Nichols and Dimes

Innovative Basketball Research

Finding the Achilles Heel of Each Remaining Playoff Team

As the number of teams still in contention for the 2009 NBA championship dwindles down, it’s important to note not only the strengths of each team but also the weaknesses.  All it takes is one major hole for another team to exploit and make you pay.  We’ve seen this happen countless times in the past.  So what is each remaining team’s biggest weakness?

Cleveland Cavaliers

Achilles heel: Depth

When you’re talking about a team as good as the Cavs, it’s really hard to find any weaknesses.  They’re pretty much good at every statistical category.  If I could nitpick and find one flaw, it would have to be their bench depth.  With Anderson Varejao now starting, the only bench player they have with a PER over 14 is Joe Smith.  Varejao, Big Z, LeBron, Mo Williams, and Delonte West are all great.  After them, there is a bit of decline in terms of talent.  But I should repeat: this isn’t a huge problem.  It’s just the best I can do.

Boston Celtics

Achilles heel: Offensive turnovers

In the regular season, the Celtics were the second best defensive team in the league and a strong sixth on offense.  This balance allowed them to stay dominant despite Kevin Garnett’s injury.  However, there’s been one area they’ve struggled in mightily all year: offensive turnovers.  In fact, on a per-possession basis, Boston was the third worst team in the league at taking care of the ball.  Who are the biggest culprits? Kendrick Perkins, Stephon Marbury, Tony Allen, and Leon Powe, to name a few.

Orlando Magic

Achilles heels: Offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers

For a team as good as the Magic, it’s a surprise that they rank towards the bottom of the NBA in the two statistics I mentioned above.  I’m especially surprised that a team with Dwight Howard can be so poor (third worst in the league) at collecting offensive boards.  If you investigate closer, you can see why.  The Magic’s two centers, Howard and Marcin Gortat, do a pretty good job of crashing the boards.  But Orlando also starts Rashard Lewis at power forward, and he has an offensive rebound rate well below average for his position.

Atlanta Hawks

Achilles heel: Defensive rebounding

One of the great things about the Hawks is that they’re so versatile.  Despite playing without a true center, they generally have good size and athleticism.  Thanks to having Josh Smith at the power forward spot, they can run with the best of them.  Unfortunately, you can’t run unless you grab the rebound first, something the Hawks struggle at (although they did just fine against Miami).  In the regular season, Atlanta’s defensive rebound percentage was seventh worst in the NBA.

Los Angeles Lakers

Achilles heel: Point guards

Derek Fisher is a solid vet who generally makes smart plays, but in terms of production he’s been lacking.  His PER of 12.1 shows how in many games he is quite a non-factor.  Thankfully his solid defense often makes up for this weakness.  Behind him on the depth chart, it doesn’t get much better.  Jordan Farmar has had plenty of ups and downs with the Lakers, and this season certainly qualifies as a down.  His PER of 9.9 is very low for a rotation player on a championship contender.  He shoots inefficiently and turns the ball over too much.  The Lakers must be careful: the Rockets have two good point guards in Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry.  Brooks has already shown what he can do.  It’s no surprise the Lakers have started to resort to Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic.

Denver Nuggets

Achilles heel: Offensive turnovers

Like the Celtics, one potentially fatal flaw for the Nuggets is their inability to take care of the ball.  Denver’s turnover rate is sixth highest in the NBA.  It’s not a shocking statistic, considering the fast and sometimes wild pace they play at.  However, it is a bit surprising considering that their floor general is Chauncey Billups, a very steady player.  The Nuggets with the highest turnover rates include Anthony Carter, Chris Andersen, Nene, and Dahntay Jones.

Houston Rockets

Achilles heel: Forcing turnovers

As always, the Rockets are a stellar defensive squad.  Their defensive rating ranks fourth in the NBA and they have defensive studs such as Ron Artest and Shane Battier on their roster.  In terms of holding the opponent to a low field goal percentage, gathering rebounds, and not fouling, they are great.  However, along with this steadfast approach comes a conservative attitude.  Guys like Shane Battier won’t gamble for a steal; they’ll stay in front of their man and force a tough shot.  In a way, this weakness may end up being one of their greatest strengths.

Dallas Mavericks

Achilles heel: Drawing fouls and forcing turnovers

In the 2006 Finals, there was a great deal of talk about the free throw discrepancy between the Heat and the Mavericks.  It is indeed true that Dwyane Wade spent a ton of time at the foul line (although partly thanks to Dallas’s willingness to foul Shaquille O’Neal and put Miami in the foul bonus early).  However, it is also true that the Mavericks have never been a great team at earning free throw attempts.  Three years later, it’s still an issue.  Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Jason Kidd, three guys who don’t make a living at the charity stripe, run much of their offense.  Even the main man, Dirk Nowitzki, doesn’t get fouled a ton.  It’s simply not Dallas’s style.

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May 7, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | Leave a comment

Allen Iverson In His Later Years

With all the talk about Allen Iverson’s recent struggles and the Pistons’ success without him in the lineup, I decided to take a look at Allen Iverson’s Composite Score numbers since the 2003 season (as far back as my data goes).  We know he hasn’t been a great fit in Detroit, but how has his game been progressing over the last five years?

Iverson struggled in the 2003-04 season with the 76ers.  He was above average in terms of both Offensive Composite Score and Defensive Composite Score, but he was certainly not living up to the reputation he had built in the past.  He quickly turned it around for the 2004-05 season, starring on a decent Philadelphia team.  His offense improved dramatically while his defense got better as well.  This, of course, was his first season with Andre Iguodala, who would eventually prove to be his successor.  The following season his offense was among the league’s very best.  However, his defense slipped to around average.  According to Composite Score, he was the league’s 32nd best player that season.

The following season, 2006-07, Iverson experienced a relapse.  Amid many controversies in Philly, he was dealt to Denver.  It was immediately evident that playing with new teammate Carmelo Anthony would be a work in progress.  His numbers slipped back to their 2003-04 level, although his defense was as good as ever.  In 2007-08 (last season), Iverson put things together quite nicely, compiling the highest Composite Score he’s ever had.  His defense continued to be solid in Denver and his offense was extraordinary again.  His balance on both areas of the floor led to him being one of the league’s 20 best players again.  While Anthony sputtered, AI flourished.

It didn’t last long, however.  Denver decided to move him for Chauncey Billups (an excellent player in his own right).  As it has been discussed recently, Iverson has not fit in Detroit at all.  The slow pace and strong scoring balance is simply not what he’s made for.  Iverson needs to either play on a fast-paced team or one without many natural scorers.  Detroit is neither of those.  Iverson is now below average on both offense and defense, and his Value Rating is towards the very bottom of the league.  The sad thing is that this once great player is now just a very large expiring contract for a team looking to rebuild.

Is AI done?  The numbers think that’s a little premature.  Remember, as recently as last season he’s shown that he is among the league’s best.  In addition, he’s also shown that he needs time to adjust to new teams (although he’ll probably never get that chance in Detroit).  Until he puts together two bad seasons in a row, I wouldn’t call him finished.  He’s still got talent and would be a useful pickup for a team lacking scoring.  As long as he finds a good fit and is given time to adjust to his surroundings, he could still be one heck of a player.

March 4, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | Leave a comment

A Sign of the Times in the NBA

As I’ve been reading the great trade deadline analysis by John Hollinger of ESPN.com and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus (check their work out, it’s extremely well done), I’ve been struck by how many of the deadline deals were motivated purely by financial reasons.  Those two writers clearly understand the intricacies of the cap and the financial motivations behind many teams.

Whether they were positioning for free agency in 2009 or 2010, limiting luxury tax payments now or in the future, or simply saving a few bucks, many teams made some very astute moves.  This might be a source of complaint for many people (my biggest gripe would have been the Tyson Chandler trade that almost was, but even then I can understand), but I’m impressed and fascinated at the same time by these moves.  Teams clearly have a great understanding of every little loophole within the Collective Bargaining Agreement and are using them to their advantage.

A couple of minor deals prove this point very well.  At first glance, Portland’s trade of Ike Diogu for Michael Ruffin makes little sense when you look at the skills and contracts of the two players.  Both have expiring contracts, yet Diogu is younger and more talented.  However, he was very expendable for the Blazers and the trade accomplishes two things.  It lowers their luxury tax payments ever so slightly, and it gives them a $3 million trade exception that can be used within the next year (props to Pelton for explaining this well).  Kevin Pritchard is no dummy, so you can bet that exception will turn into something useful.

The other team that intrigued me was the Memphis Grizzlies.  They made two separate trades: one in which they gave up a player (Kyle Lowry) for a draft pick, and another in which they gave up a draft pick and received a player (Chris Mihm) along with cash considerations.  The net effect is Memphis turning a conditional 2013 second-round pick (not exactly valuable) into a first rounder in next year’s draft, and being paid a few bucks in the process.  Sure they gave up Lowry for Mihm, but Mike Conley is the point guard of the future anyways.

In case we forgot, the trade deadline reminded us that this thing we hold so dear is certainly a business.  And I’m ok with that.  I prefer teams to be scheming penny-pinchers instead of trial-and-error free spenders.  The next goal should be to avoid giving out those bad contracts in the first place (easier said than done).

February 19, 2009 Posted by | Commentary | Leave a comment

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