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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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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 3/19/19

With the field of teams set for the 2019 NCAA March Madness tournament, things should get noisy over the next few weeks on the NBA Draft front. Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft before all the zaniness begins.

Steve Kyler

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Let the Madness begin.

The basketball world will shift its attention to college basketball’s biggest stage over the next few weeks, especially this weekend’s opening round of 64.

While the tournament doesn’t necessarily make or break a player’s draft stock, this will be the first time some notable draft prospects will face elite talent and, more importantly, the pressure of the big stage. You can check out march madness predictions 2019 here.

Expect things in the draft world to start to percolate, not just because of the magnitude of the games, but also because a lot of NBA scouts will be in the same places, which is where the draft chatter originates.

Equally, a lot of NBA teams will watch games together in the conference rooms this week, so more group discussion on players will happen inside NBA teams’ front offices, and that could lead to new preference information flowing into the NBA Draft information bubble.

Here is this week’s 60-Pick Mock Draft, based on NBA games played through 3/18/19:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the standings, it will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the standings, would convey.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the current standings, the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the current standings this pick would not convey. If the debt is not settled this year, the pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Fixing The Cleveland Cavaliers

Spencer Davies starts Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with the rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers.

Spencer Davies

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Can you believe that the NBA regular season is less than a month away from concluding? It’s March 18, and teams are gearing up for the final stretch run before the playoffs get here. Thus far, there have been three teams to solidify their spots—the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers—while the rest of the league looks to jockey for postseason positioning.

On the flipside, there are four organizations that have begun to look towards the future with their immediate futures already decided, and 10 more will join them in the coming weeks as they become eliminated from playoff contention.

Basketball Insiders is bringing back its annual “Fixing” series to provide a blueprint of how to get each of those teams back on the right track moving forward. We’ll get things started with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

What Is Working

In the second half of the season, the Cavaliers are 5-7. Yes, that is two games under .500 and should not be something to celebrate—but it’s how they are playing that deserves praise. Aside from a couple of clunkers against the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, they’ve been a resilient young group that has clearly matured under the direction of head coach Larry Drew.

The return of Kevin Love coinciding with Cleveland playing its best basketball all year is not a matter of happenstance, either. As detailed a couple of weeks ago, his impact on Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman has made both inexperienced players significantly better. As the team’s “go-to guy” as Drew likes to put it, everybody can play through a legitimate All-Star in a number of ways—feeding him on the block, finding him on the perimeter or even allowing him to dribble drive and create for others.

The Cavaliers are quite excited about the determination of their guys, specifically Sexton and Osman. It’d be foolish to base the projection of a rookie’s career off playing alongside multiple two-way and 10-day contract players, and some did when Sexton had his fair share of struggles. The same could be said for Osman, who’s really turned up the playmaking and shooting as of late. It takes talent and consistency to be in the NBA, which is a lesson they’re learning every night. And the optimism should go beyond just those three, too. There are a number of players who could be a part of the team’s core in the future.

Experiencing perhaps his best season as a pro, Larry Nance Jr. is becoming a vocal leader on and off the floor. Ante Zizic has taken his opportunity as a starter and run with it, averaging nearly 12 points and eight rebounds in 20 of such situations. Drew has constantly praised David Nwaba’s efforts when he’s needed a guy to step up and defend opponents’ top players, even when out of position. Jordan Clarkson thrives as the sixth man and Matthew Dellavedova is the perfect mentor and floor general off the bench.

What Needs To Change

Now comes the harsh part—Cleveland has been a horrific defensive team for a number of years. They’ve ranked among the worst in basketball for the past three years, and that includes the last two seasons they had with LeBron James. It begs the question: Is it scheme or is it personnel? In the case of the Cavaliers, the answer is probably a little bit of both.

There is often confusion with the coverage calls. Blown assignments, miscommunication and difficulty with the pick-and-roll can best describe the mess that is on the floor. There isn’t as much finger pointing as there was at the beginning stages of the season, but it’s paramount that the team drastically improves in this area. Considering the number of injuries, inexperience and lack of continuity that they’ve had this year, it should get better.

While shot selection has gotten better throughout the season, the Cavaliers have to move the basketball better on a consistent basis. Again, Sexton and Osman felt that they had to carry the load in the absence of Love as the primary scoring options—and Tristan Thompson’s injuries didn’t help—so there was a lot of hero ball going on. At least in the last month, these totals have gotten higher.

Cleveland may take the cake in scoring droughts as well, which leads to other teams taking games over. A scenario we’ve seen all too much this season: Cavaliers take the ball down the floor, pass it maybe once or twice and don’t find the open man, which leads to a rebound and numbers for the opposing team that almost capitalizes in every instance. Stagnancy is a killer for the wine and gold, which is a group that needs to play in a transition-heavy, free-flowing type of game to succeed.

Focus Area: The Draft

Currently owning the third-worst record in the association, the Cavaliers would have the same 14 percent odds to land the first overall pick in the NBA Draft as the two teams behind them, the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks. If the standings locked, Cleveland would be guaranteed a top-seven selection—although the percentages indicate they’d have a good chance to land in the top four and likely drop no further than sixth. They also are going to convey a draft pick in the mid-to-late 20s from the Houston Rockets via the Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss trade.

There is no singular focus area with the Cavaliers. They could use any talent they can get to add to this developing core and set the tone for the future. Obviously, the buzz surrounding Duke superstar Zion Williamson is real. If you were to pigeonhole him as just a dunker or a highlight reel, you’d be completely mistaken. Though needing to work on a reliable jump shot, the 18-year-old phenom is loaded with an incredibly versatile skill set at his age and a build that is tailor-made for the NBA. Positionless basketball is the future, and Williamson fits the bill.

If Cleveland lands another first overall pick, they’d be foolish to pass up on such a potential franchise changer. Just imagine the speedy Young Bull and bulldozing Williamson on a fastbreak opportunity with Love just waiting on the elbow. That’s quite a triple threat.

Say the Cavaliers end up second, third or fourth—this writer would jump at the opportunity to add Temetrius Morant, a man whom the basketball world knows simply as “Ja.” Set to be a top-five pick in the upcoming draft, the 19-year-old point guard is an absolute blast to watch play the game. He scores the basketball at will. He distributes at a high rate and shares the wealth with his teammates. He excels in transition. Morant lacks some size and will likely need to put on some weight, but forming a tandem with Sexton—who’s found a real groove playing off the ball—could work out famously.

Willamson’s teammates at Duke—RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish—also have plenty of intrigue about them at those spots. If Cleveland gets put in the worst case scenario, talented wings like De’Andre Hunter and Keldon Johnson might be the way to go.

However, regarding the Rockets’ pick, there might be some diamonds in the rough. Here’s a list of names that could be attractive depending on the draft results: Bol Bol, Jontay Porter, Kevin Porter, Tre Jones, Matisse Thybulle, Luguentz Dort, Ashton Hagans.

Focus Area: Free Agency

With nearly its entire roster returning in 2019-20, Cleveland will not be much of a player in the free agency period. Nik Stauskas and Chriss have expiring contracts and Channing Frye is retiring.

General manager Koby Altman is going to be active in finding a trade partner for J.R. Smith, whose $15.68 million contract fully guarantees on June 30. If the Cavaliers can do so before that day, the team that traded for him can waive him and will only be on the hook for $3.87 million. It seems as if draft night—June 20—would be the most logical time to try this. If Altman is successful in moving Smith, the organization will have opened a roster spot.

Considering the team has been more than pleased with Nwaba’s contributions when healthy, it’s probable that he’ll be tendered a qualifying offer. If he is, then the 26-year-old guard would become a restricted free agent, meaning Cleveland could match any offer he’d receive. If Nwaba doesn’t get any bites, then it’s plausible he’d accept the $1.89 million one-year offer to stay.

Altman did yeoman’s work this year as a front office executive. He took what was a horrific financial situation loaded with unhappy veterans and turned it into something much more manageable, all while bringing in future assets and players on flexible deals. We don’t know whether those additions—Dellavedova, Knight and John Henson—are going to be a part of the future or used in potential trades down the line. The same could be said of Thompson and Clarkson, who also are going to be on the last years of their respective deals.

Other than the potential two rookies, there probably won’t be too many new faces around the Cavaliers in the summertime. It might change as we get into the 2019-20 campaign, but that’s down the road. Don’t expect a lot of change roster-wise going into the new league year.

Of course, coaching wise is a completely different story. The prevailing thought is that Cleveland is going to want a first-year head coach to grow and develop alongside their core players. Reports indicate the front office might prefer a person who has previous connections to the franchise in some capacity.

There are two assistants on other teams who have been the head coach of the Canton Charge—Denver’s Jordi Fernandez and Utah’s Alex Jensen—that could make sense. Toronto Raptors assistant and former player Adrian Griffin is a potentially appealing name as well, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

If Larry Drew decides he doesn’t want to stick around, finding the right person to lead this Cavaliers team into the next era is going to be crucial.

The “second first” year without LeBron didn’t go as planned. Firing Tyronn Lue six games into the season didn’t make matters easy, nor did Love going down with a toe injury to miss two-thirds of the season. Yet through the bad times, this Cleveland bunch has refused to mail it in and has earned a deal of respect from its competition.

They’re embracing the role of playing spoiler as the year winds down. It’s all about meaningful minutes for these guys, and until the clock hits zero on April 9 at Quicken Loans Arena, the work on the floor won’t be done.

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NBA Daily: Is Starting That Big Of A Deal?

It’s easy to conclude that a bench player should replace a starter in the lineup if the former is outplaying the latter, but Matt John explains why that may not be the best idea.

Matt John

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Of all the topsy-turvy things that have happened to the Boston Celtics this season, Jaylen Brown’s sudden decline and subsequent comeback might just be the topsiest-turviest thing of them all.

And that’s saying something.

There may not have been a starter in the league who played as badly as he did when the season began. In his first month and a half as the starting shooting guard, Jaylen averaged 11.1 points on 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 25.3 percent from three. That was quite the drop off from his numbers the previous season, where he averaged 14.5 points on 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent from three.

Advanced metrics showed that Brown’s struggles were hurting the Celtics too. Boston was minus-11.9 with Brown on the floor, which was the worst on the team among players who played at least 100 minutes. By December, Brown was benched in favor of Marcus Smart, where the Celtics not so coincidentally started picking things up from there.

Since his move to the bench, Jaylen has regained his footing, averaging 14 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting and 36.3 percent from three. This most recent stretch has been really encouraging for him, as he’s put up 16.4 points a night on 49.5 percent shooting and 40.5 percent from three. Best of all, his play is benefitting the Celtics, as they are plus-6.9 with him on the floor, good for third-best among players who have played 97 or more minutes behind only Al Horford and Gordon Hayward.

His timing couldn’t be better, as the playoffs are just around the corner. Brown playing his best basketball of the season could really help the Celtics’ chances. So one question remains – why not put him back in the starting lineup?

It would make sense. The uptick in Brown’s production has coincided with the diminishment of Marcus Morris’ production.

Morris and Brown have come from opposite ends this summer. While Brown has worked his way up after falling so far down, Morris has descended quite a bit since his brilliant start.

“Mook” was playing the best basketball of his career when the season began. In fact, he was one of the few positives in a season that started as underwhelmingly mediocre as the Celtics had. Through the first two-and-a-half months, Morris was playing like a borderline all-star.

In that time, Morris averaged 15.5 points on 50.1 percent shooting and 44.1 percent from three. The Celtics were plus-5.5 with Morris on the floor, with all of the positivity coming from the offensive end, where the offense was plus-11.6 with him on the floor, second only to Kyrie Irving.

Since then, Morris’ production has tailed off. There was bound to be some regression in Marcus’ case, but since the all-star break, he’s playing what could very well be the worst basketball he’s played since becoming a Celtic.

Since the return from the All-Star break, Morris has averaged 13.1 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from three. The Celtics are minus-17.1 with him on the floor during that span. In other words, he’s hurting them badly on both ends.

So, subbing the slumping Morris for the thriving Brown in the starting lineup would seem like an obvious move to make. The Celtics could do it, and no one would bat an eye, but in this time of the season, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with the lineups this late into the season, or more specifically, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with what’s been working for Brown.

Though it took longer than Boston would have liked, Jaylen Brown has found his stride with the second unit this season. Even if Morris has struggled over the last month or so, taking Brown out of a situation where he’s playing at his best and putting him back into a lineup where he struggled could mess up his mojo. It’s unlikely that Brown will be coming off the bench through the duration of his career, but this season, he was meant to play in the second unit.

There are certain players who, despite having the talent to be a starter, are put in the NBA for the sole purpose of ruling over the second unit. Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry fit that certain mold, but there may not be a player that fits that description better than Lou Williams.

At the age of 32, Williams has already done enough to cement his status as one of the best microwave scorers of all time. The 13,135 points that Williams has scored in his NBA career is good for No.194 among all-time points scored. Last week, he surpassed Dell Curry for the No. 1 all-time scorer off the bench. That is impressive whether he started or not. However, if Lou had been a starter for his entire career, those numbers wouldn’t have as much meaning as they most definitely do as a sixth man.

It’s not as much about having as high scoring numbers in his case. It’s more about the purpose of what those numbers do for his team. Williams’ scoring abilities off the bench give his teams an edge that a fair amount of second units don’t have. His impact offensively is so strong that, like Brown over the past month, he usually winds up finishing games. That’s why having guys like Williams or Brown off the bench is important – They bring an advantage.

Another example would be Williams’ teammate, Montrezl Harrell. Doc Rivers, who has a very solid case for Coach of the Year, has elected to start then-Clipper Marcin Gortat and recently acquired big man Ivica Zubac over Harrell at center this season despite it being very clear that Harrell is his best player in the frontcourt.

He does this because Harrell gives LA an edge in the second unit much like Williams does with the energy he brings to the court. Harrell influences the game so much that again, like Williams, he’s usually out there finishing games as well. His skill set makes him a perfect fit in the second unit, and he could very well be Lou’s best competition for Sixth Man of the Year.

Those are examples of players who could be starters if their team wanted them to. They just play better when they come off the bench, but are there players who – despite being a starting-caliber player – are not a good fit in their starting lineup?

As it turns out, Derrick Favors is one such player. It’s been a much-debated controversy in Utah now about whether Favors should be starting in the frontcourt alongside Rudy Gobert for the Jazz. Honestly, those two aren’t bad together, but they play so much better when they pair up with a floor spacer in the frontcourt instead of each other.

In two-man lineups, Favors and Gobert are a plus-1.4 together. Defensively, the two of them are great together, giving up 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Alas, they only score 99.7 points per 100 possessions. Compare their two-man lineup to one with either Joe Ingles or Jae Crowder.

Favors and Ingles: +6.1
Favors and Crowder: +2.6
Gobert and Ingles: +4.5
Gobert and Crowder: +4.1

To be clear, Favors is good enough to be a starter. He just might not have the best frontcourt partner to be paired with.

When you take all of this in, it’s fair to say that to a certain extent, starting is overrated because it has no bearing on who plays the most minutes. What’s most important really is who finishes the game. Sometimes it’s the starters while at other times, it’s one or two bench players. It all comes down to who is the most reliable.

Because of this, in the Celtics’ case, the more accurate conclusion is that Brown should be getting more minutes than Morris rather than he should be replacing him in the starting lineup. That is, if he keeps this up.

No matter what Boston decides to do, one final question must be brought to our attention – Does anyone else think it’s an odd coincidence that Brown’s and Morris’ productions both started trending in opposite directions after the two of them got into that skirmish back in January?

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