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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.

Drew Mays

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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.

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?

Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.

Drew Maresca

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This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.

As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.

And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.

Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s  Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.

Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.

At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.

While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.

In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.

But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.

Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)

A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.

First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?

When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.

Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.

Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.

Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.

And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest.  And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.

But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.

And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.

Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.

So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.

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NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?

Dylan Thayer

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The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.

As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)

The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.

Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.

Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.

Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.

2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.

Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol. 

If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?

3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)

If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.

Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.

While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)

The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball. 

But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game. 

If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it. 

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)

The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable. 

Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15. 

While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.

Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)

The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.

As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.

Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.

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NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?

Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.

The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.

Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.

As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)

But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?

The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.

The timing of the injury is apropos.

The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.

Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.

A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.

Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.

But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.

Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.

But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).

And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.

Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.

Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.

The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.

So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.

The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.

And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.

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