“I was born for this bullsh*t!”
A tale of two NBA players, the hype surrounding them and an examination of what it takes to become a superstar
As the NBA season slogs through the late season before being born anew with the playoffs, I wanted to analyze the difference between media hot takes and the realities of basketball (who am I kidding? the word is rant).
Once again, let’s play “Name Them Numbers.”
These two point guards were chosen near the very top of their drafts, struggled with inconsistency in their early years, and were affected by the pressure of constant media scrutiny. Both players came into the league with great hype, became a target of internet trolls and subject of those “is he a bust?” polls. And both players showed enough flashes of good play to become lightning rods for the people within their own fan base.
I’m going to use a number of different advanced stats, to help correct for differences in how many minutes they play, how much the ball is in their hands, and how well their coaches and teammates help or hurt their play. In each case, I will bold the stat for the player who is superior.
At the very end, I will present their traditional statistics, which may or may not surprise you.
PART 1: Advanced Offensive Stats
Here are the definitions of the stats, available from stats.NBA.com:
Offensive Rating: this stat measures a player’s efficiency at producing points for the offense, but is also affected by a player’s role and his team’s strength. The best player in the league this season is Stephen Curry (118.2), but Danny Green (116.1) is second by virtue of playing on a great team and only having to shoot 3-pointers. On the other hand, great scorers can be terribly inefficient and hemorrhage turnovers, such as Zach Levine (23.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, and 4.5 apg), who is ranked 58th out of 64 starting guards at 105.2.
Assist/Turnover Ratio is assists divided by turnovers. Examples of top assist leaders: Lowry (3.14), Irving (2.71), Lillard (2.50), Jokic (2.40), LeBron (2.28), Westbrook (2.23), Simmons (2.22), Young (1.99), Curry (1.84) and Harden (1.50). For context, Jeff Teague (8.2 apg) is the starter with the best Ast/To ratio (3.54) this year. Of the top 40 point guards in assists per game, only six of them have an Ast/To ratio of under 2.0. This is usually the mark of young players (Young, Smith), but Curry and Harden have been really sloppy this year. And Zach Lavine (1.32) is a disaster for his team’s offensive efficiency.
Offensive Rebound Percentage measures how effective a player is at maintaining possession of the ball after a missed shot, while he is on the floor. This metric corrects for differences in how many minutes a player is on the court, but not for the offensive and defensive schemes used by each team. Among starting guards, the best offensive rebounder in the NBA is 6'10" Ben Simmons (6.3%), and the worst is JJ Redick (0.7%). Simmons is basically a power forward who tries to leverage his height advantage over the guys guarding him, while Redick mostly runs around on the perimeter and is tasked with getting back on defense in transition.
True Shooting % measures the offensive effectiveness of a player by including both his shooting percentage and the number of times he is able to get to the free throw line. That is why Harden, a rather pedestrian shooter (at .364 3P%, he is 92nd in the league, to go with his .438 FG%), has the sixth best TS% among starting guards — he’s going to the free throw line over 11 times per game and making almost 9 of them.
Usage % measures team plays used by a player while he is on the court. This metric helps us understand not only a player’s efficiency, but also if he plays within the flow of an offense or is just a ball hog who dribbles for 10 seconds before initiating some offensive action. Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA (currently #2 in TS% and #3 in EFG% this season), so it would make sense to put the ball in his hands all the time. But he still plays within his offense, moving without the ball, setting screens for teammates, and making the right pass most of the time (he is a little sloppy with his turnovers), and is only #13 in usage rate (29.2%).
Player A: Off Rating 106.7, Ast/To Ratio 2.30, OffReb% 1.8, TS% 53.0, USG% 30.5
Player B: Off Rating 105.4, Ast/To Ratio 2.45, OffReb% 3.5, TS% 48.3, USG% 16.6
Player A is a high scoring, inefficient player (49th out of 64 starting guards in offensive rating, and only 128th out of 135 NBA starters who played more than 40 games this season), who has the ball in his hands almost as much as Russell Westbrook.
Player B is even worse offensively (near the bottom of the barrel) and as a shooter, but is a more accurate passer who has commits fewer turnovers, is a better offensive rebounder, and has one of the lowest usage rates in the NBA.
Based on the above stats, who will demand a huge contract this summer and who will be the constant subject of trade rumors?
PART 2: Defense and Hustle
These components of the game are far more difficult to quantify, and many experts argue about the efficacy of these stats to measure the finer points of defense. For example, top offensive players try to conserve energy on the defensive end, or they are horrible defensively, so coaches try to hide them by guarding the least dangerous opponent while on the floor. This is how 5'8" Isaiah Thomas could have a better defensive rating (102.4) playing for Boston (#2 at 102.5) than Kyrie Irving (105.2) playing for Cleveland (#10, at 103.9) in 2016. In addition, defensive rebounding % is a big function of defense as it is vital to secure the ball after a miss.
NBA.com also offers some really cool stats including how often a player sets screens that create baskets, and how many times they deflect a pass or dribble, recover loose balls, and drawing charging fouls (although neither player uses this technique, as they are both tall players who try to use their length to defend, instead of using their quickness to block someone’s path to the basket).
Player A: DefRating 106.7, DefReb 9.7%, Steal % 27.6, % Block 9.3, Deflections 0.5, Loose Balls Recovered 52.4%, Screen Assists 0.2
Player B: DefRating 104.9, DefReb 12.3%, Steal % 29.7, % Block 11.3, Deflections 1.8, Loose Balls Recovered 53.6%, Screen Assists 0.8
For context, here are the top performers in each category:
DefRating: Brogdon (101.6)
DefReb%: Westbrook (35.9)
Steal%: Butler (34.5)
%Block: Brown (27.9)
Deflections: Harden (3.8)
Loose Balls Recovered: Crabbe (75.0% Seriously? It must be those clawwes)
Screen Assists: Simmons (1.7)
Player B is not only superior in each of these metrics, but in or near the top 10 in each of these categories compared to all NBA starting guards who have played at least half the season. Yawn.
PART 3: Net Ratings, Filtered +/- Ratings, On/Off Ratings
Net Rating is one of the favorite advanced stats to measure a player’s effectiveness. However, it is affected by the team’s strength, as seen by the fact that five of the top 8 players all play for Milwaukee, with Giannis #1 overall at +12.6. Saddled with a bad team, even LeBron James looks like an average player (+1.7 this season, compared to +11.5 when he won a title with the Cavs). In this case, each of the mystery players is on a mediocre team, so their net ratings are going to be a little more illuminating.
“+/-” Ratings are easy to use as they can be found in most box scores. The problem is those stats can be very misleading based on the strength of the opponent, if a player is getting big stats in garbage time, or if the player is a reserve playing against other bench players. I weeded out a lot of that noise by creating the following filters:
- All-Star guards on the opposing team — how well does each guy play when they are put under the pressure of guarding and scoring against an elite point guard on the other team? This year’s All-Star point guards are Indiana (Oladipo), Boston (Irving), Toroonto (Lowry), Charlotte (Walker), Golden State (Curry), Houston (Harden), OKC (Westbrook), Portland (Lillard) and Brooklyn (Russell, who replaced the injured Oladipo). I added up every +/- rating from each player’s games against these teams and divided by the number of games to come up with an average +/- rating against the top players at the same position.
- Playoff teams without an All-Star guard — this includes MIL, DEN, PHI, DET, BRK, MIA, LAC, SAS and UTA. The thought here is that playoff teams will still pressure a player with better defensive schemes and more efficient offensive systems. I did the same calculation from above to calculate each player’s average +/- rating.
On/Off Ratings: this measures how much of an effect a player has on his team. In the case of losing teams, these ratings could be negative, but we can see if a player helps a team’s offense and/or defense suck less. In addition, we can look to see where a player stands in this metric compared to the rest of the core players on his team (players who are either starters or play crunch time minutes).
Player A: NetRating -0.2,+/- Rating vs All-Stars (-8.26 pg), +/- Rating vs Playoff Teams (-1.86 pg), On/Off Rating -0.5, On/Off Rating within core (3rd highest)
Player B: NetRating +0.6, +/- Rating vs All-Stars (-1.83 pg), +/- Rating vs Playoff Teams (+4.58 pg), On/Off Rating +2.3, On/Off Rating within core (4th highest)
What I really like about my little filtration experiment is how much insight it provides about these two players when I eventually reveal their overall statistics.
Player B clearly hurts his team less when he defends All-Star point guards, and actually helps win games against playoff teams. But I’m sure all you can ask is “how many points do they score?”
PART 4: What is the Nature of Clutch Play?
Clutch Play can be set as any kind of filter, but I used the last 5 minutes of the fourth quarter in any game where the score differential is 5 points or less. This is one of the most fascinating sets of statistics, as some of the most inefficient players in the league might still be a team’s best clutch scorer. Luka Doncic is 52nd out of 64 starting guards in terms of Offensive Rating, but #7 in 4th quarter clutch points.
Player A: Clutch scoring (1.8 ppg), Clutch shooting (.426 FG%, .333 3P%), Clutch Ast/To Ratio (2.0)
Player B: Clutch scoring (0.7 pg), Clutch shooting (.357 FG%, .333 3P%), Clutch Ast/To Ratio (1.5)
This is where we start to see Player A “shine” in the crunch time (even though his performances are still very middle of the road in terms of the total group of players). NBA analysts have been arguing for years to determine the answer to the question “is there such a thing as a clutch player?” Here’s a good piece of analysis that looks at game winning shots.
NBA Game Winning Shots -- leading players
Which players are the best in the closing moments with a game on the line? 82games.com seeks out the answers in this…
In this six year sample size, Carmelo Anthony was the only All-Star level player shot above his career average on game winning shots.
It is extremely rare for a player to actually raise their level of play in crunch time. But the top “clutch” players are those who are able to perform closer to their normal level than everyone else.
[A special note with regard to Asst/To ratio, Kyle Lowry (8.0) and Kyrie Irving (3.5) are actually peforming better in crunch time than their season averages, which is phenomenal.]
PART 5: Scoring Stats
Player A: 20.7 pts, 8 of 18.4 FGA (.432 FG%), 2.8 of 7.7 3PA (.366 3P%)
Player B: 9.9 pts, 3.9 of 9.7 FGA (.406 FG%), 1.6 of 4.9 3PA (.329 3P%)
And now you know why one of these players is getting hyped almost as much as he hypes himself.
In spite of the massive statistical evidence that Player B is a better overall player, competes better against All-Star opponents, and helps his team more against top competition, nobody gives a damn but me.
As shown in his terrible True Shooting %, Player A is an inefficient, volume scorer, averaging on 1.12 points per shot (pps). League average is around 1.2 pps. How do we explain the hype around him?
PART 5: Player Persona
Player A is a show man, who screams on court and makes grand gestures. When he gives interviews after games, he makes outrageous statements, such as his claim that he should be an All-Star, or win the Most Improved Player award.
Player B is very quiet, rarely makes on court jestures, or even argues with the referees. In post game interviews, all he does is talk about helping the team win, or getting better if he has a bad game.
This season, Player A did become an All-Star (although he is the worst player to ever appear in the history of that game) and Player B has been constantly attacked by the media and internet trolls.
If it wasn’t already clear, Player A is D’Angelo Russell and Player B is Lonzo Ball.
PART 6: Twitter Highlights
Maybe this should become a new statistic, so we can track the plays that change the narrative in an NBA season. Here’s a list of the best “clutch” players in the league this year, along with their win-loss record (based on most made three pointers in the last 5 minutes of the 4th quarter in games with a 2 point difference or less, 15 game minimum):
Curry, GSW (15–7): 0.4 3PM, 0.7 3PA, .500 3P%
Young, ATL (11–8): 0.3 3PM, 0.7 3PA, .424 3P%
Williams, LAC (17–8): 0.3 3PM, 0.7 3PA, .407 3P%
Mitchell, UTA (8–10): 0.3 3PM, 0.6 3PA, .455 3P%
Russell, BKN (12–10): 0.3 3PM, 0.7 3PA, .375 3P%
Harden, HOU (15–11): 0.3 3PM, 1.0 3PA, .280 3P%
Walker, CHA (8–16): 0.3 3PM, 1.0 3PA, .261 3P%
Irving, BOS (14–11): 0.2 3PM, 0.6 3PA, .400 3P%
Here’s the same list when we look at the last minute of tight games:
Russell, BKN (10–7): 0.2 3PM, 0.5 3PA, .375 3P%
Doncic, DAL (7–10): 0.1 3PM, 0.2 3PA, .500 3P%
Harden, HOU (11–8): 0.1 3PM, 0.3 3PA, .333 3P%
Butler, PHI (9–10): 0.1 3PM, 0.2 3PA, .500 3P%
Durant, GSW (12–7): 0.1 3PM, 0.3 3PA, .400 3P%
Holiday, MEM (8–12): 0.1 3PM, 0.2 3PA, .667 3P%
Fournier, ORL (10–11): 0.1 3PM, 0.2 3PA, .400 3P%
George, OKC (9–14): 0.1 3PM, 0.3 3PA, .333 3P%
What does this show us? First, most elite teams have far fewer games where the score is really close, or depend on one single player to make a clutch shot (Milwaukee, Toronto, Denver and Golden State have the highest point differentials this season). Aside from Golden State (and I’m betting these are the games where Curry was hurt), most of the teams play lots of close games which gives more opportunities to practice shots in clutch situations.
On the lists above, only seven players helped their teams have a winning record in these situations: Curry, Durant, Harden, Irving, Williams (a sure 6th Man of the Year), Russell and Young. That’s pretty heady company for the young players.
PART 7: What does it take to be a superstar?
What’s amazing about Russell’s season and the hype around him is that it is based almost entirely on having two hot shooting streaks that make up less than a third of his season. For 8 games in October, he made 42% of his three pointers, and for 15 games in January, he made 41.3% of those long rang shots. For the rest of the season, he is shooting below league average (<36%).
Here’s the other amazing thing.
When a player is given the car keys to the offense (remember that enormous usage %), a strange thing begins to happen: he gets so many opportunities to take big shots in the final seconds, he gets used to the pressure and begins to play closer to his normal performance level.
As a rookie, Kobe Bryant completely bricked the first four clutch shots of his career in game 5 of the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals against the Utah Jazz. He was playing with Shaquille O’Neal (#4 in scoring, #2 in rebounds, #2 in blocks among MVP candidates that year), and chose to dominate the ball at the end of regulation with the score tied, and then did in three more times in overtime with the score tied or a one possession game.
At the time, fans killed Kobe. Luckily for him, it was before the internet. I don’t know if even a guy with his iron will and massive ego could have continued doing the things he did if the entire league and half of his own fans would have attacked him on a daily basis. Just look at how Kevin Durant is frustrated and struggling the last couple of seasons because of his sensitivity to social media criticism.
In the case of Russell, his signature moment of the season was his 27-point 4th quarter, while scoring a career high 44 points in a miraculous win where the Nets overcame a 25-point 4th quarter deficit.
For Brooklyn’s long suffering fans, does it really matter if Russell has tons of games where he has more attempted shot than points, when he pulls off the occasional game where he looks like a superstar?
In his next game against the Lakers, he had 21 points off 20 shots, but was aided by starters Joe Harris, DeMarre Carroll and Rodions Kurucs, who combined to make 10 of 20 three pointers. Combine that with the Lakers’ never ending horror show (6 of 26 3-pointers by the starters), and the Nets had just enough to win the game by 5. (Watch out for the Lakers late season tanking streak!)
Conclusion: Maybe the NBA is transitioning from a star driven league to an internet-star-driven league.
It is a widely accepted tenet of peak performance training that you must act “as if” before you can actually do it. Now it seems like talking something into reality is part of that equation. Will insufferable arrogance with no basis in reality become a requirement for embarking on a career as a politician or an NBA player?
I still don’t believe Russell will ever become a true superstar because you can’t teach athleticism on defense. But it sure helps when the only point guard you have to face in your division who is a true offensive threat is Kyrie Irving (no disrespect but Lowry is a pass first point guard, and Simmons, and Smith Jr are not exactly outside threats).
As I wrote during his second season with the Lakers, Russell could become a poor man’s James Harden, but he needs to become an elite finisher at the rim and more than double his trips to the foul line (at least 6 free throw attempts per game).
For now, given his usage rate, Russell has become an occasional highlight machine that ignites the internet, giving Brooklyn fans hope for the future. And that might be enough for him to continue to shine in the Eastern Conference.
Regardless of his improvement, if D’Angelo Russell gets what he thinks he deserves, at least Brandon will be happy knowing that Andrew Wiggins now has competition for the title of the worst contract in the NBA.
Thanks for reading. Here’s some more NBA stuff.