NBA Week 7 in Review: Counting the Days

In a week, Kobe Bryant has passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list while Duncan silently passed Jerry West. Golden State has looked like the next great team, while Oklahoma City surges forward, hoping to take at least the last playoff spot — we could be headed toward a mammoth first round series. But we’re still stuck in December, trigger-happy about who will be MVP and who will be the next championship team. Here a few observations from the past week.

Triangle, Square, Circle, Rhombus, Lemniscate: New York Offense Misshapen, but a Shape Won’t Solve Everything

The Knicks have continued their free-fall and the vaunted triangle offense has come under fire. I mostly ignored the reports of the triangle before the season because it’s faded out in most locations recently and I thought it wouldn’t last long. The New York brass has openly insisted they just need better execution, but I really don’t understand what their expectations were. They weren’t good last year, and they didn’t get any better in the off-season. A triangle works better with frontcourt passers like Pippen, Shaq, Pau, Kukoc, Longley, et al — instead the Knicks have Carmelo, Stoudemire, Dalembert, and Jason Smith. It’s a messy roster, and the triangle wasn’t going to solve anything.

The triangle itself, however, is outdated now in the modern NBA. The league uses drive-and-kick games and a heavy use of screens/picks to create opportunities. With the defensive rule changes in the last decade, and a few stylistic shifts, a triangle isn’t an ideal orchestration of NBA players. Even when Kobe won titles under Phil Jackson, the use of the triangle was overstated because it effectively broke down into isolation and post plays for Kobe and Shaq, two monster offensive players who don’t need gimmicks to create shots. The way the Knicks are playing, all they’re doing is wasting precious seconds on the shot clock and putting players into position for contested jump shots. For example, look at the action in the below clip and the resulting output. The Knicks pass and scurry around the court, switching places like a game of musical chairs, and flirt with a Dalembert post-up, which shouldn’t happen in any universe. They are eventually bailed out by a Jason Smith fallaway jump shot right as the shot clock goes off — you design a good offense to get good shots, not contested Jason Smith midrange jumpers.

It’s almost like they designed the triangle to create midrange shots:

The triangle had success with the Lakers in the past couple decades when they had useful post players with vision and a good finishing touch like Shaq and Pau. It’s failing here because it too often leads to something like an Aldrich hook shot:

The Bizarro Universe of the Sacramento Kings

After suffering a rough stretch in the ultra-competitive western conference, the Kings have decided to fire head coach Mike Malone. But this is where the details matter. The Kings are still above preseason expectations even with a tough schedule and they’ve, you know, been without their franchise centerpiece Cousins for the past few games. He could be back this Thursday, but the timeframe is unclear because he lost a lot of weight due to the illness and has to get back in shape. Cousins may not have saved Malone, however, because he was at odds with the team’s philosophy and balked at adding Josh Smith. This may have been inevitable, but it should have been done at the beginning of the season and trying to dump him now during a losing spell doesn’t mask the stench — everyone knows Cousins is out and it just makes the franchise look even worse.

It’s difficult to imagine that a front office would not realize their recent slide was caused by losing their star player, but this is a bizarre front office. They crowd-sourced the NBA draft, targeted anti-analytics players like Rudy Gay while claiming to be part of the movement, and are seriously considering playing 4-on-5 basketball to cherrypick at the other end of the court. The owner, Vivek Ranadive, has an impressive background, but his decisions have gone against the grain, and it hasn’t resulted in a progressive movement like the Spurs front office. Playing 4-on-5 is just an absurd thing to do in a professional league, something you’d do at a lower level to hide weaknesses. It would be best with an athletic, defense-first team that can’t score in the half-court — that’s kinda at odds with a team built around Cousins and Rudy Gay. I don’t blame Malone for butting heads in Sacramento because how do you respond to things like this?

“(Vivek Ranadive) … shared tactical experiences with Malone about coaching his child’s youth team.”

No, your experience coaching your daughter’s team should not guide decisions on how to build and coach a real NBA team with multi-million dollar athletes.

Chris Paul’s Turnover Troubles

After starting the season with a 6.5 assist-to-turnover ratio with 1.5 turnovers a game, which is otherworldly, Paul has been coughing up the ball at high rates. In the last four games, he’s had an average of 4.8 turnovers including a game where he got embarrassed by John Wall and another where he had six turnovers and actually fouled out. Paul has only fouled out six times in his career in the regular season, and what’s worse is that his 6/6 game came against the Bucks, not an oppressive team like Memphis. It’s also the type of game you’d see form a big man, not a veteran point guard. Since 1986, the unofficial all-time “leader” is Shawn Kemp with 18, and no one’s close. But oddly enough, Sam Cassell has 10 such games for fifth on that list — who knew such a smart point guard would commit so many errors?

Paul’s made some uncharacteristically bad passes lately, including one you can see in the first video below. For what should be a routine bounce pass on a fast break, Paul throws it too low and the ball careens out of bounds. In the second video, he makes another error that doesn’t seem like Chris Paul. He curls around a pick and has a little bit of daylight for a lob to Blake Griffin. But Larry Sanders! was there with his long arms, and Paul hesitated in mid-air. Maybe the ball slipped, or maybe Paul couldn’t find another player for a bailout pass, but he came back down to the ground for an unacceptable turnover. Redick, by the way, was open in the corner. This speaks to the power of regression to the mean. Paul’s a low mistake player, but he wasn’t going to keep having games of 10 assists and 1 turnover — bad stretches happen. It’s why we should use as many games as possible to evaluate players.

Is the Rose in Bloom Again?

Rose has come under fire for being cautious with injuries and Chicago hasn’t steamrolled through the east like some thought, so there are no narratives being spun right now about his Great Return. He hasn’t lit up the league as he had in 2011, but he’s been somewhere in between that previous level of play and the slow disaster of last season. His athleticism is more or less back, although it’s not always accessible, and he’s had a number of high-caliber finishers around the basket, twisting in the air a few feet off the ground. He doesn’t totally look like the same player, but he can in bursts and that’s good news for the Bulls and their fans amid fears that he’d never be an above average player again. This perception aligns with the numbers too. He’s scoring at nearly the same rate as he had in 2011 and 2012, but he’s turning the ball over more and assisting less often — some of this is rust and some of this could be, well, from permanent damage he sustained with all his injuries. He’s getting to the line a smidge less often too, but he’s shooting about 50% more three-pointers per possession. Thankfully, he’s converting shots at the rim at the same percentage as he had years ago — that’s an important marker of athleticism and confidence.

Offensively, he is not yet the same player, but the signs are encouraging and he’s still been a useful piece on offense. His defense is more of a mixed bag. He was never a great defensive guard, but he’s had issues recovering form his injuries and he might be avoiding contact because he’s afraid to re-injure himself. His weakness right now is navigating screens, and he only has one block on the season. Blocks are not indicative of a point guard’s defense, but it speaks to Rose’s aggression and commitment on defense. In 2011, he blocked nearly seven times as many shots per minute. (Edit: he had one more block last night; at the end of last week he had only one block.) ESPN’s defensive RPM sees him as a little below average, and that’s probably close to the truth. He doesn’t need to be Beverley, but this is one area of improvement.

Maybe we should regard Rose like a rare flower that goes dormant for months at a time and has inconsistent but beautiful, dazzling blooms. I have no idea how much longer Rose can play, or what his future will hold, but I do believe that his career will keep moving in spurts and when we do get an extended healthy period, we should appreciate it. In the first video below, you can see a patented Rose drive where he gets hit and still manages to rise up and hit a double-clutch shot. In the second video, you can see an area of his game where he’s improved: hitting floaters and other tough shots in the in-between zone before the rim and outside of the general jump shot area. It’s a really tough shot too because he’s eleven feet out — and it’s an essential shot for a scoring guard as a way to hit shots before bigger players can come out and stop you.

Harden’s New Defense

There has been a lot of discussion about Harden’s new zeal on defense, starting with a Daryl Morey tweet about him being a “two-way” star and the realization that the Rockets, even with Howard sidelined a while, had one of the best defenses. Harden’s defensive stats via Vantage are indeed better across the board. In fact, this follows a summer where he gave himself the title of defensive stopper on the FIBA team.

I’ve included three videos showing his defense. The first one is where he pressured Klay Thompson, who’s probably the second best shooting guard on offense right now, and forced a turnover. In the second video, you can see how he tracks Klay as he drives to the basket, and Klay puts up an awkward shot and misses. In the last video, watch as Harden follows the ball and tries to give a little help defense, but darts back to his man on the perimeter. Then his man moves inside as another player drives to the basket, and Harden positions himself in the paint to help stop the drive. But he has the awareness to turn back to Tucker and stuff him at the rim. Harden’s not perfect, of course, and he can be caught ball-watching, but he’s improved by a significant amount and that does a lot to the team’s bottom-line and his value as an individual player. His name has been thrown in the MVP race. A few months ago, he was still a laughingstock on defense — the NBA is a league of change.

Drawing the Charge

A few days ago, I complained that we didn’t have a consistent resource for tracking charges, which seem like a basic stat that should be available. My complaints weren’t for naught — you can find offensive fouls drawn going back to 2006 and charges going back to 2010 here. When most people think of a website for tracking charges, they think of hoopdata, but the site was shut down a year ago and what they were actually tracking was offensive fouls drawn, not actual charges. It’s an important difference because charges are more of a direct action while other types of offensive fouls often involve the opponent making a mistake.

Drawing an offensive foul is an underrated little stat because it’s one to cause a turnover that doesn’t show up in a box score. Steals are tracked by conventional measures, and those are usually highly valued — and these turnovers have an added effect of giving a foul to an opponent, usually one of their most active offensive players. I totaled these charge stats. You can see offensive fouls drawn per 48 minutes in the list below since 2006 for players over 3000 minutes. Jarron Collins, oddly enough, is by far the leader here. His more famous brother Jason is a few spots below. The list is an interesting mix of frontcourt players and small guards, and you see a lot of guys known, basically, as “scrappy.” It’s also important to note that the average is 0.34 per 48 minutes, so the guys near the top here are providing 0.5 to over 1 more offensive foul drawn per 48 minutes. That’s a significant boost to the defense.

1.71 Jarron Collins
1.34 Jose Barea
1.27 Leon Powe
1.25 Ersan Ilyasova
1.16 Brian Cardinal
1.13 Anderson Varejao
1.08 Andrew Bogut
1.05 Royal Ivey
1.02 Fabricio Oberto
0.99 Kyle Lowry
0.99 Ricky Rubio
0.97 Derek Fisher
0.96 Ronnie Price
0.95 DeMarcus Cousins
0.92 Speedy Claxton
0.90 Jermaine O’Neal
0.89 James Posey
0.89 Manu Ginobili
0.89 Tyler Zeller
0.86 Andres Nocioni
0.86 Jason Collins
0.86 Nick Collison
0.82 Desmond Mason
0.81 Patrick Mills
0.81 Bostjan Nachbar

Likewise, here’s the same list but with actual charges and remember this is only since 2011. The average is 0.11 charges per 48 minutes; Nick Collison, then, is the Dennis Rodman of taking charges. This is a list rampant with “no-stats” all-stars who find additional ways to contribute, but there’s a surprising amount of stars and a few just missed the cut: Kevin Love and John Wall were 27th and 28th, respectively. It’s also interesting to see shotblockers who also take charges like Bogut and Gasol, as well as Jermaine O’Neal at 0.68 per 48 minutes — there’s more than one way to protect the paint.

0.87 Nick Collison
0.78 Udonis Haslem
0.65 DeMarcus Cousins
0.60 Grant Hill
0.50 Anthony Tolliver
0.48 Tyler Zeller
0.46 Ersan Ilyasova
0.43 Glen Davis
0.38 Manu Ginobili
0.38 Shane Battier
0.37 Marreese Speights
0.37 Markieff Morris
0.36 Kyle Lowry
0.36 Jason Maxiell
0.35 Luis Scola
0.33 Thaddeus Young
0.33 Chuck Hayes
0.32 DeJuan Blair
0.31 Andrew Bogut
0.31 Marc Gasol
0.29 Blake Griffin
0.29 Josh Smith
0.29 Ian Mahinmi
0.27 Devin Harris
0.26 Mike Dunleavy

The unofficial record for offensive fouls drawn, by the way, with a significant amount of minutes is 2.41 per 48 minutes from Varejao in 2007. Jose Barea in 2007, Fisher in 2014, Devin Harris in 2007, and Jermaine O’Neal in 2008 were a little under 2 per 48 minutes. Collison, Jason Collins, and Bogut also had high rates. The record for charges, the most direct stat, is 1.29 per 48 minutes from Nick Collison in 2011, well in the prime of his “plus/minus” dominance. No one else has had a season above 1 with a comparable number of minutes. Haslem in 2013, Battier in 2014, Cousins in 2012, and Glen Davis in 2011 were the closest. If you value the drawn foul at 1 point you can see how valuable this can be for defenders since they are well above the league average. It’s just one more way to understand how guys can affect the game outside of the box score.