Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

April 28, 2012

First-Round Picks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:28 pm

Wanted to share my picks for each series save Indiana’s, including the ones Bradford previewed, as well as links to our comprehensive previews.
Chicago over Philadelphia in 4 (free)
I think the Sixers are better than this, yes, and they gave the Bulls some trouble in the regular season. However, Chicago is simply better at everything Philadelphia does well. Given the way the 76ers struggled in April, I see them packing it in if the Bulls win the first three games.

Miami over New York in 6 ($)
When Miami is at full strength, only a handful of teams can compare to its combination of front-line talent. The Knicks are closer than a year ago but not quite there.

Boston over Atlanta in 7 (coming)
I don’t think the Celtics are heavy favorites in this series. The Hawks have actually been the better team since March 1, and adjusting full-season results for likely playoff lineups only brings the two teams even. So don’t underestimate Atlanta’s chances. Still, home-court advantage may not matter as much for the Hawks, and it’s hard to pick against Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett in a close matchup.

San Antonio over Utah in 5 ($)
Given more time to prepare to match up and a solid counter in Kawhi Leonard, I think the Spurs can keep Utah’s big lineup from being as overwhelmingly effective as it has been. The Jazz is now perfectly capable of proving me wrong, but I see this as the trendy “gentleman’s sweep.”

Oklahoma City over Dallas in 6 ($)
If Rick Carlisle can manufacture close games using the zone and other in-game adjustments, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry may be enough to take the Mavericks home. Otherwise, the roster is just too deficient to knock off a Finals contender.

Denver over L.A. Lakers in 6 ($)
All four games were decided by single-digits and there’s no reason to expect anything else in this series. So, how predictive is the Lakers’ ability to win close games during the regular season? In the past, we’ve seen the same “skill” desert the Mavericks in the postseason–until last year, when they rode their clutch performance all the way to a championship. So I could certainly see this one going either way. Call it a tossup, in which case I’d prefer to buck conventional wisdom.

L.A. Clippers over Memphis in 6 ($)
the Clippers appear to be the stronger overall team. And this appears to be a particularly good matchup for the Clippers, who can neutralize the strongest part of Memphis’ defense with Chris Paul‘s ability to take care of the basketball and can use the zone to expose the Grizzlies’ weaknesses at the other end of the floor.

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

April 27, 2012

An Incomplete List of Players Whose Season High Patty Mills Outscored Thursday

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:02 am

In Thursday’s season finale, a win over the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs reserve guard Patty Mills scored a career-high 34 points. That’s pretty good–better than a lot of All-Stars, high scorers, past MVPs and even the presumptive Rookie of the Year managed this season.
Ray Allen (28)
Carlos Boozer (31)
Luol Deng (26)
Tim Duncan (28)
Tyreke Evans (31)
Kevin Garnett (25)
Marc Gasol (28)
Pau Gasol (30)
Rudy Gay (32)
Manu Ginobili (24)
Eric Gordon (31)
Roy Hibbert (30)
Andre Iguodala (23)
Kyrie Irving (34)
Ty Lawson (29)
David Lee (31)
Paul Millsap (31)
Steve Nash (30)

April 25, 2012

An Unweighted Lottery Isn’t Enough

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:22 pm

(Apologies if your eyes now bleed at the mention of the words “lottery” or “tanking.” You can just skip this post. There’s basketball analysis elsewhere on the site.)

No team has done a better job of tanking during the last month of the 2011-12 season than the Minnesota Timberwolves. As late as April 1, the Timberwolves were legitimately thinking playoffs, but after their hopes were extinguished the Timberwolves quickly went in the tank, losing 11 consecutive games before beating the Detroit Pistons last week for their only win since March 28. The Charlotte Bobcats have lost more games, yes, but their No. 1 lottery spot was secure long ago. The Bobcats simply can’t stop losing. Minnesota, by contrast, has gone from a fight for the league’s 12th-14th worst record to the 10th position. The Timberwolves even managed the seemingly impossible: out-tanking the free-falling Golden State Warriors, who beat them at the Target Center on Sunday.

There’s only one problem with this discussion: Minnesota doesn’t have its own first-round pick, having lost it to the L.A. Clippers as part of the ancient Sam CassellMarko Jaric deal before the Clippers traded it on to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the package for Chris Paul. The Timberwolves don’t even have their second-round pick, which went to Houston as part of a trade during last year’s draft, then on to Portland.

Minnesota has zero incentive to lose, yet players like Kevin Love and Luke Ridnour have been shelved from injuries they otherwise might have returned from anyway. Why? Because playing basketball is inherently dangerous. Every time players take the court, there is a chance they might suffer or aggravate a serious injury that imperils their long-term future. This is being melodramatic, obviously, but one reason stars sit out down the stretch–both for lottery teams and playoff-bound teams that are locked into their seeds and have no incentive to win–is precisely to stay safe.

The Timberwolves are an extreme example because they relied so heavily on Love, and their other two players with more than 1.5 WARP (Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic) dealt with injuries while the team was still in the playoff chase. Still, their case suggests that an unweighted lottery in which all non-playoff teams have the same chances–and thus no incentive to lose games–isn’t enough to prevent teams from resting players down the stretch. If the desired outcome is a league in which lottery teams run hard through the finish line (and, for the record, I’m against this proposition because of the perverse incentives it gives coaches who need no excuse to favor washed-up veterans over promising young players), then something stronger than an unweighted lottery is necessary, like the Sloan Conference proposal to rank teams in the draft by how many games they win after being eliminated.

April 22, 2012

The Lineup That Saved the Jazz’s Season

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:22 am

When Tyrone Corbin tried Paul Millsap at the three late in last season with Utah headed for the lottery, the move appeared nothing more than a gimmick. So it was no surprise that, despite adding another frontcourt option in rookie Enes Kanter, Corbin scrapped the experiment much of this season. He brought it back on April 2 at Portland, trying to match up with an athletic Blazers frontline. The Jazz rallied to win that game, and Corbin held on to the big lineup as an option to use at times throughout Utah’s playoff push in the month of April.

Saturday’s overtime win over the Orlando Magic was the ultimate triumph for Millsap at small forward. The Jazz played the lineup for the entire second quarter, about five minutes apiece in the third and fourth and the entire extra session. It completely changed the tenor of the game. With the big lineup, Utah outscored Orlando 71-37 (+34 points). That’s remarkable in a game the Jazz won by 10; all other lineups were outscored by 24 points. That’s like two teams at completely opposite extremes within the same game.

Even before then, the big lineup had been dynamite. Entering Saturday’s game, Millsap had played nearly exactly 100 minutes at small forward, per BasketballValue.com. During that span, the Jazz outscored opponents by 23 points, or 11.3 per 100 possessions, on the strength of elite defense. The big lineups had allowed just 86.6 points per 100 possessions, way down from the 106.4 Utah usually gives up. With Millsap at small forward, the Jazz has tons of size to control the glass and contest shots. Millsap has proven capable of defending bigger opponents on the perimeter. These lineups also almost always feature second-year reserve Derrick Favors, the team’s best interior defender who also helped take away sharpshooter Ryan Anderson Saturday, including blowing up the pick-and-roll the Magic ran with Anderson on the final play of regulation.

The Utah offense suffers to some extent with less outside shooting on the floor. Teams have successfully used zone defense against the Jazz’s big lineups. (Surprisingly, Stan Van Gundy never tried a zone.) This is especially problematic when Millsap plays small forward with the second unit and non-shooter Alec Burks. Lineups with Millsap, Favors, Gordon Hayward and Al Jefferson (with either Devin Harris or Jamaal Tinsley at point guard) have scored a robust 109.6 points per 100 possessions and outscored opponents by a remarkable 21.5 points per 100 possessions. Just two Utah lineups with more than 50 possessions together have been more effective.

If Utah beats Phoenix on Tuesday to clinch a playoff spot, expect to see plenty more of Millsap at small forward against whatever opponent the Jazz ends up facing.

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

April 19, 2012

On the Blazers and Injuries

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:47 am

Last week, Zig Ziegler became a household name in Portland. In a post on his blog, Zigsports, Ziegler related how he was hired by Trail Blazers assistant GM Tom Penn to evaluate the movement of Greg Oden and later other Portland players to assess their health and risk of injury. Ziegler found that Oden, Joel Przybilla and Brandon Roy all had issues, and ultimately all three suffered major knee injuries.

When I first read Ziegler’s account of his prophetic predictions to the Blazers, something struck me as off before Benjamin Golliver related his sketchy backstory on Blazersedge: They were too accurate. When you project the future for a living, the first thing you learn is that nobody is right all the time. That’s not the goal. The idea is to be enough better than conventional wisdom to provide value. If Ziegler had said he found four players at risk of injury, and three of them ended up getting hurt, I might have found his statements more credible. But three for three? That strains the bounds of predictability.

Yet it’s clear that Ziegler’s account of his involvement with the Portland front office has struck a chord with Blazers fans. For one thing, it reinforces growing skepticism about the Blazers’ medical staff. More than that, though, I think Ziegler’s core belief that catastrophic injuries are often due to overcompensation for other, more minor maladies speaks to our natural human desire to find explanations for outcomes, something I wrote about in my discussion of Thinking, Fast and Slow. When a player does get hurt, it’s compelling to believe that they were destined to suffer the injury.

In part, I think this stems from our difficulty thinking of injuries probabilistically. Instead, people are more likely to think of them in binary opposition: Either a player is hurt, or he’s healthy; either he’s prone to injury or he’s not. This simply isn’t the way sports work. It’s not the way life works.

We see this in the way teams evaluate players medically. Players “fail” physicals, which is kind of odd, when you think about it. The bar between passing and failing is set subjectively. Draft prospects are “red flagged,” which is an indication that they should be taken off draft boards entirely, but the possibility of injury should really be incorporated into the player’s overall risk assessment alongside the chances of them failing to contribute on the floor.

All players, no matter how durable, have some risk of suffering injuries. Some injuries tend to strike more randomly than others. There are, clearly, reliable indicators of increased risk factor. Behemoth players like Oden, Andrew Bynum and Yao Ming have proven more vulnerable to knee and foot problems. Players who lose cartilage to arthroscopic knee surgery at a young age, like Roy, tend to develop degenerative issues later in their careers.

So there is signal here, but as I noted in today’s column quantifying injuries, it’s buried under a lot of noise. That’s especially true when we try to evaluate athletic training staffs based on how often their players get injured. To the extent training staffs can actually make a preventative difference, we’re talking a small shift in the percentages. Over a single season, that’s overwhelmed by the random nature of injuries. If you were looking to predict a team’s games lost by using the numbers of games lost the previous season, 5/6 of the projection would be made up by league average and only 1/6 would reflect the observed differences between teams.

There’s also the question of whether these results tell us anything about teams’ training staffs, or simply reflect the players on hand. The Golden State Warriors are an interesting test case. After losing more games to injury than any team in the league in 2009-10, they revamped their training staff last summer, bringing in Chad Bergman from San Antonio to serve as head athletic trainer. Yet the Warriors still rank below average in games lost this year, and 25th in WARP lost largely because Stephen Curry continues to battle ankle injuries. Was the issue with the training staff or the players themselves?

I’d compare using these numbers to assess the work of medical staffs to trying to judge players’ ability to shoot free throws from two attempts. Odds are, the players who make both are better than those that miss them, but the sample is too small to make any strong statements about them. It’s only over more time that the noise evens out and the underlying signal filters through. Players shoot enough free throws to get to that point. I’m not sure there is enough time for injury data to build up to get there at all but the extremes.

The Blazers might qualify as an extreme. Over the course of the three years, no team has lost more games or WARP to injury. Portland was 29th in games lost in 2009-10 and 28th in 2010-11. There are some underlying explanations here. In the case of Roy, GM Kevin Pritchard and the rest of the Blazers front office knowingly took a risk, and were rewarded handsomely for it before Roy’s knees broke down. Because he has missed so much time, Oden’s injuries also skew the numbers. Yet what stands out as much is the sheer number of different players who have suffered major injuries, including guard Elliot Williams undergoing season-ending surgeries each of his two years in Portland.

I think it’s fair at this point to ask for a review of the Blazers’ medical practices. But it’s important to keep in mind that the organization should study its practices relative to the rest of the league and not the observed results.
You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

April 11, 2012

What Was Different for Odom?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Neil Paine @ 11:14 am

Following up on Kevin’s great piece about Lamar Odom’s steep decline and uncertain future, I wanted to look at what, statistically, changed in how Odom was used by Dallas vs. L.A. the previous few seasons. Here were the biggest differences I found:

* The ball was in his hands less. Odom went from 1.03 touches per minute and 1.69 “dribbles per minute” (a touches/min offshoot developed using this 82games research) with the Lakers to 0.95 and 1.49, respectively, with Dallas. His assist% dropped from 15.6 to 13.0. Yet his usage stayed constant — still 19.8% of possessions and 20% of FGA while on the court. This means Odom was playing off the ball more. (You can also see that from his 63.3% assisted FG rate, as opposed to 59.4 last year.)

* His shoot/pass bias continued to shift more towards “shoot”. Here’s a breakdown of Odom’s touches over the past 3 seasons:

Year T/Min %Pass %Shoot %Fouled %Turnover
2010 1.02 60 28 7 6
2011 1.04 54 33 8 5
2012 0.95 50 36 9 5

With his passing responsibility declining by 10% in two seasons, Odom shot on 36% of his touches this season, a career high. His previous high was last year’s 33%; his highest mark before that was 31% during the Clipper era.

* His rebounding fell off a cliff. Odom’s rebound rates dropped precipitously at both ends of the court this season — he fell from a 7.8 ORb% to 4.0 and a 22.2 DRb% to 18.6. Some of this is probably attributable to playing small forward more often. Almost all of this minutes in 2011 were at PF, but this year he spent about 34% of his court time at SF. He grabs about 1.5 more rebounds per 48 minutes as a PF than a SF, which doesn’t fully explain his 4-point decline in TRb%, but sheds some light on the origin of his rebounding slump.

* He took more jump shots and got inside less. In 2011, Odom took 43% of his shots from inside the painted area; in 2012 that number was 29%. (This tends to happen when a career-high 32% of your FGA come from downtown.) He drew fouls at practically the same rate, but his overall ability to get close shots was largely gone, as was his ability to finish what inside chances he had (he shot 14.5 percentage points worse on inside shots this year than in 2011). Added to that was the fact that his shooting stroke disappeared: Odom went from a .472 eFG% on jumpers (including 38% on threes) and a .675 FT% in 2011 to .329 (25%) and .592 in ’12. He was probably never going to make 38% on threes again, but this is a guy who consistently hit 65-70% of his FTs and made at least 45% of his 2-pointers even in his Clippers days. Is the lockout to blame for his complete and sudden decline in pure shooting skill?

* He cut much less, spotted up way more, and was less effective in the post. According to this Sebastian Pruiti article at Grantland, Odom made a basket cut on 16.4% of his plays and spotted up for a jumper on 13.1% of them in 2011. He also averaged 1.225 pts/play on post-ups, which ranked 3rd in the NBA. This year, those numbers are 8.2%, 23.7%, and 0.55 (which ranks 136th). Given that his shooting stroke was very likely to regress to the mean after 2011, it really didn’t bode well for Odom’s efficiency that he was used less as a cutter and more as a spot-up shooter in Dallas.

I can’t tell you whether the Mavs were inherently a bad fit for Odom, or if he simply didn’t want to make it work in Dallas. But I can say that the Mavs were not using him the same way in which he was deployed productively by L.A. for so many years. His best shot at returning to form would be a team that lets him handle the ball and distribute more often, make more off-ball cuts, spot up for jumpers less, and play more PF. I find it hard to believe that a 32-year-old like Odom has “lost it” overnight; more likely, he was disinterested and Dallas wasn’t utilizing his skill set in an optimal way.

Email Neil at np@sports-reference.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Neil_Paine.

April 2, 2012

In Which Not All Wins and Losses Are Created Equal

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:47 pm

I realize by now many of you are probably sick of the tanking discussion, which I leaped into last week by posting my clarification of the term and defense of rebuilding mere hours before TrueHoop ratcheted up its efforts to combat tanking via HoopIdea. Slowly, however, I find my understanding of the issue starting to crystallize as I read other people talk about tanking.

The process started on Saturday, when Matt Steinmetz of CSN Bay Area wrote a column hoping that “the player the Warriors draft this summer is worth it.” It, of course, refers to the losing the team has done lately with multiple starters (including newly acquired Andrew Bogut) out due to injury. There are a couple of possible responses to this. One completely rational argument came from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News, who pointed out the Warriors weren’t exactly sacrificing a chance at the playoffs and that going all-out for this season had already resulted in plenty of disappointing losses.

I’m not even sure Kawakami goes far enough. To me, losing games with young players is better than losing them with more or less the same cast of characters Golden State has run out there for years. The loss to New Jersey on Friday that was the proximate cause of Steinmetz’s take also featured Jeremy Tyler showing flashes of what he could become as a post scorer (granted, against poor defenders), Charles Jenkins offering solid minutes at the point and Klay Thompson getting force-fed clutch possessions to see whether he can be a go-to guy. Giving rookies these game opportunities has value above and beyond the draft implications of the Warriors’ results.

From the outside, watching players like Jenkins, Thompson and Tyler succeed and fail is part of the fun of investing deeply in the NBA. Whatever success they eventually have can be measured against their early steps–some false, some true. I recognize not everyone feels the same way; one Golden State fan replied to my tweet Saturday asserting that my position on rebuilding is really that losing can be fun with the comment that watching the team is “freaking awful.”

Still, I think the same position informs my disagreement with Rob Mahoney‘s assessment that Portland’s front office and coaching staff/players aren’t on the same page when it comes to goals the rest of the season. From a realistic standpoint, surely the Blazers’ decision-makers didn’t expect the team to go 5-5 in its first 10 games after the roster was blown up. But I fundamentally don’t think winning games with Luke Babbitt, Jonny Flynn and J.J. Hickson playing key roles is the same as winning games with Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace. We already knew the ceiling for that group, which had run its course. With the exception of impending free agents Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford (who holds a player option), Portland’s current rotation is made up of players who could be part of Portland’s future. Seeing them have some success offers much more hope for the future than watching veterans rack up late-season wins that don’t translate into a playoff spot.

Ultimately, for me the issue is much less about whether or not teams are winning or losing late in the season and much more about who’s doing that winning or losing.

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

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