Article Length: about 2,100 words.
Part 2 ended with a discussion about Klay, Durant, and Steph seamlessly blending their scoring abilities because of the particular ways (mostly floor spacing) that they all score.
On a theoretical level, this means that for a scorer to mitigate diminishing returns for other scorers on the team, they need to be an “Elite” or better “Floor Spacer” which Thompson, Durant, and Curry all are. Jordan and Pippen, the two main scorers for the Bulls, are not “Elite” floor spacers. While both were at least “Proficient” “Cutters,” you couldn’t reliably count on their spot up ability which is why they were successful with only one “Transcendent” scorer in Jordan because nobody was better at being “Ball Dominant” than he. As for the Celtics, McHale needed the rock to score since he mastered the greatest array of post moves in NBA history. On the other hand, Bird was a masterful “Cutter,” and the original “Floor Space” which allowed McHale more room to operate.
On scoring though, James Harden’s ominous claim about the Warriors that there’s “Only one basketball“ seems to somewhat miss the point. Harden is literally correct that only one person maximum can score per a single possession, but there’s so much more to a team’s offense beyond scoring. When you have players who unselfishly pass the ball, and when other teams need to seriously guard every single player on the court (unlike how teams treat Tony Allen, Andre Roberson, Joakim Noah, etc.), ball movement works to both get players open shots and tire defensive players. If you look at team passing and assist data, the Celtics followed by the Warriors led the league in total passes per game with the Warriors followed by the Celtics leading the league in assists per game. Intuitively, this points towards passing as being a skill that isn’t affected as much by diminishing returns; however, and this is an important differentiation, you need multiple “Cogs” and/or “Floor Generals” to fully take advantage of this skill. Having multiple “Dime Droppers,” players similar to Chris Paul and John Wall, can easily diminish their skills because only one player maximum can score an assist during any scoring possessions. While it may help open up the floor for another “Cog” on the court, that specific ability is less useful when grouped together than a “Cog’s” ability.
This brings us to the skillset that seems to be mostly unaffected by diminishing returns: defense. Much like scoring and passing though, not all aspects of defense can be multiplied advantageously for the team. Ultimately, this is what differentiates Draymond Green’s defense and Rudy Gobert’s defense and why Green will win DPOY later this month. Rudy Gobert is tremendous at defending the rim, but his inability to switch on defense opens him up to being bamboozled by quicker guards.
Draymond defends the rim at an elite level while being able to switch onto any position in the league. This is what people mean when they say somebody can guard 1-5: the player can switch onto a player of any position and not give up a noticeable advantage. Check out this scatter plot of the fifteen players who contested the most shots per game at the rim (of players who played at least sixty games). The lower the “X” on the graph, the better the rim protector.
Notice the “x” on the far right and way at the bottom? That’s Gobert, meaning that he contested the most shots at the rim per game and made the shooter miss that shot at a higher percentage (-12.8 percentage points off their usual shooting percentage at the rim) than most anyone else. What about that other “x” that’s even a little lower than Gobert’s? Oh yeah, that’s Draymond…with that incredibly rare combination of lateral speed, strength, and rim protecting ability, Draymond is one of the greatest defenders we’ve ever seen, and both Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe have acknowledged that on their respective podcasts. Also, notice that Jokic is garbage at rim protection. Players literally shoot better at the rim when he is defending.
If I had a lineup of five Gobert’s, they would do an excellent job of rotating to protect the rim, and no shot in the paint would be easy against them, but faster guards who can shoot would toast them at the perimeter. Not a lineup of Draymond Greens. They could effectively protect the rim and switch on a pick-and-roll. Ultimately, that would be the best defensive lineup in NBA history, and I don’t think it can realistically be topped ( a possible defensive lineup that would be better: Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan. Even then, the five Draymonds would be better. A fantastical better lineup would be three [or four] Scottie Pippens with two [or one] Olajuwons [or Ben Wallaces]. These are the deep questions that I tweet about with no response from more established sports writers. I also stand by my change from Garnett to Olajuwon or Wallace). The following video does a great job of illustrating Draymond’s versatility on the defensive end by showing him switch onto every Blazer in one possession.
I haven’t discussed rebounding as much because, at the end of the day, it’s the least important skillset to consider when building a team. The LeBron Heat years never had a player average over 8.3 rebounds per game, and during their 66-win season, LeBron led the team with 8 rebounds per game (he also led the team with 6.9 rebounds per game in 2013-14). If you argue that their success was an outlier because they had LeBron, then you’re missing the point. LeBron is not inherently dominant and a game changer. LeBron, like all basketball players, happens to fit a very particular archetype that is conducive to success that doesn’t include rebounding.
Look, rebounds are plenty important, and even Dean Oliver identified rebounds as one of the Four Factors in winning, but it’s easily covered up or dominated by a single player. The incredibly innovative Benjamin Morris (again…) proved this in his epic defense of Dennis Rodman as possibly the greatest player of all time (no hyperbole…maybe). It’s a very long read, but one of the greatest pieces of sports analytics out there. Here’s a snippet of a conversation he recalls having with one of his buddies about Dennis Rodman being “the best 3rd best player” ever. This on its own may change the way that you think about star power and team construction:
“Well, it’s tough to say when it’s hard to even define ‘third-best’ player, but [blah blah, ramble ramble, inarticulate nonsense] I guess I’d say he easily had 1st-best player value, which [blah blah, something about diminishing returns, blah blah] . . . which makes him the best 3rd-best player by a wide margin”.
“Well, it’s not like he’s as valuable as Michael Jordan, but he’s the best 3rd-best player by a wider margin than Jordan was the best 1st-best player.”
“So you’re saying he was better than Michael Jordan.”
“No, I’m not saying that. Michael Jordan was clearly better.”
“OK, take a team with Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it. Which would hurt them more, replacing Michael Jordan with the next-best primary scoring option in NBA history, or replacing Rodman with the next-best defender/rebounder in NBA history?”
“I’m not sure, but probably Rodman.”
“So you’re saying a team should dump Michael Jordan before it should dump Dennis Rodman?”
“Well, I don’t know for sure, I’m not sure exactly how valuable other defender-rebounders are, but regardless, it would be weird to base the whole argument on who happens to be the 2nd-best player. I mean, what if there were two Michael Jordan’s, would that make him the least valuable starter on an All-Time team?”
“Well OK, how common are primary scoring options that are in Jordan’s league value-wise?”
“There are none, I’m pretty sure he has the most value.”
“I dunno, there are probably between 0 and 2 in the league at any given time.”
“And how common are defender/rebounder/dirty workers that are in Rodman’s league value-wise?”
“There are none.”
“There are none. Ballpark.”
“So, basically, if a team had Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it, and they could replace either with some random player ‘in the ballpark’ of the next-best player for their role, they should dump Jordan before they dump Rodman?”
“Maybe. Um. Yeah, probably.”
“And I assume that this holds for anyone other than Jordan?”
“So say you’re head-to-head with me and we’re drafting NBA All-Time teams, you win the toss, you have first pick, who do you take?”
“I don’t know, good question.”
“No, it’s an easy question. The answer is: YOU TAKE RODMAN. You just said so.”
“Wait, I didn’t say that.”
“O.K., fine, I get the first pick. I’ll take Rodman. . . Because YOU JUST TOLD ME TO.”
“I don’t know, I’d have to think about it. It’s possible.”
-Benjamin Morris (2011)
Here’s what Morris is implying in a nutshell: Michael Jordan’s skillset as the GOAT compared to, for argument’s sake, LeBron’s skillset is a smaller margin of dominance as the first option than Dennis Rodman’s skillset over the next best possible third option because Rodman’s unparalleled “Transcendent” dominance in his skillset. Morris even offhandedly references “Diminishing Returns” because Rodman’s skills blend in so fluidly compared to “Ball Dominant” scorers and other popular skillsets.
Let’s not forget that Dennis Rodman was also a 1st Team all Defense for multiple years, so he still combines his “Transcendent” rebounding with “Transcendent” defense. He’s the guy, like Draymond, that you want not as your first option, but as your third-onward option.
What does all this mean when constructing a team? It helps point us in the correct direction when somebody inevitably asks the following question: if you could make the best team possible choosing from the following group, who would you choose? Endless possibilities exist to answer this question, but it should somewhat follow this formula:
- An emphasis on as many “Cogs” (players who effectively move the ball) and “Chameleons” (players who can switch onto multiple positions on defense) as possible since they yield the least diminishing returns when grouped together.
- At least one or two “Elite” or better scorers. If you choose multiple scorers, make sure that they are either “Floor Spacers” or “Cutters.”
- You absolutely need “Floor Spacers.” Don’t fall into the same trap as the Cavaliers and just build with “Floor Spacers” that can’t defend though. The Warriors have an excellent selection that can both defend and pass.
- It never hurts to have a couple of players that can rebound. Most elite teams have a “garbage” player of some kind.
One thing that I never discuss in all of this is the necessity of leadership and having players that aren’t afraid of the moment. Bill Simmons discusses the best teams as those that have “been there” before (2010). They have won championships, so they bring a level of swagger that helps to shed any doubt on the team. I still need to think on this a bit more before I write any further, but I want to acknowledge that this is an important aspect of successful teams. I immediately think of Chauncey Billups or any player that brings a “Veteran Presence” to a team who contributes more than the box score indicates.
Okay, let’s recap quickly because I just spilled a ton of cyber ink in this series.
- All NBA players (and any basketball players ever) can be broken down into four archetypal skillsets which can then be broken down more: Playmaking, Scoring, Defending, and Rebounding.
- The goal of team construction centers around mitigating diminishing returns of specific skills. It’s not enough to just have the “best” players, for those players’ skills must complement each other in a way that they don’t encroach upon each other’s skills.
- Each one of these skillsets can be ranked from “Transcendent” to “Inadequate” depending on the player.
- An analysis of specific players and their skillsets (such as Draymond, Curry, Durant, and Gobert) reveal that dominance in a specific subset of each skillset is more important than generally just being a good “scorer.”
- An overview of a few of the greatest teams in history reveals that “Cogs” and “Chameleons’ are the two subsets of the skillsets that most effectively mitigate diminishing returns.
Hopefully this helps to orient discussions about team construction and how to choose the most effective lineups. This also serves as a useful (and lengthy) introduction to my next team building project which I will once again unveil in multiple parts. Let’s see how difficult it is to not break my own rules!