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January 13, 2012

Tuesday Truths for a post-UConn world

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:46 pm

Next week on a day that I trust I don’t need to specify here, the hardy perennial known as Tuesday Truths will roll out for its fifth season. Each week the Truths will track the per-possession performance of 157 teams in conference play.

The NCAA tournament selection committee and indeed most of the world at large evaluates college basketball teams based on their wins and losses. I look at wins and losses too — Syracuse is very good, Towson not so much — and once I’ve done that I like to delve in deeper still and look at possessions.

There’s a lot to recommend possessions analytically. For one thing there are many more of them than there are games. A Big East team will play about 1200 possessions in-conference. Think of it in TV terms: Tuesday Truths provides you with an HD image comprised of about 1200 lines, not just 18.

Another handy feature of possessions is that their outcomes are highly variable, much more so than the outcomes of games. In any given two-possession increment, maybe both teams will score two points, maybe one team will score three and the other zero, maybe neither team will score, etc. Basically there’s no telling what will happen. Conversely with a game we know in advance there will be one win and one loss recorded. That’s the nature of this thing called sports, of course, but for our more precise evaluative adjectives it’s nice to have an instrument that’s a tad less blunt. Tuesday Truths seeks to fill that need.

The Big East and Big Ten each have to get 18 games and a conference tournament in the books before Selection Sunday, so those two leagues have already logged enough action for us to take our first tentative peek.

Seeing some separation between No. 1 and the rest…. 
Through games of January 12, conference games only
Pace: Possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession  Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                     W-L     Pace    PPP    Opp. PPP   EM
1.  Syracuse         5-0     70.0    1.15     0.92   +0.23
2.  Seton Hall       4-1     67.3    1.04     0.94   +0.10
3.  Cincinnati       3-1     63.2    1.03     0.95   +0.08
4.  West Virginia    3-2     64.5    1.08     1.01   +0.07
5.  Marquette        2-2     71.0    1.06     1.01   +0.05
6.  Notre Dame       3-1     59.7    1.00     0.96   +0.04
7.  Rutgers          2-2     64.5    1.00     0.97   +0.03
8.  S. Florida       2-2     59.1    1.04     1.02   +0.02
9.  Connecticut      3-2     63.5    1.04     1.02   +0.02
10. Georgetown       3-2     63.7    1.00     1.00    0.00
11. St. John’s       2-3     69.6    0.97     1.04   -0.07
12. Louisville       1-3     65.3    0.95     1.03   -0.08
13. Providence       1-4     65.3    1.00     1.08   -0.08
14. Villanova        1-4     70.9    1.00     1.09   -0.09
15. Pitt             0-4     64.5    0.94     1.10   -0.16
16. DePaul           1-3     77.8    0.95     1.12   -0.17

Don’t get caught up in who’s in second or eighth or whatever. It’s January 13 and in-conference strengths of schedule played to date vary wildly. Just scoop up the low-hanging cognitive fruit: man, Pitt‘s struggling. Gee, Syracuse is best in the league on both sides of the ball. Zounds, I know all coaches talk about playing an exciting up-tempo brand of ball, but this time Oliver Purnell actually meant it.

The Spartans are unbeatable away from aircraft carriers and Manhattan 

                     W-L     Pace    PPP    Opp. PPP   EM
1.  Michigan St.     4-0     64.6    1.15     0.90   +0.25
2.  Ohio St.         3-2     68.5    1.10     0.86   +0.24
3.  Michigan         4-1     59.5    1.08     0.94   +0.14
4.  Purdue           3-2     64.4    1.06     1.04   +0.02
5.  Illinois         4-1     64.3    1.00     0.98   +0.02
6.  Wisconsin        2-3     58.0    1.00     1.00    0.00
7.  Indiana          3-2     68.3    1.09     1.11   -0.02
8.  Minnesota        1-4     63.8    0.99     1.07   -0.08
9.  Penn St.         1-4     63.6    0.99     1.08   -0.09
10. Northwestern     1-3     61.6    0.95     1.05   -0.10
11. Iowa             2-3     68.4    0.94     1.10   -0.16
12. Nebraska         1-4     61.9    0.84     1.03   -0.19

For years people yelled at Michigan State for committing too many turnovers. This year the Spartans are giving the ball away on just 18 percent of their possessions in Big Ten play. Conclusion: yelling works. Doubtless Tom Izzo is yelling at his team for their strangely average defensive rebounding in conference play, but as seen here the D as a whole has hardly suffered as a result. At the opposite end of that spectrum Indiana‘s been rather permissive on defense for a team that’s currently being projected as a No. 2 seed in March.

Last year Connecticut won the national championship after a desultory regular season in which they finished No. 10 in the Big East in per-possession terms. One might therefore infer that Georgetown is a shoo-in to win it all in New Orleans this year. Perhaps the more mediocre the Hoyas look in February, the better their chances will be in April. Or maybe last year was just strange. We’ll see.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

January 11, 2012

Batum Issue Lingers for Blazers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:07 pm

PORTLAND – Tuesday’s matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden highlighted a crucial distinction between the two teams: the Blazers are a team in the truest sense of the word, while the Clippers are at this point still a collection of talent.

That’s not meant in quite as pejorative fashion as it might sound. I don’t question the Clippers’ willingness or even ability to work together. It’s just that the pieces don’t quite all fit yet. The lack of size coming off the bench up front is a key reason the Clippers have struggled defensively thus far, and their small backcourt has a tough time against teams like Portland with size at guard. Beyond that, the Clippers simply need more to jell.

By contrast, the Blazers look like they’ve been playing together for years despite integrating a new point guard and three reserves who are part of the rotation. In part, that shows the difference between adding pieces to meet specific needs and revamping an entire starting lineup. Portland’s newcomers have been able to fit in around a core that has playoff experience together. It’s also a credit to the veteran presence of players like Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Kurt Thomas.

There’s a threat coming to the Blazers’ balanced mix, however, and it’s the impending free agency of forwards Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum. Having two starting-quality small forwards has made for an uneven situation, especially given Wallace’s well-founded reticence to play the four on a regular basis.

Starting at small forward, Wallace has thrived. His energy and ability to get out in transition have been at least as key to Nate McMillan‘s newfound up-tempo attack as the addition of Felton, and Portland even ran its offense through Wallace during the first quarter Tuesday night. He hasn’t been the Blazers’ best player–that title still belongs to LaMarcus Aldridge–but nobody on the team has been more important this season. Portland is outscoring opponents by a remarkable 11.4 points per 100 possession with Wallace on the floor, per And the pair of off nights Wallace has had this season match up perfectly with the Blazers’ two losses.

Wallace, who can opt out of his contract at season’s end, is already talking about sticking around for the long term. Because a possible extension would be limited to two years, it makes more sense for Wallace to become a free agent and re-sign with the team, but sources close to him told The Oregonian‘s Jason Quick that Wallace is open to retiring in Portland.

The problem is Batum will also be a (restricted) free agent next summer, assuming he and the team are unable to agree on an extension by the Jan. 25 deadline for players in the last season of their rookie contracts. Before last night’s game, Batum told Dwight Jaynes on Comcast SportsNet that playing time is the most important factor in his decision. He then proceeded to get just 16 minutes of playing time against the Clippers despite a solid outing.

Cutting Wallace’s minutes noticeably doesn’t make sense, but McMillan would be wise to get Batum more run while resting his starters a little more. Last night, the Blazers’ entire starting lineup was on the floor with 8:34 left in a seven-point game. With Portland’s lead in little imminent jeopardy, McMillan could easily have gone with reserves Batum and Crawford somewhat longer.

The other wild card here is that Batum is capable of playing more shooting guard than he has this season. Crawford’s presence makes that slightly trickier, but Wesley Matthews is playing 33.1 minutes a night–as many as Wallace. Dropping that number even to 30 a game could help McMillan find more minutes for Batum off the bench. This isn’t just a matter of keeping Batum happy; he’s a starting-caliber player who needs to be on the floor, especially during a season where resting starters is more crucial than ever before.

You can contact Kevin at Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

January 5, 2012

DeMarcus Cousins and When Stats Mislead

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 7:48 pm

It bugs me when people say statistics lie, because this simply isn’t possible. With a few exceptions, statistics can lie no more than your calendar can. All statistics are, after all, merely records of facts. What statistics can do is mislead, particularly if you start with the expectation that they are entirely reflective of the players that generate them and not outside context.

Let’s talk about a particularly timely example: DeMarcus Cousins. The Sacramento big man, who was suspended over the weekend by Paul Westphal during Westphal’s final days as head coach, is shooting 38.6 percent from the field this season. Turning to advanced numbers does little to help Cousins, whose True Shooting Percentage (47.8 percent) is far below league average. It’s easy to look at those numbers and criticize Cousins for taking so many shot attempts. (He’s using a team-high 27.8 percent of the Kings’ possessions.)

When you actually watch Cousins’ shots, however, they’re not so bad. If we could edit a tape that showed only the shot itself and not the outcome, I suspect you’d agree that his shot selection has improved from last season. Cousins still has a tendency to shoot too many long two-pointers when he faces up, but he’s been relentless in attacking the offensive glass, creating a number of attempts around the basket. In fact, his percentage of shots at the rim (per is up from 33.0 percent of his tries as a rookie to 53.8 percent this season.

The problem is Cousins simply isn’t finishing. His accuracy at the rim, from the same source, is down from making 62.4 percent of his close-in shots to 42.1 percent this season. Watching Cousins’ shots, a couple of factors are at play here. For one, Cousins does tend to get too cute around the basket, whether because he’s fearful of getting his shot blocked or just prefers a little extra degree of difficulty. Given that, Cousins has still had an inordinate number of shots bounce in and out so far. I’d guess this has happened at least a dozen times on his 70 shot attempts.

Over the course of the season, such luck will even out, but 70 shots isn’t nearly enough of a sample to make it reliable. Right now, his shooting percentage at the rim is mostly attributable to noise. It’s one thing to understand that intuitively, and another to see it in action when the ball bounces out.

Sometimes, the most important understanding of statistics is to know when they aren’t telling us anything meaningful. It’s tempting to find patterns amidst the chaos. The studies cited in Thinking, Fast and Slow indicate that it’s basically human nature to attribute to much of performance to an individual and too little to outside factors. That’s why it’s necessary to keep in mind the importance of sample size this early in the season, and sometimes even mentioning it isn’t enough.

The latter issue is why I felt the great Henry Abbott‘s post on TrueHoop on Monday comparing True Shooting Percentages and shot attempts during the first week of the season was unfair. Henry was sure to mention multiple times that it’s early, but still singled out players (including Cousins) as hurting their team by shooting so much. Especially among readers who aren’t as familiar with the variability of statistics, that’s dangerous, and I think it paints statistical analysis in a bad light. Unfortunately, when those readers consider numbers that don’t match up with what they see on the court, they’re likely to determine that the problem is with the statistics and not how they’re being used.

Their conclusion? Statistics lie.

(Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on DeAndre Jordan as part of De- week on Basketball Prospectus Unfiltered. Not really.)

You can contact Kevin at Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

January 4, 2012

DeMar DeRozan Can Make Better History

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 11:37 pm

Over 82 games last season, DeMar DeRozan made five three-pointers in 52 attempts. On Wednesday night, DeRozan matched that total in eight attempts in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As’s John Schuhmann noted yesterday, DeRozan’s three-point percentage (9.6 percent) was the worst in NBA history for a player with at least 50 attempts. On a more positive note, DeRozan has a chance to make history again. If he shoots better than 35.6 percent from beyond the arc this season, DeRozan will make the largest single-season improvement by any player with at least 50 attempts both seasons. That record currently belongs to Josh Childress, who went from 23.2 percent to 49.2 percent between his first and second campaigns. Just one other player (Hubert Davis, after a fluke down year) has improved his three-point percentage by more than 20 percent.

It’s surely much too early to speculate where DeRozan (currently 10-of-16, 62.5 percent) might finish the season. Already, however, he’s shown more development than most players make after shooting so poorly from downtown.

Player                   Year    3P%   3P   3A    3P%

DeMar DeRozan            2011   .096   10   16   .625
Dennis Johnson           1987   .113   12   46   .261
Michael Jordan           1988   .132   27   98   .276
Greg Anthony             1992   .145    4   30   .133
Detlef Schrempf          1993   .154   22   68   .324
Larry Hughes             1999   .154   29  125   .232
Mookie Blaylock          1991   .154   12   54   .222
Allen Leavell            1984   .155    8   37   .216
Micheal Ray Richardson   1983   .157   14   58   .241
Larry Drew               1987   .167   26   90   .289
Ray Williams             1982   .167   15   74   .203
Tony Campbell            1990   .167   16   61   .262
Rod Strickland           1997   .169   12   48   .250
Terence Stansbury        1986   .170   11   29   .379
Dwyane Wade              2006   .171   21   79   .266
Michael Jordan           1985   .173    3   18   .167

DeRozan has already made more threes the following season than three of the previous 15 guys who shot worse than 17.5 percent with at least 50 attempts. No one in this group made more than 30 triples the next year, a number that DeRozan has a chance to breeze past.

There’s another encouraging fact here, and it’s the number of these players who eventually became competent outside shooters. Obviously Michael Jordan stands out. Jordan eventually became a fine three-point shooter, especially when the line was moved in from 1994-95 through 1996-97. Mookie Blaylock ranks 29th in NBA history in threes. And Detlef Schrempf shot 38.4 percent in his career, including 51.4 percent in 1994-95. So even before his successful start to the year, it was much too early to write off DeRozan’s chances of developing into an accurate marksman.

Gasol: Not Only Better Than Z-Bo, But More Consistent, Too

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Paine @ 4:13 pm

On Wednesday’s NBA Today podcast, Mike Yam and Tim Legler were debating who they’d rather have at PF, Pau Gasol or Zach Randolph. Yam argued for Gasol, but Legler picked Z-Bo on the basis of consistency:

Legler: “As much as I love the intangibles he brings and the character that the guy has… night to night you’re not exactly sure what you’re getting out of Pau Gasol. Zach Randolph, every night, pencil it in — he’s gonna be somewhere around 23 points, 12 boards. Just put it down right now.”

When I heard this, my nonsense meter started going off.

First of all, can we establish that, in aggregate, Pau Gasol is far superior to Randolph? In 2010 and 2011, Gasol had 27.7 WARP to Randolph’s 22.0; he had 25.7 Win Shares to Z-Bo’s 20.2 — and those were Randolph’s renaissance seasons. Gasol’s Regularized Adjusted +/- is currently 2.8 to Randolph’s 1.7. By any meaningful statistical measure, Gasol contributes significantly more than Randolph (if you like linear weights, he averaged a higher Alternate Win Score per game — 8.9 vs. 8.0 — than Z-Bo as well).

As for Legler’s point about consistency, I grabbed the gamelogs for both players over the past 2+ years (2010, 2011, & 2012), calculating Alternate Win Score for each of their games. As it turns out, Gasol is actually the more consistent player on a night-in, night-out basis. The game-to-game variance of Gasol’s AWS was actually lower than Randolph’s, 19.7 to 24.9. Not only that, but Randolph’s variance was also higher for points (44.3 to 34.1) and rebounds (18.2 to 16.0), the two categories Legler specifically mentioned!

Disclaimer: Gasol and Randolph have different skill sets, so you can’t say that Pau is universally better than Z-Bo. For instance, on a team that needs a great low-post scorer, Randolph could be preferable to Gasol despite the latter’s superior overall production.

Having said that, though, Gasol brings more to the typical team, and the idea that Randolph somehow offsets this by being a more consistent producer is demonstrably false. Even looking at things on a night-to-night basis, Gasol is the better bet to put up great numbers.

Email Neil at Follow him on Twitter at @Neil_Paine.

January 3, 2012

PBP11-12 Supplement

Filed under: pbp2011,Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:42 pm

Because of the timing for releasing our annual Pro Basketball Prospectus book, a few players tend to slip through the cracks and do not appear–those signed late in training camp, or who make the team as invitees. This year, Bradford Doolittle and I are pleased to offer a supplementary .PDF covering the 18 players that made rosters and were not in the book, with projected stat tables just as for the 500-plus players who were included as well as commentary and analysis. The supplement is available to all readers and can be downloaded here.

As a reminder, if you haven’t picked up your copy of Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, the book is now available in both .PDF and paperback formats. For more details and to order, check out our PBP11-12 landing page.

Coaches are underrated, coaching may not be

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:36 pm

If you’ve ever coached anything, including and especially kids’ sports, you’ve had the same sudden and overwhelming epiphany that I’ve had: Wow, this is hard. Those players aren’t doing what I told them to do! Who knew! You enter your coaching gig certain you’ll be comparable to John Wooden, only to quickly reclassify “win” as “my players are all standing upright and facing the correct direction.”

Because I’ve had that epiphany, I am unabashedly impressed by what, say, Bo Ryan has been able to do at Wisconsin. I also harbor epiphany-fueled admiration for what Frank Haith has done this season at Missouri, even as I recognize that he was dealt a fantastic set of cards. And that’s just a couple guys who’ve never been to the Final Four. Don’t get me started about the usual suspects, particularly characters like Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Calhoun, who built programs more (Calhoun) or less (Coach K) ex nihilo in what were previously hoops hinterlands.

The admiration due individual coaches, however, is a separate and discrete question relative to an equally interesting matter: what are college basketball coaches for? The answer to that question has changed over the decades. Inveterate in-game micro-managers like Tom Izzo or Bruce Weber — both of whom, like many in the coaching fraternity, shout and gesticulate unceasingly — would be horrified to learn there was a time when in-game communication between the bench and the players on the floor was precluded by custom and even on occasion by rule. A lazy Gasaway (redundant) hypothesis holds that shouting and gesticulating from the sidelines have increased over the years in lockstep with salaries, as coaches seek to justify their increasingly lavish compensation in a purely visual manner: I am managing every aspect of this basketball game. I work hard for the money.

Apart from the accolades due individual coaching stars, I think college basketball head coaches draw much of their occupational mystique from sheer narrative convenience. The coaches are always there, year after year, even as the players change. We get quotes from these guys, and we label programs with their names and faces. But the fact that college basketball head coaches can serve as unusually handy semiotic devices shouldn’t be confused with a mythical ability to exercise total control over basketball events.

My proposal for an early-season Masters for college hoops is on the table. As long as I’m reshaping the non-conference portion of the hoops season, I’d also love to see an annual game where the players from both teams coach themselves. My guess is that game wouldn’t look so very different from every other one, even without a guy on the sidelines shouting and gesticulating.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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