Thursday, July 24, 2014

Karl Malone refused to decline

Happy birthday, Karl Malone. Most of us know he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and that he retired as possibly the greatest power forward of all time. But to me, his greatest legacy has always been that he had arguably the greatest late-career stretch of any player in NBA history. Here's how his age 32-39 years compare to the others who won MVP's in the 1990's - Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Charles Barkley.



Where Malone's peak fits in with the other superstars is debatable. His playoff successes and failures deserve the attention they always seem to attract. But his unparalleled ability to stay at an elite level - it's remarkable and frankly unprecedented, and it should be the first line of his NBA biography.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Who should win Defensive Player of the Year?

Since practically the first game of the season, it's seemed like the Defensive Player of the Year award was headed to Roy Hibbert. And his case remains strong - Indy still leads the NBA in defensive efficiency, and Hibbert's interior presence is the most integral piece of that.

But there are worthy challengers. I'm going to look at four candidates here - Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard, and DeAndre Jordan. (I thought long and hard about other guys, including Serge Ibaka, but ultimately I think these four stand above the rest based on a combination of individual and team success.)

Let's start with some data on one-on-one defense:



In terms of one-on-one defense, Hibbert is clearly the best inside - he's tops in field-goal percentage at the rim, and in isolation plays. But Noah is exceptional covering in space, both against the screener / roller in pick-and-rolls, and guarding spot-up shooters. Not surprisingly, he's also asked to play out in space far more often than Dwight or Roy. That's obviously a function of the defensive scheme, so we're not penalizing Howard or Hibbert for it, but it does point to Noah's versatility.

Of course, DPOY is (or at least should be) about more than just one-on-one field goal percentage. Next, let's look at how many minutes these guys are actually on the floor, and how they're doing on defensive rebounding (since an opponent's possession isn't over until you secure the ball).




Hmmm, tough times for Hibbert, and the real strength of Jordan's case. Dwight, Joakim and especially DeAndre all play significantly more minutes than Roy, and are all far better defensive rebounders. This is a bit tricky, because Hibbert's per-game rebounding totals are going to be affected by the presence of David West, Lance Stephenson, and Paul George, all of whom rebound at above-average clips for their positions. But the last chart above, based on SportVU data, shows that Hibbert also simply doesn't snare as many rebounds even when he's in prime position (within 3.5 feet of the rim). And his defensive rebounding rates have declined each of the past three seasons, even though West is playing fewer minutes himself this season.

Finally, let's look at team performance, both with these four on the court and off.



Yeah, Hibbert and Noah are awesome. They're both taking fantastic defenses to an entirely different level when they're on the court. I'm shocked by Jordan's stats here - the Clips don't exactly roll out stud defenders when DJ goes to the bench. Speaking of stud bench defenders, you have to take Dwight's position on this chart with a generous grain of salt because he's backed up by the superb Omer Asik. And he's often covering for three minus defenders around him, including James Harden, who went from Thanksgiving to St Patrick's Day without giving a single crap about defense.

So who should win the Defensive Player of the Year?

Man, is it tough to select one guy. Hibbert is the most dominant defender inside, and the lynchpin of the best overall defense. But he plays the fewest minutes and has really faltered on rebounding. Dwight is still a very good all-around defender, but he's not at the all-time level he set a few years ago in Orlando. And Jordan, while vastly improved in coverage and the league's undisputed best rebounder this year, still has inconsistencies at the rim and in pick-and-roll situations.

Which leaves us with Noah - the candidate with the fewest blemishes. He defends the entire court exceptionally well, he's been durable, and he's captained the second-best defense in the NBA even after losing ace perimeter defender Luol Deng mid-season.

Time to celebrate, Jo!



Data sources: NBA.com/stats, basketball-reference.com, Synergy Sports

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Recent scoring margin + schedule strength for every team

When at ESPN, John Hollinger found (not surprisingly) that recent performance mattered more in determining a team's current strength than dated performance from early in the season. He reflected this in his Power Rankings by including both team scoring margin and strength of schedule (SOS) over their most recent 25% of games, as well as season-long margin and SOS.

So how does every team stack up right now in recent performance?



Having trouble seeing this chart? Click here.)

Some takeaways:

  • It's interesting that so much attention has been paid to the Heat's recent malaise, when the Pacers' woes have been both deeper and more sustained. Indiana is 21st in offensive efficiency for the season as a whole, and bottom-five over the past month. And that's despite paying a Charmin-soft schedule. Paul George and Roy Hibbert have both really cratered since the first two months. It's not an exaggeration to say this offense is really only good at one thing right now: getting to the free-throw line (and hitting those freebies at an excellent 78% rate).
  • Most of the teams in the top and right sections won't surprise most viewers, but... holy Bobcats! As Zach Lowe detailed this week, the Al Jefferson-fueled offense and a shockingly elite defense have combined to create a real, viable playoff team. This squad won't be an easy out for anyone in the playoffs.
  • Hmmm, lots of blue circles in the "good areas", and lots of red circles in the bad areas. The gap between the East and West has actually closed just a teensy bit over the past month or so, but it's still ginormous.
  • I don't know what to say about the Sixers. Their recent scoring margin is an entire standard deviation lower than every other team in the NBA. In case you're not well-versed in statistics, that is comically, awe-inspiringly awful. They're the worst offensive team by a mile, and since the calendar turned to 2014, also the worst defense. Someday Michael Carter-Williams is going to be part of a really good team, but I suspect he'll still be haunted by nightmares of 2013-14.
Data source: Hollinger Power Rankings

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Top dunkers in the NBA this year

Who dunks the most in the NBA? Who misses dunks most often - and who never misses?




Can't see the charts? Click here.

Some takeaways:
  • Shocker: DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin both dunk a lot! Slightly bigger shocker: DeAndre also misses a lot of dunks - 26 so far this year, nearly 12% of his attempts. No one else has missed more than 16, which leads us to...
  • Plumlee! Yes, Miles Plumlee has thrown it down more this year than Mason Plumlee, but Miles has also missed over 15% of his attempts. Mason has missed only 6%.
  • Go figure: dunks are yet another category where LeBron James and Kevin Durant lead the league in efficiency (at least among the 20 leading dunkers).
  • Josh Smith: 97% FG on dunks, 25% on 3PT. Good thing he's jacked up 150 more three-point attempts than dunk attempts.
  • Now, if you're looking for dunking perfection (as in never missing), Robin Lopez and Markieff Morris are your men. Meanwhile, Marcus Morris is a modest 10-of-11 on jams this year. (Aside: what's with brothers and dunking?)

By the way, last year's top 5 in dunks: Blake, Dwight Howard, DeAndre, JaVale McGee, and LeBron.


Data source: basketball-reference.com

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How this year's title contenders compare to past NBA champions

There are, by my count, eight legitimate (or semi-legitimate) title contenders in the NBA this year - seven teams that are winning more than 2/3 of their games, plus the Warriors who are 7th in overall efficiency. I wanted to look at how those contenders compare to the past ten NBA champions in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency.

I'm using offensive (defensive) efficiency index, which basically means comparing each team's points scored (allowed) per 100 possessions to their league average that year. A higher offensive index (and lower defensive index) is better.

Here we go - and remember, teams want to be as close to the top right corner of this chart as possible:

(Having trouble seeing the chart? Click here.)

Some takeaways:
  •  Everyone considers the 2014 Heat legitimate title contenders - and rightfully so, given their track record and ability to seemingly "turn it on" in the playoffs. (And presumably more minutes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.) And it seems an increasing number of fans and media are placing the Clippers and Rockets into the contender bucket as well, especially with how well Blake Griffin played in Chris Paul's absence, and Dwight Howard's impact on the Rockets' half-court D. But it's worth noting that no champion in the past 10 years as been as average on defense as the 2014 Heat, Clips, or Rockets. Every one of those recent champs was at least 4% better on defense than the league average, and half of them were at least 7% better than average. The Clips are actually tied with the 2006 Heat right now, so it's certainly possible they overtake them soon. Now for the optimists out there, take a gander at those three teams on offense -  they're more efficient compared to their peers than any recent champ, except for last year's Heat squad. This year's playoffs could be more offense-first than any recent edition.
  • Except that Indiana is prominently involved. This year's Pacers aren't LIKE the 2004 Pistons - they ARE the 2004 Pistons. The raw numbers (and the early-season ascent of Paul George) might mask that fact, but consider how the league has evolved over the past decade. The average team in 2004 scored 102.9 points per 100 possessions, and in no season since then has the average been below 104.6 pts / 100 possessions. This year, the league average is a hair under 106 pts / 100 possessions. When you account for more dynamic offense across the board, Indiana this year looks even better on defense (thanks, Roy Hibbert!) - and even worse on offense.
  • The Spurs and Thunder. I mean, what is there to say? They've probably been the most impacted by injuries (Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker) of any of this year's top 8, and yet they still sport the best balance of elite offense and really superb defense. I don't think most fans recognize how incredible Tim Duncan has been on both ends of the court this year - he's top-five in the NBA in both blocks and defensive rebounding while leading the Spurs in total minutes. As for OKC, I'm really intrigued by the proximity of this year's squad to the 2009 Lakers on this chart - that seems like an excellent comp, in terms of one elite scorer (though Kevin Durant is more efficient than Kobe Bryant five years ago), an All-Star #2 on offense, and an underrated smothering defense.
  • Maybe I should stop calling the Blazers a contender. Adjusted for pace and season, they're less efficient on defense than the "Seven Seconds or Less" 2006 Suns. And their Damian Lillard-fueled offense is outstanding... but still only 4th-best in the NBA. That's not a recipe for winning two payoff rounds, much less four.
  • The Warriors, though - OK, they have to make the playoffs first. Fine. But the defense is right in line with championship standards. On the other side of the ledger, raise your hand if you thought a Stephen Curry-led offense would be less relatively efficient than the 2005 Spurs.
Data sources: NBA.com/stats, basketball-reference.com

Thursday, February 6, 2014

All-time top scorers through first 7 seasons

Since Kevin Durant is in his 7th season, and destroying everyone in his path, it seemed like a good time to ask: how does he stack up against other all-time scorers through their first seven seasons?

There's an easy way to answer this: just look at the all-time chart. But... there are a couple of problems with simply looking at total points:

  • It doesn't account for pace. During Wilt Chamberlain's first three seasons, NBA teams averaged 126 possessions per game. LeBron James started his career with teams averaging about 90 possessions per game. We need to account for this enormous difference to get a more accurate barometer of scoring prowess.
  • Not all seasons have had 82 games. Elgin Baylor played in seasons as short as 75 games, then 75, 79, and 80. Same for Wilt, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson. Meanwhile, Durant got hit with a lockout-shortened season in 2011-12, and obviously hasn't finished this season either.
So I adjusted Basketball Reference's numbers to an average-pace season (about 107 possessions per game), and I projected everybody's historical stats to 82 potential games played. (Note: we don't make any such allowance for injury, because that's more within a player's control and not a league-wide phenomenon.)

Alright, enough chit-chat. Here are the (adjusted) top scorers in NBA history through their first seven seasons.



(Having trouble seeing this chart? Click here.)

Some takeaways:

  • You can adjust for a lightning-fast pace, or anything else you want, but no one can touch Wilt. He had 21,486 actual points; our adjustments bring him down to under 20K, but he's still more than 1,500 points ahead of LeBron James.
  • Actually, Michael Jordan COULD have approached Wilt, had it not been for missing most of his second season with a broken foot. If you look just at seasons 3-7, Michael had more pace-adjusted points than even Wilt, so it's entirely possible he would've been the greatest scorer ever through 7 seasons.
  • Durant benefits greatly from the pace adjustment: without it, he would probably end this season about 8th on the list. With the adjustment, he's 4th (and if he scores like a madman the rest of this season, it's conceivable he could move up to 2nd, though it's very unlikely).
  • By the way, the average league pace during Durant's career has been 92.3. That's the second-slowest of anyone on the list (LeBron's first 7 years averaged a glacial 91.5.)
  • David Robinson passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in years 6 and 7 to finish 5th on the list. I knew the Admiral was a great scorer, but I didn't think he'd be the second-best scoring center in history through 7 seasons.
  • Elvin Hayes was actually 2nd in most FGA (and minutes) through his first 7 seasons, behind only Wilt. Alas, with a 44% FG, he doesn't make the top ten in pace-adjusted points.
  • Karl Malone! Dominique Wilkins! The 80's really were a magical time for superstar scorers. (By the way, in case you were wondering, Larry Bird was 15th on the all-time unadjusted list.)

Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 All-Stars and snubs, by PER

Now that the NBA All-Star teams have been announced, here's a look at how the 23 players selected (not including the injured Kobe Bryant) have performed this season, as measured by Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and minutes played per game. I've also included 11 players who've been often mentioned as "snubs", at least from the original announced list.


(Having trouble seeing the chart? Click here.)

Some takeaways:

  • Is this why they call Joe Johnson "Iso-Joe"? I tweeted this yesterday:

  • But hey, at least they took someone who's young, up-and-coming, on a great team, and throws down thrilling dunks. Give the people what they want, Joe!
  • Ignore Roy Hibbert in the bottom left. PER understates defense, and Hibbert is running away with the Defensive Player of the Year vote, at least at the halfway point.
  • The only semi-plausible reason I've heard for excluding Anthony Davis is the time he missed due to injury. But the thing is... he's played more total minutes than Dwayne Wade, DeMarcus Cousins, Tony Parker or Chris Paul. If he's not Adam Silver's pick to replace Kobe, I'd be shocked. Then again, Joe Johnson.
  • I honestly feel for Cousins, Goran Dragic, and Mike Conley being left out, and I double-feel for Kyle Lowry, who should be sticking pins in a Johnson Nets voodoo doll right about... now. The only consolation is that voters tend to remember the snubs the following year if they maintain their torrid play. Those young guys are likely to be rewarded, just a year late.
  • I understand Lance Stephenson is on an exceptional team, and that he's often the offensive fulcrum for the Pacers. I would've had no problem with him over DeMar DeRozan, though it's close and I'm OK with it either way. But I wouldn't take Lance over Lowry, who's been a better scorer and floor general, and is probably about equal defensively.
  • Ty Lawson, anyone? Anyone? 
And finally, just a friendly reminder...