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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Daryl Morey Ranks James Harden Ahead of Michael Jordan as a Scorer

Houston Rockets' General Manager Daryl Morey recently declared, "You give James Harden the ball and before you're giving up the ball how many points do you generate, which is how you should measure offense, James Harden is by far number one in NBA history and he was number one even at the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's just he was coming off the bench and he was a little more hidden. So you needed good data to suss that out. So we knew he had that amazing skill to be a scorer." Morey acknowledged that this will not be a popular take: "No, people hate it. The counter-argument is reasonable. If you put Michael Jordan on a team now, he would do more than James Harden. That's possible, but if you're just saying NBA history, if you give this guy the ball, how much does his team score after you give him the ball before the other team gets the ball, it's James Harden. I know that makes people mad. It's just literally a fact." In an interview that lasted well over an hour, the interviewers never asked Morey to explain what statistic/statistics prove Harden's alleged superiority to Jordan--and to every other player in NBA history--to be a "fact," nor did Morey explain. The interviewers took Morey's statement as a "fact" without challenging him in any way.

A player's scoring average is a fact. Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in the 1986-87 season. That is a fact. You can look it up. We can argue about what that fact means in relationship to other facts and other factors but we cannot reasonably argue about a fact.

Saying that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan and than every other player in NBA history is not stating a fact; that is stating an opinion, and Morey's opinion does not seem to be particularly well founded when one considers a few facts about Michael Jordan and James Harden:

1) Michael Jordan won a record 10 NBA scoring titles; after finishing third in scoring during his rookie season, he led the league in scoring in every full season that he played from 1986 through his second retirement in 1998.
2) Michael Jordan is the career ABA/NBA regular season points per game leader (30.1 ppg).
3) Michael Jordan is the career ABA/NBA playoffs points per game leader (33.4 ppg).
4) Michael Jordan won six championships in six Finals appearances and he ranks second in career ABA/NBA Finals points per game (33.6 ppg).
5) James Harden has won two scoring titles during his 10 year NBA career.
6) James Harden ranks 16th in career ABA/NBA regular season points per game (24.4 ppg).
7) James Harden ranks 33rd in career ABA/NBA playoffs points per game (22.9 ppg).
8) James Harden averaged 12.4 ppg in his only Finals appearance (a 4-1 loss), which would rank 95th in ABA/NBA Finals points per game had he played in enough games to qualify for an official ranking.

Those facts indicate that a strong argument could be made that Michael Jordan is the greatest scorer in pro basketball history. Other facts not listed here could support an argument in favor of Wilt Chamberlain and a select group of other players. 

An insightful and analytical person who believes that Harden is a better scorer than Jordan and than every player in NBA history would bring some information to support that statement; when confronted with a statement that seems absurd on its face, a good interviewer who is well versed in the subject matter would challenge the interview subject to defend his statement.

Unfortunately, we can only speculate about what Morey really meant, since neither he nor his interviewers found the subject worth discussing in depth.

Presumably, since Morey favors "advanced basketball statistics" he is disregarding supposedly primitive data points such as scoring averages and scoring titles. What do "advanced basketball statistics" say regarding scoring and scoring efficiency? Keep in mind that Morey did not merely compare Harden to Jordan, and Morey did not merely say that Harden is as good as Jordan or a little better than Jordan. Morey asserted that Harden "is by far number one in NBA history" and that Harden has been the best scorer dating all the way back to when Harden was a third option for the Thunder who scored 12.4 ppg in the 2012 NBA Finals while shooting .375 from the field.

Since Morey did not specify his statistic of choice, let's take a look at two "advanced basketball statistics" that exclusively pertain to scoring efficiency and two that pertain to offense in general.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for True Shooting Percentage:

1) DeAndre Jordan .6367
2) Cedric Maxwell .6294
3) Tyson Chandler .6255
4) Stephen Curry .6236
5) Artis Gilmore .6227
6) Karl-Anthony Towns .6192
7) Dave Twardzik .6184
8) James Donaldson .6177
9) Adrian Dantley .6166
10) Reggie Miller .6139
11) Kevin Durant .6127
12) Charles Barkley .6120
13) Magic Johnson .6095
14) James Harden .6092
15) John Stockton .608

Harden far outranks Jordan in this category--Jordan is 94th on the list (.5686), just ahead of noted scorer Frank Brickowski--but Harden is not even in the top 10 all-time, let alone far and away the best. For those of you who have never looked at "advanced basketball statistics" before, True Shooting Percentage blends together field goals, three point field goals and free throws into one number. If you are familiar with pro basketball history, you can see from the names on the list that this metric favors players who primarily shoot layups and/or three pointers. This statistic has some value if you are just interested in comparing players who fill similar offensive roles (such as DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler) but it is meaningless in terms of comparing great offensive players who have divergent skill sets. "Stat gurus" love to use this statistic to come up with "insights" such as Andrew Bynum (.592, but not enough career attempts to be officially ranked) should shoot more often and Kobe Bryant (.5496, 220th all-time) should shoot less often.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders in Effective Field Goal Percentage:

1) DeAndre Jordan .6697
2) Tyson Chandler .5960
3) Dwight Howard .5830
4) Shaquille O'Neal .5823
5) Artis Gilmore .5820
6) Amir Johnson .5816
7) Stephen Curry .5815
8) Mark West .5804
9) Karl-Anthony Towns .5750
10) Kyle Korver .5735
11) Steve Johnson .5722
12) Darryl Dawkins .5721
13) James Donaldson .5706
14) Brent Barry .5703
15) JaVale McGee .5700

Harden (98th) beats out Jordan (194th) but Harden is not close to being the best of all-time. This statistic provides additional value to a three point field goal made--which is why you see Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver and Brent Barry--but mostly this is a list of players who mainly shot dunks and layups. Like True Shooting Percentage, this statistic does not tell you much unless you restrict the comparisons to players who have similar roles.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for Offensive Rating (this statistic only dates back to 1974 for the ABA and 1978 for the NBA, the seasons when those respective leagues began officially tracking individual turnovers):

1) Chris Paul 122.62
2) Reggie Miller 121.48
3) Magic Johnson 120.79
4) DeAndre Jordan 120.57
5) John Stockton 120.55
6) Kiki Vandeweghe 119.49
7) Karl-Anthony Towns 119.48
8) Sidney Moncrief 119.40
9) Charles Barkley 119.31
10) Adrian Dantley 119.30
11) Jimmy Butler 119.11
12) Kevin McHale 118.48
13) Danilo Gallinari 118.44
14) Tyson Chandler 118.34
15) Steve Nash 118.22

Harden and Jordan are in a virtual tie for 19th-20th (117.97). In case you were wondering, LeBron James is 36th on this list, right behind A.C. Green. This definitely looks like a great way to evaluate a player's overall offensive effectiveness regardless of role. I always knew that A.C. Green was better than LeBron James offensively, and now I have some "advanced basketball statistics" to back up that contention! Kobe Bryant is 169th, right behind Taj Gibson, and frankly I just don't understand why Phil Jackson played Bryant so many minutes and let the guy shoot so much.

Here are the all-time ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for Offensive Box Plus/Minus:

1) LeBron James 7.25
2) Stephen Curry 7.13
3) Michael Jordan 6.93
4) James Harden 6.75
5) Chris Paul 6.62
6) Magic Johnson 5.80
7) Charles Barkley 5.66
8) Damian Lillard 5.44
9) Larry Bird 5.02
10) Kyrie Irving 4.93
11) Russell Westbrook 4.93
12) Julius Erving 4.77
13) Kevin Durant 4.71
14) Reggie Miller 4.59
15) Clyde Drexler 4.51

For the first time in four lists, Jordan beats Harden!

So, at least according to the "advanced basketball statistics" for offense available at BasketballReference.com, Morey's "fact" regarding James Harden being "by far number one in NBA history" as a scorer is not a fact. Perhaps Morey has some secret, proprietary statistic that ranks Harden ahead of Chamberlain, Jordan, Bryant, and the best basketball players from six alien species that NASA has yet to discover. Based on Morey's comments about Harden being a "foundational player" who is a better scorer than Jordan and every other basketball player ever, this statistic must be amazing. I wonder how A.C. Green and Kobe Bryant rank on Morey's secret list?


In The Strengths and Limitations of "Advanced Basketball Statistics" I explained that "advanced basketball statistics" can be "useful as a supplement to traditional box score data and to the observations of trained scouts/coaches" but they have serious limitations that must be recognized and understood:
Phil Birnbaum has worked extensively with baseball statistics but after thoroughly studying "advanced basketball statistics" he concluded that they are not particularly reliable:

You know all those player evaluation statistics in basketball, like "Wins Produced," "Player Evaluation Rating," and so forth? I don't think they work. I've been thinking about it, and I don't think I trust any of them enough put much faith in their results.

That's the opposite of how I feel about baseball. For baseball, if the sportswriter consensus is that player A is an excellent offensive player, but it turns out his OPS is a mediocre .700, I'm going to trust OPS. But, for basketball, if the sportswriters say a guy's good, but his "Wins Produced" is just average, I might be inclined to trust the sportswriters.

I don't think the stats work well enough to be useful.
My job is focused on utilizing legal analytics as efficiently and effectively as possible, and one of the points that I often make to my clients is that relying on inaccurate, incomplete and/or irrelevant analytics can be worse than having no data at all, because now you have a false sense of security that you are making data-driven decisions when you are actually doing nothing of the sort. Combining some numbers together and calling them "advanced basketball statistics" is worse than meaningless unless it can be demonstrated that those so-called advanced numbers are accurate, complete and relevant. I would not put much weight on an offensive statistic that ranks A.C. Green ahead of Kobe Bryant, nor would I try to rank all offensive players on the basis of any one number. What matters is skill set evaluation, and also an understanding of a player's psychological makeup: when things get tough is that player going to perform better or perform worse? Has Morey ever looked at regular season versus playoff splits of any numbers for James Harden? In between spouting unsubstantiated "facts," he might want to look into the cracks in the playoff resume of his "foundational player."

Daryl Morey and his fans would argue that Morey utilizes "advanced basketball statistics" in a way that provides a clear edge over the rest of the teams in the league. Logically, that should result in Morey's team having a clear edge over other teams in a sufficiently large sample size of data. Let's test that hypothesis.

Morey's first full season as Houston's General Manager was 2007-08. During the subsequent 12 seasons, the Rockets have missed the playoffs three times, have lost in the first round four times, have lost in the second round three times and have lost in the Western Conference Finals twice. Thus, more than half of the time Morey's teams have advanced no further than the first round of the playoffs. They have never won a championship or even a conference title. If you ran an organization and Morey showed up in your office offering to sell you his expertise/his proprietary analytics would you buy based on those results?

The fact of the matter is that during a very long run as the chief decision maker in an NBA front office, Morey has failed to demonstrate that his methods generate any meaningful competitive advantage in the postseason. Yes, the Rockets have won a lot of regular season games--though not enough to avoid missing the playoffs during a fourth of Morey's reign--but they have not been an exceptional playoff team. If Morey's use of "advanced basketball statistics" creates a significant advantage, we have yet to see much evidence of that advantage.

What about those two Western Conference Finals appearances? Keep in mind that the NBA is designed to promote parity, which means that in the long run most teams are going to advance to the Conference Finals at some point (James Dolan's New York Knicks are a conspicuous exception to this premise, but that is a story for another day). During Morey's tenure with the Rockets, 10 of the Western Conference's 15 teams have advanced to the Western Conference Finals at least once. Five of those 10 teams have advanced to the NBA Finals at least once and four of those five teams have won at least one NBA title.

It is not surprising that Morey places more emphasis on "advanced basketball statistics" than on more basic statistics such as winning. His teams have yet to win a championship during his 12 years at the helm, but according to Offensive Box Plus/Minus Morey is a genius because he has acquired three of the top 11 offensive players in pro basketball history!

The Rockets are unlikely to ever win a title with Morey running the show. He is convinced that Harden is the greatest scorer ever, which suggests that this season the Rockets will run an offense featuring Harden monopolizing the ball to prove that point while Russell Westbrook's driving skills are not fully utilized. Westbrook is Houston's best player now, and if the Rockets are smart they will put the ball in Westbrook's hands while Harden is used as an off the ball scoring threat.

During the interview, Morey noted that Harden and Westbrook are just the fourth tandem to play together within three years of each player winning a regular season MVP, and Morey pointed out that the three previous such duos--he did not identify them, but presumably he is referring to Bob Cousy-Bill Russell, Julius Erving-Moses Malone and Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry--all won titles. It will be very interesting to see if the Rockets are smart enough to take full advantage of this opportunity.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 AM


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

NBA.com's All-2010s Teams Feature Some Odd Selections

NBA.com recently posted a list of the top 15 players from the decade 2009-10 through 2018-19, divided into three teams of five players each. The First Team is Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, the Second Team is Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony and the Third Team is Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge and Giannis Antetopkounmpo. NBA.com emphasized that this is not an official NBA honor; the players were chosen by an unidentified panel of "NBA.com and NBA TV producers and analysts," with each of the three teams having two backcourt players and three frontcourt players.

One only has to glance at the list to understand why the voters preserved their anonymity. The criteria for the selections are not listed but next to each player are the following data: All-Star selections, All-NBA selections (total, with no distinction made between First, Second and Third Team), PPG, RPG and APG. The article also provides a link to an NBA.com article that lists the decade's top 10 leaders in total points (LeBron James--most assuredly not a "pass-first player"-- is first with 19,550), total rebounds (DeAndre Jordan is first with 8653), total assists (Russell Westbrook--often depicted in the media as a selfish gunner despite the fact that he attempts fewer shots and averages more assists than James--is first with 6462), total steals (Chris Paul is first with 1396), total blocked shots (Serge Ibaka is first with 1626), field goal percentage (DeAndre Jordan is first with .671), three point field goal percentage (Stephen Curry is first with .436), free throw percentage (Stephen Curry is first with .905), total minutes played (LeBron James is first with 27,093), total games played (DeAndre Jordan is first with 766) and total games started (DeMar DeRozan is first with 740). Presumably, the listed statistics and honors factored into the selections to a large extent.

Noticeably absent from the data provided are (1) championships won, (2) MVPs won, (3) All-NBA First Team selections and (4) Finals MVPs won. Regarding championships, for all-decade honors the emphasis should be on championships won as the team's first or second best player and/or as an All-NBA level performer.

For the 2010-19 time frame, the leaders in championships won as a prime-time player, MVPs, All-NBA First Team selections and Finals MVPs are as follows:

Championships, 2010-19

LeBron James, Three
Stephen Curry, Three
Kevin Durant, Two
Kawhi Leonard, Two
Dwyane Wade, Two
Kobe Bryant, One
Tim Duncan, One
Dirk Nowitzki, One

MVPs, 2010-19

LeBron James, Three
Stephen Curry, Two
Giannis Antetokounmpo, One
Kevin Durant, One
James Harden, One
Derrick Rose, One
Russell Westbrook, One

All-NBA First Team Selections, 2010-19 (three or more)

LeBron James, Nine
Kevin Durant, Six
James Harden, Five
Kobe Bryant, Four
Stephen Curry, Three
Anthony Davis, Three
Dwight Howard, Three

Finals MVPs, 2010-19

LeBron James, Three
Kevin Durant, Two
Kawhi Leonard, Two
Kobe Bryant, One
Dirk Nowitzki, One
Andre Iguodala, One

Only three players appear on all four lists: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. James is clearly the best player of the decade, Durant is a solid second and Bryant should be a lock as a First Team selection, unless one makes the bizarre argument that the last four years of the decade matter more than the first four years of the decade. Bryant remained an elite player until he tore his Achilles (hold your breath, Kevin Durant fans), and he was an elite player for a longer stretch during the decade than anyone other than James and Durant.

Leonard comes up a bit short in terms of All-NBA First Team selections and regular season per game statistical averages but two Finals MVPs and his consistent two-way excellence earn him the third frontcourt First Team spot on my All-2010s squad.

The final First Team guard spot is a three man race between Stephen Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Curry wins based on championships and regular season MVPs.

Westbrook and Harden are easy choices for the Second Team guards. Both players have vocal critics--and my take on Harden is well known to anyone who has visited this site in the past several years--but based on sheer production they accomplished more than any guards in the decade other than Curry and Bryant. Choosing the frontcourt involves weighing team success and all-around play versus individual statistics. Anthony Davis has gaudy individual numbers and three All-NBA First Team selections but he is also injury prone and his playoff resume is thin. Other than the drama surrounding his departure from New Orleans and arrival in L.A., you could pretty easily write the story of the league during the past 10 years without mentioning him. On the other hand, no history of the 2010s can be written without detailing the impact of Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. Davis has never at any time had as much impact on the NBA as Nowitzki did during the 2011 playoffs and especially the 2011 NBA Finals; if Davis does something like that in the next 10 years then I will happily place him on my All-2020s squad. Duncan won his MVPs and Finals MVPs prior to the 2010s but he was no worse than the second best player on the 2014 championship team that shredded LeBron James' Heat, and Duncan had two-way impact for an elite team for a significant portion of he decade.

Speaking of impact on an elite team--or lack thereof--there is no way that Carmelo Anthony should have been considered for any of these teams. Last season, he could not beat out Danuel House for a roster spot on the Houston Rockets! Putting Anthony ahead of Duncan and Nowitzki is a joke. Anthony is a one dimensional scorer who never had as much of an impact on winning as he should have, and it has become glaringly apparent as his scoring skills eroded that he is unwilling or unable to contribute in any other way. His former teammate Chauncey Billups recently put it best: it always mattered too much to Anthony to score 30 points, win or lose. Anthony has just one top five MVP finish, no All-NBA First Team selections and no Finals appearances.

My third frontcourt player for the Second Team is Dwight Howard. Howard's career is not necessarily ending well but he made the All-NBA First Team three times during the 2010s--the same amount as Curry, and the same as Davis--and in his prime he was a top notch rebounder and defender who was also a high percentage scorer in the paint.

Giannis Antetokounmpo headlines my Third Team frontcourt. His 2010s resume is short but he has already been a regular season MVP as the best player on the team with the best record in the league. Barring injury, he is a good bet to emerge as the player of the decade for the 2020s, and he already has done enough to earn his way on to my All-2010s team.

By this point, we have run out of frontcourt players who were the first or second best player on a championship team in the 2010s, so individual statistics are the only way to separate the remaining candidates. In that milieu, it is acceptable to now select Davis, who is an impressive player on paper (at least when he is not missing games due to paper cuts).

LaMarcus Aldridge has never won anything, and on the surface his individual numbers may not seem as impressive as Anthony's--but if you look at those decade leader lists you see Aldridge all over the place. Aldridge has been consistent and productive, and you do not get the sense that scoring 30 points matters more to him than winning. He is my third frontcourt player on the Third Team.

Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson and Dwyane Wade are the top candidates for the final two guard slots. For the time period in question, Lillard is the most explosive scorer, Paul is the best passer, Thompson is the best two-way player and Wade was the number two guy on two championship teams before his game fell off of a cliff as injuries and age caught up to him. Could Thompson be the best player on a championship team? I am not sure, but here that does not matter; Lillard and Paul have never been on a championship team period, and the only time Wade was the best player on a championship team was 2006. A team that had any of these guys from 2010-19 would likely need to also have one of the members of the First Team or the Second Team in order to win a title. Therefore, for the specified time period I would take Thompson's health (until the 2019 Finals), consistency, shooting, and two-way game over what the other guys provide. It is a close call among the other three, but I will take Wade's championship pedigree and size over Paul's undersized two-way feistiness.

Thus, my All-2010s Teams are:

First Team: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry

Second Team: Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden

Third Team: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Klay Thompson, Dwyane Wade

In addition to shifting several players around compared to NBA.com's list, I also added Nowitzki, Duncan, Howard and Thompson while subtracting Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.  

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM