TrueHoop: League-Wide Issues

Player evaluation and motion capture technology

March, 5, 2011
3/05/11
2:29
PM ET
By Bret LaGree, Hoopinion
ESPN.com
Archive
Yesterday, Brett Hainline wrote about the vast troves of data that motion capture technology will soon bring to analysis of the NBA. The possibilities are both exciting and a little overwhelming. In imagining and understanding those possibilities, one can look to the example of soccer where motion capture technology has existed for more than a decade.

Obviously, the two sports are diametrically opposed in certain ways. Most significantly in terms of the volume of scoring outcomes and scoring chances but also in the number of players having their motion captured. In both respects, the more frequent scoring and the fewer players not in possession of the ball, the differences between the sports (as well as the example of how soccer clubs have made use of the range of data) could work to basketball’s advantage.

During today's Soccer Analytics panel, Steven Houston, Head of Technical Scouting & Data Analysis for Chelsea, described the difficulty of finding the value of the myriad actions that take place on the pitch. With 11 players running, passing, and tackling for 90 minutes and their actions culminating in relatively few scoring outcomes, Houston had to work back from those outcomes to identify which actions were valuable in leading to their creation.

Basketball doesn’t have that problem. There’s already a common understanding of the value and importance of the actions not just of the player in possession of the ball, but of the positioning and movement of his teammates, as well as the positioning and movement of the opposition. Whereas the culture, both internal and external, surrounding soccer might generally overvalue the importance of ground covered in evaluating a player’s work rate, the basketball culture, at least at the NBA level, appears to have, both internally and externally, a fairly accurate and generally agreed upon sense of the importance of such off-the-ball actions as spacing on offense and providing help on defense. The success of Sebastian Pruiti’s work at NBA Playbook (work complimented by Mark Cuban during the basketball analytics panel) demonstrates this to some degree.

What basketball doesn’t have, yet, is a way to quantify those off-the-ball actions at an individual level. And it may not ever be possible to discretely identify what a player brings to spacing or help defense and what portion of the value in a player’s performance in those areas could more fairly be credited to coaching. Of course, significant changes in player performance in these areas as players change teams and teams change coaches could provide useful information in that regard.

Gavin Fleig, currently Head of Performance Analysis at Manchester City, revealed another potential value from motion capture technology: player-specific measures of aging. When Fleig held the same position at Bolton in 2004, they used the player movement information available to them to determine that midfielder Gary Speed, though almost 35 years old, had not seen any significant decline in his movement. This information overrode the general (and common sense) reluctance to purchase a 34-year-old midfielder and allowed Bolton to identify and acquire an undervalued asset, a player who went on to make 121 appearances and score 14 goals from the club over the next four seasons.

Both the Phoenix Suns and the Detroit Pistons have recently demonstrated the impact a good medical staff can have on a team’s on-court performance, analytics have given us a good understanding of how players (as a group) age, and there are indicators of aging in basketball (Offensive Rebound Rate, Steal Rate, Blocked Shot Rate, Free Throw Rate) that can be derived from box score stats. The ability for teams to move beyond assessing a player’s age in terms of all players and instead assess the player in terms of his personal movement history could provide a significant advance.

This weekend, both Daryl Morey and Kevin Pritchard separately identified the greatest challenge for a General Manager of an NBA team to be understanding that being above average was not sufficient for success in the job. The job of a General Manager is to build the best team. Pritchard specifically discussed the importance of the proximity of a team to a championship when identifying an acceptable level of risk to assume in a transaction.

It’s these issues, the marginal increase in probability of success or a slightly greater certainty of risk assessment, that have dominated the 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference regardless of the sport under discussion. The advances in the field of analytics and the impact of analytics on the practical sports world have taken the discussion deeper than identifying the difference between a good player and a bad player or whether teams should invest in internal analytic work. The future practical gains will largely occur in the margins of existing work, those gains will increasingly be the result of highly technical work with data sets, and, as the work becomes increasingly internal, much of it might be invisible to the outside observer.

Mark Cuban hopes to lose, and lose badly, someday

March, 5, 2011
3/05/11
2:07
PM ET
By Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell
ESPN.com
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the various MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panels is how frequently they give rise to, one would hope, a future paper or panel.

Earlier this week I wondered if quants had numbers to determine the merits of conceding blowouts as soon as a game is, statistically-speaking, over. And yesterday, my mind was all aflutter about whether team's should think of developing new head coaches in the same way they develop young players.

Towards the close of yesterday's basketball analytics panel, Mark Cuban and Kevin Pritchard showed their cards in terms of fast-tracking a franchise rebuilding project.

Cuban confessed that once Dirk Nowitzki retires he expects the Mavericks to lose, and, if he gets his way, they'll lose badly. Kevin Pritchard seemed to agree and introduced a new term into our lexicons: "the mediocrity treadmill."

There is no championship future for a middling team that is stuck in the embattled space between those who struggle to make the playoffs and those that struggle and miss. Cuban has no desire for the Mavericks to be such a team. Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan recently defended trading Gerald Wallace to the Portland Trailblazers by saying, "We don't want to be the seventh or eighth seed." The Bobcats have been, at best, mediocre, and so perhaps we can interpret his statement as one owner casting his philosophical lot with Cuban and Pritchard.

But before we go and make assumptions, the first question that deserves an answer is whether the mediocrity treadmill actually exists?

Once there is a definitive answer to this question, the conversation shifts to the relative merits of mediocrity and, if one so desires, how to best bypass mediocrity and move into an era of winning. If you're stuck on the mediocrity treadmill, how do you get off? What do the numbers suggest is an appropriate amount of cap clearing? What balance should one seek between acquiring veteran free agents and acquiring draft picks through a combination of losing and house cleaning?

We make all sorts of assumptions based on these questions, but what do the numbers say?

Earlier today Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck suggested an in-house study that provides a baseline for team's who want to win championships. “We looked at the last 25 NBA champions. Twenty-four out of twenty-five were won with a big three concept - three all-stars." Grousbeck further defined his study by qualifying his big three as one player who is among the fifty greatest of all time and two all stars.

But it's not clear that all NBA owners mind walking the treadmill, year after year, season after season. Grousbeck is not Donald Sterling. Sterling, for example, seems entirely content to walk and walk and walk so long as the tread is lined with money. He's trying to turn a profit, and winning is a secondary concern. The Clippers are a team on the rise, but this is has little, if anything at all, to do with Sterling. The arrival of Blake Griffin has forced Sterling's hand.

But there are other teams -- the Bucks and 76ers come to mind -- that seem stuck in the middling tier. Is the opportunity of playoff revenue enough to offset the malaise of mediocrity?

Assuming teams have three, five and 10 year business plans in place -- plans that are designed to produce a team that is profitable at the box office and successful on the court -- should they pencil in a losing season or two as part of their plan? Some would describe this approach as a species of tanking, but that's not at all fair to Cuban and it misses the point, which is, after all, employing strategies that are more conducive to winning. If the data demonstrates that a strategy of temporarily embraced losing is actually a likelier fast-track to greater success, why would the sports public discourage stepping off the mediocrity treadmill as a smart long term strategy of team building. Losing, in this sense, is not only a path to success but, if viewed from above, a service to fans.

Brain mapping: the future of scouting

March, 5, 2011
3/05/11
11:31
AM ET
By Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak
ESPN.com
Archive
"You never block a shot with your head” is a basketball truism used to explain why height is less important than length and jumping ability when evaluating incoming NBA talent. The physical qualities we measure in basketball are attributes like wingspan, speed, vertical leap, shuttle run quickness, and strength. But what separates elite athletes at the NBA level aren’t slight differences in physical attributes, but significant variation in mental acuity for the game, and the desire to learn and become better on the court.

Those are the characteristics that generally fall under “intangibles.” For now, anyway. Drs. Brian Miller and Wesley Clapp are in the process of understanding how people learn athletic skills, and analyzing the physical difference at the neural level between a player with an affinity for solving complex problems with coordinated athletic performance -- like the Celtic’s defensive schemes -- and a player unsuited for such tasks.

The two scientists are using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to track brain function in humans and better understand how we learn and how athletes perform during competition. By observing what parts of the brain are activated during competition, training and decision making, Clapp and Miller are hoping to discover more about how athletes learn and perform. They’re also looking into neuroplasticity, or the way that the human brain changes based on experience, and, for athletic purposes, training.


Humans learn in two ways that seem diametrically opposed: rote memory and new experience.

We can improve at replicable tasks like free-throws or solving the exact same math problem over and over through rote memory. Every time a neuron fires within our brains, it sends an electric signal to another neuron and a neural pathway is created or strengthened. Just like working out a muscle, repeated firing in the same manner will strengthen that pathway. In time, that connection between two neurons will fire more readily, increasing performance. This process is called Long-Term Potentiation.

But elite athletes aren’t just judged by their ability to successfully complete rote tasks, but by their capacity to handle uncertainty. Later in the day, former Portland Trail Blazer GM Kevin Pritchard explained the difficulty of making free throws, a seemingly rote skill, this way “If I give you ten shots to make six, you’ll probably do it. Now I give you the ball and say ‘make six or you’ll die’… it’s a different story.” In these clutch situations, so vividly articulated by Pritchard, even well practiced motions can fail.

But how? What happens inside the brain that causes finely tuned mechanisms to fail with no external physical factors beyond the pressure of the moment? We might come to define choking differently if the neural mapping can reveal who misses because of pressure, and who just misses.

There is an obvious and exciting potential for brain mapping to have a major impact on how we judge and develop talent at the NBA level. In training, coaches could be able to determine the very best training methods to increase functional learning and encourage “transference between skill domains” or the ability to successfully connect different skills in varied or even new circumstances. It seems logical that it would also become one of, if not the most important evaluating tool of the future.

Picture a front office nervous about drafting a guard who wasn’t a pure point guard in college, and trying to determine his potential to play the point at the next level. Will the player develop into a floor leader, or does his brain map suggest that he is unlikely to learn this new role? Will he be Russell Westbrook or Jerryd Bayless? These are the kinds of questions that brain mapping could address more accurately.

Admittedly, much of this presentation went above and beyond my capacity for understanding. And the two speakers weren’t excited to spill specifics of their research or technology because their work was “a bit proprietary.” In other words, these ideas are worth a lot of money and we aren’t about to give them to anyone for free.

It's no wonder that, for the most part, Clapp and Miller keep their progress secret. Today we perceive the workings of an athlete’s mind largely through interpretation of their actions, the true motivations of which are plainly beyond full understanding. And so we ascribe intangible, almost mystical properties to what boils down to physical brain functions. By demystifying the processes of learning, decision-making and even coordination, we will more fully understand an athlete’s body, and by extension his mind, better than ever before.

Tuesday Bullets

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
4:07
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
  • A moment of silence please, for the death of my favorite NBA Twitter handle.
  • Jared Wade is at the controls over at The Point Forward, where he's done a lot of statistical legwork to figure out what makes a player MVP-worthy. His conclusion: "By examining past winners, we get a snapshot of the typical MVP: a 27-year-old, healthy big man who leads his team to 60 wins while scoring 25 points (on 51 percent shooting), grabbing 13 boards and handing out five assists per game. We are looking at Charles Barkley on the Suns, basically."
  • Pistons to MacGrady: "Tracy, this is awkward. It's not that we didn't think you'd be good, it's just that we never thought anyone would want to buy your jersey."
  • This physics-defying freethrow attempt made me think of The Sixth Man. Beware the ghost of Antoine Tyler!
  • Sebastian Pruiti shows us the effect of good coaching versus bad coaching can have when it comes to getting clean looks.
  • I'm almost positive this is legitimate. An English translation of Knicks forward Timofey Mozgov's lengthy, revealing blog post which originally appeared in Russian here. Quoth Mozgov on his recent Did Not Play, Coach's Decisions: "You should agree with me that panic is a bad advisor; it’s hard to work productively when it’s there. But I’m not complacent either. So, I’ll repeat myself: I’m not ashamed."
  • Ever wonder what The View would look like with younger hosts who only discussed sports? If so, I direct you to KFrye and Friends, a new sports talk show hosted by Channing Frye's Emmy Award-winning mom, Karen. I'm not sure how large the audience will be, but I'm interested to see women talking about sports (video) in a way that seems intended for a primarily female audience. If it works, KFrye could really be on to something.
  • For Atlanta fans, this ain't good.
  • This is what they're saying about the Knicks' stud rookie Landry Fields over at DraftExpress: "Considering where he started and where he is now, Fields' case might be the most unlikely we've seen in the seven NBA drafts we've covered." Read up to find out why Fields has been one of David Thorpe's top rookies all year.
  • LeBron's contraction remarks have once again stoked the flames of his most passionate detractors. The guys at Nets Are Scorching roast James in this half-serious, half-hilarious debate to determine what the correct reason to hate LeBron is.
  • After three exceedingly frustrating years, Nick Young is putting it together. But Kyle Weidie of Truth About It notes that while he's playing more efficiently and intelligently than ever, he's still a historically awful passer.
  • The No Look Pass takes a shot at ranking the five most lopsided trades of the last 15 years.
  • You may hate the Heat, but there is simply too much stellar writing and analysis on the Heat Index to let that keep you from reading. Today: Tom Haberstroh explains how the Heat's newly methodical execution on both ends is slow cooking the competition; Kevin Arnovitz provides five insights into the rematch of 2010's most entertaining game; and Mike Wallace explains that part of why Chris Bosh has been so magnificently effective for the last month is because he's finally got his legs under him.
  • Jeremy Schmidt may be on to something. If Jason Collins is killing you on the glass, you're doing it wrong.
  • Because the Spurs are running so much, and Tim Duncan's statistics are down, you may not have noticed that he's still playing a vital role in the Spurs revamped offense.
  • Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies have some thoughts on contraction, and the fact that Memphis would be one of the more obvious targets should the NBA actually decide to eliminate a couple teams. I'll say this about the matter: if it happens it will be because of a dilution in league-wide revenue, not talent.
By J.A. Adande

Deep down in the whispery regions of the NBA, there are concerns that the seeds for the 2010 free agency crop were planted in the summers of 2006, 2007 and 2008.

It’s a widespread assumption in the NBA that tampering happens all around the league; overtures are made to agents, conversations are had in passing with players. One Western Conference executive said the practice is so common that if the league policed it the way the NCAA handles recruiting violations, “There’d be teams getting the ‘death penalty.’” But formal tampering claims are very rarely brought to the NBA offices because they are too difficult to prove.

If LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh end up with the New York Knicks next summer expect some grumbling from their jilted former team that the Knicks had an unfair advantage because coach Mike D’Antoni had three summers to woo them while serving as an assistant on the USA Basketball staff at the World Championships, Tournament of the Americas and Olympics.

In the absence of proof there’s only imagination, and the thought of a coach with unmonitored access to players has allowed all kinds of scenarios to run through rival executives’ heads. They suggest that the only way to ease the fears would be to have the USA Basketball coaching staff consist entirely of college coaches and/or out-of-the-league coaches (current examples would be Doug Collins, Avery Johnson and Mike Fratello.)

“I find that kind of ironic,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “Not long ago there were people saying there shouldn’t be any college coaches. When you hear things like you hear, you have to really analyze the source. Everyone is so concerned about their own little world. It’s ludicrous, in my opinion, to have those concerns.”

Colangelo, who has a book about USA Basketball entitled “Return of The Gold” coming out, said, “We turned around a culture, we turned around a whole program. There’s some people taking shots at the staff … that’s very disappointing to me.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty [about the upcoming free agency summer]. There’s a lot of unrest. People will look for excuses. I personally don’t give that any credence.”

And it won’t have any influence on the next Olympic team. D’Antoni and the rest of the staff from 2008 Olympics – head coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and assistants Nate McMillan of the Portland Trail Blazers and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse University – will be back for the 2012 Games in London.

For anyone concerned about the presence of D’Antoni or McMillan on that team, Colangelo says, “My word to those guys is: get a life.”

Chris Bosh, Cyber Hero

October, 14, 2009
10/14/09
11:01
AM ET

Some jerk beat Chris Bosh to registering the domain www.chrisbosh.com. So Bosh went after the cybersquatter. All sorts of legal wrangling later, Bosh has won damages, his domain ... and a zillion other domains the same guy had been squatting.

There are nearly 800 names in the list, and Bosh and his internet consultant, Hadi Teherany of Max Deal, say they'll return them all to their rightful owners for free.

Which means a good chunk of the basketball world will be owing Bosh a favor. The list is thick with basketball players in the NBA, overseas, college and high school. There are also some football players, political sites, Britney Spears' child, singers, a site or two that sound raunchy, and the Mexican wrestler "El Octagon."

Just a few of the many NBA names on the list:

  • SamCassell.com
  • SteveNash.com
  • AmareStoudemire.com
  • AndreIguodala.com
  • JJRedick.com
  • EddyCurry.com
  • CarmeloAnthony.com
  • BrandonJennings.com
  • DelonteWest.com 
  • LuolDeng.com
  • KobeStopper.com
  • CaronButler.com
  • DeronWilliams.com
  • DariusMiles.com
  • BryanColangelo.com

(Also on the list is AaronAfflalo.com, even though that Denver player spells his first name "Arron.") The vast list of names also includes instructions for athletes and celebrities to get their names back from Bosh, if they wish. Paging El Octagon ...

John Wooden is 99

October, 14, 2009
10/14/09
10:31
AM ET

Happy Birthday, coach.

His family says they will celebrate quietly.

The tallest of his red-headed former pupils, Bill Walton, has written Wooden a heartfelt and funny letter full of memories and ... play-by-play of some of Walton's favorite new albums. He even implies that Bob Dylan's newest includes two songs Dylan wrote "specifically for" John Wooden. I read the lyrics of those songs -- and I'm sure Walton couldn't mean that literally.

By total coincidence, yesterday I bought a classic Wooden book: "Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court."

There are several great tales in there, but one really stuck with me.

Wooden, of course, is almost synonymous with UCLA. But here's the amazing thing. At the time he was offered the UCLA job, he was also in the running to become head coach in Minnesota, which was closer to home for him. There were some complications with the Minnesota position, though, which he wanted to get straightened out first. They said they'd call by 6 p.m. with the details of his final offer. UCLA was due to call at 7.

Minnesota didn't call, so when UCLA called, Wooden said yes to his second choice.

As he hung up the phone, it rang, and it was Minnesota. A blizzard had knocked out all the phone lines, so they had been unable to get through, but now they were offering everything he had asked for.

Had I been able to terminate my agreement with UCLA in an honorable fashion, I would have done so immediately. But I had given my word just a few minutes before.

If fate had not intervened, I would never had gone to UCLA. But my dad's little set of threes served me well: "Don't whine. Don't complain. Don't make excuses."...

I believe that things are directed in some sort of way. I'm not exactly sure how. I also believe that things turn out the best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.

Talk about making the best of it: John Wooden went on to lead UCLA to what may have been the greatest coaching run in college sports history. 

Tuesday Bullets

October, 13, 2009
10/13/09
11:57
AM ET
  • Bret LaGree of Hoopinion on Larry Brown's ejection via replacement referee: "Larry got his 2nd T from Kevin Scott, who never got within 35 feet of Brown before, during, or after the call. Brown tried to engage any of the refs on the occasion of his ejection but none would speak with or possibly even look at him. Rather than deal with the issue directly, Scott walked to the opposite end of the court and appeared to attempt to enlist a befuddled police officer in asking/making Brown leave the court."
  • The Knicks and Nets have both claimed to have the most cap space of any team in 2010. Who's right?
  • The Bulls like each other.
  • Dean Oliver, the Denver Nuggets' statistical consultant, and the case for drafting Ty Lawson. Also, I think Oliver is in a very small club of team stats experts: He gets to inform the front office on personnel decisions, and the coaching staff on game strategy. Also, Lawson was part of a Nugget lineup that played very well in Beijing.
  • Hope in Philadelphia, where a 3-0 preseason has people feeling good. Elton Brand tells Philadunkia: "All the major injuries are totally behind me and I feel great. Plus Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala have gotten better over the summer as well as I so we're going to have a good formidable team."
  • The Blazers -- one of those teams that has had a messed up cable deal that makes it hard for some fans to watch games -- say that by January they hope to have video of every game streaming live on their website, which would be an NBA first.
  • Jermaine Taylor and Chase Budinger didn't get a lot of attention on draft day, but they're looking pretty good in preseason.
  • Rasual Butler makes the Clippers better.
  • Gregg Popovich has inspired winemakers, and now vegetable growers.
  • Kevin Durant's one-game plus/minus in last night's OT victory over the Suns: plus-24. That's what I'm talking about!
  • An old video clip of Delonte West and Paul Pierce, pre-Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett trades, talking about how good the Celtics are going to be.
  • In my review of SonicsGate yesterday, I listed four goals of the movie. Producer Adam Brown adds two more: To preserve the history of the Seattle SuperSonics. Since that history is now officially owned by Clay Bennett, we needed to document some of the good times as well as the team's demise. OKC didn't celebrate in June 1979, and they didn't cry in May 1994. We did, and we deserve this document to remind us of that. Also, to get the issue back in people's mouths here in Washington with the primary goal of getting an NBA team back. Ultimately we have to convince our politicians that a 50% privately funded arena deal will create jobs and boost the economy while allowing us to regain this cultural asset."
  • Malcolm Gladwell on the ethics of a gladiator mentality.

Memo to a Young Baller

October, 12, 2009
10/12/09
11:22
AM ET

On Friday, TrueHoop had a post about Kevin Durant's statistics sending conflicting messages. They show that Kevin Durant is literally among the very best players in the NBA, of any age. Other numbers show, however, that the Thunder have somehow been a lot better when their franchise player is ... not in the game at all.

Why? It's a mystery.

Kevin Durant didn't like the topic much, and tweeted over the weekend, apparently in response:

Everybody that is doubtin me as a player and my team as a whole..all i can say is that we all are tryin and workin our hardest!
What more do u want? let me be the player i am...i come to practice everyday..and push myself to my limit, God has put me n a gr8 position!!
I love all the REAL basketball fans who appreciate hardwork, passion and love for the game..and not jus "plus and minuses"...wateva dat is!

My response:

Kevin Durant, I feel your pain. The post might have seemed like an attack, but this is no tale of hate.

Kevin Durant
Keep it up. Kevin Durant's effect on his team hasn't been great in his first two years, but time is on his side.
(Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images)

Forget the parts of the article about what a hard worker and great teammate you are. Forget where I said I thought you would be a star. Let's get into the article's main point, and the news that might be hard to swallow.

Here's the deal: For two years, when you have been in NBA games, you have put up amazing numbers, but somehow your team has been better when you sat. When you have been out there, opponents have outscored your team pretty bad. When you sit, they don't outscore your team as much. That's what plus/minus is.

(The final score, by the way, is also plus/minus. If you play the entire game, and the team wins by twenty, you're plus-20. It's not one of those stats you want to ignore. Not when for two years it has been saying the same thing.)

Now, I hear you saying, hey, that's because I'm a starter and I play against the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, while many of my teammates with better plus/minus numbers play against scrubs. That's not it either, though. For one thing, all your fellow starters have better plus/minus numbers, some of them much better.

Also there's a way that some experts have of adjusting those plus/minus numbers for the quality of the competition you play against (and for your teammates). In your case, those adjustments don't change the picture much at all. We can argue about how those adjustments are made. People have different approaches, but in all of them your effect on the team looks just about the same as the raw plus/minus.

It might not feel like it, but if I were you I'd want to know more about this, not less.

Think of it as someone letting you know you have something stuck in your teeth before you go on TV. Nobody wants to hear that, but anyone who cares about you would tell you anyway.

If I were your coach, your GM, or anyone else really invested in a great Thunder future, I'd want to dig deep into this issue -- in there somewhere are the keys to a lot more Thunder wins.

Now, are we saying this means you're a bad player? Hardly. See the word "conundrum" in the headline? Nobody knows what the hell is going on. It doesn't make sense. You're blatantly one of the best prospects to enter the NBA this decade. But, for reasons that are something of a mystery, you have not helped your team.

Yet.

To the Video
I love this debate, because what it forces us to think about is what actually gets results on the basketball court, as opposed to what seems like it ought to work.

Watching you play -- that length, that shooting, that talent -- we all see something that seems like it ought to work. What has been going wrong? That's really a question for your coach. Coaches know this kind of stuff. 

There are a zillion different things that happen when your team has the ball: isolation, spot-up shooting, catching and shooting off a screen, posting up, cutting, offensive rebounding. You're good at all of those, and I've seen numbers to prove it.

But, in my experience, there's literally nothing NBA coaches talk about as much as the pick-and-roll. Running it, and defending it.

Thanks to Synergy Sports, I have spent the last three hours watching video of you in the pick-and-roll last year.

On offense, when you're the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, the numbers show you're not very effective. And the video makes clear why: The idea, of course, is for your team to get a good look. Your superpower, however, is to get off a decent shot even when you're covered.

The way you're running the pick-and-roll, it looks like you're relying a little too much on your superpowers. In short, those picks are not getting you open, which is reflected in a low field goal percentage and a high turnover rate.

If you were sitting right here next to me, watching video, I imagine Coach Scott Brooks' voice would ring in your ears. Sometimes you go around the screen lackadaisically, failing to make things hard for your defender at all. Sometimes you don't wait for the screen to arrive. Sometimes the screener is set up at one angle, and you drive at another, so the screen has hardly any effect.

But the end result of all of those is you, with the ball on the move, and not open at all. (You'd have been better off, in most cases, just isolating ... at least that way Nenad Krstic's guy wouldn't be in your grille, too.)

And when you're far from the hoop, on the move, with one or two guys on you ... you bust out the superpowers. I saw about a dozen examples from last season alone of you taking that double-team to the hole, where two more defenders are waiting, and you shoot one-on-four. (The fact that you make those sometimes is amazing, but more impressive is the shovel pass to the rolling Krstic, or, one day, the kick-out to the dead-eye teammate the Thunder don't have.)

More common than driving against four guys, though, is taking a mid-range jumper against two. You make this shot more than most, but nobody makes it much at all. Efficient offenses take as few of these as possible.

What's especially clear in this video is that teams are more than happy to use pick-and-rolls as excuses to double-team you hard. A lot of times, it works, as they have succeeded in forcing very tough shots.

The Defense Issue
All that talk about offense, in the original post and this one, is probably silly. The same statistics that show your team is not as good when you're playing also hint at why: When you play, the offense is a little bit worse. But the defense falls off a cliff. When you're playing, your team gives up 111 points per 100 possessions. When you're on the bench, they give up 103. That's one of the biggest gaps in the whole NBA.

Again to the video. And again, the Synergy Sports stats show you're good at most categories of defense, except the two most common ones: Making spot up shooters miss, and defending that darned pick-and-roll.

Every coach in every game, more or less, has different pick-and-roll defense strategies. There
are books and books on this stuff. Against certain kinds of players you go over. Against others you switch. Sometimes you can go under. You can also blitz the ball, or lock-and-trail ... this might be the major thing NBA coaches worry about.

What nobody ever recommends, though, is getting lost. When your man is the screener, there is an art to jumping out to slow down the ball handler, so your teammate can catch up to the ball handler. Once he's there, you have to scramble back to your man, who is usually on his way to the hoop. 

The key is to spend as much time as possible guarding somebody. Get your body into the ball handler until the last possible moment, and then boom, explode back to your original guy, while making the pass as difficult as possible.

In executing this little maneuver, you tend to spend quite a lot of time guarding nobody. I could show you video of many plays when you never get close enough to really slow down the ball handler, but at the same time, your original man is also wide open. You? You're somewhere in the middle.

Other times you seem to be counting on your long arms to save you, either by playing for the block (letting someone drive, then swatting) or steal (instead of preventing the pass, trying to poke it away on the catch). 

This is no crisis.  I could fire up video of any NBA 20-year-old (as you were in this video) and see similar things. 

Remember when Team USA lost to Greece in the World Championships a few years ago? The Greek team realized that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony had not mastered defending the pick-and-roll, and exploited it all night. You're in good company.

I'm sure you'll work at this as you have so many other aspects of your game, and I'm sure with age, maturity, savvy and an ever-improving collection of teammates the results will turn around. But I wouldn't ignore this kind of stuff. The plus/minus numbers seem to be telling us that mastering the pick-and-roll, at both ends of the floor, is a key to winning.

In the meantime, realize this: What we have been talking about is how you have played at ages 19 and 20. What does that mean for how you'll play when you're 25? Nobody really knows. Maybe nothing.

But if I were you, I'd answer the critics like this: You're one of nine players in the history of the NBA to play heavy minutes and have a PER over 20 when you were just 20 years old. The others turned out all right. Your little club includes LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Paul, Spencer Haywood and the like.

It's not hard to imagine that one day they'll brag about being in that club with you.

Rumeal Robinson is the latest in a long line of former professional athletes to fall on financial hard times. People sometimes wonder how such a thing could happen. Here's one way, as reported by Gus Garcia-Roberts of the Miami New Times:

He made more than $5 million in NBA salary alone, but blew much of it on a strip club habit that would have made Pacman Jones blush. "He would go on binges of two whole weeks where he spent $20,000 a night at a strip club," says Barrows, his brother. "Not only that, but he'd also have a bunch of the strippers come back to his place, get buck naked, and clean his house for $500 or $1000 each."

The Kevin Durant Conundrum

October, 9, 2009
10/09/09
3:25
PM ET

There is almost no one like Kevin Durant. You can make a case he was the best freshman player in the history of the NCAA, and in the two years since he has only gotten better.

He's 6-9. He moves like a gazelle. No one can stop him getting his shot. He's a tremendous teammate and an unbelievably hard worker. He also just turned 21, but has already spent two years feeling out the superstar role.

Kevin Durant
There is almost no surer superstar prospect in the NBA, and yet for some reason Kevin Durant's team plays better when he's on the bench.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

For players his age, his scoring is top-five all-time.

Given that he's a half-decade from the age players typically start to peak, it's not hard to picture him becoming an MVP. The most respected single number to express a player's total contributions -- PER -- ranked him as the 20th best player last season, while projecting him to leap to fifth in what would be his senior year in college.

The expectations are now approaching ridiculous; the future the Thunder have been grooming Kevin Durant for has made some cameos, and he just spent an off-season marinating in his legendary work ethic

NBA General Managers have selected Kevin Durant as the player most likely to have a breakout season, and he's everybody's pick to be the next player to join basketball's two most exclusive clubs: Team USA and the All-Star team. It's no surprise that Durant is on billboards and the covers of video games. (A surprise of the off-season was word that the Thunder won't be on national TV much; Durant has the trappings of a player the world will crowd around television sets to watch.)

And yet, a shocking piece of news: The Thunder have, over the last two years, consistently performed worse than normal when Durant is on the floor. Any way you slice the +/- numbers, he's one of the Thunder's worst players.

You read that correctly. Kevin Durant, uniformly regarded as an out-of-this-world NBA player, has been killing his team.

Sometimes +/- can punish players simply for being on bad teams, but this is more than that. Mavericks' statistical expert Wayne Winston's in-depth lineup data shows that every one of Durant's key teammates -- Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison -- gets better, in many cases far better, results playing with less heralded teammates Thabo Sefolosha or Kyle Weaver while Durant sits.

In fact, almost nobody on the Thunder has a +/- rating as poor as Durant's. Winston rates Durant's performance "in the lowest 10% of all NBA players."

An Assault on Conventional Wisdom
The first line of analysis, of any player, are real experts: People who assess talent for a living.

Three out of three I talked to shrug. If you are trying to tell me that Kevin Durant is somehow a terrible player, they say, go ahead. But don't expect me to listen to you.

They are unanimously emphatic that Durant is an absolute gem of a keeper. You can't teach size and mobility. It's hard to teach that kind of feel for getting the ball in the hole. There are times in games when nothing matters more than being able to reliably create your own shot and he already has that. The things he doesn't have -- and nobody denies they exist -- can and will be learned. Players who start their careers like Durant, and keep working, tend to improve dramatically, they say.

Meanwhile, the things that make him inefficient -- mediocre passing, forcing some shots, turnovers, not making teammates better, and of course bad defense -- are all things that improve not just with work but also with better teammates. With the mere passage of time, thanks to an armada of draft picks, cap space, and high-potential young players to develop with him, these things will get much better on their own.

Surrounded by better shooters, for instance, Durant would face fewer double teams and more assists, and less of a need to create for himself and turn the ball over. With better teammates, his team would score much more easily. On defense, meanwhile, veterans have a long track record of getting more consistent results -- the referees may be a factor, but probably even more important is the physical development that allows players in their prime to take nightly poundings and keep on fighting. 

Those three experts all had different theories to to dismiss the +/- numbers:

Theory #1: Any player playing long minutes on a bad team would have a bad +/-.
This makes sense at first. Think about +/-. You're on the court when the team gets slaughtered, and you get a bad +/-. Kevin Durant plays a lot. The Thunder have been killed a lot. There's nothing to see here, right? 

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook doesn't have nearly Durant's reputation, but he has had a much more positive effect on the Thunder.
(Larry W. Smith, NBAE via Getty Images)

As it happens, most Thunder players do have bad +/- numbers. But the Thunder perform particularly poorly when that one player is on the court.

In fact, the Thunder has plenty of lineups that perform well. "In most situations," reports Winston, "holding some things constant and putting Durant in makes things worse, not better."

The Thunder's big three, for instance, are Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Jeff Green. Last season, in the 387 minutes Westbrook and Green were on the floor without Durant, the team outscored opponents by a dozen points. In the 1,683 minutes all three of them were on the floor together, they were outscored by 245 points.

Combinations of Green, Westbrook and Nenad Krstic -- without Durant -- are uniformly good. Meanwhile, it's hard to find any common combinations of players with Durant that stand out. An exception: When Durant plays with Green, Westbrook and Collison. Those four played nearly 700 minutes together during which they outscored opponents just a little, by 18.

One mitigating factor: Durant missed some games last season, including a very soft part of the schedule where the team rolled aga
inst weakling opponents like the Timberwolves, Kings and Wizards. So, while his teammates were looking good in +/-, Durant was holding constant.

Theory #2: Any player with those teammates would have a bad +/-.
Again, sound good, but his teammates manage to be part of many good lineups and player combinations. 

Of particular interest here is Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are very good when Westbrook's on the court, and generally pretty bad when he's off. (Wayne Winston says this effect is so pronounced he could build a strong case that Westbrook should have been rookie of the year over Derrick Rose.)

How does Westbrook do it?

In some ways, he's the opposite of Durant. He is not a gaudy scorer -- in fact, he's a pretty bad shooter. He also has a high turnover rate, which is typically murder on team efficiency.

Yet Westbrook is a good defender. He draws a ridiculous number of fouls on both ends of the floor. He gets the team in the bonus, which in turn earns all of his teammates free throws. He rebounds well for his position, particularly at the offensive end, which can often lead to easy baskets.

Westbrook also has a statistical advantage over teammates like Durant and Green: He didn't start for the first 13 games last season under P.J. Carlesimo, when the Thunder were terrible. Carlesimo wanted to run and gun, but they were poorly equipped for the task. They lost badly, again and again.

By the time Westbrook started, the team was playing a more sensible style under Scott Brooks.

On the other hand, it's not like the first month of the season gave Durant wholly wacky +/- numbers. Winston keeps his +/- ratings per month. Durant had a -11 for the first month of the season, and then improved for three months in the middle (-6, -2, -7) before finishing about where he started (-10, -13).

Theory #3: It's hard to play with a superstar.
Just as it's undoubtedly a challenge for young Kevin Durant to perform the duties of a superstar, it may also be hard for his young teammates to know how to account for his abilities.

In other words, when Durant is benched, Westbrook, Green et al can make basketball decisions more or less as they have their entire basketball lives.

When Durant, superstar-in-the-making, is on the court, his teammates would presumably be aware of that. Hesitant jumpers, seams in the defense unexploited and shot-clock wasted finding Durant when he doesn't have the team's highest percentage shot ... you can find examples of all that on video.

This could explain why the Thunder are not just (far) worse on defense when Durant plays. They're also, surprisingly, slightly worse on offense.

Theory #4: Anyone that young, playing those kinds of minutes, is likely to see his team get outscored.
There may be something to this.

Kevin Durant has played 5,653 minutes in his first two NBA seasons. Good teams generally don't play 19- and 20-year-olds those kinds of minutes. In fact, bad teams don't often do it, either.

There may be an inevitability to his poor performance. Since the mid-1990s only a handful of players as young as Durant have played the kinds of minutes he has over two seasons -- and only LeBron James has more field goal attempts. Durant has been in an unusual situation that almost never produces good results until the player matures.

At the same age as Durant, some had better bottom line results than Durant -- LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard -- but they all had more veteran teammates. Young Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, on the other hand, had Thunder-style youth around him, and performed only slightly better than Durant (according to Win Shares) in terms of helping his team win while he was on the court.

But again, if you're in Kevin Garnett territory, the player Winston calls the best of the decade, in terms of adjusted +/-, it's hard to worry too much about Durant.

Kevin Durant, Great Player?
It shakes out as something of a debate between what we see with our eyes and what the team actually does. Based on how others have played at his age, it strikes me as likely that Durant will blossom precisely as predicted. But there's no denying that years one and two have proved little-to-nothing about his ability to help a team, despite his glossy reputation.

There is an undeniable reality that flashy scorers, like Durant, have long gotten the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assigning greatness. Scoring is considered, essentially, a "big thing" for a player to be able to do. Durant's good at it, too. Durant's effective field goal percentage last season was a healthy 51%, even as he shot a ton. Garnett, James, Kobe Bryant, Amare Stoudemire ... at the same age, they all made a lower percentage. 

But if scoring is a big thing, what about the "little" things, like, say, defending the pick and roll, closing out on shooters and finding open teammates in rhythm? It could be that a young Durant has been doing the little things poorly enough that they overwhelm the big thing he does well.

Knowing that just about any NBA general manager would trade his own children for a prospect of Durant's caliber, I asked Winston if he'd advise his team to accept if the Mavericks were (in some alternate universe) offered Durant for free. "I'd say probably not," he replied. "I would not sign the guy. It's simply not inevitable that he'll make mid-career strides. Some guys do. But many don't, and he'd have to improve a lot to help a team."

And when I relayed Winston's comment to one of the NBA's most respected talent evaluators, his response was simply: "He's crazy."

Over the next few years, one of them will be proved wrong.

Rush Limbaugh has, through the years, said several callous things about the NBA, most of which I happily know nothing about. Chris Bernucca of Pro Basketball News, though, has been paying attention, and has strong reactions.

Bernucca has been inspired consider his own love of the NBA, and concludes there's more to it than the love of the game:

By loving the NBA, I limit my contact with white supremacists, nutty nationalists, merciless lawmen and legislators, 18th-century ideologues, Jesus freaks, old-fashioned fearmongers and DEA wannabes.  

Click the link above for the necessary context.

Watch This Debate

October, 9, 2009
10/09/09
9:57
AM ET

A call, in baseball, to have machines call balls and strikes. If they're way more accurate, why wouldn't you?

Machines are, I assume, a long way from being able to referee NBA games. But when the time comes, and the machines are simply better at telling us if that was a 3-pointer or his foot was on the line, or if that ball was on its way up when it was blocked, what's your preference? Something impersonal but more efficient -- or something with a pulse you can talk to?

And isn't this debate a little reminiscent of that moment at the grocery store when you decide whether or not to line up for the self checkout?

Thursday Bullets

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
2:59
PM ET
  • A prediction this year's champion will come from the East, where David Berri's numbers say Orlando, Boston and Cleveland are far ahead of the rest of the conference.
  • They asked all the Blazers which NBA players they respect the most. Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan tie for first with three votes each
  • Chris Douglas-Roberts has the messiest locker of all Nets, and he doesn't like getting taped up for games, because the tape hurts the skin on the bottom of his feet. Also, word that Douglas-Roberts and Courtney Lee are locked into a "nasty" battle for playing time.
  • The Madrid team's whole starting front line is injured for their exhibition against the Jazz this afternoon. Madrid's new coach, Ettore Messina, blogs about the slow work of integrating many new players.  On Sports.ru, he also writes about a player who won't be playing for Madrid: "As we agreed terms with [Pablo] Prigioni, a possibility to talk to Ricky Rubio came up. So, good offers were made both to Joventut Badalona and the player himself. After a week of thinking, Ricky decided that he wanted to spend the following two years (before leaving for the NBA) in Barcelona, close to his family and friends. At that point there was no way persuading him to come to Madrid. Though, obviously, we still wish him good luck." Worth noting that Messina has the impression Rubio will come to the NBA in two years -- even though it would make financial sense to wait for three.
  • Antawn Jamison doing yoga.
  • Sergio Rodriguez, for a moment, forgot which team he was on.
  • I have a pet theory that long players who can hit open jumpers, pass and play D all over the court are super valuable to any team. Suns rookie Earl Clark could be one of those guys
  • Weird thing: Dennis Rodman is one of the best players in NBA history, thanks to the fact that nobody has really ever rebounded like he did. That's what makes him great. Yet it's clearly not what people most loved about him. Here's how I know that: I just spent 20 minutes trying to find a really good highlight reel of his rebounding prowess. I thought it would be something we could all learn from, especially about recognizing and pursuing rebounds out of your area. And there are a zillion highlight reels of the guy. But as far as I can tell just about all of them are mostly dunks, fights, blocks, 3-pointers and clowning. It feels a little like we love those elements of basketball so much that even when we're celebrating a great rebounder, we won't actually do so with, you know, rebounds.
  • It's getting to be just about time for Julian Wright to show what he can do. How did the young Hornet fare in a preseason game against the Hawks? Bret LaGree of Hoopinion was there: "Julian Wright has a great (I fear it may be an innate) ability to overcomplicate a situation, to try to squeeze three moves into a play where only one is necessary but that wasn't in evidence tonight. At the start of the game, he and Morris Peterson would spot up outside the arc, leaving the paint (extended) to Paul and West, maybe Sean Marks if he set a ball-screen for Paul. Wright would cut to the basket if his man helped defensively. The three he missed was in rhythm and as good a look from that range as he's likely to have. The 16' jumper he made on the baseline in third quarter looked very instinctual. He was far superior to the Hawks 2nd/3rd string in the fourth quarter."
  • The assertion that if roles were reversed -- Will Bynum has been a first-round pick, and Rodney Stuckey had been undrafted -- Bynum would be the Pistons' starter.
  • "More Than a Game" -- the LeBron James documentary -- is said to rank up there in the sports documentary world with the Muhammad Ali story "When We Were Kings." High praise, indeed.
  • "We Believe" proved to be a bad tagline for the Clippers.
  • Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "The officiating by the replacements was so atrocious that fill-in official Robbie Robinson could become the first referee to ever be fired twice by the NBA."
  • Clark Matthews, writing for Daily Thunder, on the cheap seats in Oklahoma City: "Do we have to keep calling the third tier 'Loud City?' I know the Hornet marketing team, which did an excellent job selling the sport to this market, came up with the idea, and a lot of people have embraced this, but I've sat up there a lot. It isn't loud and it's not a city."
  • Pacer rookie A.J. Price wore the wrong gear to practice and couldn't be in the team photo. Travis Diener, writing on the Indianapolis Star's website: "Those darn rookies. You've got to hold their hands through everything."

Total rebound percentage is a powerful number to know.

If a certain player is on the floor, what percentage of the missed shots does he grab? Big deal. Important to winning games.

And if you want to be really good at it, it turns out you had better be young. Like brand new to the NBA.

If you just look for the best seasons ever, in terms of rebounding percentage, the players are young. (UPDATE: NOT SO! See note below.) Super young.  In the entire top 20, only one player was older than 23 as of February 1 in the season in question.

Arvydas Sabonis, a real outlier, cracked the list in the season when he was 31.

Besides Sabonis, nowhere in the top 50 is there even anyone as old as 25. There are a few (Dikembe Mutombo, Antonio Davis, Corie Blount) of 25-year-olds in the second 50, but no one in the entire 100 (besides Sabonis) as old as even 26.

Another wrinkle: If you look at players younger than 22 (who have played at least 500 minutes), since 1946, here's the all-time leader list. 10 of the top 15 are active in the NBA right now. Isn't that amazing?

It's not a high-schooler effect, either; All the guys near the top of this list went to college. Young players now are apparently better than young players used to be at getting rebounds, for some reason.

As much as we like to think of rebounding as the sacred art of savvy veterans, it certainly looks like youthful desire and athleticism are the real keys. Those coaches who lock all rookies on the bench could be missing out.

UPDATE: So, well, this is embarrassing. My first point about how how the best rebounders are young is just plain false. Turns out that as I did that search on Basketball-Reference, I had searched only among rookies. Yes, my magical insight was based entirely on a careless error.

Once that error is corrected, the picture changes in a major way, and we learn that if you want to be at the top of this list, instead of being young, you have to be Dennis Rodman.

Worth noting, though, is that of the non-Rodman leaders in this category, almost all are under the age of 30. Youth is still a factor of sorts: Only seven players made the top 100 after the age of 30. Rodman is a total freak here. He did it eight times after 30. Dikembe Mutombo appears four times, Marcus Camby three, Charles Barkley and Swen Nater twice each, Alton Lister and Chris Dudley once each.

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