There are some things, as fans, you’d think would be immutable in terms of the data we have on basketball, especially at the NBA level. One of area you might expect to be immutable is the location or zone where shots are taken. A layup is a layup, a mid-range jumper is a mid-range jumper, etc. If you believe that, then you, like me up until a few weeks ago, have not dug in deep enough to the NBA’s shot location data.
It turns out that a restricted area shot is not always a restricted area shot and a mid-range jumper is not always a mid-range jumper. This is because shot location data is tracked by the home scorekeepers in each arena in the league and as such, it is subject to the bias of those scorekeepers. This is similar to another area of scorekeeping, the tallying of assists, which is a process that introduces a great deal of subjectivity to the process. Fortunately, adjusting for scorekeeper subjectivity is a somewhat solved problem, thanks to Jack Moore from Deadspin (not to be confused with the zombie Scabspin that currently operates at that url). Here is a link to Moore’s article detailing the process of adjusting assist numbers for scorekeeping bias or developing “Court Factors” as he called it (borrowing the concept of Park Factors from Sabermetrics).
Court Factors, as with Park Factors in baseball, are an attempt to adjust for differences in the environment that produce statistics. In baseball, the parks have different dimensions and additional weirdness (The Green Monster in Boston, for instance) which can produce these sorts of differences. In basketball, most of the differences in statistical environment come down to scorekeeping bias, hence the example of assists.
Jack Moore’s basic formula for Court Factors as applied to assists is as follows:
We can apply a similar concept to adjust the shot location distribution for each bucket. As an example, here is what such a calculation looks like for a Restricted Area Court Factor:
RA CF = 100*(((Home_RA_FGA+OppHome_RA_FGA)/(Home_Total_FGA+OppHome_Total_FGA)) / ((Road_RA_FGA+OppRoad_RA_FGA)/(Road_Total_FGA+OppRoad_Total_FGA)))
We can then run this for each shot location area and get the Court Factors for each shot location bucket for each arena (shown below).
In order to understand what these numbers represent, a lower Court Factor means that the scorekeepers at that arena are less likely to categorize a given shot into that shot location bucket, while a larger number means the opposite.
As we can see, the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder scorekeepers are the biggest culprits in terms of undercounting restricted area attempts and, as a result, overcounting in the paint, non-restricted area attempts.
Note: RA = Restricted Area, PNRA = Paint Non-Restricted Area, MR = Mid-range, C3 = Corner 3, ATB = Above the Break 3, and CF = Court Factor
A possible update to this methodology might be to use two point attempts as the denominator in our formula for restricted area, paint non-RA, and mid-range attempts and then use three point attempts as the denominator in our formula for corner 3 and above the break 3 attempts. This makes sense as we should have more confidence in the refs getting it correct as to whether a shot was a two or three point attempt. As a result, we’d see more accuracy in terms of where the bucketing errors occur, e.g. missing restricted area attempts should generally come from paint non-restricted area attempts, unless the scorekeepers are just wildly off. Likewise, missing corner 3 attempts should come from the above the break 3 bucket and vice versa.
Here’s what those results look like:
As you can see, the results are largely the same. Of note in the three point category are the Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Indiana scorekeepers all erring on the side of bucketing 3 point attempts into corner 3s, rather than above the break 3s. Must be a Central Division thing (ignore the Bucks!).
One caveat here that must be said is that it’s possible that some of these differences in bucketing are the result of genuine play style differences between being home and away for the given teams. The Bucks jump out as being a team that might just allow many fewer corner 3s at home versus on the road, given their well known strategy of conceding above the break threes over corner 3s or rim attempts. It’s possible they executed much better at home on that strategy.
Still, these results are significant enough (in particular the restricted area and non-RA paint categories) that its probably wise to consider adjusting for these factors, whether mentally or programmatically, when you’re comparing shot zone data from the league across different arenas.
Artūras Karnišovas, Chicago Bulls President of Basketball Operations, has a big decision to make this summer, if you listen to a certain segment of Bulls fans and Chicago media. Can you win big with Zach LaVine as a guy with a maximum contract on your team?
Of course, that is not at all the right question to ask and Karnišovas has hardly a decision to make at all. OF COURSE, you max out Zach LaVine. Why is this so obvious?
LaVine Has Earned a Maximum Contract
Getting this out of the way first, as it is the most relevant point here. Zach LaVine has turned himself into somewhere between a top 20 and 30 player in the league (evidence: no All-NBA teams, but back to back All Star berths), despite entering the league as a very raw project with interesting tools and a moldable skillset but a seemingly limited understanding of team basketball.
LaVine also did all of this improving despite being in a series of terrible situations, first in Minnesota and then in Chicago. He had 6 coaches in his first 7 years in the league, with this season with Billy Donovan representing the first time in his career that he had the same head coach to start back-to-back seasons. LaVine also refused to let suffering a torn ACL in his third season at the age of 22 stop him getting better. Simply put, LaVine has an incredible work ethic and that work ethic has been the Bulls’ one constant in the post-Jimmy Butler era.
LaVine’s last contract paid him only $19 million a season, on average, and it is very safe to say he outplayed that contract. It’s possible the Bulls former brass (Fire GarPax again, if possible, please) soured the relationship between the team and player all the way back then by making LaVine seek out a restricted free agency contract with the Sacramento Kings and matching it, rather than simply paying LaVine what he was actually worth. Hopefully for Bulls’ fans sake and the sake of the new front office group that damage isn’t fatal to keeping LaVine, who, it must be said, is an unrestricted free agent. This leads to the next point.
It’s Not About The Money, It’s About Respect
No matter where LaVine ultimately ends up this summer, he’s going to be incredibly well compensated for his services. That’s not really at issue here. One thing that the Bulls guard has made very clear is that, to him, the question of his compensation is about him feeling respected and treated like the player he has proven himself to be.
Here’s LaVine saying as much himself to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst last summer:
“I just want my respect, that’s the main thing,” LaVine said Monday after practice ahead of Team USA’s quarterfinal game against Spain set for Tuesday.”I outplayed my contract. I’ve been very loyal to Chicago. I like Chicago. I just want my respect. If that’s now or later, it’s something we’ve got to work out internally.”
Zach repeated this theme in his end-of-season press conference with Chicago media.
“It’s important to me. But you get paid what you’re valued at. I see myself as a top guy in this league, and I think I’ve proven that over the last four years. And I think that’s what we’re going to negotiate. I think that’s what Marc (Eversley), [Artūras Karnišovas], that’s what they and Rich are going to have to discuss.”
LaVine wants to feel like he’s being valued by the franchise and he feels like he wasn’t properly valued or respected on his last contract, because as he mentioned last summer to Windhorst and again in a back and forth with Joe Cowley in the same recent end-of-season press conference mentioned above, he outplayed his contract. He doesn’t have to settle for less than his value in unrestricted free agency and he has given every indication that he believes he should be receiving the maximum amount he can receive under the collective bargaining agreement.
Given that the Bulls already short-changed him, in his eyes, for the last four years, they have very little margin for error in their discussions with him, especially as there are a handful of teams with cap space to sign him outright to a max deal (granted those deals would be a year shorter and have smaller annual raises of 5% versus 8% he could receive with Chicago).
If Chicago messes around and tries to get cute by offering anything short of the 5 year, $212 million dollar deal for which LaVine is eligible, they increase their risk of losing him for absolutely nothing.
Lack of Liquidity in Talent Acquisition in the NBA
This gets to the last bit that really matters. The alternative to giving Zach LaVine the money he wants and, in his eyes and my eyes, he deserves is not that you get to offer that money to another, better mystery player. The two options to not paying LaVine are: (1) sign-and-trading him to some other team for a package of players that are worse than him and (2) losing him for nothing.
In a sign-and-trade situation, LaVine would be deciding which team without actual cap space he wants to go to, using the threat to leave for nothing to one of the teams with cap space as leverage to force the sign-and-trade and the Bulls would be getting whatever they could negotiate out of that team in trade negotiations. Given the current front office group’s propensity for losing trades on the margins, that’s not a scenario about which to be optimistic.
Even if they lose LaVine for nothing, Chicago is going to be more or less capped out, given the contracts handed out last summer to DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, plus Nikola Vučević’s $22 million expiring contract. At most, Chicago would have around $16 million in cap space if they lost LaVine to another team for nothing and renounced their remaining free agents for cap space. This should be obvious, but the Bulls are not finding another player better than Zach LaVine in free agency for a starting annual salary of $16 million a year.
In short, losing LaVine in the off-season, no matter the circumstances (sign-and-trade or having him walk for nothing) would be an utter disaster for the Bulls, without any further context. With the context of last summer’s offseason and the prior season’s trade deadline, it would be a franchise asteroid, putting them in a crater from which they might take a decade to dig out.
Chicago Already Went All-In on LaVine Last Summer
Karnišovas and Marc Eversley went all out to build a winning team this summer and last year with the moves to acquire Vučević, Ball, and DeRozan. This after Gar Forman and John Paxson left them with an already relatively bare cupboard after a poorly executed rebuild, kicked off by trading Jimmy Butler for way less than his full value. As a result, the Bulls are very asset poor. They’re out their 2023 first round pick, 2025 pick first round pick, and have no second round picks for as far out as the eye can see. They also didn’t have their 2021 first round pick this past summer, a pick which turned into Franz Wagner, who appears to be a future stud.
If the Bulls lose LaVine in the summer, they have to consider blowing things up all over again, especially if they aren’t able to make the loss a sign-and-trade for real value. The core of this team without LaVine is simply not good enough to make the playoffs, let alone to make any real noise in the playoffs in a significantly improved Eastern Conference. They’d have to trade DeRozan and Vučević for draft picks and see what value they could get for Caruso. Ball is probably untradeable at the moment with the concerns around his lingering knee injury. Most fans rightfully want no part of another teardown. I know I certainly don’t.
To use a poker term, Chicago is pot-committed to this version of the team and as a result, they absolutely have to everything they can to retain Zach LaVine’s services. That means offering him 5 years, $212 million and hoping the good feelings of the first three quarters of this season and the full bag is enough to keep him in the Windy City. It’s really the only option here and I think it’s what Bulls’ brass will do. Hopefully, it’s enough.
This is going to be a post that offers some criticism of the Bulls front office duo of President of Basketball Operations, Artūras Karnišovas and General Manager, Marc Eversley. Before we get to that, though, it must be said that the Bulls’ new basketball people did a very strong job in their first active offseason following their first year on the job, where they were in “evaluation mode.” Adding DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso in a single offseason, while hitting on the steal of the second round in the draft (well, save for “Not On” Herb Jones) in Ayo Dosunmu is a very successful offseason by any measure. Chicago leapt from a team that won at a 35 win pace, prorated to an 82 game season, to a team that won 46 games. Adding 11 wins to a team’s record and making the playoffs is a substantial accomplishment and the Bulls organization deserves kudos for trying to simply be better and give their city and fans worldwide a team worth their time. They largely succeeded. Speaking as a Bulls partisan, it was the most fun season in half a decade, at least.
Having said all of that, there were some areas where the new front office group came up short. Those areas were largely exposed by COVID absences, injuries, and the pressure cooker of a first round playoff series against the defending NBA Champion, Milwaukee Bucks.
These issues were not really in the big picture shifts, but instead in the marginal moves that defined how the team was built out around the stars and other core pieces. Why does this matter so much? I’ll let Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball and Backpicks.com take it from here:
The data reflects common sense. As teams grow better, the players surrounding the star grow better. Improvements to the star himself are correlated with more team success, but the supporting players on a team are more important to the team’s success than the star player. This is expected; basketball is not a one-on-one sport. Still, it’s nice to be able to quantify this with a decade of non-box score data.
In other words, the true differentiator between bad teams and good teams and good teams and great teams is the supporting cast around the stars, despite what the hot take merchants and great men of history pushers would have you believe. Okay, so what does all that have to do with the Chicago Bulls?
“Too Small, Too Weak, Too Poor”
In a cruel inversion of Stacey King’s famous call, often made on Derrick Rose’s behalf, “too big, too strong, too good,” Chicago’s role players outside their top 6 players (DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nik Vučević, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and Pat Williams) were simply “too small, too weak, too poor.” They didn’t have an adequate combination of size, strength, and skill to hold up over an 82 game season, nor could they go toe-to-toe with Milwaukee’s role players in the postseason.
This team spent large swaths of the season with 6’4″ Javonte Green in the starting lineup guarding front court players more often than not. Green is a spectacularly fun and energetic player and has a place in a rotation, especially over the grinding slog of 82 tilts in a 6 month window that is the league’s regular season. He should be nobody’s starter, however, and the lack of reasonable big wing, four man options available to Billy Donovan after Patrick Williams’s unfortunate freak wrist dislocation was an enormous problem for the Bulls. While he provides hustle and muscle, Green is physically outgunned in most matchups and doesn’t command the respect of a single NBA defense as an offensive threat, beyond as a transition terror and put-back dunk dynamo. This is because, like most of the Bulls non-core players, Green was simply not a shooter or dribbler worth fretting over.
Two players with similar warts to Javonte and less to recommend them, given their lack of his physicality and energy are Derrick Jones Jr. and Troy Brown Jr. Neither player can shoot in a way that frightens foes and they aren’t significant threats with the ball in their hands, despite Brown Jr.’s profile as a theoretical do-a-bit-of-everything-well wing. The reality of TBJ is more a what-does-he-really-do-well-actually? wing. Having three role guys who all are kind of the same guy in their weaknesses without many bit players on the roster who have those weaknesses as strengths is a recipe for problems. This is doubly true for Chicago, given that fully 4 of the Bulls’ top 5 players are guard-sized, with only the much (unfairly) maligned Nikola Vučević providing any true combination of height and heft. As a result, Vučević was overtasked often this season on the glass, while Ball and Caruso were ground down by too often guarding the league’s thickest and strongest wings and big forwards. There’s no data here to prove the point, but it’s hard not to believe that Chicago’s multiple injuries to their defensive cornerstones Ball and Caruso, as well as the aforementioned DJJ and Javonte Green, were the result of the pounding inflicted by perpetually playing up.
Finally, at some point in the season, Billy Donovan decided that Tony Bradley Jr. simply couldn’t really play for him and opted to give minutes to the guy who used to be Tristan Thompson instead. Presumably this had something to do with Tony’s metacarpals being made of minerals.
The problem, of course, is that Tristan Thompson has been somewhere between worthless and actively harmful on a basketball court and in a locker room for multiple years running. This, of course, continued in Chicago. Thompson has been terrible and Chicago’s good vibes, propensity to fight for each other, and problem-solve professionally and collaboratively, all took a notable dip when he arrived. Still, Donovan’s lack of trust in Bradley Jr. makes some sense, as the old ball coach wants his big men to be able to make reads in the short roll and, well, that’s impossible to do if you can’t catch the ball in traffic. (We’ll ignore, here, that while Tristan can catch the ball, he will only ever make the wrong decision with it.)
How Did Chicago Get Here?
Some of these failings were the result of terrible COVID-19 luck and Mitchell Robinson’s being a bit of a reckless doofus, but bad luck and reckless doofuses are things for which you have to have prepare when roster building in this league. Patrick Williams being the only true big-wing, power forward sized player on the roster is simply bad planning.
There were opportunities to do better. Coby White should have been traded in the offseason for someone, anyone with at least two of size, strength, and skill. Coby is skilled, but undersized and very weak. He’s also massively redundant on a team that includes Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan, and even, Ayo Dosunmu. While we’re at it, White’s skill-level, strong as it is, often doesn’t translate to actual success, as his processing speed and decisionmaking generally leave much to be desired, on both ends of the court. Ideally a Coby swap would have brought someone with wing size and a reasonably good jumper on the catch. I can forgive the lack of a Coby trade, somewhat, due to his offseason shoulder injury that likely tanked his value during that window. He could have been moved for help at the trade deadline, though, and I think he ought to have been.
Derrick Jones Jr. could have and probably should have been Larry Nance Jr., instead. In the sign-and-trade deal that sent Lauri Markkanen to Cleveland, Nance Jr. was the asset that the Cavaliers sent out in order to get the Big Finn in their building. The Bulls’ braintrust opted for DJJ and a protected possibly-maybe-but-good-chance-it’s-not first round pick from the Blazers, over cutting Portland out of the deal and simply taking Nance for themselves. Nance is simply much better than DJJ, to my eyes, and more than that he would have provided the Bulls with additional size both in height and bulk. After being dealt a second time by the Blazers for very little to New Orleans, Nance has demonstrated his value under the bright lights of the playoffs getting significant minutes against the regular season’s best team, your Phoenix Suns, while Jones Jr. has been relegated to an end-of-bench rotation piece against Milwaukee.
Management also had an opportunity to add additional talent and talent that fit a need on the roster, if they had simply cut Matt Thomas to sign Stanley Johnson for the rest of the season. Some of this was determined by the Bulls’ seeming COVID-19 curse, with Johnson getting the novel coronavirus immediately after being brought on as a pandemic hardship signing and just as quickly being cut. It didn’t have to be that way, though. The Bulls’ head honchos could have just given Johnson a standard minimum contract, rather than the hardship deal he was on, and to reiterate, let go of Matt Thomas, who provided effectively nothing all year and especially did nothing to solve Chicago’s biggest role player issue: lack of big wing size and strength. Johnson is a 6’6″ 240 pound brick house and a tenacious point of attack defender who would have helped immensely in the holiday-season doldrums where the Bulls were down large chunks of their defensive personnel for weeks and weeks. It didn’t have to be Johnson, either. Anyone in Johnson’s mold would have been much more useful for this roster than Thomas, who was too small and weak, and his jumper too inconsistent given the first two.
Signing Tony Bradley Jr. and his notably bad hands when your head coach insists that his centers, including backups, must be able to catch the ball and make passes and reads as a pressure release valve is bad planning. It’s doubly bad planning when Isaiah Hartenstein was on the free agency market, flapping in the breeze well past the point at which Chicago’s decision-makers had already committed to Tony B. Hartenstein had to sign a training camp deal with the Clippers, and his deal wasn’t even fully guaranteed until midway through the season! All of this despite Hartenstein’s well-demonstrated cromulence as a short roll decisionmaker, in-a-pinch scorer, and defender in stops in Houston, Denver, and Cleveland prior to landing in Los Angeles. Signing Hartenstein also likely would’ve given the Bulls’ bosses little reason to consider giving Tristan Thompson a look, let alone a piece of the biannual exception, limiting their options for the summer of 2022.
Nance Jr., Stanley Johnson, and Hartenstein would have been much better moves on the margins than Jones Jr., Matt Thomas, and Tony Bradley Jr. / Tristan Thompson. Of course, maybe all of this is only obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but if the front office had identified the problem of being too small and weak and too unskilled they might have made these or similar moves. An obvious objection here is that none of these three would have solved the Bulls’ “others” lack of shooting prowess, but at the very least, the defense would have held up better in the prolonged absences of Caruso, Ball, and Javonte Green. Hard Rock’s short roll passing also may have been enough offensive WD-40 with bench units to paper over some of the spacing concerns. An in-season trade of Coby White for a similarly priced defensive wing shooter would have helped here, too.
This is all to say nothing of the marginal losses of giving up too many picks in the Vučević and DeRozan swaps, nor the mistake of trading a good, young cost-controlled center in Daniel Gafford for Troy Brown Jr. who is… still kind of young and little else worth mentioning. In fairness to Karnišovas and Eversley, though, Javonte Green on a minimum contract was part of that deal and easily the best part of it for Chicago.
What To Do About All This?
Karnišovas and Eversley must spend this offseason rebuilding the Bulls’ 8-15 spots on the roster. DeRozan, LaVine (more on him and his impending free agency soon), Vučević, Caruso, Ball, Williams, and Dosunmu should all be back. (Javonte can probably stay, too, given all the surplus value he provides over his remaining one year, minimum salary deal.) Everyone else can and likely should be replaced.
Trading Coby this summer must happen, as he is unlikely to be someone the Bulls can or should pay his next deal, given likely cost and roster redundancies. Unfortunately, White has largely been an eyesore these playoffs on both ends, so he’s unlikely to return more than marginal talent, especially on his expiring deal, even with the restricted free agent rights that come with said deal. Get anything of value you can and move on.
Drafting for need is a mug’s game, but if the best player available calculus says there’s a tie, go for the player with the big wing size, strength, and shooting, please. I’m not NOT talking about Tari Eason and/or EJ Liddell, here.
Besides trading Coby and their first round pick, the Bulls’ other tools for improvement are some form of the midlevel exception (tax-payer or otherwise), the Daniel Theis $5 million traded player exception (TPE), and veterans’ minimum deals. If they can convince the Thunder to fork over Mike Muscala (a shot-blocking, three point shooter with a bargain price-tag) for the Theis exception, that’d be a nice bit of business, however unlikely it may be. Maybe Thaddeus Young is interested in returning to Chicago on the cheap. Maybe one of Kyle Anderson or either Martin twin can be had for the midlevel exception. What will Taurean Prince fetch? None of these are perfect fits, but they’re clearly better options than those Donovan had this season and someone should be gettable.
Even a player like Ben McLemore on a minimum contract would provide much more of a spacing threat, if nothing else, around the Bulls core than the current players so that a team like the Bucks couldn’t surrender 19 corner three pointers in a single playoff game with little worry that it would burn them.
I, a random blogger on the internet, obviously, don’t have all of the answers for how to fix the Bulls’ 8-15 spots this offseason. That’s ultimately not the point, nor am I qualified or interested in gaming out every possible option. I would like to present some general principles for the Bulls’ roster building around the core 6 guys, though.
Get players who:
defend well enough across multiple positions that they aren’t playoff targets
must be respected as shooters and quick decision-makers
Sounds very simple but given how valuable the “others” are in making a team great and the preference for that combination of skills league-wide, it will be a major challenge, but hey, that’s the job. Whether the Bulls are able to get proven vets in these spots with these talents or are able to make some international ball or G-League finds is irrelevant for our purposes, but bottom line, they must find these kinds of players to improve the roster.
Oh, and find a back up center that can catch and pass the ball!
Artūras Karnišovas, the Chicago Bulls’ new head decisionmaker, has had a bunch of big decisions to make early in his tenure. He fired Gar Forman, Jim Boylen, disempowered John Paxson, hired new general manager Marc Eversley, and swooped in to grab Billy Donovan as soon as he came on the head coaching market. His next big set of decisions to make revolve around the draft (about which I may post thoughts in this space at a later time), but after that, perhaps no decision will be more consequential than what Karnišovas decides to do with Finnish big man, Lauri Markkanen.
Markkanen is a player that feels very hard to get a bead on. This may be the result of motivated reasoning and wishful thinking for me, given that I am regrettably still a Bulls partisan. If I try to put a more objective lens on him, he looks like a player who has played three years and hasn’t really meaningfully improved at anything and doesn’t bring a single standout skill in his time as a professional.
Markkanen’s Box Plus-Minus (BPM) has hovered around just below league average ever since his rookie year, and the same can be said for his Win Shares per minute and PER. For what it’s worth, Markkanen’s more holistic impactmetrics tell a broadly similar story of mediocre to incredible average-ness. Drilling down under the hood to what goes into those box-score all-in-one numbers, Markannen is essentially league average at scoring efficiency: 99% of League Average TS% every year for each of his seasons at slightly above average volume, he is mediocre at rebounding for a big man, his block and steal rates are nothing to write home about, and he’s a pretty dreadful passer by assist rate.
Markkanen’s low steal and block rates and poor passing numbers are a carryover from his time in college at University of Arizona (see above). This similarity to his college stats is important because it gives additional credence to the idea that this is part of who Lauri is as a player and not just the result of a crummy situation in Chicago, spending the majority of his career being coached by Jim Boylen, the worst head coach in the league the last two seasons in the estimation of this writer. That’s not to say that Markkanen couldn’t have looked better in a better situation or improved more under better coaching, but it is to say that he is probably deficient when it comes to event generation on defense and court vision on offense in a way that seems fairly unlikely to change.
One thing that has not carried over from Markkanen’s collegiate career to his professional years has been his dead-eye shooting from deep. Markkanen was a 42% three point shooter on healthy volume — 163 attempts — at Arizona and paired that with a free throw percentage of 83.5%. Every indication we had from college was that Markkanen would, at the very least, be a 7 foot marksman at the NBA level. Instead, Lauri has shot 35.6% on 1,050 attempts thus far in the league, almost exactly league average on significant volume. That’s certainly good enough to command some attention and demand a close out, but almost certainly not good enough to panic and warp a defense in the ways he might have been expected to as a prospect.
Markkanen’s shooting is even worse when you consider that the vast, vast majority of his shots from behind the line have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, typically a much easier shot type. In his rookie year, 371 of his 391 three point shots were catch-and-shoot looks and he converted at his 36.9%. In 2019, 301 of his 326 attempts were catch-and-shoot attempts and he shot just 36.5% on them. This past season, 302 of Markkanen’s 317 attempted threes were catch-and-shoot opportunities and he shot only 34.4% on them. So Markkanen is seeing a huge portion of his looks coming off passes, which should make them easier shots and he’s shooting at a well below league average mark on catch-and-shoot shots. I don’t have access to the Second Spectrum shot quality data, but given the above, it’s almost a certainty that Markkanen’s scoring is well below average given his shot profile.
But wait, it gets worse! Markkanen’s shooting splits when viewed through the lens of whether he was guarded versus un-guarded make his league average shooting percentages look even less impressive.
Markkanen shoots decently above league average on wide-open or “NBA open” (nearest defender 6 feet away or greater) a very strong 42%. However, when you introduce even the slightest amount of resistance (defender within 4-6 feet, called “Open” by the NBA stats page), his percentages go into the tank. He shoots 6 percentage points below the league average on these shots. Lauri doesn’t shoot a meaningful number of threes outside of these two guarded contexts, so they are really the only ones worth discussing.
Shooting isn’t the only context in which Lauri looks lacking when he runs up against greater resistance. I took a look at Player Impact Plus-Minus broken out by opponent, split by top 10 opponents and the remaining 20 opponents, based on adjusted net rating. I filtered for only players that played a minimum of 500 minutes against each group of opponents. In every year of his career, Lauri ranks significantly worse amongst that group of players in PIPM against top 10 teams versus against the dregs of the league.
Looking at the whole picture of Lauri Markkanen’s career it is very hard to build a case for the Bulls to be excited about trying to keep him with an extension or an RFA contract next offseason. Markkanen is a 7 foot shooter who brings very little else to the table and even then, pretty much only shoots well when he is absolutely wide open. He’s an awkward defensive fit on a good team as a guy who provides absolutely no paint deterrence for opponents when he plays either PF or C and who can’t guard wing players when opponents downsize at the PF position.
According to Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM contract value projector, Markkanen is worth roughly $16 million a season going forward on his next deal. But, as I hope I’ve made clear, Lauri’s PIPM probably overstates his value, because he consistently fails to bring it against the elite teams in the league and instead does most of his damage bum-slaying the worst teams in the league. As a result, if you’re trying to build a high level winner, even committing $16 million a season to an extension for Markkanen is probably too much.
I’m kind of obsessed with trying to figure out which all-in-one metrics best measure player productivity and goodness in the NBA. I’ve built a basic statistical plus-minus in the past, called DRE, which essentially functions as an updated version of John Hollinger’s GameScore, only with more accurate weights.
I spent a lot of time tweaking and refining the models for offense and defense to attempt to maximize predictiveness out-of-sample. (Methodological note: I utilized the caret package in R, using the “glmnet” method, and 10×10 repeated cross-validation to arrive at these values). I gave a lot of thought to different variables to include and which variables to drop due to obvious collinearity issues, as well issues of overfitting based on variables being included that just made no basketball sense.
For projecting Offensive LA-RAPM an elastic net model proved best for maximizing out of sample prediction. For Defensive LA-RAPM a LASSO model was best. For Tracking Plus-Minus Offense, the following variables and coefficients were selected:
FG2M_100: 2 Point Field Goals Made per 100 possessions
FG2A_100: 2 Point Field Goals Attempted per 100 possessions
FG3M_100: 3Point Field Goals Made per 100 possessions
FG3A_100: 3Point Field Goals Attempted per 100 possessions
FTM_100: Free Throws Made per 100 possessions
FTA_100: Free Throws Attempted per 100 possessions
ADJ_ORB_PCT: Adjusted Offensive Rebounding Percent — the percentage of offensive rebounds per chance, excluding rebounds deferred to teammates
AST_PTS_100: Points assisted on per 100 possessions
TOV_100: Turnovers per 100 possessions
DIST_OFF_TOP: Distance (in miles) traveled on offense / time of possession on offense (hat tip to Krishna Narsu for suggesting this variable)
STL_100: Steals per 100 possessions
MPG: Minutes per game
In looking at the variables and their relative values it seems that the regression matches general basketball sense. Efficiency and volume (in scoring as well as passing) is highly prized. Adjusting for deferred rebounds to get a picture of a player’s rebounding prowess when actually trying helps better separate the best rebounders. Turnovers are bad. Off-ball movement (measured by proxy via the amount of distance traveled per time of possession) brings additional value. Steals create easy offense and serve as a positive athleticism proxy.
On the defensive side of the ball the r² on the resampling results was lower (.50 for offense v. .39 for defense), while the root mean squared error (RMSE) was actually very slightly smaller for predicting Defensive Luck-Adjusted RAPM (1.38 for offense v. 1.37 for defense). The variables and coefficients selected are:
The variables not already defined above are as follows:
DREB_CONTEST_PCT: The percentage of defensive rebounds a player collects that are actually contested
DRB_100: Defensive rebounds per 100 possessions
LT6_2PTS_SVD_100: Points Saved per 100 possessions within 6 feet of the basket (calculated using the tracking data)
GT6_2PTS_SVD_100: Points Saved per 100 possessions outside 6 feet, but still on 2 point shot attempts (calculated using the tracking data)
DFG3_PTS_SVD_100: Points Saved per 100 possessions on 3 point shot attempts (calculated using the tracking data)
OFD_100: Offensive fouls drawn per 100 possessions
We can see from these coefficients that offensive load (proxied by made 2 point shots, attempted 3 point shots, free throw attempts) generally carries with it a negative effect on defense, all else equal. In addition, shot defense seems to matter a great deal, as points saved from each area of the court mattered (though to slightly varying degrees). Steals and offensive fouls drawn pair to provide significant predictive value, which mirrors the work of others. Interestingly, when shot defense is accounted for, blocks are no longer needed to predict defensive impact. Finally, MPG remaining a predictor of defensive impact, even when controlling for these other variables, shows that coaches are able to provide us additional valuable information about which players are best at defense.
After developing those weights, I utilized a mean-regression method via Jacob Goldstein to add 350 minutes of -1.7 points per 100 possessions impact of offensive play and 450 minutes of -.3 points per 100 possessions impact of defensive play, which is one of the ways he mean-regresses his metric, Player Impact Plus-Minus (“PIPM”).
After that, I calculate the league wide difference between possession-weighted Tracking Plus-Minus for both offense and defense and 0 and then adjust the numbers so that the league is zero sum on both offense and defense.
Now for what most of you have probably been waiting for, the results!
The whole 6 years of results (2013–18 is in sample while 2018–19 is out of sample) can be found here.
These results jive pretty well with my own eye test and the top 3 in MVP voting also made it into the top 3 of the metric, albeit in slightly different order. I feel pretty good about the results overall.
Hope you enjoyed! I should have more to come on Tracking Plus-Minus, as I’ll be utilizing it to predict win totals for this year’s NBA season before the season stars.
I like projecting the NBA. I’m not the best at it and I mostly build on the work of others who are more sophisticated than me, but I enjoy the exercise and it’s fun to do for me,as a big nerd. One frustration I have often had with projections is how black box-y they can sometimes be. I like to know exactly how people do certain things and why they do them. I like poking at the assumptions they make and wondering if those assumptions make sense. I figure some of you out there might be like me, so I figured I would share what I did to come up with my projections for the player level and then explain how I fed that through the NBA schedule to get my win projections for this season.
Real Plus-Minus is a combination of boxscore information and regularized adjusted plus-minus (“RAPM”). The rough weights for the components are that RPM is around 65% RAPM and 35% BoxScore. That’s an inexact approximation, but it’s close enough to be quite useful. The exact makeup of the BoxScore component is not completely known, but we do know that it is some variant of a statistical plus-minus (“SPM”), which is to say, it is a summation of good and bad boxscore statistics to try to estimate plus-minus impact. One of the better implementations of a statistical plus-minus comes from Neil Paine of Five Thirty Eight, and formerly of Sports-Reference.com. Neil’s SPM is on a per 36 minute scale, adjusted to a per 100 possessions pace, which made it very useful for the inputs I wanted to use. My method for projecting player performance from a boxscore perspective was simply to nab Basketball-Reference’s Simple Projection numbers, which are per 36 projections for all the basic boxscore statistics.
Unfortunately, these projections are not adjusted for pace. But I could handle that. I simply went to the NBA Stats page and grabbed individual player pace for the last three years and ran the same methodology as the Simple Projection system (.6/.3/.1 weights for the pace numbers, from most recent to least recent year, and with a mean regression component of +1000 minutes of average pace play). After getting to individual player pace numbers to match the SPS numbers for each player, I could normalize them all to a per 100 possession environment. Then I just pushed those numbers (plus MPG guesses from Kevin Pelton) through Neil’s formula to get an SPM estimate. I paired that with single year RAPM for the last 3 years (2017, 2016, and 2015) weighted again using the same method as the Simple Projections, 60%, 30%, and 10% with additional mean regression tossed in. I paired the SPM numbers with the RAPM estimate using the 35% and 65% weighting I mentioned previously and that got me my list of player RPM projections (with the exception of rookies, for whom I used my rookie model), which you can see in the link below.
Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry and LeBron are in a tier by themselves. This feels about right, especially given the weight to the last few years.
The final step was to put all these player projections into teams via minutes and games played projections (again via Kevin Pelton) to determine team strength and then feeding those ratings through the schedule to determine my final wins projections, which are here:
My projections are significantly lower on the Celtics than conventional wisdom and their Vegas Over/Under. This system is also probably a bit high on the Cavaliers, given their roster fit issues and turnover. Isaiah Thomas’s minutes will also play a huge part in how close they get to 60 wins. I wouldn’t bet on it. Speaking of betting, here are my five favorite bets, based on my projections relative to Vegas:
Despite their crummy on-court results, the Nets are rebuilding the right way
[Ed. note — this was my March 14, 2017 Newsletter. With Brooklyn’s amazing on-going offseason, I decided to share this with everyone.]
Let’s get this out of the way: the Brooklyn Nets are screwed. They mortgaged their future years ago to trade for the over-the-hill versions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in a classic “make a big splash for your flashy new owner and flashy new building” move. After acquiring Joe Johnson and Deron Williams when he was still really good, the bet didn’t seem like a terrible one, at least not to me. For a fun laugh at myself, here’s some crow that I have to choke down:
“I’ve seen some people try to bash this trade for the Nets, which I just don’t understand. The Nets made immediate improvements to their team and gave up picks that will likely now not be worth a whole heck of a lot in 2014 or 2016, who knows about 2018? But people saying they’ve mortgaged their future have it exactly wrong. They didn’t have a future, they just lost to half a Bulls team in the first round(!), now they’ve firmly ensconced themselves in the tier of contenders beneath the Heat. If Dwyane Wade has an off series next year or suffers more knee pain or an injury, it’s totally conceivable that the Heat could fall and the Nets will be as well positioned as anyone to take advantage of such a situation.”
WELP. Suffice it to say, I severely under-indexed on the Nets’ newly acquired stars’ ages and the possibility of a significant and severe decline, which is what we ended up seeing. I also didn’t predict Deron Williams’s precipitous decline, which given his age, was much less predictable than the declines of Garnett and Pierce. My full expectation was that the Nets would remain a playoff team for quite a while, thereby significantly devaluing the picks they gave up. That, uh, did not happen. I was wrong, wrong, wrong and so was then Nets General Manager, Billy King. As a result of that deal, the Nets are, as I said before, screwed.
With all of that out of the way, it’s time to start acknowledging how nice a job Brooklyn’s new front office has done in its short time in power at operating within the straight-jacket that the prior administration locked them in. In many ways, the Nets are doing a stripped-down version of the much discussed Process of the 76ers under Sam Hinkie. That may sound strange at first, as unfortunately for fans in Brooklyn and the front office that’s in place, they don’t have the ability to rack up lottery picks by simply being bad. Seemingly all of those picks are going to the Celtics indefinitely.
But the Process was never just about tanking. It was about maximizing expected value and finding as many slight edges as possible. This explains Hinkie’s seeming obsession with accumulating second round picks. The relatively low cost of acquiring second round picks (some teams still do not properly value them, I’m looking at you, Bulls) paired with the low cost of second round picks once under contract made them an easy way to get multiple bites at the apple of acquiring NBA talent before the competition for incredibly low risk and low cost. Second round picks are basically free expected value. Most of the time, they won’t work out, but sometimes you land a Paul Millsap, Gilbert Arenas, or Draymond Green. Another thing about the Process and the losing that went along with it was that it provided the space for the Sixers to try players out and see if they had anything, without worrying too much about the effect on their win-loss record.
There are echoes of this approach that the Nets are now replicating. In the mold of a venture capitalist, the Nets are making asymmetric bets. That is to say, they are making bets where their downside is capped at a very low risk and where the upside is much more substantial. There’s a reason it’s good to be a venture capitalist. The game is essentially rigged in their favor, simply because of how the math works. If one bet works out, all the relatively cheap bets they’ve made that fail are worth it.
The first of these bets was signing Sean Kilpatrick to a three year deal after having him in on a ten day contract. Kilpatrick had been a journeyman bouncing around the D-League and having a short stint in Minnesota after spending five years (he was a red-shirt freshman) at the University of Cincinnati. Kilpatrick was already 26 at the time he signed with the Nets, but he had flashed talent and the Nets had spots available and a need for young bodies with upside. Kilpatrick fit. He finished the season with 13.5 points per game in just 23 minutes per game on a very solid 57.8% true shooting. He’s regressed a bit in terms of efficiency this season, and he’s never graded out as a better than replacement level player. Still as a relatively young player who can score well per-minute, he has enough potential to provide substantial upside with little downside risk. This is the mark of a solid contract. If he never improves, very little is lost for Brooklyn. If he does improve, the Nets got him for essentially nothing. That’s how you make positive expected value bets.
In his first off-season at the helm, Sean Marks was very aggressive in restricted free agency. It was clear early on he understood what the rising salary cap would mean for contracts, as he signed Tyler Johnson to an offer-sheet at what seemed like an insane amount of money at 4 years, $50 million dollars. It turns out, though, that under the new cap environment, $15 million dollars a year is average starter money and the offer to Johnson was less than that. Given his status as a 23 year old who had already posted a -0.2 BPM per 100 possessions over his first two regular seasons and posted even better numbers in his first playoffs (admittedly in a very small number of minutes) and as a restricted free agent, ponying up that level of cash made all the sense in the world. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, Miami matched their offer and kept Johnson in South Beach.
Marks then turned his eyes towards Allen Crabbe and made an even more aggressive offer of 4 years and $75 million to try to pry Crabbe from Portland. Crabbe was also just 23 years old last season and had, like Tyler Johnson, performed better in the playoffs than his decent production in the regular season. Portland matched. Despite their lack of success, these moves showed a coherent plan for improvement from Marks right out of the gate. He was seeking to grab young talent with the potential and perhaps even likelihood to grow into being worth more than their contracts. It’s also noteworthy that Crabbe and Johnson both have the physical tools to indicate that they could be plus defenders in short order, while also contributing positively on offense. Essentially, the Nets were trying to buy their way into talent, but instead of buying access to old, decaying stars, they were looking to grab players on the upswing and sign them through to their primes.
In keeping with that theme, Marks signed Jeremy Lin to a three year deal for just $36 million that brought him back to the New York metro area for what should be his peak years, as he will be 28–30 years old during those seasons. Lin’s no star, but he’s a perfectly solid player: a fringe starter, solid sixth man and despite the injuries he’s suffered through this season, this deal was still a pretty smart one. It also marks a relative break with the Hinkie Process which somewhat infamously was devoid of NBA level point guards for much of his run as GM in Philly. Given the clear culture of development that Marks is striving for with his head coach Kenny Atkinson steering the on-court ship, it was vitally important for their to be a few NBA veterans who could meaningfully contribute and help players along. It’s been unfortunate for Brooklyn that Lin has only been able to play in 19 games this season, as he is their second best contributor, behind Brook Lopez.
At draft time, Marks flipped Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for a first round pick and a conditional second rounder. Young is a solid player, but not a particularly good fit for the Nets rebuilding timeline and good enough that if you could fetch a first for him, you do it 10 times out of 10. With the first rounder he received, Marks nabbed Caris Levert, a rangy forward who probably would have had a good chance to be a lottery pick had injury concerns not knocked his value down. Grabbing guys who have been injured is another way to increase your variance and potentially grab someone higher upside than you might otherwise have gotten. It increases your odds of getting nothing, but when you’re picking at 20, the odds are stacked against you anyway, so you may as well swing for the best talent. Beyond Levert, the Nets walked away with a conditional future second pick.
Another little swing Marks took was locking up Spencer Dinwiddie to a 3 year minimum contract deal that was only guaranteed for $100,000 in 2016–17 and unguaranteed for the following two seasons. This is the ultimate low-risk, decent upside move. If Dinwiddie had been useless, the Nets could have let him go for very little guaranteed money, but if he turns out to be a solid contributor, he’s locked in on a team friendly deal for 3 seasons. I got a focused look at Dinwiddie when he was on the Bulls’ summer league team and started on their roster to kick off the season. He’s a 6’6″ point guard and he showed some ability to shoot from distance in college, despite the results not being there early in his NBA career (on a tiny number of attempts). This season, that shooting ability has come through as he’s converting 41% of his 3s this season (on 61 attempts). He’s probably not a 41% three point shooter, but I believe in his shooting ability, especially off-the-catch. Dinwiddie is just 23 years old and his length and ability to play point guard and play off-the-ball makes him a great fit in the evolving NBA that prizes versatility in role players above all else.
Finally at the trade deadline, Marks was able to utilize the Nets cap space and Bojan Bogdanovic to take back Andrew Nicholson’s contract to nab a first round pick from the Wizards in another move, like the Thaddeus Young deal, that helped restock their crop of young players and to somewhat makeup for the loss of their pick this season to the Celtics. Less heralded, but also indicative of the attempt to replenish their young talent base was Brooklyn taking on K.J. McDaniels from the Rockets for essentially nothing in return beyond cash. The Rockets wanted to clear McDaniels’ salary to pursue Andrew Bogut and others on the buyout market and Marks and the Nets were happy to take on a young player who had shown some promise in Philadelphia before being dealt to the Rockets.
Even the moves where the Nets’ strategy of taking fliers on young talent hasn’t worked out, for one reason or another, show the overall strategy. Marks brought in former first overall pick Anthony Bennett in order to see if another change of scenery and some time in the Nets’ program with more opportunities would help turn his career around. Bennett was still just 23 years old this season when the Nets took a look at him on a minimum contract. Bennett showed the same problems he had shown elsewhere and he was assigned to the D-League and Brooklyn quickly cut bait on him. They had seen enough to conclude what 3 other teams already had. Anthony Bennett was not for them, but it was such a low risk move, that it was worth trying for a team bereft of young talent and in need of alternative means besides lottery picks to grab good, young players.
Prior to his run of fun, bucket-getting play in Dallas, Yogi Ferrell got his first chance this year in Brooklyn. He did not show very much in his 151 minutes for the Nets over 10 games, a 6.6 PER and -7.4 BPM are a pretty good indication of how bad he was. It’s worth debating whether the Nets should have hung on to Ferrell for longer than they did, given how he’s put it together in Dallas, but sometimes you’re just going to miss on guys. It doesn’t really undermine the overall strategy. That’s not a very satisfying thing to say to fans and ultimately, the Nets front office will be judged on their results, just as every team is, but for process-oriented thinkers, having a strategy that makes sense and that should produce +EV bets over time should pay dividends. In addition, the Nets let Ferrell go in order to sign Dinwiddie, who hasn’t been significantly worse than Ferrell over this full season and has more switchy defensive upside given his 6’6″ size relative to Ferrell’s 6′. It’s a defensible choice.
In just a year at the helm, after walking in to a completely bare cupboard, Sean Marks and the rest of the new Nets front office have placed a number of low-risk bets and re-stocked their coffers of young talent. Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie, K.J. McDaniels, and the pick they just nabbed in the Bogdanovic deal are the first steps in rebuilding Brooklyn’s talent base. In Jeremy Lin, they have a competent point guard to help the development of their young guys. (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is also still just 22 years old, and has very good potential as a lockdown wing defender who could develop into a passable offensive player, but he’s a holdover from the Billy King era, so the new regime doesn’t get credit for him). In his first free agency, Marks showed savvy in targeting young players with upside to grow into their contracts and a desire to pay for future production, not past production, which was the problem with the Nets prior strategy under their prior management. The results aren’t there on the floor, yet, but Sean Marks is running the parts of “the Process” that are available to him and making a lot of positive expected value bets. Over a long enough term, that should pay off for him and for Brooklyn.
Chicago needs to give up the ghost on its playoff chase and preserve Butler’s health
The Chicago Bulls need to shut down Jimmy Butler for the rest of this season. There are a number of reasons why shutting Butler down makes the most sense. Butler isn’t healthy and it has shown recently. The Bulls are also bad with very little chance of improving their roster talent unless they land another good player in this year’s coming draft. Let’s take a deeper look at the case for shutting Butler down.
Butler isn’t healthy
Up until February of this year, Butler had been playing like a top 5 player in the league. He was near the very top of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) leaderboard, as well as the leaderboard for Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER). In my own simple metric, DRE* (Daily RAPM Estimate), Butler was 8th in the league amongst players who had played 25 games or more through February 1st.
(*Note: the weights for DRE have changed a bit since that initial linked article. Updated weights are DRE = (points-.88*fga-.35*fta-1.4*tov+.25*rebs+1.89*steals +.74*blk + .51*ast-.16*pf )*(100/possessions)-7.5))
DRE is just a simple metric and it doesn’t adequately capture defense all that well, so Butler was likely undersold slightly here, but the point is that through February 1st, Butler was somewhere between a top 5 and top 10 player. On February 1st, Butler suffered a heel injury which caused him to miss 4 games, before returning for good on February 15th. Since Butler’s injury, he’s now 54th in the league in DRE amongst players who have played in a minimum of 10 games since February 1. He went from being a +7.4 per 100 possessions according to DRE to just a +3.8. He is clearly not the same player from a high level perspective and as a result, the Bulls have been much worse.
As Tom Haberstroh noted in a great video for ESPN during Butler’s epic run to start the season, the Bulls played like an absolute cellar dweller when Butler wasn’t on the floor being amazing. Well, even with a limited version of Butler, the Bulls are much, much worse than the average team he was able to will them into being. In the month since Butler’s return from the heel injury, Chicago is 26th in the league in Net Rating (-5.6 points per 100 possessions). Such a mark would make them roughly a 26 win team over an 82 game season.
There are other indicators that Butler is still hurting, besides the high level results. He’s getting to the line for about 3 and half less attempts per 100 possessions and he’s also taking fewer shots overall. He’s passing much more frequently when he drives and the Bulls are producing fewer points per Butler drive as a result (which is a nice way of saying Butler’s teammates stink and it’s better when he takes it himself on drives). His finishing on drives is much, much worse the last month as he went from shooting 51.5% on drives to just 42.6% since the injury. Every indication is that Butler is not himself and he’s playing hurt. This is stupid. The Bulls are going exactly nowhere this season and Butler is the only player on their team who really, truly matters. He should not be running himself into the ground in a meaningless season with no direction. Also, every game Butler plays while hurt increases his chances of suffering a more serious injury as the result of compensating for the pain he’s very clearly playing through.
This Draft is the Bulls’ Best Chance to Get Better
Every person who I trust about the draft thinks this draft is really, really special, particularly in the top 10 or so picks. The Bulls have virtually no good young talent on their roster, save for Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic (yes, I still think Mirotic is good, despite Fred Hoiberg jerking his minutes around). They need to finally get younger and more athletic, which was what the plan was supposed to be this past summer. Their best chance to get younger, more athletic, and better for the future is to draft someone great in this draft.
Chicago is already outside of the playoffs and Dwyane Wade just broke his elbow and will be out for the rest of the season. Right now, Chicago would be picking 13th in this draft. That sets them up at a chance to get a contributor, but if Chicago does the right thing and punts on the remainder of the season and allows Butler to get fully right, they could slide into the top 10 or so picks. Currently, Dallas, Portland, and Minnesota are all set to pick ahead of the Bulls, but they are only ahead of them in the loss column by the slightest of margins and all three teams have been playing much better as of late, in the case of the former two due to midseason acquisitions (Nerlens Noel and Jusuf Nurkic, respectively) and in the latter due to players finally picking up Tom Thibodeau’s defense. All three teams seem at least somewhat interested in chasing the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff race. It’s entirely possible that the Bulls without Wade and Butler could lose their way ahead of all 3 in the lottery odds and end up with the 10th pick in this draft.
Resting Butler Opens Up Minutes for the Young Guys
I mentioned earlier that the Bulls don’t have any great young talent. While that’s true, they do have a bunch of guys who have shown flashes to a greater or lesser extent and would probably develop more with more opportunities to play. Jerian Grant has been very solid when he’s played with the starting unit, Paul Zipser looks like he could stick as a rotation wing in the league, and Denzel Valentine can, at the very least, shoot well with a quick release and swing the ball from side to side. All of these guys have seen their minutes jerked around as the coaching staff flails to try to find lineup combinations that work. Resting Jimmy Butler(along with the loss of Dwyane Wade) down the stretch run of the season would give all of them more opportunities to grow and more opportunity for the front office and coaching staff to figure out what they really have in these players.
Wrapping it all up, everything points to one correct decision here for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler should be shut down and Chicago should focus on developing and understanding what they have on their roster, who fits and who doesn’t, while driving themselves deeper into the lottery of one of the best drafts in recent memory. Of course, having written all this, the Bulls will probably continue to run Butler out there and have him play 37 minutes a night and get hurt again, all while pushing themselves to the fringes of the lottery where the talent is thinner.
Thomas is having an incredible offensive season but being an MVP requires more
Isaiah Thomas is having an incredible season. He’s scoring 29.7 points per game on a startling 62.6% true shooting percentage. That’s absurd enough. Thomas is also adding an additional 15.5 points per game through his assists. In all, he’s responsible for 45.2 of the Celtics points per game in just 34.4 minutes per game. All of that is remarkable and it should come as no surprise that Thomas is leading the league in Offensive Box Plus-Minus (“OBPM”) with an estimated+9.8 points per 100 possessions impact. He’s also third in Real Plus-Minus’s offensive component with a +5.9 impact. Those gaudy numbers have lead some people to start tossing Thomas into the MVP conversation, or at the very least, suggesting that he might belong in that conversation.
Thomas is fun and exciting and a tremendous story. He’s 5’9″ and he’s, at worst, one of the top 5 offensive players in the league this year. That simply shouldn’t be possible, but Thomas has made it happen through sheer force of will. To top it off, Thomas has established himself as the league’s preeminent fourth quarter closer.
That’s all great stuff. Truly. If things were just a little different, it might be the sort of thing that could really catapult Thomas into being a legitimate MVP level star. Unfortunately, there is that whole other half of the game that isn’t offense.
When evaluating a potential Isaiah Thomas MVP candidacy, you have to look at his overall impact. In that regard, Thomas comes up laughably short of the true best and most impactful players in the league. It comes down to one thing, really. Thomas is an absolutely horrific defensive player. He is simply too small to bother anyone when he is guarding them and they attempt to shoot over the top of him. He might as well not even be there. Beyond that, Thomas’s short wingspan doesn’t allow him to contribute much in the way of steals or blocked shots. He also is a non-factor on the glass, as you’d expect given his stature. Most of this is not really his fault. He’s making the most of what he’s been granted, but this is the Most Valuable Player award about which we’re talking. We’re not grading on a curve.
With Thomas on the floor, the Celtics are surrendering an apocalyptically bad 114.5 points per 100 possessions. That would be worst in the league by a significant margin over the entire season. When Thomas sits, the Celtics defend like the best team in the league, surrendering just 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Now, some of that is due to Thomas’s backups. The Celtics’ guard rotation outside of Thomas is full of very good to great defensive players in Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Even sophomore Terry Rozier is a toolsy defender who can make opponents work with his length and athleticism. As a result, reading too much into Thomas’s raw defensive on-off numbers would be more than a little unfair.
What about the box score? Amongst players with a significant amount of minutes, Thomas’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus is the absolute worst in the league. That’s right: Thomas is leading the league in OBPM, while putting up the league’s very worst DBPM amongst rotation players. But, maybe that, too, is unfair. Perhaps it’s the case that Isaiah Thomas does the “little things” on defense. Maybe he’s not a guy who gets the things that DBPM is really most influenced by, steals or blocks or defensive rebounds, in bunches, but maybe he moves his feet well, plays good positional defense, and gets deflections or other hustle plays on defense. Maybe he’s good at, say, ball denial.
We can take these things in turn. If Thomas were truly doing all of those little things, we would expect him to at least be able to drag his Real Plus-Minus away from his poor defensive box-score prior towards something like average. Instead, just like in DBPM, Thomas is absolutely dead last in the defensive component of Real Plus-Minus with a -4.4 points per 100 possession impact.
Looking at a brand new measure of defense, presented by Steve Shea over at the Basketball Analytics Book blog, Thomas similarly comes up lacking. Shea developed a metric, called Perimeter Defense Rating (“PDR”) using the NBA’s publicly available SportVU data to better evaluate perimeter defense. PDR’s results pass the initial smell test with a top 5 that goes as follows: Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Thabo Sefolosha, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. All five of those guys have a reputation for being very good to great perimeter defenders. Of the 184 players in the sample Shea provided (players with over 800 minutes played this year), Thomas grades out 132nd. That is, um, not great. It’s even worse when you consider that many of those players who graded out worse than Thomas as perimeter defenders are simply big men who don’t guard the perimeter very often.
Every defensive indicator for the Celtics is better with Thomas on the bench than when he is on the floor. Let’s look at the Celtics’ opponents shot distribution when he is on the floor versus when he’s on the bench. Shot distribution is a better indicator of the quality of defense played than, say, simply looking at field goal percentages on versus off, because shooting percentages in small samples are noisy. (Note, though, that the Celtics’ opponents do shoot better from every area of the floor when Thomas is on the floor).
As you can see, with Thomas on the floor, the Celtics surrender many more dunks and layups and force many fewer midrange shots. Boston surrenders the same percentage of opponent shots as 3 pointers with Thomas on versus off, but opponents convert 3 pointers at 36.6% with Thomas on the floor versus just 30.4% with him off. That’s probably mostly statistical noise. So, we shouldn’t hold it against him much. His presence resulting in Boston surrendering a much less favorable shot profile, however, we can probably hold against him.
Beyond the shot profile, the Celtics get creamed on the defensive glass with Thomas on the floor versus off, according to NBA.com. They also surrender a greater free throw rate and turn their opponents over less frequently when Thomas plays versus when he sits.
Any way you slice it, Thomas is a huge negative for the Celtics on defense. “Traffic cone” is not an unfair characterization of his defense. It is to Thomas’s immense credit that he is able to overcome his massive defensive shortcomings to still be a player with a positive impact. It takes an absolutely Herculean offensive impact to counterbalance defense this bad. That makes him a fun player and a joy to watch, but it doesn’t make him an MVP candidate. There are simply far too many players that impact the game on both ends or impact the offensive end as much as Thomas or close to it, without cratering their teams’ defenses to even think about putting him in that conversation.
Resist the Narrative
The pushers of narrative have suggested and will continue to suggest that Thomas’s role as the “star” and primary scorer and closer on a Celtics team that is second in the East is enough to put him “in the MVP conversation.” There are a few problems with this.
The East is Weak at the Top
Second in the East isn’t really that impressive. The East is not a top-heavy conference, it is mostly a morass of teams with the Cavaliers being easily the most talented team and a bunch of also-rans. The real competition in the NBA lies out West. There are no less than 5 teams in the West that are better than the Celtics, by Simple Rating System, which is simply margin of victory adjusted for competition. Those teams are the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Jazz, and Clippers. Additionally, the Toronto Raptors are in a virtual tie with the Celtics on record and look to be the better team according to SRS.
Giving the “Star” All the Credit
To put Thomas in the MVP conversation, despite his defensive warts, because he’s the “best” player on a pretty good team, which is to say, the best offensive player, would be to repeat a mistake that voters made with Derrick Rose in 2011, only moreso. In 2011, at least Derrick Rose was the lead guard and driving force behind a team that won the most games in the league. Even granting that, however, the Bulls won with grinding defense that worked in tandem with Rose’s special talents.
Unlike those Bulls, the Celtics do not win with their defense. In fact, they have a bottom 10 defense, largely due to how bad they are when Thomas is on the floor. They do, however, have a very deep and talented team and to act as if Isaiah Thomas is dragging the Celtics to their status as a pretty good team is to misallocate the credit. Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley can all be counted as players that make a positive impact for Boston. Thomas is no one man band. We shouldn’t pretend like he is for the sake of a fun MVP narrative.
All the Other Deserving Candidates
The NBA is lousy with talent right now. It’s one of the deepest periods ever. As a result, there are simply a ton of guys who deserve consideration over a guy who is arguably the worst defensive player in the league. Quickly, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, and John Wall all have far stronger MVP cases than Isaiah Thomas, and that is hardly an exhaustive list.
Isaiah Thomas is having a career year. He’s got one of the most telegenic games in the league. But he’s no MVP. Stop this nonsense.
Chicago needs to finally invest in the future while building around Jimmy Butler
The Chicago Bulls have no long-term plan. They have, for the most part, not had much of a plan for years. This is pretty obvious if you have watched them closely in the years in which John Paxson and now Gar Forman have been running things. The plan, such as it exists, is simply this: make the playoffs every year, regardless of whether that makes sense in terms of maximizing the ability of the team to win a championship anytime in the next five years or so.
With the recent reporting from ESPN’s Marc Stein that Chicago is interested in signing 33 year old Chris Bosh, it is, once again, clear that Chicago has no plan. Well, they have a plan, like I said, simply to make the playoffs. The problem is that the plan…it is bad.
This year, rather than pursuing younger players who would fit well with and potentially develop around Jimmy Butler, players like E’Twuan Moore or Langston Galloway, for instance, the Bulls instead went out and signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. This despite the fact that their stated goal was to get “younger and more athletic.” But that was clearly not the plan and never has been. The plan is: get to the playoffs and line the pockets of ownership for another year, with no vision for building a team that could ever potentially compete for a championship or even simply maximize the talent of its best player. The Chicago braintrust assumed that simply adding name brand players would be enough to drag them to the playoffs, fit and age be damned. They may make it to the playoffs this year, but only because Jimmy Butler is playing at an MVP level.
If Chicago signs Bosh, it will be another half measure, another admission by the front office that they have no confidence in their ability to try to find young, undervalued talent. It will be Ben Wallace, Pau Gasol, and Dwyane Wade all over again. All of these signings of old, past-their-prime stars were done simply because Chicago knew their names and felt confident they were enough to keep them in the playoffs.
Bosh is well past his prime at 33 years old. He’s obviously got serious health red flags. In the last 3 seasons, he will have played a combined 97 games, with 0 coming this year. Despite his being a solid theoretical fit on the floor with Butler, it is simply not a smart move to bet on him being the guy he used to be or even betting on him to even be cleared to play.