5 NBA Thoughts [#1]
(📸 The Ringer)
Inspired by the likes of Sports Illustrated, SB Nation, and Thinking Basketball among countless others, I’m introducing here a “5 Thoughts” series. Watching and studying the NBA means there’s a constant jumble of basketball thoughts in my head. However, I rarely touch on them in detailed articles or videos, so that’s where this series comes in: a rough, sporadic overview of five thoughts on the NBA!
1. Curry’s offense vs. Jokic’s offense
At this point, it’s safe to say the league’s two-best offensive players are Steph Curry and Nikola Jokic. But between the two, who’s better? The Playoffs will inevitably shed more light on this (while our knowledge of their postseason performances in the past is a positive indicator for Jokic), but with Jokic’s ascension, we may have enough to decipher a good amount of their skillsets.
Curry functions in a high-movement offense that largely relies on finding him and open shot. That’s done primarily through Curry’s dynamic movement off the ball, darting through screens and coming up on pin downs, eventually culminating in an open jumper behind a ball screen. This style of offensive play may be considered a bit high-maintenance, but the potential it has to unclog other areas on the court (namely, the paint) is astronomical. Curry’s gravity was the main catalyst for a lot of Kevin Durant’s scoring bursts during the Playoffs, and that makes Curry one of the most adaptable offensive stars in the history of the game.
Jokic is a passing savant with an off-ball repertoire of his own. His elbow game is perfectly designed for another style of high-activity offense. Rather than a long series of screening action, Denver uses an elaborate design of cutting to either unclog the paint or the corners, AKA prime real estate for Jokic’s passes and assists. The Nuggets’ offensive attack is so deadly in the half-court because of how distracting their cutters are. Defenses either collapse into the paint (leaving the main in the corner open) or maintain space (spacing out the paint). Pair that with Jokic’s midrange shooting, and you have the most electrifying team offenses in the game today.
So which offensive game is better? Mentally projecting the Playoffs, I expect Jokic will be harder to gameplan against with his ability to pass out of traps inside the three-point line. (And those outlet passes are so phenomenal, half-court offense could be a contingency at times.) I don’t see Curry as poor in this regard, but his height definitely caps the ceiling in these types of possessions. I think they both fit alongside other star talents really, really well. I see Curry as the more “scalable” player considering Jokic’s defensive shortcomings and the increased difficulty in building a championship-level defense around a neutral-impact center.
It’ll be extremely difficult to choose between Curry’s historical scoring and gravity and Jokic’s enigmatic passing and well-roundedness. I couldn’t sell myself on either one of them at this stage, but given out previous knowledge relating to their Playoffs adaptations, my have-to-make-a pick is Jokic.
2. Is Harden being exposed in Brooklyn?
I recently got around to eyeing Harden’s stint with the Brooklyn Nets, and one overarching thought put some concerns in my mind. During his day with the Rockets, he mastered spread pick-and-roll. He could create a ton of offense out of these spots with his stepback jumper, strength and finishing, and high-level passing and kick-outs, and this served as the primary source for his impact on offense. Now, if the last few seasons have taught us anything about Harden, a major sticking point has been that he provides nothing without the ball in his hands, and that may be a problem in Brooklyn.
Because Harden absolved a decent amount of Durant’s and Kyrie Irving’s touches upon his arrival (refer to this graphic I made for a previous article on the Nets), his value in composite metrics and the box score seems fairly comparable to his level of play in Houston.
A downward rate of change in their situational value for all three offensive stars is expected, but I wonder if there’s more cause for worry in the Playoffs. This is clearly a Harden-led offense, but his main offensive sets seem to have lost their big bite. Relative to his spread pick-and-roll possessions in Houston that I’ve watched this season, the Brooklyn counterparts seem like a notable downgrade. His handle has loosened and more point-of-attack defenders are poking the ball loose, fizzling out a lot of the action, and the aim and speed on his passes seem to have lost their touch. This may be a sampling issue, but the degree to which these plays declined seemed significant.
As I let this thought simmer in my head for a while, I began to wonder if this was a game flow problem. With the Rockets, Harden could essentially call for these isolation possessions at will. But with the Nets, he has to concede a lot of those opportunities to Durant and Irving, which led me to believe the halt in constant ball-pounding left Harden in a bit of a funk. Does Harden absolutely need the ball in his hands throughout the game to exhibit his world-class value? Perhaps so, and perhaps not. Either way, this would indicate a really low ceiling on Harden’s fit alongside other perimeter isolationists.
3. Are the Knicks legit?
The New York Knicks have made one of the most sudden and unexpected team improvements in recent history. A season removed from a woeful -6.72 SRS and a seventh consecutive Playoff miss, they’ve made the astronomical leap to +1.90 through their 67th game of the season, very likely snapping their Playoff drought. (They did it for you, little Cody.)
The 2021 season has been filled with unprecedented levels of confoundment (a trend that’s carried over from the 2020 bubble), and it’s made it a lot harder to separate lucky stints from tangible improvement. To me, that’s the biggest question with the Knicks. Are they a mere product of luck combined with a mild talent boost or one of the most improved teams in recent history?
At this stage, it’s clear New York is thriving because of its team defense. At the time of this writing, their -1.5 relative Offensive Rating sits twentieth while their -3.7 relative Defensive Rating currently ranks as the fourth-best mark in the NBA. Because scoring and allowing points determine the winners of the games, the causal variables behind these ratings are crucial to simplifying the aforementioned “luck versus improvement” problem. The largest components of this will involve opponent free-throw shooting (as that’s something a team defense has no control over) and three-point shooting: the golden standard for noisy stats. To put this into perspective, take this quote from a Nylon Calculus study four years ago:
“Let me begin this with some research background: open 3-point percentage is virtually all noise, and open three’s consist of a huge portion of the 3-pointers teams allow. There’s no pattern to individual 3-point percentage defense either — it’s noise too . Ken Pomeroy found that defenses had little control over opponent 3-pointer percentage in the NCAA as well.”
From an intuitive perspective, this makes sense, especially on open three-point attempts. At that point, with no defender to dilute the quality of the shot, whether or not the shot is made is determined by the staggering variance in the bodily mechanics of the shot, which is influenced by factors almost entirely outside of the defense’s scope. Thus, these types of statistics will be used to ballpark the difference between shooting luck and systematic upgrades in the Knicks’ hardware.
After looking at New York’s current statistical profile, I figured a lot of the data could be reasonably interpreted as noise. Last season, the Knicks shot 33.7% from three, ranking 27th in the whole league. That number has made the seemingly unparalleled jump to 39%, the fifth-best three-point percentage in the league. At the player level, there are a few data points that stood out in how drastic three-point percentage improvements were:
- Julius Randle: 27.7% in 2020 | 41.7% in 2021
- RJ Barrett: 32.0% in 2020 | 39.9% in 2021
- Derrick Rose: 30.6% in 2020 | 38.3% in 2021
- Kevin Knox: 32.7% in 2020 | 39.3% in 2021
The Julius Randle uptick is the most prominent, not only because it was the largest change among moderate-volume shooters, but because he’s taken an extra 1.4 three-point attempts every 75 possessions compared to last season. Not only that, but BBall-Index‘s perimeter shooting data suggests Randle is taking pretty difficult shots (the 7th percentile in openness rating and the 2nd percentile in three-point shot quality). This is certainly good news for Randle and his MIP case, but it makes our questions about the Knicks even more difficult to answer.
An even larger sticking point for me was how efficient their opponents were from three-point range. At the moment, this stands at 33.7%, good for the best opponent three-point percentage in the league. I like to use a ballparking tool in these types of scenarios by replacing the number of points the team limited in reality with a league-average result. So, for example, the Knicks’ opponents have shot 36.9 three-point attempts per 100 possessions at 33.9%, which means opponents generated 37.5 points every 100 possession from their perimeter shooting. A league-average percentage would have generated 40.6 points from these attempts in the allotted period.
Namely, if the Knicks’ opponents were average three-point shooters, their new defensive rating would suggest they allow 111.7 points per 100, which would not be too far off from last season and would make the Knicks a net-negative team. If we use the same technique for their offense to estimate the effects of shooting luck (especially in this fan-free, short-schedule environment that’s seen a major spike in offensive efficacy), their new offensive rating would fall to 108.7. Using this stricter method, the Knicks would be a -3 team. I don’t think they’re quite that poor. There are positive signals for offensive shooting improvement and the defensive mind of Tom Thibodeau has really helped this team. But if I had to give my best guess, the Knicks are roughly an average team in 2021.
4. The potential of Box Plus/Minus
Box Plus/Minus (BPM) is perhaps the most popular plus-minus metric on the market aside from Plus/Minus itself. You don’t need to know anything about the metric other than its name to infer it’s calculated with the box score alone. Interestingly enough, a public that often doesn’t extend its thinking outside the box score will often criticize BPM for only using the box score. And that’s what I’ll discuss today, the “potential” of Box Plus/Minus.
I’ve recently propagated the truest value from impact metrics comes from their ability to help us understand not necessarily who impacts the game most, but how much varying qualities of players can impact the game. BPM serves that purpose as well as any other one-number metric, but with an extra kick. Since BPM relies on counting stats alone, some of which quantify levels of skill, we can break down a player’s statistical profile to see which tendencies make up the bulk of his impact. More recent studies include Ben Taylor’s creations of ScoreVal and PlayVal, which estimate the plus-minus impact of scoring and playmaking as components of the Backpicks Box Plus/Minus model. Hybrid and APM metrics, which blend plus-minus data directly into the equation, can’t provide these types of analysis, giving BPM a grounded place among the major impact metrics.
This is even more useful in career forecastings. While other impact metrics could use some type of role archetype extrapolated from its datasets or age to project careers, BPM allows for a much more granulated skills approach. For example, the Backpicks model uses shot creation and passing ability and teammate spacing and all other kinds of estimates based on the box score to help better the descriptive and predictive powers of the box-only metrics. So while some may see Box Plus/Minus as a dying art form, you could argue it’s actually ascending to its peak right now.
5. A major analytics misconception
For every analytical mind, there are five contrarians to oppose them. For the most part (emphasis on “the most part”), these oppositions don’t really know what they’re fighting against other than some vague advancement of NBA statistics. Due to this lopsided ignorance, there stem a lot of misconceptions as to how an analytical supporter interprets and use advanced stats.
My experience conversing with the anti-analytics crowd has led me to believe they believe an analytical person will treat advanced stats as gospel, and that film study is some type of basketball sin that defies the analytics movement. The truth is really the exact opposite. Anyone who claims they can passively watch a game and then understand everything about it is overestimating themselves. It’s a simple function of cognition; we can neither track nor understand every single thing that’s happening on the court with our eyes alone. That’s where analytics comes in. (Because, honestly, if there weren’t a purpose for them, no one would have bothered to create advanced stats!)
And that’s what I would like the major takeaway here to be. As someone who identifies as an analytics supporter, I can advocate on behalf of “us” and say the public eye is mostly wrong. Advanced stats aren’t treated as gospel. They’re estimates with varying error rates. Sometimes, advanced stats don’t capture players well at all! That’s why the fluidity of analytics and film is the actual driving force behind the analytics movement. As is with any other field, change causes pushback, and not everyone will be willing to evolve. But that’s the whole point of analytics, of advanced stats. They’re advancements.
Who’s the better offensive player between Steph Curry and Nikola Jokic? Is Harden not serving the purpose in Brooklyn we’d all thought he would? Are the Knicks what their record says they are? Is Box Plus/Minus a dying breed? And how do analytical minds interpret advanced stats? Leave your thoughts in the comments.