Nichols and Dimes

Innovative Basketball Research

How Did Those Guys Do It

The Boston Celtics were discussed ad nauseum last season, so I feel bad bringing them up, but they still baffle me.  I think many people don’t realize how dominant their defense was last season.  Their 98.6 defensive efficiency was three points better than the next closest team, a sizable margin.

Even more confusing is the fact that many of the players that made up their squad did not have stellar defensive reputations.  Paul Pierce, who ranked 6th in Defensive Composite Score last season, had not ranked higher than 94th in any of the previous four seasons.  Ray Allen, who ranked 34th last season, never previously topped 183rd.  Eddie House ranked 38th in 07-08 after finishing as one of the worst defenders in the league in 2004, 2005, and 2007, and not too great in 2006.  In limited minutes, Tony Allen ranked 4th last season after finishing 89th in the previous year.  The list goes on and on.

The Celtics did have Kevin Garnett, the Defensive Player of the Year.  Unlike the previous players, Defensive Composite Score has always loved Garnett, so his year was no fluke.  Because Garnett is a big man who does a great job guarding the paint but also has the quickness to extend his D, he certainly makes everyone around him better.  Still, I’m sold on his defensive abilities having this large of an impact.

After some extensive soul searching, I’ve learned that the reason I can’t figure out last year’s Celtics is because the differences can’t be seen in any specific numbers.  As much as I hate to admit it, the stats don’t tell the story here.

Garnett’s abilities had an impact on the team, but his mindset had might have been the key.  There’s simply no way to explain someone such as Eddie House becoming a good defender other than figuring he changed his attitude.  Like the rest of the Celtics, House appeared to give maximum effort on every defensive possession, something he hasn’t been known for.  Defense has a lot to do with natural ability, but it also requires effort.  The Celtics displayed unreal amounts of effort for all 82 games and then kept it going in the playoffs.

The players don’t get all the credit here, though.  The Celtics coaching staff clearly got messages through to the players.  Tom Thibodeau has been known as a defensive expert, and he did more than enough to cement that reputation last season.  Mike D’Antoni and Vinny Del Negro have many positive qualities, but if I were running the Knicks or Bulls I would not have passed on hiring Thibodeau in the offseason.

If you look at the numbers for Doc Rivers and Thibodeau, some things start to stand out.  The average defensive rating rank of the previous three Celtics teams that Rivers coached was 16.67.  Prior to that, he coached four full seasons with the Magic, and those teams ranked 13.5.  Although those numbers aren’t terrible, it’s clear he did not lead the turnaround on his own.

Thibodeau, on the other hand, has an excellent track record as an assistant.  In his two seasons with the Spurs, the teams ranked on average 9.5 in defensive efficiency.  The next two years he helped coach a terrible 76ers team, and their defensive numbers were quite poor.  However, after that, his numbers were stellar.  The Knicks’ average rank during his tenure there was 8.57.  After seven seasons, Thibodeau followed Van Gundy to the Rockets, who had a rank of 4.5 during those four seasons.  Thibodeau’s best years came with Van Gundy, so it’s impossible to pinpoint how much credit belongs to each.

It’s unclear how much credit Thibodeau deserves for the Celtics’ resurgence, but struggling teams should at least be giving this guy a shot at being their head coach.  If you could drastically improve your defense (which, we must not forget, is half of the game) by hiring just one man, how could you pass that up?

NBA teams ought to be doing their homework right now and trying to figure out how the Celtics became such a defensive powerhouse.  The next team to replicate that strategy will also be a force to be reckoned with.

October 27, 2008 Posted by | Commentary | Leave a comment

How Much Diesel is Left in the Tank?

(I use a lot of different advanced statistics in this piece.  If you’re confused about any of them, check out the explanation of Composite Score found here: http://basketball-statistics.com/aboutcs.html.)

One of the most criticized moves during the past NBA season was Steve Kerr’s decision to trade Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks for Shaquille O’Neal.  The Suns felt they had many reasons to trade Marion – his contract demands, potential locker room problems with Amare Stoudemire, his age, etc.  However, couldn’t they have gotten more for him than the once great but now aging Shaq?  Not only was Shaq’s game slipping, but he’s due a lot of money until 2010.

Regardless of the criticisms last season, the trade happened, and there aren’t any do-overs.  The Suns must figure out what they have going forward in Shaq, and they need to figure out how best to utilize him.

First of all, what do the player rating systems say about Shaq?  Composite Score had Shaq ranked as the 41st best player in the league last season, down from 33rd in 2007 and superb numbers from 2004-06.  Shaq’s PER was 17.17, declining for the 3rd straight year.  Hollinger expects Shaq’s numbers to continue to decline and fall below league average.  O’Neal’s plus-minus was +1.2 overall last season, a one point decline from the previous year.  His plus-minus is another statistic that has been declining every year.  His offensive rating was a career low last season (this is bad) and his defensive rating was a career high (also bad).  The biggest culprit for these declines appear to be his turnovers, which have become a huge (no pun intended) problem.

If his decline stays at its current pace, Composite Score thinks he’ll still be an above-average player.  PER thinks he’ll be around average, as does plus-minus.  His offensive and defensive ratings suggest he’ll be below average.  All of the numbers agree that Shaq will be a worse player than Shawn Marion next season.

However, the Suns may have already known that before they made the trade.  The reason they acquired O’Neal was for a strong post presence on both ends of the floor.  What do the numbers say about Shaq’s potential to meet those expectations?

His offensive rebound rate ranked 21st among centers and his defensive rebound rate ranked 10th last season.  He blocked 2.33 shots per 48 minutes, which is not particularly impressive.  He committed 6.3 fouls per 48 minutes, another negative.  He did shoot a high percentage near the basket.  He is excellent at drawing fouls, although bad at converting foul shots.  Overall, he’s a decent post presence because of his solid rebounding and sheer size, but you can do better.  For $20 million, you can do a lot better.

It may seem like I’m beating a dead horse, but the Shaq trade really does not look like a good one for the Suns, and the stats confirm this.  If he was making a third of his current salary, it would be a different story.

I will say this though: Shaq is one of the greats and should not be totally ignored.  He understands his legacy and will try not to end his career on a bad note.  If nothing else, he’s an experienced veteran who can teach guys like Stoudemire a thing or two.

October 13, 2008 Posted by | Commentary | Leave a comment

My Thoughts on Team Chemistry

Although it would be silly for me to try to speak for everyone, I would guess that the modern NBA “stathead” thinks the whole notion of team chemistry is ridiculous.  The fact that team chemistry can’t be statistically measured isn’t our beef with it (we acknowledge there are a lot of things that can’t be measured).  The problem is that team chemistry is usually the catch-all reason for why teams are good when it doesn’t seem like they should be.  Stats guys tend to take a more scientific look at things.  They often see things that explain why these teams mysteriously play so well.  Maybe a team has an efficient offense that is much better than it looks because it plays at a slow pace and doesn’t score a ton of points every game.  Maybe it has some players that are considered “scrubs” by most people but are surprisingly adept at defense.  Or maybe the team is just lucky.

Whatever the case may be, I’ve historically never been a fan of talk of team chemistry, intangibles, and all the warm and fuzzy things that help NBA fans sleep at night.  As I wrote in one of my previous articles,

“The problem is when things like locker room chemistry are given as reasons for team success.  It’s easy to pick examples of teams that have won with a group of players that got along and shared the same mentality, but it is just as easy to pick examples of teams that were quite the opposite.  Michael Jordan once punched out Steve Kerr in practice, and MJ often verbally tormented his players.  Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three championships despite not being the best of friends.  Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton exchanged verbal jabs with each other during a playoff series last year against the Bulls, and then held up the championship trophy a few weeks later.”

With all that being said, I’ve warmed up to the idea very slowly.  The Celtics last year at least made you think a little bit about all those intangible things.  I will never feel that teams need to be large groups of best friends to win, but I will admit that a strong team philosophy that includes hustle and teamwork (especially on the defensive end) is crucial to winning it all.  As someone who tries to get people to look at defense too when analyzing players, it would be foolish of me not to concede that.  The key is just not taking things too far.  Cute off-the-court stories make for good newspaper articles, but they generally don’t make people better at playing the game of basketball.

October 3, 2008 Posted by | Commentary | Leave a comment