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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Real Team Nobody Wants to Face

It has been amusing during the past few weeks to hear various commentators suggest that "nobody wants to face" the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. Early last season, the Grizzlies were a team on the rise with Lionel Hollins at the helm and Rudy Gay providing scoring punch from the small forward position to spread the floor for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol but after trading Gay and ditching Hollins the Grizzlies are a much weaker squad; the Grizzlies suffered some injuries this season that some people used as a convenient excuse for Memphis' declining winning percentage and the Grizzlies received a temporary bump when Gasol returned to the lineup but as the regular season concludes they have hardly been setting the world on fire--posting a 6-4 record in their last 10 games--and they are in a three way tie with Dallas and Phoenix for seventh-ninth place in the Western Conference.

In recent seasons, teams that "nobody wanted to face" did not make much noise in the playoffs:
  1. In 2006 nobody wanted to face the Sacramento Kings, who lost 4-2 to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round; the Spurs had a 34 point win and a 22 point win during that series and only lost game three by one point.
  2.  In 2011 nobody wanted to face the Portland Trailblazers, who lost 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
  3.  In 2012 nobody wanted to face the New York Knicks, who lost 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the first round. Miami blasted New York 100-67 in the first game and took a 3-0 lead before dropping game four 89-87.
The Grizzlies have a solid inside offensive attack anchored by Randolph and Gasol and they are a very good defensive team but they just cannot score enough points--particularly from the perimeter--to beat an elite team in a playoff series. Russell Westbrook's injury last season enabled the Grizzlies to sneak into the Western Conference Finals--where they were promptly obliterated by the Spurs--but this year the Grizzlies will most likely exit in the first round, assuming that they even qualify for the postseason.

In contrast, the real team that nobody wants to face--or at least that nobody with any sense would want to face--is the Spurs, who have an NBA-best 58-16 record, a .784 winning percentage that is the best in franchise history. Their leaders have championship pedigrees--Coach Gregg Popovich, two-time regular season MVP Tim Duncan, 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker and 2008 Sixth Man of the Year Manu Ginobili--they made it to the NBA Finals last season and they are currently in the midst of a 18 game winning streak; only 12 other NBA squads have won at least 18 games in a row, including some of the greatest teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers, 1996 Bulls, 2000 Lakers).

The Grizzlies are flawed, mediocre and vulnerable; the Spurs are well-balanced, they have a tradition of excellence and they are accustomed to making long playoff runs. It should be obvious which team "nobody wants to face" and which team would not evoke much fear.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 PM

22 comments

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22 Comments:

At Monday, April 07, 2014 2:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The actual team nobody wants to face is the Suns; they play fast, and if they get hot they can beat anybody. I'm not saying they're going to win anything, but the Spurs and OKC are both hoping they don't have to chase them around for six or seven games.

Especially with Dragic's history of torching Parker, both in the NBA and in Europe.

 
At Monday, April 07, 2014 2:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

This season the Spurs won their first two games against the Suns before losing a February contest sans Parker and with Ginobili only playing 13 minutes. The Suns are a nice story but the Spurs are not afraid to face them.

 
At Wednesday, April 09, 2014 1:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's some pretty selective data there, man. Dragic didn't play in one of the Suns losses to the Spurs this season and Bledsoe missed the other, so it's not exactly like the Spurs' wins have any more cred than the Suns'. On the other hand, the Spurs couldn't beat OKC once this season, but Phoenix went 2-1 against them (so at the bare minimum, they're the team OKC doesn't wanna see in round 1).

Moreover, Dragic is 11-8 lifetime against Tony in the NBA (despite being on often terrible or mediocre teams while Tony's been exclusively on great ones), and was drafted in the first place because of his habit of abusing Parker in the Euroleague. Granted, Dragic was a bench player for many of those NBA games, but it's the data we had (and even off the bench, Dragic was undeniably one of the primary reasons for the 2010 playoff sweep).

I'm not saying Phoenix is better than the Spurs (although their healthy starting lineup has a better winning percentage than SA's), but Dragic has always been a nightmare matchup for Parker, and the Suns' general speed is a problem for Duncan, Diaw, Splitter, and Ginobili. It's an annoying matchup for the Spurs, and I guarantee you they'd rather see Dallas, Memphis, or GS than Phoenix.

 
At Wednesday, April 09, 2014 1:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I did not use "selective data." I cited the relevant facts.

Dragic's "record" against Parker as a bench player and/or in the Euroleague is not particularly relevant in terms of a potential 2014 playoff matchup between the Spurs and the Suns. The Spurs regularly defeated the Suns when the Suns had Nash, Stoudemire, Marion et. al., so I doubt that the Spurs are scared of this season's Suns.

The Spurs have shown over the years that they can both play at a fast pace and also that they can slow down fast paced teams, forcing those teams to execute in the half court. When the Spurs annually bounced the Suns from the playoffs the Spurs were equally capable of winning 130-125 and 85-80 games.

Meanwhile, the team that is the main subject of my article--the Grizzlies--currently is on the outside of the playoffs looking in with just a few games remaining in the season.

 
At Wednesday, April 09, 2014 2:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I did not use "selective data." I cited the relevant facts."

Come on. You can't dismiss the Suns' win because Parker sat and in the same breath tout that the Spurs won their two wins without noting that both came with one of the Suns' two best players benched.

"Dragic's "record" against Parker as a bench player and/or in the Euroleague is not particularly relevant in terms of a potential 2014 playoff matchup between the Spurs and the Suns. The Spurs regularly defeated the Suns when the Suns had Nash, Stoudemire, Marion et. al., so I doubt that the Spurs are scared of this season's Suns."

Except, you know, the only one of those Suns teams that has any of the same players as THIS Suns team was the one that featured Dragic (and Frye) and swept the Spurs. You can question Dragic's relevance if you want, but he absolutely gave Parker fits defensively that whole series, and single-handedly torched the (better than this year's) SA defense in game 3 to the tune of 23 fourth quarter points (he also snagged a steal and a block off Parker in that same quarter, and registered 4 assists). And Dragic is a much better player now than he was then.

"The Spurs have shown over the years that they can both play at a fast pace and also that they can slow down fast paced teams, forcing those teams to execute in the half court. When the Spurs annually bounced the Suns from the playoffs the Spurs were equally capable of winning 130-125 and 85-80 games."

Sure, when the Spurs last knocked the Suns out of the playoffs in 2008, they could match the pace. Ginobili and Duncan were too slow to keep up in even by 2010, I doubt they've somehow gotten faster in the six years since their last playoff win against Phoenix.

I won't go so far as to predict a Suns win if the teams face-off (though it wouldn't shock me), but it's going 6 or 7 and the Spurs would much rather snack on Memphis or Dallas, which was the argument I was trying to make.

 
At Wednesday, April 09, 2014 5:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The 2010 Suns did not "feature" Dragic and Frye. Dragic averaged 9.0 ppg and 2.0 apg in the Suns' sweep of the Spurs during the 2010 playoffs, while Frye averaged 9.5 ppg. Yes, Dragic went out of his mind for one quarter but he scored just 10 points in the other three games and he only played 53 minutes total during the four games.

This season, the Spurs rank seventh in scoring and sixth in points allowed. They can play at any pace and, indeed, their pace of play (according to the "advanced basketball statisics") is almost as fast as the Suns' this season.

I don't think that the Spurs have reason to fear Dallas, Phoenix or Memphis. The team that gives the Spurs fits is OKC.

 
At Wednesday, April 09, 2014 6:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we're having two different arguments, here. I'm not arguing that Phoenix is better than the Spurs, or that there's no worse matchup (OKC totally has their number). I'm arguing, in the spirit of the "underdog nobody wants to face" tradition, that the Spurs would much rather face the Grizziles or Mavericks, as those teams play a less athletic style, and don't have a player that historically has made mincemeat of SA's 2nd best player.

The Suns pace stats this season are misleading (as is their record) because of Bledsoe's extended absence; in games without him, the Suns play a much slower style whenever Dragic sits, with Ish Smith and the mummified Barbosa doing most of the ball handling. I don't have access to the with/without Bledsoe stats for pace, but their winning percentage when both Dragic and Bledsoe are healthy is over .800 ( 22-5 in a 27 game sample size, so it's not just a fluke), while their season-long percentage is .597.

Similarly, while the Suns' season long defensive rating is mediocre, their starting lineup rates as one of the stingiest five man units in the league (3rd as of a week ago; may have changed since), and is basically as tough to score on as the Pacers. In the playoffs, where starters log more minutes, this makes the Suns a scary team to come up against, as in addition to their always nuclear offense, they can open and close games with elite level defense. See both of their recent wins against OKC, where they out-exectuted Oklahoma down the stretch and consistently forced an elite offensive club into bad tough shots.

Basically, what I'm saying is that San Antonio (and OKC, for that matter) would much rather face an aging team of vets who've overachieved thanks to good health and better coaching or a mostly-unimproved Memphis team they swept last season than a hyper-athletic team that's probably ten games better than its record when healthy, led by a player who is both the author of one of San Antonio's most humiliating playoff defeats and Tony Parker's personal kryptonite.

I understand that you think OKC is a worse matchup for SA, and I'd probably agree (though both teams are problematic for SA for similar reasons, with a high-speed athletic roster and elite penetration), but of the three teams SA has a good chance of playing in the first round, Phoenix is the one they're hoping to avoid. Agree?

 
At Wednesday, April 09, 2014 6:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I understand the point that you are trying to make about the Suns but what you are saying does not directly address my article's two main points:

1) No one should be afraid of the Grizzlies, who may not even make the playoffs.

2) The Spurs have established themselves as the best team in the league this season.

I just can't see the Spurs being particularly concerned about any of the teams that they might face in the first round. The Suns, when healthy, are a better team than Memphis or Dallas, so from that perspective they are a bigger threat to the Spurs.

OKC gives the Spurs fits mainly due to Westbrook, who is so much better than Dragic that the two cannot be seriously compared. When Westbrook is healthy he is not only the best guard in the league but one of the NBA's top five players regardless of position.

 
At Wednesday, April 09, 2014 7:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the thesis of your article, but I think that the "team nobody wants to face" has to be an underdog, and that Memphis isn't that team, Phoenix is, which is why I initially replied. But now that we're down a rabbit hole of spirited intelligent basketball debate, may as well continue...

I do pretty completely disagree with you about Westbrook being that much better than Dragic, though. While Westbrook is more athletic, Dragic is much more efficient, and makes a lot fewer mistakes on defense (where Westbrook, though long and active, is a serial gambler and frequently gets out of position chasing steals). They're comparable passers (though Westbrook gets an extra assist per game as a function of passing to the best scorer in the league and/or not sharing the ball with another point guard like Bledsoe). Westbrook scores one more point per game, but he does it on three more shots while turning the ball over much more often. Westbrook does get an extra rebound per game, though.

Also, Dragic deserves some credit for how well he's done defensively this season, even in spite of being shifted to the 2 guard spot half the time and frequently being stuck guarding players three and four inches taller than he is; see my previous post about the Suns' starters defensive rating. And Dragic doesn't have an elite rim protector like Ibaka behind him to clean up his mistakes (no disrespect to Miles Plumlee).

In terms of both players' primary skill, scoring, Dragic is the most efficient scoring guard in the league, while Westbrook is largely a volume scorer, albeit a very good one. While as mentioned Westbrook does score slightly more, Dragic's average when playing without Bledsoe is about 23 ppg, which is higher than Westbrook's scoring average this season.

As for stuff that doesn't show up statistically, it's true that Westbrook's explosiveness attracts a lot of defensive attention, but so too does Dragic's crafty Nash-ian baseline penetration and Ginobili-esque tricky footwork on the drive. And Dragic is much better off the ball than Westbrook, fearlessly setting off-ball screens against opposing bigs. It's the same story on D, where he expertly cutting off would-be cutters without getting out of position. Also on D, Dragic fights over screens almost like he takes them personally, while Westbrook usuallly trusts his speed to go around them, which allows jump-shooters to torch him. Westrbook's also guilty of ball-watching on offense whenever he's not either ball handling or cutting, whereas Dragic is constantly making little moves and fake cuts, and setting picks to set up his teammates.



Of course, Westbrook's only the second best player on his team, and his teammate is much better than he or Dragic, so the records don't quite read in Dragic's favor. Of course, playing with Durant means that Westbrook is any opposing team's secondary defensive priority, while every night Dragic faces off against defenses geared to stop him first and everybody else second, yet still puts up those insane efficiency numbers.

Dragic's kind of been overshadowed in the media by the general Cinderella-ness of the Suns as a whole, but he's quietly been one of the three best point guards in the league this season, and deserves a slot on the 1st or 2nd Team All NBA, depending on how you feel about Steph Curry's defense and the general underachieving of the Warriors.

Honestly, while Westbrook's obviously been the better player in the past, if we just look at this season, Dragic's play has been better.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2014 10:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Not only is Memphis an "underdog," the Grizzlies are so far "under" that they might miss the playoffs entirely. My main point is that many media members do not understand how to analyze basketball, so they latch on to some storyline and/or some team that hits a hot streak and then proclaim that there is a team that "nobody wants to face." This happens almost every season and the results are comical. The Grizzlies traded away their best scorer last season and chased away an excellent coach. How do those moves improve a team? Why would anyone be afraid to face the Grizzlies? It just astounds me that people get paid to say things that make no sense.

Your skill set comparison of Westbrook versus Dragic is detailed and interesting but ultimately unconvincing. Dragic has been healthier than Westbrook this season but I am more interested in comparing the healthy versions of both players and the only area where Dragic has a clear advantage is three point shooting. Westbrook is bigger, stronger, quicker, rebounds much better, is a more creative and dangerous passer, is a more versatile and tenacious defender and is a more explosive scorer. Westbrook is even a much better free throw shooter. Westbrook is vastly underrated by the media and by the fans. As he returned to health in March he put up incredible numbers in limited minutes. Dragic is a very good player, an All-Star caliber performer, but Westbrook is an MVP caliber player (not that he deserves the MVP this particular season but he performs at a level commensurate with previous MVPs). Westbrook's shot selection is occasionally questionable but he is so outstanding in every other facet of the game that this is not a serious detriment.

The Suns are a nice, surprising story but at best they are going to sneak into the playoffs and lose in the first round. Dragic is a career bench player who is emerging as an All-Star caliber player but Westbrook has consistently been an All-NBA caliber player for a championship contending team. At this stage of their careers, Westbrook is clearly superior to Dragic.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2014 1:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree about the Grizzlies; I think the only hesitation teams have about playing them is not based on fear, but only on the fact that Memphis is the most physical team in the NBA. Nobody likes getting elbowed.

I agree Westbrook has previously been better, but even when healthy this season his performance has not been better than Dragic's.

You say Westbrook is a "much" better FT shooter than Dragic, and he does shoot 6% better, but you neglect to mention that Dragic shoots that same margin of 6% better on FGs, which are both more common and worth more points. You acknowledge that he's also a much better 3FG shooter, so I'm curious how you define Westbrook as a "more explosive scorer" when it takes him three more shots to score one more point? Or when he's the second priority of opposing defenses, while Dragic is the first?

Defense is hard to quantify, and we clearly value different things. I'd rate Westbrook about a B level defender, athletic and intense but kinda dumb (for lack of a better word), frequently finding himself out of position or gambling for impossible steals; sometimes his athleticism allows him to recover, sometimes it doesn't. Dragic doesn't have gaudy defensive stats (though he blocks more shots than most PGs, including Westbrook), but he's almost never out of position, guards two positions, and is one of the better PnR defending guards in the league. That he's a member of one of the top defensive lineups speaks to this, despite not playing with a DPOY candidate like Ibaka behind him.

Last thing I object to is the idea that Westbrook is a more creative passer; that makes me think you haven't watched a lot of Dragic, who has been breaking out Globetrotter-esque chicanery all season. In addition to Nashian paint acrobatics, he seems to have some kind of bet going about how many times he can get an assist through opposing defenders' legs; so far this season, he's done it to Duncan, Perkins, Cousins, Favors, Pekovic, Lopez, and a bunch of others. Westbrook mostly just passes to Durant (which, in his defense, is basically always a good call). Dragic's creativity is the reason almost all the Suns (none of whom were really starters last season) are setting career highs in FG% and scoring.

Also: while it's true that Westbrook averages one more assist, he has a lower assist/turnover ratio, and assist rate; basically, he averages more assists because he has the ball more often, but over 100 possessions each, Dragic produces more assists (and more points). And Dragic doesn't pass to anyone who's nearly as likely to score as Durant.

For what it's worth, they've gone 2-1 this year, though in OKC's lone win Dragic left the game with an injury in the 3rd. In the other games, while Wesbtrook scored more, it was Dragic who made big plays down the stretch. Their game last week is really the whole argument in a nutshell: Westbrook had 7 more points, but it took him 7 more shots to get there, and he finished with 4 more turnovers (5) and a loss. He fouled out, unable to contain either Bledsoe or Dragic without fouling despite your assertions of his superior defense. Having watched both games, your argument of Westbrook as the more explosive scorer is suspect; he missed a lot of shots down the stretch in both games, while Dragic was an assassin, particularly in the first win, where he scored six straight points (with Westbrook on him) in crunch time.

Also, and this is harder to quantify, I think you're underselling Durant while praising Westbrook; much of what Westbrook does is made possible by the presence of a transcendent scorer; Dragic's best teammate was a backup last season. If they switched teams, Dragic's assist and FG% numbers would go up, while Westbrook's would go down.

Bottom line: numbers and eye test both say Dragic's been a little better this year.

I understand if you don't want to keep arguing, I just wanted to make those last few points.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2014 3:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Westbrook is a "more explosive scorer" in terms of his speed, quickness and jumping ability. He is pretty much unguardable if he is making the midrange jump shot, because no guard in the league is physically equipped to keep up with him.

In the playoffs--if the Suns make the playoffs--teams can blitz Dragic and use other schemes to force him out of his comfort zones. I am not convinced that he will be a dominant player over the course of a playoff series, let alone multiple playoff series, though of course he is capable of having a big quarter or a big game or two.

The Thunder are a good team without Westbrook but they only play at a championship level when Westbrook is healthy. Dragic has yet to show that he can be the first or second best player on a championship level squad. I just can't rank him as Westbrook's equal just yet.

Our exchange reminds me of previous ones I have had with people who wanted to elevate Gilbert Arenas or Carmelo Anthony to elite status. I make a distinction between players who consistently perform at an All-NBA level for championship-caliber teams (or as a truly dominant performer for a lousy team, as Kobe Bryant did in 2006 and 2007 with the Lakers) and players who have not proven that they can sustain that level of excellence.

Paul George was supposedly an MVP candidate in December. Now he is supposedly a bum. Many media members love generating headlines as opposed to actually analyzing the sport. George is a talented young All-Star who has not yet proven that he can sustain the level of play that LeBron James and Kevin Durant have sustained for many years. The same analogy applies regarding Westbrook and Dragic.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2014 3:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm certainly not arguing that Dragic has been better in previous seasons, or even that he will be better in the future; at minimum, playing alongside Bledsoe lowers his usage rate, and consequently his scoring and assist numbers dip.

I absolutely agree that Dragic needs to prove he can sustain his exemplary play, but my argument was not that he'll have a better career than Westbrook (he probably won't in terms of wins, as only one of them gets to play with Durant), only that he's been the better player in the 2013-2014 NBA season. And he has.

With that said, he shoots a MUCH higher percentage than Westbrook on midrange shots, and a slightly higher percentage at the rim, so Westbrook's athleticism appears to be countered by Dragic's finesse. The only offensive advantage Westbrook has over Dragic, at least by the numbers, is a higher number of possessions per game, which is a product of roster makeup and coaching more than of individual skill. At a per-possession level, Dragic is a better offensive player by every metric except free throws. Most defensive statistics favor Dragic as well, though Westbrook gets more steals.

It remains to be seen how Dragic will play in the playoffs; I suspect he'll put a scare into a first round opponent, but his teammates, while game, are not as talented as any other western conference squad. I doubt teams will be able to neutralize him, though, as he's a truly gifted passer who led the league in assists after the all-star break last season, and is used to being targeted by defenses; his numbers will likely stay about where they are now, or possibly go up if Bledsoe crumbles under the pressure and Dragic gets more touches. He'll certainly do well in the first round if they make it, where he's likely to be guarded by either Tony Parker (terrible defensively), Ginobili (too slow), Reggie Jackson (overrated defensively), or Westbrook (who's proven ineffective against Dragic all season).

Comparing Dragic to Melo or Arenas is unfair. Melo is and always has been an inefficient volume scorer who loafs on defense, and Arenas was at best a potentially deadly streak scorer who outright ignored defense. Neither ever won much of anything for those reasons and others, despite playing alongside multiple other All Stars, and neither were nearly as creative of passers. Dragic plays both sides of the ball at an elite or near-elite level, and provides his team with considerably more (or at least better) leadership than head cases like Melo and Arenas.

Westbrook's had the better career up to now, and perhaps will have the better career in the future, but there's no basis for arguing he's had the better season, which is all I was talking about. He hasn't. I also hesitate to crown him as an MVP candidate so long as he's playing beside a much better player; he may not be able to dominate in the same way if defenses weren't preoccupied by Durant, especially considering his shaky midrange and 3 point game, and high-ish turnover rate (for an elite level PG).

Paul George is also a poor comparison, as Dragic's excellent play has persisted over 70 games now, or close to 100 if you go back to last season where his performance amped up after February. This is double impressive considering the massive lineup/scheme changes caused by Bledsoe's injuries and returns. If it's a fluke, it's a very sustained one.

TL;DR We're not talking about who's going to be better in the future, or who was better in the past, we're talking about who's been better this season and right now; it's Dragic. Pretending otherwise is narrow and unsupported by either eye test or statistics.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2014 3:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

What I originally said about Westbrook in this thread is, "When Westbrook is healthy he is not only the best guard in the league but one of the NBA's top five players regardless of position." I never compared Westbrook to Dragic purely based on this season, because Westbrook's season has been significantly impacted by his knee injury.

Dragic has had a much better 2013-14 season than Kobe Bryant--who missed all but six games due to injury--but that is not terribly relevant. Westbrook seems to be returning to health now and I would be surprised if he performs worse in the playoffs than Dragic (assuming that the Suns even make the playoffs).

Also, several times you have mentioned how much Westbrook benefits from playing alongside Durant but you are neglecting to consider that Durant also benefits from playing alongside Westbrook, who is a top five NBA player when healthy. Scottie Pippen benefited from playing alongside Michael Jordan but when Jordan retired the first time Pippen was a legit MVP candidate who led the Bulls to the second round (and the Bulls were one terrible call away from possibly reaching the ECF sans Jordan)--but Jordan never made it past the first round without Pippen. Westbrook is in the Pippen/Bryant mold not in terms of body type or style of play but in terms of the strange reality that large segments of the mainstream media refuse to give him proper credit for his contributions.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2014 6:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other thing you originally said, and the thing I took exception to, was "OKC gives the Spurs fits mainly due to Westbrook, who is so much better than Dragic that the two cannot be seriously compared."

Regardless of how much better than Dragic Westbrook was last year (and he was), he isn't this year. And for all your claims about his health, Westbrook's numbers are not materially different than a year ago; he's scoring 1.5 less and getting .5 fewer assists, but that's mostly a function of having the ball a little less during a historically great Durant season (and to a lesser extent the semi-emergence of Reggie Jackson as a credibly ball-handler), and it's worth noting that his rebounding is up from previous seasons, and his shooting percentages are slightly higher as well.

And even Westrbook from last year is not significantly or demonstrably better than Dragic of this year; regardless of who's better (it's Dragic if you care more about efficiency and defense, it's Westbrook more if you care about raw numbers), the two can absolutely be seriously compared as two of the top four or five point guards in the league.

The Pippen comparison is also partially flawed, as while Jordan struggled without Pippen, Durant did just fine while Westbrook was sidelined this year. OKC won 74% (32-11) of games with him, and 71.5% (25-10) without him. Over the course of a season, that's a difference of about 2 games. I'm curious to see how Westbrook performs if and when he gets put in the position of Pippen from '94; if he increases his production and assumes leadership the way Pippen did, it'd certainly raise my estimation of him, but given his temperament and shot selection, I see him becoming a lot more similar to your maligned Melo, Arenas, or James Harden (though to his credit he's a more committed defensive presence than any of those three). That's merely speculation, of course, and hard to defend until/unless we get a reasonable sample size of Westbrook-sans-Durant to look at.

The real point is that while Westbrook is undeniably awesome, your initial comments shortchanged Dragic by quite a bit. As a fan of high-IQ players, I wanted to make his case and maybe open your eyes to a player who doesn't get as much primetime airtime or mainstream media attention as Westbrook (and I think I've done so pretty effectively). The guy's an absolute star, and in the unlikely even there's a 1-8 or 2-7 upset in the West, he'd be the most likely culprit. Phoenix, when healthy, projects to about a 60 win team, and they're entering the playoffs healthy (knock on wood); they'll make a lot more noise than Dallas or Memphis if they get in.

Of course, the West is so ridiculous stacked (and PHX's remaining schedule so hostile) that they might not make it in at all, which really be a bummer, as they're one of the more fun teams to watch in the league, and the only of the bottom 3 Western Playoff contenders really equipped to make the Spurs or OKC work for the win.

 
At Thursday, April 10, 2014 7:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few last little statistical points:

From Sports Illustrated:

"When he is on the floor, the Suns average 112.9 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com, better than the best offense in the league. When he sits, their offensive rating drops to 102.1 per 100, which would rank in the bottom third."

http://www.sbnation.com/nba/2014/3/27/5543344/nba-lineup-analysis-golden-state-warriors-phoenix-suns

The above link lists the best +- 5 man lineups through March 27th. The starting Suns lineup is #2. There is no OKC lineup present, despite Durant's brilliance, Westbrook quasi-brilliance, and their stellar record. This is interesting as Phoenix is largely regarded as a team that wins because of depth, and OKC is generally seen as a team that wins behind the power of its three stars.

Finally, according to: http://stats.nba.com/leagueLineups.html?pageNo=1&rowsPerPage=25&columnOrder=&MeasureType=Advanced&sortField=DEF_RATING&sortOrder=ASC&filters=MIN*GE*200

…the Suns' starting lineup is the second best 5 man defensive unit (+200 min played) in the NBA. There is an OKC lineup at 14th, but Westbrook doesn't appear in it. His first appearance on the list is 22nd ranked lineup (out of 50). PHX's squad is the best defensive 5 man lineup above 300 minutes (among 28 total lineups, about 1 from every team). Indiana's starting lineup is second.

Back on offense, among lineups with +200 minutes, PHX's best Dragic lineup is 7th, and their starters are just an average 25th, while OKC's starters are…44th out of 50 eligible lineups.

Now, sure, some of that on both ends can be blamed on Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefalosha if you like, but if you remove Westbrook and Dragic from their respective 5 man units, I think it's pretty clear that Durant/Ibaka/Sefalosha/Perkins is a stronger quartet than Bledsoe/Tucker/Frye/Plumlee, and yet Phoenix's best 5 absolutely curb stomps OKC's on both sides of the ball. I know you don't like advanced statistics, but these statistics aren't particularly advanced; they just record what happens when given players are on the floor, and they pretty clearly state that Dragic has a greater positive impact on the basketball court than Westbrook does, at least this season.

The lesson here is that OKC's starting lineup is, despite the presence of Durant and Westbrook, a worse team, on both sides of the ball than Phoenix with its starters (the last two games between these two teams showcased this fact in the fourth quarter). Of course, Phoenix's offense falls apart whenever Dragic sits (as seen in the first article), and their defense gets worse almost no matter who you remove from the starters, so they're not *truly* an elite team…

..but Dragic is demonstrably an elite player. And the season he's put together is certainly better than Westbrook's 2014 season, and arguably better than any Westbrook season (though that's not a hill I'm willing to die on today).

Sorry for the length of this argument, I just get frustrated by players on the "chosen 8" TNT/ESPN teams getting all the credit/attention when guys like Dragic are just as good, but relegated to the League Pass ghetto.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2014 11:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I'll still take Westbrook's career-long excellence and his consistent important contributions to a championship-caliber club over Dragic playing at an All-Star caliber level for a little over one full season.

The Thunder started out 22-4 with a healthy Westbrook, went into a bit of a funk after he got hurt and then have found their stride again as he regained his health. Overall, they are a good team without him but a championship-caliber team with him.

I respect Dragic's game a great deal but I need to see him sustain his production level--and do more damage in the postseason--before I rank him as Westbrook's peer.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2014 12:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The problem with that starting five data is it is very difficult to get a meaningfully large sample size for each different five player combination. Also, I am not at all comfortable with the idea of using starting five data to compare individual players; it is impossible to determine the reason or reasons that one starting five is outperforming another starting five purely based on the numbers that you cited.

I have no objection to basketball statistics when they are used in a larger context but I prefer to make player evaluations based on skill set comparisons. I still will take a healthy Westbrook over a healthy Dragic in every skill set area except for three point shooting, for the reasons that I mentioned in an earlier comment.

Thank you, though, for some very interesting and well thought out comments. I don't agree with everything that you assert but you clearly have put a lot of thought into what you wrote.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2014 2:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Likewise; it's always nice to disagree with someone who's at least watched and understood the game, as opposed to someone who points to Melo's 60 point game or Harden's scoring average and insists he's a top five guy.

Agreed on five man data, which is why I just used it as a cherry on top kinda thing, and qualified it with only lineups that had played a meaningful sample size (200+ minutes). It is telling, perhaps moreso of Durant's excellence than anything about Westbrook, that the two most common OKC lineups (with Westbrook vs. with Jackson) are basically interchangeable in terms of performance according to 5 man data.

I do think it's telling, however, that Suns w/ Dragic (regardless of who else is on the court) are a league-best offense, but without him they're bottom third. The only team in the league that's as dependent on a single player to function offensively is probably Miami.

And I do agree that Westbrook's had the better career to this point, and if he stays healthy could well have the better career going forward thanks to his superior physical gifts (it would be much easier for Westbrook to improve his shooting and defensive discipline than it would be for Dragic to suddenly learn to jump six inches higher or grow longer arms) but going into the playoffs I'm much more concerned with who's better RIGHT NOW, and right now that player is probably Dragic.

One last little quibble; you say you'd take Westbrook in every skill area except three pointers. Much of that is open to some degree of interpretation and arguable (passing, defense, IQ), but Dragic's higher field goal percentage inside the line is not open to interpretation.

Here are their shot charts for the season:

http://stats.nba.com/playerShotchart.html?PlayerID=201609

http://stats.nba.com/playerShotchart.html?PlayerID=201566

Westbrook is a better on the wings, and in the middle of the middle of the key, but Dragic is significantly better in the higher-frequency elbow/top of the key areas, and over 11% better at the rim (where both players take more than half of their 2 point shots). Also, Wesbtrook's taken very few shot attempts in the two wing areas where their appears to be the biggest difference, so it's difficult to say how accurate he actually is from there; by contrast, both men have taken hundreds of shots at the rim (literally the only area from which either has attempted over a hundred shots, with Westbrook at 298 and Dragic at 457), and Dragic's numbers remain superior.

As an aside, how cool is the updated NBA stats site? I suspect I'll lose years of my life to it in the coming decades, but it sure does make comparisons like these more fun/easy.

 
At Friday, April 11, 2014 6:15:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@anonymous, terrific information on Dragic. I completely agree with your assessment that he has been overlooked and doesn't get enough credit for being a top five point guard. I think he's been better than Curry, Irving, Parker, Lillard, and Wall. In retrospect, it's a shame he didn't make the all-star team (though I understand why he didn't). One could even make a case that he’s had a better season than Chris Paul (not that he is better) since Paul has missed 19 games (during which the Clippers continued to play well behind Blake Griffin).

Regarding Dragic and Westbrook, without question, the Dragon has had the better season. Dragic is more efficient. He’s a more disciplined defender. He’s been a far better caretaker with the ball. But when Mr. Friedman states that Westbrook is the better player (top 5), I tend to agree.

I look at them like I viewed Kobe Bryant and James Harden last year.
Harden was more efficient, but his game is not about dominance. It’s about taking and making the right shots and getting to the line via trickery. He can overwhelm with his scoring exploits, but he doesn’t dominate. Hence his far worse numbers in the playoffs throughout his entire career.

Westbrook’s athleticism and sheer force are what the playoffs are about. Dragic does not have, nor has shown, the ability to dominate a game. He usually takes what is given and/or finds ways to make plays, but of all the games I’ve seen him play this year (about 20, including his 40 pointer), he never really forced his will upon the opposition. He made plays and he hit shots, but he didn’t dominate.

Westbrook has the ability to dominate, like how he forced himself down the throats of the Clippers the other night. Getting to the line, grabbing rebounds, etc. Domination includes forcing shots. It's something Lebron had to learn (and is still not all the way there yet). And even if Dragic develops that killer instinct to force shots when need be, he'll never be able to get more athletic. He's one of the top players at getting his shot blocked this year. His lack of athleticism will always put him a notch below a transcendent athlete like Westbrook who may not play smart all the time, but who puts out maximum effort.

If you look at Russ's last 15-16 games (small sample size I know), he’s been dominate.

23 points on 48/35/89 percentage splits, 7 assists, 5 boards and 2 steals…in 29 minutes. That’s better than what Dragic is doing in 35 minutes. Again, I know Westbrook plays with Durant, but it's not like Dragic doesn't play with guys who can put the ball in the bucket (Gerald "gets white hot" Green, Eric Bledsoe and Markieff "deserves the sixth man award" Morris).

Another way to look at “dominance” is Russ has seven 30 point games to Dragic’s nine, but Dragic has played in 30 more contests.

(full disclosure, Russ and Dragic are two of my absolute favorite players)

 
At Saturday, April 12, 2014 1:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I don't think that 200 minutes is a meaningful sample size. There are just too many variables involved--who the five man units faced, which teams were playing the second game of a back to back, which players were injured and/or in foul trouble, etc.

Field goal percentage is a function of shot selection, a player's role, how the defense reacts to him, etc. The NBA field goal percentage leaders are rarely the league's most versatile or deadly scorers. If you give an NBA coach truth serum and ask him which player is tougher to game plan against, I am pretty sure that the answer would be Westbrook over Dragic.

The updated stats are indeed very cool. I love stats--and I have always loved stats; what I don't love is the misuse of stats, which is something that I have consistently criticized.

I hope that Westbrook and Dragic both stay healthy; it will be interesting to follow them in the playoffs (assuming that the Suns make it and I think that they will).

 
At Monday, April 14, 2014 1:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I agree with you that the ability to "dominate" is what separates Westbrook from Dragic specifically and elite players from All-Star caliber players in a more general sense.

 

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