Kobe Bryant is Fading Away and Other Aging NBA Stars

October 13, 2014 by

I’ve been watching a lot of preseason NBA ball this past week, and it looks like Charles Barkley is still correct. Eventually Father Time conquers all.

There’s a litany of aging NBA stars playing out what may be their last professional contracts over the next couple of years – Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen if he signs somewhere, and maybe even Tim Duncan (that group in 2006 would have been the best team ever). I’m leaving Dirk off the list not because he isn’t an aging star but because it looks like his style of play will allow for a gentler slope of decline. Timmy probably belongs off the list with Dirk for a similar reason and because Pop takes such good care to protect him from the rigors of the 82 game season.

I’ve seen all of the Lakers preseason games, and 36 year old Kobe Bryant bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to 38 year old Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards. The skillset is still there. He has all those familiar moves carefully crafted over an NBA lifetime spent winning scoring titles and championship rings. But the grace is gone, that athletic lift that put Kobe in another stratosphere.

Bryant has always taken and made a lot of tough shots. That’s part of his mystique. He can get up a shot with a chance to go in from anywhere at any time against anyone. But it’s getting to be more difficult to add easier, more efficient scoring possessions to those tough ones. The blow-by ability off the first step is harder to come by. The explosive dunk over the top of a help defender in the lane is a rarer highlight. Losing that ability to slash into the paint at breakneck speed and fly through the air at the rotating defender cuts down on trips to the free throw line. One drive per game that used to result in a drawn shooting foul that is now counted as a missed shot or a turnover becomes a huge hit to a player’s efficiency rating.

For the first three preseason games, Bryant has a TS% of 0.416. He has scored 34 points on 36 shot attempts with only 11 free throws attempted in 3 games and 0 made three pointers (he’s only attempted 1 three-pointer). Three games is a meaninglessly small sample, especially in the preseason. And the first two games weren’t so bad (3-13 in game 3 brings the total efficiency down a lot), but I watched the games, and I see real problems. Too many fade away jumpers against set defenders. Too few open shots off quick hitting attacks. Too many dribbles to get into the lane. It doesn’t take much in terms of a slower step or lower elevation to put the defense in position to impact those field goal attempts.

I saw all the same things with Jordan in Washington. A string of games where he seemed to play pretty well but when you looked at the box score his shooting was under 45%, and he barely got to the line followed by a putrid 30% shooting game and very few high 50% or unicorn-rare 60%+ shooting games to balance things out. In his youth and even the tail end of his prime, MJ would pepper his game log with really great shooting nights to offset the mediocre games. As a Wizard that just didn’t happen because even when he was making the majority of his tough shots, he still wasn’t getting himself enough easy opportunities (free throws and layups). So games that would have been 50+ points on 70% shooting for a younger MJ wound up being 35 points on 55% shooting for #23 in blue. They were exciting to watch, all the more so because so many of his makes were on tough, contested shots, but the end result was that what should have been a spectacular game was merely a good game. This is the territory that Kobe appears to be entering.

The problems Steve Nash faces are even more obvious. Once the premier fast break and pick and roll point guard of the league, Nash now lacks the quickness to get by defenders or turn the corner coming off screens with a live dribble. Pressure defense bothers him because he’s not a threat to blow by an off-balance defender and get into the lane. His handles are still good. His shot is still pure. And he was never a speed demon. Logically it would seem like his game could survive getting slower, but that little bit of separation he used to get is narrower than ever. He can still bounce in a perfect pocket pass or whip a lefty behind the back no look to the corner, but his scoring threat is severely reduced, which in turn means those open passing lanes are harder to come by as the opposing defense reacts less and less to his attempts to drive and shoot.

The defense is going too. Kobe can still put in a very solid effort one on one, but his days of wreaking havoc on opposing team offensive schemes are gone (and have been for a few years really). Nash was never much of a defender. Even KG isn’t dominant defensively anymore. He’s still sound in his rotations. He’s still seven feet tall. But he doesn’t close out on shooters like he used to. He can’t switch and stay in front of a dribbling guard for multiple seconds to snuff out a possession. His show and recover and other help defense actions are all a step slow.

Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar I saw go from hyper-talented but raw rookie to dominant superstar to faded legend. I missed the first stage of that arc with the Jordan / Barkley generation, and I missed the first two stages with Bird and Magic. But the KG / Kobe era is close to me because I’m the same age as those players. To me they still seem like they should be young bucks in the prime of their careers, but stardom in the realm of athletics doesn’t work that way. So it’s time to lower our expectations and just enjoy the good moments when they come up. I’m sure Nash has one more game in his bones where he controls the tempo, gets the defense on a string, and makes his teammates all look like stars. And Pierce will hit a game winner and shout to the stands. And Bryant will toss in 50 hard-fought points. It just won’t happen often, and it won’t be easy.

Neil Young told us that it’s better to burn out than fade away. MJ and Kobe have taught us that even when your athletic flame has burnt out, you can still hit a fade away. Thank god that highlights are forever young.

Chris Bosh – Honesty is the best policy

September 29, 2014 by

Chris Bosh has always been an open and entertaining interview, but more than anything I love how candid and honest his responses are. Case in point, in an interview with Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald, Bosh responds to a question about the team’s championship aspirations:

“Right now it’s easy,” Bosh said Sunday. “Everybody is supposed to win a championship, everybody wants to win a championship right now, everybody is undefeated, but when those back-to-backs come and those long road trips come, it’s going to be a big-time challenge.

“And especially those nights when you’re going to have to put the extra effort for the team and to lead them in a certain way that I wasn’t doing before. It’s going to be hard.”

And when asked about the whether he gave great defensive effort with the Raptors as compared to with the Heat:
“I thought I was, but I wasn’t.”
And finally in response to a question about his effort output with the increased minutes he expects to play in the absence of LeBron James:
“I’ll try to give the same effort and the same energy,” Bosh said. “But it’s going to be … that’s another question mark. I’m going to have to really find a balance between [offense and defense] to make sure I’m continuously being effective on both ends.”

He could have given pat, copout answers to any or all of those questions, but he didn’t. How much easier to just say, “Yes, our goal is to win it all. Yes, I played hard defense in Toronto. No, I don’t think it will be a problem to give max effort for a few more minutes a game.” But he told it like it is. It is going to be a real challenge for him to take on a leadership role after four years of following LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Those Raptors really didn’t play consistent intense defense. He is going to have to adjust to a larger usage and minute burden. I like that.

Are the 2014 Cavaliers Championship Material?

September 29, 2014 by

One practice down, and LeBron James is already letting us in on how he expects the team offense to run. He expects it to run through Kyrie Irving. That is to say, Kyrie will play the point, and LeBron will get to work off the ball more than he did in Miami where he split shot-creation duties with Dwyane Wade and certainly more than he did in his last stint with the Cavs where Mike Brown’s lack of an offensive system put the results of every possession squarely on James’s tattooed shoulders.

This is good news for everyone involved. Kyrie is not necessarily best-suited to spending all game making entry passes to James and Kevin Love in the post and then playing a purely catch and shoot role. He’s too dynamic with the dribble to be confined to a Derrick Fisher role. And for James, this means he will get to be a finisher rather than a creator. His assist numbers will likely decrease, and his shooting efficiency may drop some as he won’t be in position to pick and choose his spots as much as he has been in the past. However, his energy reserve for end of game should be much increased. I recall when Phil Jackson instituted the triangle offense and moved the ball into Scottie Pippen’s hands, it had a detrimental effect on Michael Jordan’s efficiency and box score totals, but it also saved him the gas to close games for the Bulls on a more regular basis which I would say contributed to their championship success.

What should we expect the offense to be if it is not a steady diet of LeBron and Love on the blocks? New Cavaliers coach David Blatt is a master of Euro-ball, so we can probably assume that the majority of plays will involve heavy doses of pick and roll. He can set the floor a number of ways and run a lot of different off ball action to free up wing shooters while the primary pick and roll action happens thanks to the mobility of presumed starting shooting guard Dion Waiters and the outside shooting ability of both James and Love. If Kyrie runs a side pick and roll with James while Anderson Varejao and Love set a staggered screen for Waiters curling from the baseline to the top of the key, the defense has to a lot of bad choices to make.

Irving and James cannot be defended without a hedge or an outright double team from on of the other defenders. Kyrie is too good with the ball, and James is too big and athletic, especially at the small forward position. The defense can send Varejao’s defender to help, drop Love’s defender onto Andy, and hope Dion’s defender catches up to him before he gets a wide open shot, but then it’s a swing pass to Love in the corner for an open three pointer. The defense could drop Varejao’s defender to help on the pick and roll and just abandon Andy as the only non-shooter, but that leaves him to cut to the rim for a dump down pass or uncontested offensive rebound. It’s rough, and it’s a lot easier to set up than the synergies that formed in Miami because the pieces fit in more traditional ways.

Setting baseline screens for LeBron off the ball would also be interesting, because he’s likely to have a massive size advantage, and if they can use Kyrie’s dribble attack as misdirection, they could probably hit James with unstoppably deep post position. All in all the offense ought to be very tough because of all the shooters, passers, and ball-handlers available.

Defense on the other hand could be an issue, but we won’t know until we see how they line-up. Kyrie looked decent as an on-ball defender in the World Cup, but he hasn’t had good defensive numbers or habits in the NBA. Love is another player who has not historically been a good rim defender or a one-on-one stopper. James is an All-D regular with the ability to lock up multiple positions, and Andy is a solid position defender as well. The team’s biggest weakness projects to be big guys with post games. However, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, and Chris Bosh are probably the only players in the East capable of really taking advantage of that weakness, and none of their teams are expected to contend due to a lack of overall talent or an inability for key players to stay healthy.

I’d expect the Cavs to play a sort of late 80’s / early 90’s style where they pace the game to take advantage of their superior talent and then try to lock down teams for a few minutes at the end of each quarter to really build separation. Danny Ainge told Bill Simmons in a podcast that he felt the 1986 Celtics had a defense on par with the 2008 Celtics but that they didn’t focus as much energy on all-game defense. They exerted themselves more on offense and then locked down on defense selectively. By the numbers the comparison isn’t close. The 2008 team is up there with the mid-90s Knicks and early 2000s Spurs as one of the best defensive teams of the 3 point era. That said, the ’86 Celts were the best defensive team in the league that year (Jordan still dropped 63 on them in the playoffs), and that mentality of playing faster and allowing your offensive dominance to shine most of the game and then really focusing on getting stops, especially turnovers, in short bursts is tried and true. The Celtics did it. The Lakers did it. The Bulls did it. These Cavs could do it too. Maybe.

Converting for Era – Part 2: Was Isiah Thomas a Star?

September 18, 2014 by

Ask a room full of NBA fans over the age of 40 who the best under 6’ 3” player of all time is, and I bet a majority of them will answer with the same name: Isiah Thomas. Thomas was the fiery leader of a Detroit Pistons team that won two titles, made three consecutive NBA Finals, made five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, and defeated Magic Johnson’s Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and Larry Bird’s Celtics in the process. Bill Simmons, author of The Book of Basketball, swears up and down that Isiah is the best point guard of his lifetime (excepting Magic as something more than a point guard with his 6’ 9” frame). Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe pretty much echoes that sentiment (excepting also Oscar Robertson).

Old heads and modern basketball historians believe Isiah was the real deal. Modern metrics do not. He took too many bad shots. He gave away too many turnovers. He played in too fast an era. His teams excelled on the glass and on defense more than anything, and the credit for those areas goes to the big guys like Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, and John Salley.

A quick breakdown of Isiah’s game for the uninitiated: Thomas was an undersized, lightning quick guard with the best handles of his era, good elevation in traffic, and tremendous court vision. His offense was a lot of runners and quick pull-up jumpers. He was very good working the pick and roll or pick and pop, and he could break down almost anybody off the dribble one on one. Defensively he liked to press and really get underneath opposing point guards to hamper their progress up the court. He was both short and slight though and an easy target for post ups or for taller players to shoot over on the perimeter.

How did that playstyle translate statistically? It depends on your point of view. I created a big fat table from the Basketball-Reference.com statistical pages of all players since 1980 (3 point shot introduction) to today, ages 23-32 combined seasons, over 600 games played and I got the per game, per 36 minute, and per 75 possession stats along with the advanced metrics. Using a brutally simple production figure (points + assists + rebounds), among all point guards, Thomas ranks out as 3rd best per game, 2nd best per minute, and 3rd best per possession. He is dead last by Win Shares per 48 minutes. In fact, he is dead last among the 89 players on my list regardless of position.

So where’s the disconnect? Why do the the old man eye test and the basic box score stats tell us one story, and the advanced metrics tell such a different one?

There are two reasons that Isiah’s metrics don’t look so hot. He has a lousy effective field goal percentage, and his turnover rate is too high. Just looking at that in black and white makes him sound like a bad player. But when you consider how the Pistons built their team and what Isiah had to do to make the offense run properly, you see how his seemingly negative attributes were actually beneficial for the team.

Over the 10 year stretch that my statistics span for Thomas (1983-92), his Pistons were third in total wins behind LA and Boston. They had a 109.2 Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and a 105.9 Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), good for 6th best and 3rd best overall respectively. Offensive rating is largely based on Dean Oliver’s four factors, eFG%, TO%, ORB%, and FTrate. Basically what that means is that the four good things a team can do maximize its scoring efficiency are to shoot well, minimize turnovers, get offensive rebounds, and get to the foul line. Duh. The Pistons, who maintained one of the best offenses in the league, did so primarily by having very few turnovers and dominating the offensive glass. Their eFG% was a pedestrian .487, not even league average, and their FTrate was .492, just about dead-on average. But their turnover rate was 13.7, top 5 in the league, and their ORB% was 34.6, 3rd best.

So how does Thomas, the player least likely to get an offensive board and most likely to turn it over, factor into that offensive success? By doing the things that put his teammates in position to succeed. Isiah was a wizard at getting into the lane, but once he got there, he met a lot of resistance. Laimbeer and Dumars could stretch the floor a little, but the other players couldn’t. Rodman played a lot of small forward for this team, so when Zeke got into the paint, he’d find Dennis along with Mahorn or Salley or James Edwards and their defenders directly in his path. No problem! He just drew the defense and lofted the ball up on the backboard for his big guys to corral. On the stat sheet it looks like he made a terrible play. He missed a covered shot. In reality he created an opportunity for the team’s board-crashing specialists to excel. And the turnover story is even simpler. Since Isiah was virtually the only player trying to make plays for others, no one else had a high turnover percentage, and the team as a whole maintained possessions exceptionally well.

Teams aren’t really built that way anymore. Few teams play two traditional bigs and a non-shooting small forward all at the same time (Memphis maybe). To answer the question of whether or not Zeke was a real star player or just a puffed up top scorer on a team that made its bones at the defensive end, let’s imagine who he might play like in today’s game on a team with more spacing and less rebounding.

Only two players on my stat list have a usage rate over 25% and an assist rate over 35%, Isiah Thomas and Tony Parker. When I consider Parker’s game, the lack of three point shooting, the pick and roll wizardry, and the ball-control and quickness and ability to get in the paint, I think it’s a pretty good modern comparison. However, because of the difference in teammates and system, the stats are considerably different. I won’t weigh this post down with their individual numbers but suffice it to say that Parker was much more efficient as a shooter and turned it over a lot less while Thomas put up much better per game and per minute totals because he played more on a faster team.

What’s more interesting is to look at what the Spurs expect of Tony and how it translates to the team’s stats. Over the 9 year stretch that my stats give for Parker (2006-14) the Spurs are far and away the best in total team wins. They have a 109.3 offensive rating (3rd best overall) and a 102.5 defensive rating (best overall). Their eFG% is 2nd best to Phoenix, and their TOV% is top 6. However, the Spurs have had the worst offensive rebound rate of any team over those seasons and the second worst free throw rate (made free throw / field goal attempt). If we look at those numbers we can figure out what coach Gregg Popovich is trying to accomplish and how Parker’s particular skillset factors.

First and foremost, the Spurs have the best defense in the league, and Pop prioritizes transition defense over offensive rebounding always. The lack of free throws is the result of the team not having the most athletic squad at the wings and because they get a ton of open shots. The high effective field goal percentage is all about maximizing shot value. The basic breakdown of a Spurs possession is: Parker gets into a side pick and roll and tries to score. If the defense fails to react, it’s a layup. If the two defenders converge on Parker, it’s an open shot for the screener, usually Tim Duncan. If the two defenders switch, it’s two mismatches that will result in a good though covered shot. If an extra defender leaves his man to come help on the Parker / Duncan screen and roll, then another Spur is open, usually for a corner three once the ball swings properly. If the play gets blown up, Parker will simply go into a second pick and roll and sometimes a third until the defense is compromised.

The reason this strategy works is because the Spurs have excellent shooters on the wing and capable passers and shooters up front. They are able to clear the defense out of the way to run the pick and roll and capitalize on Parker’s aggressiveness. Toss in the rules regarding perimeter hand-checking and defensive 3 second violations (this is a golden era for a super-quick point guard with the ability to finish and good vision), and you see why Tony Parker is so damn effective.

None of this is meant to undermine Parker or to say that in today’s environment on a team constructed like San Antonio, Isiah would be a match for Tony at finishing around the rim. That’s a tall order! But, I do think it’s fair to posit that Thomas would be a significantly more efficient shooter and passer in a system that called for less individual creation of shots against set defense and more execution of offense to get optimized shots for others. And if Isiah made one more shot per game, his eFG% would leap from .465 to .553, right in line with Steve Nash and significantly higher than Parker. If he only made ½ a shot more per game, his eFG% would come up to .522, almost exactly the same as Parker. It’s not a big stretch to think the Isiah would look like a star, if not a superstar, today (or for that matter that Tony Parker might have been a star in the olden days).

This is a huge post, so I’ll wrap up now, but I also want to point out that there is probably an efficiency correction to be made based on total possessions played. It’s true that in today’s environment where the best teams are committed to full effort and execution on defense all game long, the per possession impact on each player is probably higher, but in a faster era where players actually had to run up and down the 90 foot court as many as 20 more times, that’s probably a more detrimental energy sapper. Just another piece of context to consider when we try to evaluate a retired player against a modern basketball framework.

Converting for Era – Part 1: Could Scottie Pippen Play 3 and D?

September 8, 2014 by

Recently I’ve been listening to an excellent podcast over at Hardwood Paroxysm called “Over and Back” where they do comprehensive career retrospectives for retired players, and having heard a few of these, I think it’s time to discuss player comparisons and historical context again.

What got me thinking about the tangled mess of cross-generational comparisons is that these podcasters like to include a topic about how a player would play in today’s game or who a good comparison might be, and for three out of three players they’ve discussed, (Scottie Pippen, Reggie Lewis, and Rick Barry), one of the chief concerns has been lack of three point shooting. That’s understandable. Three point shooting is a key skill for wing players in today’s game. With some key exceptions like Dwyane Wade, basically all your star perimeter players can function as floor-spacers when playing off the ball.

A guy like Scottie Pippen doesn’t seem to have that skill set when we examine his shooting percentages, and the fellah’s on “Over and Back” came right out and said that Scottie wouldn’t be a 3 and D guy in today’s NBA. Obviously the problem isn’t with the D, since Pippen is arguably the best perimeter defender of his era and possibly all time.

Pippen’s career three point shooting percentage is 32.6%, and he only shot over 35% for a season twice, both times while the line was moved closer. So Scottie could not be an adequate floor spacer in the 2010+ NBA. Right? Well, maybe. There are couple other points to examine.

Unfortunately we don’t have shooting charts for Pippen’s era, but luckily for my valued readers, I watched a ton of 1990s Bulls games and remember some of Scottie’s tendencies. One of his bad habits that irked me to no end as a fan was that he liked to pull up in transition for at least one top of the key three-pointer per game, and he wasn’t very good at that shot. On the other hand, Pippen was not the designated corner three specialist for the Bulls (that task went to Craig Hodges, John Paxson, BJ Armstrong, and Steve Kerr), but from my memory, he actually shot pretty well from the right side on catch and shoot opportunities.

As I mentioned, we don’t have shot charts to verify exactly how well players shot from different areas from this time in the NBA; however, we don’t need to be exact to make a point about types of shots taken and team role. Pippen played point forward for Chicago. He brought the ball up the court and initiated the offense. So he didn’t spend a ton of time on the wing waiting for kick-out passes. Those mostly came to him in isolation sets for Michael Jordan (what assistant coach Bach referred to as the “Archangel offense” where Jordan spread his wings and rained fire from on high).

Let’s do a “what if” shooting exercise. Andre Iguodala is in many ways a poor man’s Scottie Pippen, an athletic guard-forward with a good handle and court vision, known for his defense and not so much for his individual scoring or shooting acumen. Last year Iggie shot 35.4% from 3, which is all I think a player needs to do to adequately punish teams that leave him open on the perimeter. Interestingly, Iggie’s shot chart shows exactly what I would expect for Pippen. He’s terrible from straightaway (generally a pull-up spot) at 27.3% and good from the right corner (generally a catch and shoot spot) at 40%. He also shoots a solid 35.5% from the left corner, a good 38.9% from the right wing, and a poor 29.6% from the left wing.

But for now let’s simplify and pretend that there are only two shooting spots, the top of the key and the right corner. We’re also going to operate under the assumption that Scottie’s percentage breakdown is similar to Iggie’s…

If Pippen takes 3 three pointers a game and shoots two of them from the top of the key at 27 FG% and one from the corner at 40 FG%, he would make .94 three pointers out of three attempts per game for a 3P% of 31.3%. That also amounts to 94 points per 100 possessions for the team, not a great figure.

If he shot one 3PA from the top of the key and two 3PAs from the corner, we would expect him to make 1.07 three pointers out of 3 attempts for a 3P% of 35.7%. That would be 107 points per 100 team possessions, which is better than today’s league average, about in line with Golden State.

We just turned Pippen into a floor-spacing wing, and all we had to do was adjust his shot selection, something that would probably happen naturally based on modern metrics and coaching trends. We didn’t factor that he might become a significantly better shooter if a coach told him that making threes was going to be an increased part of his role and he should practice them more. We didn’t factor changes to Pippen’s opportunities that might arise by putting his teammate Michael Jordan in today’s context with the no-hand check rule and the overloaded strong side defensive semi-zone. These defensive tendencies among today’s teams would almost certainly present Pippen with more open shots.

It’s tempting to look at statistics, especially for players we’ve never or rarely seen play, and assume they tell what a player COULD do. We need to consider the numbers as signifiers only of what a player was REQUIRED to do. NBA players, especially the stars, are by and large versatile and multi-faceted athletes capable of adapting to circumstances. Increased emphasis or opportunities in a particular area would very likely produce improved results.


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