Sunscast Podcast Episode 6: Turning Corners

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Steve Nash is a great player by any measure. Is it possible that he's actually underrated?

Michael Lewis' 2003 book "Moneyball" opened the eyes of many to the potential benefits of analyzing baseball by more than simple scouting reports and statistics such as batting average, HRs, RBI, ERA and wins for a pitcher. In the years since, advanced statistics have revolutionized the way MLB front offices value player traits and production, as followers of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane have spread throughout the sport.

The NBA followed suit, and advanced stats such as win shares, on-court/off-court, offensive rating, defensive rating and rebounding % now influence the decisions of NBA front offices in the same way. No longer are we bound by the basic stats of points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game, all of which are limited by lack of consideration to opportunity and efficiency of production.

Identifying efficient performers on the court is one of the goals of advanced stats analysis, but the larger goal is efficient use of resources by a team. While baseball has no official salary cap (but does have a de facto cap based on a team's revenue), the NBA does and it became a much harder cap with the ratification of the most recent collective bargaining agreement. This makes accurate valuation of players even more important to a franchise's chances for sustainable success.

We here at BSotS have dabbled in advanced stats analysis; we have some experts, some who are put off by it and some curious novices. Our SBN community has somewhat of a guru in the field in Golden State of Mind's EvanZ, who you might remember from a chat we had last summer. Evan participated in another Google chat with me recently as I picked his brain on some of the advanced data he analyzes when judging player effectiveness.

More after the jump.

Ray: When did you start to analyze NBA basketball using more advanced stats than simple PPG, RPG, etc?
Evan: Fairly recently...I think it was spring of 2010.
Ray: What caused you to start?
Evan: Actually, you might not believe this, but it was some time after I joined GSoM. In the beginning I was one of the "anti-stat" guys, but somehow I became convinced after losing countless arguments. After that I was "all in" and it grew from there.
Ray: How is it received at GSoM? Do you still have a wide divide between the stat people and the "anti-stat" people?
Evan: I think it's definitely acknowledged that it's a stat-heavy blog, but there are certainly a minority of folks who don't buy it. They tolerate us though.

Ray: How does analysis of advanced statistical data enhance your understanding of basketball?
Evan: I think it helps you understand "the bottom line" so to speak, what teams need to do to win, vs. what looks good on ESPN or something.
Ray: Does it change the way you watch games?
Evan: Yes, definitely. For example, I cringe when I see "bad shots" that players shouldn't take.
Ray: Haha. Try watching Shannon Brown. Yikes.
Evan: He looks good dunking

Ray: What are some of the data points you find most useful?
Evan: Really...efficiency, that's the number one thing.
Ray: As defined by what?
Evan: Points per possession (PPP). It can be applied to many things, though: at the team level, the player level, the type of play, etc

Ray: Basketball Reference, and Synergy Sports are the websites that immediately come to mind with regards to advanced NBA stats. What others have you found to be helpful?
Evan: Hoopdata is the other big one. Oh, and I use Basketball Value a lot for my own metric. It's called "ezPM". There's a brief description of ezPM in "The Primer" (Ray's note: the primer is excellent and I highly recommend it), but basically it puts a value on every possession that a player uses and creates (through steals and rebounds). There's a couple of metrics in the primer that I developed. One is ezPM and the other is PSAMS (position- and shot-adjusted marginal scoring). I also develop metrics here and there when I find something missing in the "field".
Evan: And one more resource...
NBA Appspot
That's where I get the RAPM (regularized adjusted plus/minus) data

Can you give an example of a player who, according to advanced statistical data, is overrated by most fans?
Evan: Uh, Monta Ellis comes to mind.
(Ray's note: Yes, I am a big Ellis critic. No, I did not pay Evan off for this.)
Evan: Last season, a lot of advanced stats folks thought Rose was overrated - he's actually peforming better statistically so far this season (according to ezPM, anyway). John Wall appears to be highly overrated.
Ray: Underrated?
Evan: A lot of defensive guys like Nick Collison, Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala
Ray: Do you think the existing defensive metrics truly capture a player's value on that end?
Evan: I think RAPM generally does the best job. Unfortunately, there's just not a lot of data aside from blocks and defensive rebounds (which aren't really "defense" per se).

Ray: Obligatory question about the Suns and Warriors: for each team, what player does advanced stats analysis show to be better than we might think? Not as good as we think?
Evan: On the Warriors, it's easily Ekpe Udoh. RAPM has him as an above average player, but according to the box score, he's a zero. But anyone who watches him play see what he brings defensively. That's not captured by the box score. For the Suns, aside from Steve Nash possibly being underrated (I know hard to believe), I'm not sure you have any other players who are that much better than what people think. Markieff looks goooood, BTW, so good on you guys. (Ray's note: Nash is currently rated #6 overall in the league in RAPM.)
Ray: We are VERY excited about Markieff Morris so far.

Ray: Do you see a risk in losing the human element of the game by breaking it down into cold, rational metrics?
Evan: Well, basketball is way behind baseball, so I would ask whether baseball still has scouts? I think so. And that probably means there is still going to be a place for that in basketball for quite some time. Numbers can tell you a lot, but not everything.

Ray: What limitations do you find in statistical analysis of basketball?
Evan: The main limitations all basically boil down to not having enough data. I'll give one obvious example, which would be what I call "potential assists". The box score records an assist when a player scores, but what about when he doesn't score, but should have? Those are not recorded and thus, represent a data limitation. There are many more examples on both sides of the ball. (Ray's note: how many more assists would Steve Nash have this season if he was surrounded by better shooters than he currently is?)

Evan: If folks are interested in ezPM, I am keeping those continually updated on my blog.

Player Ratings

Rookie of the Year Watch

Sophomore Ratings

Brightsiders, what say you? What value and what limitations do you see in advanced stats? I encourage you to follow the links above; there is plenty more to read.

Please feel free to fire away with your thoughts and questions for Evan, and I'd like to give him a big thanks for his time and expertise.

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The Phoenix Suns signed veteran shooting guard Michael Redd to help provide another scoring option for the team that's experiencing an uncharacteristic offensive drought. Redd joined the Suns almost two weeks ago but has yet to take the floor for his new team. He's spent the time working on his conditioning and getting into basketball shape after having played just 10 games last season and only 61 games in the last three years due to multiple knee injuries.

Redd, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, participated in five-on-five scrimmages for the first time on Wednesday and will "likely" make his debut for the Suns on Thursday when Phoenix hosts the Cleveland Cavaliers. blogs - Coro's Orange Slices - PaulCoro - Redd-letter day coming
"I felt good," Redd said. "We pushed it and I felt fine. I didn't come out of practice the whole practice so that's a good sign. I'm learning the system and the plays and the guys have been very helpful with that. The game is starting to slow down a little bit for me in practice. When I first started, it was kind of fast. Now it's starting to come. Now it's time for a real game."

It's not yet clear who's minutes Redd would take in a Suns rotation that's already ten-men deep. Back up shooting guard Shannon Brown is coming off a strong performance against the Los Angeles Lakers where he scored nine points in nine minutes in the fourth quarter on 4-8 shooting.

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After the Phoenix Suns collapsed against the Los Angeles Lakers down the stretch of Tuesday night’s contest, I wanted to rewatch those final six minutes and see where the Suns went wrong. I...

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Phoenix Suns' Grant Hill, center, works between Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, left, and Matt Barnes during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles,  Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Phoenix Suns look like they turned a corner after the road loss last week to the Dallas Mavericks. The Suns played VERY well to blow out the Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks at home and then went into Los Angeles and played a pretty good game against the Lakers.

The Suns obviously lost in L.A. but looked much better than they did against the Mavericks and ultimately fell victim to this team's biggest flaw -- lack of late game scoring options.

We'll get into exactly what happened in those final few minutes when the Suns were thumped 16-1 in the final 6:27 of the game, but first let's recognize all the things that have improved in that last week:

  • The offense has a MUCH better flow mostly because Steve Nash has returned from the (near) dead and Channing Frye has arrived for the season.
  • Marcin Gortat's offensive game since having the splint removed from his thumb has been impressive and improved from last season. He's making great decisions with the ball and passing well when covered, and he's shooting 32-46 (.696) in his last four games after starting 20-38 (.526) in his first five.
  • Gortat's shooting a career-high 85.7% at the rim but he's also at a career-high 86.5% assisted rate (percent of his shots that are assists for someone else).
  • The lack of being able to create his own shot (a problem shared by the entire roster) is the Suns biggest offensive flaw BUT there have been a few signs that Marcin's post game might (MIGHT) be improved. Lets give it a few more games without the splint on his thumb and see.
  • Defensively, the Suns did a very solid job against the Lakers not named Kobe and honestly, when Kobe is hitting shots like that you just tip your hat and pray that he will eventually shoot himself into a stupor. LA shot 48.8% from the field but only 42.9% when you remove Kobe's numbers.
  • The rotations in the post against Bynum were very good. If the game plan was to hold Bynum and Gasol in check and pray that Kobe doesn't go off, it worked (except for the praying part).
  • Bynum had 30 minutes but only 12 points and 8 rebounds, which is quite an accomplishment.
  • What KILLED Bynum was his inability to defend the pick and roll. When he sagged off, Nash hit open shots. When he tried to hedge the screen, he was too slow and Nash was able to beat the trap.
  • The bench played well with Hakim Warrick and Shannon Brown adding 19 points and Ronnie Price playing well; the Suns were +3 with him on the floor (and Nash on the bench) which is GREAT.
Now, here's where things went wrong in the final six minutes:
  • Big props to Mike Brown (not a coach I am fond of) for benching Bynum and playing Luke Walton at the four. Walton and Gasol were able to effectively trap Nash on the pick and roll and the guys rotating behind them were good.
  • The Suns weren't able to take advantage of Walton playing the four because Frye in the post is still Frye in the post. In the future, I would expect to see Markieff Morris in situations like this to prevent teams from going small to defend the pick and roll better. Morris, however, had a horrible game (0-4) and wasn't an option late, and Frye was shooting well. Morris has to become the guy here to relieve the pressure and score in the paint. He's the only guy on the roster that can do it.
  • The Suns eventually decided to double Kobe but it was too late. That's a really tough call since he's such a good passer and the Lakers (like the Mavs with Dirk) make it hard to double him.
  • Grant Hill was the guy the Lakers left open in their rotations defending the pick and roll and he simple didn't have the legs on his shot to make them pay. Grant was 1-12 in the game, which KILLED the Suns. Dudley wasn't much better (2-7) but it was just too much to ask Grant to chase Kobe around and still make the open shots the Lakers were giving him late in the game.

Phoenix Suns come undone in 4th against Los Angeles Lakeres - Arizona Republic
"I'm just tired a little bit out there," Hill said. "I still have a ways to go to get my conditioning. No excuses. I got good looks. I just have to make them. I didn't run until three days before camp so I'm still getting my legs. Obviously, it didn't help having to chase him around but I've done it before and been able to be more effective on the offensive end."

I was going to go through every possession in the five minute stretch where the Lakers when from +1 to +14 but I don't have time for that. I did re-watch all those possessions and found one good example (below) of how the Lakers were able to stop the Suns.

This was very familiar to what we saw last season where the Suns lost in the final few minutes of games. The execution was pretty good and the Suns moved the ball and found the open guy, but the shots they ended up getting were the shots the defense wanted to give up. That's what happens when good defensive teams trap the pick and roll and rotate well.

Without a go-to scorer that can isolate and get higher-percentage shots, this is going to haunt the Suns all season long. There will be times when the open guy hits the outside shot and there will be times against lesser defensive teams when the Suns execution can still manage to create easy looks, but against good defensive teams...

Here's a great example of how the Lakers stopped the Suns. This came at about the 5:51 mark right after Nash re-entered the game after timeout. The score was 85-82 after Kobe hit two free throws:

The first action the Suns run is with Frye and Gortat setting up at the top of the arc. Nash runs off both screens with Walton hedging out to trap Nash. Frye dives to the lane and Barnes leaves Hill open in the corner to cover but that's a decoy.

Frye shoots back to the top of the arc with Gortat trying to pick off Walton and free Channing for an open three. Walton does a great job fighting through the pick and denying Frye the opening.


With that first option taken away, Nash sets up a high pick and roll with Gortat. Gasol traps Nash and Walton leaves Frye to cover Gortat rolling down the lane.


Frye floats to the open spot at the angle but Gasol and Walton both recover quickly and contest his shot while Barnes has rotated into the lane to cover Gortat, leaving Hill again open in the corner.


Frye can't get his shot off in time with Gasol and Walton coming at him and passes back to Nash for the third try on this possession. Steve goes to Hill but by this time Barnes has rotated back on to him and with 8 seconds left on the clock, it's up to Grant to try and make something happen. He dribbles the ball off his leg and ends up with a contested shot.


On this possession, Brown is in the far corner the entire time and Kobe never leaves him since he's the more dangerous shooter than Hill. The rotations by Barnes and Walton were very good. Blake did a good job staying with Steve, and Gasol was mobile enough to both trap Nash and also rotate out to Frye.

Good defense beat two solid offensive plays. Gortat did get the offensive rebound and passed it out to Nash who gave it to Brown who missed an open three. He had made a three just a minute earlier and was open so it was a good shot to take.

The Suns tried a few different variations on the pick and roll in the next couple of possessions but the Lakers rotations were too good. Here's all the shots the Suns got:

Nash got open for a three running off a double screen and missed. Gortat ended up with a 19 foot shot late in the clock and missed. Hill ended up with a three and missed. Hill turned down a three and attacked and still missed the lay up (his legs were gone). Hill hit 1 of 2 free throws to give the Suns their only point of the final 6 minutes. Frye missed a three and the Suns were down 14 with 1:10 to go. Game over.

Everything was outside the paint except for Hill's missed layup.

Props to the Lakers, who were well-coached down the stretch and played great defense. I'm not overly excited about that team because they don't get enough points outside of Kobe going insane but they were certainly good enough to beat the Suns with their D, as will quite a few other good teams. Playing Luke Walton at the four was genius move because he's such a smart player who rotates well. Josh McRoberts will get those minutes when healthy because he can do the same things defensively plus rebound, and is more of a scoring threat.

On the plus side, at least the Suns have worked through a lot of other glaring early season problems quickly and in this game were simply beat by their biggest flaw, which is a roster/talent issue.

Markeiff Morris stepping up in a game like this and taking advantage of a smaller four is the Suns' only counter move. Let's hope he gets there.

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