consistently create shots for themselves or others.

Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are very good players; Bynum uses his size and strength to score in the low post and he has developed into an excellent rebounder and shot blocker, while Gasol is a versatile big man who can play power forward or center--but neither of them is a true franchise player. Bynum lacks exceptional explosiveness, which is why he frequently gets stripped or blocked unless he has an uncontested path to the hoop; Gasol does not have the mindset of a franchise player, which is why Memphis gave up on him during his prime and decided to rebuild with younger assets (including, ironically, his brother Marc, who is now an All-Star). The only franchise players in the NBA right now are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose (when healthy), Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki (though he certainly has not looked like one this season); those guys are dominant players who demand double teams (and score anyway) and/or impact the game in multiple ways--and they do so consistently. Very few players have the mental, physical and emotional capacity to be a franchise player. Gasol was overmatched as a first option in Memphis but he proved to be a great second option for two Lakers championship teams; Bynum put up Luc Longley-type numbers in the playoffs for those championship teams, so posting All-Star numbers as a second option for three quarters of an abbreviated post-lockout season does not prove that he is in any way ready to handle the responsibilities of being a franchise player: purely from a skill set standpoint it is obvious that Bynum struggles when dealing with even occasional double teams--let alone the constant defensive pressure that Bryant faces as the first option--and it has become painfully obvious that Bynum still has a lot of growing up to do emotionally.

Bryant regularly draws double teams, enabling Bynum and Gasol to get easier looks; many of Bynum's high percentage, point blank shots result from Bryant being trapped and passing to Gasol, who then lobs the ball to an uncovered Bynum as the defense tries to rotate back into the paint. Can Bynum or Gasol occasionally beat double teams on their own? Sure. Can Bynum or Gasol score efficiently at times without Bryant being on the court? Yes. Can Bynum or Gasol serve as a game in, game out number one option while facing constant double teams? No.

The Lakers have nine games left on their schedule, including three versus the Spurs and one versus the Thunder. Bryant injured his shin more than a week ago and tried to play through the problem--as he always does--but the tendon kept getting inflamed after each game, indicating that rest is the only option. It is not clear how many games Bryant will miss but if Bryant does not return soon the Lakers could easily drop from third to fifth in the Western Conference and potentially face a first round matchup without home court advantage against a surging Memphis team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:34 AM