Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

February 9, 2009

No Player is Irreplaceable–Except Robbie Hummel

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:58 pm

Yesterday Purdue suffered their worst defeat of the season–worse even than their loss to Duke–falling to Illinois 66-48 in Champaign. For the Boilermakers it was the second consecutive game they’ve played without sophomore Robbie Hummel, who continues to suffer from a stress fracture in his vertebrae (which hurts just to say).

It’s never easy playing without your star player, of course, but even within this select category Hummel is particularly tough to replace. Not because he’s on-track to be the next LeBron talent-wise but because of the widely varied tasks at which he excels for Matt Painter. No other Purdue player comes close to being as good as Hummel on the defensive glass. And no other Purdue player comes close to being as prolific as Hummel from outside the arc. 

Little surprise, then, that the Boilers are 6-1 in the Big Ten with Hummel playing and 0-3 without him. What’s more Purdue’s performance across the board–offense, defense, shooting, rebounding, everything–has been day-and-night better when Hummel plays. True, the numbers are a bit shaky here because of the small “without Hummel” sample and because the young man has had the impeccable good sense to sit out three road games. Nevertheless the yawning differences in defensive rebounding and in three-point shooting with and without Hummel are instructive. With Hummel the Boilers make threes and take care of the defensive glass. Without him they don’t. 

I usually steer clear of year-end MVP discussions because they always start with a pompous dweeb raising a smug finger: “Are we talking most valuable, or best?” Life’s too short for such labored and tendentious distinctions, so I flee from this kind of discursive navel-gazing–just as I avoid Pier One stores and commercials with Billy Mays. (Except, of course, for this awesome one for ESPN360.com.)

In the case of Robbie Hummel, however, my friend the pompous dweeb has a point. Hummel may not be the best player in the Big Ten but he is without a doubt the most valuable player to his team. With him, Purdue would be pushing Michigan State for the title. Without him, the Spartans can breathe much easier. 

February 7, 2009

Lakers-Bobcats Swap

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 9:56 pm

Take out the name “Adam Morrison” and it becomes pretty clear that Saturday’s deal between the Bobcats and the Lakers was a salary dump from the L.A. perspective. The Lakers sent reserve forward Vladimir Radmanovic to Charlotte in exchange for Morrison and Shannon Brown. Brown’s relatively paltry contract is up after this season, so financially this deal is really Morrison for Radmanovic, and the latter has an additional year (at player option) and will make more money next season. The savings for the Lakers is especially considerable because they are luxury-tax payers. From their perspective, that more than outweighed a slight hit to their depth.

Certainly, Radmanovic is a more capable contributor than Morrison, who has rated well below replacement level over the course of his brief NBA career. Nonetheless, the logic is harder to see from the Bobcats’ end of this deal. This is the second straight swap (the other for DeSagana Diop) that has seen Charlotte take on a less-favorable contract for a minor contributor, and this time the fit doesn’t seem to make sense either. The marriage of Larry Brown and Radmanovic is unlikely to end well given Radmanovic’s general indifference to rebounding and playing defense.

Once Gerald Wallace is able to return to the lineup, Radmanovic figures to back up both forward positions, joining Diop on the bench. That means Charlotte has more than $17 million committed to three reserves (Diop, Radmanovic and Nazr Mohammed), a figure that will escalate all the way to more than $20 million by 2010-11. Those kind of contracts (and yes, Radmanovic is yet another example of the mid-level exception gone bad) are killers in terms of flexibility. Slightly improving the bench simply isn’t worth taking on bad deals.

February 6, 2009

Game-Winning Shots By the Numbers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 7:00 pm

One of the most interesting studies 82games.com’s Roland Beech has done using his exhaustive play-by-play database is one looking at player performance on game-winning, game-tying or go-ahead shots. Beech has updated his numbers, which now show LeBron James having made the most such shots dating back to 2003-04.

A couple of years ago, when this research first surfaced, I offered the following response on 82games.com:

Basically, looking at even nearly three years worth of data on game-winning shot attempts and trying to draw conclusions from them is like flipping two coins 20 times and declaring the one that lands heads more frequently to be more likely to land on heads. You just can’t tell from such a small sample size. And if three years of data is relatively meaningless, can you imagine how little one shot tells us about a player’s true ability?

Well, now we’re up to nearly six years’ worth of data, but guess what? The conclusion is still largely the same. Statistically, we can use a player’s shooting percentage and shot attempts to calculate standard deviations and construct a confidence interval for their “true” shooting percentage–not the APBRmetrics stat measuring efficiency, but the actual percentage of shots a player would make if they had an infinite number of attempts. These 95 percent confidence intervals remain enormous.

For example, let’s take Carmelo Anthony, the most accurate star player in these situations with a .481 shooting percentage. The 95 percent confidence interval for Anthony’s “true” percentage ranges from .293 to .669. Given the league as a whole shoots .298 in these situations, we can’t be entirely confident that Anthony is any better than average despite the fact that he has shot so well and has gotten a relatively high number of attempts. There are just five players (Travis Outlaw, David Lee, Eddy Curry, Carlos Boozer and Antawn Jamison) whose 95 percent confidence interval is entirely above league average and only one (Chauncey Billups, not exactly living up to his “Big Shot” label) entirely below average.

For the most part, the differences we see in players’ shooting percentages in these situations are just noise. Now, this is not the same as arguing against clutch ability or that it does not matter which player shoots in these situations. It’s just that it’s virtually impossible to draw conclusions about players’ ability from such small samples.

What does strike me as interesting is this. Both Beech and TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott, in his own discussion of the last-second numbers, argue teams and coaches are too predictable in their tactics and would be better served with greater ball movement. I don’t believe the numbers bear out this assessment. If you look at the group Beech has isolated (players who have made at least four game-winning/game-tying/go-ahead shots), the 76 players as a whole shot .353 in these situations. Using the league totals, we can deduce that players with fewer shot opportunities have shot just .232 from the field.

I can think of a couple reasons why this overstates the difference between the groups (desperation heaves are probably distributed more randomly than other late shots, and Beech’s cutoff was by shots made instead of shots attempted, meaning there are players with more attempts and a lower percentage who show up as “role players”), but it seems to me that go-to guys have actually been more successful in these situations. As to why the league as a whole scores so poorly, I think it’s a combination of heightened defensive intensity and the aforementioned prayers.

February 5, 2009

Surgery for Brand

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 9:37 pm

The NBA injury plague claimed another victim Thursday, with the Philadelphia 76ers announcing that Elton Brand will undergo season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. The timing is especially interesting given the similar shoulder injury suffered by Orlando’s Jameer Nelson earlier this week. While Nelson and the Magic are deciding their course of action, Brand’s attempt to rehab his shoulder and return was unsuccessful.

Where the cases of Brand and Nelson diverge is in their importance to their respective teams. Philadelphia has actually played better without Brand (10-8) than with him in the lineup (13-16, including 10-13 as a starter). In the short term, Brand’s absence makes things somewhat easier for interim Sixers head man Tony DiLeo, who can commit to the small lineup with Thaddeus Young at power forward and Andre Iguodala at small forward that has been more successful for the team this season. Philadelphia has to be considered a good bet at this point to hold on to a playoff spot.

If the 76ers are to achieve more, however, they’re either going to have to figure out how to integrate Brand or make some kind of move, and this injury only makes that question more difficult to answer. Brand was already trying to shake off the rust of missing nearly the entire 2007-08 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and now will have played just 35 games over a two-year span. Philadelphia can’t count on Brand’s production for 2009-10, which also will make it very difficult to move a contract that pays him $66 million over the next four years.

The winner here is rookie Marreese Speights, who saw his playing time cut dramatically during Brand’s short-lived comeback and has been extremely effective when he has been on the floor.

Justice for New Mexico

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 3:09 pm

For years now ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has done an excellent job anticipating what the NCAA’s selection committee will do. His Bracketology feature has attained the status of conventional wisdom–and I mean that in the best way. Lunardi’s brackets distill and express the current thinking of the hoops world through the formalist medium of a 65-team bracket.

So when we’re verging on Valentine’s Day and New Mexico is still nowhere to be seen in Lunardi’s brackets–not even among the “first four” or “next four” left out–you know things are bleak for the Lobos’ tourney chances.

Understandably so. Steve Alford‘s team is just 14-9, a record that includes six non-conference losses to teams with RPIs anywhere between 69 (Creighton) to a shield-your-eyes 135 (Drake). With an RPI of just 81, UNM is clearly on the outside looking in when it comes to any Madness next month.

There’s just one problem. To this point in the season New Mexico has been the best team in the Mountain West. By far.  

The Mountain West’s Clear Front Runner: Pace and Efficiency Rankings
Through games of February 4, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                                  Opp.
                   Pace    PPP    PPP      EM
1.  New Mexico     64.7    1.13   0.93   +0.20
2.  San Diego St.  65.4    1.09   0.98   +0.11
3.  BYU            68.6    1.10   0.99   +0.11
4.  Utah           65.7    1.09   0.99   +0.10
5.  UNLV           64.9    1.06   0.98   +0.08
6.  TCU            62.6    1.01   1.07   -0.06
7.  Wyoming        67.3    1.03   1.16   -0.13
8.  Colorado St.   66.0    0.97   1.14   -0.17
9.  Air Force      58.0    0.84   1.13   -0.29

Any team that has both its conference’s best offense and its best defense in league play is truly a team to be reckoned with. (This description also fits LSU, by the way. The Tigers are on-track to be the subject of a similar post very soon.) 

It seems to me that nine out of any ten random hoops fans pulled off the street would rather give a surging team like the Lobos a bid in place of a high-major-conference team that is in free fall (cough, cough, Baylor; wheeze, wheeze, Georgetown). Better yet, ask first round opponents who they’d rather play.

I’m not promising New Mexico will be worthy of a bid come Selection Sunday (which by the way is March 15 this year). In fact they’ve got a tough game coming up Saturday night at home against UNLV. But what I am saying is that if, like me, you’d like to see a selection process that’s a little less Calvinist, a little less obsessed with original RPI sin, and a little more cognizant of actual on-court performance in the non-discretionary portion of the schedule (i.e., conference play), then the Lobos are the team to watch for the next 38 days.

February 4, 2009

Add one: LeBron drops 52 on the Knicks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 11:30 pm

Perhaps inspired by Kobe Bryant’s 61-point outburst in Madison Square Garden on Monday, LeBron James posted the 388th 50-point game in NBA history in Cleveland’s win over the Knicks on Wednesday. Rather than post another 50 facts, I’ll just update a couple of my existing ones.

First, James had 52 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, the 10th rebound coming off a missed Chris Duhon three-pointer on the game’s final play. In my piece, I stated that, unofficially, the last 50-point game/triple-double came from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975. Knicks broadcaster Mike Breen confirmed this fact, but of course it’s obsolete now.

The Knicks have now coughed up 50-point games in back-to-back games. According to Breen, this last occured in December, 1962. According to my database, there were eight 50-point games that month–six by Wilt Chamberlain and two by Elgin Baylor. One of those came in a head-to-head matchup, one of three times that has happened. The team that was victimized twice in a row was Chamberlain’s Warriors. The Lakers and Warriors played a back-to-back set on Dec. 14 and 15, 1962. Baylor scored 51 and 52 points in those contests, respectively.

A couple of other addendums:

– I overlooked one of the foreign-born 50-point scorers–Hakeem Olajuwon. Add him to the list with Dirk Nowitzki and Patrick Ewing.

– Also, in case it wasn’t clear, my database includes regular-season performances only. Another fact I could have included was a list of players that hit 50 points in a playoff game but never did so in the regular season. Readers pointed out two such players: Charles Barkley and Chris Webber.

February 3, 2009

Half-Nelson

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 7:38 pm

Sometimes, timing is everything. Between when I wrote today’s piece on the Orlando Magic and whether the team’s style could win a championship and when you read it, Jameer Nelson‘s shoulder injury may have rendered the question moot. An MRI today showed that Nelson has torn his rotator cuff and will at some point need surgery. The question now is when he has said surgery. Nelson can opt to rehab the shoulder and attempt to return, a la Dwyane Wade two years ago, or opt for immediate season-ending surgery.

I e-mailed Prospectus injury expert Will Carroll (quickly growing as tired of fielding my questions on NBA injuries as I am of having to ask them), and the timeline of 3-6 weeks for rehab the Magic has put forward is not unreasonable. Wade injured his shoulder on Feb. 21 and returned on April 8, giving him five warmup games prior to the postseason. While playing without surgery leaves the shoulder susceptible to popping out, there doesn’t appear to be a significant long-term risk to trying to rehab.

The bigger issue is that it sets the clock back on rehabilitation from the surgery, which the Magic is estimating at four months. That seems a little optimistic; if Nelson has surgery in June after Orlando’s postseason run is complete, he could miss the early portion of the 2009-10 season while rehabbing. Still, that’s a risk he and the Magic have to take to have a chance to compete for a championship this year.

In Anthony Johnson, Orlando was already weak at the point behind Nelson. Johnson has a True Shooting Percentage of .470 and has rated below replacement level over the course of the season. The Magic also does not have a third point guard on the roster, with Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu likely to share ballhandling duties until or unless Orlando signs or deals for a replacement.

One encouraging note: While Johnson’s net plus-minus is dismal (the Magic is 10.0 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor), Orlando has actually played pretty well with lineups of Johnson/rotating SG/Tukoglu/Rashard Lewis/Dwight Howard. Those units (with either Lee, Keith Bogans or Mickael Pietrus at two guard) are outscoring opponents by 20.7 points per 100 possessions with Nelson at the point; with Johnson running the show, they are still +18.1 points per 100 possessions. The slight caveat is that a lot of those minutes came when Nelson was sidelined for five games with a strained hip flexor. The Magic went 4-1 in those games, albeit against less-than-stellar competition (wins over Washington, Indiana, and Minnesota and Philadelphia teams that were struggling at that point).

Whether Orlando GM Otis Smith makes a move or not, to compete with Cleveland and Boston in the Eastern Conference the Magic will surely need Nelson in the lineup. His injury also all but guarantees the Magic will have to go on the road for both series, likely locking Orlando into the third seed in the East (the Magic’s nine-game lead over fourth-seeded Atlanta probably remains safe). With a healthy Nelson, that would have been a grueling task. With him at less than full strength, it is all but impossible.

An Eventful Evening in the Association

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:19 am

What a night for an NBA fan. After using Online League Pass to watch Kobe Bryant put the finishing touches on his record-setting night at Madison Square Garden, I flipped on NBA TV at the office to see the Portland Trail Blazers complete a comeback from a 20-point deficit inside the three-minute mark of the third quarter. Wild stuff.

Yet it still qualifies as a bittersweet day for the NBA because of an unfortunate run of high-profile injuries. The day started with the news that Lakers center Andrew Bynum will miss 8-12 weeks with a torn MCL in his right knee. The news could have been much worse–it was impossible for me to watch the footage and Bynum’s pained reaction to Bryant inadvertently taking him out at the knees without thinking season-ending ACL–but it’s still a tough break as Bynum had just seemed to get all the way back from last year’s knee injury about this time.

(I’ve enlisted Will Carroll to help me take an in-depth look at Bynum’s injury and its impact on the Lakers and the championship race, so check for that later this week.)

During the evening, a pair of All-Star point guards went down. Orlando’s Jameer Nelson dislocated his right shoulder during the Magic’s loss to Dallas. Later, the Hornets’ Chris Paul left the game with a strained right groin shortly after his team took the 70-50 lead that quickly evaporated in his absence. Portland outscored New Orleans 42-17 over the final 13 and a half minutes, with Jerryd Bayless torching Paul’s replacement (Antonio Daniels) en route to 19 points.

Paul is the only one of the two point guards who will find himself in the discussion of the league’s most valuable player, but together they might be as important to their respective teams as anyone in the league. The Magic are 11.4 points better per 100 possessions with Nelson on the floor; New Orleans is +22.5 with Paul, second only to LeBron James in the league. Fortunately, his injury doesn’t figure to sideline him for an extended period. Nelson is a different story; he could be out weeks. Not only is his backup (Anthony Johnson) all but done, the Magic does not have a third point guard after Mike Wilks tore his ACL during the preseason. Orlando GM Otis Smith already should have been considering acquiring a backup for Nelson by the trade deadline. Now that needs to become a priority.

In between the injuries, Bryant was brilliant on the league’s biggest stage, the venerable Madison Square Garden. His 61 points set a modern Garden record (dating back to 1968), eclipsing Bernard King‘s 60-point effort for the Knicks and Michael Jordan‘s record 55 points in 1995.

For a high-scoring game–for any game–Bryant was extraordinarily efficient, making 19 of his 31 shots and going a perfect 20-of-20 at the free-throw line. All told, Bryant needed 40 scoring possessions to get his 61 points, good for a 76.3 percent True Shooting Percentage–just barely better than his 75.0 TS% in his 81-point game. I was mostly only able to watch the fourth quarter, when Bryant was more dogged than spectacular. Give him credit for finding a way to get to the line time and again down the stretch to cap off his prodigious performance, the most memorable part of a busy day in the NBA.

February 1, 2009

Using My Last Timeout

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:27 pm

I’ll be silent here for the next couple days as the better half and I enjoy our annual flee-the-slush getaway. If you run into me on the beach in San Diego or in Santa Monica, feel free to chat me up. Otherwise, see you here later this week, at which time I’ll swing into full-court press mode and stay there all the way to Detroit.

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