Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 7: The Coach, Team Strategy, and Defending the Cuts

Article length: about 3,000 words (the second longest post behind this one)

 

This is it! The final section of a seven part series! Don’t quit on me now. Dig deep and find that dark place that helps you push to a new height. Do it! Go back and read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5, and part 6. It’s a lot of reading, I know, but you’ll hopefully find some mild entertainment.

Just to make things easier, here’s the complete roster along with each player’s skillset:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Mike Conley 8 7 7 4
Deron Williams 9 6 4 4
Ray Allen 6 7 5 5
Klay Thompson 4 8 7 4
Manu Ginobili 7 7 7 5
Paul George 5 6 8 6
Peja Stojakovic 6 8 4 6
Shawn Marion 3 6 9 8
Draymond Green 8 4 10 6
Ben Wallace 2 1 10 9
Yao Ming 4 7 8 8
Giannis Antetokounmpo 7 7 8 7

Since this piece has three parts, I’m going to split it into two sections by combining the coach selection and team strategy because I believe that they go hand-in-hand. Then, once the strategy is spelled out, I’ll explain why certain players didn’t make the team in the context of the strategy.

Ready? Ready.

Coach/Strategy

Since I have to choose a coach that has not won Coach of the Year, my pool of extremely talented coaches is limited. I narrowed it down to two, and those two do NOT include the legendary Jerry Sloan (who definitely deserved CotY at one point or another) because of his curmudgeonly demeanor, his “my way or the highway” attitude, his old-school play style, and his war with Deron Williams. Look, Sloan was an incredible coach, and I wish him all the best with his current health, but I need someone who is going to manage personalities better, promote a more free-flowing offense, and have players shoot more threes. Personally, I think Sloan’s style stymied the likes of canonball players like Kirilenko, but that’s another conversation for another day.

My two coaches come down to Brad Stevens and Rick Adelman, and ultimately, I’m going with Stevens. Adelman coached two Portland teams to the NBA Finals (1990, 1992) and Portland and Sacremento to two Conference Finals (1991, 2002 respectively), and was described as a real player’s coach So why not go with Adelman? Simple: I’m biased.

USA Today

I’m biased towards more recent coaches because the last six or so NBA seasons has created a (semi) position-less and three-point revolution. Stevens has embraced this new NBA, and beyond that, the Celtics have embraced him as their leader. Just look at how Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas revitalized their careers in Boston. That’s not a coincidence; that’s a buy in. Part of that has to do with his players loving to play with him, and part of it is his focus on fundamentals, team-oriented basketball, and defense. Perfect. Sign the man up.

So let’s talk strategy.

Since we’re dealing with an 82-game season, I want to establish some consistency so that there’s no guesswork game-to-game. We’ll definitely change up lineups once in a while, but in general, here’s who I imagine being in the starting lineup.

Starters:

Mike Conley, Ray Allen, Paul George, Draymond Green, and Ben Wallace

NBA.com

DEFENSE!! This lineup is just stupid defensively. Ray Allen is by far the worst defender, and honestly, he’s not that bad. I fiddled around with Draymond and Ben starting together, but that defensive flexibility was too enticing for me to pass up. Both can switch out on a pick-and-roll (Draymond doing so on an elite level), and both can protect the rim better than most. Ben isn’t going to provide any offense (besides offensive boards), and Draymond won’t be that dangerous scoring-wise, but he is a tremendous facilitator, and can’t be left open from three.

All three of Mike Conley, Paul George, and Ray Allen can stretch the floor at an elite level. Paul George ranked in the 84th percentile in spot-up threes   and Conley ranked in the 90th percentile. This shooting data doesn’t exist for 2001, but I’m sure Allen would be right around those numbers as well at an even higher volume. Ultimately, scoring for this unit will heavily come from these three.

I don’t want to step on Stevens’ toes with setting up minutes, so I’ll just talk through my favorite lineup possibilities (this will seem very familiar if you’ve read Bill Simmons’ book).

Most Unselfish Passing:

Mike Conley (maybe Deron), Manu Ginobili, Peja Stojakovic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Draymond Green.

Image result for nba ball movement

Inside Hoops

This is just brilliant. The only player who might hold the ball for too long is Giannis, but after a few reps, he’d assimilate perfectly with this group. Peja is the only middling defender, but he, Giannis, and Draymond could seamlessly switch.

Spacing:

Deron Williams (or Conley), Ray Allen, Klay Thompson, Peja Stojakovic, and Draymond Green.

Are you seeing why I’m giddy about Draymond? Dude fits into pretty much any kind of lineup. This lineup definitely sacrifices defense with Deron, Ray, and Peja, but it’s offensive potency is off the chart. Just give the ball to Deron, have Ray, Peja, and Klay run through screen, and have Draymond set some picks. The other team is forced to defend the three-point line 1-5. Poor defenders would be exposed quickly.

Defensive Nightmare (my favorite option):

Giannis, George, Marion, Draymond, and Wallace.

I’m speechless. Here, we run point-Giannis with George helping out a bit, and the rest is just free-form. Would the offense be ugly? Definitely, but the defense would be stifling. 1-5 could legitimately switch better than any other lineup in history. Even the 2017 Warriors might struggle to score against them.

Also, since 2000, the 2012 Thunder have averaged the most blocks per game at 8.2. This single lineup averages 8.2 blocks per game…

Fast-break

Williams, Klay, Marion, Giannis, Draymond

Any of the five can bring the ball up, Deron can facilitate, Giannis and Marion are relentless, and Klay can’t be left alone. Good luck keeping up with this.

Keep a Lead With a Minute Left

Conley, Manu, Ray, Peja, and Yao.

Conley has the lowest free-throw percentage with 86%. Good luck (have I said this for every lineup so far? Weird).

These lineups are all fine and dandy, but if I’m preparing for anything, can I pull together a lineup that can stand against the best lineups in history? Let’s take a look.

2017 Warriors (Curry, Klay, Iggy, Durant, and Draymond)

I mean, why not start off with the best lineup ever?

Conley, Klay, Giannis, Draymond, and Wallace.

Sports Illustrated

Jesus, that Warriors lineup still might be better! The only reason I put in Wallace instead of Marion is I need to expose the Warriors’ only weakness: rebounding. Wallace would punish them on missed shots, and that might be the only way to expose them. All five of them can switch well enough with Conley’s size being the only issue.

2001 Lakers (Fisher, Kobe, Fox, Horry, and Shaq)

Conley, Klay, George, Peja, and Wallace (or Yao)

The Hoop Doctors

This is a much easier lineup to handle because my main concerns are 1) make sure my guards can make Kobe’s life hell and 2) slow down Shaq as much as possible. Wallace is one of the only players to effectively guard him, and if that doesn’t work out, Yao is one of the other players to effectively guard him. The rest of the lineup’s offensive firepower would be too much, and Shaq can’t switch against four of the five players.

2013 Heat (Chalmers, Wade, Battier, LeBron, and Bosh)

Conley, Ginobili, George, Marion, and Wallace

onehotseason.com

The Heat were an excellent trapping defense, so it’s important to have multiple ball-handlers on the court. Both Marion and George have had mild success guarding LeBron, and since both Wade and LeBron thrive off scoring in the point, having Wallace as the last line of defense is essential. Plus, Marion and Wallace will absolutely punish the Heat on the boards.

1986 Celtics (Johnson, Ainge, Bird, McHale, Parish)

Williams, Klay, George, Draymond, and Yao.

Pinterest

This is a really tough lineup to defend. They passed the ball effortlessly, destroyed teams in the paint, and were lead by apex Bird. I opted for Williams over Conley because Conley might just be too small to be that effective defensively. Williams wouldn’t be posted up that easily. Yao would thrive in this situation because neither McHale nor Parish could stretch out to shoot a three. All of Klay, George, and Draymond could switch onto Bird and bother him.

1996 Bulls (Harper/Kerr, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Longley)

Deron, Klay, George, Draymond, and Wallace.

neoGAF

I really like my chances against the GOAT’s best team. Jackson’s Triangle Offense usually works best with big guards, like Jordan and Harper, so having Williams over Conley is important because Williams won’t get bullied around. George, Klay, and Draymond all can switch onto either Jordan and Pippen while making their lives a bit more difficult. Wallace is one of the best options for curbing Rodman’s otherworldly rebounding. Also, what are the odds of Draymond, Rodman, and Wallace starting Malice in the Palace part two?

1987 Lakers (Magic, Scott, Green, Worthy, and Kareem)

Ginobili, George, Peja, Draymond, and Wallace

RantSports

This Lakers lineup doesn’t resemble any modern lineup because 1) they made a total of 74 three-pointers in this year (Scott made 65 of those) and 2) they have a classic “dinosaur” center in Kareem who is way past his prime; however, their position-less flexibility between Green, Magic, and Worthy made them formidable on defense especially with Kareem lurking in the back.

To counter this, I opted with Manu for a bit more craftiness than Williams, and I picked Peja because he doesn’t have to worry about chasing too many guards on the perimeter. As documented in “Airplane,” Kareem didn’t work that hard on defense later in his career, and I think Kareem couldn’t contain Wallace on the boards while causing problems with their paint-heavy offense.

1983 Sixers (Cheeks, Toney, Dr. J, Iavoroni, and Moses)

Williams, Allen, Giannis, Draymond, and Yao

ivanjordanproductions.weebly.com

Why not Wallace over Yao? Because I want to take advantage of any deficiencies that Moses has on defense. Yao will force him to work on the side of the ball that he struggles with the most: defense. Wallace would help mitigate his offensive rebounding numbers, but I think it’s more pertinent to have him deal with an offensive force in the post.

As for Dr. J, both Giannis and Draymond will match his length and strength. Both can dare the Doctor to shoot jumpshots while making any drives, his preferred method of scoring, strenuous.

From these teams, I wanted to show that the roster we have built is prepared to face any sort of roster. With all of the two-way forwards, we’re best prepared to face modern offenses that are predicated on three-pointers and driving, but we’re still prepared for anything….

But what about the players who were cut? Could we beat a team of players scorned? If we were to build a team using Team USA’s strategy, we would just take the best players regardless of fit. Could a team of players scorned beat us? The twelve-man roster (which I’m constructing with significantly less thought) is as follows:

Guards: John Wall (2017), Kyle Lowry (2016), Jimmy Butler (2017), Brandon Roy (2009), Vince Carter (2001)

Forwards: Carmelo Anthony (2014), Andrei Kirilenko (2004), Blake Griffin (2014), Paul Millsap (2016), Gordon Hayward (2017)

Centers: Rudy Gobert (2017), Marcus Camby (2008)

To some folks, this might actually look like a better team than the one that we’ve built. I agree that this team has more offensive talent, but it would struggle with spacing issues and personality issues (especially alpha status between Butler, Roy, Carter, Wall, and Melo). Let’s pretend that their coach Rick Adelman makes them all like each other. How does our team match up? Well this team’s best lineup, in my opinion, is as follows:

Wall, Butler, Hayward, Anthony, and Kirilenko (or Gobert).

Sole Collector

This lineup can easily catch fire, and their individual offensive talent is off-the-charts. Plus, Butler, Hawyard, and Kirilenko (kinda Melo) can switch on defense and cause a bit of mayhem. All five players are comfortable bringing the ball up especially on the break, and they all must be defended for spot-up shots (though you can definitely give up that shot to Wall, Butler, and Kirilenko). So to counter this, I would toss out the following:

Conley, Ginobili, Allen, George, and Draymond

Fight small ball with small ball. In a single game situation, the other team might beat us once in a while, but I’ve constructed the team to last 82 games plus a playoffs. I’m rolling with our guys.

To finally cap off everything, I’m going to go through some of the players that I cut and briefly (I’ll try) defend why I cut them. Here it goes.

Defending My Cuts

Carmelo Anthony 2014

I’ve never been a huge believer in Melo. He’s been to the Conference Finals once, shown a poor attitude (like when he refused to sub out of a game in Denver), doesn’t defend particularly well, and he isn’t a willing passer. He’s a transcendent scorer, but I value that less than other attributes.

Blake Griffin 2014

Full disclosure: Blake was on the team until I started writing this. He’s a tremendous passer and a dominant scorer and rebounder. His perimeter defense is actually underrated, and his jumpshot is serviceable. Unfortunately, I think he’s most effective with the ball in his hands, and I wanted to move away from players like that. With the smaller roster, Blake would probably be pushed into the center position, but I can’t have a center that can’t defend the rim (for reference, Blake ranks between Channing Frye and Enes Kanter here. Not great company).

Jimmy Butler 2017

The savior of Chicago this past year, Jimmy exploded as an incredible two-way player. Unfortunately his alpha complex pissed of Rose and Noah a few years ago, and his three-point shooting isn’t enough to be a reliable spot-up man. He can score and facilitate, but like Griffin, he needs the ball. It’s a shame because we could’ve used his defense.

John Wall 2017

Simply put, Wall’s half-court scoring ability is atrocious. He’s dominant on the fastbreak, and he passes as well as anyone, but he can’t reliably score with the game on the line (side note: I’m not a big fan of judging a player off one game, but this article does a good job of summing up my concerns). He shot 34% on open and wide open threes last year. Plus, he’s had some personality issues with people throughout the years.

Kyle Lowry 2016

You know that one restaurant that consistently has great food? I mean, that place where you walk in with some buddies, order an appetizer, and everyone is fighting over the last piece of it? Then, when the meal comes, conversations are curbed and replaced by your friends Instagramming the food, loud and constant “MMMMs,” and the the repetition of the phrase, “We have to come back here!” It’s been a great meal, so you all dive in on a dessert, one of those big ones that everyone shares with a fork. Silver slices delicate chocolate/apple/milky goodness, and you plop it in your mouth. Pause. You all look nervously at one another. Chewing slows down, and at least one person conspicuously lifts a napkin to their lips. The dessert is chalky/bitter/undercooked/eggy/ bland. It literally wipes the delicious taste of your entree from your mouth, and you’re forced to stop at a local doughnut shop on the way home to avoid this agonizing experience. That’s Kyle Lowry’s regular season and post-season in a nutshell

Brandon Roy 2009

Look, I love Brandon Roy. He’s unnervingly clutch, led the second best offensive team in 2009, and garnered the following praise from Kobe Bryant:

Kobe Bryant was asked who the toughest player for him to guard in the Western Conference on the John Thompson Show the other day. This was Kobe’s response:

“Roy 365 days, seven days a week. Roy has no weaknesses in his game.”

– Ryne Nelson, “Kobe Bryant: Roy over Durant,” 2010

The issue with Roy is that his game isn’t suited for a star-studded, egalitarian basketball team. Like Jimmy Butler (and, appropriately, Kobe), Roy dominated with the ball in his hands with a series of step-backs, pull-ups, and drives. He facilitated at a solid level, but not at a game-changing level.

Vince Carter 2001

Here’s an excerpt of misdeeds Carter committed against Toronto:

(a) his being accused in the Tacoma News Tribune of tipping off the Seattle SuperSonics about the Raptors’ plays — a month before he stopped playing for Toronto; (b) distorting his face in derision and mocking the Air Canada Centre crowd for chanting “MVP” at Chris Bosh during a Raps-Nets game this season; and, worst of all, (c) telling broadcaster John Thompson he didn’t push himself as hard as he could have when he worked and lived north of the border.

– Adam Proteau, “How Our Love for Vince Carter Turned to Hate,” 2007

Not cool with any of that. Sorry Vince.

Kyrie Irving 2017

I fought with this one for a while because of his Finals experience and nearly unprecedented isolation scoring ability, but he’s not a willing passer, possibly doesn’t put winning firstis one of the worst defenders in the leauge, and, according to NBAWOWY data, hasn’t led the Cavs to a positive On/Off differential without LeBron on the court with him. In short: I think Kyrie is extremely overrated.

Rudy Gobert 2017

Having Gobert back up Wallace would’ve been an immovable defensive choice, but his injury in the first round of the playoffs concerns me. Also, he doesn’t have the intangible leadership abilities of Yao.

Andrei Kirilenko 2004

Kirilenko was a superstar, and I strongly believe that a combination of injuries and Jerry Sloan’s coaching style stifled an illustrious career. He played 13 years too early, for his defensive switching ability might rival Draymond’s. I ultimately went with Giannis over him because they were the same age (using AK47’s 2004 season), and I wanted somebody who was more dominant on the break. I still kind of regret not bumping someone else for AK47…

For now, that’s a good enough list of players and why they didn’t make the team. If you’re just dying to know why I cut 2007 Josh Smith or 2005 Elton Brand, please tweet at me, comment on this post, or hit me up on Facebook.

 

That’s it! You have stuck with this series through thick and thin. I’m sure you’ve disagreed with some things along the way, but I feel very comfortable with the team that we have constructed. After 10,000 some words, this still feels incomplete, so if I think of anything else, I’ll revisit the series at some point in the future.

 

As always, all stats from Basketball ReferenceStats.NBA, and NBAWOWY

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:

20615149_10213526234567334_1136868595_o

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.

cut

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

https://i2.wp.com/www.interbasket.net/news/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/kobe-bryant-guard-yao-ming.jpg

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.

Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 5

Article Length: about 1,600 words.

 

As always, catch yourself up on part 1part 2, part 3, and part 4

Klay Thompson 2015-16

https://nbcprobasketballtalk.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznptq2yji1njrimtrjzwuxm2jmnjmyyzi4mgqzngm1zjkx.jpeg?w=600&h=913

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-NBA 3rd Team, All-Star, 6th in Total Field Goals, 2nd in Total Three-Pointers, 10th in Total Points,  and 9th in EFG%,

Playoffs – T-2nd in Total Field Goals, 1st in Total Three-Pointers, T-4th in Total Free Throws, 1st in Total Points, 4th in OWS, and 5th in WS

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Nobody in the history of the NBA can get hot like Klay Thompson (maybe his running mate, Steph). Between his 37-point quarter and his 60-point outburst with only 11 dribbles (kinda), Klay has followed behind J.R. Smith’s footsteps with being the top guy you don’t want to see making a couple of shots in a row though Smith still reigns supreme as the most sporadic shooter while Klay’s best is much better than Smith’s.

3rd-quarter highlights start at the 2:05 mark.

What I really admire about Klay’s scoring ability is that he doesn’t seem to fear the moment. I’m thinking specifically back to when the hipster OKC team blew a 3-1 lead against the Warriors before it was cool. During Game-6 when the Warriors were down 3-2, Klay came out and dropped 41 points while hitting 11 of his 14 field goals from three (he shot 11/18 from three). What caught my attention about his scoring that game was that he seemed to his a big three any time the Thunder tried to make a run. He stared elimination straight in the face and fired away. I love that mentality.

Klay’s shining beacon in this game starts at the 3:47 mark. With five minutes left in the game and down 96-89, He receives a hand-off from Draymond about six-feet behind the three-point line. His feet aren’t set (usually his right foot is slightly forward), Russ is right in his grill, and there’s sixteen seconds on the shot clock, but he takes the shot anyway. Of course, he buries it.

Beyond his scoring though, Klay Thompson is lauded as one of the best two-way players with his formidable ability to switch 1-4 on defense (he did an excellent job of muscling up Kevin Love in the 2017 Finals). Interestingly though, his advanced defensive metrics show him as a net-negative defender. While often a volatile tool, advanced defensive numbers still provide a solid accessory to the eye-test; however, Bleacher Report describes why Klay’s numbers aren’t impressive:

Thompson rarely records defensive rebounds, which does factor into the equation since ending possessions is necessary before vacating the less glamorous end. He often switches onto the other team’s best backcourt member, which depresses some of his individual numbers by virtue of him drawing monumentally more difficult assignments.

– Adam Fromal, “Metrics 101: The Top 5 NBA Defenders at Every Position,” 2017

Klay is an excellent defender without racking up defensive statistics – blocks, defensive rebounds, and steals – which explains why Russell Westbrook’s advanced defensive numbers look good: he gets steals and lots of defensive rebounds.

Among all these numbers though is one concerning metric to which I often look: On/Off numbers which I pretty much cite in every article. While I always try to make clear that these are not end-all-be-all stats, they provide good context for who is helping the most on  a team. With that in mind, the two Venn Diagrams below show every possible combination of Curry, Draymond, and Klay in Golden State’s 2015-16 lineups. The numbers show how lineups with that player (or combination of players) performed compared to their competition (On/Off data from nbawowy.com).

2015-16 Regular Season

basketball reference

2015-16 Playoffs

chart

First of all, this provides too many rabbit holes to pursue at this time (I’ll share the results of 2016-17 lineups including Durant at a later time), but one huge takeaway is that Draymond is extremely underrated and that those who argued for him as MVP weren’t totally crazy. The main statistics that scare me though are Klay’s negative and middling impact on the court. How is a player with that scoring efficiency, spot-up ability, and defensive switchability a net negative on the greatest regular season team in history? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question.

In a move that I might regret in this hypothetical tournament, I’m going to turn away from these numbers and pick Klay purely off his transcendent shooting ability, elite “Chameleon” work on defense, and the fact that he has a championship under his belt. Also, we cannot overlook the fact that all his teammates seem to love him and his laid back attitude. The Warriors ultimately lost the championship this year, but Klay still played with the confidence and swagger that only a winner can have. With that all in mind, let’s look at his skillset:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Klay 4 8 7 4

Shawn Marion 2006-07

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-Star, 4th in Defensive Player of the Year Voting, 1st in Total Steals, 6th in Defensive Rebounds, 9th in Total Rebounds, 4th in Two-Point Percentage, 10th in Offensive Rating, 6th in Defensive Rating, 6th in WS, 8th in BPM, 9th in DBPM, and 4th in VORP.

Playoffs – 5th in Total Blocks

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

As I mentioned in my last article, Shawn Marion is the perfect example of a player who played ten years too early. Sure, he was spectacular next to Steve Nash, but he was often shoe-horned into the small forward position because of his size. Today, Marion would be the perfect 4, small-ball 5, and, if need be, 3. It’s tough to really describe how good Marion would be now because he has no contemporary. Some might say Draymond because of their similar size and incredible abilities to guard 1-4 (and sometimes 5) effectively, but Marion was much more athletic and a better rebounder than Draymond while Draymond was a much better facilitator and better defender.

The most intriguing thing about Marion is how he thrived off chaos both on offense and defense. On offense, he didn’t provide traditional post or wing scoring at all. Sure, in the half-court he could spot-up well enough and cut at an elite level, and on defense he could respectably guard the other team’s best player (regardless of position), but he wasn’t the best at either of those. If you watch the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, you’ll see that Marion ran fastbreak lanes as well as anyone, crashed the offensive glass like somebody four inches taller, and scored of awkward floaters and flip shots. You’ll also see that he (successfully) gambles in passing lanes, sneaks around for weak side swats, and jumps around to put a hand in everyone’s face. He had some of the fastest reflexes I’ve ever seen in the NBA, and the speed with which he completed a second jump is rivaled by only “Super Smash Bros.” characters. Simply put, Marion had an endless motor. Between 2000-2007 (seven total seasons), Marion averaged 80.25 games a year and 39.1 minutes per game. The last player to average more minutes than that in a single season was Luol Deng…..back in 2011-12.

Despite middling reviews by Bill Simmons back when he did his annual trade column, my appreciation from Marion also stems from his ability to thrive as the third banana on a team. When he played alongside Nash and Stoudemire, two players who were better than him on offense, Marion still quietly found his role on the team.

This leads into my three-pronged response as to why I chose his 2006-07 year over 2005-06 year when he stepped-up after Stoudemire’s season-ending knee surgery and helped the Suns battle their way to the Western Conference Finals. First, his numbers aren’t that much better as the second banana to Nash. His role as the third (or less) option was optimal for him. Second, since they made the Western Conference Finals in 2006, Marion now has the late-in-the-playoffs jitters out of his system. He’s shed most of his wide-eyed apprehension from standing at the precipice of the Finals. Third, his defensive numbers during the 2007 Playoffs were absolutely insane. Below are two simplified On/Off charts so that you can truly appreciate how game-changing his defense was (side note: NBAWOWY data doesn’t go back this far, so I couldn’t separate the players any further).

Phoenix Suns 2007 Playoffs On/Off Numbers

Player % Total Minutes Played Off. Rating: On Court Off. Rating: Off Court
Shawn Marion 86 111.2 111.9
Raja Bell 83 111.2 111.8
Steve Nash 78 112.5 107.1
Leandro Barbaosa 66 108.3 117.1
Amar’e Stoudemire 65 113.1 107.7
Boris Diaw 44 109.6 112.7
Kurt Thomas 40 109.5 112.4
James Jones 32 112.9 110.5

 

Player Def. Rating: On Court Def. Rating: Off Court Net Rating
Shawn Marion 102.2 127 24.1
Raja Bell 104.9 108.9 3.4
Steve Nash 105.8 105.2 4.8
Leandro Barbaosa 106.3 104.3 -10.8
Amar’e Stoudemire 105.6 105.6 5.4
Boris Diaw 109.6 102.3 -10.4
Kurt Thomas 99.3 109.7 7.5
James Jones 111.9 102.6 -6.9

Despite being a (slight) net negative on offense, Marion managed to lead the top-eight rotation payers in Net Rating by a ridiculous margin thanks to his defense. When Marion wasn’t on the court, opposing offenses scored an otherworldly 127 points/100 possessions on the Suns. The team clearly just fell apart on the defensive end any time Marion took a break.

Although Marion somehow never made an All-Defense team during his NBA career, he was voted in the top-ten for Defensive Player of the Year three separate times (5th in 2004-05, 7th in 05-06, and 4th in 06-07). Marion is the forgotten defensive monster of the 21st century.

His theoretical skillset is as follows:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Marion 3 6 9 8

We only have three players left at this point, so the main core of the team is complete. The team has some hard-nosed, endless motor, tough-as-nails dudes, so it’ll be interesting to see how it all fits together.

Since the main core is finished, I gave the last three spots to a couple players on whom I’m giving a chance. They show incredible potential in some ways, but they also present some big drawbacks. Stay tuned to find out who they are!

 

All stats from basketball referencestats.nba, and nbawowy.

 

Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 4

Article length: about 1,700 words.

 

Read up on part 1part 2, and part 3. Let’s keep the ball rolling.

 Paul George 2015-16

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-NBA 3rd Team, All-Defense 2nd Team, All-Star, 6th in Total Three-Pointers, 6th in Total Free Throws, 6th in Total Steals, 7th in Total Points, 7th in DWS, and 10th in DBPM,

Playoffs – 2nd in Points Per Game, 3rd in Free Throw Percentage, 3rd in PER, 1st in WS/48, 4th in BPM, T-1st OBPM,

Regular Season/ Playoffs Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Okay, I’ll be open with my biases: I’m a huge LeBron fan. Because of that, I’ve watched an absurd amount of Cavs/Heat/Cavs games throughout the years while rooting against whomever LeBron’s team has played (except for the Bucks). Paul George (and the Pacers) was one of the teams I most feared. His emersion in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals revealed a young superstar who was absolutely not afraid of the moment. In his first game against the reigning champion Heat, Paul George dropped 27 (25 in the second half and overtime) including the ridiculous game-tying three in regulation, and the almost game winning free throws in overtime (we’ll chalk up his defensive overplay on James to George’s youth).

 

A year later, George meets the Heatles again in the ECF, and he once again brought his A-game. The Pacers only pushed the Heat to six games this year, but with their season on the line in Game 5, George electrified the home crowd with a 37 point (21 in the 4th quarter) and 6 steal performance. Dude was stripping players at half court, picking off passes on the perimeter, and flat out nailing jumpers over the likes of LeBron and Wade.

Here we have a superstar in the making losing two years in a row to the best player in the league while (kinda) matching his output. I’ve written about why I like players suffering defeat before tasting victory, so of course, this was George’s time. Wrong. After the 2014 ECF, George broke his leg trying out for Team USA, Lance bolted for Charlotte, David West started his ring chasing tour, and Hibbert left for the Lakers. When George started the 2015-16 season, his once great, grit-and-grind Pacers had been reduced to George Hill, Monta Ellis, and the rook Myles Turner AKA not a team that’s going to the ECF anytime soon.

And this is why I chose the 2015-16 version of George. He not only suffered defeat at the hands of LeBron, but he also spent the year before wondering if his career was over and if he’d ever be a part of a championship contender again. He learned that he still had the physical tools and skills to dominate, but now he had two ECF trips under his belt. He may have lost an inch or two off his vertical, and he might have been a quarter-step slower, but his numbers and shooting percentages didn’t reflect that. His advanced defensive numbers showed a slip, but we have to remember that he was no longer playing with Hibbert mountain behind him (who was a ridiculously underrated rim protector in his own right).

George convinced me of all this after his seven-game series against the Raptors. His 7th-seeded, 45-win Pacers went toe-to-toe with the 2nd-seeded, 56-win Raptors, and George, like everyone else watching, knew the pressure was on the Raptors after their catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Wizards and Paul “I Called Game” Pierce. George smelled blood, and he delivered by helping to shut down DeRozan and exploding offensively. He was simply the best player in the entire first round. Here are his numbers compared to Lowry’s and DeRozan’s:

PPG FG% 3P% FT%
DeRozan 17.9 31.9 16.7 87.2
Lowry 13.9 31.6 16.3 71.8
George 27.3 45.4 41.9 95.3

Okay, I’m about to throw some numbers at you, so stay patient for a moment. The following is a chart of all three players’ On/Off numbers followed by another chart that shows each of their Net Ratings

On the Court: ORTG On the Court: DRTG Off the Court: ORTG Off the Court: DRTG
DeRozan 107.1 104.1 106.7 99.2
Lowry 108.6 102.6 102.9 102.9
George 109.8 96.6 81.1 109.5

“On the Court: ORTG” means the number of points per 100 possessions a team scores while a player is on the court (the higher the better).

“On the Court: DRTG” is the number of points per 100 possessions a team’s opponent scores (the lower the better).

“Off the Court: ORTG” is the number of points per 100 possessions a team scores while a player is off the court (great players should cause their teams to score more while on the court).

“Off the court: DRTG” is the number of points per 100 possessions a team’s opponent scores while a player is off the court (great players should cause their team’s opponents to score less while on the court).

On the Court: Net Rating Off the Court: Net Rating Total Net Rating
DeRozan 3 7.5 -4.5
Lowry 6 0 6
George 13.2 -28.4 41.6

“On the Court: Net Rating” is how many more points per 100 possessions a team scores than its an opponent when a specific player is on the court (the higher the better).

“Off the Court: Net Rating” is how many more points per 100 possessions a team scores than its opponent when a specific player is off the court (a low number, such as a negative number, shows a team plays poorly when that player is off the court).

“Total Net Rating” is how many points per 100 possessions a team scores when a specific player is on the court rather than off the court (the higher the better).

I apologize about that dictionary tangent, but it’s all important to understand before you can really appreciate how valuable and dominant George was during that series. That’s the mark of a player that knows how to ramp up the intensity when his team needs it, and with his prior playoff experience, defensive prowess, and ability to spot-up, George is the exact sort of player the team needs.

Here’s how his theoretical skillset breaks down:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
George 5 6 8 6

Let’s move on to our next team member.

Peja Stojakovic 2003-04

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-NBA 2nd Team, 4th in MVP Voting, All-Star, 1st in Total Three-Pointers, 2nd in Total Points, 6th in Three-Point Percentage, 8th in Total Free Throws, 1st in Free Throw Percentage, 2nd in TS%, 2nd in EFG%, 5th in Offensive Rating, 1st in OWS, 2nd in WS, 8th in WS/48, 4th in OBPM, and 9th in VORP.

Playoffs – [Crickets]

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

basketball reference.PNG

basketball reference

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

basketball reference

basketball reference

Since basketball is a constantly evolving game, it’s common to see players who would be more successful in today’s game as opposed to their own time (Andrei Kirilenko, Shawn Marion), and star players who wouldn’t fair as well in today’s game (Elton Brand, Jerry Stackhouse). Stojakovic falls squarely in the first category. While playing next to Divac and Webber, Peja primarily played the small forward position with lateral quickness that didn’t allow him to defend other small forwards that well. In today’s league, he would’ve slotted perfectly into the power forward position while being able to play the small forward position if needed.

Most people remember Ray Allen for revolutionizing the three-pointer during Reggie Miller’s decline, but it would be a disservice to Peja to not keep him in the same conversation as Allen. The below scatter plot shows the top-20 players by total three-pointers made during the 2003-04 season. The X-Axis shows the total threes made while the Y-Axis shows that player’s three-point percentage.

chart

You see that dot in the upper right-hand corner? The one that blew away the competition in both total threes and three-point percentage? Yeah, that’s Peja. Comparing his numbers to 2016-17’s top three-point shooters, his 240 threes would’ve ranked 6th (tied with Kemba Walker) and his 43.3% would’ve ranked 1st (out of the top-20). Essentially, his combination of size and shooting was way beyond his time.

On top of his transcendent three-point shooting ability, he was quite adept at drawing fouls where he was 8th in the league in total free throws while leading the league in free throw percentage. Remember that he accomplished all this while scoring the second most points in a league that had prime Duncan, Pierce, Allen, Kobe, Iverson, and Garnett! One big reason for this is that he thrived in Rick Adelman’s motion offense that really laid the groundwork for the likes of the modern-day Warriors. None of Divac, Webber, Stojakovic, Christie, or Bibby needed to pound the ball, so their combined basketball IQs lifted each other to greater heights.

But let’s address the elephant in the room: Peja’s playoff performance that season was terrible. Rick Fox alluded to Peja’s playoff struggles here, and he seems to be implying that Peja doesn’t “have it” when it comes to playoff performances. I think there’s more to it. First of all, with Webber going down early in the season with an injury, Peja carried much of the offensive load by averaging over 40 minutes a game during the season and playing at least 45 minutes in half of the Kings’ playoff games. Secondly, Chris Webber’s return drove a wedge into the Kings’ chemistry. He would say things like “This is still my team” and freeze out Peja in some offensive sets. In the Hardwood Paroxysm article I linked above, it states the following:

If there wasn’t a rift between Webber and Stojakovic, they surely fooled everyone watching the games. Webber actively ignored Peja during key junctures, looking away from a cutting Stojakovic to turn and call for an isolation jumper.

– Hardwood Paroxysm, “The Lost Season, Peja Stojakovic, 03-04,” 2012

Look no further than the Kings dropping from the 1st seed to the 5th seed and going 11-12 after Webber’s return. Under a less corrosive environment, I have no doubt that Peja would thrive throughout both the regular season and playoffs.

With all this in mind, Peja’s theoretical skillset is as follows:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Peja 6 8 4 6

Some may disagree with how high his playmaking ability is, but if a significant offensive player can thrive in a system based on ball movement, then I consider them a playmaker in the sense that they are an effective “Cog” (see my theoretical series to understand what this means). Also, Peja is the owner of one of the greatest assists in NBA history.

All right, we have seven players selected, so if you’ve stuck with me this long, hold on for another five players. Then we can move on to the next exciting section: analyzing this team.

All stats from basketball referencestats.nba, and nbawowy.

 

Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 3

Article length: about 2,200 words.

Please check out part 1and part 2 to catch yourself up. So far, the team has Mike Conley, Ray Allen, and Draymond Green.

I’m a big fan of what Boston has been doing this offseason with stockpiling forwards. Currently, after the recent Avery Bradley trade, they have Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Morris, and Crowder all of whom deserve ample playing time. Bleacher Report alludes to this in a recent interview with Stevens:

The new era of the NBA requires versatility to win, and the Boston Celtics are adjusting.

“I don’t have the five positions anymore,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, per Kareem Copeland of the Associated Press. “It may be as simple as three positions now, where you’re either a ball-handler, a wing or a big.

“It’s really important. We’ve become more versatile as the years have gone on.”

– Rob Goldberg, “Brad Stevens Says Celtics Have 3, Not 5, Positions Now,” 2017

Even though he’s not 100% correct on that, I like this mentality, and this is the sort of versatility we’ll need on our team. So, let’s continue by adding the most versatile defensive center in all of NBA history.

Ben Wallace 2003-04

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All Defense 1st-Team, All-Star, 7th in MVP Voting, 2nd in Offensive Rebounds, 2nd in Defensive Rebounds, 2nd in Total Rebounds, 6th in Total Steals, 2nd in Total Blocks, 1st in Defensive Rating, 1st in Defensive Win Shares, 1st in DBPM, and 4th in VORP.

Playoffs – T-2nd Total Minutes, 1st in Offensive Rebounds, 1st in Defensive Rebounds, 1st in Total Rebounds, 1st in Steals, 1st in Blocks, 1st in Defensive Rating, 1st in Defensive Win Shares, 3rd in Win Shares, 1st in DBPM, 1st in VORP, and 2nd in BPM.

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

Ben Wallace regular season

Ben Wallace regular season

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

Ben Wallace regular season

Ben Wallace regular season

I admittedly have a soft spot for Ben Wallace. When I first really started getting into basketball, Big Ben was by far my favorite player. That interest dissipated for a while, but in the advent of advanced stats and old game footage, he’s climbed his way back into one of my all-time favorites.

Depending on who you ask, Wallace is the best or at least a top-5 defensive player in the history of the NBA. His teams have always showcased astounding defensive abilities even when he was past his prime, and the mid-2000s Pistons were some of the stingiest defensive teams of all time. Just like Bill Russell before him, some discount just how effective he was on defensive because of his size (he’s listed at just 6’9″), but I believe that his height was actually helpful on two fronts: first, since he was strong like an ox, his low center of gravity made him near impossible to  back down, and second, he was able to step out and switch on defense.

In our current league, Wallace wouldn’t deal with as many post-ups as the mid-2000s, but some players like Whiteside still shoot around 5 times per game from the post. What greatly intrigues me about Ben was his switching ability combined with his rim protecting ability (much like Draymond Green like I discussed in this article). I highly suggest that you spend some time watching some game footage from the Pistons and Magic playoff series in 2003 where Tracy McGrady, possibly the most dominant offensive threat at the time, bashed his head against Pistons’ wall. You’ll see that on many pick-and-rolls, Wallace simply switches onto McGrady without the guard fighting over the screen. This is part of their defensive scheme! If Wallace can “guard” (“guard” meaning as well as anyone can guard a transcendent scorer) on some defensive possessions, then we can trust him to handle most any taller shooting guards and forwards (I’m thinking guys like Hayward, Butler, LeBron, George and not necessarily smaller players like Curry or Thomas).

Besides some advanced stats like VORP, DBMP, and Basketball Reference’s Defensive Rating, we don’t have much to quantify Wallace’s impact on the defensive end. One of my favorites (but still very flawed) is the On/Off Ratings, but these only go back to 2009 (and NBAWOWY’s data expands even less), so the last Wallace season that we can look at is his post-prime Cavaliers stint. In his more limited role, he still posted the best On/Off Defensive Rating on the team holding opposing offenses to a stifling 94.9 points/100 possessions while he was on the court and 101.6 points/100 possessions while he was off. Imagine how useful prime Wallace would have been….But let’s use numbers and not just imagine! When I tweeted at NBA Math for Ben Wallace’s numbers compared to everyone else in history on defense, they sent the following image with Rudy Gobert and Mark Eaton highlighted:

Using data from 1973 onward, this graph plots TPA which plots Offensive Points Added and Defensive Points Saved. Eaton is red, Wallace is yellow, and Gobert is blue. While Wallace is clearly a negative on the offensive end, this shows that his defensive abilities are nearly unmatched (just in case it’s difficult for you to read the axes, dots on the far right indicate a huge offensive impact while dots higher up indicate a huge defensive impact). Let’s look at his theoretical skillset:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Ben Wallace 2 1 10 9

While Ben’s rebounding faltered a bit from being a 10 in previous years, I opted for his 2003-04 season because of the ferocity and confidence with which he played throughout the playoffs. He went toe-to-toe with apex Shaq and never blinked. His defense throughout that year is also possibly the best in the modern NBA by most every metric. I want his tenacious D (and the pick-and-roll defense of destiny) and unmatched work ethic. I hate using teammate praise because you generally have to take it with an ocean of salt, but Jerry Stackhouse hyped up Wallace with some of the highest praise possible:

“I’ve played with a lot of great players: Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Grant Hill,” says the Wizards guard. “Ben Wallace’s name belongs in that list too, but for some reason people don’t think of him as the kind of player whose name belongs on the marquee. I don’t understand why. He belongs way up at the top.”

– ESPN.com, “From the Archives: A Ben Wallace Feature Article,” 2006

Edit: As if he were reading my blog, Jerry Stackhouse said on Zach Lowe’s Podcast that he literally released today that if he were to rank the best players with whom he ever played, it would be in this order (skip to about the 51-minute mark):

  1. Dirk Nowitzki
  2. Grant Hill
  3. Allen Iverson
  4. Ben Wallace
  5. [Wizards] Michael Jordan

That is some crazy high praise!

Plus, Ben Wallace (with the exception of Karl Malone) has the greatest bodybuilder physique in NBA history.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

I can’t believe I’ve taken so long to make my next pick, but if I’m building a team that exemplifies championship pedigree, I can’t go further without bringing this guy into the fold.

Manu Ginobili 2007-08

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – Sixth Man of the Year, All-NBA 3rd Team, 6th in WS/48 minutes, 3rd in BPM, 4th in OBPM, and 4th in VORP

Playoffs – 3rd in Total Three Pointers Made

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

Ben Wallace regular season

Ben Wallace regular season

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

Ben Wallace regular season

Ben Wallace regular season

Manu might be the most underrated player in NBA history, and if you do a Google dive into the great things people have said about him, you could easily fill a week’s worth of reading. I’ll try and condense my favorites, but the clear takeaway is that Manu is a crafty playmaker who competes with a vicious drive. It’s tough to glean any of this from Manu’s numbers, but his lack of numbers actually shows something even more important to me: a willingness to sacrifice personal stardom for the greater good. Pop convinced him that coming off the bench would help the team succeed, and after a long career, Manu walks away as one of the winningest basketball players in history.

Manu brings a resume to this team that screams “leader” and “winner” (remember, this is prior to 2008): Three championships (2003, 2005, 2007), two Italian MVP awards (2001, 2002), a Euroleague Finals MVP (2001), an Italian Cup MVP (2002), a FIBA Americas Championship MVP (2001), and, one of the most impressive basketball accomplishments ever, an Olympic Gold where he led Argentina to its first and only gold medal in basketball that includes a victory over the USA team that had Duncan, LeBron, Melo, AI, Wade, and Amar’e (2004).

During a pickup game with free agents back in September of 2007, Manu dived out of bounds through three players to retrieve a ball, and the player to whom he saved it scored. Zach Lowe writes that the following happened

[Popovich] gathered everyone and asked them: “What does that play mean to you?” Popovich told them Ginobili wanted to win more than anyone on the floor, and that if the Spurs wished to repeat after their 2007 title, they would all need to play that hard. Popovich walked away, and everyone thought the speech was over. Suddenly, he turned: “And Manu: It’s f—ing September. Never do that again in September.”

“I was honestly scared and afraid for how he would hold up over time,” Popovich said. “I get chills thinking about it now.”

Duncan laughed at the memory. “Things like that happened with Manu,” he said. “It was like, ‘Manu, dude, calm down. We are just trying to make it out of practice in one piece.'”

– Zach Lowe, “Welcome to Manu’s Basketball Familia,” 2016

A competitive drive means very little if you don’t have the skills to back it up. Ginobili had the skill plus some. Besides his absurd passing ability and popularizing of the ubiquitous Euro-Step, Manu’s offensive game included absolutely no holes. He simply had no weaknesses. In an excellent article by Michael Lewis, Lewis speaks with defensive aficionado Shane Battier about how to defend certain players. Battier begins by discussing Kobe and ends with Manu. The bolded section is my emphasis:

People often say that Kobe Bryant has no weaknesses to his game, but that’s not really true… For instance, the numbers show [Battier] that Allen Iverson is one of the most efficient scorers in the N.B.A. when he goes to his right; when he goes to his left he kills his team. The Golden State Warriors forward Stephen Jackson is an even stranger case. “Steve Jackson,” Battier says, “is statistically better going to his right, but he loves to go to his left — and goes to his left almost twice as often.” The San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginóbili is a statistical freak: he has no imbalance whatsoever in his game — there is no one way to play him that is better than another. He is equally efficient both off the dribble and off the pass, going left and right and from any spot on the floor. 

– Michael Lewis, “The No-Stats All-Star,” 2009

The greatest description that I’ve ever read of how to be an effective basketball player (or, really anything) comes from an obscure two-part blog post by “DewNO” where he combines the philosophy of Jorge Borges and the skillset of Manu Ginobili. In this, he states:

“What if being a great player isn’t about having the best or the most spots, or having a tall, high release? What if being a great player means that being chased off your spot…is itself one of your spots?”

– DewNO, “Manu and Borges: The Infinite Chase, Part 1”, 2012

followed by:

You can force Manu to take bad shots. It’s even possible – depending on the phases of the moon – to convince him to launch a three from contortions that make even Manu subject to chance. And he does miss sometimes. But you can’t chase him off his spot, because he has only one. His spot is basketball itself, and chasing him off his spot? Well, you can try your hardest, but the chase is also going to be basketball (a little trickier, certainly) so he’s going to handle it pretty well. Don’t blame yourself.

– DewNo, “Manu and Borges: The Infinite Chase, Part 2,” 2012

It’s a sexy way of saying “expect the unexpected,” but Manu embodied this playstyle. His snaking moves and crafty demeanor, as Battier discusses above, makes him impossible to slow down because if you guard him as well as you can, that new, uncomfortable position will become Manu’s best spot. You can’t guard a player that can so creatively play offense on the fly.

Personally, #8 is my favorite, but man you can’t go wrong with any of these. #1 is simply ridiculous.

I didn’t spend much time discussing Manu’s defense because there’s not much information about it. Most defensive statistics point to him being above average, but this could be skewed by his excellent ability to steal the ball. Ginobili always had a nack for knowing the offense’s next move, so, like a “Roamer” that I discuss in this article, Ginobili’s value on defense lies in his disruption. Could he stay in front of his man? Absolutely. Was he a lockdown 1-to-1 defender like Avery Bradley? No, but his abilities proved to be more valuable than simple footwork. Look no further than his game-winning block against James Harden in the 2017 playoffs (let me remind you that Manu is 39 in this clip and Harden was voted 2nd in MVP):

Or how about that time he blocked Kevin Durant’s dunk on the break:

Manu’s skillset then breaks down as follows:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Manu Ginobili 7 7 7 5

So far, our team has the following players: Mike Conley, Ray Allen, Draymond Green, Ben Wallace, and Manu Ginobili. Is that our starting five? Who knows, but I’ll spend a full article discussing possible lineups, strengths, weaknesses, and fuller reasons for why I picked certain players (some players’ worths are contingent upon other players being with them). Stay tuned!

Stats from basketball referencestats.nba, and NBAWOWY.

Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 2

Article Length: about 1,700 words.

 

To summarize part 1, I picked Ray Allen. On with the next selections.

Mike Conley 2016-2017

Notable Accolades: Playoffs: 7th BPM; 8th OBPM

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

Season Age Tm Lg Pos G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 69 68 33.2 6.7 14.6 0.46 2.5 6.1 0.408 4.2 8.6 0.497 0.545 4.6 5.3 0.859 0.4 3.1 3.5 6.3 1.3 0.3 2.3 1.8 20.5
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 6 6 37.3 8.3 17.2 0.485 2.8 6.3 0.447 5.5 10.8 0.508 0.568 5.2 6.2 0.838 0.2 3.2 3.3 7 1.7 0.5 2 1.8 24.7

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

Season Age Tm Lg Pos G MP PER TS% 3PAr FTr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS WS/48 OBPM DBPM BPM VORP
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 69 2292 23.2 0.604 0.415 0.365 1.5 10.8 6 34.5 2.1 0.8 11.8 26.3 7.5 2.5 10 0.209 6.5 -0.7 5.8 4.5
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 6 224 27.4 0.62 0.369 0.359 0.6 11 5.8 38.5 2.5 1.2 9.1 29.4 0.9 0.1 1 0.204 6.6 1.9 8.5 0.6

Okay okay, let’s calm down. To me, this was a no-brainer pick even though Conley has never been an all-star, never been on an All-NBA, and the only accolade he’s ever won was All-Defense 2nd Team (and garnering a 5th place MVP vote in 2013-14). I know that calling Conley underrated has become a platitude, but dammit, it’s true! You can count on one hand the number of players who are tougher than Conley, and the best display of this is when he broke his face during the 2015 playoffs, had the multiple breaks surgically repaired, and missed ONLY ONE GAME! Please read the article that I just linked for a gory account. Just in case you don’t, here are a couple of snippets:

“That night, I was throwing up,” Conley said. “And every time I threw up—because when you do it, you can’t really control this—I’d have to open my mouth. It would just kill me because I couldn’t really open my mouth. Then, all of a sudden, blood would come out of my nose and I was like: I think I’m dying. It was crazy.”

 

“After I got the CAT scan, they told me I did have a blowout fracture,” Conley said. “I had three fractures at that point: one under my eye, one on the side of my eyebrow, and then there was one that was a displaced fracture almost where my jaw is.” Doctors also told Conley that he had very nearly broken his jaw and likely had a broken nose.

-Rob Mahoney, 2015

Also, that game for which he returned was game 2 against the eventual champion Warriors. Conley led the Grizzlies to a victory after shooting 8/12 from the field….

So what? Plenty of players are tough, and if that’s my only criteria, then why not sign Metta World Peace (Ron Artest at the time) who had the courage to consider fighting all of Detroit? Jonathan Abrams of (RIP) Grantland outlines how Conley developed into the intellectual, gritty leader that he is today. Furthermore, the dude has never received a technical foul. I like that intangible combination of quiet but tough leadership. He and Ray will ground the calm personality of our team.

Conley is also a rare point guard who is dominant on both ends of the floor. He specifically specialized in defense earlier in his career, and he showed that in the 2012-13 season when The Grizzlies played their worst defense when he was off the floor (even worse than when Gasol would sit).

After years of toiling in the Western playoffs, Coach Fizdale stepped in and provided Conley with new offensive confidence, helping Conley reach new heights as an offensive player. According to NBAWOWY, The Grizzlies played significantly better when Conley was on the court versus when he shared the court with Gasol or when Gasol was on the court without Conley:

Grizzlies: 2016-17 Regular Season

Points/100 Poss Points Allowed/100 Poss Net Rating
Conley (no Gasol) 113.7 105.6 8.1
Gasol (no Conley) 106.5 105.7 0.8
Conley + Gasol 112.1 109.7 2.4
No Conley or Gasol 100.1 110 -9.9

For comparison, an 8.1 Net Rating would’ve ranked second-best in the league behind the Warriors’ staggering 12.1 and above the Spurs’ 7.9.

To me, Conley’s appeal lies in his ability to both run an offense and play off-the-ball. Players like John Wall and Rajon Rondo are excellent “Dime Droppers,” but without the ball, their best skill is rendered useless. Conley can step away to provide some necessary spacing and allow for the offense to move more fluidly. Just like how I talked about Curry’s ability as a “Cog,” remember that Conley was second in the league in secondary assists (behind Curry).

Stepping away from these advanced metrics for a moment, the game that solidified Conley’s place on this team occurred this year against the 61-win Spurs and their ridiculous two-way superstar Kawhi (against whom the Grizzlies won two games). Conley’s game 4 performance was spectacular as he went toe-to-toe with Leonard before leading the Grizzlies to a two-point victory:

Starters MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS +/-
Kawhi Leonard 44:10:00 14 30 0.467 7 10 0.7 8 8 1 1 7 8 3 6 0 4 4 43 +18
Mike Conley 41:52:00 13 23 0.565 4 8 0.5 5 7 0.714 0 9 9 8 1 0 3 3 35 +9

On a theoretical level, Conley’s skillset breakdown looks as follows:

Mike Conley 2017 – Playmaking (Elite– 8); Scoring (Elite– 7); Defense (Elite– 7); Rebounding (Average– 4)

We now have one Elite “Floor Spacer” and one Transcendent “Floor Spacer” along with two offensive talents who are able to put aside their egos for the betterment of the offense. What we’re lacking at this point is “Transcendent” defensive players, so let’s move in that direction for the next couple of players.

 

Draymond Green 2015-16

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-Defense 1st Team, 7th in MVP voting, All-Star, 8th in total rebounds, 7th in total assists, 6th in DWS, 10th in WS, 9th in BPM, 4th in DBPM, and 9th in VORP.

Playoffs – 1st in total minutes, 1st in total rebounds, 1st in defensive rebounds, 3rd in assists, 3rd in steals, 1st in blocks, 5th in OWS, 1st in DWS, 3rd in WS, 7th in BPM, 5th in DBPM, and 3rd in VORP.

Regular season/ Playoff Stats

Season Age Tm Lg Pos G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 25 GSW NBA PF 81 81 34.7 5 10.1 0.49 1.2 3.2 0.388 3.7 6.9 0.537 0.551 2.8 4.1 0.696 1.7 7.8 9.5 7.4 1.5 1.4 3.2 3 14
2015-16 25 GSW NBA PF 23 23 38.2 5.2 12 0.431 1.7 4.5 0.365 3.5 7.5 0.471 0.5 3.4 4.7 0.738 1.7 8.3 9.9 6 1.6 1.8 2.4 3.5 15.4

Look, I know that usually my posts are filled with some statistical jargon that alienates some of the NBA fanbase. I know that sometimes my actual writing is lost within a series of hyperlinks, graphs, and acronyms that take the soul out of writing. Sometimes though, it’s completely necessary to whip out some numbers that are just mind-boggling.

For example, during the 2015-16 season, the same season that Curry went absolutely nuclear with possibly the greatest offensive season we’ve ever seen, the Warriors captured the most wins in regular season history before losing to the Cavaliers in a 7-game Finals series. By playing around with NBAWOWY’s On/Off numbers, we can see which lineups were must effective during a specific timeframe. The following are the Warriors Offensive Rating (Points/100 Possessions) and Defensive Rating (Points Allowed/100 Possessions) depending on Curry’s and Green’s on-court presence.

Warriors: 2015-16 Regular Season

Points/100 Poss Points Allowed/100 Poss   Net Rating
Green (no Curry) 110.4 102.1 8.3
Curry (no Green) 112.9 110.6 2.3
Green + Curry 120.2 100.7 19.5
No Green or Curry 102.1 112.8 -10.7

Is this officially the perfect statistic for comparing teammates? No statistic is perfect, but boy does it tell an interesting story. Not only did the Warriors’ offense thrive with Green leading without Curry, their defense was absolutely stifling. Even more interesting though is how well these two meshed to garner the Warriors a 19.5 net rating. Even even more more interesting is their numbers during the Finals:

Warriors: 2015-16 Finals

Points/100 Poss
 Points Allowed/100 Poss  Net Rating
Green (no Curry) 117 94.7 22.3
Curry (no Green) 108 111.5 -3.5
Green + Curry 110.1 111.2 -1.1
No Green or Curry 97.4 119.7 -22.3

Before we leap to any conclusions, this is over the course of seven games which yields a significantly smaller sample size rendering the numbers more volatile; however, it tells me that even after winning a championship, Green brought his absolute A-game to defend their honor (not that Curry didn’t. The Cavs just matched up very well with him last year).

I chose to start with those numbers because, well, to be honest, Draymond’s game isn’t particularly sexy. He doesn’t score in bunches or in flashy ways. He doesn’t catch fire from three, and he doesn’t (often) chase players down on the break. He doesn’t whip no-look passes, and he doesn’t posterize players. Draymond is simply one of (if not the) greatest offensive/defensive engine in history.

Image result for draymond steal gif

By engine, I mean a couple of things. First, his defensive versatility allows him to literally guard all five positions (check out my earlier post where I claim that five Draymonds would be the best defensive lineup possible) and defend the rim at an elite level. With the NBA’s defenses becoming all the more complicated with threes and picks flying everyone, it’s more important than ever to have a player that can step out and contest a shooter (without being beat off the dribble).

Secondly, his passing ability is tremendous for a forward. Mike Brady of the pro-Warrior “Golden State of Mind” blog where he claims that Draymond is the actual MVP of the Warriors states the following:

Last season Draymond Green and LeBron James were the only two front court players in the top 10 for Points created by assists (per game)The only other front court players inside the top thirty were Nicolas Batum (20th), Blake Griffin (29th) and Kevin Durant (30th).

This season Draymond Green is currently ranked 8th in that same category and is also 8th in secondary assists (the pass to the player who makes the assist), while also sitting sixth in assist to turnover ratio.

-Mike Brady, 2016

Granted, his anger and propensity to kick genitalia possibly cost the Warriors the Finals series, but with this uniquely modern skillset, I can’t afford to not have Draymond on our team. He brings so much to the table, and looking back to Morris’ defense of Rodman, Green might just be in the top-5 “third best” players in history.

Before closing, let’s look at his theoretical skillset:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding

 

Draymond 8 4 10 6

Draymond is the ultimate “Cog” and “Chameleon.”

As a closing thought, Draymond had an all-time great Finals game-7 performance that was overshadowed by the King. He scored 32 points on 11-15 shooting (6-8 from 3), grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished 9 assists. I respect any two-way role-player with that kind of grit in the biggest game of the season. 

 

Stats from basketball referencestats.nba, and NBAWOWY.

Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 1: Setting the Groundwork and Selecting the First Player

Article Length: about 1,400 words.

 

Remember when I wrote that long series about the best team I could assemble of players post-2000? If not, go ahead and catch yourself up with part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5. If you’re not going to read those lengthy, hypothetical choices, let me quickly explain what’s going on here.

For “The Universe Cup” series, the premise is that Earth has been selected to join an 82-game intergalactic season by submitting a 12-man roster. We have no idea how these aliens (multi-dimensional athletic beings…whatever works for you) will play, but we’ll assume that they have an anthropomorphic build so as to not change the integrity of basketball. Oh, and if we don’t win the championship, Earth is destroyed, so the fate of the world hinges on our team’s success in the season and post-season that is structured just like the NBA.

I  was never 100% pleased with my previous series, and after some reflection, I realized it’s because I sacrificed building a cohesive team to award different players lifetime achievement awards. Instead of reworking that series with the same set of rules, I decided to try again with much more stringent regulations. Here are the rules for The Second-Tier Universe Cup.

  1. Players must be selected starting after the 1999-2000 season (so any season starting with 2000-01).
  2. Only 12 players can be chosen.
  3. Players must be chosen along with a specific year (so I wouldn’t be able to say “LeBron James in his prime.” I’d have to choose something like 2009 LeBron, 2013 LeBron, or 2017 LeBron (the year indicates the year in which the Finals took place, so 2009 means 2008-2009). The year will encompass both the player’s regular season and post-season.
  4. Injuries play a factor, but this can be flexible depending on how you defend your choices (this will be more clear as I continue).
  5. Player selections are limited by the following restrictions (THIS IS WHERE IT GETS INTERESTING). A player is ineligible if he has won any of the following awards at any point in his career:
    1. Finals MVP
    2. MVP
    3. First Team All-NBA
  6. A coach must be selected.

Rule #5 renders the following twenty-nine players ineligible: Shaq, Duncan, Webber, Iverson, Kidd, McGrady, Kobe, Garnett, Nowitzki, Nash, LeBron, Amar’e, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Wade, Durant, Rose, Harden, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis, Curry, Leonard, DeAndre Jordan, Westbrook, Billups, Tony Parker, Pierce, and Iguodala. (For anyone keeping track, this disqualifies every single member of the Universe Cup Team….except one…)

With these rules and the theoretical underpinnings I laid out in this, this, and this, article, it’s time to start choosing which players will make my team. Trust me, this is an extremely difficult question, and I’m only 80% confident in all twelve of my selections. Let’s get started

The Second-Tier Universe Roster

As the curator of this team, it would be irresponsible for me to just jump in and start selecting the classically “best” remaining players. If you recall from the NBA archetypes, I need to choose players whose skillsets mitigate diminishing returns which turn out to be “Cogs” (players who effectively and unselfishly move the ball) and “Chameleons” (players who can easily switch and defend multiple positions). Along with these, I need at least a couple “Elite” scorers, but I have to make sure that they’re not all ball dominant! I also need to make sure that I have an abundance of “Floor Spacers” (players who efficiently shoot open, spot-up threes) to open up the floor for post play and driving. Also, those “Floor Spacers” should be able to defend somewhat (think Warriors over Cavs). Finally, rebounding never hurt anyone.

Beyond all of these skillsets though, I need some intangibles that cannot be quantified by statistics. Sure, youthful NBA players toss up the best statistics, but veterans who have played in many playoffs and (hopefully) won a championship or two are the strongest willed. Let’s start with the players who I immediately chose for the team with no hesitation (not necessarily the starters…I’ll get into that later).

Ray Allen 2000-2001

Notable Accolades: Regular Season: 2nd in total three-pointers made; 1st in Offensive Win Shares (OWS); 2nd in Effective Field Goal Percentage (EFG%) and True Shooting Percentage (TS%); 3rd in Win Shares (WS); 5th in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)

Playoffs: 1st in total three-pointers made, 1st in Offensive Win Shares, 4th in Win Shares, 2nd in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM), 2nd in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)

Regular Season/ Playoffs Stats

Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2000-01 25 82 82 38.2 7.7 16 0.48 2.5 5.7 0.433 5.2 10.3 0.506 0.557 4.2 4.8 0.888 1.2 4 5.2 4.6 1.5 0.2 2.5 2.3 22
Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2000-01 25 18 18 42.7 8.8 18.4 0.477 3.2 6.6 0.479 5.6 11.8 0.476 0.563 4.4 4.8 .919 1.1 3.1 4.1 6 1.3 0.6 2.4 2.4 25.1

Regular Season/ Playoffs Advanced Stats

Season Age G MP PER TS% 3PAr FTr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS WS/48 OBPM DBPM BPM VORP
2000-01 25 82 3129 22.9 0.61 0.357 0.299 3.7 11.8 7.8 20.4 2.1 0.5 12.1 24.4 11.5 2.2 13.7 0.211 6.5 -0.9 5.6 6
2000-01 25 18 768 23.7 0.613 0.36 0.26 2.8 7.4 5.2 27.1 1.7 0.9 10.4 24.9 3.2 0.4 3.6 0.223 7.5 -0.5 7 1.7

Is this my Bucks homerism showing? Nah, Ray Allen also made my Universe Cup TeamTeam, and was the only member to avoid the restrictions of joining this team. People forget how truly great Ray Allen was. His greatest moments in occurred later in his career such as shooting 8/8 from three in the 4th quarter and overtime to beat the Suns in 2006, Scoring 51 points against the Bulls in the 2009 playoffs, and hitting the biggest shot in NBA history against the Spurs in 2013.

Allen’s 2000-01 season was his all-around best season though where he seamlessly switched between primary ball-handling and off-ball duties. Playing next to notorious chuckers Sam Cassell and Glen “Big Dog” Robinson, Allen still managed to score 20+ points on absurd efficiency. He completely stepped up his game during the playoffs, and out-dueled Iverson in the Conference Finals whose Sixers may have received some help from the refs.

Conference Finals Stats

Rk Player Age G GS MP FG FGA 3P 3PA FT FTA ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS FG% 3P% FT% MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK
1 Allen Iverson 25 6 6 274 64 186 12 36 43 55 5 24 29 41 13 2 19 15 183 0.344 0.333 0.782 45.7 30.5 4.8 6.8 2.2 0.3
1 Ray Allen 25 7 7 293 66 141 28 55 30 31 6 17 23 38 6 4 15 20 190 0.468 0.509 0.968 41.9 27.1 3.3 5.4 0.9 0.6

Conference Finals Advanced Stats

Rk Player Age G GS MP TS% eFG% ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% ORtg DRtg GmSc
1 Allen Iverson 25 6 6 274 0.435 0.376 1.9 10.6 5.8 31.3 2.7 0.6 8.3 38.1 97 108 17.1
1 Ray Allen 25 7 7 293 0.614 0.567 2.4 6.2 4.4 27.5 1.1 1 8.8 28.7 123 111 19.9

Okay, efficiency aside, this was a pretty close contest. But you never thought that Ray was anywhere near Iverson’s level did you? If you go back and watch games from that series, you’ll see that Ray actually guards Iverson most of the time because Cassell was such a sieve on defense. While Ray’s defense wasn’t anything to write home about, he was at least serviceable before his knees starting shutting down on him. There’s a reason that he was the best offensive player on the team with the highest offensive rating when Kobe, Shaq, T-Mac, Kidd, Duncan, and  Garnett, were all near the top of their games.

Now for the important part: Ray’s skillset.

Ray Allen 2001 – Playmaking (Proficient– 6); Scoring (Elite– 7); Defense (Average– 5); Rebounding (Proficient– 5)

If we were to break this down even further, he’d definitely be a Transcendent “Floor Spacer” which is precisely the kind of scorer that we need.

To successfully function as a team, it’s important to have personalities that can mesh. Not everyone can have the maniacal drive of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. You also need some mellow players, and this Undefeated article beautifully describes Ray’s professionalism:

While Allen appeared to be cool with most of his Celtics teammates, he rarely engaged in any foolishness in the locker room when the media was there or on the team flights, sources said. He was often a loner who kept to himself. Once he completed his weight lifting, shooting and treatment, he typically left the Celtics’ training facility while others hung around, a source said.

and

Allen was always in amazing shape as if he was training for the Boston Marathon, which his mother, Flo Allen-Hopson, ran several times. One Celtics employee said Allen often ate chicken and salads. He rarely ate so-called bad foods and didn’t drink alcohol.

He definitely was an influence on me in that aspect,” Pierce said. “I changed the way I was eating and my diet. He influenced a lot of the young guys. He didn’t drink. He ate well. He was the cleanest NBA player you can come up with.

-Marc J. Spears, “Ray Allen Was the Most Interesting Man in the NBA — On and Off the Court,” 2016

I definitely want a player with this skillset and demeanor. Come aboard Mr. Allen.

Now that we have the legwork out of the way, the next installments will focus exclusively on the player selections.

 

Stats from basketball reference, stats.nba, and NBAWOWY.

NBA Theory: Player Archetypes and Team Construction Part 3

Article Length: about 2,100 words.

 

The “Part 3” in the title means that you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading part 1 and part 2, but if it’s a choice between reading this one or reading none, then by all means continue on.

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.

Rim protection

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”.

“How wide?”

“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.”

“BALLPARK.”

“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.”

“BALLPARK.”

“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?”

“I guess.”

“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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Each one of these skillsets can be ranked from “Transcendent” to “Inadequate” depending on the player.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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!

 

 

All statistics either from basketballreference.com or stats.nba.com

NBA Theory: Player Archetypes and Team Construction Part 2

Article Length: about 1,700 words

If you didn’t read part one of this series, please do so now! Pretty much none of this will make any sense at all. For those of you that did read the first part, welcome back! Now let’s jump right in to applying these skillsets to players both past and present.

 

Durant 2017 – Playmaking (Elite – 6); Scoring (Transcendent– 10); Defense (Elite– 8); Rebounding (Proficient – 6)

Curry 2017 – Playmaking (Transcendent– 9 ); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Proficient – 5); Rebounding (Average – 4)

LeBron 2017 – Playmaking (Transcendent – 9); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Elite – 7); Rebounding (Proficient – 6)

Bird 1986 – Playmaking (Transcendent– 9); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Elite– 7); Rebounding (Elite– 7)

Jordan 1993 – Playmaking (Elite– 8); Scoring (Transcendent– 10); Defense (Transcendent– 9); Rebounding (Proficient – 5)

Olajuwon 1994 – Playmaking (Average– 4); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Transcendent– 10); Rebounding (Elite– 8)

Shaq – 2001 – Playmaking (Proficient– 5); Scoring (Transcendent– 10); Defense (Elite– 8); Rebounding (Elite– 8)

And stepping away from the cream of the crop, here are some other stars:

Allen 2001 – Playmaking (Proficient– 6); Scoring (Elite– 7); Defense (Proficient– 5); Rebounding (Proficient – 5)

Wallace 2004 – Playmaking (Sub-par– 2); Scoring (Inadequate– 1); Defense (Transcendent– 10); Rebounding (Transcendent– 9)

Deron Williams 2010 – Playmaking (Elite– 8); Scoring (Proficient– 6); Defense (Average– 4); Rebounding (Average– 4)

Kyrie 2017  – Playmaking (Proficient– 6); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Sub-par– 3); Rebounding (Sub-par– 3)

What does all this mean for each player, and how can we apply each of the definitions that I used above? Truth be told, it would take a very long time to apply each specific archetype to each player’s skillset, so I’ll just discuss a couple of them. One thing that may jump out at people is having Curry as a “Transcendent” scorer. My argument is that we’ve never seen a player in history encompass all aspects of scoring that I laid out above. Curry is unstoppable in isolation with his crafty dribbling, cuts to the basket intelligently, and spaces the floor better than anybody else in the league. Curry is a rare breed in that he would thrive as either the first or second option on a team which is why the tandem of he and Durant is so dominant.

Name Games Spot-ups/game Spot-up points/game Points/Spot-Up FGA Spot-up EFG%/game Percentile
Steph Curry 79 2.6 3.4 1.42 64.2 97.2
Kevin Durant 62 3 3.8 1.42 65.1 94.7

The above graphic shows Curry’s and Durant’s shooting numbers in spot up situations per stats.nba (remember: a spot-up is when a player receives a pass and shoots without dribbling the ball outside of fifteen feet). Both average 1.42 points per shot, and both score in the 94 percentile or better in comparison to the rest of the league. Just for comparison, this means that both Durant and Curry score 142 points/ 100 possessions while the Warriors (one of the greatest offenses if not the greatest offense in history) scored 113 points/100 possessions. When your two best scorers can play away from the ball this well, that’s unstoppable. Unfortunately, we don’t have this sort of data going back much further than 2015, so a lot of this can only be based off other metrics and the eye test (watching lots of old game film).

Both LeBron and Bird scored in the “Elite” category for defense despite LeBron not being the lockdown defender he was and Bird never being a lockdown defender. What these two excel(led) at, however, is “Roaming” on defense where they can wreak havoc by knowing where players are going to throw the ball or shifting over to cut off a drive to the rim. LeBron was a much better “Rim Protector” than Bird, but Bird, like Curry today, showed off an incredible sense of where the ball was going.

Curry also scored in the “Transcendent” zone for his playmaking ability because, as I discussed in a previous article, Curry is the engine of the Warriors’ offense. He doesn’t need to have the ball for them to move the ball well, but his very presence on the court lubricated their already butter-smooth ball movement. To prove this, I would like to turn your attention to two different advanced statistics: Offensive Rating On/Off, and Secondary Assists.

Offensive On/Off shows two different numbers: how many points per 100 possessions a team scores with a player on the court, and how many points per 100 possessions a team scores with that player off the court. Discounting the outlier Javele McGee, Curry had by far the biggest impact on the 2017 Warriors during both the regular season and playoffs. Here’s Curry compared to the player with the second biggest impact, Durant (and Klay):

On the court (Regular Season)

Name Minutes Team’s Offensive Rating
Curry 2638 118.1
Durant 2070 117.2

Off the court (regular season)

Curry 1318 102.4
Thompson 1307 108.3
Durant 1886 108.6

Regular season points per 100 possessions difference:

Curry: +15.7 (This means the Warriors scored 15.7 points per 100 possessions better when Curry was on the floor compared to when he was off.

Durant: +8.6

On the court (Playoffs)

Curry 601 123.1
Durant 533 122.6

Off the court (Playoffs)

Curry 215 95.9
Durant 283 104.6

Playoff points per 100 possessions difference:

Curry: +27.2 (!!!!!!)

Durant: +18.1

Just to drive this point home further, the oft-cited author on this site Benjamin Morris of 538.com wrote about the dramatic effect Curry has on the Warriors’ offense compared to Durant. He says the following:

Part of being good at lots of things is being really good at a couple of things. Curry’s ridiculous shooting opens up the Warriors’ offense. Not only are his shots incredibly efficient, but he also draws so much of his opponents’ attention that he makes his teammates look amazing — and makes his team immensely better. Looking at NBAWowy, which tracks how teams perform with a given player on the court versus on the bench, the Warriors outscored their opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions when Durant was playing and Curry was not; that number jumped to 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court and Durant on the sidelines.5

5. And 19.5 points per 100 possessions when they were both playing (2017).

If this doesn’t show you how much of a “Cog” Curry is, I don’t know what will. Oh, I know! How about secondary assists! Secondary assists (sometimes called “Hockey Assists”) give credit to a player who throws the ball to the player who makes an assist. Usually this only happens with teams who move the ball effectively. Who were the league leaders in this during 2017? Harden, Conley, and Thomas all tied for second with 1.7 secondary assists a game. Curry led the league with 2.2. In the playoffs, Curry tied with Lowry with 2.3 a game for the most in the playoffs. Curry is incredible at making an offense work smoothly.

With all this theoretical groundwork behind us, let’s use it to analyze some recent champions and some of the best championship teams in history. Here are a few with their key players coded with the specific archetypes:

 

Pistons 2004: Transcendent (2) – Defense (1), Rebounding (1); Elite (4)- Defense (3), Playmaking (1)

Wallace – Playmaking (Sub-par– 2); Scoring (Inadequate– 1); Defense (Transcendent– 10); Rebounding (Transcendent– 9)

Billups – Playmaking (Elite– 7); Scoring (Proficient– 6); Defense (Elite– 7); Rebounding (Average– 4)

Hamilton – Playmaking (Proficient– 5); Scoring (Proficient– 6); Defense (Proficient– 5); Rebounding (Average– 4)

Prince – Playmaking (Average– 4); Scoring (Average– 4); Defense (Elite– 8); Rebounding (Proficient– 5)

Wallace – Playmaking (Sub-par– 2); Scoring (Average– 4); Defense (Elite – 7); Rebounding (Proficient – 5)

 

Warriors 2017: Transcendent (4) – Playmaking (1), Scoring (2), Defense (1); Elite (5) – Playmaking (2), Scoring (1), Defense (2)

Notice no Transcendent or Elite rebounders

Durant – Playmaking (Elite – 6); Scoring (Transcendent– 10); Defense (Elite– 8); Rebounding (Proficient – 6)

Curry – Playmaking (Transcendent– 9); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Proficient – 5); Rebounding (Average – 4)

Green – Playmaking (Elite– 7); Scoring (Average– 4); Defense (Transcendent– 10); Rebounding (Proficient– 6)

Thompson – Playmaking (Proficient– 5); Scoring (Elite– 7); Defense (Elite– 7); Rebounding (Average– 4)

 

Cavaliers 2016: Transcendent (3) – Playmaking (1), Scoring (2); Elite (4) – Scoring (1), Defense (1), Rebounding (2)

LeBron – Playmaking (Transcendent– 9); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Elite – 7); Rebounding (Proficient – 6)

Kyrie – Playmaking (Proficient– 6); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Sub-par– 3); Rebounding (Sub-par– 3)

Love – Playmaking (Proficient– 6); Scoring (Elite– 7); Defense (Average– 4); Rebounding (Elite– 8)

Thompson – Playmaking (Inadequate– 1); Scoring (Sub-par– 3); Defense (Proficient– 6); Rebounding (Elite-8)

 

Bulls 1996: Transcendent (5) – Scoring (1), Defense (3), Rebounding (1); Elite (2) – Playmaking (2)

Jordan – Playmaking (Elite– 7); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Transcendent– 9); Rebounding (Proficient – 5)

Pippen – Playmaking (Elite– 8); Scoring (Proficient– 6); Defense (Transcendent– 10); Rebounding (Proficient – 6)

Rodman – Playmaking (Average– 4); Scoring (Inadequate– 1); Defense (Transcendent– 9); Rebounding (Transcendent– 10)

 

1986 Celtics: Transcendent (3) – Playmaking (1), Scoring (2); Elite (9) – Playmaking (2), Defense (5), Rebounding (3)

Bird – Playmaking (Transcendent– 9); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Elite– 7); Rebounding (Elite– 7)

McHale – Playmaking (Average– 4); Scoring (Transcendent– 9); Defense (Elite– 8); Rebounding (Elite– 6)

Parish – Playmaking (Sub-par– 3); Scoring (Proficient– 6); Defense (Elite– 7); Rebounding (Elite– 7)

Johnson – Defense (Elite)

Walton – Playmaking (Elite); Defense (Elite)

 

Spurs 2014: Transcendent (1) – Defense (1); Elite (5) – Playmaking (2), Scoring (1), Defense (1), Rebounding (1)

Duncan – Playmaking (Proficient– 6); Scoring (Proficient– 6); Defense (Elite– 8); Rebounding (Elite– 8)

Parker – Playmaking (Elite– 8); Scoring (Elite– 7); Defense (Sub-par– 2); Rebounding (Sub-par– 2)

Leonard – Playmaking (Average– 4); Scoring (Proficient– 5); Defense (Transcendent– 9); Rebounding (Proficient – 5)

Ginobili – Playmaking (Elite– 8); Scoring (Proficient– 6); Defense (Proficient– 6); Rebounding (Average– 4)

This is a lot of good information. Teams like the 2004 Pistons and the 2011 Mavericks will provide some interesting insight later, so let’s start with the three best teams in NBA history: The 2017 Warriors, 1986 Celtics, and 1996 Bulls. Here are some key takeaways for each of those teams:

  • Celtics and Warriors have two “Transcendent” scorers while the Bulls only have one.
  • Warriors are the only one with another “Elite” scorer
  • Celtics and Warriors have three “Elite” or higher playmakers while the Bulls only have two.
  • The Celtics have five “Elite” defenders, the Warriors have two “Elite” defenders with one “Transcendent” defender (and they would have at least one more “Elite” defender had I analyzed the bench because of Iguodala), and the Bulls have three “Transcendent” defenders.
  • Celtics have three “Elite” rebounders, the Bulls have one “Transcendent” rebounder, and the Warriors have no player scoring at least “Elite” in rebounding.

All of this circles back to the idea of “Diminishing Returns” that I discussed earlier. Benjamin Morris’ (again) article about irreplaceability sets the stage for this idea by showing that some statistics are easier replaced by others (points are easily replaced while steals aren’t). This goes a step further by showing that teams are successful when they jam pack as many “Elite” and “Transcendent” skillsets into one team (or lineup) without each additional skillset losing value. For instance, as I discussed above, Curry’s, Durant’s, and Thompson’s scoring styles are such that they don’t encroach upon the other’s ability to score, and if they do, it’s to a minimal degree. Klay Thompson’s per game statistics from 2016 and 2017 provide some solid evidence towards this claim:

 

Season G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 80 80 33.3 8.1 17.3 0.47 3.5 8.1 0.425 4.7 9.2 0.51 0.569 2.4 2.8 0.873 0.4 3.4 3.8 2.1 0.8 0.6 1.7 1.9 22.1
2016-17 78 78 34 8.3 17.6 0.468 3.4 8.3 0.414 4.8 9.3 0.516 0.565 2.4 2.8 0.853 0.6 3 3.7 2.1 0.8 0.5 1.6 1.8 22.3
Career 464 427 32.7 7.1 15.6 0.453 2.9 6.8 0.419 4.2 8.8 0.48 0.545 2.1 2.4 0.853 0.4 2.9 3.3 2.3 0.9 0.5 1.7 2.2 19.1

Notice anything interesting? How about that Thompson actually took MORE shots and scored MORE points per game after Kevin Durant joined their team. It doesn’t seem like this negatively affected their offense.

This concludes part two of this theoretical series. To cap it all off in the finale, I will discuss diminishing returns further and explain on which skillsets one should focus if he/she is looking to build a team from the ground up.

NBA Theory: Player Archetypes and Team Construction Part 1

Article length: about 1,700 words

 

The 2016-17 season has unveiled the greatest team in NBA history: The Golden State Warriors. Most fans would incorrectly argue that the ’96 Bulls hold that throne even though Jordan and Pippen were past their primes (Pippen just barely), their post play was insufficient, and their depth was undesirable. Bill Simmons in his The Book of Basketball also points to the watered down of talent in the league at that time (2010). Simmons might argue that the ’86 Celtics still reign as the greatest ever, and I must say, it makes for a very intriguing debate about time periods; however, the sheer dominance of the Warriors’ starters along with the productivity of their bench still convince me that no team could beat them in a seven-game series.

This post isn’t interested in debating which team is the best and why though. My interest lies in the team construction that makes a team dominant and successful. Why are the ’86 Celtics and ’17 Warriors regarded as the best? What do (did) they have that other teams don’t? And, of course, what could theoretically make them better? Ultimately, this theoretical framework will inform a forthcoming article (series?) where I construct the Second Tier Universe Cup Team. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find this new wrinkle more interesting than the first.

 

As I mentioned in a previous article where I criticized Team USA’s Olympic team after analyzing the best superstar duos and trios in history:

This lays a solid groundwork for showing what is required to be the best for superstars to mesh: at least a dominant scorer, multiple excellent defenders, and multiple above average playmakers with one excellent playmaker.

– Cody Houdek, “Building a Super Team and Other Observations,” 2016

The question now is broader and requires more definitions though because no theory (even basketball theory) is complete with pedantic definitions, so buckle up, and I promise that the end result of reading this series will be worth it for looking at basketball with a new perspective.  

 

At their core, it seems that every basketball player can be boiled down to four distinct archetypes much like an RPG like “The Elder Scrolls.” These archetypes depend on four core skills: playmaking, scoring, defense, and rebounding. One can reduce each of these skills near infinitely to capture the myriad subtleties involved with the beautiful game, but I won’t spend much time doing that now. If you want a weird, philosophical dive into a Borgesian analysis of Ginobili’s creativity, then I urge you to read this and this article. I will try and differentiate a bit between very different skillsets within these archetypal skills such as offensive rebounding vs. defensive rebounding and off-ball shooting scorers vs. isolations scorers.

Just replace these with basketball terms, and you basically have what I’m talking about.

 

I have broken down each of these archetypal categories into a 0-10 scale where each number is associated with a tier of ability (again, like an RPG). This scale is as follows: Transcendent- 10-9; Elite – 8-7; Proficient – 6-5; Average – 4; Sub-par – 3-2; Inadequate – 1-0. I’ll discuss the meaning behind each of these a little later.

 

Is this an exact science? Oh goodness no, but it’s a good place to start when trying to define team building. My gut tells me, as I more simply stated in that aforementioned article, that successful teams have an abundance of playmakers and defenders, at least one player who can score at will, and adequate rebounding.

 

What does any of this mean? To me, a playmaker is a player that can create offense for his teammates. Most people look to assists to measure this, but the skill goes far beyond that. It includes players who help the offense function smoother through unselfishness and a skillset that draws their opponents’ attention. For example, players like Magic Johnson and Steve Nash score very high in this category because of how they can set their teammates up to make easy shots (they also post extremely high assist totals). Conversely, Stephen Curry and LeBron James would also score very high despite their average assist numbers because of their different abilities – Curry’s tremendous gravity and LeBron’s strength and IQ – promote teammate success. Essentially, if a playmaker is on the court, his team’s offense shouldn’t stagnate. We can differentiate playmakers in three ways: excellent passers who set up individual teammates for easy shots (let’s call them “Dime Droppers”), unselfish passers who don’t hold the ball too long during an offensive possession (let’s call them “Cogs”), and players who excel in both these categories (“Floor Generals”).

A scorer then is a player who can score the basketball. Groundbreaking, right, but the intrigue lies in the details. How do you compare a scorer like Dominique Wilkins and Peja Stojakovic? How do you compare Ray Allen with Tracy McGrady? How do you compare Shaq with Kobe? Differentiating these abilities is key to building a successful lineup because basketball is a game of diminishing returns meaning that the more players who both excel in a single skill and share the court with one another, the less the team will benefit from each individual’s skills (to me, this is the true beauty of the Warriors’ offense, and I will get to that later). If a team has five Carmelo Anthonys, every Carmelo won’t average 30 points per game on good efficiency. While we can definitely differentiate scorers into many many categories, let’s just stick to just a few for now: players who need the ball in their hands to create scoring opportunities (“Ball Dominant”), floor spacers who score efficiently off spot-up and other off-ball shooting possessions (“Floor Spacers” actually has a classic ring to it), and players who can either (or both) dive to the basket or run in transition for easy scoring opportunities (“Runners”), and the combinations of these skills (it’s tough coming up with names).

…basketball is a game of diminishing returns meaning that the more players who both excel in a single skill and share the court with one another, the less the team will benefit from each individual’s skills.

– Cody Houdek, “NBA Theory: Player Archetypes and Team Construction Part 1,” 2017

A defender is a player who makes it more difficult for the other team to score. By far, this is the most difficult to quantify statistically, and even with the advent of analytics, we have no great way to express a player’s defensive worth through a singular number, so specific player categorizations are more open for debate. This makes comparing the worth of two players’ defensive impacts extremely difficult as discussed by Ben Dowsett. single opponent as impactful as Rudy Gobert’s rim protection, and are either as impactful as Draymond Green’s ability to guard 1-5 on switches? Defense can be broken down to four different categories: a defender who can shut down a single matchup (“Lockdown Defender”), a player who protects the basket effectively (“Rim Protector”), switch-happy players that can defend multiple positions and allow the team to switch more smoothly (“Chameleons” because they can blend in with any system), and players who can disrupt offenses off the ball by playing free safety, so to speak (“Roamers”).

Finally, rebounders are players who clean the glass either on the offensive or defensive glass. Like scoring, this is probably best quantified through the many advanced statistics at our disposal such as Offensive Rebound Percentage and Contested Rebounds. This can be split into two categories: players who excel at grabbing offensive rebounds (“Offensive Rebounders”) and players who excel at grabbing defensive rebounds (“Defensive Rebounders”).

 

Before I can apply this theory to any specific player, it’s first necessary to define each level of grading on the above continuum. Starting at the bottom (now, where am I?), we have “Inadequate” which applies to a deficiency in the specific skill that significantly hurts the team. This is a bit tricky because some skills aren’t as important for certain positions such as rebounding and, to a small degree, defense for point guards while a center who isn’t a good rebounder would cause a net negative for his team. Scoring a “Sub-par” means that a player has a deficiency in a certain skill, but that deficiency isn’t as much of a concern as an Inadequate skill. Think of Andre Roberson’s free-throw shooting as a good example. It’s poor enough that teams can employ the “Hack-a” strategy against him which significantly hurts the Thunder; however, if he were just above this level where teams couldn’t target him, I would consider that “Sub-par.”

Being “Proficient” and “Average” are very difficult to differentiate between, but I would draw the line at reliability. A player who is “Proficient” in a specific skill is one who can, most of the time, execute that skillset. Players like J.R. Smith add an extra level of difficulty in this because he defies the reliability aspect of this definition; however, I would feel comfortable with him shooting open threes over most any “Average” shooters while the apex of his skillset is significantly higher than “Average” shooters.

 

Here’s where things get interesting and where teams are truly constructed. Players who fall within the “Elite” and “Transcendent” levels are those who are considered stars. Remember this: teams cannot be successful without “Elite” or higher skills in multiple skillsets (I’ll discuss which ones a little later). On a definitional level, these are the two easiest levels to differentiate between. A player with an “Elite” skillset means that they are one of the best in the league at the time that they are (were) playing at that skillset. Players who have a “Transcendent” skillset means that they are in the upper echelon of that skillset regardless of time. You could pluck them out of their temporal playing moment and plop them in any time period, and they would still be one of the best. Their ability “transcends” time.

Now we can get to the interesting part and apply these definitions to actual players to see what team makeups have been successful. Just as a reminder, players cannot be judged as a conglomeration of their entire careers. A player must be chosen during a specific year of their career that spans both the playoffs and the regular season. You can apply this to either one of the two, but you miss out by not judging a player based off the entirety of the season and post-season. In the next article, I’ll lay out how this will look for specific players.