Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

December 16, 2009

Vocally Big Ten-averse since 1990: Boeheim

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 3:24 pm

Yesterday the Big Ten announced it will investigate the notion of expanding, and over the past 24 hours there’s been a good deal of discussion centering on which school might make the best 12th member.

I said yesterday I didn’t think Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim would ever want to leave the Big East because he was so instrumental in building it into the swaggering hoops beast that it is today. Maybe I was understating the case. Alert reader Leonard G. has sent me an absolutely priceless clip from the November 8, 1990 issue of the Penn State Daily Collegian. At that time the Nittany Lions had just announced their intention to join the Big Ten.

And Boeheim? He was not thrilled by Penn State’s move. Headline: “Boeheim blasts PSU’s decision to join Big Ten”….

I guarantee, and you can write a story, Penn State basketball will never be successful in the Big Ten. I will give you my heart if they are. I’m talking ever. Just not going to happen.


The whole discussion came from talking about Miami coming to the Big East and how that saved us [Syracuse] from maybe having to go to the Big Ten. What I said was, there is no way Syracuse [football] could win in the Big Ten or the ACC. And I’m talking Syracuse. And now that Penn State is going, they would have an even lesser chance.

I repeat. Boeheim will not be heading up the Let’s Join the Big Ten! committee at Syracuse any decade soon. 

December 15, 2009

On tap: Bulls-Lakers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 8:52 pm

The world champion Lakers are in Chicago tonight for their annual visit to the United Center, so there is a little bit of an extra buzz in the air tonight even though the Bulls have lost 10 of 12. (And there are a lot more media types clogging up the works downstairs, dammit.) This also of course marks Phil Jackson’s only return trip to his former stomping grounds. Jackson was effusive in his pregame chat, though he didn’t say a whole of any intangible interest. I guess he’s just an interest talker, even when he’s not saying anything.

For the Bulls, it’s a bad time to be playing LA, which features the league’s second-best Defensive Rating. That comes on the heels of playing Boston, which is top dog in the NBA’s defensive pecking order. I guess I’m not optimistic that this will be the night Chicago breaks out, but in the NBA you never know. They have had a couple of days off after playing four games in five nights through last Saturday.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have also been off for a couple days after having their 11-game winning streak snapped Saturday night in Utah. The big news coming out of the game was the broken finger suffered by Kobe Bryant on his shooting hand. Bryant is starting tonight and has been experimenting with different splints to find one that will let him have a semblance of touch on his shot and proper rotation on the ball. We’ll see how it works out. Really you would think that is the only intrigue surrounding tonight’s game. NBAPET marks the Lakers as a 14-point favorite tonight, the only road team favored in the seven games on Tuesday’s slate.

I’ll be Tweeting, Twittering and Twardziking live during the game, so join me here: @bdoolittle.

Hoops implications of Big Ten expansion

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 5:44 pm

This afternoon the Big Ten announced that it is actively considering adding a 12th member, one that would give the conference a title game in football and the revenue that such a contest would create. When you have a 51 percent ownership stake in your own TV network, you find yourself in favor of a conference championship game in football. Understood.

After all, if you’re a college hoops fan you’re used to your conference being structured according to the whims and dictates of that other sport. Boston College, a 146-year-old Jesuit university located in the heart of New England, still looks odd to me as a member of the ACC. South Florida, which opened its doors in Tampa recently enough to be younger than some of my cousins, still looks odd to me as a member of the Big East. Both were propelled into their current conference homes solely by football. Penn State is in the Big Ten because of football, goodness knows. And the Big 12 didn’t add the four Texas schools a decade ago for their hoops, to say the least. Granted, DePaul and Marquette were welcomed to the Big East as no-football members, taking their place alongside the similarly-situated likes of Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Villanova. Otherwise if you’re looking at a school affiliated with a major conference you are looking at a bond cemented by football.

I don’t have a problem with that, I’m just interested in how it will shake out in basketball terms. For the Big Ten a 12th member (and yes, the conference name will most definitely stay the same–look at the A-10 and its 14 member schools) could mean a shift to a Big 12- and SEC-style hoops schedule. In the new 12-team league there would figure to be two six-team divisions. If you’re, say, Wisconsin, you’ll play each of the other five teams in your division twice (home and away) and each team in the other division once for a total of 16 games. The best feature of such a change is that it would bring an end to the annual hand-wringing about who you play twice in-conference. The worst feature of such a change is that the next 18 months will be spent arguing about who should be in which division–and, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the divisions will be drawn up according to football.

As for the candidate-schools most often mentioned as member number 12, I will assume here that Notre Dame won’t join, the Big Ten knows they won’t join, and therefore the conference won’t waste its breath. (As Brian Cook puts it, “If the Big Ten is doing this when Notre Dame’s NBC contract has six years to run, the Irish are not in the mix.” Exactly.) That leaves Pitt, Missouri, and, possibly, Syracuse or Rutgers. I hereby exclude the Orangemen from my serious consideration for basic Notre Dame reasons: I just don’t believe that Jim Boeheim would ever countenance an exit from the conference that he pretty much co-built. And my first-blush sense with Rutgers is that they’re being given the Very Serious Consideration, Truly! They Are in the Mix! treatment simply because a certain Big Ten football coach who invented soil has long voiced interest along these lines.

Which very quickly brings us down to Pitt and Mizzou. Either would be fine additions to the league from a hoops standpoint. The Tigers under Mike Anderson would single-handedly push the league into tempo heterogeneity. The Panthers should be required to sign a notarized statement pledging that they will bring the Big Ten another DeJuan Blair. I say expand away.     

A transparent Memphis: unbeatable

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:44 pm

Regular readers know that I think 99 percent of your garden variety anti-NCAA invective is mere antinomian braying, but the one percent that I co-sign wholeheartedly is the need for greater transparency, not only from the officials in Indianapolis but also from member institutions. So every week or so I climb back up on my soap box and yell for more transparency and the world continues spinning serenely and opaquely just as it had before.

Until today! When an alert reader put the case for transparency better than I ever have.

Don’t just mutter ineffectually; email me!

If you receive a Notice of Allegations, just say so!

As a Memphis fan it pains me to type this, but think about it. If the Memphis administration had released the NCAA Notice of Allegations when it was received in January as they should have, Calipari almost certainly stays where he is. In that case there is a 99 percent likelihood that this would have been the Tigers’ starting lineup this season:

John Wall
Xavier Henry
Elliot Williams
DeMarcus Cousins
Will Coleman

Bench: Kemp, Mack, Sallie, Witherspoon, Niles, Dennis, and probably Bledsoe.


Geoffrey G.

Excellent point, Geoffrey! Oh, sure, we can never know with certainty how it would have played out: “99 percent” may be a little high. Maybe Wall or Henry would have been spooked away by the air of impending NCAA sanctions. (Though Connecticut‘s being investigated and they don’t seem to suffer from a lack of incoming talent.)  And I have to believe that bench you list would have thinned out considerably due to transfers had that starting five actually materialized.

Still, the central point here is 100 percent correct. A couple months ago Michigan received a Notice of Inquiry from the NCAA related to this whole Rich Rodriguez practice-time football kerfuffle. Keep in mind an NOI is preliminary to and far less weighty than an actual Notice of Allegations. Know what Michigan did? They immediately told the world they had just received a Notice of Inquiry from the NCAA. What a concept! 

Memphis on the other hand acted like every 14-year-old ever and tried to sweep this matter under the bed for as long as they could–which, of course, was not for long. I am on the record as thinking the NCAA should simply cut to the chase and release NOAs themselves as public documents, bullet-pointed and redacted as the need may arise. But until that day dawns there is no earthly reason for schools not to acknowledge the truth in their mailbox. Well done, Michigan. Better luck next time, Memphis.    

December 14, 2009

Weekend in Hoops: Final Four-bearance

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:05 pm

Temple beat Villanova 75-65 on the Owls’ home floor at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia yesterday. Juan Fernandez of Temple, who just last year as an unassuming freshman reserve was able to hit but 68 percent of his free throws, made 78 percent of his threes against ‘Nova (7-of-9) on his way to 33 points. As a team the Owls made half their threes and 58 percent of their twos against Jay Wright‘s D. Do that and you can score 75 points in a slow (62-possession) game. 

The Wildcats entered the game ranked number three in the nation so this morning I’m seeing lots of variants on “shock” and “stun,” but I suspect that Prospectus readers will know better. ‘Nova may well be a very good team this season but from what we know this early, ranking them number three was far too much praise for a mediocre-shooting team that draws fouls often but fouls even more. Indeed aside from the gaudy ranking there’s no particular reason to be shocked or stunned that a team that struggled to beat ostentatiously young George Mason by one point on a neutral floor couldn’t record a road win at Temple.

Call this type of over-ranking Final Four-bearance. Speaking in terms of how we evaluate teams in November and December, we will forbear a lot from a team that made it to the Final Four the previous season.

Speaking of Big East teams that entered the weekend undefeated… 
Georgetown beat Washington 74-66 on Saturday to improve to 8-0 on the season, and to me the most impressive thing about the game from a Hoya perspective was simply its location: Anaheim. For a D.C. team to cross that many time-zones and beat what might be the Pac-10’s best team, even in a down year for that conference, is enough for me to take a closer look.

I had heard, of course, about the sassy new-look more-aggressive Greg Monroe. What I didn’t know, though, was that “more aggressive” doesn’t begin to tell the tale here. Monroe’s willingness to shoot has actually shot through the roof this season–while his accuracy has tailed off and, just to make things even more schizophrenic, his defensive rebounding has improved in spectacular fashion. It’s an evaluative mess.

The three faces of Greg 
%Shots: Percentage of team’s shots taken by Monroe during his minutes
DR%: Defensive rebound percentage

         2008-09    Now
%Shots    20.8      30.1
2FG%      57.8      48.4
DR%       16.7      24.1

Monroe’s frequent shooting has boosted his scoring average from 12.7 last year to 15.3 so far this year, so brace yourself for a lot of laudatory coverage that doesn’t realize the sophomore has actually become less efficient. And yet there’s no denying that the Georgetown offense as a whole, while still too turnover-prone (giving the ball away on 22 percent of their trips), has been shooting the ball quite well over its first eight games. Basically Monroe’s helping his team score more points by acting as the hoops equivalent of a shiny object to opposing defenses; individually he is far and away the least efficient Hoya starter on offense. Austin Freeman, Julian Vaughn, Chris Wright, Jason Clark–they’re all hitting shots while opponents stare intently at Monroe.  

BONUS Hoya look-ahead! When colleague Ken Pomeroy flips the switch on this year’s individual player stats, proceed directly to the Georgetown page and check out the respective tempo-free assist rates of the starting five. Prediction: You will find them to be freakishly balanced.

K-State plays the ugliest games in D-I.
And while we’re on the topic of impressively-located wins, Kansas State stomped on previously undefeated UNLV 95-80 in Vegas on Saturday night. Jacob Pullen scored 28 points for the Wildcats while hitting a Juan Fernandez-like 7-of-10 threes. Note additionally that Frank Martin‘s team needed just 74 possessions to flirt with the century mark. Highly-efficient ‘Cats of Manhattan, I salute you!

Now, about the fouling, both your own and your opponents’. Wow. I remember two seasons ago when Michael Beasley was still in residence and in occasional foul trouble, Martin was borderline-brilliant in how he used each and every whistle to either yank Beasley or put him in the game on a possession-by-possession basis. It was like the coach had discovered how to make basketball more like baseball and make Beasley the equivalent of a designated hitter, at least when he was in foul trouble. Fast-forward to now and I sometimes wonder if the K-State coach simply got into that habit and has been instructing his team ever since to draw a foul on every offensive possession and commit one on every defensive trip. Behold:

Refs working K-State games should get triple-time
Kansas State foul rates for and against; “Now”–through games of December 13

              FTA/FGA   FTA/FGA
2009 Big 12     0.37      0.52
Now             0.60      0.47

In other words for every two shots from the field, the ‘Cats are taking more than one free throw. (And, likely, missing it: K-State is making just 64 percent of its freebies.) At the other end of the floor, Martin throws a battallion of foul-prone bigs at opponents, the most notable of whom is Wally Judge and his rather improbable foul rate: 9.2 whistles per 40 minutes. Good grief, Judge makes Duke‘s Brian Zoubek, who reportedly was whistled for his first foul in the delivery room, look like Jon Scheyer.

Kansas State’s number of free throws will come down to earth when they get to conference play, but recent history suggests their own fouling will stay pretty much where it is. Right now the best way to watch this team is on a DVR with heavy use of the FF button. 

Indiana shows how to beat Kentucky–for a half.
Kentucky beat Indiana 90-73 in Bloomington on Saturday as Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson combined to score 42 points on 17-of-27 shooting and the Wildcats rebounded a somewhat robust 57 percent of their own misses. Nevertheless the first half was actually surprisingly competitive, and it was during that stretch that the CBS announcers passed along an interesting tale about John Calipari. It seems that in the wake of Syracuse‘s victory over Florida last week, the UK coach texted Jim Boeheim and said in effect: I hope my team doesn’t have to play yours because you guys look tough. Good call, Coach Cal! At the very moment that this anecdote was being told, a plucky Hoosier squad was staying in the game against the Wildcats thanks to three things: 1) Unconscious shooting (it wouldn’t last), which led to 2) Good transition D (Kentucky had to keep taking the ball out of their own basket), and 3) A zone defense. The Orangemen, who not only play zone but thus far this year have been shooting lights-out, are like some genetically programmed cyborg brought to this planet specifically to beat Kentucky. Not that the two teams are scheduled to play, of course. Still, file this under potential tournament match-ups we’d like to see.

Don’t just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Mr. Gasaway, tear down this Wall!
Today’s email was actually a tweet. (Technology. Is there anything you can’t do?)

Any chance we start suffering Tebow-like fatigue with John Wall soon? He’s awesome. We get it. @goodmanonfox, @JohnGasaway, @SethDavisHoops.

Jeff N.

Not really, no. Keep in mind Wall will only be around for a maximum of 113 more days. Tebow’s collegiate career on the other hand was longer than the Korean War, which I am told was also the cause of some fatigue.  

December 12, 2009

On tap: Bulls-Celtics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 7:03 pm

After 12 years of living in a non-NBA town, returning to Chicago has been awesome. During my dozen-year stint in Kansas City, I was lucky if I saw one NBA game live in a season. Once, I think, I saw two. This season, I’ve already been to five. However, the last of those came nearly a month ago, when I was on hand to see the Bulls edge the 76ers on Nov. 14. Since then, I’ve been derailed by Chicago’s “Circus Trip”, a holiday vacation of my own and a prolonged bout with a couple of seasonal illnesses.
Things have changed since I’ve turned out to the area, in a big way. The Bulls dropped nine of 10 before beating Golden State last night in an ugly game. Meanwhile, the Sixers beat Charlotte after leaving Chicago but have since lost 12 straight. When I last put in some face time at the United Center, Philadelphia and Chicago were a combined 9-10. No great shakes, to be sure, but that sounds pretty good compared to the three wins and 21 losses those teams have managed in the last four weeks.

Despite the horrid stretch, the Bulls are only one game behind the Bobcats for eighth in the de facto East playoff pecking order so it’s way to early to be writing off the current season. My preseason projection of 45 wins might prove to be overly optimistic for Chicago, but I feel confident in stating that the Bulls are better than the 31 wins they are currently on pace to win. (Not to mention the 20 wins their point differential suggests they’ll finish with.)

For Chicago to prove me right, embattled head coach Vinny Del Negro must solve the myriad offensive problems that have limited the Bulls to a 101.1 Offensive Rating, better than only two other teams in the NBA. The rumor mill has been churning out Del Negro speculation at a lightning rate the last couple of days. Last night’s overtime win over the Warriors probably did little to boost Del Negro’s job security, as the Bulls managed just 96 points in 53 minutes in a fast-paced game against the league’s 25th ranked defense. Locally, indications seem to be that Del Negro will get a chance to right hte shipi.

I’ll be delving into the Bulls’ offensive woes tonight for an upcoming Basketball Prospectus piece, so watch for that. Meanwhile, join me at Twitter for some real-time reax to tonight’s tilt.

December 11, 2009

A plea to the electorate

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 12:58 pm

Yesterday, the NBA released the early returns on the All-Star voting. I don’t usually pay much attention to these things, but I couldn’t help but take notice of these results. Tracy McGrady, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since Feb. 9, is currently the second-leading vote getter among Western Conference guards. As such, if the ASG were played today, McGrady would be starting for the West.

As a public service, I’m posting the link to the voting page at Please go vote early and vote often, as they say here in Chicago. Steve Nash is just a few thousand votes behind McGrady and would make a fine choice to start alongside Kobe Bryant.

As I say, I don’t usually give a rat’s ass about who plays in the All-Star Game but this is a little different. Who are these people that are voting for McGrady? If they are such big fans, then surely they are aware that he, you know, hasn’t played this season. Geesh. I’m not an advocate on fans voting anything, I must confess. Of course, I’m also partial to Plato’s notion of the philosopher-king, so a populist I am not …

Email me or follow me at Twitter.

Where’s the love for the Syracuse offense?

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:22 pm

I’m hearing a lot about how good the sassy new-look larger-player Syracuse defense is this season. The numbers from the Orangemen’s 9-0 start are indeed quite gaudy (the ‘Cuse has allowed opponents to score just 0.82 points per trip), and after last night’s 85-73 win over Florida in Tampa, Pete Thamel proclaimed this D the best he’s seen from his alma mater in the last 15 years.

That may turn out to be correct, I just think the timing of Thamel’s praise was interesting, coming as it did on the heels of a 75-possession game where both teams shot quite well from the field. Gator freshman Kenny Boynton looked better against this allegedly scary D than he has at any point this year, and indeed his team stayed alive in this game thanks to near-compliance with the Pomeroy Doctrine of Three-Love, devoting almost half of their attempts to threes and making exactly 40 percent of them. Syracuse prevailed simply because they shot 18 more free throws than Florida and because Jim Boeheim‘s men (Rick Jackson in particular) feasted on the offensive glass, hauling down 46 percent of their own misses. 

Mind you, I have a rooting interest in Boeheim truly having a great D this year: I think the zone is shamefully under-used nationally. But as it happens what I like about this team already in murky December is what I’ve seen from their offense, specifically its balance. Wesley Johnson got all the publicity after his huge game against North Carolina in Madison Square Garden, but in truth he is but one highly-efficient Amigo alongside Arinze Onuaku and, more surprisingly, freshman Brandon Triche. All three players are exhibiting freaky levels of accuracy while taking between 22 and 24 percent of this offense’s shots during their respective minutes, it’s just that Johnson gets more playing time. Freaky December accuracy has a habit of coming back down to earth as true road games begin to accumulate in January, sure, but regressing from making 63 percent of your twos as a team over nine games is a really nice starting point.

I will keep Austin weird by writing about it. Soon.
It speaks incredibly well of Texas fans that they have a football team that’s about to play for the national championship and yet Longhorn fans still find time to send me a steady stream of emails saying in effect: Shut the hell up about John Wall and start writing about the team Rick Barnes has put together. Multi-tasking Texas fans, I salute you! If you were in the SEC (official non-Kentucky league motto: “Basketball? We play basketball?”) we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Fear not, Austin! With your team about to play Carolina and Michigan State, this writer is slated to switch over to all-UT all-the-time mode very soon. Is it physically possible for Dexter Pittman to miss more than one shot in a game? Stay tuned!

Don’t just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Give a fan a tempo-free stat and he is hoops-savvy for a day. Teach him how to do his own…um, I forget how the rest of that goes.
Hey, John, love your analysis. What’s your preferred source for player and team tempo-free stats? I enjoy Ken Pomeroy’s but he usually waits a while into the season to post them on his site.


Wha? Ken does indeed wait for the season to ripen a bit before he fires up the individual player stats, but his team-tracking robots have been up and running from day one.

As for yours truly, I am a true tempo-free locavore. By growing my own stats in the backyard (last night I had to put blankets over them because we had a frost warning) I can be assured of having fresh and tasty goodness to share with you all, whether it’s Andy Rautins‘ world-historic steal rate (no steals last night–I demand an investigation) or DeMarcus Cousins‘ near DeJuan Blair-like offensive rebounding (the Kentucky freshman is currently pulling in 22 percent of his own team’s misses during his limited and foul-plagued minutes). Moreover, speaking purely as a reader my sense is that this stuff is more prevalent than ever before in the encouragingly lively and interesting college hoops blog world. Heck, tempo-free mania has even snatched a few bodies at the MSM level.

Zounds, if this keeps up I’ll be irrelevant by February! Fortunately I’m told that Ken Burns‘ next project is going to be a history of tempo-free, so I’ll be able to do long and ponderous but strikingly well-lit interviews where I stroke my beard (I’ll grow one) while I compare Dean Smith to Emerson and Pomeroy to Randolph Bourne. Dig that crazy progress.    

December 10, 2009

Gerald Wallace and Diminishing Rebounding Returns

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:14 am

Apparently, BBP readers aren’t real big fans of Tyson Chandler. The biggest source of feedback I got on today’s look at Gerald Wallace‘s improved rebounding was the question of how much it had to do with the Bobcats’ personnel–and, most specifically, the trade that sent Emeka Okafor to New Orleans in exchange for Chandler. For example, this e-mail is typical:

I just wanted to bring up the fact that you failed to mention that Emeka Okafor’s now in New Orleans. Emeka has been the major rebounder in Charlotte the last few seasons and now that he is gone Gerald has less ‘in team’ competition on the glass and may feel the need to crash the boards more.

Indeed, Okafor is the better rebounder, but the difference isn’t enormous. Last year, Okafor grabbed 19.0 percent of available rebounds; Chandler is at 16.0 percent this season. Teammates do have a considerable impact on a player’s rebound percentage, however. Coincidentally, Jon Nichols recently revisited a study on the diminishing returns of rebound rate originally done by Eli Witus two years ago. Nichols reached a similar conclusion–teammates don’t affect each other that much on the offensive glass, but they do in terms of defensive rebounding. In basketball terms, there are a certain number of rebounds that the defense is going to get no matter what, and instead of fighting the offense for them, defensive players are essentially battling each other. So adding an elite defensive rebounder will cause his teammates to grab fewer rebounds, and vice versa.

(Nichols also looked for the first time at diminishing returns on other stats, all of which makes his column very well worth your time.)

One way we can look at how teammates have affected Wallace’s rebounding is to look at how the Bobcats as a team have rebounded with Wallace on the floor, numbers available on his player page. Charlotte is grabbing 32.4 percent of available offensive boards when Wallace plays as well as 74.7 percent of defensive rebounds. Both marks are excellent. If we subtract Wallace’s own rebounding, we see his four teammates have a 25.5 percent offensive rebounding percentage and 45.1 percent defensive rebounding percentage. How does that compare to last year?

2009-10    OR%    DR%    TR%

Team      .324   .747   .536
Wallace   .069   .296   .183
Others    .255   .451   .354

2008-09    OR%    DR%    TR%

Team      .294   .714   .504
Wallace   .052   .203   .128
Others    .242   .511   .377

The data rather neatly illustrates the diminishing returns theory. Wallace has improved his offensive rebounding even though his teammates have also been better on the offensive glass than last year. At the defensive end, his massive improvement has helped offset the decline of his teammates. What this doesn’t entirely tell us, however, is whether Wallace is having to grab more rebounds or his teammates are finding fewer to go around because he is grabbing them.

To shed light on that question, I tried a slightly different method–weighting the rebound percentages of each of the other Bobcats by their minutes played to average them. Here, it turns out the offensive rebound percentages are the same (5.6 percent both years) and the defensive rebound percentages very similar (13.5 percent this year vs. 13.7 percent for 2008-09). Drop-offs from the Okafor-Chandler trade and in the rebounding of power forward Boris Diaw (from 9.7 percent to 8.0 percent) are offset by replacing DeSagana Diop (15.8 percent) with Nazr Mohammed (19.0 percent) and fewer minutes for D.J. Augustin, who is a horrendous rebounder (4.3 percent last year, 3.8 percent this year). Based on this, it doesn’t appear his teammates have had almost any role in Wallace’s improbable rebounding improvement.

December 9, 2009

Steve Nash and Quantifying the Subjective

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:10 pm

Today is Steve Nash Internet Day, with the Bright Side of the Sun blog inviting writers around the Web to share why the Phoenix Suns’ point guard is so special.

There is a tendency in the statistical community, especially in baseball, for analysts to take glee in being able to disprove the sport’s received knowledge. As an APBRmetrician, I’ve never really taken that approach. Instead, one of the most exciting things for me is being able to do the opposite–use the numbers to quantify something that has been merely suspected in the past.

One such notion is the concept of a player “making his teammates better.” Conventional wisdom has it that this effect is real and important, and no player has benefited more from it than Steve Nash, who won back-to-back MVPs in large part thanks to his supposed ability to improve his fellow players.

Certainly, there are statistically-inclined skeptics. John Hollinger devoted an essay in the first edition of his version of the Pro Basketball Prospectus series to showing that Jason Kidd, Michael Jordan and John Stockton did not make their teammates better. In The Wages of Wins, David Berri too argues against the concept.

With due respect to their position, I disagree with Berri, Hollinger and the other doubters. One of the fortunate aspects of the advances the statistical community has made in the past five years or so is that we now have more of the data we need to show how Nash in particular gets more out of his teammates.

During the 2005-06 season, I first took a look at this issue for by comparing the offensive performance of Nash’s teammates with him on the floor to when he was on the bench. While the effect was not uniform–Shawn Marion, whose drop-off since being traded by the Suns has been attributed in part to being separated from Nash, actually scored slightly better with the MVP on the bench–in general Nash’s teammates shot the ball better and committed far fewer turnovers when playing alongside him, an effect that swamped their tendency to get to the free throw line somewhat less frequently.

What that study lacked was a way to measure Nash alongside his peers. It was possible that Nash’s passing did in fact make his teammates better, but that this was common for point guards. Now, thanks to the regularized adjusted plus-minus offered by, we can make this comparison. In addition to the standard overall, offensive and defensive plus-minus numbers we’ve seen in the past, offers breakdowns of how players impacted their team’s performance in each of Dean Oliver‘s Four Factors using the 2006-07 through 2008-09 seasons. When it comes to shooting (as measured by effective field-goal percentage), the leader by a mile is Nash.

Player            eFG%  StdErr

Steve Nash       +2.96   0.40
Ray Allen        +1.57   0.39
Rashard Lewis    +1.52   0.38
Kobe Bryant      +1.37   0.40
LeBron James     +1.37   0.39

What this stat means is that, adjusted for teammates and opponents, Nash’s teams shoot the equivalent nearly three percent better from the field when he is on the floor. What is remarkable about this is how much better Nash rates than anyone else in the league. His effect on shooting is nearly twice that of second-place Ray Allen, and Allen and Rashard Lewis are the lone players in the league who have even half as positive an effect on their team’s shooting as Nash. (The difference between them also dwarfs the uncertainty in the statistic, as measured above by its Standard Error.)

Naturally, part of this is in fact Nash’s own shooting, which is phenomenal. However, the ratings of other players seem to put an upper bound on how much of a factor it could be. Is Nash’s shooting that much more valuable than Allen’s or LeBron James‘? His advantage, then, seems to capture how Nash truly does make his teammates better shooters with his passing. Let’s say that we can measure this by the difference between Nash and Allen, which is about 1.4 percent. Given that Nash is on the floor for a little over 50 Phoenix shot attempts a night, his ability to make teammates better is worth nearly 1.6 points per game. Over the course of a full season, that’s a little bit more than four wins we can credit to Nash’s ability to make his teammates shoot better.

While other adjusted plus-minus metrics have not been as positive on Nash, RAPM rates him the best offensive player in the league from 2006-07 through 2008-09 and third overall behind Kevin Garnett and James despite a poor rating at the defensive end of the floor. This certainly doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Nash play or knows his history of leading elite offenses–adjusted for league, the five best post-merger offenses all featured Nash at the helm–but sometimes it’s nice to be able to quantify what we already know to be true.

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