The Bulls Must Improve On The Margins

AK.

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.

https://backpicks.com/2017/07/06/supporting-casts-are-more-important-than-stars/

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.

They’re minerals, Marie!

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.

You gotta be able to make open shots, man!

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!

Did We Expect Too Much from The Chicago Bulls?

[Ed. note: I pitched this piece a little while back and it didn’t get picked up where I pitched it, so I’m posting it here. Chicago has picked it up some of late, so it’s not exactly timely, but I wrote it and wanted it to have a place on the internet.]

The Chicago Bulls have been one of the NBA’s weirdest teams this year. They’ve been labeled a contender since they signed Pau Gasol in the offseason. While Pau’s put up big numbers, and Derrick Rose has played 41 out of 52 games, the Bulls don’t look anything like a contender on a night to night basis.

Chicago’s defense, typically the backbone of the team, has fallen off significantly from its usual spot amongst the top 3 to 5 teams in the league to something much more average. The Bulls’ offense, on the other hand, a putrid eyesore last season, is back to respectability. In total, the 2014–15 Bulls have been a pretty good, not great team. It’s worth wondering why anything more was expected.

In some ways, it’s easy to see the logic behind the anointing of the Bulls as sure bets to make the Eastern Conference Finals. No one expected the Atlanta Hawks to become what they are and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense was a huge question mark. Chicago won 48 games last season and upgraded from Carlos Boozer to Pau Gasol and from D.J. Augustin to Derrick Rose. Predicting a significant boost in the win totals from those two seeming upgrades didn’t seem like much of a leap.

The truth of this season, though, has been that Rose has hardly been an upgrade over the performance Augustin provided and, in some ways, has actually been a downgrade. Part of that is how exceptionally well Augustin played last season in Chicago and part of it is the reality of Rose returning from nearly two entire years having played almost zero basketball.

Returning from one major knee injury is a difficult enough task, mentally and physically. Rose is returning from two. As a result, Rose is finishing at the basket worse than ever. Rose still helps the Bulls immensely when he charges into the paint over launching a long jumper, but his forays into the paint are just coming with less frequency than they once did. This shouldn’t be that shocking, really. To have expected Rose to return after being away from the hardwood for so long and be anywhere close to his former self was always absurdly optimistic. That’s not to say he can’t get ever back to that level, it’s just that it’s going to take time for him to get there and may require a change in how he plays. We might not see the best of Derrick Rose this season, and really, that makes total sense.

Gasol has absolutely been an upgrade over Carlos Boozer, that much can not be disputed. But Gasol does present many of the same problems that Boozer did. He is incredibly slow-footed on defense and his effort on that end is often demoralizingly poor. The Bulls defensive drop-off is not all Pau’s fault, but he is a big part of the problem. The other part, which Pau’s presence has exacerbated, is that Joakim Noah has not been himself this season. This, too, could have been predicted, were it not for the Rose-colored glasses with which everyone seemingly viewed this year’s Bulls.

Noah, after being an MVP candidate last season, was absolutely demolished in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards’ frontcourt. It was clear something was wrong with him, and as it turned out, he had to have offseason knee surgery. As a result, Noah, up until very recently, has seen his lateral movement significantly limited and his usual frenetic energy sapped. With Gasol manning the back-line center spot in the Bulls’ defense instead of Noah, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year has been forced to chase around power forwards on a bum wheel. Not exactly an ideal fit or situation.

Finally, a hugely under-discussed portion of the Bulls’ relatively disappointing season has been their lack of wing depth. Even with the problems that Rose’s rustiness and Noah’s balky knee have caused, the Bulls looked pretty close to the contender everyone expected up until January 1st.

What happened on January 1st? Mike Dunleavy Jr. jammed his ankle in a tilt against the Denver Nuggets. He’s been out ever since, as the injury has been the nagging sort. Without Dunleavy’s shooting in the starting lineup to space the floor around the driving games of Rose and Jimmy Butler and the post-ups of Pau Gasol, the Bulls have seen their offense stagnate. It’s been even worse on the other end of the floor. Dunleavy is a classic glue guy on defense, as his 6’9″ length and smart use of angles makes him tough to score over for most other wings in the league. The Bulls have missed him immensely.

Behind Dunleavy on the depth chart is Kirk Hinrich, a formerly solid two-way player who has seen his once stout defense slip markedly this season and who has been an offensive non-entity for a few seasons now. Second year player Tony Snell provides a decent approximation of the length and shooting of Dunleavy, but without the veteran savvy or, more problematically, the trust of Coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls have also tried rookie Nikola Mirotic on the wing, but he is really a stretch power forward more than anything, and doesn’t have the foot speed to defend most wings in the league. Doug McDermott, last year’s college Player of the Year, is also around as an option, but he was out until very recently with a knee injury of his own and appears to be firmly entrenched in Thibodeau’s dog-house, a not unusual phenomenon for rookies under the Bulls’ demanding and, at times, unforgiving head coach.

The Bulls’ lack of wing depth was a problem that was there to see for those that, knowing Thibodeau, could guess how reluctant he might be to use the young players who make up the majority of the Bulls’ wing rotation. If Dunleavy didn’t get hurt, this weakness of the Bulls’ roster might never have been exposed, but that’s life in the 82-game grind of an NBA season. Injuries invariably happen.

So are the Bulls a disappointment or did we simply expect too much? It’s a little of both. The Bulls had real weaknesses coming into this season that were glossed over due to the simple math of Rose plus Pau Gasol plus 48 wins last year equals contender. It’s also a long season, so even if the Bulls don’t take the East’s number one seed in the regular season, Rose and Noah could get right, with Dunleavy’s return on the horizon, and the Bulls could still come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s just been a more frustrating and difficult road so far than they or anyone else really expected.

Up at CBS Local Sports: Derrick Rose’s Diminished Vertical Explosiveness

It’s tough to disentangle how much of Rose’s reducing his forays to the paint and the rim is mental and how much of it is a drop in physical ability. In watching him night in and night out, he seems to be just as fast as ever, but he doesn’t appear to have the same vertical explosiveness he once did. Even if Rose never gets that burst off the ground back, he can still become an extremely effective player based on his speed, but he has to fundamentally alter his game and improve on aspects of his skillset that he never really needed so badly before. Maybe that’s what his struggles this season have been about: evolving and building a new skillset, a new path to effectiveness. That has to be the hope for Rose fans, because it looks like the version of Derrick Rose who can explode up and over opponents (hi, Goran Dragic) might be lost to us.

Derrick Rose’s Diminished Vertical Explosiveness

Building A (Hopefully) Better Simple Metric

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything in this space, but I’ve not forgotten it, and I’ve not stopped tinkering with some of the ideas I’ve tried to tackle here before. The idea I’d like to return to today is my enjoyment of simple, easy to calculate, transparent boxscore metrics.

In the past, I built off of an easy to calculate and understand linear weights metric (Alternate Win Score) to create Usage Adjusted Rating, which essentially tried to adjust AWS to credit heavier usage players for the greater degree of difficulty they generally encounter in getting points and remaining efficient. The results were pretty good and passed the laugh test. But calculating UAR and the subsequent variant blend with plus-minus (UARPM) that I developed was best done on season long numbers and well, there are much better one number metrics out there for analysis of season long data. Daniel Myer’s Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) being the best examples. So from here on, I’ll be retiring UARPM from the website.

But for broad strokes analysis of single games, the current best linear weights metric is probably Alternate Win Score. Some people like to use John Hollinger’s Game Score, since it’s readily available on Basketball Reference for every game. I wanted to improve upon AWS and Game Score and build a transparent, easy to calculate and understand metric to quickly analyze game to game performance.

To build my game score metric, I looked to Jerry Engelmann’s 14 year RAPM data set, since it is, to my mind, the best estimate of long run +/- impact that’s in the public domain. After that, I ran a regression of the most basic boxscore stats (per 100 possessions) to get the coefficients or weights for my simple linear weights metric.

New Win Score

I tried to include personal fouls, but they were not statistically significant predictors of RAPM (+/-) at all. All of the other boxscore stats I picked were highly statistically significant with strong p-values. Then, I translated the coefficients so that they were weighted relative to points score (i.e., so that the coefficient or weight for points was equal to 1). The resulting weights for my simple game score metric are as follows:

PTs + .2*TRBs + 1.7* STLs + .535*BLKs + .5*ASTs — .9*FGA — .35*FTA — 1.4*TOV

If you want to translate this linear weights metric directly to a simple statistical plus-minus, you can just subtract the average performance league-wide from the player’s total. Per pace adjusted 36 minutes the average performance in the league currently is roughly 4.9. Here’s the top 25 in the league as of the games played January 16 per game, pace adjusted, with the per-minute average subtracted out, so as to make it roughly +/- impact per game:

PlayersPM/GAnthony Davis7.1Stephen Curry5.9Chris Paul5.7James Harden5.0Kevin Durant4.3Jeff Teague3.9Jimmy Butler3.8LeBron James3.7Kyle Lowry3.5Damian Lillard3.3Russell Westbrook3.1DeAndre Jordan2.9Tyson Chandler2.8Brandan Wright2.6Kawhi Leonard2.6Kevin Martin2.6John Wall2.6Mike Conley2.5Klay Thompson2.4Paul Millsap2.3Marc Gasol2.3Hassan Whiteside2.3Derrick Favors2.2Kyrie Irving2.1Kyle Korver2.1
Those results definitely pass the laugh test. Anyway, I like this as another tool in the tool kit. I even won over noted one number metric skeptic Seth Partnow to use the metric for some broad strokes performance analysis.

https://twitter.com/SethPartnow/status/555458033006804992

Good enough for me!

If any of you have a good idea for a name for this new Win / Game Score linear weights metric, let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @NBACouchside.

Up at BlogaBull: The Bulls Strange Inability to Defensive Rebound

Through 4 games, Tom Thibodeau’s defense is outside of the league’s top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions and that is, obviously, very surprising. Granted, Chicago is 11th in defensive efficiency, so they are barely outside of the top 10, but given that under Thibodeau the Bulls have finished 1st, 1st, 5th, and 2nd in overall defense in the last 4 seasons, it is a bit surprising to see them anywhere but the very tip top of the league’s defensive rankings, even at this early juncture.

More at: http://www.blogabull.com/2014/11/6/7162997/the-bulls-strange-inability-to-defensive-rebound

Up at BBALLBREAKDOWN: Pau Gasol Beat Up the Knicks, But Might Be Slowing Down

The subject of this article might not seem the most timely, given that Pau Gasol just beat the stuffing out of the New York Knicks in the Chicago Bulls’s season opener, recording an efficient 21 point, 11 rebound night in just 29 minutes of play. In fact, this might all end up being a bit of nagging worry that doesn’t amount to much of anything at all. But although the Knicks’ interior defense is incredibly bad, there were some not so great signs for Pau’s prognosis in that game, ones that were also evident during the pre-season as well.

More at: http://bballbreakdown.com/2014/10/31/pau-gasol-beat-up-the-knicks-but-might-be-slowing-down/

Up at Nylon Calculus: More 2014–2015 NBA Season Win Totals

Like Andrew Johnson, I did some season projectin’ for the season starting tonight. The basic method was to take ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) numbers and run them through a simple aging curve and then to project out the season minutes.

Read more here: http://nyloncalculus.com/2014/10/28/more-2014-2015-nba-season-win-projections/

Never Hate a Player: On Doug McDermott

[Ed. note: This piece originally ran on July 23, 2014 on a site where all traces of my former presence, along with that of all of the other members of the team, has been wiped away. I didn’t want it to disappear from the internet, so I’m reposting it here, where I have control over what happens to it.]

I am dumber than I like to think that I am. From time to time, it’s important to remind myself of this. This article is me doing just that.

It is often easy when writing about sports to fancy yourself just as qualified as anyone else, including say general managers and talent evaluators, to say whether a player might be bad, average, good, or great. This is, for the most part, harmless, and in some cases, it is possible to outperform the average or bad general manager, if you’re pretty good at scouting talent (like all of the armchair GMs among us would like to believe we are). But this attitude can morph into the worst kind of narcissistic hubris, and well, make you (and when I say “you,” understand that I mean “me”) come off as a bit of an ass. Now, front office types do not have a corner on the market for knowledge about the game, and this should not read like an argument or claim that they do. What I’m wrestling with is that none of us has a perfect understanding of the game, and we’re all learning new things every day we’re lucky enough to watch the world’s other beautiful game. It’s easy to be blind to that. It’s so easy, especially in the super overreactionizer that is Twitter, to have a strong reaction to something and spew it out without really stepping back to question your own assumptions.

It’s quite hard to challenge those assumptions regularly; it’s so much easier to allow them to calcify and constrict my thinking. It requires no effort at all to fall back on my default setting: I know this and that and this too about basketball. But, then, every once in a while, I get to take a moment and breathe and really think, and what I always come back to is this quote from Socrates:

I know one thing: that I know nothing.

It is probably the most important sentence I’ve ever heard about the nature of knowledge. I should always be striving to learn and understand better. Whenever I decide I know something, I’m lost, because I’ve stopped learning.

This is all a bit abstract, so let me be more concrete. When the Chicago Bulls, my favorite basketball team, traded a bunch of assets to acquire Creighton star Doug McDermott, I basically had a Twitter meltdown. McDermott is probably one of the best shooters in the world on a team that was terrible at scoring last year, but all of my favorite statistic-based models cast lots of doubts about whether Doug could play at the NBA level. He didn’t pass very much, he basically never got blocks or steals, and his rebounding was merely decent. McDermott’s low block and steal rates and just okay rebounding made me worry about his athleticism, as those three stats have traditionally been pretty reliable at predicting which players will have the athleticism to hang in the league and those who won’t. The concerns about McDermott’s athleticism matched my own eye test concerns about him. So I decided I knew who Doug McDermott was as an NBA player before ever seeing him play in the NBA. I ignored people, like my friend Ricky O’Donnell of BlogaBull, who pointed out Creighton’s ultra-conservative defensive scheme as a reason for his low defensive counting stats. I scoffed off people who told me he was a good body position defender. I disregarded the common-sense idea that when you’re scoring as much as McDermott did and moving all over the court non-stop with literally five defensive players all aimed at stopping you, maybe defense takes a bit of a backseat. I stopped thinking and started ranting. I was lost.

The statistical models I love have had a pretty good success rate, especially when compared with the average general manager in the NBA, but they’re not infallible. There are plenty of misses, just as there are with any attempt to predict the future of very young men making the transition to a totally new atmosphere and level of competition. There are simply too many things we can’t know at the time of the draft which effect how well a player will do at the next level. How they played in college or internationally and their resulting counting stats is a big piece of that puzzle, but it is only part of it. I ignored that, too.

I watched Doug McDermott in summer league, and many of my concerns still linger. He probably won’t score as prolifically as he did in college and his lateral quickness is not great. But McDermott is so, so smart. He makes extremely quick decisions with the ball, which is a still undervalued skill and its value is multiplied exponentially by the threat he represents as a shooter and floor spacer, especially given his lightning quick shooting release. He’s going to bend defenses, just by virtue of these two skills. He’s also a much better passer and decision-maker than his low college assist totals would suggest. Additionally, McDermott is, as I was told, a solid body position defender, who will mostly funnel players towards his help defense- perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls have two of the league’s very best help big men in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Yes, McDermott will give up blow-bys to more athletic players and yes, that will be frustrating when it happens, but it won’t hurt as much as it might on another team because of those two big mobile guys behind him. Context matters very much in basketball, and well, maybe on draft night and after I didn’t think enough about the context in which McDermott will be operating. The defensive warts can be more easily hidden in Chicago than nearly anywhere else and his skill-set is a much needed one on any team, but especially for these Bulls.

Film Crit Hulk is one of my absolute favorite writers, and he has a tremendous piece which centers around a bit of advice given to him by the famed director, Quentin Tarantino. During a conversation in which a younger, perhaps less thoughtful Hulk ranted against a movie he “hated,” Tarantino told him, “Never, under any circumstances, hate a movie. It won’t help you and it’s a waste of time.” Tarantino went on to more fully explain that there is value and things to learn and enjoyment to be found even in the bombs or, for our basketball-watching purposes, busts. Tarantino finished his advice by saying of movies, “They’re gifts. Every f*cking one of ‘em.”

I am much less sure than I was about what sort of player Doug McDermott might be than I was on draft night. Part of that is a function of his summer league play, but a bigger part of it is me allowing myself to embrace that I don’t know nearly as much as I sometimes think and act like I do. What I do know is that regardless of whether he turns out to be a “bomb” or another “hit” for the Bulls front office, I’ll learn from watching him play. I’ll learn from seeing his struggles or successes and the how and why behind them. I’ll be entertained, as I always am, by the process. Doug McDermott is a gift, just like every player which I have the privilege to watch and root on.

Another Update to UAR: Introducing UARPM100

Last time out I explained, in detail, how I calculate Usage Adjusted Rating (a usage adjusted version of Alternate Win Score). I liked the results, but I thought that they could be better. In order to try to better value defense, I decided to try to include a weight to factor in minutes per game played. I made this decision based on the idea that coaches, generally, won’t play someone a lot of minutes if he’s got shaky counting stats- which basic UAR covers- unless he’s providing other value. So I added a factor that gives a slight boost to players who play 20 minutes or more per game and gives a slight negative to players who play under 20 minutes a game.

In addition, I took the UAR with the minutes per game adjustment (70%) and blended it with non-adjusted +/- per pace adjusted 48 minutes (20)% and added a zero-weight to regress it to the mean (10%), as this was the blend that best correlated with xRAPM. Then I made the metric 100 possessions, instead of per 48 minutes pace adjusted. I call this new metric UARPM100, which is a bit of a mouthful, but it conveys the information contained within the metric, so I’m sticking with it.

I ran a correlation of UARPM100 over past years against xRAPM from Jeremias Englemann at stats-for-the-nba.appspot.com. The r-squared for UARPM100 against xRAPM was roughly .67. The r-squared becomes much, much stronger if prior year xRAPM is blended with UARPM100. The r-squared for blended prior year xRAPM and UARPM100 is roughly .82 with in-year xRAPM, which is obviously very strong. Given my belief that xRAPM is probably the best one-number metric in the public domain, I feel pretty good about UARPM100’s results. Here are the results for UARPM100 through the December 16, 2013 games (minimum 120 minutes played):

Going forward, I will be updating UARPM100 as close to daily as possible. Periodically, I will also post UARPM100 that’s prior informed by 2012–13 xRAPM. Hope you enjoy!

Friday Night Films: Kevin Love to Corey Brewer is a Beautiful Thing

When I was on the Bulls vs Blazers podcast a few days ago, I recommended the Mavericks-Timberwolves matchup as my game of the week to watch. Both teams are high powered offenses that offer little in the way of defensive personnel. I expected a high scoring game, with plenty of well-spaced offensive sets and the game certainly did not disappoint, as the Wolves bested the Mavs 116 to 108. What I did not predict, but greatly enjoyed watching, was Kevin Love finding Corey Brewer at seemingly every opportunity.

Love has always been a tremendous passer, especially when it comes to throwing outlet passes off the defensive rebounds he is so adept at grabbing. At the time Love was drafted, he drew glowing comparisons to Wes Unseld for his ability to toss chest passes the full length of the court off of his rebounds. With the return of Corey Brewer to Minnesota, the Wolves appear to have found Love a perfect target for those brilliant outlet passes. Against the Mavericks, in the first half of the game, Brewer received 4 outlet passes from Love resulting in 3 made baskets and a trip to the foul line.

When you watch the outlets, you can see in each one that as Love is going up for the rebound, Brewer is already leaking out to beat the Mavericks defense down the floor.

In the clip above, the first of Love’s four outlets to Brewer, Brewer contests Shawn Marion’s corner three attempt with a somewhat lackluster closeout, but then he immediately begins sprinting down the floor, anticipating the Love rebound and bullet pass, which comes and hits him right in stride, allowing him to get the easy, uncontested finish.

On the second outlet, above, we see a similar situation, though instead of being the man closing out, Brewer watches as the action moves away from him and towards the painted area. He sees a heavily contested shot go up in the paint and knows Love is there. Relying on Love’s tremendous defensive rebounding ability, Brewer makes the educated guess that Love will end up with the ball and hit him in stride again for another easy two points, which is exactly what happens.

In this clip, Love gets an uncontested defensive board, as all of Dallas’s personnel are at the foul line or further away from the basket. Dallas has three men back in transition defense, as Love throws the outlet ahead to Brewer. Despite this, Brewer is able to get the ball in full stride and get a head of steam going towards the Mavs. The Mavs are put on their heels and unable to react in time, leading to Jose Calderon fouling Brewer at the rim.

Similar to the previous clip, on this play Love gets the ball to Brewer leaking out in transition with the Mavs having guys back in transition defense (Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis), but it simply doesn’t matter. Brewer is moving too quickly and Love’s pass is too on the money for the defense to have time to properly react and stop Brewer from getting to the rim. The result is a dunk for Brewer at the 1st half buzzer.

Love was also able to find Brewer for an additional couple of baskets in the first half, one of which came off a great pass and smart cut out of the Horns set Rick Adelman is so fond of running.

Love catches the pass on the left elbow and then Rubio and Pekovic both set down screens on the right side of the court for Brewer. Jose Calderon, who gets switched onto Brewer, anticipates the cut and jumps the passing lane, only to see Brewer smartly bend his cut the other way towards the basket, allowing Love to fit in a nifty bounce pass to give Brewer the easy two points.

Finally, Brewer was even able to get a wide open jump shot from Love’s passing and the defensive attention the big man draws. Here the Wolves run a number of cross screens, none of which is set very solidly, but Love is nonetheless able to establish deep position in the paint on Shawn Marion. Love’s positioning near the rim draws Jae Crowder’s attention away from Brewer as Love receives the pass from J.J. Barea, and as a result, Love hits Brewer with a quick pass in the corner for a wide open look, which he knocks down.

If these early returns are any indication, Flip Saunders and the rest of the Timberwolves front office should be applauded for the decision to reunite Corey Brewer with Kevin Love.

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