In the NBA, Scoring Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be
Perception is reality.
Players who produce a lot of points are sometimes misidentified as someone you should want on your NBA team. And by comparison, those who don’t are susceptible to being overlooked.
Last season, some foolishly debated whether Draymond Green deserved a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team. He was, after all, only averaging 10.2 points at that time. What often goes unnoticed and unquantified, though, is the effect players like Green have in other areas of the game.
Thanks to all the advanced stats and available technology, NBA front offices—fortunately—understand a player’s influence goes well beyond the number of points they produce.
Take Derrick Rose, for example. This dude ranked 40th in the NBA last season by averaging 18 points, yet he ended up signing a minimum deal with the Cleveland LeBrons Cavaliers more than three weeks into free agency, as first reported by ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes.
At first glance, Rose’s 47.1 percent shooting paints him as an efficient scorer. However, his true shooting percentage (53.0) ranked 218th among qualified players—an unimpressive standing due in large part to the tunnel vision he gets while driving to the lane.
In the first video below, he uses the threat of an on-ball screen to get deep toward the hoop. The defense then collapses on him and has four guys around the restricted area by the time he’s attempting the shot. He gets his first blocked shot back and tries to go up again, but another help defender rejects him from behind. He easily could have kicked it out to either corner or the top of the key, where the original screener (Kristaps Porzingis) was left open. Hell, Carmelo Anthony starts drifting back on defense before Rose even takes his first shot:
The second video is a great example of a bull seeing red.
Rose is never able to beat Malcolm Brogdon off the dribble and even loses control of the ball for a moment. Fortunately (but not really), he recovers his handle in time to throw up a beautiful one-handed fadeaway floater that hits nothing but backboard:
The New York Knicks appeared to be a better team with Rose last season; their net rating improved by 0.4 points per 100 possessions with him in the game. But Kristaps Porzingis, someone who adds value to his team in more ways than scoring, boosted his team substantially when he was on the court, upping New York’s net rating by 2.1 points. The big man brings a menacing presence, both on the glass and in the paint. It’s likely he who had a bigger impact on that jump, especially since they shared the court for so many of Rose’s minutes.
Shabazz Muhammad fits into Rose’s category as well, albeit to a smaller degree. He averaged 18.3 points per 36 minutes last year, which ranked 68th among players who appeared in 50 games or more. But he remains an unrestricted free agent after the Minnesota Timberwolves renounced his rights and is (probably) looking at a minimum deal.
Guys like Rose, Muhammad, Devin Booker, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell all fit under this umbrella, though to varying degrees. They’re high-volume, inefficient players who bring little else to their teams aside from scoring. They make the last row of the box score look superb, but we can’t stop the analysis there. Extending beyond the box score and into advanced stats makes for an even more informed journey.
Win shares is an advanced metric that calculates how many victories a player has added to his team throughout a season or career. If a squad wins 60 games, all its players should combine for something in the vicinity of 60 win shares.
For this exercise, I took a player’s total points scored in a season and divided it by his total win shares to see how valuable standalone scoring really is, essentially showing exactly how many points a player needed to produce in order to add a win for his squad.
Players who relied heavily on their ability to put the ball in the hoop needed more points per win share to leave an impression, while players who assisted in other ways needed fewer. We plotted this result against NBA Math’s total points added (TPA) to include another measure of value, and, as it turns out, players who posted high TPAs generally required fewer points per win share:
The 2017 NBA MVP, Russell Westbrook, is at the very top left of the graph. He registered a TPA of 890.62 and only required 195 points per win share. His value is rooted in a lot more than just scoring, so this isn’t surprising by any stretch; he notched a 57.3 assist percentage and 17.1 total rebound percentage. Rudy Gobert also kills it in points per win share, since amassing points isn’t his specialty. His defensive and rebounding abilities allowed him to rack up 14.3 win shares, which translates to 80 points per added victory.
On the flip side, someone like D’Angelo Russell needed 757 points per win share.
Though this may be somewhat surprising for a guy who was traded for a fringe All-Star and first-round pick, he provided little else. He only averaged 3.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists.
Russell possesses the necessary passing vision and skill to continue improving in that area, but he must focus on other areas, as well—mainly defense and shot selection. Here, he passes up a wide-open spot-up opportunity (on which he shot 37.0 percent last year) to jack a step-back jumper—a look he only made 33.3 percent of the time.
Defensively, Russell’s stance isn’t Booker bad (see below), but it still needs a lot of work. Rather than moving his feet and staying in front of his man, he typically reaches and goes for steals. This oftentimes leaves him out of position and allows the offensive player to drive right past him.
He also tends to lose focus, displaying surprisingly bad court awareness for a player who can be so gifted on the opposite side. He frequently looks confused about his positioning and where he should be:
This starts to prove something some of us already knew: Scoring isn’t all that and a bag of potato chips. There are other ways to have an equal or greater effect on winning. Chipping in as a rebounder, playmaker and engaged defender is just as likely to affect the outcome of the game.
Still, people get enamored with those who put the ball in the basket for two reasons. First, scoring looks pretty. It naturally piques our attention. It’s an instant reward that suggests our favorite player did something valuable. We’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dogs; every time a bucket is made, we salivate a little.
The second, perhaps equally prominent reason: Points are the most tangible statistic we track. Whenever someone drains a three or makes a layup, we know exactly who’s responsible for it. It’s a lot harder to measure the exact influence a pass has leading to a bucket. Yes, we know an assist happens when passes generate successful baskets, but that rule isn’t even clearly defined in the NBA rulebook:
An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgement of the statistician, the last player’s pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.
That leaves room for bias by the official scorekeeper. What one rules as an assist, another may not. There are lots of training and examples given in order to ensure consistency across the board, but any time humans are relied upon, there’s going to be a certain amount of variance.
Individual defense is even harder to quantify.
It’s safe to say nobody knows the exact measure of how many points an individual defender gives up or saves for his team. We have solid baseline metrics like NBA Math’s defensive points saved (DPS) or ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) to help us get as close as we can, but those aren’t exact. Defense has so many moving pieces, we’ll never be able to get an unequivocal calculation of an individual’s true significance. Nuanced caveats such as help defense, the difficulty of assignments and well-guarded shots that still go in all make quantifying performance on the less glamorous end a logistical nightmare.
Sure, we know players such as Kawhi Leonard and Gobert are great defenders. But no matter what they do, no matter how many thinkpieces are written, the extent of their actual value will forever be open to some degree of interpretation.
Devin Booker, conversely, is perceived as a rising star despite his defensive shortcomings. Film and DPS (minus-154.02) all tell us he’s a suboptimal stopper. What we didn’t know before today is he requires more points per win share (863) than almost anybody else in the NBA. And not one of the nine players who finished with inferior marks take nearly as many shots per game (18.3). His effective field-goal percentage even dropped 0.5 percent from his rookie to sophomore year—odd to see for a player of his perceived caliber, even when accounting for an uptick in volume and usage.
What stands out is his lack of interest, which is best illustrated by his stance. He hardly gets into a crouched position that allows him to move laterally with the offensive player. While that may have passed playing for John Calipari at Kentucky, the NBA is full of athletic studs who will blow by him if he’s not ready at every turn. You couple that with his lack of court awareness, and it makes for a defensive letdown:
Booker also registered a real plus/minus (RPM) of minus-1.30, the 45th-best mark among shooting guards alone. Even with a positive offensive real plus/minus (ORPM), the absence of a positive influence elsewhere dragged him down.
Eric Bledsoe, who’s not necessarily talked about as much as his backcourt partner, recorded an RPM of 1.69 due to his well-rounded game. He averaged 5.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists per 36 minutes last year, and while he’s not the most adept defender, he does a better job parlaying his physical profile into more positive moments.
Most NBA front offices already know to place more stock in the Goberts and Leonards—and even Bledsoes—of the world. It’s time for everyone else to catch up.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the perfect example of a new-age star. The heir to LeBron James’ throne isn’t a superstar because of the number of shots he makes. He’s the new It Guy due to the wide-ranging imprint he leaves on the game.
In this short clip, Antetokounmpo begins by grabbing a rebound. He continues by bringing the ball up the floor and finishing a highlight dunk before wrapping up the sequence by blocking a poor Skal Labissiere on the other end.
This simple clip displays how many different ways he can make his presence felt. For the fourth time in his four-year career, he recorded career highs in points (22.9), rebounds (8.8), assists (5.4), steals (1.6) and blocks (1.9). Oh, and he’s also only the fifth player in NBA history to lead his team in those five categories—the first since LeBron James in 2008-09.
Malcolm Brogdon is another illustration of a modern guy who teams should covet. At 6’6″, he can comfortably play three positions. Despite barely averaging double-digit points, he still recorded an ORPM of 1.86—a byproduct of his shot selection and ability to create for his teammates (5.8 assists per 36 minutes). He also carries a defensive demeanor that disrupted his opponents to the tune of 1.5 steals per 36.
Andrew Wiggins doesn’t yet fit into that category—he averaged 23.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game—but has time to turn that around. Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau is trying to lock up the former Jayhawk on a five-year, $148 million contract, partially due to his potential for improvement in non-scoring areas. He possesses all the necessary athletic tools to become a top defender and rebounder for his position, but his effort vacillates. The hope with the extension is that Wiggins will learn from Thibodeau and the newly acquired Jimmy Butler, thereby becoming more of an all-around player.
So remember: Scoring is only a number that looks pretty, not a reliable end-all barometer for success and importance. There are equally integral aspects of the game that fly under the radar, due almost solely to a longstanding dearth of popularity and appreciation.
When used alone, points per game leads us to an inaccurate understanding of a player’s impact—a layer of fog obscuring a vision of a bigger, often different-looking picture.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brianball0.