Is optimism even possible following a 22-win season? A 5-19 start, a head coach firing in December and another missed postseason a year later, Chicago once again has a reason for hope.
After drafting exciting rookies and signing established veterans, the Chicago Bulls are looking to regain relevancy in the Eastern Conference through a stable core bolstered by a pair of potential first-time All-Stars. It may not translate to team accomplishment just yet but, for the first time in a while, there is a real path to success in the Windy City.
Basketball Insiders began their yearly, substantial team previews, so if you’re looking for your favorite franchise — it’s almost certainly coming down the pipeline this month. But until then, we look at if Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine are enough to get the Bulls back in the playoff hunt or if they’re doomed to another lottery-bound season for now.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Baby Bulls might be one of those teams that give the opposition headaches this year. They’re returning the majority of their pieces and have added multiple solid pieces in the offseason with Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky. Granted he stays healthy, Lauri Markkanen may be poised for a potential Most Improved Player award. We know how solid Otto Porter Jr. is, and Zach LaVine can score the ball with the best of them. Bringing Coby White into the fold as the franchise’s point guard of the future on top of all of this should make Chicago a fun watch. We’ll see if head coach Jim Boylen can round up his guys and take a step forward.
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Bulls enter the 2019-20 season with a lot to look forward to. There is a good amount of young talent in Chicago: Coby White will immediately be the most talented point guard in Chicago since pre-injury Derrick Rose, Wendell Carter Jr. should improve on an underrated rookie campaign and Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr. will help carry the load for the Bulls in terms of leadership and production. And, of course, there’s Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, on whom their success will hinge. If the duo makes additional strides this season, the Bulls could leapfrog the Detroit Pistons for third place in the Central Division. This season is probably a little early in their development for it, however, the Bulls are headed in the right direction and should get a taste of the playoffs soon – but not this season. Sit back and enjoy the ride, Chicago.
4th place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Bulls actually have a nice young nucleus in place. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are budding stars. After the midseason trade, Otto Porter Jr. put up career numbers, while Wendell Carter Jr. was solid as a rookie before his injury. Chicago also lacked a real point guard, and they’re hoping that Coby White can develop into one. While also not a true point guard, White did display some nice playmaking ability during the summer exhibitions — better, the Bulls can afford to wait for him to develop. Depending on how these players perform, it’s not at all far-fetched to see the Bulls possibly fighting for perhaps the eighth seed, if all goes right.
4th Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
I give the Chicago Bulls a lot of credit for their work this offseason. For years, the Bulls seemed more concerned with qualifying for a bottom-four seed playoff position than constructing a team that could actually contend for a title. Coby White falling to seventh is more fortunate than anything else, but it’s a nice result regardless for the Bulls, who were in desperate need for a long-term answer at point guard. I also like the signing of Thaddeus Young and sign-and-trade for Tomas Satoransky, who could be a nice placeholder at point guard while White develops. Drafting Daniel Gafford in the second round was another solid move, especially considering that Robin Lopez left the team in free agency. Adding White and Gafford to a core featuring Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison is a solid outcome for the Bulls, who suddenly have a path to building a future contender.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Bulls have had enough swings at the NBA Draft pinata, they have got to come out of one of them with the gem. Is that gem Coby White? There is so much young talent in Chicago right now that it’s hard not to be optimistic that one of those guys turns into a real star, and that might be all Chicago needs to jump out of the basement. If not, the Bulls might have the best collection of trade chips in the NBA if a major star player hits the market. The Bulls sniffed at Anthony Davis this past summer but were unwilling to meet the asking price, that could change if the current bunch of youth doesn’t turn the corner. The Bulls could be the sneaky play to be in the hunt for the eighth seed in the East. Last year it was Orlando that turned the corner — this time, it could be Chicago.
4th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Bulls used their cap room to bring in players like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, joining the team’s core of Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Porter has a player option for the 2020-21 season at $28.5 million, but he doesn’t have to decide on it until next June. That’s probably too large an amount for him to turn down, but that’s certainly a key decision point in Chicago’s future planning.
Without Porter, the team could have up to $33.7 million in cap space next summer. Otherwise, the team will probably be over the cap, barring trade. The team also has Kris Dunn going into the final year of his contract. Both Denzel Washington and Dunn are eligible for extensions before the start of the season, but neither seems likely. The Bulls will presumably pick up the team options for Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen before November.
By acquiring Satoransky via sign and trade from the Washington Wizards, the Bulls are hard-capped at $138.9 million, well above their team payroll of roughly $114 million.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine
Let’s not overthink this – Lauri Markkanen may be Chicago’s best player, but Zach LaVine has earned the title of top offensive player to this point. Last season, LaVine averaged 23.7 points on 18 shot attempts per game. He finished with a true shooting percentage of .574, barely missing his career-high despite shooting at a higher rate and with more field goals going unassisted. He carried the offense for long stretches last year, posting the seventh-highest usage in the league. Plus, forced into a playmaking role, LaVine showed an improved ability to create for teammates with a 22.5 percent assist rate, putting him in the 95th percentile in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass.
The only thing that held LaVine back last season — similar to much of the Bulls — was injury. LaVine has played 87 games in two years since being traded as part of the Jimmy Butler deal and only reached 47 games in Minnesota the season before that. The good news is that, although he’s entering his sixth year in the NBA, LaVine is still only 24. With good health this season, LaVine could be looking at his first All-Star bid – and many more in the seasons ahead.
Top Defensive Player: Wendell Carter Jr.
Just as we predicted last year, Wendell Carter Jr. was and is the best defensive player in Chicago. Carter led the team in blocks per game at 1.3 and block rate at 4.5 percent. He had the highest defensive box plus-minus and was one of the few players with a positive impact despite his status as a rookie. Carter also rebounded the ball well, posting seven double-doubles in his shortened rookie season and averaging right at ten rebounds per game per 36 minutes.
Carter has been compared to Al Horford, and he showed flashes of that defensive flexibility last season. Carter was able to fit well next to the 7-foot Lauri Markkanen because of his fairly solid ability to guard smaller, quicker players. This becomes all the more important down the road, where playoff games can be won and lost on a big’s ability to contain guards. Of course, Horford has been doing this for years. If last season’s small sample size was any indication, Carter could be well on his way.
Top Playmaker: Tomas Satoransky
Stepping in for the injured John Wall, Tomas Satoransky enjoyed a 3.33/1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. He averaged five assists per game in only 27 minutes every night. Even better, he did so with a low usage rate of only 14.1 percent, meaning that Satoransky was a capable playmaker without having the ball as often as many point guards.
Last week, Basketball Insiders touched on Satoransky’s knack for using pace to open up opportunities for himself and others. His ability to seamlessness blend into an offense, while still being assertive and putting his teammates in spots they can succeed, bodes well for the inexperienced Bulls this year. But Satoransky can be a leading man too – he’s currently averaging 15.2 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.0 rebounds per game for the Czech Republic in the FIBA World Cup.
Top Clutch Player: Zach LaVine
This is another tough one, but we’re going to give the edge to LaVine over Markkanen here as well. Clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of games separated by five points or less. LaVine played 36 more clutch minutes than Markkanen, scored 1.3 more points per clutch situation and scored 39.6 percent of Chicago’s points in crunch time compared to Markkanen’s 22 percent.
Throwing out small sample sizes, LaVine trailed only James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker and Kawhi Leonard in clutch usage, per NBA.com.
LaVine also gets a small advantage because of his ability to handle the ball and attack the rim late in games. There is no better example of this than Mar. 6, when he capped off a 39-point night with a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining to beat Philadelphia.
Markkanen will surely get his chances in clutch situations now that he’s back and healthy. In fact, the Bulls’ best option in these situations will likely be a pick and roll between LaVine and the Finish standout. But, for the time being, LaVine is Chicago’s top clutch performer.
The Unheralded Player: Shaquille Harrison
Second on the team in defensive box plus-minus and first in defensive win shares, Shaquille Harrison is an important rotation player that is often forgotten. Per Cleaning The Glass, Harrison is in the 98th percentile in steal rate at 2.7 percent, tied with Jimmy Butler and ahead of Kawhi Leonard.
Via NBA.com, Harrison was fourth in the entire NBA last season in steals and deflections per 36 minutes and tied for first in loose balls recovered. He was fantastic defensively and thrived under Boylen, who increased Harrison’s minutes to around 20 per game after taking over in December.
For a team that finished 25th in defensive rating and 28th in defensive efficiency last season, Harrison was a sparkplug and the team’s best defender, routinely putting pressure on opposing guards all over the court.
The Bulls added Satoransky and rookie Coby White, plus retained LaVine, Denzel Valentine and Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt. Still, there is a reason they brought back Shaq Harrison as well.
Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young/Otto Porter Jr.
Is this cheating? Yes, because Otto Porter Jr. arrived last year. However, he only played 15 games – and what an impressive 15 games it was. Porter averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds over that stretch and shot a scorching 48.9 percent from three on 5.3 attempts per game. Porter was a pricey acquisition, but he adds consistency, versatility and a veteran wing presence to a young team trying to get back to the playoffs.
And what does Thaddeus Young bring to the table? The same thing! Chicago signed Young to a three-year, $41 million-dollar deal this offseason to shore up their bench and add a player with playoff experience to the roster. Young has been to the playoffs in eight of his 13 seasons, including the past three in a row with Indiana.
Both Porter and Young are exactly what these Bulls need heading into 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lauri Markkanen
Finally, a place to give the Finnish big man some unaccompanied love. As mentioned, Markkanen is probably Chicago’s best player. He has shown flashes of brilliance in two seasons and health is really the only thing holding him back. In 52 games last year, Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage of .553. He is a modern big who takes 67 percent of his field goals either from three or at the rim and shoots 85.9 percent from the free-throw line for his career. The Bulls are plus-5.2 points better with him on the floor than off, good for the 89th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. Like LaVine, an injury-free year could lead to Markkanen’s first All-Star appearance.
2. Coby White
The seventh overall pick in this year’s draft is an explosive scorer and prolific shooter. He averaged 16.1 points per game in his lone year at North Carolina and shot 35.3 percent in 232 attempts from three. His production this year will be vital to Chicago reaching their ceiling, but with Satoransky in tow, White can progress at his own pace.
3. Daniel Gafford
The Bulls’ other rookie should also make an impact this season. Gafford showed tremendous athleticism at Arkansas and in summer league and will look to provide quality back-up minutes and rim protection in his first season. In Las Vegas, Gafford brought the thunder by averaging 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 68.3 percent from the field in just 24.9 minutes per game. Rim-protection is a serious need for postseason-ready franchises and Gafford, at some point, has all the tools to fit the bill.
4. Denzel Valentine
After missing all of last season with an ankle injury, Valentine is back with more opportunity than he has seen in his career. No longer forced to stand and watch Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo, Valentine now has a chance in his third year to show why he was college basketball’s National Player of the Year at Michigan State.
– Drew Mays
Chicago will have a full offseason to prepare under Boylen and they have even more young talent than last year. LaVine has a year under his belt as a primary offensive option, Markkanen and Carter will be healthy, and the trio of Satoransky, Porter and Young give the Bulls veterans to lean on. Whether Chicago can successfully marriage the roster splits between young and old remains to be seen, but it’s a solid problem to have, overall, and they’ll be in the mix out in a weaker Eastern Conference if they can.
– Drew Mays
Obviously, the Bulls need to improve on both ends of the floor. Last season, they were 29th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions at 104.9 and 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions at 113.7. Detroit, who was eighth in the Eastern Conference last season, finished 21st and 12th in those categories, respectively. While that large of a defensive jump is unreasonable, Chicago will need to make improvements in order to become a playoff team. If they’re functionally the same team as last year — but a little bit healthier and with White — then the Bulls will still struggle.
– Drew Mays
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Chicago go over their projected win total of 32.5?
An 11-win jump for the Bulls may seem unlikely. The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams from last year will be the favorites to make it again this spring, while Miami and Atlanta both got better this offseason.
But regardless of how you feel about head coach Jim Boylen, the defensive-minded coach has all of training camp to establish his philosophy, one that follows analytical trends and forces teams to play in the midrange. That plus the new roster additions and the health of LaVine, Markkanen and Carter Jr. have Chicago primed to overperform. We’re bullish on the Bulls and expect them to win over 32 games in 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
Should The Knicks Pick Up Options On Young, Unproven Talent?
The Knicks have three young players whose third- and fourth-year options must be decided on before Nov. 1. Should they pick them up or continue amassing salary cap space in hopes of chasing Anthony Davis? Drew Maresca analyzes the pros and cons of hanging on to young talent for another year.
NBA teams face all kinds of decisions and, of course, most major decisions teams face have underlying financial implications. Naturally, Oklahoma City would have loved to re-sign Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka following the 2012 season, but the prospect of paying the luxury tax seemed too prohibitive to ownership and general manager Sam Presti.
And like most other teams, the Knicks have plenty of big financial decisions to make very soon – namely, whether or not to offer long-term extensions or merely pick up their respective team options.
For context, teams must decide on rookie-scale extensions by Monday, Oct. 21 — the night before the beginning of the season — and they need to weigh fourth-year options for players with two years of experience and third-year options for those that signed their rookie deals last year by Oct. 31. Rookie deal third-and fourth-year options are still affordable enough that it makes sense to pick up most team options regardless if a player plays a major role or not – and if they do, the option becomes all-the-more affordable.
Now, most lottery picks see their third and fourth-year team options picked up. But the Knicks are in the unusual position of having to decide on all three prior to any of them demonstrating consistency or overly-productive play. The three currently eligible for extensions or team options are Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox. None have set themselves apart as a long-term starter. None of them are seen as a complete player. And each has his own well-documented limitations – but still, do the pros outmeasure the cons?
Ntilikina is a rock-solid defender — butut his production on the offensive end has been inconsistent and unreliable. He shot a mere 28.7 percent on three-point attempts last season with a 39.5 percent effective field goal percentage. Unfortunately, he has proven to be a non-factor in terms of scoring the ball consistently and he disappears entirely at times.
Smith Jr. can absolutely get buckets. His athleticism is a major positive and he’s a better defender than most people believe. But Smith Jr. has efficiency problems, too. In 2018-19, Smith Jr. shot only 32.2 percent on three-pointers and 63.5 percent from the free-throw line — both are far below what teams expect from a starting guard. Worse, those season totals are better than what he demonstrated in two and a half months in New York. Beyond that, his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.07) was below the league average for point guards last season.
Knox is younger and has less experience, so he deserves a little extra slack. Still, there are a number of knocks on Knox – specifically around defense and efficiency. According to cleaningtheglass.com, Knox’s assist percentage was in the sixth percentile among players at his position and his turnover percentage was in the tenth percentile. Somehow, he posted an equally horrid defensive rating and effective field goal percentage. Knox has lots of potential, but he also needs to make major improvements and make better decisions with the ball and on defense.
Re-signing any of the three to long-term deals is probably out of the question from a timing standpoint as there are only three days left to do so. And there’s probably limited desire to do so, anyway. But what about their third- and fourth-year options, should the Knicks pick them all up? The answer is simple – yes, and without hesitation, but let’s explore why:
The options for Smith Jr., Ntilikina and Knox are set at $5.68 million, $6.176 million and $4.58 million, respectively.
While the 2020 free agent class appears limited compared to recent seasons – there are no sure-fire All-Stars other than Anthony Davis – the Knicks maintained salary cap flexibility thanks to creative team options and one-year signings that cover literally every signing made this past offseason. So picking up all of the aforementioned options represents a commitment of more than $16 million, which will eat into the aforementioned flexibility they smartly invented just recently.
Well, yes — but there should be more space to use. However, the Knicks can’t know exactly where the salary cap will land next season – and it could end up significantly lower than previous estimates due to the current NBA-China beef – but the options represent three contributors to the roster, all of whom they can control for at least one more season. And remember, New York doesn’t have too much depth.
Beyond their young core. Smith Jr., Ntilikina and Knox will all play a role for the team. Looking back to last season, they played 21.0, 29.02 and 28.8 minutes per game as Knicks last season, individually. Those numbers should go up in 2019-20, and paying between $4.5 and $6.2 million apiece to play such large roles is mostly impossible elsewhere.
Thusly, approximately $16 million is a bargain for three contributors — but that becomes all the more obvious when we consider that the average salary was $6.38 million in 2018-19 – more than any of the individual option years. At 21, 21 and 20 years old, these three players should all take leaps forward in their respective development, meaning their salaries could become even more of a bargain than they are now. Further, the salary cap is $109 million this season and none of those options would represent even six percent of the 2019-20 cap.
Even if the Knicks played it frugally and declined their options in favor of cap savings, what would the Knicks even do with them? We’ve already established that the class is less-than-stellar; but what’s more, who’s to say any would be attracted to Madison Square Garden, anyway? The Knicks have had limited (and small) success(es) in free agency. That’s not to say they should give up. But it’s their reality and it’s on them to change it.
New York has suffered major culture setbacks in recent years that landed them exactly where they are. In reverse chronological order, there’s been: The public fallout of them being burned by 2019 free agents, Kristaps Porzingis asking to be traded, James Dolan having Charles Oakley escorted out of Madison Square Garden and all of the damage done by Phil Jackson (e.g., the “posse” fiasco and his public, passive-aggressive war with Carmelo Anthony). That only takes us back through 2014 and ignores the Isiah Thomas-era and the fact that they’ve won one playoff series in the past 18 years.
Having said all that, and despite what Presidential candidate Andrew Yang thinks, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. But from a cost-efficiency standpoint, as well as to continue building a positive perception league-wide, the Knicks must pick up all three options. Ultimately, they’ll be better for in both the short- and long-term.
NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain
Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.
The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.
“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield is taking these contract talks very personally. In an emotional postgame interview, he talked about “finding another home” if the team doesn’t get a deal done by Monday’s deadline. pic.twitter.com/sEkJEZfNkS
— Jason Anderson (@JandersonSacBee) October 17, 2019
The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.
But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.
“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”
Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9 attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.
Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.
That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.
Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.
The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.
Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.
Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?
Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.
There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.
If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.
Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.
“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”
The Divide On Analytics
The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.
Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.
After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!
LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.
This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.
Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.
Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.
In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.
Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.
The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.
Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.
On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”
This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”
“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.
Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.
Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.
The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.
Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.
The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”
And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).
But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.
Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.
You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.
But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.
Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.
Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.
A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.
So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).
Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.
The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.
To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.
But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.
Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.
Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.
It’s more effective. The math says so.