By Henry Abbott
Shooting, size, speed, muscle, defensive teamwork, the ability to get into the paint, ball-handling ability, protecting the rim ... there are a lot of things that work on the basketball court.
And in the last few weeks, the first one -- shooting -- has started to look more important than ever.
The information is coming from all over. As part of the TrueHoop Network's 2009-2010 preview, John Krolik of Cavs the Blog dug deep into the issue of power forwards shooting jumpers. He's calls those players "stretch fours."
With a nice chart, and some insightful sifting through evidence, he found that teams with power forwards that can shoot do better. His conclusion:
"There's a clearly positive correlation between role specialization in the frontcourt and efficient scoring. So while Odom and Lewis may have looked strange starting at power forward in last year's Finals, they won't look out of place for long."
Meanwhile, Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm looked at the efficiency of guards, at both ends of the floor, by height. A lot of front offices are allergic to shorter players. But guess what? Height does not correlate with on-court success.
What we see is the biggest offensive advantage for qualified small guards 6-foot-1, while players 6-foot-4 suffer disadvantages. So while players 6-foot-3 definitely struggle at the NBA level, the absolute most you can say is that there is no strong relationship between size and production. We see a similar effect when we look at a variety of measures, including John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating. This speaks well for a lot of players who are often dismissed as being too small to play small guard. This group includes Ben Gordon, Raymond Felton, Jason Terry -- all top-notch players who are often considered liabilities because of their size. ... I’d think twice before dismissing the “undersized guard.” Because at this level, there’s probably a good reason he’s made it to the NBA.
Moore's analysis does not go there, but hearing names like Gordon and Terry, aren't you thinking what I'm thinking? That shooters help your offense even if they're not all that tall? Shooting is not something that tall people do better. But it is something that good teams do well.
The idea that good teams would have good shooters at power forward, and at guard (regardless of tradition or size) correlates nicely with one of the most powerful basketball theories I have heard in some time. Stat expert Wayne Winston -- until recently, he worked for Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks -- has been on TrueHoop plenty lately. Of the many things he has told me, one has really stuck in my head -- it's like a new way of seeing the world.
Call it the Winston Theorem. And it is this: Wayne Winston suspects that a consistent theme of many bad NBA lineups is that they include two or more players who can't shoot.
There's irony to this. Consider Winston's job. He's a professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. He wrote the book “Mathletics.” His credentials are from the world of analytics more than sports.
In short, he's a data guy. You'd normally ask Winston for data to support basketball theories -- not basketball theories themselves. (He'll even tell you that he has 500,000 numbers, and he needs a coach to ask the right questions to get useful things out of them. Winston's also fresh off being criticized for saying he wouldn't take Kevin Durant on his NBA team for free.) He says he has yet to do the arduous work of testing what I'm calling the Winston Theorem.
But in the meantime, I find this theory -- so simple, so elegant, so hard to refute -- more than a little hypnotic. It glues together a lot of what is happening in today's NBA. We can argue about whether or not it's an essential element of NBA basketball, it's already clear not wholly wrong.
Remember, too, that Winston's calling card as a data guy is analyzing lineups. For nine years he has been the king of the spreadsheet (he teaches classes in Excel) sifting through the many thousands of player combinations to see what works and what doesn't. This theory has persisted through all that analysis, it has already passed at least a preliminary test of sorts. I know I intend to keep an eye out as the season unfolds to see if my own eyes confirm it -- I encourage you to do the same.
This is a transcript of the conversation in which he first explained the Winston Theorem to me:
One of the main tools you use is adjusted +/-, which is criticized for its small sample sizes. Even a whole season is not enough to say for certain that this or that player makes the team better. But you used it with tiny samples, like just a few games. Why?
Mark Cuban doesn’t give a damn how good the guy was last year. I mean, he doesn’t care. He wants to know how good he is right now. So we rated guys for the last five games. I know it’s not totally accurate, but we spotted trends in guys. When they’re going into a game, we said: These guys have been lighting it up. And it doesn’t mean they’re scoring, it means they’re helping the team.
So if you told the coaches that a Maverick had been playing well for the last five games, did that actually get the guy more playing time?
On the Mavericks, yeah! We looked at these guys the last three, five, seven games. It’s amazing how you can see their personal lives pop up. A good example in the book is DeShawn Stevenson. His rating just tanked, and a week later Jerry Sloan suspended him. I don’t know that happened, but it was something ... We can also spot injuries, guys who are hiding some kind of injury. If you see that they’re not playing well lately, you can see who to go after.
Coaches know why these things happen like that. John Hollinger, you and I ... we may not know why. Coaches know why.
See, I have this theory, and I just don’t have time to test it out. But the thing is we found a few years ago that Maverick lineups with Devean George just sucked. We rate the lineups. This is really important stuff. You know what the Mavericks’ best lineup was last year?
He’d be fine, but not crucial.
I don’t know which big man ...
That’s the thing. The Mavericks’ best lineups, the last few years, by far, have been going small. You wouldn’t know that unless you looked at this stuff.
Avery Johnson never liked going small. When they played New Orleans two years ago, looking at the numbers, they didn’t have much chance. But maybe if they had gone small.
Chris Paul is like their kryptonite. That’s why they got the French guy they got this year.
Roddy Buckets [Rodrique Beaubois]?
So that maybe he can guard Chris Paul. I can’t wait. I just can’t wait for the season to start to see how stuff pans out.
Other stuff we have seen from looking at lineups in short numbers of games: Last year’s playoff series between the Bulls and the Celtics. I thought it was maybe the best playoff series ever. But two guys for the Bulls totally sucked. When there was a certain four-man combination on the floor, the Bulls were good. They went from better than good to worse than sucking, depending on the lineups. With what two guys on the court did the Bulls get destroyed?
Brad Miller ...
No ... that’s where they were great.
When [Joakim] Noah and [Tyrus] Thomas were on the court, they lost by ten points a game. I mean, they sucked.
Here’s my theory on that, because the Mavericks had the same problem. We look at every lineup, we know how good the players were [note: Winston is talking about his own adjusted +/- ratings, which he says are somewhat similar to what’s on basketballvalue.com]. So you talk about chemistry. Chemistry means the lineup played better than what you’d expect from the players. Negative chemistry means they play worse. The holy grail, which I need to work on, and I’m not sure it’s obtainable ... is to figure out what characterizes the lineups that tend to play better, and what characterizes the lineups that play worse.
My theory on the lineups that play worse is that they have two guys who can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Like, Noah and Thomas, their effective field goal percentage is like 30 percent. Dampier and George, those two have no jump shot. I’m not positive, this would take a lot of statistical analysis, but I think that’s what we’re seeing. That’s the key.
The Knicks have the same problem. [David] Lee and [Jared] Jeffries can’t hit the broad side of a barn. The way D’Antoni plays you can’t do that.
Thomas and Noah on the court lost by 20 points per game, adjusting for opposition. Miller, [Derrick] Rose, [Ben] Gordon and [Kirk] Hinrich won by 40 points a game. And the reason is, I think, all three of those guards can shoot the 3 and drive. And Brad Miller can shoot. You spread the floor, you’re unguardable if you have three guards who can shoot and drive, and a center who can find them.
It’s not a great defensive lineup. But if you spread the floor and go small, we all learned from watching Mike D’Antoni ... these big guys are suddenly dinosaurs. It’s like a stroke of genius. They didn’t win a championship, it’s too bad, but that’s the biggest change in the game that I see.