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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Stats The Way It Is: A Closer Look at the Lakers, Rockets and Warriors

Roughly a third through the NBA season, here are three statistical nuggets--and what they mean:

1) The L.A. Lakers are 19-10. Do you remember what their record was last season after 29 games? Yes, 19-10--and then they won four of their next five games to improve to 23-11 before finishing the season with a 42-40 record. Why does this season have a different "feel" to it? The one constant with both teams is Kobe Bryant (27.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.1 spg), who continues to be the best player in the NBA, as he has been for the past two seasons; while his statistical production is obviously important, his leadership and the defensive attention that he attracts--creating easy opportunities for his teammates--should not be overlooked.

The 2006-07 Lakers started the season with 17 home games and 12 road games, though they did have a 6-6 record in those road games, a winning percentage that usually leads to a 50-plus win season overall (elite NBA teams expect to win half their road games and 3/4 of their home games); there is a little truth to the idea that the schedule caught up with the Lakers eventually, although a bigger factor was that the roster--particularly the frontcourt--was devastated by injuries.

The big difference that everyone can see with this year's team is that young center Andrew Bynum has turned into a legitimate double-double threat. A difference that is perhaps not as noticed by the casual fan but is also very important is the switch at starting point guard from the unreliable Smush Parker to the steady Derek Fisher, who played on three championship teams with Bryant. The Lakers' bench has played very well so far and was strengthened by the acquisition of Trevor Ariza, who adds length, athletic ability and defense. Will the bench maintain this level of play throughout the season? When--not if--injuries hit, can one or more of the bench players temporarily move into the starting lineup without the team suffering a drop in production? The answers to those two questions will play a major role in ultimately determining how much success the Lakers have this season.

2) The Houston Rockets are 13-12 this season with Tracy McGrady in the lineup and 1-3 with Tracy McGrady out of the lineup; this is McGrady's fourth season in Houston and his career numbers are even more telling: the Rockets are 139-82 with McGrady and 12-42 without him. Projected over an 82 game season, the Rockets would theoretically be 51.6-30.4 with McGrady and 18.2-63.8 without him. In plain English, with McGrady the Rockets are an elite team and without him they are one of the worst teams in the league. McGrady is rarely mentioned as a top five MVP candidate but if winning is the ultimate "value" one could make a case that McGrady is the most "valuable" player because his presence or absence has such a direct, immediate impact on whether or not his team wins. The flip side of this, the reason that McGrady is not often thought of as an MVP, is that McGrady has never taken a team past the first round of the playoffs. However, if you look at each one of the teams that McGrady has carried to the playoffs--and "carried" is not too strong of a word for it, as the above numbers show--none of them were better or deeper than their opponents. Even last year's Rockets team, which lost a game seven at home to Utah, was not a better squad from top to bottom than the Jazz; McGrady--with help from Yao Ming--took a team with no point guard and a suspect bench much farther than it otherwise would have gone. This year's Rockets are roughly a .500 team with McGrady and their lone win without him came on Friday versus the woeful Grizzlies. Houston is the only team in the league that has just two double figure scorers (McGrady and Yao); unless some more help is brought in, the Rockets will continue to do surprisingly well when McGrady plays and be predictably awful when McGrady does not play.

3) The Golden State Warriors are 9-0 this season when they hold their opponents below 100 points--the only team with a perfect record in such games--but just 8-13 when their opponents score at least 100 points. I have often pointed out that teams should not be afraid to run against the Golden State Warriors; another way to put this is that it is virtually impossible to beat the Warriors by playing a slow tempo game. During last year's playoffs, I explained why this is the case: "Golden State is going to run all game long regardless of what the other team does but if the opponent slows the game down then the Warriors can set up all the funky zones and traps that Coach Don Nelson has devised. The Warriors are active and aggressive on defense when they get a chance to set up and when they force missed shots or turnovers then they are off to the races--but if you push the ball at them and try to score before they can organize their defense then you can score a lot of easy baskets and also set up good offensive rebounding opportunities if the initial shot is missed."

The Warriors are second in the league in scoring (108.5 ppg) but just 15th in field goal percentage (.448) and 22nd in defensive field goal percentage (.460). However, as the Dallas Mavericks found out in the first round of last year's playoffs, it is not so easy to score against the Warriors in the half court and the Warriors are very good at converting steals and defensive rebounds into quick scores. If you run against the Warriors, then you are betting that your team will make better decisions and shoot higher percentage shots than the Warriors do--and the numbers show that this is indeed a good bet; if you try to slow the game down against the Warriors, all you are doing is slowing your own team down: miss, make or turnover, the Warriors will be running back at you all game long.

It is true that in general it is tough to win in the NBA today if you score less than 100 or if you allow more than 100. A few years ago the NBA instituted some rules changes to speed the game up. The Warriors' 8-13 mark when allowing at least 100 points is actually the ninth best such winning percentage in the league. The point is that even the Warriors, who specialize in playing an uptempo game, win significantly less than half the time when their opponents also push the pace. The Warriors are 16-8 when scoring at least 100 points; that sounds good but is in fact only the 18th best such winning percentage in the league.

The bottom line is obvious: the Warriors have a below average winning percentage in uptempo games and the best winning percentage in the NBA when their opponents play at a slow tempo.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:14 PM



At Sunday, December 30, 2007 2:01:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

The big difference with the Lakers this year is the solidification of the pg position and the emergence of their youngsters. The fact that Lamar Odom and Luke Walton aren't the X-factors is reason enough to believe that any possible decline won't be as bad as it was last year. It's great that Lakers fans are no longer relegated to wondering if Odom (9 years into his career) can ever fulfill his potential. I like Walton's unselfishness and passing and everything, but it has become clear to me that he's too much of a liability on defense and if the Lakers are ever going to do anything, Walton can't log too many minutes. The Ariza pick-up was great.

At Sunday, December 30, 2007 12:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have good news and bad news for those who think Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA. The bad news is that he is not the best player in the NBA so far this season. LeBron James is. And both Chris Paul and Carlos Boozer are slightly better than Kobe Bryant so far.

The good news is that, according to my composite review of numerous key sources, including me, each of which adds to the quality of the analysis, the Lakers are the best team in the NBA so far this season.

I am going to publish my first ever Real Team Ratings within the next 60 hours on my site nuggets1.blogspot, and it looks like the Lakers are going to be #1.

Phil Jackson is apparently the best coach in basketball right now.

At Sunday, December 30, 2007 4:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nuggets 1:

LeBron is a valid choice for best player in the NBA, though most players, coaches, scouts and informed observers (including LeBron himself) lean toward Kobe. Your ranking relies very heavily on a player rating calculation. Some people think that such ratings are "objective" but all those numbers really do is reflect the biases of whoever devised the formula in the first place. That is why David Berri thinks that Andrew Bynum is better than Kobe and that Tyson Chandler is a superstar. His "system" is an extreme example but all of the player rating systems have flaws. Stats are important but they are only meaningful when considered in the context of a player's role on his team; although Berri asserts that watching games is not necessary--he actually says that it is detrimental--it is in fact vitally important to watch players in order to evaluate them.

It is way too early to say that the Lakers are the best team in the NBA right now. The Spurs are the defending champs, the Celtics have the best record and the Pistons have an excellent record plus a head to head win over the Celtics. Those teams have the strongest claims to being the best team in the league at the moment. Of course, the objective is not being the best team in December but rather being the best team in June.


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