NBA Week 6 in Review: Philadelphia Wins, Nation Rejoices

The standings are still a bit bizarre like in the crowded west with Portland, Memphis, and a Howard-less Houston team near the top, but the league is rounding into shape. The Bulls are still debilitated and their defense hasn’t recovered, but at least the Cavaliers have found their groove — we need as many great teams in the east as possible. December gets into the real bulk of the season with the flames from hot starts extinguished and teams figuring out their lineups. We’ve witnessed some great games in the past week and while everyone is talking about Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, and other hot topics, let’s take a step back and look at a few other trends and events around the league.

The Philadephia Experiment

In one of the most bizarre events in recent NBA history, last week’s Philadelphia Minnesota game had to be restarted because the players were aligned in the wrong direction. After 16 seconds when Henry Sims preparing to take a free throw, referees figured out the teams were going in the wrong directions and restarted the game. As bad as the game appeared to be with the then-winless 76ers and the Timberwolves, who are still spiraling in some awful tailspin, no one expected this level of incompetence and everyone was shocked that it even happened. You can see a video of this here.

While that absurd start to an NBA game may have seemed like a perfect microcosm of the disastrous season Philadelphia has had so far, they did win a couple of games in the past week and are not as bad as advertised. They’d been within a respectable distance of a few decent teams lately, and their defensive rating, as strange as it sounds, is almost exactly league average — better than teams like Toronto and Dallas. If you look at their point differential, they have an expected win total of three wins. While there are probably some issues at the extremes, if you use the typical formula for wins, a team would have to have a point differential of negative 39 or worse for an expected win total of 0. Going winless for the entire season simply was far too unlikely to occur. But hey, at least they have KJ McDaniels doing things like this:

The Wall Assist

John Wall is known for his athleticism and flashy plays, but he’s one of the most underrated passers in the league and deserves praise for assists. For instance, it was commonly cited that Wall led the league in corner three’s assisted. This wasn’t luck either or that Wall was reaping the benefits of being surrounded by elite shooters. Ariza had never been known for his shooting prowess before, but he led the league in corner three pointers, a dependent shot, last season. Wall’s offense still has some rough edges, but he’s lethal in transition thanks to his combination of speed, size, athleticism, and playmaking. Thus, Wall is pretty much made for the corner three-point fast break assist — and yeah, that’s a bit wordy, but if we name it after anyone I have someone in mind. For his adept skill at delivering these passes, there’s a playlist below of every Beal three-pointer he made in one game, which were all pretty much the same.

White House Butler

One reason for Washington’s strong start even with their injuries in the wing is the surprising play of Rasual Butler. He’s been a backup or weak starter for most of his career, and he turns 36 years-old this season. He has a career three-point percentage of 36 on a high volume and a TS% of 50.5, right above the NBA Mendoza-line — he’s a spot-up shooter who’s stayed in the league for a long time for his ability to hit shots and provides little of anything else. Yet he currently has a TS% of 70, near the NBA record, and is shooting over 53 percent from behind the line. Of course, he’d due for a huge hit from regression to the mean, but his torrent of outside shooting has been both a perfect complement for John Wall and a great replacement for Webster and Beal.

Butler is a fairly limited player and doesn’t produce much else besides shooting like ballhandling. He’s a generic-brand 3/D player with competent defense for most of his career — at least until this season. His shooting efficiency, however, has been low because he rarely gets to the line and takes too many midrange shots with a low conversion rate. But he’s found a niche on this team with his spot-up shooting, which you can see below.

Though like the other Wizards perimeter players he takes a lot of pull-up or fadeaway two-pointers, but he’s actually been making them, which is probably the most unsustainable part of his shooting percentages:

Toronto’s Electric Offense

The usual suspects are near the top in offensive efficiency right now, but there’s one surprising team buzzing along at a historic rate: the Raptors. While it’s not shocking a Dirk-led team with a varied group of offensive players and a good coach is doing so well, another team led by an all-star with a sole appearance and others like Amir Johnson is pretty shocking at this point in the season. For reference, Toronto had a slightly above average offense last season, and right now they have one of the greatest offensive ratings ever, according to basketball-reference. The biggest difference is that their turnovers have fallen sharply to a rate tied with the Mavericks. Combined with yet another rise in their true-shooting percentage, this means they’re an accurate shooting team who gets to the line and rarely has lost possessions, getting the most out of the opportunities they had.

DeRozan gets a lot of the credit for the team’s offense since he averages the most points, but while his turnovers have been low and he’s been getting to the line his shooting percentages have been borderline awful and he’s still not an adept playmaker for his teammates. (Side note: since DeRozan’s gone down, their offensive efficiency has been better at 119.) Rather the team has outperformed its expectations because of superb shooting from most of their secondary players like Patterson and Johnson and their new bench spark Lou Williams. But the team leader of their offense is Kyle Lowry. He’s a crafty guard, which you can see in the videos below. If he doesn’t make the all-star team, we need the UN to step in with an official investigation. He can bully and post-up smaller guards, blow by them to the rim, and hit shots from outside. With his defense — he’s strong with good hands and was second last year in charges taken — he’s the Platonic point guard for the modern NBA team.

Less Hedging in Cleveland

Most NBA analysts loved David Blatt and saw him as a strong coach, but he’s had a rocky start with the Cavaliers and has been criticized for a lot of choices. One particular decision was how Cleveland played pick and roll’s, and defense in general, by being aggressive with their big men and hedging hard, having guys like Kevin Love and Thompson come out behind the three-point line to defend a pick and roll and try to scurry back in time to stop a drive. This works with big men like Noah or (younger) Garnett, but they do not have the personnel for such an aggressive scheme. This is also the style Miami used with Bosh — and it’s one that without quick athletes is susceptible to leaks around the court, particularly in the corners. So with a team of younger guys not known for their defense and old veterans this was probably not the smartest defensive philosophy.

Cleveland’s defense, however, has recovered in the past few games and has slowly climbed out from the cellar and is now firmly league average or a little better. One change is that they’ve been a little more conservative in how they defend pick and rolls. I don’t have access to numbers right now, but from watching clips you can see more instances of big men dropping back to stop a drive early instead of popping out to the three-point line. You can see an example in the clip below where Tristan drops back in the initial pick:

It was successful too because it stopped even an attempt of a drive and Toronto had an empty possession. You can see why there’s a problem with heding in the below clip with LeBron because it causes a chain reaction where every Cavs defender has to move quickly to another guy; a smart team would know how to exploit that and would get more open three-pointers.

Actually, it looks like it’s mainly just Tristan Thompson who’s dropping back now, which you can see in the clip below where he forces a tougher shot by getting in the way. Cleveland will win enough games to get a high seed and go deep into the playoffs in the weak eastern conference, but if they want a title they’ll need a better defense.

Good/Bad Pass Ratio

While we have play-by-play data going back to 1997, we don’t use this information to its full potential, especially with comparing past seasons to each other. For example, we have data on what are called “bad pass” turnovers in the play-by-play logs, but they are scantly used and when they are it’s usually only within a single season and comparing a group of well-known players. Hence, let’s have a small investigating now using the stats from NBA Miner to see the standouts on both extremes.

The easiest thing to do here since this isn’t a rigorous test is just to reinvent the tired assist-to-turnover ratio with a new assist-to-bad-pass ratio. This will show you how many assists someone has for every bad pass turnover. With a 1000 minute minimum, I have the top 20 players by this measure listed below with the season included. So yes … Anthony Mason has the best bad-pass ratio ever recorded, even over someone like Chris Paul. Note that the list is filled with point guards and, strangely, big men, although they are the types who are not distribution hubs and don’t handle the ball much, so there are fewer opportunities to turn the ballover.

10.37 2003 Anthony Mason
10.08 2010 Carlos Arroyo
9.97 2008 Chris Paul
9.63 2005 Dale Davis
9.06 2007 Antonio Daniels
9.06 2000 Bobby Jackson
8.94 2008 Brandon Roy
8.86 2011 Al Horford
8.57 2004 Antonio Daniels
8.46 2012 Chris Paul
8.36 2005 Matt Bonner
8.25 2006 Chris Paul
8.13 2003 Earl Boykins
8.08 2005 Antonio Daniels
8.07 2008 Brendan Haywood
7.97 2003 Gary Payton
7.91 2007 Brandon Roy
7.89 2004 Dale Davis
7.89 2003 Kevin Ollie
7.87 2008 Jose Calderon

Likewise, let’s make a list with the worst ratios, which you can see below. Ilgauskas is a bit odd considering his skills but he was a rookie then. However, the list mainly has the same types of players: a giant and/or athletic frontcourt player with few (surprise) ballhandling skills. It’s worth noting that this says little about how good a player is and is more about what role a player can have in the offense. Chandler, for instance, is at his best catching lobs and Ibaka performed horribly without Westbrook and Durant creating for him.

0.484 1998 Zydrunas Ilgauskas
0.527 1997 Chris Gatling
0.549 2009 Samuel Dalembert
0.750 1997 Will Perdue
0.761 2010 Serge Ibaka
0.765 2010 Tyson Chandler
0.788 2006 Johan Petro
0.794 2000 Greg Ostertag
0.842 2006 Samuel Dalembert
0.848 1997 Shawn Bradley
0.851 2006 Eddy Curry
0.865 2001 Jahidi White
0.868 2013 JaVale McGee
0.875 2002 Nazr Mohammed
0.881 2004 Stromile Swift
0.883 2004 Samuel Dalembert
0.893 2000 Jahidi White
0.900 2005 Samuel Dalembert
0.924 2006 Stromile Swift
0.926 1999 Michael Olowokandi

Of course, it’s easier to have a great bad-pass ratio if you stay out of the way and do little of the heavy work, so I provided a list of the top seasons with a filter of an assist rate of 30% or higher (assisting on 30% of his teammates’ field goals.) The list is filled with Chris Paul seasons to a hilarious degree. In fact, the only reason he doesn’t dominate the list any more is that he debuted only in 2006 — every season is represented. So far this season, by the way, he’s at 8.2 and will have yet another high-ranking one. As for the guys far from first-place, Gary Payton rates well, which should speak to some of the underrated parts of his offense, and Billups was a low-mistake point guard, as is Jose Calderon.

9.97 2008 Chris Paul
8.57 2004 Antonio Daniels
8.46 2012 Chris Paul
8.25 2006 Chris Paul
7.97 2003 Gary Payton
7.87 2008 Jose Calderon
7.77 2009 Chris Paul
7.64 2011 Chris Paul
7.62 2010 Chris Paul
7.45 2005 Speedy Claxton
7.41 2009 Tony Parker
7.39 2007 Chauncey Billups
7.23 2007 Chris Paul
7.23 2014 Chris Paul
7.08 2000 Gary Payton
7.07 2013 Chris Paul
6.97 2002 Gary Payton
6.85 2006 Chauncey Billups
6.81 1997 Muggsy Bogues
6.79 2012 Jose Calderon

But how about another way to evaluate assists? Let’s create a “good” assist ratio by breaking them down by the type of assist. Since this is just a small exploratory exercise, I’ll use this simple formula: (Assists to layups+assists to dunks+0.5*assists to three-pointers)/total assists. Assists to shots at the rim are more valuable because shots there are easier and players are more dependent. Although I’m ignoring jump shot assists, I give a modest boost to three-point assists since they are indeed more valuable shots. At first there will be no filters besides 1000 minutes just to see what kind of players have high ratios.

Dale Davis is the king here, although he had only 22 total assists on the season. The list is actually filled with a bunch of guys you can see at the bottom of the bad-pass ratio. The reason for this is with lower assist totals, there’s more variation. Also, a lot of these big men pass back out to the three-point line.

0.841 1999 Dale Davis
0.821 2011 JaVale McGee
0.813 2013 Corey Brewer
0.765 2008 Samuel Dalembert
0.764 1997 Chris Gatling
0.758 2009 Kevin Garnett
0.753 2007 Yao Ming
0.752 2006 Stromile Swift
0.748 1998 Brian Grant
0.745 2010 Stephen Jackson
0.745 2010 Darius Songaila
0.740 2008 Thaddeus Young
0.739 2012 Andre Miller
0.739 1997 Dale Davis
0.733 2002 Nazr Mohammed
0.733 2013 Andre Miller
0.732 2013 DeAndre Jordan
0.729 2009 Samuel Dalembert
0.728 1998 Corie Blount
0.728 2010 Tyrus Thomas

Using a filter again of 30 for an assist rate, you can see which point guards pass to the more valuable points on the floor. Just as Chris Paul dominated the last metric, Andre Miller dominates here on a variety of teams. Nash and Baron Davis also show up, and both were great on up-tempo teams finishing in transition or behind the line. The lowest ranked player, by the way, was Howard Eisley in 2003, and Sam Cassell occupied many spots near the bottom. Lastly, I’ll note the problems with the raw stats here. Three-point rates have been going up year-by-year, and you’re at the mercy of your teammates’ strengths

0.739 2012 Andre Miller
0.733 2013 Andre Miller
0.687 2013 Will Bynum
0.675 2007 Baron Davis
0.647 1998 Nick Van Exel
0.644 2011 Baron Davis
0.640 2007 Marcus Williams
0.636 2014 Brandon Jennings
0.635 2005 Andre Miller
0.633 2011 Andre Miller
0.631 2006 Andre Miller
0.629 2013 Ty Lawson
0.627 2014 Will Bynum
0.624 2013 Manu Ginobili
0.622 2005 Steve Nash
0.621 2002 Jason Kidd
0.620 2010 LeBron James
0.620 2008 Andre Miller
0.619 2007 Steve Nash
0.619 2012 Ty Lawson

While this was a really simple exercise, you can break down assists into different types and find some marginal gains in value even with SportVU stats. Just as field goals are not all the same, neither are assists, and once you factor that in with some better information, like with SportVU player tracking, you can gain a deeper understanding of the passing power of NBA players and find surprising gems, like Andre Miller and his valuable assists.