Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 6: Concluding the Roster

Article length: about 2,700 words.


This is it, the conclusion of the actual roster construction. Please take some time and go read part 1part 2part 3part 4, and part 5. Last three players. Let’s do this!

Giannis Antetokounmpo 2016-17

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – Most Improved Player, All-NBA 2nd Team, 7th in MVP Voting, All-Star, 6th in Two-Point Field Goals, 9th in Free Throws, 9th in Total Steals, 5th in Total Blocks, 10th in PER, 7th in Block Percentage, 9th in DWS, 10th in WS, 8th in BPM, 4th in DBPM, and 4th in VORP.

Playoffs – 3rd in Steals Per Game, 5th in Blocks Per Game, and 1st in Defensive Rating

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Yep, I’m taking a homerific flyer on Giannis. In general, I prefer players who are a little bit older – a little bit more seasoned – and are battle tested in the playoffs. Giannis is neither of these two: he’s only 22, and he just went through his first playoffs as a significant contributor (where, I might add, I was pleasantly impressed). Furthermore, he played most effectively with the ball in his hand, and he pretty much as no jumpshot even though he plays the 3 or 4 position.

Ultimately, I’m taking Giannis because he is the most dynamic player in the NBA. Westbrook is more dynamic on the offensive end, and Draymond is more dynamic on defense, but when you look at both ends of the court, nobody brings it with the same intensity as Giannis. In fact, his intensity has drawn the ire of both John Wall and LeBron James for what I consider petty reasons, but anyone who brings it against The King and gets the best of him is a competitor in my book.

Not only does Giannis bring a high level intensity on a nightly basis, but he has a unicorn-like skillset that allows him to dominate both ends. Steve Shea, a mathematics professor, developed a couple of defensive statistics called IDR and PDR. The short version is that IDR quantifies a player’s interior defense while PDR quantifies a player’s perimeter defense (for more info, read this article). I grouped the top 20 performers in each category and plotted them on a scatter plot. The results are as follows:


Let’s unpack this. This graph can be split into four quadrants: positive defenders in the paint and on the perimeter (the upper right quadrant), positive perimeter defenders and negative paint defenders (the bottom right quadrant), positive paint defenders and negative perimeter defenders (the upper left quadrant), and negative defenders in the painting and on the perimeter (the bottom left quadrant). The trend line shows that, at least for this sample, when interior defense increases, perimeter defense decreases. The two points I circled are dominant in both: the furthest right is Draymond, and the other is Giannis. Giannis is the only player out of this top-40 sample to score above a 4 in both categories (PDR=4.7; IDR=4.3), but to be fair, Draymond was very close and boasted the second highest perimeter score (PDR=8.1; IDR=3.8). That level of defensive flexibility is invaluable in today’s NBA.

As I said before though, Giannis’ unique abilities aren’t simply on the defensive end. Even though he has a terrible jumpshot, he makes up for it in other ways. The two most efficient play types in the NBA are cuts and transition possessions, and Giannis ranks highly in both. Check out the following two graphs. The first plots out the top-20 transition scorers by total transition possessions last year.

Transition points

For anyone interested, the inefficient but relentless player with ~550 possessions is Westbrook. Giannis’ 1.28 points per transition possession (league average is 1.104) beat out LeBron, Curry, Thomas, Wall, and Harden (the only two he didn’t beat out were Beal and Durant). Transition buckets can be a moral shredder for the opposition and moral booster for a team, and nobody electrified the NBA like Giannis on the fast-break last year.

The next chart plots out the top-20 players by total cut possessions through last year.


Rudy Gobert outpaced everyone with the total number of cut possessions, but Giannis’ 1.5 points per cut possession (league average is 1.89) topped all of the top-20 in efficiency.  For being unable to provide typical floor-spacing, Giannis maximizes his abilities to keep defenders on their toes.

Beyond all this technical jargon, Giannis is simply a good dude who brings a certain charm to the locker room. You can never have enough guys like this around, and with all that said, that’s why I feel good about the Giannis pick (one other player is creepily similar to Giannis’ skillset, but I’ll discuss that in the final section). Giannis’s skillset is as follows:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Giannis 7 6 8 7

Now to my final two selections….and admittedly, I could be swayed on either one with a convincing argument. For now, let’s welcome these two to the roster.

Yao Ming 2008-09

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-NBA 2nd Team, All-Star, 6th in Defensive Rebounds, 8th in Total Rebounds, 6th in Total Blocks, 8th in Field Goal Percentage, 5th in TS%, 9th in Block Percentage, 8th in Defensive Rating, 5th in DWS, 10th in WS, and 8th in WS/48.

Playoffs – 5th in Rebounds Per Game, 3rd in Defensive Rebound Percentage.

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Yao is, by pretty much every modern NBA standard, a dinosaur: he’s enormous, not particularly mobile, and his skillset is better equipped for a 2002 roster than a 2017 roster. Even he stated that players of his size would struggle in today’s league because of the popularity of the three-pointer. Take that as you will, but remember that Yao was always one of the most modest NBA players. I strongly believe that he’d find a role on a title contender.

In a Grantland piece about conservative defenses (defenses that don’t foul or force turnovers much), Lowe stated the following about elite rim protectors:

Sure enough, the list of good ultraconservative teams includes teams featuring peak Tim Duncan and Yao Ming. Broaden the criteria just a tad — by mere fractions of percentage points — and more Duncan/Yao teams pop up, along with the very best Dwight Howard–era Orlando teams. Adelman’s defenses in Houston may have been the best in the league over a three-year semi-healthy Yao stretch, and they all played the same way — low turnovers, low fouls, and a “passive” pick-and-roll defense in which Yao dropped back toward the rim and the Rockets’ perimeter defenders funneled ball handlers toward either Yao or the sidelines.

-Zach Lowe, “The Delicate Balance of an NBA Defense,” 2014

Looking at the roster we have constructed so far, I can assure you that it’s defensive scheme will be much less conservative with players like George, Marion, Giannis, and Draymond roaming around; however, having Ben Wallace and Yao allows for more defensive flexibility.

Beyond his defense, Yao provides paint presence on offense that this team simply doesn’t have. He was immeasurably skilled posting up, and he could provide some midrange floor-spacing for players driving to the basket. Lineups wouldn’t be able to run-and-gun as effectively with Yao, but in a half-court set, he might be the most valuable player on the team because of the double teams that he would demand. I know that he would be exhausted against a small-ball lineup, but who in the modern NBA could guard him one-on-one? DeAndre Jordan? Rudy Gobert? A healthy Joel Embiid? A motivated Dwight Howard? The point is that the number is very low, and even during Yao’s time when much larger centers roamed the paint, teams needed to double team him, and Yao’s intelligent passing would go far surrounded by the likes of Klay, Peja, Conley, and Ray. There’s a reason that Bill Simmons listed him 7th in his NBA Trade Value column back in 2009. The only players he listed above Yao were Kobe, Wade, Duncan, Chris Paul, Howard, and LeBron. Pretty good company.

12/12 from the field? What?

We also can’t talk about Yao’s offense without looking at his absurd free throw percentage. He shot 86% from the line in 2008-09 (90% in the playoffs) while standing at 7′ 6″ and weighing over 300 pounds! Now you have to double him because fouling him is just about the worst offensive strategy. In fact, if you look at the top-20 free throw percentage seasons by a player standing 7′ or taller, Yao takes four of the spots and holds the tenth best season ever (Dirk takes 11 of the spots and holds the top-nine best season ever…soak that in for a second).

Finally, and the main reason I chose him instead of a couple of other centers, Yao was simply an extraordinary teammate. Players loved playing with him, and star players rarely showed the support and excitement that Yao displayed. In the oft hyperbolic The Players’ Tribune, Jeff Van Gundy, usually known for his hyper-criticism, wrote a touching piece about coaching Yao. Just go read the article because it is a glowing piece about an exceptional person. One segment stood out to me though:

Much like Tim Duncan and Steve Nash, Yao was a unifying leader. I believe that if a great player is also a compassionate, caring, unselfish teammate, then his team’s chemistry is going to be exceptional. That’s what Yao did every day, in every way.

If you go back and watch Rockets games from that era, don’t pay attention to what Yao does when he was on the court. Instead, pay attention to the 15 minutes a game when he was on the bench. On every good play, he was standing up and cheering as loud as any fan. Whenever a timeout was called, Yao’s the first man off the bench to greet his teammates.

– Jeff Van Gundy, “The Coaching Honor of a Lifetime,” 2017

There’s a reason that the Suns tracked high-fives this last season. Camaraderie matters.

Yao’s skillset is as follows:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Yao 4 7 8 8

We have one player left, and my concerns about him have nothing to do with his skill-level. Let’s see if it’s all worth it.

Deron Williams 2009-10

Photo Credit: Zimbio

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-NBA 2nd Team, 9th in MVP Voting, All-Star, 2nd in Total Assists, 3rd in Assist Percentage, 10th in OWS and 9th in OBPM.

Playoffs – 1st in Assists Per Game and 3rd in Assist Percentage.

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Years ago, before Deron’s ill-fated performance in the 2017 Finals, asking if Chris Paul or Deron Williams was the better point guard was (supposedly) a legitimate question. In 2008, GM Dumars said the following:

They are the best two young point guards in the league. In fact, I don’t see how you can rank any point guard ahead of them. They have an ability not only to be great themselves but to make their teammates and teams better. If you and I are picking between the two, I’ll take the one you don’t take and be the happiest man in the room.

– Ric Bucher, “How Do You Know…Who’s Better?”, 2008

That time has long since passed, and my setiments on the argumet can be summarized nicely by Mr. Barbour:

In the case of who the best point guard in the NBA is, the answer is indisputably Chris Paul with no basis for arguing any differently. Every time the question of who is the best NBA point guard is asked and the answer given is not Chris Paul, it is both an insult to Paul and a display of ignorance by the answerer.

– David Barbour, “Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams: Ending the Debate Once and for All,” 2010

Despite those strong words, Deron Williams was still an extraordinarily good point guard that ran a well-oiled offense. What entices me about Deron is his ability to succeed both with the ball and off the ball. It’s common knowledge that Deron excelled running the pick-and-roll, but if you go back and watch film of those Jazz teams, he would often dish the ball immediately and either post up or run through some screens. Unfortunately, we don’t have shot data from this year, but if we did, I’d be willing to bet that Deron was a top-tier post-up guard and an above-average spot up shooter.

On his post-up ability, Deron has always been a bulkier point guard. While his rival, Chris Paul, was more lithe and slippery, Deron was built like a line-backer, and he knew how to use his size and strength to abuse smaller guards which makes sense considering his interest in MMA and his state championship in wrestling.

The issue with that size is how detrimental it is to his speed. Deron wasn’t a particularly good defender, but for guards who like to post-up, I’d say he was actually solid; however, he might be a defensive liability if we were playing the Warriors. Curry and Thompson are the last two guys you’d want Deron guarding.

One interesting fact about Deron is that he didn’t rely on the pick-and-roll as much as much as sports pundits would have you believe. Jerry Sloan’s reason for this is as follows:

You’ve got to learn how to play other ways than just strictly pick-and-roll. Most of the time, other guys are just standing in the pick-and-roll. We try to run other stuff where they’re not standing and stay active in other parts of the game.

– Jonathan Abrams, “The Pick-and-Roll is the N.B.A.’s Old Reliable,” 2009

That’s another plus for Deron because it shows that he can thrive in varied NBA offenses. Will I use him with Draymond Green in a pick-and-roll with Peja and Klay in opposite corners? Absolutely, but he will also bring more to the offense than that skillset.

To sum this all up, I have a couple of deep concerns about Deron that are really making me reconsider this selection. First of all, he essentially drove legendary coach Jerry Sloan out of Utah because Deron wanted more flexibility in the offense. Many stories have circulated about Sloan’s tight and old-school grip on the team, but this sort of behavior regarding a coach is unacceptable.

The most damning anecdote about Deron comes from Paul Pierce and his time in Brooklyn. While none of what he says is flattering, this excerpt really hits Deron hard:

“Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate,” Pierce said. “But I felt once we got there, that’s not what he wanted to be. He just didn’t want that.

“I think a lot of the pressure got to him sometimes. This was his first time in the national spotlight. The media in Utah is not the same as the media in New York, so that can wear on some people. I think it really affected him.”

– Jackie MacMullen, “Wizard’s Paul Pierce Speaks the Truth,” 2015

Jesus, what have I done with this selection??? Look, my psycho-analysis of this tells me that Deron struggled being the leader of a team both on the court and emotionally. He had all the physical tools, but he didn’t have the killer mentality to be “the guy.” On this team though, I don’t want him to be that guy. I want him to thrive as a backup point guard that can come in and wreak havoc with a lineup of dangerous shooters and fastbreak freaks. I want him to run off ball, hit open threes, throw some no look lobs, and post-up smaller guards. I want Deron’s talent. Let’s hope Ben Wallace can keep him in check.

Here’s Deron’s skillset:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Williams 9 6 4 4


There you have it! The team is finally assembled! The final roster is as follows:

Guards: Mike Conley, Deron Williams, Ray Allen, Klay Thompson, and Manu Ginobili

Forwards: Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Peja Stojakovic, Shawn Marion, and Paul George

Centers: Ben Wallace and Yao Ming

Tune in next time when I break down the roster, talk about strategy, select a coach, and defend why I didn’t choose certain players (I can hear Carmelo and Blake fans sharpening their pitchforks already).


Thanks to Basketball ReferenceNBAWOWY, and Stats.NBA for the user-friendly stats.


One thought on “Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 6: Concluding the Roster

  1. Pingback: Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 7: The Coach, Team Strategy, and Defending the Cuts | nbacademic

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