READ THIS POST FIRST!

If you’re just coming across NBAcademic for the first time, or if you’re a long-time reader that doesn’t understand why you haven’t seen new content on the site for like a year, then this is the article for you.

Back in 2019, I started writing and producing content for other sites (primarily Overtime Heroics, Premium Hoops, and Vavel), so all of my work has been published on those sites respectively; however, I wanted a collection of all my work in one place, so I have links to each one of those pieces of content on the site here!

Film Room: go to this tab to find all of my YouTube videos that I have published. As of now, they are all on the Overtime Heroics – NBA YouTube channel.

Library: go to this tab to find all of my articles that I written starting with the most recent ones on the top. Dig deep enough and you can find some of my worst takes from as early as 2015.

Podcasts: go to this tab to find all of my…podcasts. Yeah, I didn’t have a clever name for this, so I’m just going to leave it as is. I don’t host a podcast, but I have appeared on various other shows, so you can find all of those episodes there.

I still respond to comments and interactions with this blog, but if you want to reach me, my Twitter profile is the best way to do so.

Thanks for continuing to read, and I hope to interact with you all at some point!

Player Spotlight: Doug Christie

Article Length: about 1,400 words or about 8-10 minutes of reading

Image result for doug christie block

During the 2002-03 season, a 32-year-old Doug Christie averaged 9.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game for the 59-win Sacramento Kings. Counting stats alone might have a fan think of him as the 4th or 5th best player on that team; however, he scored very high on a variety of advanced statistics. He was 10th in the entire league in PIPM and 15th in VORP (just ahead of Gary Payton and Allen Iverson) both of which were higher than any of his teammates.

So, what’s going on? He shot efficiently, but not that efficiently. He was fourth in the league in total steals (behind Kobe, Marion, and Iverson), but nothing else jumps off the page. His overall defense, however, was revered. He was 1st team All-Defense that year, 5th in DPoY voting (behind Ben Wallace, Metta World Peace, Garnett, and Duncan), and was listed in Bleacher Report’s top 60 defensive players of all time (coming in at #10 for shooting guards).

Interestingly enough, when I went back to the film, I was pretty underwhelmed by Christie’s presence especially on defense. In just a couple of games, I found multiple mistakes in the form of being blown by, gambling on passes, and ball-watching. In the most egregious example, he simply lets Sprewell torch him in the open court (who ultimately…chokes…at the rim).

Later, he bites on a pass 30 feet from the rim, and instead of sprinting back to recover, he jogs back with his hand up. He’s lucky that neither of these mistakes led to a basket.

The aforementioned are the two most egregious examples that I found, but they’re both pretty bad. Whenever Harden pulls the lazy fake-swipe-at-the-ball-while-being-burned, he’s endlessly mocked on Twitter, and he should be, but sometimes we let those moments blind us to the whole body of work (which, in Harden’s case, still isn’t that great). These next couple of examples are up for interpretation. Obviously Garnett with an open lane is terrifying, but someone has to try, and I’m not sure if it’s Divac’s fault for focusing on the boxout or Christie who sorta just watches the whole thing unfold on the pick-and-roll.

The next one is extremely tricky because it looks like Christie’s blunder is actually the Kings’ defensive scheme. While Sprewell gets the ball above the break, Christie leaves Cassell who runs to the other side of the court. Sprewell easily beats Stojakovic off the dribble (no surprise there) and finds Cassell for the spot up jumper. Christie makes a nice recovery, but it’s just a little too late.

That play may speak to Christie’s ability to hold the Kings’ defense together. Stojakovic is an infamous statue on the perimeter, and maybe they simply bank on Christie’s ability to recover more than Stojakovic’s ability to stay in a defensive stance.

Finally, before we get into his clear strengths on defense, here’s another 50/50 play. Webber is weirdly screened by Van Exel which Christie reads immediately, so he switches onto Nowitzki to prevent the spot-up three. Then, Bibby loses Nash on a straightforward cut. Mavericks score an easy two.

Christie could have easily helped and shut down that cut by Nash, but he didn’t, and ultimately, this was where my disappointment arises in such a highly touted defensive player. Guys like Giannis, LeBron, and Garnett can sniff out and completely blow up an offense, and while you’ll see evidence of Christie being disruptive, I saw no sign of superhuman recovery.

What I saw signs of was peskiness. Christie could be like a gnat (a lanky gnat) that could switch 1-4 (sometimes 4), jump passing lanes, and dodge screens. Here he is hounding Cassell from halfcourt. He avoids a Garnett screen, pokes the ball away, gets caught on a second Garnett screen, recovers, and causes a turnover.

Standing at 6’6″ and having such a long reach made him perfect for making life difficult for players creating in the halfcourt. When Van Exel tries to take him off the dribble, Christie easily tips the shot.

His quick reflexes also allowed him to capitalize and bait offensive players into making mistakes. Garnett times Christie’s subtle shift backwards, but Christie lunges and tips the pass.

These next two plays showcase his ability to amplify offensive mistakes. In the first, Nowitzki stumbles and tries passing the ball, but Christie reads and reacts. In the second, he perfectly helps on a driving Nash to force the pass to Finley who bobbles the pass. Before Finley can recover, Christie causes the turnover.

While most of these plays show up on the stat sheet, his intelligent use of angles to cut off passing lanes don’t appear on the ESPN ticker. Here, the Wolves look to leverage Garnett’s tremendous passing ability by having Cassell run through a quick down screen, but Christie face-guards him, and Garnett is forced into a tough jumper.

Then, while Divac cleans up and grabs the rebound, Christie switches onto and bodies Nowitzki for a full possession keeping him from getting the ball and away from the rebound.

He clearly relished in his ability to chase smaller guards and body forwards, and like I said before, he often had to cover for some of his defensively deficient teammates. I would be interested to see him unleashed on a team with other defensive savants.

Offensively, Christie is uninteresting. Most of the time, the Kings would run an action, and he would just stand above the break. He wouldn’t hesitate to shoot either a long two or a three, and while defenses didn’t shadow him, he was reliable enough with the jumper.

I think Daryl Morey just vomited after that last one.

When matched onto a smaller guard, he leveraged his strength and passing to create easy opportunities. The first video shows him bullying Van Exel in the paint. The second is more prolonged, but it ends with him grabbing an offensive board and drawing a foul.

He didn’t initiate much offense, but he showcased a solid passing ability. Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating scores him at a 7.6 (out of 10) for the season which would have been second on his team (behind Divac). This was boosted by his smart extra passes as opposed to creating easy opportunities for his teammates.

Even though he spent a large percentage of possessions standing at the perimeter, he definitely knew how to move without the ball, and he even flashed some proto-Steph Curry movement like in this possession. He doesn’t get the shot (Stojakovic missed a wide-open pass to him), but the drive, pass, and re-position is beautiful.

Like many role players, he would sometimes get a little too confident about his own abilities and toss up a contested midrange jumper, drive a little out of control, or throw an errant pass, but he mostly stayed within his abilities.

All things considered, I don’t see Christie as being a player that can shift a game on either side of the court. On offense, he stays within his role while providing good passing and passable shooting. On defense, he can stick to quicker ball-handlers, body up bigger players, and play a sort of free safety position.

Going back to my first question about the advanced metrics, Christie scores so well because everything he is good at is portable: they can be included on high-achieving teams without encroaching on his teammates’ skills. He’s definitely great at defensive especially for a guard, and his shooting and passing make him a great role player.

Final Evaluation

Role: Top 10, fourth or fifth best player on a team

Skillset (compared to other players at his position):

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding Portability
5 4 7 5 9

I’m not so sure about where I ranked him on defense. I feel like that’s a little low, but it still scaled out as a lower level “elite” skill for him. He definitely is not a 6, and I could see the case for it being an 8. His portability is so high because he could literally be placed on any team and make an impact. I didn’t give him a perfect 10 because his shooting leaves something to be desired.

Perception in Current NBA: Many would view him in the same light as Avery Bradley which would actually help his image because most fans are enamored with 1-on-1 defense regardless of how valuable it actually is.

Reality: He’s bigger, stronger, more impactful, and simply better than Bradley in every conceivable way. The poster Winsome Gerble from RealGM compared him to an older Andre Iguodala which I definitely like though I think Iggy was better at defense and creating while significantly worse at shooting.

Player Spotlight: Horace Grant

Article Length: ~1,100 words or about 6-8 minutes of reading.

Horace Grant was the third-fiddle to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen during the Bulls’ first three-peat from 1991-1993. If he’s mentioned at all, Grant is often lumped in with the other role players like John Paxson and Bill Cartwright, but he is clearly on a tier above anyone else on the team. According to Basketball Reference and during the 1991-92 season for the Bulls, Grant was 2nd in OBPM, 1st in DBPM, 2nd in BPM, 2nd in WS/48, 2nd in Goldstein’s PIPM, and 3rd in VORP (here’s some background information on advanced analytics). While I’m not arguing that Horace Grant was better than Scottie Pippen, he’s clearly bringing immense value to the Bulls.

Player WS WS/48 OBPM DBPM BPM▼ VORP PIPM
Michael Jordan 17.7 0.274 6.9 1.7 8.6 8.3 7.4
Horace Grant 14.1 0.237 4.3 3 7.3 6.7 5
Scottie Pippen 12.7 0.192 3.9 2.6 6.5 6.8 5.3

To find the answer, I watched some film from the 1992 season. Specifically, I closely watched game 7 of the 1992 Eastern Conference Semi Finals between the Bulls and the Knicks. I’m a big supporter of deeply analyzing a microcosm to make claims about a broader topic, but I admit that I’m definitely missing details from not watching more games throughout the season.

When playing with ball-dominant players like Pippen and Jordan, it’s necessary to carve out a niche as a 3rd option (I discuss this more thoroughly here). The aspect of Grant’s game that stood out to me the most was his ability to thoroughly dominant in subtle ways. He’s definitely not flashy on either side of the ball, but he is the clear glue for the Bulls especially on defense.

At 6’10” and 215, Grant was a typical power forward for the nineties, but his play style would make him a near-perfect center nowadays. Looking at his lateral quickness, endurance, and foot speed, Grant was a phenomenal athlete who covered the most ground in their defensive scheme. In the Bulls’ full-court press, Grant would often guard the inbounder or point-guard (he’s #54 and wearing white goggles).

Notice how he provides pressure the entire length of the court before recovering to cut off any paint penetration. This is just one example I found, but the Bulls often used him in this role. I couldn’t find any instances of this hurting the Bulls because Grant is spectacular at guarding in space.

In the half-court, Grant often blitzed the pick-and-roll ball-handler while still recovering to his man.

Here, he blitzes the ball-handler, recovers to his man, and leaves his man to contest Ewing’s jumper which he blocks and recovers.

Again, Grant blitzes the pick-and-roll ball-handler, but he finds himself on the wrong side of the court. He easily recovers to his man before helping on Ewing again for the block and rebound.

One might argue that this level of aggression on the pick-and-roll wouldn’t work in 2019 because of the roller’s ability to pop out for a three which would stretch Grant’s recovery distance. I would need to investigate this more, but I see no reason why he wouldn’t be an elite pick-and-roll defender right now.

Beyond the pick-and-roll, he showcased savvy awareness and length to disrupt half-court defenses. Here he contests Ewing (it’s probably a foul) and reads the entry pass in time to steal it.

In what I consider to be the most impressive defensive play of the game, Grant switches onto point-guard John Starks and completely shuts him down. He strips the ball, dives, and recovers in time to force a pass. The ensuing basket is definitely not Grant’s fault.

That ability to anticipate made him a fearsome shot blocker. I wouldn’t quite call him elite at this, but this might change if he were the sole paint protector on the court. Here is able to block Ewing’s jumper which is definitely not a low release.

Players didn’t often drive into Grant, but here’s an example of Grant timing a Mark Jackson layup perfectly for the block. His anticipation and length are on full display as he tips it at the apex.

Grant’s role on offense is a bit more difficult to pin down. His Offensive Box Plus Minus ranks as 7th in the league that season despite not having any eye-catching skills. He doesn’t stretch the floor like a modern forward nor does he have near the passing game that Draymond boasts. His best offensive skill is definitely his offensive rebounding: a skill that doesn’t encroach on the skillset of anyone else on the court. Here he is jostling in the paint for position.

In general, Grant happily battles near the basket. When he’s not chasing guards in the open court, he’s almost always making contact with a player in the paint. Guys like Rodman would rub their physicality in their opponents’ faces, but Grant fought stoically.

This offensive board showcases Grant’s anticipation and IQ rather than his strength and willingness to get physical.

Interestingly, what stood out most about Grant was that nothing stood out. Besides a sole end-of-the-shot clock heave, I don’t recall seeing Grant do anything outside of his skillset. He never took a heat check, he never tried to take his man off the dribble, he rarely gambled, and he never attempted risky passes. The most that I can recall him creating on offense was a simple post-fade.

His willingness to stay within his role is invaluable especially on a team with guys like Jordan and Pippen. Grant doesn’t create much on offense, but he doesn’t need to, and what he does do, he does efficiently. The advanced numbers reflect not that he was a premier offensive player in the league but that he was fully maximized in his offensive role.

Defensively, Grant was a frenetic fiend who held together the Bulls aggressive style by covering every square inch on the court. His endless motor (he played 42 minutes in this game), length, speed, and IQ helped him dominate without racking up all-league numbers. He’s definitely not at the level of Garnett or Olajuwon, but he was certainly worthy of all-league defense.

Final Evaluation

Role: Top 3, third, fourth, or fifth best player on a team (this means that in any given year, he would rank as one of the three best, third best players in the league).

Skillset (portability is defined as how well the player would fit on a given team. Grant suffers from lack of a 15+ foot jumper and average to below average passing. Defensively, he is extremely portable).

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding Portability
3 4 8 7 7

Perception in Current NBA: Loved by the analytics crowd (with a few pushing for DPoY candidacy), but viewed as a sub-all star by most fans. Secret backbone to a phenomenal defense.

Reality: Maybe impactful enough for third team All-NBA. I imagine an impact similar to Horford (not playstyle; impact) and a game and role similar to a supercharged Kevon Looney.

How to Build a Team When Any Player is Available (Is it Really Okay to Cut Kobe Bryant?)

Article Length: ~900 words or about 4-7 minutes of reading.

I strongly suggest checking in on my previous articles about the nth best players on a team. Here’s a Sparknotes version: we make a mistake when we say that a player is “the best player” because his value is dependent on his role, so we need to differentiate between “first-best,” “second-best,” “third-best,” etc. players. This is why it would be smarter to pair Harden with Gobert instead of Harden with Westbrook (oops) because you want players who can maximize their own skills without encroaching on anyone else’s.

Often, this sort of team-building works because there simply aren’t that many “first-best” players in the league. But what if there were? What if you could choose literally any player like in Bill Simmons’ wine-cellar team or my Universe Cup team or my 2nd-Tier Universe Cup team. For the sake of a challenge, let’s look at my Universe Cup team. Here were the rules when I wrote about this three years ago:

1). I can only choose specific players/years from the 2000-2001 season onward and 2). Instead of a seven game series, I’m choosing a team for a full 82-game season along with the four rounds of traditional NBA playoffs. I dig the alien theme, so let’s imagine our teams are competing for intergalactic supremacy in the first ever Universe Cup season.

– Cody Houdek, “The Universe Cup: Part 1,” 2016

When you can select literally any combination of players over the last nineteen years, how do you do so while following my theoretical framework on building a cohesive team? Here, let me illustrate this for you. The following is a list of the best players from the 2000s:

Guards: Nash, Kobe, Curry, Harden, Wade, Allen, Thompson, Parker, Kidd, Carter, Westbrook, Ginobili, Billups, Rose, Iverson, Wall

Forwards: LeBron, Garnett, Nowitzki, Durant, Kawhi, Melo, Giannis, Webber, Gasol, Marion, Stoudemire, McGrady

Centers: Shaq, Duncan, Wallace, Jokic, Embiid, Howard, Cousins, Yao

Just from the guards list ALONE, you would have to cut four players to make a twelve-man roster. From the group in total, you would need to cut twenty-four players. TWENTY-FOUR!!!!!

When I originally made my team, I selected the following twelve:

Guards: Kobe (2008-09); Chris Paul (2008-09); Wade (2008-09); Curry (2014-15); Allen (2000-01)

Forwards: LeBron (2012-13); Garnett (2003-04); Durant (2013-14); Dirk (2005-06); Kawhi (2015-16)

Centers: Duncan (2002-03); Shaq (2000-01)

At first glance, that list looks great, but it looks a little unstable after careful scrutiny. Let’s list some of these off.

  1. Curry is bumped up to 2015-16. He stays.
  2. Kawhi has improved dramatically since 2016, but does his current skillset work with this group?
  3. Wait, where’s James Harden? Where’s Giannis? Do either of these guys mesh?
  4. Does it make sense to have both Kobe and Wade?
  5. Does ball-dominant Chris Paul need to be there?
  6. Is Dirk’s shooting enough to make up for defensive and passing woes?
  7. Ray Allen? Oh yeah, he brings some much needed spot-up shooting….but Ray Allen?

Okay, let’s take a breather………………………………………………

In developing the concept of the “best, first-best player,” I conceived of the best teams only having one of these players (unless, of course, the players could also play a secondary role like Curry or Durant); however, this might only be the case in reality when teams generally have access to only one of these kinds of players. In an ideal world, maybe Harden would like to take a break from iso-ing and spot-up in the corner. Maybe LeBron would like to set off-ball screens as a distraction. Right now, it wouldn’t make sense for LeBron to do that if the next best player on the court is Kyle Kuzma, but what if Durant, Curry, and Shaq were all on the floor with him? We’ve seen him take on a significantly higher pass-first, secondary role in the Olympics, so maybe he would excel as the not first option. Maybe.

Furthermore, if LeBron or Harden were to get injured (…like they were…), their teams would suck. If a team has a player that can step up and handle that role, the drop-off wouldn’t be as painful. But then the question becomes how many “first-best players” should be on a team? Let me frame this question another way: if you had to only choose three of the following players (based on a single season peak), who would you pick: LeBron, Durant, McGrady, Harden, Wade, Kawhi, Paul, and Kobe?

Sure, you can go ahead and pick them all, but who’s doing the “second-best,” “third-best,” and “fourth-best” player responsibilities? Who is spotting up in the corner? Who is becoming the defensive powerhouse? Who is setting off-ball screens? Who is fighting centers in the paint? Who is NOT touching the ball for five-straight possessions?

This question right here is the rift between “eye-test” and “blog boy” fans. Even though it’s sacrilegious, it is necessary to cut some of the greatest “first-best” players of all time to make room for guys who can fill those roles better. Is Draymond Green better than Kobe? No, but is Draymond Green better at taking three shots in a game, setting hard screens, and playing all-league defense on five positions? Yes, and it’s frankly not even close.

What do we make all of this? What should the Universe Cup team look like? I honestly don’t know. I think I would replace Ray with Klay. I also think Draymond and Giannis should make it, but that actually hurts the overall shooting. I’m leaning towards dropping Paul, and maybe I’d replace either Kobe or Wade with McGrady or Kawhi. Nash adds some solid spacing too if I can squeeze him in.

Hopefully, I’ll sit down one of these days and actually hash it out, but until then, I’ll let these thoughts marinate a little bit more.

Final thought: watch quarters 2-4 of the Spain vs. USA gold medal game from the 2012 Olympics to see a clear example of too many players whose skillsets encroach upon one another.

Who Are the “Best, Nth-Best” Players?

Article Length: ~1,100 words or about 6-8 minutes of reading.

My last article on the question of who is the best player remained mostly abstract. While it’s an abstract question, I want to try and provide some concrete answers by applying it to NBA players from the 2018-19 season. This will be extremely difficult to do because everything concrete begins with philosophical abstractions, so you’ll just have to roll with my logic (or disagree with me on Twitter).

If all NBA players were placed in a fantasy draft and I had to start from nothing, who would I select first? The answer to this question is the answer to who the “best, first-best” player in the league is. To me, this comes down to two players: LeBron or Steph. I really really want to pick LeBron for this because I still believe that he can reach transcendent levels better than any other player in the league on both sides of the ball, but the knock against him (like most players) is that he works best in a specific team-build: defensively proficient shooters. If for some reason I’m not able to lock down adequate players like that in subsequent rounds, I’m afraid that he’ll lose value.

On the other hand, Curry, being the “best, second-best player” in the league (we’ll get to this), means that he will retain his value regardless of whom is selected in subsequent rounds; furthermore, we’ve seen Curry literally be the “best, first-best” player on the greatest regular season team in history.

Going back to my first round of the draft, here’s a rough outline the “best, first-best” players in the league (the guys that you would want to draft in the first round of a fantasy draft):

  1. Curry
  2. LeBron
  3. Durant
  4. Giannis
  5. Kawhi
  6. Harden
  7. Davis
  8. Jokic
  9. Embiid

If you don’t have one of these nine players on your team, you cannot win a championship right now. Does that mean that the other twenty-three teams in the league should give up? No. You never know when another player is going to skyrocket into this stratosphere of players (Giannis, Jokic, nor Embiid were at this level last year).

The next tier, the “best, second-best” players become trickier to explain. Players can overlap between different levels of being the “best” player, but not all of them will. Curry will also top this list, but LeBron won’t be on it because if you are making your second round selection and LeBron is somehow still on the board, he would turn into your “best, first-best” player because he would most strongly dictate how your team would play. These are the players who either need a player a tier above them to cover some gap in their own skillset or tier 1 players who can seamlessly provide extraordinary value without the ball (e.g. defense, shooting, passing).

Here are the “best, second-best” players in the league:

  1. Curry
  2. Durant
  3. Davis
  4. Jokic
  5. Embiid
  6. George
  7. Gobert
  8. Lillard
  9. Butler
  10. Towns
  11. Walker
  12. Griffin
  13. Some order of Vucevic, Kyrie, Simmons, Beal, Paul, Westbrook, and Nurkic

Below this tier are the “best, third-best” players who will generally fill one of two templates: players who excel in a valuable and malleable skills (defense/shooting) while struggling in other areas (think Danny Green and his shooting vs. shot creation and passing) and players who excel in multiple areas that are malleable while not necessarily leading a team through significant scoring or playmaking (think Pascal Siakam and Draymond Green). Here are those players:

  1. Stephen Curry…yes, I would place him first at literally any round of the draft. I believe he would fit literally in any lineup; therefore, I won’t include him in later lists.
  2. Draymond
  3. Pascal Siakam
  4. Al Horford
  5. Klay
  6. Kyle Lowry
  7. Marc Gasol
  8. Khris Middleton
  9. Malcolm Brogdon
  10. Josh Richardson
  11. Jrue Holiday
  12. Joe Ingles
  13. Buddy Hield
  14. McCollum
  15. Eric Bledsoe
  16. Myles Turner
  17. Capela
  18. Steven Adams

Are we starting to see a pattern? The most successful teams this year had multiple “best, nth-best” players at different and appropriate tiers. Just from these first three tiers, let’s compare some of the top teams (tier 1 – position; tier 2 – position; tier 3 – position):

  1. Toronto (1 – 5; 0; 3 – 3, 6, 7)
  2. Golden State (2 – 1, 3; 0; 2 – 2, 5)
  3. Milwaukee (1 – 4; 0; 3 – 8, 9, 15)
  4. Philadelphia (1 – 9; 2 – 9, 13; 0)
  5. Portland (0; 1 – 8; 3 – 14)

Three of the four conference finalists had a tier one player, and the only one without (Portland) was swept by the Warriors. While neither Milwaukee nor Toronto had a clear-cut “2nd best player,” they both had strong “3rd best players” at multiple positions. After watching how both teams came together, it’s clear that Toronto’s “3rd best players” were simply a better fit in their lineups.

Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM model, which calculates a player’s defensive and offensive impact on a team in a way that takes into account their boxscore production and plus/minus data (for a refresher, check out my article on impact metrics), provides some interesting insights into this “best player” conversation. For 2018-19, the top players are pretty expected: Giannis, Curry, Embiid, etc., but as you go down the list, a few odd names pop up. After LeBron at 14, the following players appear: Vucevic, Brook Lopez, Draymond, Holiday, Drummond, Bledsoe, Danny Green, followed by Kawhi. A simple explanation is that the statistic is flawed because someone like Danny Green (Kawhi’s teammate) couldn’t have had a more positive impact than Kawhi.

The truth is that these players – the Siakams, Greens, Horfords – all can provide more value than a tier 1 player if they are placed in the perfect “nth” role. Having a perfectly fitting “third-best” player can yield more value than a poorly fitting “first-best” player. This explains why someone like Kemba Walker ranks 50th in this statistic: even though he is tremendously talented, he should not be placed in a “first-best” role.

Hopefully, this provides some grounding for my claim that the best player is not always the best player. If I were as in-depth as is necessary, each of these lists would be fluid depending on who was selected in previous rounds. For instance, a player like Lillard would be a better “2nd best player” next to LeBron while Gobert might be “better” next to Harden. I simply don’t have the time to map out an entire fantasy draft matrix contingency.

Once again though, this is why Steph Curry should be rated much higher than he already is. Also, shout out to Robert Covington who is probably the “best, fourth-best player” in the league.

Note: if you want access to the PIPM data, they exist in a few spreadsheets, so searching them out on Twitter is probably your best bet. Jacob Goldstein is the owner.

Addendum: I tweeted a more in-depth explanation of the different tiers, so instead of incorporating those thoughts into this article, I’ve just included the tweets here.

The Best Player is Not Always the Best Player

Article Length: ~900 words or about 4-7 minutes of reading.

“Who is the best player?” is both the most interesting and least interesting question in all of sports. Usually, it is answered lazily with faulty or simplistic logic; however, I think it’s often the case that the one asking the question is more at fault than the one answering. The issue with the question is the question itself because the best player is never always the best player.

I think that when most people ask the question, they usually mean something like “which player gives his team the best chance to win a championship?” This can be boiled down to any level of competition such as “which player gives their team the best chance to win this pickup game?”

The issue with how this iteration of the question is answered is in how it is interpreted. Most people perceive it as “starting from scratch, which player will give their team the best chance to win?” In the NBA (and all other professional sports), no player is being drafted, traded, or signed to a team that has literally no other players which makes the player’s value dependent on the other players on the team. This splits the original question into two separate questions: a hypothetical one and a reality-based one. My aim is to answer the former (Ben Taylor answers the latter with his own statistical-based response for 2018-19).

To hypothetically answer who the best player in the league is, it’s necessary to ask a series of questions which are as follows:

  1. If the league entered a full fantasy draft, who would be selected first overall to give his team the best chance to win a championship?
  2. Who would be selected second?
  3. Who would be selected third?

And this line of questioning would continue until a full roster of twelve players was created. Actually selecting the players is obviously where this hypothetical becomes tricky.

The common parlance for maximizing a superstar on a team is “building around” him. This implies that a player’s skillset requires some level of fit to ensure success (for a much deeper dive of this, check out my article series from a couple of years ago). It also means that a player who contributes significantly to winning WITHOUT being able to fit into any system should be selected first. Let me explain.

If I have the first pick in an all-time draft and I select Michael Jordan first, my choices for subsequent picks drop significantly because I shouldn’t look for another player who plays guard, maximizes his skills by having the ball, and scores a lot. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and James Harden might still be on the board in the second round, but all of their skills would encroach significantly on MJ’s skills reducing the impact that either would have on the team.

Is this annoyingly pedantic and blog boyish? Should you just select the “best” possible player no matter what? NO! That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of “best” in this situation! Real, actual players don’t come with a handy 2K rating that shows some objective level of skill that they have. If it’s my turn to select my third player in a draft and I already have LeBron and Gobert, who should I choose given the following three players: Danny Green, Donovan Mitchell, or Nikola Vucevic. Most people would list both Mitchell and Vucevic as better players than Danny Green, but given the context, Danny Green would actually be the “better” player. How? Because, in this case, Green is the “best, third-best” option available based on how his skills complement LeBron and Gobert.

I propose that each player should be described as the “best, nth-best” player where “n” is the round in the fantasy draft in which the player would hypothetically be selected. Looking back to the first iteration of the question “who is the best player?” most people consider only players who would be the “best, first-best player” player which is why Stephen Curry is often so underrated.

The magic of Curry is that the scalability of his skillset is so immense that he could theoretically be the “best” player in any round of the fantasy draft. His off-ball movement, shooting, and off-ball screening have such an independent value that he could be plugged into any system with significant returns. Contrast this with Harden who derives almost all of his value from having the ball.

Throughout these last few years, the Warriors have built their immense success on matching players who are either the “best” or one of the “best” at multiple rounds of our fantasy draft. Some people argue that Durant is the “best, first-best” in the league. Curry has a similar “first-best” impact, but he is also the “best, second-best” player by a margin that we have never seen in the league. Klay and Draymond are both the “best, third or fourth-best” players with Draymond possibly being the all-time “3rd-best” player (competing with the Bulls’ Rodman and the Celtics’ Garnett).

As a sports community, we often ignore the contingent and necessary value of players: the 90s Bulls, 2000s Lakers, 2010s Warriors, and 2000s Spurs all had one of the “best, first-best players” along with the “best, second-best” player and multiple other “best, nth-best” players. A player like Stephen Curry who can fluidly transition between being the best at different roles should be viewed in a much more positive light than we view him.

Harden is Surging, but Giannis is Still the MVP

Article Length: ~1,000 words or about 5-8 minutes of reading.

Unless you have been actively hiding from the NBA, you know that James Harden is in the midst of a legendary stretch. A simple Google search of “James Harden Stretch” yields article after article discussing the various records that he has currently broken or is on pace to break. NBA Twitter has been tossing around 2005-06 Kobe Bryant comparison such as in this now (in?)famous Tweet by Hardwood Paroxysms.

Here’s the truth though: Giannis Antetokounmpo is still our MVP.

Look, I get it, averaging big sexy numbers like 35 points per game, dropping 50+ points in consecutive games, and that big, sexy step-back is intoxicating and…sexy. But, for a second, ignore the sexiness of individual scoring and follow the path of truth and value.

Before going forward, I strongly suggest that you read my article from 2017 where I stated that not Harden and definitely not Westbrook should win the MVP because Stephen Curry was actually the most valuable player. I’ll be drawing some key concepts and arguments from there throughout this post.

The main premise of my argument can be stated thusly: “I value a player that takes a team from good to great more than a player that takes a team from bad to good.” Let’s compare how Harden and Giannis impact their respective teams with a backpack of stats (I suggest reviewing my introduction to impact metrics article):

Giannis Harden
Record 32-12 25-19
Team rORtg 4 4.9
Team rDRtg -5.7 2.9
Team Net Rating 9.7 2
Expected Wins 66 46
On Court +/- per 100 12.6 3.6
Off Court +- per 100 5 -1.8
On/Off +/- per 100 7.6 5.4
PIPM 6.5 4.7
Backpicks BPM 7.2 7.5
RPM 5.23 8.21

Let’s unpack this. Also, here’s a head-to-head comparison of some other various stats.

I will concede that two of the three all-encompassing impact metrics rate Harden as the more impactful player; however, pretty much every other measure of team success points towards Giannis.

The Bucks are currently boasting a net rating of 9.7 which ranks 11th out of 816 teams since 1990 (right behind the 2013 Thunder and ahead of the 1997 Jazz). The Rockets’ net rating of 2 is tied for 302nd.

Philosophically, as I stated before, the MVP should follow a variation of the “best player on the best team” claim. The wrinkle is that the team’s greatness – not just mediocrity instead of being trash – should occur because of the player’s impact. If we look at the on/off numbers we see that the Bucks are truly stellar with Giannis while he plays (12.6) while the Rockets are simply…meh with Harden on the court (3.6).

The argument against this is that Harden’s team is objectively worse, so of course they won’t be as good even with him on the court. Well, remember what I said about making a bad team good vs. making a great team greater? Even though the Bucks’ net rating without Giannis is higher than the Rockets without Harden, Giannis’ on-court presence still as a more positive impact than Harden on the Rockets (7.6 vs. 5.4 respectively).

Let’s make it even more difficult for Giannis by taking away both Middleton and Bledsoe and seeing how the Bucks perform then. Even in this case, the Bucks are a whopping 19.1! The Bucks are good without Giannis, but they’re transcendent with him.

Woah woah woah Cody. Harden’s MVP case didn’t start until fairly recently when he went on a total scoring surge. Why don’t you evaluate them since then?

Okay.

Let’s start on December 13th when Harden dropped his first 50-point game. Since then, he has averaged 42.4 – 7.6 – 9.1 over 18 games. Let’s look at the team impact over that time:

Last 18 Games Giannis Harden
Record 14-4 13-5
Team ORtg 113.6 118.8
Team DRtg 103.6 112.2
Team Net Rating 10 6.6
Expected Wins 66 58
On Court +/- per 100 11.4 9
Off Court +- per 100 10.3 -2.9
On/Off +/- per 100 1.1 11.9

This right here is Harden’s best case for MVP. Not only has he been scoring and playmaking like a madman in Paul’s absence, but he has also been doing so in a way that propagates impressive team success. Like LeBron before him, Harden’s quarterbacking of the Rockets is taking them from a bad team to an outstanding one. On the other hand, Giannis’ impact has been felt significantly less seeing as his team only performs +1.1 better with him on the court albeit with a transcendent 11.4 net rating.

Ultimately, this comes down to a difference in philosophies between voters. How close do the Bucks and Rockets have to be record-wise for Harden to actually win MVP? If we look at the first chart of expected wins, a world in which the Rockets win 46 games and the Bucks win 66, Giannis is clearly the MVP. A 20-game margin is extremely significant which is a reason why I’m currently not considering Anthony Davis for MVP.

But, what if this Harden streak continues? Let’s say he finishes with the aforementioned averages and the Rockets finish with 58 wins to Milwaukee’s 66? Is -8 wins within the realm of handing the award to the most outstanding offensive player in the league? If this is the case, then I will strongly consider Harden for MVP. I wouldn’t count on it though. When projecting into the future, all we have is the past, so let’s look at how the Rockets and Bucks have performed in each quarter of their 44-game seasons so far:

Bucks ORtg DRtg Net Rating
1st 11 Games 116.1 103 13.1
2nd 11 Games 116.7 110.4 6.3
3rd 11 Games 106.8 101.1 5.7
4th 11 Games 117 103.2 13.8
Rockets ORtg DRtg Net Rating
1st 11 Games 104.7 111.1 -6.4
2nd 11 Games 122.5 115.6 6.9
3rd 11 Games 113.1 111.2 1.9
4th 11 Games 120 114.3 5.7

The key takeaways from this is that the Rockets have the potential to collapse. Badly. The other is that the Rockets best performing quarter of the season (the 2nd…not during Harden’s explosion) is dwarfed by the Bucks transcendent 13.1 first quarter and 13.8 fourth quarter. Through half the season, the Bucks have proven to have immense staying power which the Rockets have not yet proven.

We have nearly half the season to go. If the season ends now, I hand the MVP to Giannis. If we stay on this Harden path, I’ll have to think about it, but it still isn’t clearly Harden. Let’s give Giannis and his consistent and 2-way impact the credit he deserves.

Stats from stats.nba.com and basketball reference.

The Definitive Introduction to Impact Metrics

Article Length: ~4,000 words, so a lot of reading.

Table of Contents:

  1.  +/- Stats
  2. +/- Per 100 Possessions
  3. Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Net Rating
  4. On/Off Per 100 Possessions
  5. Relative Offensive and Defensive Ratings
  6. Calculating Expected Wins and Net Rating
  7. Individual Offensive, Defensive, and Net Ratings

Being a modern NBA fan is a daunting task. Not only are there multiple games to watch every single night but analysts also sling advanced metrics like multiplication facts. The latter is what I want to address today because as far as I’m concerned, fans don’t have an on-ramp for learning these metrics. A new fan, besides having to learn names, historical players, and an ever-changing playoff picture, must acclimate him or herself quickly or fall behind at the water cooler (or wherever new fans discuss the NBA. Reddit? Twitter?). Just look at this excerpt from Zach Lowe’s most recent column for ESPN:

They fall apart whenever [Vucevic] sits. Orlando has outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor, but opponents have obliterated them by almost a dozen points per 100 possessions when he rests. The difference — plus-16.2 — is the 11th-fattest among all rotation players, per NBA.com.

This reminds me of the scene in “The Matrix” where Cypher is explaining to Neo that he “no longer even sees the code” while looking at the code for the matrix. To Cypher, it’s as simple as a first language, but to Neo, it’s an impervious wall of nonsense that offers no simple way to decipher it.

Zach Lowe’s multiple references to per 100 possessions stats and +/- jargon acts as the same way: most NBA analysts would breeze through that passage while newer or more casual fans would struggle with this second language.

My goal in this article is to start from scratch to clearly explain what these numbers mean, how they are contextualized, and how it can be applied to evaluating individual players. Hopefully, this can be a skeleton key for those wanting to wade further into the swamps of NBA analytics. Let’s begin at the beginning though, so feel free to jump down to later sections if you find any of the earlier information too simple.

 

+/- Stats for Teams and Players

The simplest statistic that acts as the base for most NBA analytics is the basic +/- stat that can be applied to both teams and individual players. For teams, it shows by how many points a team wins or loses by while for players it shows by how many points his or her team outscored or was outscored by the other team. Let’s look at an example from yesterday’s Rockets vs. Trailblazers example.

The Rockets won 111-104 meaning that the Rockets’ +/- is +7 while the Trailblazers +/- is -7. After a period of multiple games, we can see start seeing trends about better teams having a higher +/- than worse teams, and it actually becomes a way to differentiate top teams. For instance, if two teams are both 10-2 after the first 12 games, it would be simple to point to them as being equals; however, if team A has an average +/- of +10 and team B has an average +/- of +3, we might draw some different conclusions about which team is actually better and which team has been the recipient of some luck (which we’ll discuss later).

+/- becomes a bit messier when it comes to evaluating players though. What it shows is by how many points a team outscores its opponent while a player is on the floor or by how many points a player’s team is outscored while he or she is on the floor. For instance, take the Rockets’ basic box score from the aforementioned game:

Houston Rockets +/-
Eric Gordon -5
Chris Paul +8
James Harden -15
P.J. Tucker -17
Clint Capela -7
Gerald Green +18
Nene Hilario +14
Danuel House +24
James Ennis +15

Instead of the boiled down +7 that the Rockets earned during the game, it shows how well the Rockets played when each player was on the court. When P.J. Tucker was in the game, the Trailblazers outscored the Rockets by 17, but when Danuel House was in the game, the Rockets outscored the Trailblazers by 24.

The NBA is all about evaluating sample sizes, and one game is certainly not enough to evaluate teams or players. Does this game mean that Danuel House is the Rockets’ best player and should usurp all of Harden’s minutes? No, but if he consistently scores a higher +/- then his teammates, then it might be time to evaluate what he’s doing on the court to drive this consistent success. This is the sort of evaluation that earned Shane Battier a fruitful career.

The issue with just using +/- is that it’s noisy and favors teams that play a faster pace. Currently, the Hawks lead the league with 105.5 possessions a game while the Grizzlies play at thumping 94.9 possessions a game. Over the course of an 82 game season, the Hawks would have 869 more possessions to rack up a + or -. This is where per 100 possessions comes in.

 

+/- Per 100 Possessions

Once we have +/- data, we can start playing around with it to normalize it for the league. To evaluate a single game on a per 100 possessions basis, we must take each team’s score, divide it by the pace of the game, and multiply that number by 100. The equation is as follows:

Points Per 100 Possessions = (Team Score/Team Pace)*100

So, if a team scores 103 points at a pace of 100 possessions, its points per 100 possessions would be 103

Let’s look again at the previous Rockets/Trailblazers game. The Rockets scored 111, and the Blazers scored 104. Both teams played at a pace of 91.8 possessions. This means that the Rockets scored 121 points per 100 possessions, and the Blazers scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions.

Rockets Points Per 100 Possessions = (111/91.8)*100

Blazers Points Per 100 Possessions = (104/91.8)*100

Once we have these two new numbers, we can figure out by how many points per 100 possessions the Rockets won by which turns out to be approximately 8, and while this 8 seems too close to the original +7 that they actually won by, this point differential becomes more significant over a longer period of time.

Furthermore, this helps to normalize the score to show that this was a more decisive victory than a much faster-paced game. Let’s pretend that the game was played at a pace of 110 possession. This would make the Rockets’ and Blazers respective points per 100 possessions 101 and 94.5 making this point differential per 100 possessions only 6.5 as opposed to 8. Now we’re beginning to see a difference.

Once again though, this game-by-game analysis provides little insight into a team’s ability. We need two more factors: 1) more data to provide a broader picture and 2) an explanation of how a team is performing on offense and defense. Offensive rating, defensive rating, and net rating provide a better insight.

 

Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Net Rating

I argue that this is the stage that all NBA fans should aspire towards understanding.

Simply put, here are definitions for each of these terms

Offensive Rating – how many points per 100 possessions a team scores

Defensive Rating – how many points per 100 possessions a team allows

Net Rating – a team’s offensive rating minus its defensive rating (which shows by how many points per 100 possessions a team outscores its opponent or is outscored by its opponent). 

In the previous section, we were looking at a team’s game-level offensive and net rating. The Rockets scored 121 points per 100 possessions, so its offensive rating was 121. Since the Blazers scored 113 points per 100 possessions against the Rockets, the Rockets’ defensive rating was 113. When you subtract those numbers, the Rockets’ net rating was 8.

Once again, this is just a single-game statistic, but it becomes immensely more valuable when calculated across many games. The following chart shows every NBA team’s offensive rating, defensive rating, and net rating as of 12/12 (sorted by net rating):

Rk Team ORtg DRtg NRtg
1 Milwaukee Bucks 114.6 105.1 +9.5
2 Toronto Raptors 114.8 106.7 +8.1
3 Boston Celtics 110.9 103.3 +7.6
4 Oklahoma City Thunder 109.2 102.5 +6.7
5 Denver Nuggets 112.4 106 +6.4
6 Golden State Warriors 115.9 110.1 +5.8
7 Indiana Pacers 108.4 103.6 +4.8
8 Charlotte Hornets 113.2 109.9 +3.3
9 Philadelphia 76ers 110.5 108.1 +2.4
10 Los Angeles Lakers 109.7 107.5 +2.2
11 Los Angeles Clippers 112.8 110.7 +2.1
12 Dallas Mavericks 110 107.9 +2.1
13 New Orleans Pelicans 114.1 112.3 +1.8
14 Portland Trail Blazers 112.3 110.7 +1.6
15 Memphis Grizzlies 107.1 106.6 +0.5
16 Minnesota Timberwolves 110.3 110.4 -0.1
17 Miami Heat 107.6 107.9 -0.3
18 Utah Jazz 107.9 108.5 -0.6
19 Sacramento Kings 110.1 110.8 -0.7
20 Detroit Pistons 107.4 108.6 -1.2
21 Houston Rockets 112.5 113.7 -1.2
22 Brooklyn Nets 109.5 111.4 -1.9
23 San Antonio Spurs 111.4 113.4 -2
24 Orlando Magic 106.5 110 -3.5
25 Washington Wizards 109.1 113.8 -4.7
26 New York Knicks 107.6 114.2 -6.6
27 Cleveland Cavaliers 107.4 116.1 -8.7
28 Atlanta Hawks 102.3 112.1 -9.8
29 Chicago Bulls 100.6 111.6 -11
30 Phoenix Suns 102.3 114.2 -11.9
League Average 109.6 109.6

These are some statistics that analysts should start to feel confident about using. They provide some interesting insights and raise even more interesting questions about luck and evaluating teams. For instance, the Raptors currently have the best record in the NBA at 22-7 (75.9% win rate), but the Bucks boast a higher net rating with a worse record (18-8 with a 69.2% win rate). So, which team is currently better? That’s a question that would need to be parsed out by even more specific numbers, but the per 100 statistics show that the Bucks clearly have an edge over the “best” team in the league.

Now,  before diving deeper into comparing teams, it’s necessary to take a step sideways to discuss how players can impact offensive/defensive/net ratings with On/Off numbers.

 

On/Off Per 100 Possessions and Basic Player Evaluation

Earlier in this article, I discussed how players can leave an imprint on a game with his or her +/-. On/Off per 100 possessions takes the same basic principles as before and applies it to how teams perform while a player is on the court versus when a player is off the court. If you take a team’s net rating when a player is on the court and subtract it by the team’s net rating while that player is not on the court, then you have a player’s on/off per 100 possessions. The equation is as follows:

On/Off Per 100 Possessions = Team Net Rating With Player – Team Net Rating Without Player

This shows that, per 100 possessions, the team performs that many points better or worse. Let’s use LeBron James as an example.

LeBron with the Lakers NRtg
On the court 5.9
Off the court -0.9
On/Off Per 100 6.8

This means that the Lakers perform 6.8 points per 100 possessions better when LeBron James is on the court versus when he is not on the court. If we apply this to the team chart above, this difference would essentially transform the 76ers into the Bucks (just by comparing their net ratings). More specifically, we can see that the Lakers perform at the same level as the 4th best team in the league when LeBron is on the court (the Thunder at +6.7 per 100 possessions) as opposed to playing like the 19th best team (the Kings at -.9).

Just like in the previous section though, this provides too broad of an analysis of what LeBron brings to the table, so we can begin parsing this into offense and defense. A player’s offensive on/off per 100 possessions is then how many more points per 100 possessions a team scores while a player is on the court versus when that player is sitting, and a player’s defensive on/off per 100 possessions is how many points per 100 possessions a team is scored on while a player is on the court versus when that player is off the court.

defensive on/off per 100 possessions is the first stat that we’ll look at that shows value when the number is negative meaning that a lower negative number means that a player contributes more on the defensive end. I will emphasize this throughout.

Let’s take a closer look at LeBron’s On/Off per 100 possessions numbers to see where he’s adding value.

ORtg DRtg
On 115.1 109.3
Off 111.3 112.2
On/Off Per 100 3.8 -2.9 (Remember, a negative number is a good thing for defensive on/off ratings!)

According to this chart, the Lakers are about 3.8 points per 100 possessions better on offense when LeBron players and about 2.9 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he plays.

It is important to note that claiming that LeBron adds 3.8 points/100 on offense and 2.9 points/100 on defense would be mathematically dishonest. The fact is that LeBron is just one of five players on the court for his team and just one of ten players on the court at one time. Not only that but the only nine players do not remain consistent throughout, so it’s impossible to parse out exactly what LeBron is adding to the team; however, given enough data points which, in this case, means games in a season and number of seasons, we can start to draw conclusions about individual players if they consistently boast strong on/off numbers.

On/off metrics have a couple of other issues to consider. First, a player who starts will generally be playing with and against other starters most of the time, so they are playing with and against the best competition which is not taken into account by the final numbers. Second, we can only really use on/off per 100 possessions honestly with players who have played in the majority of his or her team’s games otherwise we would be considering games where the player simply doesn’t play in the “off” metrics.

Unfortunately, it’s necessary to switch back over to team analysis before diving into another way to analyze player impact on a team. To see how much of an impact a player has on a team, we need to normalize team performance to show how teams can be compared across a single season and multiple seasons.

 

Relative Offensive Rating and Relative Defensive Rating

From year to year, average team performance has shifted on both offense and defense. Since the 2000-01 season, four of the five highest offensive ratings came from teams in 2016, 2017, or 2018, and the lowest (best) defensive ratings came from teams prior to the 2005 season. Does this mean that teams are better on offense and worse on defense now?

Well, yes and no. Through various rule and stylistic changes, the NBA is the most efficient that it’s ever been, but it’s also the most difficult to defend. Because of this, the league average offensive rating and defensive rating has sky-rocketed in the last few years meaning that teams are scoring and allowing more points per game.

So, to more honestly evaluate team performance, it’s necessary to compare offensive and defensive ratings relative to the rest of the league. Equations for relative offensive and defensive ratings are as follows

relative offensive rating (rORtg) = team offensive rating – league average offensive rating

relative defensive rating (rDRtg) = team defensive rating – league average offensive rating (once again, negative numbers are better)

As an example, let’s use the team with the league-best net rating: the Milwaukee Bucks. Their Offensive Rating is 114.6, and their defensive rating is 105.1. The league average for both offensive rating and defensive rating is 109.6, so we just need to subtract that from the Bucks’ numbers.

rORtg = 114.6 – 109.6 = 5

rDRtg = 105.1 – 109.6 = -4.5 (remember, smaller and more negative is good)

According to this, the Bucks’ relative offensive rating is 5 which means that their offense produces five more points per 100 possessions than league average, and their relative defensive rating is -4.5 which means that their defense prevents 4.5 more points per 100 possessions than league average. All together this adds up to their 9.5 net rating (another equation for net rating is as following: NRtg = ORtg – DRtg. This allows for negative relative defensive ratings to have a positive impact).

How do these numbers compare to the league? Let’s update the previously posted table with the league’s current team ratings by replacing its information with relative offensive and defensive ratings sorted again by net rating:

Rk Team rORtg rDRtg NRtg
1 Milwaukee Bucks 5 -4.5 +9.5
2 Toronto Raptors 5.2 -2.9 +8.1
3 Boston Celtics 1.3 -6.3 +7.6
4 Oklahoma City Thunder -0.4 -7.1 +6.7
5 Denver Nuggets 2.8 -3.6 +6.4
6 Golden State Warriors 6.3 0.5 +5.8
7 Indiana Pacers -1.2 -6 +4.8
8 Charlotte Hornets 3.6 0.3 +3.3
9 Philadelphia 76ers 0.9 -1.5 +2.4
10 Los Angeles Lakers 0.1 -2.1 +2.2
11 Los Angeles Clippers 3.2 1.1 +2.1
12 Dallas Mavericks 0.4 -1.7 +2.1
13 New Orleans Pelicans 4.5 2.7 +1.8
14 Portland Trail Blazers 2.7 1.1 +1.6
15 Memphis Grizzlies -2.5 -3 +0.5
16 Minnesota Timberwolves 0.7 0.8 -0.1
17 Miami Heat -2 -1.7 -0.3
18 Utah Jazz -1.7 -1.1 -0.6
19 Sacramento Kings 0.5 1.2 -0.7
20 Detroit Pistons -2.2 -1 -1.2
21 Houston Rockets 2.9 4.1 -1.2
22 Brooklyn Nets -0.1 1.8 -1.9
23 San Antonio Spurs 1.8 3.8 -2
24 Orlando Magic -3.1 0.4 -3.5
25 Washington Wizards -0.5 4.2 -4.7
26 New York Knicks -2 4.6 -6.6
27 Cleveland Cavaliers -2.2 6.5 -8.7
28 Atlanta Hawks -7.3 2.5 -9.8
29 Chicago Bulls -9 2 -11
30 Phoenix Suns -7.3 4.6 -11.9

At this point, this table doesn’t tell us anything new. The Warriors boast the best rORtg and the Thunder boast the best rDRtg, but we knew this information from seeing that the Warriors had the best offensive rating and the Thunder had the best defensive rating. The true value of relative ratings lies in two places: 1) comparing teams from different seasons and 2) comparing player impact on teams (which I’ll discuss in an upcoming section).

The following chart compares the top ten offensive ratings since the 2000-01 season and the top ten relative offensive ratings from the same seasons:

Rank Team▲ ORtg Year Rank Team▲ rORtg Year
1 Golden State Warriors* 115.6 2017 1 Dallas Mavericks* 9.2 2004
2 Phoenix Suns* 115.3 2010 2 Phoenix Suns* 8.4 2005
3 Houston Rockets* 114.7 2018 3 Golden State Warriors* 8.1 2016
4 Houston Rockets* 114.7 2017 4 Phoenix Suns* 7.7 2010
5 Golden State Warriors* 114.5 2016 5 Dallas Mavericks* 7.7 2002
6 Phoenix Suns* 114.5 2005 6 Phoenix Suns* 7.4 2007
7 Phoenix Suns* 113.9 2007 7 Sacramento Kings* 7.4 2004
8 Portland Trail Blazers* 113.9 2009 8 Dallas Mavericks* 7.1 2003
9 Toronto Raptors* 113.8 2018 9 Los Angeles Clippers* 6.8 2015
10 Utah Jazz* 113.8 2008 10 Golden State Warriors* 6.8 2017

While this chart shows an overlap between among five teams (2016 and 2017 Warriors and the 2005, 2007, and 2010 Suns), five new teams arise from comparing the relative offensive ratings. In fact, the 2004 Mavericks rank as having the 31st highest offensive rating while holding the highest relative offensive rating showing that even though they were playing in a year with a low average offensive rating, their offense, while not absolutely better than other offenses this century, was the best offense relative to their season.

(As a quick aside, looking at the top ten relative offensive ratings this century shows an incredible three year run by the Mavericks [2002-04]. It also shows that six of these ten teams were run by Steve Nash).

At the end of the day, we can never truly compare teams or players from different generations (much less years) because of a variety of factors. We can only compare them to their contemporaries, and relative offensive and defensive ratings allow for these comparisons.

Now, from this century’s data on team performances, it’s possible to calculate expected win percentage and net rating, so I’ll do that before explaining individual relative offense and defensive rating to allow for an actual conclusion to this article.

 

Calculating Expected Wins and Net Rating

Earlier in this article, I referenced luck in terms of teams having a certain amount of wins. With respect to the 2018 Bucks and Raptors, the Bucks should have a better record because their net rating is currently better.

To figure out exactly how many wins equals what net rating and vice versa, it’s necessary to plot every teams’ performance this century. The following scatter plot shows all 536 teams’ wins with their respective net ratings:
W vs. Net Rating

Wins correlate well with net rating, but it’s not perfect.

Before calculating it though, let’s do a quick mathematical thought experiment. If a team has a net rating of 0, that means, on average, the team scores the same amount of points per 100 possessions as they allow; however, if this were to hold consistent from game to game, that means the team should end every game with a tie. We know this is impossible, so the most logical alternative is that the team is outscored half its games and outscores its opponent in half its games meaning that they would have a record of 42-42.

Let’s calculate how accurate this has been this century. To do this, we have to calculate the slope intercept of the above graph which means we have to see where the trendline crosses the y-axis. This ends up being approximately 41 meaning that a net rating of 0 has, this century, an expected win outcome of 41 wins in a season. The slope of the line is approximately 2.5 meaning that each point in net rating (either positive or negative) is worth about 2.5 wins. Below is a win expectancy chart based on net rating by a factor of .5 (I have provided data to the theoretical limit of net rating based on possible wins):

Net Rating Expected Wins
16 81.46
15.5 80.20
15 78.93
14.5 77.67
14 76.40
13.5 75.14
13 73.87
12.5 72.61
12 71.34
11.5 70.08
11 68.81
10.5 67.55
10 66.28
9.5 65.02
9 63.75
8.5 62.49
8 61.22
7.5 59.96
7 58.69
6.5 57.43
6 56.16
5.5 54.90
5 53.63
4.5 52.37
4 51.10
3.5 49.84
3 48.57
2.5 47.31
2 46.04
1.5 44.78
1 43.51
0.5 42.25
0 40.98
-0.5 39.72
-1 38.45
-1.5 37.19
-2 35.92
-2.5 34.66
-3 33.39
-3.5 32.13
-4 30.86
-4.5 29.60
-5 28.33
-5.5 27.07
-6 25.80
-6.5 24.54
-7 23.27
-7.5 22.01
-8 20.74
-8.5 19.48
-9 18.21
-9.5 16.95
-10 15.68
-10.5 14.42
-11 13.15
-11.5 11.89
-12 10.62
-12.5 9.36
-13 8.09
-13.5 6.83
-14 5.56
-14.5 4.30
-15 3.03
-15.5 1.77
-16 0.50

When applying this information to the earlier chart listing team net ratings, we can see that the Bucks have an expected win outcome of about 65 wins while the Raptors have an expected win outcome of around 61 wins.

A large number of factors play into this data not correlating perfectly with wins such as blowouts and poor clutch performances, but it might provide a better look at which teams are performing the best.

For instance, based on this information, it’s possible to conclude that 2016 Warriors (who went 73-9 on the season) were actually not the best team this century (or even in their same year). Their net rating ranks 4th, and their expected wins compared to the three other teams with a higher net rating are as follows:

Team▲ Year Wins Net Rating Expected Wins Wins Difference
Golden State Warriors* 2017 67 11.6 70.3 -3.3
San Antonio Spurs* 2016 67 11.3 69.57 -2.57
Boston Celtics* 2008 66 11.3 69.57 -3.57
Golden State Warriors* 2016 73 10.7 68 5

This small bit of data reveals three interesting insights: 1) the 2016 Warriors outperformed their net rating; 2) the 2017 Warriors were actually better than the 2016 Warriors; 3) the three teams who have higher expected wins all underperformed their net rating.

Now that we know how significant even one point for net rating is, we can apply relative offensive and defensive ratings to players to determine how much impact they have on a team.

 

Individual Offensive, Defensive, and Net Ratings

This is a statistic that I learned from reading Ben Taylor’s magnum opus, and I’m convinced that it’s a solid way to evaluate player impact without diving into the more complex statistics.

In a previous section, I discussed on/off metrics that showed how a team performed with and without a player, but I also addressed some of the drawbacks. This metric provides a different means of evaluating teams with and without players. This is fairly complex and requires multiple pieces of data while producing multiple statistics for individuals.

First, we need to figure out a team’s relative offensive and defensive ratings in games when a specific player plays. For this, we want to use a player who plays significant minutes on a team to ensure he actually has an impact. To walk through calculating this, I’ll use Victor Oladipo since he has played in 17 of Indiana’s 28 games this year. The following chart shows the Pacer’s rORtg, rDRtg, and net rating in games where Oladipo plays versus when he sits, and the second chart shows a new statistic that I’m coining individual relative offensive (iaORtg) and defensive rating (iaDRtg):

rORtg (positive is good) rDRtg (negative is good) NRtg
With Oladipo -2.02 -6.26 4.24
Without Oladipo -0.1 -6.8 6.7
irORtg (positive is good) irDRtg (negative is good) irNRtg
-1.92 0.53 -2.45

Let’s unpack this.

The first chart shows that when Oladipo has played this year, the Pacers’ offense has performed about 2 points per 100 possessions worse than league average, and their defense has been better than 6 points per 100 possessions than league average. However, when Oladipo does not play, their offense is just .1 points worse, and their defense is 6.8 points better than league average. So, individual offensive and defensive ratings show the net effect a player has on a team.

irORtg = team rORtg with player x in the lineup – team rORtg without player x in the lineup

irDRtg = team rDRtg with player x in the lineup – team rDRtg with player x in the lineup

irNRtg = irORtg – irDRtg

Numbers are a fickle tool, so I am not stating that Oladipo is a bad player, but objectively, the stats show that he has had a negative impact on the Pacers this year. How much of an impact? What do these numbers mean?

Remember from above that each point in net rating equals about 2.53 wins. If you multiply a player’s irNRtg by 2.53, then we’ll get how many wins that player contributes using the net rating model meaning that the Pacers are on track to lose approximately 6 more games this season when Oladipo plays. We can show this through using the expected win model from above:

Net Rating Expected Wins
With Oladipo 4.24 51.7272
Without Oladipo 6.7 57.951

And we can break this down even more by a player’s offense and defense by applying this same equation to a player’s irORtg and irDRtg:

irORtg Expected Offensive Wins Added irDRtg
Expected Defensive Wins Added
Oladipo -1.92 -4.8576 0.53 -1.3409

The issue with using an impact metric like this is that you need to have a player who missed substantial time without other significant players also being out. For example, we can’t evaluate LeBron over the past two seasons because he hasn’t missed any time, and we can’t evaluate Curry from this season because his absences mostly coincided with Draymond’s missed games.

 

Conclusion

This has been a lengthy and thorough walkthrough of some simple and complex impact metrics. I have covered the following impact metrics:

  1.  +/- Stats
  2. +/- Per 100 Possessions
  3. Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Net Rating
  4. On/Off Per 100 Possessions
  5. Relative Offensive and Defensive Ratings
  6. Calculating Expected Wins and Net Rating
  7. Individual Relative Offensive, Defensive, and Net Ratings

Various other impact metrics exist such as Ben Taylor’s CORP, ESPN’s RPM, and Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM, but those dive even deeper into the weeds of player performance.

For now, if you use this article as a guide moving forward while evaluating players, I promise that you’ll have a better grasp of advanced analytics in the NBA.

The Simulation League: Comparison to Reality After 1/4 of the Season

Article Length: ~1,100 words or about 6-8 minutes of reading.

This article was written prior to all games on 11/23, so statistics are reflective of those games.

For anybody who missed the intro to the Simulation league (first of all, read part 1, part 2, and part 3) here’s a quick summary of what’s going on:

I took every team in the league, chose one player on the team to be in his prime, chose one historical player to join the team, and simulated the season on 2k19 day-by-day. This “Simulation League” is occurring at the same time as reality.

Before diving into the numbers and discussing where simulation and reality converge/diverge, it’s important to explain what statistics I’ll be using and why I’m using them.

rORtg = relative offensive rating – this takes a team’s offensive rating and subtracts the league average offensive rating from it to see how much above or below average a team’s offense is.

rDRtg = relative defensive rating – Same as rORtg but for defense.

drORTg – difference relative offensive rating – the difference between the simulation team’s offense and reality’s performance

drDRtG = difference relative defensive rating – same as drORTg but for defensive rating

dNRTg = difference net rating – the difference between the simulation team’s net rating and reality’s net rating

I will also be using Per 36 minutes stats to normalize between the Simulation League and reality.

Without further ado, here is how reality is fairing compared to the simulation followed by the Simulation League’s performance:

Simulation Teams drORtg (positive is good) drDRtg (negative is good) dNRtg (positive is good)
Atlanta Hawks 13.52 -7.29 20.80
Boston Celtics 6.52 -4.09 10.60
Brooklyn Nets -3.88 0.41 -4.30
Charlotte Hornets -12.48 3.61 -16.10
Chicago Bulls 5.62 -1.39 7.00
Cleveland Cavaliers 3.02 -9.09 12.10
Dallas Mavericks 1.32 1.71 -0.40
Denver Nuggets 1.22 0.41 0.80
Detroit Pistons 1.82 4.31 -2.50
Golden State Warriors 1.42 -9.89 11.30
Houston Rockets 9.52 -0.29 9.80
Indiana Pacers -3.98 5.11 -9.10
LA Clippers -7.58 4.21 -11.80
LA Lakers -5.78 3.01 -8.80
Memphis Grizzles -6.98 7.01 -14.00
Miami Heat 8.72 -3.29 12.00
Milwaukee Bucks -5.48 3.91 -9.40
Minnesota Timberwolves -0.28 -3.49 3.20
New Orleans Pelicans -4.78 2.61 -7.40
New York Knicks -6.48 2.11 -8.60
OKC Thunder 3.12 5.01 -1.90
Orlando Magic -1.38 0.31 -1.70
Philadelphia 76ers 0.72 -0.69 1.40
Phoenix Suns 2.72 -7.59 10.30
Portland Trail Blazers -1.48 8.21 -9.70
Sacramento Kings -2.58 6.11 -8.70
San Antonio Spurs 0.72 3.91 -3.20
Toronto Raptors -1.98 -8.69 6.70
Utah Jazz 3.32 -3.39 6.70
Washington Wizards 2.02 -3.09 5.10

 

Simulation Team ORtg DRtg Net Rating rORtg (positive is good) rDRtg (negative is good)
Atlanta Hawks 115.70 105.50 10.20 6.02 -4.19
Boston Celtics 112.50 100.10 12.40 2.82 -9.59
Brooklyn Nets 107.20 112.40 -5.20 -2.48 2.71
Charlotte Hornets 102.20 112.90 -10.70 -7.48 3.21
Chicago Bulls 108.20 110.40 -2.20 -1.48 0.71
Cleveland Cavaliers 109.30 105.80 3.50 -0.38 -3.89
Dallas Mavericks 110.80 110.10 0.70 1.12 0.41
Denver Nuggets 113.80 107.10 6.70 4.12 -2.59
Detroit Pistons 110.30 113.00 -2.70 0.62 3.31
Golden State Warriors 116.50 100.90 15.60 6.82 -8.79
Houston Rockets 120.50 110.90 9.60 10.82 1.21
Indiana Pacers 105.00 110.50 -5.50 -4.68 0.81
Los Angeles Clippers 106.80 114.40 -7.60 -2.88 4.71
Los Angeles Lakers 106.20 113.60 -7.40 -3.48 3.91
Memphis Grizzlies 100.80 111.80 -11.00 -8.88 2.11
Miami Heat 115.90 105.80 10.10 6.22 -3.89
Milwaukee Bucks 111.00 108.00 3.00 1.32 -1.69
Minnesota Timberwolves 108.30 109.40 -1.10 -1.38 -0.29
New Orleans Pelicans 110.00 115.00 -5.00 0.32 5.31
New York Knicks 101.50 116.00 -14.50 -8.18 6.31
Oklahoma City Thunder 113.10 108.90 4.20 3.42 -0.79
Orlando Magic 106.40 110.20 -3.80 -3.28 0.51
Philadelphia 76ers 109.30 107.60 1.70 -0.38 -2.09
Phoenix Suns 106.30 106.50 -0.20 -3.38 -3.19
Portland Trail Blazers 111.60 117.30 -5.70 1.92 7.61
Sacramento Kings 106.40 116.60 -10.20 -3.28 6.91
San Antonio Spurs 110.70 114.80 -4.10 1.02 5.11
Toronto Raptors 112.00 97.00 15.00 2.32 -12.69
Utah Jazz 111.10 107.30 3.80 1.42 -2.39
Washington Wizards 111.10 111.00 0.10 1.42 1.31

Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here after 18ish games! The first surprise story is the Atlanta Hawks whose simulation is boasting a whopping 20.8 drNRtg which is the equivalent of turning the current Milwaukee Bucks into the current Phoenix Suns. This is a combination Vince Carter leading the league in TS%, Trae Young’s above average TS%, and Hakeem’s general dominance.

The number that actually stands out the most is Simulation Toronto’s defense which is currently a transcendent 12.69 points above average. This is by far the best relative defense in history, and if we look at Ben Taylor’s chart regarding Bill Russell, it’s actually about a full point better than Russell’s best defensive season.

The other statistic that really stands out is Houston’s Simulation offense. If we look at last year’s Reality Rockets, its offense was a shade over 6 points better than average which led the league. The Simulation Rockets’ ORtg of 120 is a full 10.82 points over average on offense! I’m not sure if it’s the absurd spacing and passing that they have or a statistical anomaly, but we’ll see if Gerald Green, Melo, and Harden can remain in the top 10 for TS% all year (to be more specific, Melo is averaging 24.4 on 55/54/73 splits. I expect his 3P% to go down and his FT% to go up); however, CP3 and Pippen are leading the team in +/- respectively with an 11.1 and 9.7 per game.

(Side note: for anyone furiously shaking his or her head at my use of such archaic stats, 2K isn’t the shining beacon of statistical analysis).

Two teams whose immense struggles are puzzling to me are the Lakers (KG+prime LeBron) and the Knicks (MJ+KP).

For the Lakers, its simulated counterpart is performing 5.78 points worse on offense and 3.01 points worse on defense. In reality, I envisioned KG and LeBron’s carrying any offense/defense with their brilliant passing and whirling defensive presence, but somehow that was lost in cyberspace. We’ll see if they can right the ship, but man they look rough right now.

The Knicks itself isn’t more puzzling, but MJ’s performance is. He’s currently averaging 18/7.2/4.9 on 50.7/31/92 splits which would be his weakest scoring season EVER including his woeful Wizards days. If the Knicks want any sort of chance to be competitive, they’ll need 30+ from MJ a night.

A third team whose defense is wretched beyond comparison is the Portland Trail Blazers. I chose to insert Shaq as their center because, even with Dame and C.J., their defense outpaced their defense by a couple of points. The Simulated Blazers currently have a defense that is 7.61 points worse than average which is a full 2 points worse than the league-worst Reality Cavaliers and 3 points worse than last year’s league-worse Reality Suns. Both Shaq and Damn are in the top ten in scoring with fantastic efficiency, but they have to fix their defensive struggles.

Let’s highlight a couple of statistical standouts throughout the season. The first is, of course, Wilt Chamberlain who has averaged 22.8 points and 18.1 rebounds with 8.5 of those being offensive! His 19.6 ORB% would tie for the 7th highest all-time (believe it or not, but Jakob Poeltl is the current all-time leader from this season. That won’t hold up). Wilt has also had five 20/20 games two of which are as follows: 28/25 with 16 offensive boards and a very Wilt 39/28 game.

On 11/07, Wade dropped 21 dimes.

Curry started the season with a 45/10/5/4 while shooting 7/11 from three.

Shaq’s first game was a 42/22/3/3/4 with a +20.

True to form, Oscar Robertson is averaging a huge 22.6/13.1/13.6 all of which is leading the Suns. He has not had a single 20/20 game yet, but he did have a 21/19/17 night on 10/24.

Blake Griffin’s boasted a 32/25 while shooting 11/12 from the stripe in his first game. Oh, he was also a +52.

Finally, here are the current front-runners for MVP (based on my snap judgment where I significantly value team performance):

  1. Steph Curry: 31.8/6.4/6.9/1.9/0 on 52.7/44.3/95/5 shooting – 15-4 record
  2. Hakeem Olajuwon: 22.4/12.1/2.2/1.1/3.1 on 52.9/0/84.1 shooting – 15-3 record
  3. Dwyane Wade: 24.3/5.2/10.8/2.1/1.1 on 53.9/47.4/79.8 shooting – 12-5 record
  4. Nikola Jokic: 17/12.9/7/1.4/1 on 52.5/49.1/88.1 shooting – 14-4 record
  5. Bill Russell: 12.2/14.2/3.2/1.8/2.9 on 58.7/33.3/64.6 shooting – 13-5 record

This has been the first check-in with the simulation league. I’ll have to discuss players that have fit seamlessly and players who might have worked better on another team (ahem…trade MJ for Barkley…). If you have any specific statistics you’d like to know or any other information about the league so far, check out my Twitter account where I’ll continue tweeting updates, or just ask!

 

 

 

 

Simulation League: Part 3

Article Length: ~2,300 words or about 12-16 minutes of reading.

18. Minnesota Timberwolves: O.RTG – 110.8 (4th); D.RTG – 108.4 (22nd)

Starter to Trade: Taj Gibson

Prime Player: Derrick Rose (2010-11)

Historical Player: Tim Duncan

Image result for tim duncan pullup

Writer’s Note 2.0 – I’m currently really struggling with this pick. In the 2K universe, I selected prime Rose, but in my heart, I’m sticking with Luol Deng, so for all intents and purposes, Rose has been selected for the Wolves.

Writer’s Note – I wrote this before the Jimmy Butler debacle. I’m keeping the explanation, but in reality, I’m selecting 2010-11 Rose instead of Deng because of the greater need for an offensive creator on the wing.

***

Yes, I picked prime Deng over prime Rose. Please allow me to defend myself.

The Wolves share the Nuggets’ struggle of having a strong offense and an extremely weak defense (something that Timmy D will singlehandedly change). If I were to have picked Rose, I’m not sure how the offense would’ve functioned. Despite being one of the greatest offensive centers in history, KAT struggled to get touches from his ball-dominant friends. Wiggins and Butler both invade each others’ spaces, and even though he created well on-ball, Duncan will also suck up some offensive possessions. Simply put, Rose’s brand of offense would be greatly mitigated given the Wolve’s roster. Deng’s off-ball abilities and decent-to-strong defensive capabilities are much more valuable to the roster.

I strongly debated trading Wiggins instead of Gibson, but I’m still holding onto my small amount of Wiggins stock in the hopes that he’ll put it all together. Gibson is a tremendous hustle man, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of Timmy’s defense and leadership.

 

19. San Antonio Spurs: O.RTG – 105.5 (17th); D.RTG – 102.4 (4th)

Starter to Trade: Rudy Gay

Prime Player: Pau Gasol (2009-10)

Historical Player: Reggie Miller

Image result for reggie miller three

When Ginobili officially retired, he eliminated this hypothetical’s leagues chances from basking in his glorious brand of basketball. Fortunately for the Spurs, they still have Pau Gasol whose prime lent itself to be an extremely underrated offensive threat and the second best player on two championship teams.

Choosing Reggie Miller might be baffling for some for a variety of reasons, and I completely understand all of those concerns. The Spurs struggled a bit on offense last year, and even though DeRozan’s game will be better than the Kawhi-less squad, I’m extremely concerned about their ability to stretch the floor. Between Murray, DeRozan, Gay, Gasol, and Aldridge, Gasol is the best shooting, and none of the others can be counted on for offense outside of the arc.

While Pop is at the helm, I will always be confident in the Spurs ability to defend (even after losing Green, Kawhi, and Anderson), so I opted for a player that doesn’t require the ball in his hands to boost an offense. Reggie Miller is the prime spacer for the Spurs.

 

20. New Orlean’s Pelicans: O.RTG – 107.7 (9th); D.RTG – 105.6 (14th)

Starter to Trade: Elfrid Payton

Prime Player: Emeka Okafor (2006-07)

Historical Player: Steve Nash

Image result for steve nash scoop

Okay, is picking Steve Nash simply some NBA fan fiction of Nash being reunited with Alvin Gentry and being paired with uber-Amar’e Stoudemire? A little, but also, Nash’s supreme offensive skillset fits perfectly with the Pels.

From the yearly rankings, it might seem that the Pels need more help on D than on O; however, that takes into account the load of minutes that Cousins played. In the 33 games after Cousins’ injury, the Pels logged an O.RTG of 106.8 (17th) and a D.RTG of 103.7 (5th). While the overall net rating improved a bit without him, their offense took a bit of a hit while their defense skyrocketed. With prime Okafor coming off the bench as a solid rim protector, I’m not concerned about defense. Nash would helm the point duties which gives both Davis and Holiday more energy to run off-ball and focus on defense. This squad could legitimately score a top 5 offense and defense.

 

21. Utah Jazz: O.RTG – 106.2 (15th); D.RTG – 101.6 (2nd)

Starter to Trade: Ricky Rubio

Prime Player: Jae Crowder

Historical Player: Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway

Image result for anfernee hardaway dunk

Going with Penny before any of the other hallowed point guards feels sacrilegious, but Penny – like Grant Hill, Bill Walton, T-Mac, and Yao – shone brightly in his brief tenure as a superstar. At 6-7, Penny’s tremendous length would fit perfectly into a current NBA lineup and especially one run alongside Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz was mid-level on the offensive end which was the result of having only one creator/finisher on the team in Mitchell. Sure, the other guys can play their roles tremendously, but Mitchell is the only “give him the rock and figure it out” guy.

Now, I love Rubio. His defensive tenacity and passing genius assist (ha) in ways that a normal stat-sheet doesn’t catch. However, the Jazz certainly doesn’t NEED his defense. In the 38 games after Gobert returned from injury, they posted a D.RTG of 97.5 (1st) which was a whopping 3.6 points better than the 2nd best defense in that same stretch. Hardaway wasn’t a great defender by any means, but if any coach not named Brad or Gregg could whip him into a lengthy, switchable pest, it’s Quin.

 

22. Oklahoma City Thunder: O.RTG 107.6 (10th); D.RTG 104.7 (10th)

Starter to Trade: Jerami Grant

Prime Player: Raymond Felton (2012-13)

Historical Player: Karl Malone

Image result for karl malone jumpshot

The brilliant aspect of having PG13 on your team is that he doesn’t want to be the first option. George has always seemed like a co-superstar who wants to lockdown the other team’s best player, wreak havoc on D, take some Kobe-lite midrange jumpers, and dunk on folks, but he doesn’t want the top spotlight. With Malone entering the scene, Roberson, George, and Adams would have immense pressure taken off them on offense.

One concern that I have is with the false narrative that Malone scored the majority of his points out of the pick-and-roll. Ben Taylor’s analysis reveals that Malone was actually a premier isolation scorer who supplemented his face-up game with pick-and-pop abilities. Balancing this skillset with Russ might be concerning, but the fact is that the Thunder need a player to hold down the offensive fort with Russ on the bench, and The Mailman is the guy to deliver.

 

23. Indiana Pacers: O.RTG – 107.2 (12th); D.RTG – 105.6 (12th)

Starter to Trade: Thaddeus Young

Prime Player: Cory Joseph (2014-15)

Historical Player: Magic Johnson

Image result for magic johnson no look

Hear me out on this one because I’m taking a leap of faith that I’m not sure if I agree with. If anything, the Pacers need some 4s and 5s badly, but I want to capitalize on their ability to attack. Also, I’m buying major Myles Turner stock after his precipitous drop-off last year.

The reason that I’m taking out switch-happy 4 Thaddeus Young instead of Collison or Bogdanovic is that I’m envisioning a world where Magic starts at the 4 with other ball-handlers around him. Am I concerned about diminishing returns with the offense? Oh yeah, but this is a gamble for which I’m excited because of the possibility of relentless transition between Magic, Evans, and Oladipo. Plus, I’m still not sold on Oladipo being an offensive superstar just yet…

 

24. Portland Trailblazers: O.RTG – 106.1 (16th); D.RTG – 104.2 (8th)

Starter to Trade: Jusuf Nurkic

Prime Player: I honestly don’t know

Historical Player: Shaquille O’Neal

Image result for shaq posterize

I was pretty shocked to see that the Blazers had a bottom-half level offense last year. I was even more surprised to see their top-10 defense! Portland has often played a conservative brand of defense, and apparently, it works with two of the worst defensive starting guards in the league.

Dame and C.J. seem like good enough dudes, but man, last year’s playoff series against the Pelicans was abhorrent. The Pelicans’ smothering defense doused any offensive flame that Portland’s two dynamic scorers could muster. Interestingly, what Portland needed the most was gravity.

Now, gravity is often thought of as a three-point specialists’ calling card: the defense must warp itself to stop a player’s off-ball movement, but it also extends to the paint. Shaq was the all-timer for paint gravity. His freakish athleticism and Herculean strength regularly wracked up fouls on starting 5s. With a defense needing to cover this neutron star-level density in the paint, C.J. and Dame would have so much more space for shooting, driving, and creating.

 

25. Cleveland Cavaliers: O.RTG – 110.6 (5th); D.RTG – 109.5 (29th)

Starter to Trade: J.R. Smith

Prime Player: George Hill (2012-13)

Historical Player: Kobe Bryant

Image result for kobe layup

Without this hypothetical shot of excitement, this is going to be a rough team. Sure, they were the 2nd worst defensive team last year, but with LeBron gone, that’s the least of their concerns. I opted not to choose Love for the prime player because I’m of the belief that he is every bit as good as he was in Minnesota.

Kobe always thrived best with a solid, off-ball point guard, and prime George Hill fits that bill perfectly. Kobe always worked well with inside scorers (Bynum, Shaq, Gasol), so he allows Love a bit more freedom on offense than he did with LeBron as his leader.

This team doesn’t become a contender by any means, but the Hill-Kobe-Love trio isn’t bad.

 

26. Philadelphia 76ers: O.RTG – 107.4 (11th); D.RTG – 102 (3rd)

Starter to Trade: Dario Saric

Prime Player: Amir Johnson (2012-13)

Historical Player: Larry Bird

Image result for larry bird fadeaway

The 76ers are on the cusp of being a nightmare for the league. Their timeline matches perfectly with the inevitable fall of Golden State. After the all-star break, they posted the 2nd best net rating in the league (behind Utah). During the playoffs though, they felt a little disjointed. They needed some offensive leadership. That’s where Bird comes in.

Bird works so well because this team is predicated on size and skill. He provides much needed spacing and a go-to scorer that neither Embiid nor Simmons could provide in the post-season. And while Embiid and Simmons both take a quieter, hands-off approach to leadership, Bird would grab the team by the throat and demand excellence.

Also, I love Saric. I really truly do, but I appreciate Robert Covington even more. He is one of the players who I statistically deep-dived a bit into one evening in the Twitterverse.

 

27. Boston Celtics: O.RTG – 105.3 (18th); D.RTG – 101.5 (1st)

Starter to Trade: Jalen Brown

Prime Player: Al Horford (just a younger version)

Historical Player: Bill Russell

Image result for bill russell athletic

I know, I know, this seems like some storybook pairing sending Russell to the Celtics, but hear me out.

In my opinion, Horford is the most valuable player on this team. More than Hayward or Kyrie. His ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint is surpassed by only Draymond in the league. He is the biggest reason for their league-leading defense.

So if this is the case, then why didn’t I choose an offensive-minded player to jack up their 18th ranked offense? Because that O.RTG is completely without Hayward, and somewhat without Kyrie. It also doesn’t take into account Tatum’s development. If everyone is healthy, their offense will be fine.

Russell helps cover Horford’s deficiencies on the defensive glass while adding an extra layer of transcendent defense. Their combined defensive IQs would skyrocket them to be the best defense in the league if not in history. I also saw Brown as being the most expendable starter in that overloaded forward spot.

 

28. Golden State Warriors: O.RTG – 112.3 (1st); D.RTG – 104.2 (9th)

Starter to Trade: DeMarcus Cousins

Prime Player: Andre Iguodala (2008-09)

Historical Player: Bill Walton

Image result for bill walton block

Just like in real life, this is my pick for the championship in this hypothetical world. Cousins concerns me because of the possible locker room baggage, and simply swapping him for one of the greatest teammates in history is basically cheating.

Along with his great demeanor, Walton provided the Jokic passing prototype as a top-5 in history big-man passer. His unselfishness on offense is needed on a team like this where he would happily take 5 or 6 shots a game while dishing to cutters or poppers to the corner. His greatest asset is his defense, though, which ranks as one of the most impactful in history. Does he provide the switchability of a player like Draymond? No, but his length and positioning exude a Duncan-like effect.

Also, prime Iguodala off the bench simply isn’t fair. An Iguodala, Thompson, Durant, Draymond, and Walton lineup is the greatest defensive lineup in history.

 

29. Toronto Raptors – O.RTG – 111 (3rd); D.RTG – 103.4 (5th)

Starter to Trade: Jonas Valunciunas

Prime Player: Serge Ibaka (2013-14)

Historical Player: Alonzo Mourning

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Choosing a specific year for Serge Ibaka was the trickiest part of the Raptors. On one hand, early career Ibaka was a master of the open-midrange and shot blocking, but he hadn’t found the range at the three yet. Current Ibaka knocks down threes at a solid clip but doesn’t swat shots with quite the same veracity. I opted for the transition Ibaka: when his blocks weren’t quite at their peak, but when he experimented with the three-point line.

Alonzo Mourning would be an interesting center instead of JV. At his peak, Mourning’s defense was a level below the all-time greats, but still game-changing. And his offensive game included a spot-up midranger that would make for a difficult to guard offensive starting unit. While Kawhi does his best work inside the arc, I think Ibaka and Mourning could still provide the necessary spacing for his wizardry.

Also, the starting 5 of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Ibaka, and Mourning is a powerhouse.

 

30. Houston Rockets: O.RTG – 112.2 (2nd); D.RTG – 103.8 (6th)

Starter to Trade: P.J. Tucker

Prime Player: Carmelo Anthony (2013-14)

Historical Player: Scottie Pippen

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P.J. Tucker or Carmelo Anthony. I seriously considered trading Anthony as my nonbelief in his abilities to help a team have been documented; nevertheless, I was wooed by his prime-Knicks scoring as a stretch-4. Tucker’s defense was invaluable last year, but I’m sure Pippen will happily replace that.

In the modern NBA, Pippen’s freakish length, timing, and athleticism would make him an even more valuable defender than he already was. He could easily take the more difficult of the two matchups between him and Melo, and he could cover the mistakes of the fearless offensive leader Harden (whose defense last year actually wasn’t that bad).

I still have a minor concern that his offensive playmaking will be somewhat wasted in the Paul-Harden isolation ball especially with Melo in the mix; however, as we saw in the playoffs, Paul is at the point where his body can’t take heavy minutes, so Pippen could easily relieve some of those duties. Furthermore, some unlucky defender not assigned to Melo, Paul, or Harden would have to stay in front of Pippen when the ball swings to him in the corner. Will some of his abilities to diminished on this team? Yes, but the ceiling of those skills will propel them to top-of-the-league heights.

 

And there you have it! Those are the 30 teams with their respective historical player and prime player. The NBA season tips off ina  few short days, so I’m finalizing the rosters on 2k, and we’ll begin some analysis before the season takes off.