It’s time to rethink our stance on Jamal Crawford

crawford griffin

I haven’t thought about Jamal Crawford in about eighteen years, since he was a one-and-done for the University of Michigan during Michigan State’s national championship season in 2000. Since then, he’s played in the NBA for Chicago, New York, Golden State, Atlanta, Portland, Los Angeles (Clippers), and Minnesota, his current team. If I’m reading this correctly, Crawford is the active leader in three-point attempts. This morning, Blake Griffin, Crawford’s former teammate in L.A., revealed that Crawford is a BlackBerry user.

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Bouncing puck: Passing, not shooting, is the key to scoring on the ice and the hardcourt

At 37-8, the once-middling Atlanta Hawks have the second-best record in the NBA. If they beat Brooklyn tonight, they’ll match last season’s win total with more than two months to go in the regular season. Did anyone see this coming? Yes, last year’s Hawks snuck into the playoffs and nearly knocked off the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. And observers should have noted the significant number of games the Hawks’ top players missed due to injuries last season; a healthy team couldn’t help but be better. But this much better? The most important difference seems to be a new coach, former Greg Popovich understudy Mike Budenholzer, who knows how to utilize the players he has, and a group of players that is on board with and executing their brand of team-oriented basketball.

Indeed, as numerous writers have observed,* Atlanta is scoring more by passing more. They have the fourth-best field-goal percentage, and of those field goals they make, more than sixty percent of the two-pointers and nearly ninety-three percent of the threes are assisted. Both of those rates lead the NBA. Behind them: the equally high-flying Warriors, the only team with a better record (36-7).

The principle that passing, rather than isolation play, is the best way to generate good shooting in the NBA also seems to apply in the NHL, where new research indicates that teams generally score at a higher rate on assisted shots as compared to unassisted shots. When further breaking down the assisted shooting percentage into shots generated by one pass and shots generated by two passes, the difference between assisted and unassisted shooting percentage can be extreme. One example is the Florida Panthers, with an unassisted shooting percentage of about 5.5% and a two-pass assisted shooting percentage of nearly thirteen percent.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that similar strategies would be similarly effective in generally similar sports (five active players per team engaged in free-flowing gameplay). With camera-driven player-tracking technology recently implemented in the NBA and on its way to the NHL, perhaps the rudimentary analogy set forth above can serve as a call for inter-sport collaboration between basketball and hockey analysts.

* Blogger code for, “I can’t find the article I previously read that made my precise point, so get ready for me to wave my hands over the raw data and hope you’ll buy the general premise.”

Families that play together (periodically) win together: NBA champions edition

Following the San Antonio Spurs’ dominant win over the Miami Heat in the NBA finals, FiveThirtyEight decided to examine whether the popular narrative about the winners and losers– that the Spurs played a more complete, team-oriented style of basketball the Heat, increasingly reliant on their solitary superstar, could not combat– was borne out in the numbers. They did this by comparing the relative usage rates (USG%) of the teams’ lineups. Plotting the difference in USG% between each team’s “top” player, the one who “used” the most possessions to either shoot, be fouled, or commit a turnover, and each successive player, should show how well the team spread the ball around. A team that did a good job of sharing the ball should plot a flatter line than a team that did not. FiveThirtyEight’s chart supported the popular narrative: San Antonio’s line was flatter than Miami’s, and the league average, while Miami’s line topped both.

As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, this isn’t how NBA championships are supposed to be won. As much as the Heat’s assemblage of its “big three” was seen as groundbreaking, it fit the narrative that grew out of Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers (and certainly existed before Phil Jackson coached both of those teams to multiple championships) that the NBA was a star-driven league, and the way to win championships was to have a superstar. The Heat simply presented as an extreme version of that reality, with little in the way of supporting cast members.

FiveThirtyEight only compared this year’s teams, but the article made me wonder how the last NBA champions who deviated from the star-heavy model– the Detroit Pistons team that won it all exactly ten years ago amidst a solid run– compared statistically to this year’s Spurs.

I tallied the numbers using Basketball-Reference‘s team playoff data, sorted by USG%. Before doing so, though, I made an executive decision to omit data from players who appeared in fewer than ten playoff games that year, which swept out Austin Daye (one game for the 2014 Spurs) and Darko Milicic (eight games for the 2004 Pistons). The resulting plot lines for each team are essentially equally flat:

nbachampusagechartFor perspective, keep in mind where the Spurs’ line– red on my chart, black on the one above– is situated relative to the rest of the (2014) league. It seems these Spurs and those Pistons were on the same page when it came to playing team-oriented basketball. Meanwhile, Miami is discussing adding Carmelo Anthony for next season. Anthony has been in the top ten in the league for USG% in nine of the past ten years.

NBA Finals, Game 3: Aptly named?

So far, the NBA Finals has been a tale of two blowouts. The most recent one belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, who routed the Miami Heat 113-77 to take a 2-1 series lead. The big story on offense was the three-point shooting of Danny Green and Gary Neal, who together made 13/19 shots from distance. As a team, the Spurs shot 50% from behind the arc, and they attempted 32 such shots.

Thirty-two three-point attempts seemed like a lot to me. The season average across all teams this year was 19.9, that number representing a record high. Thirty-two attempts is not an all-time record, though. In 1996, Dallas attempted forty-nine three-pointers in a 127-117 win over New Jersey. (Somebody named George McCloud was responsible for twenty of those attempts. The Nets, as a team– a team featuring none other than future Maverick Shawn Bradley– only attempted five. Rick Mahorn also played in that game, so do with that what you will.) In fact, there have been 404 games in NBA/ABA/BAA history in which a team attempted at least 33 three-point shots. It isn’t even the most this season, in which eighty-three games saw a team attempt at least 33 threes, and seven of those performances came in these playoffs. All time, only twenty-three playoff games have seen at least thirty-three attempts, though, which certainly comports with the trend the Sporting News discussed in the above-linked story on the steep increase in three-point shooting.

That the Spurs’ thirty-two attempts on Tuesday seemed like a lot to me only means that I haven’t been watching a lot of NBA basketball in recent years, which is absolutely correct.

Enjoy game 4 tonight if you’re capable of enjoying such things.

LeBron James is the 2011-2012 MVP, and rightly so

Back in February, I asserted that LeBron James was the best basketball player ever, and at that point, he was. He had at that point, by a comfortable margin, a higher player efficiency rating than any player ever had achieved. (General explanation of PER in the previous post; full explanation here.) Although he regressed from 32.8 to 30.74 to finish the season, it still was good enough to be the tenth best season ever by an individual player. In so doing, James knocked David Robinson out of the top ten, meaning that James (4, 9, 10), Wilt Chamberlain (1, 2, 5), and Michael Jordan (3, 6, 7, 8) collectively turned in the ten best seasons of professional basketball ever played.

James’ competitors for the MVP this year weren’t even close to him:

Rank Player PER
1. LeBron James 30.74
2. Chris Paul 27.04
3. Dwayne Wade 26.31
4. Kevin Durant 26.20
5. Kevin Love 25.36
6. Dwight Howard 24.24
7. Blake Griffin 23.43
8. Derrick Rose 23.02
9. Russell Westbrook 22.94
9. Andrew Bynum 22.94

For comparison, Paul is the only other player whose 2011-12 charted on the top 100 all time— at #79.

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Previously
LeBron James is the best professional basketball player ever

LeBron James is the best professional basketball player ever

It might not seem like it, but, as discussed on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike this morning, LeBron James’ current season is the best season a professional player has ever had. John Hollinger, also of ESPN, created the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) metric for basketball players. In (his) general terms, “the PER sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.” It’s an advanced metric, and really, it’s a doubly advanced metric because it’s derivative of other advanced metrics. If you want it, the nitty gritty is here, but what PER allows us to do is compare individual players with their contemporaries and with those from other eras on equal footing.

The following is a list of the top individual full-season performances, based on PER, in the history of the NBA and ABA:

Rank    Player PER Season Tm
1. Wilt Chamberlain 31.84 1962-63 SFW
2. Wilt Chamberlain 31.76 1961-62 PHW
3. Michael Jordan 31.71 1987-88 CHI
4. LeBron James 31.67 2008-09 CLE
5. Wilt Chamberlain 31.64 1963-64 SFW
6. Michael Jordan 31.63 1990-91 CHI
7. Michael Jordan 31.19 1989-90 CHI
8. Michael Jordan 31.14 1988-89 CHI
9. LeBron James 31.10 2009-10 CLE
10. David Robinson 30.66 1993-94 SAS

The full list from Basketball-Reference is here.

James already has two of the ten best seasons, and he’s the only active player in that group. (His teammate, Dwayne Wade, is the next active player listed, at 13.) If the current season ended today, though, James would post a PER of 32.8, by far the highest mark ever recorded.

Perception is a valid and important check on the things statistics tell us. I feel like there are a million things one could write about James and perception, expectations, image, and legacy, all of which would get at the fact that the title of this post is something I’d guess most people reject as an initial, gut reaction but also something we all expected we would read, write, or say at some point. There are myriad potential lessons here. One is that these advanced metrics are a way of witnessing history in the moment, something that’s difficult to do based upon perception alone. Another is that, darn it, I hate LeBron and sabermetrics are for idiot-nerds. A third raises questions about the value we place on winning championships as a component of individual players’ legacies. A fourth is that Patrick Ewing, whose best season comes in at #117 on the big list, might not be the Dan Marino of the 1980s and 1990s NBA, and Kobe Bryant, whose best season so far comes in at #51, isn’t quite the heir to His Airness’ throne, or even Shaq’s big seat. And on and on.