This week's mailbag features your questions on how hard it is to block certain players and areas, and more.
"I'm wondering if there's a case to be made for Stephen Curry as the MVP based on the spacing he creates for his teammates due to the defensive attention he draws. MVPs are usually selected based on their individual stats, and somewhat on team wins. But I'm wondering about measuring value based on the player's effect on a team's metrics. How does Steph affect the Warriors' team stats when he's on and off the court. How does that compare with other recent MVPs?"
-- Michael Darling
So far this season, Golden State's net rating is 10.7 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the court, according to NBA.com/Stats. That is certainly better than the leading contenders for MVP so far this season.
Because their teams' benches have found separate identities, the Rockets are just 3.7 points per 100 better with James Harden on the court, and the Cavaliers are just 1.0 point per 100 better with LeBron James. Those numbers are less than spectacular for an MVP; the Thunder were 12.2 points per 100 better with Russell Westbrook last year, and the Cavaliers were 16.2 points per 100 better with James in 2016-17.
Of course, what separates Curry from those cases is that the Warriors have another MVP on the roster in Kevin Durant, along with two other All-Stars in Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Yet even with all that firepower, Golden State's offense has been far better the past two seasons when Curry plays. While the Warriors went 9-2 during the 11 games Curry missed due to a sprained ankle (they're 10-3 overall without him), that was because they were able to grind out close wins with tough defense. Golden State's offensive rating has dropped 13.4 points per 100 possessions without Curry.
Naturally, some of that difference can be explained by Curry's own offense. Take away his .668 true shooting percentage while finishing more than 31 percent of the Warriors' plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover, and inevitably the attack is going to get less efficient. That said, you're right to note that Curry's teammates have been much less efficient without him. Via NBAwowy.com, here are the true shooting percentages for the four players who have played at least 250 minutes both with and without Curry, all of them more efficient with him.
I'm not sure how much of this, if any, to attribute to Curry's gravity. His usage and playmaking may alone be sufficient to explain the difference. High-usage players are valuable, even sometimes if they score with below-average efficiency themselves, precisely because their shot creation allows teammates to score more efficiently. So in the past I've found similar results with volume scorers Carmelo Anthony (here) and Kobe Bryant (here) despite the fact that those players don't have the same kind of impact on a defense without the ball as Curry.
So might that make Curry the league's most valuable player? Possibly, but, of course, part of value is staying on the court, and the same absence that helped reveal Curry's offensive value also limits his value. ESPN's real plus-minus is designed to pick up this kind of impact on team success, and it still has Curry second to James Harden on a per-play basis and 19th in wins generated (the value component). So I wouldn't call Curry the MVP.
Who are the leaders in getting blocked if you restrict shots to those attempted in the paint? Feel it would be more descriptive of what we're looking for *cough* Lonzo *cough*— Andrew Chen (@a8chen) January 1, 2018
Do you think there might be some relationship between Dirk and CP3 being such proficient mid-range shooters and being so adept at avoiding blocks? No idea what the directionality might be, but that seems like a potential link.— Peter Nygaard (@RetepAdam) December 31, 2017
Readers had a couple of follow-up questions on last week's discussion about the players who get their shot blocked most frequently. Let's take them in order. Using tracking data from Second Spectrum, we can isolate shots that are blocked by where they are attempted. Here are the players blocked most frequently in the restricted area:
This list doesn't look terribly different than overall block rate, and big men still tend to dominate even when we account for them taking more of their shots near the rim. Incidentally, Lonzo Ball ranks 14th; 14.5 percent of his shots in the restricted area have been blocked this season.
On to the next question, let's consider how often shots are blocked from various ranges, according to Second Spectrum data. They split up the court into four primary distances: the restricted area, the rest of the paint, other 2-point attempts and 3s. Here are the block rates from each distance:
I was a little surprised to find that paint attempts from beyond the restricted area are blocked more frequently, although I suppose these no longer include dunks, which are rarely blocked. Anyway, yes, the midrange attempts in which Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki specialize are almost never blocked, though it still happens a bit more frequently than with 3-pointers.
When we account for the rates at which they shoot from different distances, here are the players who are blocked much less frequently per shot attempt than we'd expect.
This leaderboard is dominated by big men who almost exclusively dunk -- clearly there is a difference between dunks and other shots in the paint. Paul ranks 14th on this list. While he shoots a lot from the outside, Paul is notable for almost never getting his shot blocked in the paint away from the restricted area -- just once in 57 shot attempts, the lowest rate for any player with at least 50 such shots. Nowitzki is less notable in this regard, ranking 37th.
In case you were curious, Luc Mbah a Moute has his shots blocked most frequently relative to expectations based on his shot chart.
"I understand that the corner 3 is so valuable in the NBA because it's the closest area of the 3-point line in proximity to the goal. But wouldn't that also mean that it's the easiest to close out on as a defender?"
-- Joshua Lipsey
While the closeout is technically a shorter distance for a defender, part of the superiority of the corner 3 has to do with the way NBA defensive schemes operate. Unless he's on an elite shooter, the defender in the weakside corner is typically asked to help out in the paint against pick-and-rolls. That leaves them out of position to contest a kickout to the corner 3.
Perhaps no team executes this better than the Utah Jazz, who rank second behind the Houston Rockets in corner 3-point attempts and have made them at a 41.8 percent clip, according to Second Spectrum data on NBA.com/Stats. As this play shows, Utah's pick-and-roll game often forces defenders to make tough decisions about whether to help or stay home on shooters.
These same kinds of decisions rarely happen with players above the break because typically one defender can cover multiple shooters at the same time, picking where to close out after a pass is made. That isn't possible in the corner. So an analysis of Second Spectrum data shows that the average corner 3 comes with the closest defender 7.4 feet away, compared to 6.5 feet away on above-the-break 3s.
This is consistent with what Seth Partnow found a few years ago for Nylon Calculus before going to work for the Milwaukee Bucks. Intriguingly, however, Second Spectrum data suggests that even when you hold the distance of the nearest defender constant (as well as restricting to catch-and-shoot attempts, which make up nearly all corner 3s), players still hit a higher percentage of 3s from the corner than elsewhere. So perhaps the distance is more of a factor than Partnow concluded.
-- Alejandro Yegros
I'd say I'm substantially less convinced that Mirotic is truly a different player. After all, he's not yet to the 500-minute threshold, which is probably the lowest I'd use for a leaderboard, with a preference for 1,000 minutes. Moreover, much of Mirotic's improvement has been driven by shooting, particularly 3-point shooting, which is the noisiest player stat.
Mirotic's increased usage rate is more likely to sustain. He's gone from finishing 19.8 percent of the Chicago Bulls' plays with a shot, turnover or trip to the free throw line in 2016-17 to 27.8 percent so far this season -- far better than his career high of 22.8 percent. But typically, such changes produce worse efficiency; Mirotic is also posting a career-high true shooting percentage of .627, largely on the strength of career-best 46.3 percent 3-point shooting.
Second Spectrum data confirms that Mirotic taking more shots has meant taking harder ones. His quantified shot quality -- the effective field-goal percentage we'd expect an average player to post on the same shots, given location, type and the location of the nearest defender -- has dropped from 51.7 percent in 2016-17 to 49.8 percent this season. (Mirotic's actual eFG has gone up from 51.0 percent to 60.6 percent.) And again, most of the discrepancy has come on 3s.
I suspect Mirotic is a better 3-point shooter than his 35.0 percent career mark entering this season, but I doubt he'll be able to sustain 46 percent shooting, particularly at this level of usage.