Context, size, spacing (and the Cosmos) matter in the game of basketball

Before moving forward I would like to address the entirety of the world that has had the (mis?)fortune of reading this blog. Have I been overly critical of Denver’s front office? Yes. Unfairly so? Possibly, yes. Bordering on psychosis? Maybe. Much of this criticism–actually, no, all of this criticism–is rooted in the Nene for JaVale McGee swap. Trading a good player for a bad player is bad basketball. It’s not because Nene was my favorite Nugget. It’s not because I still have a man-crush on the Brazilian (even though I do). It’s because trading an already good player for potential alone is foolish. I don’t care how many games Nene sits due to minor injuries. Trading a heady, professional with high on and off-court I.Q. for the absolute opposite is insane. And anyone who says most teams in Denver’s position would have done likewise is marking out. Period. JaVale McGee is not good. Nor will he ever become good. He, like J.R. Smith before him, doesn’t have the mental fortitude or aptitude to turn his raw potential into the goldmine it could become. It’s not Nene. It’s never been about Nene. It’s JaVale. It’s just, JaVale. If a guy doesn’t get “it” when he starts playing, he’ll never get “it” at all. You can blame Washington and Ernie Grunfeld all you want, just know ahead of time that a player makes his situation. The environment doesn’t have to make the player. Outside of a select few, every other Wizards teammate of JaVale’s didn’t have the same irrevocably disturbing habits. JaVale could have done better there in the same way he can do better here — starting with his eating habits. Having said that, I am also critical because I do not adjust to change very well–particularly change that manifests into JaVale McGee. Very few franchises have gone through as much change over the last decade as this one. In that same vein, very few franchises have also won as many games. It would be nice if the constant whirlwind of roster movement stopped for players, coaches, and fans alike. Just make sure to keep winning games, okay? And do something about JaVale. Winning doesn’t get old. At least I don’t think. JaVale already has.

When running a team in what is perceived to be one of the NBA’s smallest markets, a front office has to be smarter than pretty much all of its competitors in order to attain and maintain excellence. Their margin for error is so nonexistent that it puts everything they do under a microscope. Mistakes can’t happen. Draft picks must be thoroughly scrutinized. Potential trades require extensive discussion.

Throughout our study of Denver’s involvement in the Dwight Howard trade, it seems as if Nuggets’ management might not have abode by this proxy. As a result, they now have a roster chock-full of disjointed talent, skill overlap, little reliable shooting, and loads of athleticism. But boy, can they produce. They’re like a fantasy team in their production capabilities. This is why a lot of very smart people are picking them as a dark horse candidate to dethrone the Thunder from the Western Conference’s elite. They’re taking Iguodala’s career numbers as a Sixer, his rightfully warranted reputation as an all-world defender, coupling it with each individual Denver Nugget player’s career production, taking the same model from each individual NBA member team, and combining it all into one nice, messy, long equation; and voila, 58-wins.

CONTEXT MATTERS

The problem with applying this equation to basketball is that basketball is a game played in space by ten individual actors at one time. Each of these actors is not subject to variance like you’d see in every other statistical simulation because they are doing more than driving the numbers. They are the numbers. These actors are human beings. Each human being is not alike. Some are taller. Some are broader. Some are longer. Some are more skilled. Some are smarter. Some are dumber. Some are more clumsy than the other. They’re not a roll of the dice. They’re not a stack of cards. A team of players is not constant. Human beings themselves are not constant. We are fluid. Literally.

There’s a reason one player performs better or worse than another player in much the same way there’s a reason we know not to touch a hot stove. There’s a reason player A appears to be less efficient than player B. If player A’s teammates are not very good, he will have less space to apply his craft, and thus, appear to be inefficient in doing so. But we do not count a player’s teammates in each individual assessment. Because that would make the already insanely complex even more-so. That’s not random variance. That’s not a flaw in the player. That’s a flaw in the system by which each individual player is measured and, by extension, expected to perform. Spacing matters. Size matters. Context matters.

Player size is just one of many variables that influence the box score. When Pau Gasol is able to tower over Kenneth Faried for a rebound despite a fundamentally sound box-out by the Manimal, no one really notices. Faried earned himself a double-double in the box score, after all. When David Lee has the ball on the high-post and is looking down on Faried, Lee’s chances of making a simple jump-shot increase ten-fold because there is very little impeding his line of site to the rim. No one really notices this, though, because Faried’s going to put up 15-and-10. The fact he can’t stop an opposing player due to his size matters little. Production. Production. Production.

When Ty Lawson faces a hard hedge on a pick-and-roll that becomes a double-team and he turns the ball over because he’s not big enough or long enough to pass out of it, no one really notices. The box score shows he played great. When Kenneth Faried can’t stop an opposing player in space because he doesn’t take up enough of it, no one really notices. All they see is the 12-and-10. When Jerry Sloan inserts big man Kyrylo Fesenko into his starting lineup for game two of Denver’s 2010 first round playoff series against the Utah Jazz and the whole kit and caboodle turns in Utah’s favor, no one really notices. The box score says Nene played great and Fesenko proved ineffective. Nene produced, after all. It must mean he’s a center.

If you watch the Denver Nuggets as closely as I do you’d see these guys playing as hard as they possibly can. You can see and hear as Kenneth Faried screams in anguish during a box-out where he’s surrounded by two and three players twice his size against the Oklahoma City Thunder. You can see as Ty Lawson drives the lane against the Los Angeles Clippers only to be surrounded by a crowd of human flesh three-times his size hell-bent on keeping him from the rim. You can see the difficulty with which Lawson is faced when attempting his set jump-shot against a towering opponent’s close-out. People don’t understand the task Denver’s management is asking of these players–Lawson and Faried in particular. In a game overflowing with Goliaths, Denver is intent on running David into the ground. It makes me uncomfortable seeing such undersized players be asked to do so much.

Sure, they are professional athletes. But even the most finely-tuned athlete cannot make up for disparities in size. Play Ty Lawson 35+ minutes per night and see his body wear down from the unending punishment he’s likely to endure. Lawson puts his body on the line more than any player I’ve seen in a Nuggets uniform since Iverson. Play Kenneth Faried 35+ minutes per night and watch a young man’s body detonate before your very eyes. A player can only withstand so much before breaking down.

This is basketball. Basketball is a sport. An athletic competition between a team of individuals. When a wide-receiver towers over an undersized cornerback to grab a football, a color commentator is quick to point out how smart the quarterback was in picking out a matchup advantage and attacking it. When Kevin McHale’s Houston Rockets come out in April of last year and pound the ball into Luis Scola at the game’s outset because Kenneth Faried has little chance of stopping him, no one notices. After all, Faried put up 10-and-11 the night before against the very same team, right? That he could not contain Scola either night isn’t mentioned. Context matters. Spacing matters. Size matters.

Size matters just as much in basketball as it does in every other sport sans golf and tennis. And maybe ice-fishing. When the two most important players on a basketball team are as undersized at their positions as Lawson and Faried, you’re giving yourself no chance of competing against the league’s elite. And if people don’t understand how Lawson and Faried are undersized at their positions, I cannot help them. It’s basketball. One undersized player per rotation is fine. Two? You’re just asking for trouble. Production over size is foolhardy seeing as the very game they play is defined by the space in which it is contested. This isn’t rocket science. It’s simply physics. Inches matter.

I’m sure many will disagree. Many will say the game is defined by the scoreboard. Which is true. But what appears on the scoreboard is defined by what happens on the floor. And what happens on the floor is defined by the space in which it is played. The space in which it is played dictates how each individual actor engages in the activity. And what defines each individual actor is size, speed, skill, and smarts. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Especially not basketball.

TAKING INVENTORY

With that said, one thing you have to do after a major trade before moving forward is take inventory; see what you’ve given up, see what you’ve added to replace it, and then see what’s remaining to build around. That is all I have done over the last few weeks with the Denver Nuggets. They gave up a young, competent, insanely efficient, first-in-his-class shooting guard, for an all-world defender, first-in-his-class facilitator, and what history suggests to be a ‘meh’ shooter. History, like anything (including myself), can be very, very wrong from time-to-time.

My biggest fear is Denver nullified the trade’s potential success by moving the only player who makes Andre Iguoadala the player he is, while further hampering Danilo Gallinari’s growth as a point-forward. Throughout his career, Andre Iguodala has had the luxury of being surrounded by great shooters like Kyle Korver, Jason Kapono, Jrue Holiday, and Elton Brand. These are players who may not have always excelled from three, even though there were many, but did so from mid-range as well. As such, one reason Iggy’s assist rate is so high is because of those shooters. This theory could be false. Danilo Gallinari’s assist rate rose six points last year to a career high and it’s not like the Nuggets had a treasure trove of shooters. Well, except for the one. However, if Denver was going to trade anyone for Andre Iguodala, it should have been Gallinari, as Iguodala’s addition negates Gallo’s utility to a certain extent. The problem isn’t that Iguodala has no one to pass to. The problem is that Iguodala doesn’t have the shooters and floor-spacers he’s accustomed to. Arron Afflalo was one of those shooters.

Courtesy of Basketball-Reference

Courtesy of Basketball-Reference (apologies for the resolution–will be fixed ASAP)

Don’t be mistaken. Denver can, and likely will, still win some games. And they can win a whole hell of a lot of them. All is not lost (even though my doom and gloom over the last several months has made it seem so. I might be kind of nuts). I did, after all, pick them to miss the playoffs(!?).

In order to win, though, Denver’s coaching staff must take great pains in building lineups that complement each individual player on their roster. This is eminently more difficult than it seems because Denver is so undersized (at the game’s two most critical positions), there’s so much overlap in skill following the Afflalo-for-Iguodala swap, and two players for which they may be reliant are not up to par in the intelligence department. Player production isn’t something you pull out of a hat. Everything that happens on the floor dictates each individual’s stat-line. There’s a reason behind everything. Space matters. Size matters. Context matters.

There aren’t many games decided on player instinct alone. There are even fewer as complex as basketball. A baseball player knows exactly where he’s going to go when he knocks a hit into the outfield. Likewise, an outfielder knows before a pitch where he’s going to throw the ball if and when it comes his way. Basketball is not baseball. That’s why I love it. It’s totally and unabashedly random (with certain caveats). But that’s also why so few people actually get it. There are so many variables at play. A team can’t be built in a test-tube. Except, it kind of is.

I’ll reveal my test tube in the coming days and show you how the Denver Nuggets can force me into writing a public apology to Arturo Galletti of the Wages of Wins Network by winning over 47-games.

Until then, here’s a preview:

Why the Andre Iguodala trade doesn’t make Denver better: Part III

In part one of our discussion surrounding the Nuggets’ involvement in the Dwight Howard megadeal, we established Denver was operating at a severe disadvantage in negotiations as they were brought into the discussions on the final day of talks. Given the short amount of time in which they were allotted to make a decision, we took it one step further in part two and showed the caliber of player they relinquished in Arron Afflalo. With Afflalo’s relative place in history clearly established, we will now meticulously outline his importance in Denver’s offense and defense last year. We will then see how Andre Iguodala can fill that void.

Discussion:

Arron Afflalo was probably the best, most consistent, basketball player on the Nuggets roster last season. As has become common with this franchise, they were asking far too much from ‘Trip’ for him to remain (in their eyes) an effective player. Denver’s coaches and front office wanted Afflalo to take on more responsibility offensively while maintaining his near elite-level defense. It’s not simply Afflalo considering himself “the guy”, as many in basketball circles would have you believe. A player of his caliber and dedication doesn’t just decide to stop playing defense. His 19.1% usage rate last year was a career-high, and over a 3-point jump from 2010-11. No, what happened with Afflalo more than anything was an inability to handle his new responsibilities on offense while sustaining effort defensively on a possession-by-possession basis during a contracted schedule where teams were playing as many as five games in seven nights.

As can be seen here using Basketball Reference’s advanced stats calculation — an arbitrary measure, to be sure — Afflalo’s defense isn’t what fell off last year. It was mostly his offense, specifically his shooting percentages. In 2010-11, when he was surrounded by a bevy of capable shooters, Arron naturally shot better from the perimeter because he was privileged to have more space to do so. In 2011-12, with the exodus of Nene Hilario’s skilled passing and offensive presence inside, the reduced capabilities of Danilo Gallinari (because of injuries to both he and Nene in tandem with Nene’s trade), J.R. Smith’s production replaced with Cory Brewer’s, and Raymond Felton/Chauncey Billups’s dead-eye shooting from range replaced with Andre Miller’s set-shot, Afflalo had more attention payed his way when Denver had the ball on offense. Besides maintaining his elite-level defense, Denver asked him to shoulder the load for them offensively when all of their best shooters from the prior year were in another city. George Karl has been documented as being critical of Afflalo’s defense. He did so openly and honestly during NBA TV’s ‘The Association’ broadcast. An interaction which, if you pay close attention, includes Afflalo silently brushing aside his coach’s criticisms. I’m sure Arron is guilty of having his concentration wane playing through Denver’s injury-ravaged, trade-wrecked mess of a lockout-shortened season. I guess you would have to be an inherently understanding and empathetic person to see these things.

Trip is a key player to build your franchise around on the wing (which is why Orlando is now doing it. Like Sam Presti did in San Antonio and Oklahoma City before him with Manu Ginobili and James Harden, Rob Hennigan is doing in Orlando with Arron Afflalo.) But Trip isn’t so good that he can make up for an entire team’s systemic defensive shortcomings such as those exhibited by Denver last season. The Nuggets’ front office didn’t see it this way and moved him in the blockbuster trade that brought Iguodala to Denver and sent Afflalo and power forward Al Harrington to Orlando.

Now, on the surface, this seems like a great move by Nuggets management. They were able to move a player who they believe has peaked in Afflalo and an inefficient, overpaid, stretch-four in Al Harrington for an All Star, Olympic Gold Medalist, and all-World defender in Iguodala. And as Josh Kroenke readily admitted during Iguodala’s introductory news conference, he’s a player the Nuggets have coveted in year’s past. The problem, however, lies in Denver’s inability to see the forest through the trees.

Why I would not have done the deal:

Before moving forward, there are three things we must pay attention to that are of vital importance in this discussion: 1. Inconsistencies in the data. 2. Arron Afflalo’s place in history as a shooter. 3. Usage rate differentials.

  1. Inconsistencies in the data. Many people like to use one form of measuring a player and stick to it. Some use John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Followers of the Wages of Wins Network use Wins Produced. Fans perusing Basketball-Reference sometimes cite win shares and other similar derivatives. This is faulty thinking because it can lead to bad decision-making. If you’re not breaking down the numbers to their very bottom, you’re not doing your job. Case in point: If we look at Afflalo and Iguodala’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) through each’s first five seasons, we find a significant gap of 4.6 points in Iggy’s favor. However, if we pay attention to Afflalo and Iguodala’s per-36 minute numbers and look at free-throw shooting specifically, we find that ‘Dre gets to the line about 2.3 more times per game, hitting 1.6 more free-throws per each appearance. Because he is able to get to the line with such greater frequency than Afflalo, his PER, Wins Produced, and win share numbers become vastly inflated. Yes, getting to the line is valuable. But it is also something of a choice. A player can choose to attack if/when he’s able. It isn’t an inherent skill. Arron Afflalo isn’t deciding to draw fouls less frequently because he likes taking jumpers. He’s taking jumpers because that’s what’s available in the flow of the offense and no better options exist in terms of attacking an already clogged lane full of players who cannot, will not, and are not able to space the floor (see: Faried, Kenneth; McGee, JaVale; Martin, Kenyon).
  2. Arron Afflalo was historically elite at one thing — shooting the basketball. Considering he was Denver’s only shooter, and a historically elite one at that, I believe it’s more than fair to expect a tremendous drop-off in Denver’s offense this season. There were instances last year, particularly in the Nuggets’ first round playoff series with Los Angeles, that Afflalo and Lawson were the entirety of their team’s half-court offense. Faried couldn’t be counted on to score. JaVale certainly couldn’t be counted on to score. And we’ve already gone over Gallinari’s drop-off following the loss of Nene. In that series it was mostly Lawson and Afflalo. And in games where Lawson no-showed (which is a more common occurrence than anyone would like to admit), Denver relied on Afflalo as a primary option. So, in addition to guarding one of the league’s most physical, aggressive, and premiere offensive players in Kobe Bryant, the Nuggets were asking Afflalo to be a primary option for his own team’s offense–and be guarded by the very same Kobe Bryant in the process. That is something for which he is just not capable. No one outside of a select few players in the world is capable of that — LeBron James being one of them. And no, neither is Andre Iguodala. Certainly, Iggy can contain Kobe Bryant. But he cannot produce offensive numbers anywhere near Afflalo’s — particularly shooting the basketball against a defensive opponent of Bryant’s caliber. Asking Trip to undertake the task of playing Kobe Bryant head-to-head is irresponsible, unprofessional, and mindlessly arcane, especially when Bryant has Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to rely on inside and Afflalo has nothing. Bryant and Afflalo’s respective numbers in the Los Angeles series bear this out, as they battled each other to a relative standstill statistically.
  3. The difference in Iguodala and Afflalo’s usage rate is pronounced through their first five seasons. However, during the lockout-shortened season last year, Trip faced a tremendous uptick in usage — a number on the level of Iguodala’s five-season mark. Afflalo was able to maintain his shooting numbers for the most part given his increased usage, his role as a primary option in Denver’s offense, and the stunning lack of capable offensive players surrounding him. They weren’t on the level of his numbers in the year prior when he had better teammates, but they were vastly superior to Iguodala’s.

If we are to compare Andre Iguodala and Arron Afflalo side-by-side as players, the trade appears to be mostly a wash. Early on in Iguodala’s career, he was incorrectly labeled a scorer. As can be seen from the statistical curve through his first five seasons, he took that label and ran with it — except, he didn’t. Through each player’s first five seasons, and per-36 minutes, Afflalo and Iguodala’s statistics are starkly similar. Outside of ‘Trip’s’ clearly superior three-point and free-throw shooting, Iggy has the edge in defensive rebounding (1.2 >;), assists (1.9>;), steals (1>;), and, unfortunately for him, turnovers (1>;).

With all that said, given Afflalo’s 8%-edge from three and his 4.5%-edge from the free-throw line to go with his stellar turnover-rate and marginally worse rebounding and assist numbers, I agree with Rob Hennigan in choosing Afflalo to build around on the wing over Andre Iguodala. He’s younger, cheaper, has no injury history to speak of (Iguodala is coming off his first major injury last year), is a historically elite shooter, doesn’t rely on athleticism for success, and works tirelessly to improve his game on a daily basis. Afflalo is still growing as a player. In the right situation, he could be downright scary.

Furthermore, a wing player’s primary responsibility is to shoot, and in so doing, free up space on the interior for his frontline to dominate. If and when his teammates get doubled down-low, that frees up shooters on the wing to knock down open shot after open shot after open shot (think of Ray Allen in Boston with Kevin Garnett; or Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio with Tim Duncan; or James Harden with Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City; or Nene Hilario with Arron Afflalo in Denver).

Given Denver’s veritable lack of an inside presence following the Nene trade, it makes Afflalo’s shooting contributions even more pronounced. Granted, we are in the middle of a new “small-ball” era where a prototypical ‘post-option’ is no longer necessary. Teams like Oklahoma City and Miami are running with lineups where everyone on the floor is a threat from 3-to-9 feet and beyond. The problem with Denver’s roster is that (outside of Danilo Gallinari) it doesn’t work from 3-to-9 feet, from 10-to-15 feet, or from 15-to-23 feet. It never really did. In basketball, however, as the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have so clearly pointed out, spacing is everything on offense. Afflalo’s shooting numbers from 2011 (when he was surrounded by capable offensive players) bear this out ten-fold.

Arron Afflalo-Andre Iguodala player comparison after five seasons per 36-minutes (Courtesy of Basketball-Reference)

Arron Afflalo-Andre Iguodala comparison after five seasons-Advanced (Courtesy of Basketball-Reference)

More to come ….

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,118 other followers

%d bloggers like this: