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Friday, November 09, 2018

Real Basketball Analytics

Analyze (verb): Examine methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of something, especially information, typically for purposes of explanation and interpretation.

For quite some time, "stat gurus" have propagated the myth that the most accurate way to analyze basketball on both the team level and the individual level is to utilize so-called "advanced basketball statistics"--which, in a given circumstance, usually refers to the particular proprietary formula that an individual is promoting (you rarely have to scratch too far beneath the surface to discover that a "stat guru" is not on a quest for basketball truth but rather on a quest to promote a book/website and/or trying to get hired as an NBA executive).

Only a fool would deny that statistical analysis is an important aspect of player and team evaluation, but statistical analysis hardly began with the current wave of self-promoting "stat gurus"; the Kentucky Colonels hired Hubie Brown (who promptly led the team to the 1975 ABA title) based in no small part on his detailed analysis of the key statistics that most influence winning, Dean Smith relied on plus/minus numbers at least as far back as the 1970s and there are many other examples. The key difference is that Hall of Famers like Brown and Smith understood the game at a deep level and knew that numbers were just one part of a larger picture. Nowadays, guys who never played the game, never coached the game and do not understand the rhythms of the game believe that they can decipher the sport's intricacies based on massaging the numbers on a spreadsheet.

During the most recent TNT "Inside the NBA" post-game show, Kenny Smith made an important point, stating that "analytics" have been "misread" to discount the value of high percentage shots in the paint. "Stat gurus" who adhere to "advanced basketball statistics" as if it were an infallible religion insist that teams should primarily shoot three pointers and free throws, but Smith notes that if your team has players who can shoot a high percentage on two pointers then it is a valid strategy to attack the paint. Case in point: Milwaukee's 134-111 victory last night over Golden State, during which the Bucks scored 84 points in the paint. Also, Cleveland took a 2-1 lead over Golden State in the 2015 NBA Finals by relentlessly attacking the paint but did not sustain that attack during the remainder of the series; next season, the Cavaliers fired Coach David Blatt and then the Cavaliers--under new Coach Tyronn Lue--pounded the Warriors in the paint en route to an epic seven game NBA Finals triumph. After game seven of that series, I explained why attacking the paint was one of the main reasons for Cleveland's victory:
It is also worth noting that the Cavaliers outrebounded Golden State 48-39 in game seven. Coach Lue resisted the temptation to go small when the Warriors went small during this series and as a result the Cavaliers pounded the Warriors in the paint at both ends of the court, which more than nullified Golden State's record-setting three point assault. The "stat gurus" blithely insist that "3 is more than 2," ignoring the reality that a team that can pound the paint can (1) generate extra possessions with great rebounding, (2) wear down the legs of three point shooters by making them work on defense and (3) erode the confidence of jump shooters by placing them under physical and mental pressure that they are not used to facing. Curry and Thompson are considered by many to be the greatest shooting backcourt in history but they combined to shoot 6-24 from three point range in what may turn out to be the biggest game of their careers. The Warriors succeeded last year where previous jump shooting teams failed because they complemented their offensive fireworks with defensive dominance and because the teams they faced lacked either the mindset or the personnel to effectively utilize size against the Warriors in the paint; this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder used size/paint dominance to push the Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals and then the Cavaliers used size/paint dominance to wear down the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The Warriors are a historically great team but we need to pump the brakes on (1) asserting that teams from prior eras with big lineups would be run off of the court by the Warriors and (2) that the Warriors' three championships in the past four years somehow represent a triumph of "analytics" and/or the style of play deployed by Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns and by his current Houston Rockets. The Warriors have won titles because they defend well and because they feature a versatile offensive attack; when they have lost in the playoffs or been pushed to the brink it has not been by teams trying to go small but rather by teams that can punish them in the paint, as Milwaukee did last night, as Cleveland did in the 2016 NBA Finals and as the Oklahoma City Thunder did in the 2016 Western Conference Finals and the San Antonio Spurs did in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard got hurt. 

D'Antoni ball is a high variance strategy. It can lead to a lot of regular season wins and some degree of playoff success but it is not going to work against elite teams in the playoffs; we have seen this for over a decade now. Houston supporters whine that the Rockets were just a Chris Paul injury away from beating Golden State last season, ignoring the reality that (1) Chris Paul getting worn down and/or injured during the playoffs is predictable/expected, not random and (2) the Rockets enjoyed halftime leads in both games six and seven only to lose, predictably, as their high variance strategy of overly relying on three point shooting failed when everything was on the line.

Both of the times that the Rockets advanced to the Western Conference Finals with James Harden leading the team in scoring the Rockets benefited from underrated defensive performances from a variety of other players (and Harden was often either bricking shots or on the bench during key moments in Houston's wins). "Stat gurus" scoffed at the idea that losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Mboute would hurt the Rockets at all this season. We are still looking at a small sample size (10 games) but to this point the Rockets have been awful defensively and offensively. If you understand basketball at a deep level--not by just looking at a spreadsheet--then you understand that adding Carmelo Anthony while subtracting Ariza and Mbah a Moute is a classic example of subtraction by addition: the team added "name brand" value but lost actual, tangible basketball value.

The Rockets' helter skelter style can be tough to deal with during the regular season, and the watered down NBA has a lot of teams that are bad and/or tanking. I would be surprised if the Rockets do not win at least 50 games despite their slow start--but I would be even more surprised if the Rockets advance past the second round of the playoffs.

Teams that win championships can defend the paint and can attack the paint by post up and/or off of the dribble. Styles may change but unless the rules are changed to the point of making the sport completely unrecognizable, the importance of having a paint presence is going to be a constant. Kenny Smith, who won two NBA championships as a player, understands that truth better than any "stat guru."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:23 PM



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