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3 Underrated Analytical Metrics in the NBA

Ben Dowsett breaks down three underrated metrics that help us better understand the NBA.

Ben Dowsett

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Increased mathematical proficiency in basketball has given way to a plethora of different figures and statistics attempting to complement and often define our understanding of the game. All-in-one metrics like PER were a big part of this initial push, with their ability to combine many smaller statistics into one larger one that can broadly define a player or team’s value. Plus-minus statistics are more of a recent rage in the public sphere, which are useful in a whole different context, and there’s a vast world in between: everything from broad metrics to the most detailed and minute descriptors possible.

All these different figures vary wildly in terms of value, whether descriptive or predictive in nature. It’s easy to draw conclusions from a particular stat that it’s not designed to reach, an unfortunately common part of the statistical process among more casual fans and analysts. And while it’s less common, the other end of the stick is true also; there are metrics out there that still don’t get enough recognition for the value they provide.

Let’s take a look at three lesser-known stats, at least within the public consciousness, and see how they can help us gain a greater understanding of the game without reaching past their constraints.

Open Shooting Numbers

As the NBA has begun sharing small snippets of SportVU camera data with the public over the last few years, one of the simplest nuggets they’ve released is basic defender distance numbers for every shot taken on an NBA floor. We can tell how far away a player’s closest defender stood for any shot he’s taken since the 2013-14 season. NBA.com defines coverage as “very tight” for a defender within 0-2 feet, “tight” for 2-4 feet, “open” for 4-6 feet and “wide open” for anything beyond six feet. The consensus among those who use these numbers frequently is that these are generally reasonable proxies for how truly open or guarded a guy is on a given shot – particularly the four-foot mark, around which a legitimate jump is observed over large samples of shots that indicates it’s truly a close inflection point between “open” and “guarded.”

These metrics are imperfect, of course. They track only players’ torsos, meaning a guy with particularly long arms might be better at contesting shots than his raw SportVU data would indicate. They also say nothing regarding whether a defender’s hand was in the air or close to the ball, which can also be important. But over a huge sample during the last few seasons, they’ve proven to be the closest thing we have to a real indication of which players and teams are best shooting with certain levels of pressure.

The most easily applicable area here to our on-court understanding is likely within open and uncontested shots. The conditions for a wide open shot aren’t ripe to as many confounding factors – if the closest defender to a jump shot is seven feet away as the ball is released, it doesn’t matter how high he’s jumping or how long his arms are, making all shots of this nature at least relatively similar. In contrast, judging contested attempts in the same vein is much more difficult; such analysis might include layups, for instance, which frequently will feature a defender within a foot or two but not actually challenging the shot.

What this newer data allows us to do with far more specificity than ever before is answer the question of which teams or players are truly the most talented shooters in a vacuum. A very basic example: One would likely call the Warriors the best pure jump-shooting team in the league, right? Turns out one would be supported by the numbers – per NBASavant, the Dubs are head and shoulders above the rest of the league for “open” jump shots outside 10 feet. On the other end of the spectrum, as one would expect, the Philadelphia 76ers bring up the rear for this same category.

The broad implications of all the public SportVU data are vast, but open shooting is among the most reliable and easiest to track for even the casual fan.

Better Pace Metrics

When we discussed certain teams zigging where Golden State has zagged with regard to speed of play as a specific Warriors counter a few weeks back, one of the chief elements was a more detailed definition of “pace.” The typical figure cited for pace, housed on NBA.com and other major sites, is simply possessions per-48-minutes among both teams in a given game. As we noted, though, this can make it tough to highlight an individual team’s tempo preferences – the opponent at any given time may have very different goals or tendencies, making it an incomplete metric.

A website called inpredictable.com has solved that issue in one swoop. Using detailed scraped data, this site separates pace into offensive and defensive categories based on average time of possession. We can see that the Warriors are the fastest for isolated offensive pace, averaging just 13.4 seconds per possession, while the Jazz are the slowest at 16.1 seconds. The creators are also kind enough to separate these possessions by prior actions – time of possession (and efficiency) following a made opponent shot, following a team defensive rebound or following a forced turnover.

This isn’t an underrated metric as much as it’s a lesser-known improvement on a more common one. Raw pace stats can tell us something, but there are very few cases where this more isolated form won’t be more informative and valuable.

Rim Protection

Many areas of NBA.com’s SportVU tracking come with some amount of noise, and rim protection figures are no exception. As with shot defense data above, simply tracking whether a player was within five feet of the rim while defending a shot can be an incomplete exercise because the level to which they’re actually “contesting” the shot can vary wildly even within that small space.

In the case of interior defensive figures, though, a couple factors combine to make them among the most robust available of all SportVU metrics. First, the number of shots attempted at the rim with a defender nearby is so high that minor inconsistencies (say, guys who don’t put a hand up quite often enough) will be teased out over time and reflected in long term figures only if they’re truly detrimental factors in how well a given player defends the rim.

Second, and more importantly, work by smart and generous folks in the statistical community has even further increased the specificity with which we can understand these numbers. Nylon Calculus houses a rim protection section which, rather than focusing simply on percentage allowed at the rim, includes a couple other vital factors as well. They track the percentage of all shots taken at the rim while a given player is on the floor that said player contests, and also separate rim protectors based on the position they play – data over the years has shown that there’s a big difference in expectation for interior defenders even between centers and power forwards.

Combining all factors, they’re able to come up with a much more descriptive final statistic: position-adjusted points saved per-36-minutes. That is, how many points does a given rim protector “save” his team at the rim on a per-minute basis above or below the league average at his position?

There are always a few surprising outliers, but the lists tend to conform closely with who we’d expect to see among the league’s best and worst at this particular skill over larger samples. Guys like Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut and Serge Ibaka are virtually a constant atop these rankings, while known defensive liabilities like Al Jefferson and Andrea Bargnani are typically at the bottom. In a game where scoring at the rim is more important than ever before, accurately assessing which defenders are best at preventing opponents from doing so is a vital part of our analysis.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Donovan Mitchell, Jazz Ready To Become Contenders

Can Donovan Mitchell do for the new-look Jazz what Dwyane Wade did for the 2006 Miami HEAT? Utah’s title hopes depend on it.

Drew Mays

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After a five-year run that saw two regular-season MVPs, a 73-win campaign and three NBA championships, Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL has Golden State on the outside looking in. The Warriors will still make a playoff push, and should likely succeed, as a healthy Stephen Curry and reinvigorated Draymond Green can do that for you. But the title no longer runs through Oracle – and not just because they’re leaving Oakland.

Golden State coming up short didn’t just signal the end of a dynasty; it represented a power shift in the NBA. Their loss to Toronto was the first domino to fall over six weeks of player movement that saw six All-NBA members switch teams. The conventional wisdom of the last decade – that you needed three stars to win a ring – had suddenly unraveled and players began doubling up instead of tripling.

The starriest example comes from the Staples Center, where Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on one side of the hallway, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on the other. On the whole, Los Angeles is now the overwhelming favorite to win the 2020 NBA Championship as Vegas puts the Clippers and Lakers at +350 and +400 respectively. Milwaukee, Houston and Philadelphia follow these two teams, with one boasting the reigning MVP and the others involved in splashy offseason moves.

There’s another sexy title pick, especially for those that consider themselves in tune with the NBA: the Utah Jazz. The additions of Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanović give the Jazz the much-needed playmaking and shooting they’ve badly missed over the past two postseasons. With them in tow and Rudy Gobert owning the middle, Utah is only one development away from winning the West: Donovan Mitchell becoming the 2006 version of Dwyane Wade.

Mitchell and Wade are often linked and for good reason. They share sizes, athletic abilities and euro-steps. They were both thrust into scoring roles on playoff-ready teams as rookies, and both have now played for Team USA.

Wade isn’t just a comparison for Mitchell, he should be an aspiration as well.

Dwyane Wade’s arrival on the national scene came in his third season. He dominated the 2006 NBA Finals, bringing the HEAT back from 0-2 and giving Miami their first championship. While year three was impressive, his real breakout occurred the year before. In year two, Wade’s numbers looked like this:

24.1 points, 6.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds per game on 47.8/28.9/76.2, with an effective field goal percentage of .483.

Now, here’s Donovan Mitchell last year, in his sophomore season:

23.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds per game on 43.2/36.2/80.6, with an effective field goal percentage of .493.

The scoring numbers are almost identical and Mitchell has already proven himself a better three-point shooter. The assist discrepancy is a product of Utah’s reliance on Mitchell to score, causing him to force shots often. Mitchell also started this past season poorly and after the first 33 contests of 2018-19, the athletic guard’s line sat at just 20.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game.

He played the next 44 games at a rate of 26.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game with 44.5/42/82.5 splits.

In 2005-06, Wade averaged 27.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.7 rebounds a night, all despite being a nonentity from three. That season is eerily similar to the back end of Mitchell’s second-season effort and it should give Jazz fans optimism that he can play at the same level in 2019-20.

Of course, the odds of doing so are in his favor. Conley is as steady as they get, even coming off a career-year in points per game and his highest assist totals since 2012-13. Despite turning 32 years-old in October, he remains an above-average defender. But, most importantly for Mitchell, he’s another ballhandler and playmaker.

Utah has run into a brick wall in Houston during the playoffs each of the last two seasons. While their gimmicky defense and failure to hit open looks contributed to this year’s loss, the overarching struggle was a complete inability, by anyone not named Donovan Mitchell, to create shots. Joe Ingles is serviceable as a third or fourth playmaker as he can attack switches and overzealous closeouts.

But if he’s your second-best playmaker, or becomes the first out of necessity, the offense is in huge trouble.

Simply put, Conley solves that problem. He’ll naturally take loads of pressure off Mitchell, who tied with LeBron James seventh-highest usage rate at 31.6%. Conley also allows Mitchell to slide back to his natural off-ball role, letting him can catch and swing passes against rotating defenses or run more side pick and roll. Both of these actions get Mitchell opportunities away from the teeth of the defense, which can’t happen when he’s repeatedly forced to initiate offense out high.

Along with Bogdanović, Conley also solves addresses Utah’s often awkward floor spacing troubles. The Jazz spent the last two years with Ricky Rubio at point guard – defense and vision aside, he’s still a below-average shooter that the opposition can leave open during the most important moments. Conley and Bogdanović replacing Rubio and Derrick Favors enables Utah to put three shooters and plus-defenders around Mitchell while the always-effective Rudy Gobert screens or waits in the dunker’s spot.

The newly-added Jeff Green, a healthy Dante Exum and an improving Royce O’Neal round out a solid rotation group. The key, then, is Mitchell. The Jazz figure to remain a top-five defensive team even in a loaded Western Conference, and the offensive mentioned above will make huge strides. However, when April rolls around, the games slow down. Movement-centric offenses don’t always succeed, and defenses break down. To win in the postseason, franchises need to create one-on-one opportunities. Analytics that preach threes, free throws and layups get tossed out the window; the midrange is in play again.

It’s why Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have dominated the postseason for years – they can score from all three levels.

Without a doubt, Mitchell has to be that player for Utah.

He’s the only player on their roster who can potentially match the star-power of other teams. If he regresses in 2019-20, the Jazz will fall victim to the same issues that sent them home the last two years. If he plateaus, they likely won’t have enough to overcome the top-half of the conference.

But, if Donovan Mitchell makes that leap, Utah will have a real chance to win the whole thing and bring their city its first NBA championship.

That sounds a lot like the 2006 HEAT.

Now, all they need is their Dwyane Wade.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Milwaukee Bucks

Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series moves along as Jordan Hicks discusses the offseason of the team that rosters the current NBA MVP.

Jordan Hicks

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One does not simply spell the name Giannis Antetokounmpo without at least looking it up first. Sure, you could get lucky the first time, but you’re lying to yourself if you think you won’t at least head over to Google to double-check.

Admittedly, a big thanks on our end will be sent towards our friends at Google for helping with the meat of the article. Obviously, Giannis hoisting the MVP award long after the dust of the 2018-19 season settled makes him the de-facto centerpiece when discussing his team and their offseason.

Yes, a case could be made for James Harden or Nikola Jokic for this past season’s MVP. But Antetokounmpo proved in a big way exactly why he deserved to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

If it wasn’t for Kawhi Leonard, this article could potentially have a very different tone. For all intents and purposes, the Milwaukee Bucks were the team with all the momentum heading into the postseason. They were the one seed out East. They had (at the time) the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award. They deployed a system that could have potentially given Golden State fits. If Milwaukee could have bested Toronto, who is to say they couldn’t have beaten Golden State, injuries or not?

But this is the NBA. In a best-of-seven series, the best team usually wins. In this case, Milwaukee lost to Toronto, and the Bucks’ front office knew that they weren’t a championship-level team, yet.

Overview

The Bucks clearly didn’t end the 2018-19 season the way they’d hoped. Ultimately, their goal was to make it to the NBA Finals. They came just short after losing in six games to the Raptors. They went up two games to start the series but then Kawhi entered Terminator-mode and put the series to rest, helping the Raptors rattle off four straight – and quite surprising – wins.

This isn’t because people fully expected Milwaukee to win the series. Toronto obviously had a solid roster. But like previously mentioned, the Bucks were No. 1 in the East, they had the best defensive rating and fourth-best offensive rating, and were a full two points ahead of second-place for best net rating. They led the league in points per game, led the league in rebounds per game, were second in blocks per game and second in three-pointers made.

The Bucks were a good team in 2017-18. They were a great team last season. It’s quite easy to figure out just why they made that jump. Their success can be chalked up primarily to two specific things: the hiring of head coach Mike Budenholzer and internal player development (namely Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon).

Other small factors definitely played their part, as well. Everyone expected Brook Lopez to be a solid center. Absolutely no one expected him to shoot 36.5 percent from three on over six attempts per night. And we aren’t just talking run-of-the-mill attempts. Lopez was firing from deep, stepping back, defenders in his face. It was quite a spectacle.

Overall, Milwaukee had a really awesome season, but their regular-season success did not directly translate to postseason success. The best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season does not mean the best team in the Eastern Conference after the playoffs.

Offseason

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, there was a heap of tough decisions that needed to be made. Quite a few of their starters and main rotations guys became free agents.

They essentially let Nikola Mirotic walk, as he went on to join a team in Europe. In order to pay other players on their roster, they had to let Malcolm Brogdon accept an offer from the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade. They could have matched as he was a restricted free agent, but if they wanted to pay other players it just wasn’t possible.

Their big offseason signings were all re-ups; the likes of Khris Middleton (five years, 178-million), Brook Lopez (four years, 52-million), and George Hill (three years, 29-million).

Losing Brogdon was a big blow to their roster. He played an incredibly vital role in the main rotation and was likely their best three-and-D player. They were able to nab Wesley Matthews who at one point might have been an upgrade over Brogdon but has since fallen victim to father time. However, he is still a great pickup and will certainly play an important role on both ends of the court.

They also picked up Kyle Korver who was traded to and then subsequently released from the Memphis Grizzlies. He, too, will be a big boost for an offense that lost two high-level three-point shooters (Brogdon and Mirotic). He is definitely a few steps slower than where he used to be in terms of defense, but he still fits seamlessly into just about any system. He is still elite at coming off screens and knocking down threes, and will absolutely help the roster stretch the defense when he’s on the court.

Korver paired with Giannis has the potential to be huge as the Greek Freak will certainly take advantage of a more spread out defense.

Other signings that could potentially turn out to be big are that of Frank Mason, Dragan Bender and Robin Lopez. The first two are still young and have room to improve. Dragan has been stuck on a less-than-ideal roster and Mason hasn’t really had a good opportunity to showcase his skills. The latter, twin brother of Brook Lopez, will be a solid backup center. He’s a great defender, plays with a crazy-high motor, and seems to boost the morale of any locker room he’s in.

If there wasn’t any indication before that Milwaukee is already preparing for the free agency of Giannis in 2021, the signing of his brother Thanasis definitely points to some solid preparation. Let’s be real, you can’t leave your brother in free agency. Or maybe you can. Either way, they don’t need to deal with that for two more years.

PLAYERS IN: Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez, Frank Mason, Dragan Bender, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jaylen Adams, Cameron Reynolds (two-way), Luke Maye, Rayjon Tucker

PLAYERS OUT: Malcolm Brogdon, Tim Frazier, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol, Tony Snell, Bonzie Colson Jr. (two-way)

What’s Next

Milwaukee’s offseason wasn’t ideal, but there wasn’t really much they could do. Because of the salary cap, there were certain decisions that had to be made. Losing Brogdon can very likely turn out to be a huge blow. If people didn’t realize just how important he was to the team’s success, it should stick out in a big way – at least at the beginning of the season.

There’s no doubt that Giannis still has room to grow. Middleton, too. But Brogdon had such a strong presence on both ends of the floor, that at times he was relied upon perhaps too much. They made the right move in paying Middleton, he’s clearly the better player, but Middleton making that much more money won’t make him that much better, obviously. So alas, the salary cap wins again and forced the Bucks to dump a key cog of their roster.

They would be smart to rely on Korver as little as possible throughout the season so he can be much better rested for the playoffs. We saw this with the Utah Jazz this last season. Utah acquired Korver via trade in November 2018 and was used almost exhaustingly at times. This really stuck out as Korver played virtually no role for Utah in the postseason.

It’s hard to give the Bucks a fair grade because their major roster changes were more-or-less out of their control. They did a pretty fine job with the cards they were dealt and ended up signing a handful of players that have the potential of really helping out. Plus, Giannis is coming off his best season yet with zero sign of slowing down.

It’s difficult to say that the Bucks got better, but it’s also not fair to say they got worse. Either way, we will just have to see how it plays out. A lot of teams in the East got better, so we will certainly see how much that gap between them and other teams closed.

At least Kawhi left Toronto. That will absolutely be one less worry for Milwaukee during the playoffs.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C+

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High-Performance Mindfulness: The Missing Link To DeMarcus Cousins’ Recovery

Jake Rauchbach discusses DeMarcus Cousins and one of the under-explored, but more critical aspects of the injury recovery process.

Jake Rauchbach

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Last week, DeMarcus Cousins sustained another career-threatening injury, tearing his ACL during a pickup game in Las Vegas.

Cousins, who battled back from a ruptured Achilles this past season, is now in jeopardy of missing a big chunk of the upcoming season for his third time in as many years.

He is expected to miss major time for a third straight season due to a lower leg injury. Before tearing his left Achilles on Jan. 26 2018, Cousins’ durability was never really in question. Before the initial injury, the big-man missed over 20 games just once in a season.

Virtually every year, we see stories similar to Cousins. A player who, at one time in his career had little to no history of injury, gradually becomes engulfed in a seemingly chronic and potentially career-ending pattern for injury – Derrick Rose being a prime example of this.

Common thought for chronic injury issues points back to the physical or structural aspect. Some of the most common theories as to why players experience these setbacks are generally due to pre-disposition, overcompensation and an over-ambitious goal for recovery.

With any injury type, there are obvious physical factors at play. However, a vital and under-explored aspect of the recovery process could be blocking these players’ recovery process.

The Mind-Body Factor

The mind and body are inextricably linked. A person cannot entertain a thought or emotion and, without effect, a chain-reaction in the body occurring. The same can be said for athletes that re-experience past traumatic injury by way of memory.

As humans, we tend to push overwhelming memories, such as traumatic injury, to the far reaches of our subconscious mind. This can be a problem, as these unresolved thoughts, emotions, feelings and psycho-somatic pain can get lodged within a player’s muscle memory.

When this happens, severe compensation, fear of injury and guarding patterns can arise in the body, which can have the effect of weakening the point of injury. This consequently causes structural weakness in other parts of the body. Rose and Cousins could be prime examples of this.

Subconscious mental and emotional blocks such as these, if left unaddressed, can create a nasty psycho-somatic injury loop, consequentially making players susceptible to further injury. Leaving imbalances unresolved at the unconscious level can jeopardize the physical health and well-being of an athlete. Finding a way to break this loop is paramount.

Mental And Emotional Blocks

The psycho-somatic memory of rupturing an Achilles or tearing an ACL can easily stay locked up within the deep mind or muscle memory of a player for years until fully processed.

In Rose’s case, his first major injury and psycho-somatic impediment may have occurred when he tore his ACL during the 2012-2013 season. Dr. Michael Casale, speaking about Rose, said:

“His injury must have caused so much mental trauma. The neuroscience part of me comes out and starts to think about, as far as the brain rewiring, it must be so unbelievably impactful to have that one moment change the way you think about yourself and your environment.”

Considering his past injury history – and the fact that some like Dr. Casale within the medical community believe that Rose’s injury may have caused psychological damage – it is not a stretch to think there has been a very real psycho-somatic element at play.

In Cousins’ case, he has sustained two major leg injuries in a relatively short period. It is generally challenging for big men with severe lower leg injuries to return to the court better than when they left it. Cousins could have his work cut out for him.

If Cousins or Rose are still carrying the deep mental and emotional discord from their past injuries, the chronic injury patterns that they have already experienced could likely persist.

Directly addressing unresolved psycho-somatic barriers with leading-edge High-Performance Mindfulness systems could help players like Rose and Cousins break the habitual injury loop that they have experienced.

The Missing Link – Streamlining The Injury Recovery Process

So what might be the next correct step in streamlining recovery?

High-Performance Mindfulness – Energy Psychology Programs that zero in on removing the mental and emotional baggage from past injuries, exactly what Cousins and Rose could require.

High-Performance Mindfulness can now identify which unconscious mental blocks are holding a player back wherein the subconscious mind-body they are being held. Through a systematic approach for removing and neutralize these impediments, players have been shown to physically improve once the emotional discord of the past experiences has been neutralized.

Frequently, the option of last resort, techniques such as these often have the effect of improving range of motion, eliminating fears of re-injury and eliminating those nasty guarding patterns.

Moreover, employing tools that interface directly with the subconscious mind have been shown to restore confidence, trust and rhythm for a player in regards to his or her own body.

For players like Cousins and Rose, there may be nothing more vital at this stage in their careers.

Getting to the root of these chronic injury patterns may be the key for Cousins, Rose and players like them challenged with similar injury patterns for unlocking, healing and preventing future injury.

Addressing the deeply held negatively charged thoughts, images, emotions and somatic feelings could be the way for doing so – and could be a game-changer for players coming back from injury.

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