Blog Entry

Can we get smarter at building teams?

Posted on: March 3, 2012 8:43 am
Edited on: March 3, 2012 9:13 am
Research suggests the Magic may not have built around Dwight Howard the right way. (Getty Images)
By Matt Moore

So there's this big sports analytics conference called the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. If you're an NBA hoophead/blognut/basketball freakazoid you likely have already heard about it, since most of the writers who like to stretch beyond the tired cliches tend to spend a lot of effort talking and writing about this thing. 

The event's held at MIT with a bunch of "wicked smaht" people talking about a number of things that would likely bore you to tears if you're not a fan of sports geekery. It's not athletes talking about swagger (though NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver dropped a reference to that Friday which was hilarious), or about clutch (though there was a panel on how pressure impacts players). It's people that work in front offices and behind the scenes (for the most part) talking about regression analysis, paradigms of alternative thought, and correlation (not so much causation). 

It's easy for a lot of people to toss this stuff to the wind. It doesn't fit with how we usually view sports, and how we usually view sports is fun. It makes it complicated, it hones in on stuff that's too specific (a common complaint from players and coaches who love the forest, hate the trees), and it sounds like stuff that's too dense to take anything actionable from.

That's the trick. It's like what blogging really is about (besides funny videos, photoshops, and poor syntax). You have to search through the mess, take out the interesting components, and try and put them into a bigger perspective. What follows is an attempt to guide you through two compelling research papers presented at the conference, and why you should care about their results. 

Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How a Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other

One major takeaway from the Big 3 results is that the data shows that, cluster 8, the multi- faceted small- forwards who are very good 3 - point shooters, are great players to build a team around, as long as there aren’t any similar players among the most talented players on the team. Very good results occur when these small- forwards are surrounded with a variety of player - types; the Big 3’s with the highest coefficients (7 - 8 - 12, and 8 - 10 - 12) both include players from cluster 8. This was true with the Big 2’s as well.  

Robert Ayer presented this study which had its methodological quirks. (I would have liked to have seen a better efficiency model than the one provided and even accounting for minutes, we should never be using per game numbers for anything more than a highlight clip for toddlers at this point.) But overall the thought process was really ineresting. Essentially, he classified players, factored their efficiency, and then ran analysis to discover what worked and what didn't work together. It's like using all of the data from NBA history to create models of the players we describe in broad terms and then using advanced metrics to figure out which of those archetypes should be used together to build a team. 

The Rub: Putting a pure point with a dominant center may not be as effective as pairing a versatile wing with a little shooting ability with the same dominant center.

The explanation: This calls into question the idea of the point-guard-big-man fit. For example, Dwight Howard, it has long been thought, needs to play with a great pure point guard. But his greatest success has been with a versatile three who could run the pick and roll and had some three-point shooting ability, in Hedo Turkoglu during the Magic's 2009 run. The analysis suggests that Howard would do better with, say, Andre Iguodala, who can defend, distribute, rebound, and score when called on, versus say Deron Williams. This doesn't mean that the two aren't a good fit. It just says it's possible that if you consider Deron Williams and Andre Iguodala equal talents in terms of their relative skillsets, that Iguodala and Howard might find more success from a production standpoint. 

It also speaks to how Otis Smith's move for Vince Carter in 2009 may have been the right move. If you improve upon Hedo Turkoglu's three-point shooting with Carter while keeping the same versatility, it's a win. The flaw may have been over-estimating Carter's diminished ability as a passer due to age. 

The fact that so much success was gleaned from wings in the study, be they versatile passers or high-volume scorers, suggests a radical shift in traditional thought about the strength of players. Wings are most often criticized regarding their tweener status while classic big men and point guards are idolized, outside of the exceptions like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Turns out your small forward can have a huge impact on your winning percentage simply due to his position. 

In another real world application, high-scoring small forwards fit well with high-scoring 2-guard, but high-scoring power forwards and those same small forwards did not make the list of good matches. So there's that, Knicks fans.

The Rub: Having two players that do the same thing on your team isn't just bad, it's really bad. 

The Explanation:  Sacramento brought in John Salmons, Isiaiah Thomas and Jimme Fredette to a back court that already featured  Tyreke Evans and (presumably, in restricted free agency) Marcus Thornton. The idea was shots on shots on shots on shots. But instead, you have several players essentially with redundant skill sets, and the paper points out this stuff kills teams' production. 

A practical application of this is an assault on the best player available concept towards the draft. It's fine to draft a player like the one you have now, as long as you move one or the other, or do not play them together. The negative impact the study reveals in redundant players suggests that there's no point in stockpiling at a position if the two players are essentially the same.

A counter to this though lies in a confounding wins vs. production element from the paper:

Most observers would think that a Big 2 from the same group would not fit as well; this is partially contradicted by this analysis. While multi- faceted small forwards who shoot 3’s don’t fit well together (8 - 8, - 4.046), teams with two high scoring 2 - guards (2 - 2, 3.97) have historically over - performed their expected win total, given the team’s overall talent level and coachi ng skill. Digging a bit further into the data, nearly all of the teams with multiple high - scoring 2 guards played at a higher than median pace; although further analysis would be required to state conclusively, this is perhaps instructive on  the style of play that teams with two high - scoring 2 - guards should employ.
So pretty much if you want to stick two gunners on the floor together, that's allright. Some real world examples of this might include the 2011 Hawks which employed lineups featuring Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, and to a certain degree the Nuggets with J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony. The best example featuring a fast team might be the Seven Seconds or Less Suns with Leandro Barbosa and Johnson.

Takeaways: When you're building a team, you need to avoid big men stepping over each other. But you can duplicate shots, if you run in a fast-pace offense. However, you should look before you leap because it turns out small-forwards are pretty important by all accounts.

NBA Chemistry: Positive and Negative Synergies in Basketball

Why is Chris Paul for Deron Williams a mutually beneficial trade? Overall, our SPM ratings rate Chris Paul and Deron Williams nearly the same, but with differences in skills. Paul is a better ballhandler, Williams a slightly better rebounder, and Williams is better at offense and defense.

The SPM framework predicts that Chris Paul is a better fit for Utah because he creates a lot of steals (3.1 steals per 48 minutes (“SP48M”)), while no one else in the New Orleans lineup does (West 1.0 SP48M, Stojakovic 1.1, Chandler 0.7, Butler 0.9). Utah, on the other hand, has many players who create steals (Kirilenko 2.0, Boozer 1.5,  Millsap 1.7, Okur 0.9, Williams 1.4). Because defensive steals has positive synergies in our system, Chris Paul's  ballhawking skills fit better in Utah, where he can team up with others and wreak havoc to opponents' ballhandlers.

Conversely, why would New Orleans trade for Deron Williams? Our framework predicts that Williams is a better offensive fit with New Orleans. There are negative synergies between two good offensive players since they must  share only one ball, and the New Orleans starters take fewer shots than Utah’s. At New Orleans, Deron Williams  would not need to share the ball with so many players.  

Allan Maymin, Philip Maymin, and Eugene Shen presented a doozy of a numbers-fest which took a non-traditional spin on advanced plus-minus. In short, how well does a team do in a specific area like rebounding or turnovers versus their opponent when a player is on the floor versus off. There were some methodology issues in this one as well, but the concept was intriguing. 

The Rub: The get-at here is that player skills are irrelevant if they don't mesh with the team. Their kicker was the Paul-Williams trade concept, which says that both teams would benefit if they made a trade for each other's guard because of who the rest of their teams were. 

The explanation: This goes back to building around a star. In short, you can build good players around a great one but it doesn't matter if those other players' skills aren't complimented by the strengths of your star. We focus a lot on bringing in talent around a player. But bringing in offensive weaponry when your star's biggest impact on other players is defensively is missing the point. It's not about trading the best player, it's about finding the best players to surround them with. 

This seems obvious, but look at how many teams create logjams with their decision-making. For years the Warriors have been a defensive nightmare despite having two guards who both need the ball in the backcourt. The paper also touches on ball-handlers being redundant with one another because there's only one ball to share. The success of dual-point-guard lineups seem to contradict this measure, but in those situations, the players do thrive because one player takes on a scoring role. Understanding role play is crucial to this and it would be great to get coaches' thoughts on these ideas. 

Since: Aug 22, 2006
Posted on: March 5, 2012 2:37 am

Can we get smarter at building teams?

The Tyson Chandler trade and rejection, was when Chandler had done very little.  No one knew he would be the key for Dallas, nobody!  Also, how many big men are their who score?  Name them and they are all Hall of Famers, or soon to be.  This isn't a league of big men anymore.

If OKC had a big man who scored, they would have still lost the game to Atlanta.  OKC played as bad as they could play, and they were still in the game.

I would hope that everyone would think that Lebron and Wade is the best combo.  Lebron with any star is a better combo.  Lebron with Westbrook is an even better combo.  Lebron with Lin...I'm joking!

All I'm saying is that I don't understand all the negative stuff towards Westbrook.  The guy is amazing, and is one of the key reasons they are doing what they are doing.

Since: Jan 11, 2012
Posted on: March 4, 2012 7:15 pm

Can we get smarter at building teams?

Trackernot, you bring up some valid points, but I've got to disagree (if only slightly).  While I absolutely can't stand either of these two guys, I think I'd still take LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as the best one-two (SF-SG) punch at this point, but just barely over the two OKC players.

Since: Dec 23, 2006
Posted on: March 4, 2012 8:07 am

Can we get smarter at building teams?

What you are saying makes a lot of sense, but what do you make of games like the Thunder-Hawks in Atlanta yesterday?

This game did not so much highlight Atlanta's strength...  they were going without Joe Johnson, and Josh Smith played the kind of game that simply negates the work of the statistical mavens (he must still be pissed off at not being picked over Rondo for the ASG)...  as it did shed light on OKC's weakness.  Despite the greatness of Durant and Westbrook (and the very fine support they get from Harden), is that if the jumpers are not going down and Westbrook's penetrations are not producing either points or assists, then OKC have a serious problem.  OKC needs a big guy who can score when he has to, and who therefore demands defensive attention.   Watch the last few minutes of that game, OKC takes nothing but contested long-Js... a reliable inside guy like T Chandler (whom OKC could have had but may wind up endlessly ruing rejecting the deal on medical grounds) would have made all difference in the world.   

The Heat's loss in Utah the previous night also shows why a scoring big man like Bosh, who was on bereavement leave, is so critical to what the Heat are structured to do.    Forget the histrionics over whether James, who was shooting brilliantly from everywhere at that point, should or shouldn't have passed off to Haslem, who was open for the type of shot he is paid to make.  The real point is that Miami had to come back from an 18-point hole generated by Utah's ability to pass sharply and find open men inside (where Bosh normally resides and Pittman proved totally inadequate) and that absent the fourth quarter brilliance of James, the Jazz were successfully putting pressure on Wade and exploiting Miami's sometimes abysmal point guard play.  When you cannot control Devin Harris, you have a problem.    &nb

For all that, I am thrilled to see studies like the one discussed here, which help detonate some old and dangerous myths.  I guess this is why I am so pleased by what is happening in Minnesota, which is succeeding without a shooting guard but has the resources to now acquire one, and why I am holding my breath to see who the Wizards eventually settle on to surround John Wall (I for one think Vesely is a great building block but the next decisions are much more critical). 

Since: Nov 30, 2007
Posted on: March 3, 2012 3:46 pm

Can we get smarter at building teams?

Westbrook and Rose are very similar players in my mind.  I would by no means call Rose a pure PG like Chris Paul/Jason Kidd

Since: Nov 5, 2006
Posted on: March 3, 2012 2:13 pm

Can we get smarter at building teams?

It does not take genius to figure most of this stuff out. When was the last time a team won with a star point guard. Not a good or great point guard, but a star point guard. 

Since: Aug 22, 2006
Posted on: March 3, 2012 1:07 pm

Can we get smarter at building teams?

This is saying that a star SF matched up with a star SG makes the best combo.  In other words, the Thunder who have a combo of Durant who is a model SF and Westbrook who plays PG (but is considered to play like a SG) may actually be the best combo.  Everyone thinks you need a star PG, but a star SG is actually what you want (since there are so few star SG that can play like Westbrook).

Basically, this article says that the combination of a player like Durant and the reality of Wetsbrook's play makes them the best combo of stars.  You'd think the Thunder would the #1 team in the NBA or maybe even be playing .800 ball.  Wait a minute, they are both of those.

It doesn't matter, everyone will still say that you have to have a pure PG to win.  Rose will be that catalyst for a while.  No knock on Rose, just tired of the Westbrook bashing.  Westbrook and Durant are the most versatile players in the NBA, and something finally says thats whats important.

Since: Oct 22, 2007
Posted on: March 3, 2012 12:49 pm

Can we get smarter at building teams?

Research suggests the  may not have built around the right way.

That caption cracks me up. "Research suggests..." lol

Why does one need research? Just consider the fact the Magic, with the game's most dominant inside player since Shaq in his prime, has gone to the Finals just once and haven't come close otherwise. Also consider they arguably might not have gone to that Final if the Celtics had Garnett. I'm not making excuses for the Celtics - injuries are part of the game and the Magic won the series fair and square - just pointing out the one Finals appearance the Magic had was the result of a much easier path than it could have been. Of course, that Finals appearance was pretty uninspiring, considering the Magic lost 4-1.

No research necessary. The Magic have wasted years of Dwight Howard's career with really questionable team management. Granted, Howard hasn't been too inspiring with some of his behavior and comments in the past year or so, but it's easy to understand his frustration.

Since: Oct 16, 2011
Posted on: March 3, 2012 12:43 pm

Can we get smarter at building teams?

Lot of data to digest. But I've seen GM's trade away players who they don't seem to to realize make another player better. The Orlando Magic only get the best out of  when they also have Lewis because teams have a hard time mathcing up with two 6-10 small forwards. Lewis and Turkoglu have both struggled when not playing with each other (Yes I know Lewis had some great years in Seatle with Ray Allen) but essentially you need both these guys to have them both play great, their games are based on exploiting matchup problems. Cleveland made similar mistakes with James because they were willing to pay a lot of money on other players but never got a guy who skills set would contemplate James. Back in the 90's Detroit traded away Terry Mills an average player but then Grant Hill's number went down, because the outside shooting 4/5 Mills drew the opposing teams bigs out of the lane opening driving lanes to the slashing Hill. I think a lot of GM's only look at a players numbers and not HOW and WHERE they score on the floor. Heck the Carmelo v. Stoudamire ploblem comes down to two guys who both like the same area of the floor, if either guy developed a game from the other side of the box, the problem goes away. Too many GM's just don't seem to get this? 

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