Thursday, January 14, 2016

Quick math for S.C.- can you "jack" net rating with Free Throws

In a thread at FeartheSword commenter S.C. complains that FTs late in a Boston game can cause net rating to get "jacked".  Is this plausible?

In the game under discussion the Celtics had a 1 pt lead with about 1 min to play and ended up winning by 9 in part thanks to desperation fouling.  How much could this effect net rtg over the course of a season?  Well 8 pts over 82 games is worth less than 0.1 pts in final differential, so for a team to experience a substantial increase in their net rtg due to circumstances like these they would need 10+ events worth 8 pts to give them a fake improvement of a full point.  Of course this assumes that they are never on the other end of the scenario, so they need to be on the winning side 10 more times than the losing to gain a full point.  Even if they were very good/lucky and had a 2:1 ratio in their favor they would need to play 30 games a year that ended with desperation fouling.  Not particularly plausible.

How about the 8 pt swing?  Is that plausible?  Well, no.  Only 4 of those 8 pts were due to desperation fouling, the Celtics and Pacers had "normal" possessions until the Pacers missed a shot with 29 seconds left and started fouling.  Realistically for a team to jack their net rating by +1 due to these games they would have to play them 60 times a year, and be on the winning side at a 2:1 ratio.

There are also lots of other potentially odd situations late in games that "effect" net rating,  large leads where one team pulls its starters before the other, and teams dribbling out the clock and not working for a shot generally push back in the other direction.  Anyway you look at it though it is very hard for these things to substantially alter a full seasons play because they are not common enough nor are they perpetually one sided. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Lebron's decline?

Seth Partnow has a piece up at the Washington Post where he argues that Lebron has entered his physical decline and cites two (damning) pieces of evidence.  First that Lebron is getting blocked at the rim at a much higher rate the past two seasons (9.4% of the time this year vs 5.2% his final year in Miami) and his FG% at the rim has declined EVEN when ignoring those blocked shots.  I will add in a 3rd piece of evidence, his FT rate is the 2nd lowest of his career, ahead only of his sophomore season, and 5-6 percentage points below his time with Miami.  If that is the only evidence available it certainly seems inarguable that Lebron's physical prime is behind him.

There are some encouraging signs in the opposite direction.  While Lebron is finishing at the rim at a substantially worse rate, he is getting to the rim better than at any other point in his career.  According to Basketball-Reference Lebron has taken 43.5% of his shots inside of 3 ft so far this year, substantially above his 2nd best year of 39.9% and miles better than his career average of 34.3%.  He is also taking a few extra shots from between 3 and 10 ft, 13.6% vs career average of 12.2% and his 3pt rate is right around his career average, which means these extra close 2s are all coming at the expense of shots from 10 ft out to the 3 pt line, the easiest shot in the league to take, and the least valuable. 

This is not a compositional change either where Lebron is passing out of long 2s and so his percentages from other spots rise as a result of lower usage.  James' usg, at 32.9 after last nights game, is the highest it has been since he left Cleveland for Miami and his turnover rate is the 2nd lowest of the past 6 seasons.  Meanwhile a couple of other indicators of athletic ability, steal and block percentages, are right at his career average. 

So far this season James' decline in efficiency at the rim, combined with his worst 3 pt shooting season and a below average FT% have overwhelmed his large improvement in shot selection (for lack of a better term).  Considering that he has finished the last 7 years at 33% or above from 3 and the last 4 years above 35% it is highly unlikely that he has suddenly become Josh Smith bad at 3 pt shooting. 

In conclusion Seth Partnow is probably correct that Lebron has entered into his "decline", but his numbers are an exaggeration of that decline without the proper context.  Lebron's decline is likely to be gradual, and at times almost imperceptible, which is not at all unprecedented as other NBA greats like Kobe, Duncan, Jordan and (especially) Karl Malone have managed to fight off aging to varying degrees. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Narrative vs reality

I'm a Cavs fan, and I watch Cavs games.  Last night Kyrie and Lebron were great, getting to the rim, spectacular finishes, nailing outside shots.  The narrative from a game like this is that the Wizards couldn't keep up with the Cavs 2 big scorers (sorry Kevin Love).  But they actually did.  The Wizards earned 8 more FTs than the Cavs, made 2 more 3s on 5 fewer attempts, and had a higher FG%, eFG%, and TS% than the Cavs.  In terms of "ball movement" Washington DOUBLED the Cavs assist % and almost doubled their assist total (31 to 16). 

How did the Cavs win, and win fairly handily as Cleveland's lead was between 8 and 14 points from 8:43 remaining until Wall hit a 3 with 2.9 seconds remaining to make the final score more respectable, when Washington was more efficient by most metrics?  Well Gortat, Porter and Dudley combined for 5 offensive rebounds, and the rest of the Wizards combined for zero.  On the Cavs side Love had 5 0-boards on his own.  Dellavedova had as many offensive rebounds (3) in 28 mins as John Wall had total rebounds in 40 mins. 

That the Cavs out rebounded the Wizards is unsurprising.  Cleveland is 3rd and 7th in D and O rebounding rates and the Wizards are 15th and 26th, but that the Cavs could do it while playing a 7 man rotation that consisted of 4 guards under 6'6?  While Mozgov played only 4.5 mins?  This game further reinforces my belief that the single biggest edge that Cleveland has is in its ability to field 3 or 4 + rebounders at a time, even when they are playing "small". 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


There are three basic defensive concepts in the NBA.  One is man on man advantage/disadvantage, taking an extreme example lets look at Kyrie Irving vs Andrew Bogut.  Kyrie is never, ever going to be able to back down Bogut in the post and get up a good shot from that position.  On the other hand Bogut cannot guard Kyrie on the perimeter.  Irving will be either taking wide open 3s or getting to the rim with ease, and because the offense gets to dictate where and when to start the attack such a pairing will always go in Irving's favor. Before you smack your forehead, exclaim "duh" and wander off to another site there is an important concept to tease out.  The gap in skill can be measured by the amount of time it takes to work a good shot.  Turn the shot clock off and Kyrie still is going to fail in the post vs Bogut, and unless you cut the shot clock down to under 6 seconds Bogut is not going to be able to handle Kyrie.  This is the concept the hedge is based on, a big man steps out on a guard and essentially says "I can handle this space of floor for this many seconds against you" and then he is often in full retreat mode, scrambling back to find the open man. 

The second basic concept also applies to the hedge, and it is the power of position.  A relatively slow footed C can corral a lightning bug PG if they anticipate the screen, how the PG will use the screen and know where to retreat to recover.  The first part of the hedge is to know how long you are guarding the ball handler and the second part is to be close enough and ready to get to the necessary spot before he does.

The third concept is help defense, and the most important part of help defense is knowing where to be.  This functionally means that the on ball player can aid his help defenders by getting beaten (when he is beaten) consistently.  Obviously it is better to never get beat, but since every one does getting beaten to certain spots, at certain angles is the way to go, allowing your team mates to get there and contest the shot.

This is a very basic intro, but I need a base to build on when talking about the Warriors defense.  The Dubs D is based on the switch, and based on the fact that they can switch.  When a commentator says "Draymond Green can guard the 1 - 5 spots", they don't literally mean Green can get out on the perimeter and guard Kyrie Irving from the beginning of the shot clock, to the end for 30+ mins a game (at least you hope that they understand some nuance).  If Bogut can handle Kyrie for less than 6 seconds of shot clock, Green can probably do it for 12-15 seconds on most possessions.  If the Cavs take 6-8 seconds to bring the ball up the court, survey the D and initiate a play then the Warriors will be very close to that time frame where they can switch Green onto Irving without major concern.  If they switch before this there are two fears.  One is that Irving can isolate and break down Green, and #2 is that the man Curry has switched to has the time after receiving a pass.  Having Love and Lebron on the court with Kyrie makes issue number 2 a potential nightmare for Golden State.  Either player can beat Curry in the post easily, on multiple possessions a game, while also being able to pass out of a double team if GS decides to help. 

Now Golden State wants Curry on Kyrie, not necessarily because he is their best on ball defender (though he is underrated in this aspect) but because their switch based style relies fairly heavily on slowing down early offense and getting their defenders into that window where they can hang on without to much help and use the shot clock to their advantage.  Curry being on anyone but Kyrie is an automatic mismatch in some way that should scream out "take advantage of this!" every time down the floor and encouraging that exact early offense they want to delay.  Even just swapping Curry onto Shumpert means their best offensive player is at risk of burning energy fighting off a player that is 2 inches and perhaps 35 lbs heavier each time down the court. 

In part 2B I will address what Golden State will have to emphasize to avoid the issue of switching early on, and in part 3 start in on what Cleveland will have to do to slow down the Warriors offense. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

The most interesting game of the year- Part 1

Christmas day, #1 in the West meets #1 in the East!  Only a few games a year deserve an in depth preview and this is one of them, both teams should be rested, mostly healthy and with time to prepare.  In last seasons finals the Cavs were forced to go to what was essentially a 7 man rotation after Kyrie Irving's knee cap fractured.  The Cavs managed to hang on and make the series far more competitive than anyone expected after that injury so I want to start with how a team down two all star starters and playing 2 guys on minimum contracts managed to squeeze out two wins verses a healthy 67 win team with a 10 pt differential. 

#1-  Turnovers.  The Cavs went ultra conservative on offense, focused heavily on Lebron iso.  Their 11.1 TO% was 3.2 percentage points lower than the Warriors regular season rate.  Over the course of the full season that 11.1 number would have been the best team in the league in 14/15, impressive when faced against the #8 defense in forcing turnovers. 

#2-  Offensive rebounding.  A smaller gap, but the Warriors were 18th in the league in defensive rebounding last season, but their production in the finals was on par with the 28th spot.

#3-  Fouls.  The Cavs drew 2 more fouls a game, and out took 3. 67 more FTs per game.  This gap was unremarkable compared to the regular season because the Warriors were below average at preventing and FTs and in the bottom 6 at generating them, while the Cavs were the 7th best at generating, and the best at preventing FTs in the league.   That the Cavs could force FTs at a high rate while missing their 2nd and 3rd best FT generating players.  While Lebron was the driving force behind the raw number of FTs, two other Cavs (Moz and Tristan) had significantly higher FTrs. 

There are two ways of looking at Kevin Love's absence through these stats.  The first is that even though has excelled in each of these areas during his career the Cavs managed just fine without him and his addition would have been muted.  The other is that if Golden State struggled in these areas the adding Love is going to put pressure on the Dubs in ways that few other teams can.  I am of the latter opinion.  While the temptation to start plays off with a Kyrie/Lebron PnR is there the Warriors can counter by switching heavily and using Thompson/Green/Igoudala as the primary defenders while relying on help D near the rim to help contain.  With a K/L PnR Love will spend a lot of time on the perimeter as a shooter as Tristan Thompson can't draw a defender out more than a few feet.  If Love is setting the pick with Lebron handling the Warriors will still switch, but at least one of their "bigs" will be out on the pick and roll and sometimes both.  At the finish the Cavs will have a better 3 pt shooter (Kyrie) on the perimeter and a better O rebounder (Love) near the hoop.  The Cavs can also isolate Love on Igoudala on a switch and have a 4 inch and 40 pound advantage with limited help options. 

By focusing early on Love offensively the Cavs can constantly put pressure on one of the few weak spots in the Warriors defense.  In future installments I will be going into how the Cavs can try to contain the Warriors offense, how the Warriors can fight back against this basic Love-centric plan and ultimately display my homerism by declaring Cleveland the better team.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Return of the Kyrie

Its not every day the #4 offense gets to add a 23 year old 3 time all star, so let's look into Kyrie's expected return and how much of a boost the Cavs should see.

First I expect that Kyrie's mins will come at the expense of Jared Cunningham, Mo Williams and Matt Dellavedova. Kyrie has a career TS of 55.8% and had a 58.3 mark last season.  I'll split the difference and assume about a 57% TS rate.  Delly and Mo have been doing very well in this regard hitting at 55.6% and 56.8% respectively so not much of a boost at all under this assumption.  Cunningham on the other hand has a TS of 47% on 3.3 attempts per game and 1.7 FTA per game appearing in 21/24 games.  Kyrie should swallow all of Jared's meaningful mins and shots, so about 3.5 possessions a game will get a 10% TS boost.  TS is set up so that a 10% boost is worth 0.2 pts, and the Cavs run at a pace of 93.1 possessions per game, so just replacing Cunningham shots with Kyrie shots is theoretically worth about 0.75 pts per 100 possessions.  It doesn't sound like much but remember that JC is only playing 13 mpg and has a 16% USG. 

Kyrie has also been a higher usage player than any of Mo, Delly and JC for his career, so he will also be taking shots from other team mates.  The Cavs have the 5th highest TS in the league at 54.9% and of their major rotation players only JR Smith (47.7%) has a current TS below 54%.  Taking an extra couple of shots away from team mates, unless they all came at the expense of Smith, is probably only worth a small amount.  Lets call it 0.2 pts per 100 (+2% TS on 5 possessions a game). 

Kryie is also better than Mo, JC and Delly at two other offensive facets.  O rebounding and avoiding TO%.   Kyrie has been one of the best scoring/passing guards in the league when it comes to avoiding TOs over the past few seasons, and the Cavs have been a little below average in this aspect so far this season.  Irving's return could easily save the Cavs 0.5-1.0 possessions a game worth a .6-1.2 pts per 100 possessions.  I'll settle in at 0.9.  His better Oreb rate isn't worth that much, a full 1 percentage point higher than his replacements would be worth ~.2 possessions, and almost 0.25 pts per 100. 

Simply dropping in Kyrie in place of his backups should give the Cavs a boost of around 2 pts per 100 possessions.  This would take their Ortg from #4 in the league to #2 and with a .4 pt gap between them and the #2 team- this is without any positive impact on his team mates by drawing defensive attention or opening up better play options for his coach. 

Big men and the near future

I would say the general perception of the NBA is that it is going small, with the Warriors as the prime example of what you can do with that style of play.  On the other hand the league has very quietly amassed a large base of big men prospects, specifically C prospects, and there seems to be more potential for the league to go big than at any time since the 3 pt line was introduced. 

I don't intend this to be a contrarian piece since NBA finals winners have always been heavily influenced by a big man.  The Mavs, Pistons, Celtics, Spurs and Lakers could all claim that either a C or a PF/C was their best player across 10 titles since Jordan's second retirement. Additionally a C was clearly at least the 2nd best player for the Wade/Shaq title, 2 more Lakers titles and the most recent Spurs title.  It is only the immediate past with the Warriors and the 2 Lebron lead Heat championships.  It feels though, to me at least, that the very recent past is not a trend, but a hiccup due to a variety of factors, and that there is an almost absurd amount of FC talent ready to dominate the league.  Just the guys under 27.

Group 1:  Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond.  Cousins has gone from a place holder to a legitimate MVP caliber player in the past few years, sadly stuck on the worst franchise in the league.  Daivs is terrific and is stuck on a team that has decided to challenge Sacremento's title.  KAT has been incredible for a rookie, and one can only hope that Minnesota has better management going forward than during Kevin Love's/Kevin Garnett's time there.  Drummond is actually the only one on a decently successful franchise.  Some boneheaded moves for sure, but far from the other three teams.  Still 4 guys at the top that are all either already great or almost great? 

Group 2:  Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert.  High impact players still, with room to grow for Gobert (and room to iron out inexperience with Hassan).  Either of these guys could be a Ben Wallace or Tyson Chandler type impact guy on a championship team. 

Group 3:   The mashup of who knows.  With as much talent as there already is above them only 1 or 2 guys breaking out would put teams without a strong big man at a serious disadvantage.  In no particular order

Valancunius- still only 23 Toronto seems to be on the fence about his future.  His production over the past year + has been solid (20 PER, 16/12 per 36) but he still hasn't been given the time on the court to be a dominant force for them (27 mpg in his 4th year, time missed for injuries).

Alen Len-  Has responded with better play since Chandler went down, top end potential doesn't seem to be there.

Kristaps-  Media darling actually deserving of the praise!  Dreams of him being a more athletic Dirk are overblown but still tons of potential.

Noel/Okafor/Embiid- Hopefully Philly does have the wherewithal to avoid the Minny/Sac/NO path, and hopefully one or more of these guys lives up to their potential in the near future.  In Embiid's case hopefully he gets on the court.

Nikola Jokic-  Who?  Denver's 2nd round pick in 2014 has quietly gone about being very solid for a 20 year old rookie.  He hasn't gotten the mins yet (<18 per game) but all the advanced stats says he has been a capable scorer (16 pts per 36 on 60% TS) and rebounder (16.3% TRB) without any major TO/Foul problems.  His numbers in Europe are Greg Monroe like. 

This isn't an exhaustive list and I know some would include Vucevic (I think has plateaued) or Nurkic (Meh, but not without potential) or maybe even WCS.   The point isn't so much to order the players correctly, but to have a feel for how deep a position is/will be so you can evaluate needs better.