Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Houston Rockets and the Value of Will Graves

Trevor Ariza was an essential role player on the Lakers team that won the championship last year. He played hard-nosed defense, made lots of hustle plays, and hit the open three when Kobe inevitably drew the double team. He had plenty of key steals and key scores as the Lakers marched through the play-offs. He couldn't pick a better time to play the best basketball of his career: That summer, after everyone saw how Trevor Ariza helped the Lakers win another championship, Trevor Ariza was a free agent and certainly in-demand.

When the Lakers elected to use the money they could have used to re-sign Trevor Ariza on notorious head-case/lock-down-defender/mercurial-forward Ron Artest, Ariza essentially took his place on Artest's former team, the Rockets. On the Rockets, however, Trevor Ariza assumed a very different role.

The Rockets had been constructed in the early 2000s as a team based around the dynamic duo of two superstars: Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Both players, when signed were absolutely phenomenal, and when they were on the court together and healthy, they were incredibly successful. The rest of the team simply had to play their roles and victory would come to the Rockets. Trevor Ariza was hired to merely be Robin to McGrady's Batman, or maybe to be the Gleek to McGrady and Yao's Wondertwins. The point is that he was a sidekick. Well, like every Justice League ever (going to keep trying with the super hero references), when Superman and Batman are captured/busy/incapacitated, the rest of the Justice League has to step up, and someone has to take on the mantle of leadership. Unfortunately, bad luck struck in Houston: Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were both laid low with injuries and the role players became headliners.

And that's how Robin got the spotlight. It might not surprise you to realize that maybe there was a reason Robin was only a sidekick and didn't try to do everything Batman did. And so it was with Ariza: While he thrived as a sideman in Los Angeles, he struggles in Houston as the Rockets primary offensive option. He shoots too much and makes a really low percentage of his shots. He shoots inefficient shots and that hard-nosed hustle, and unselfish passing disappeared under the weight of his new responsibility as The Man for Houston. It's been ugly.

I bring this because for a long time, I thought Will Graves was basically Trevor Ariza. I believed that he could thrive as a role-player for a contender, as a complementary piece, supporting his star teammates but that if asked to shoulder the burden of being the primary offensive option for his team that he would falter and his team would fail. That's the difference between Trevor Ariza on the Lakers and the Rockets and I thought it was also the difference between Will Graves on last year's championship winning Tar Heels and this year's cringe-inducing Tar Heels. That's just how I saw it. You know this, because I talked a lot about things like the Will Graves Theory.

Now, at this point, the savvy reader will note that I carefully said that this is what I "thought" about Will Graves. Past tense! Well, savvy reader, you caught me: my perspective may have changed for the more optimistic.

See, Will Graves isn't Trevor Ariza: Will Graves is Shane Battier.

But wait, doesn't Shane Battier just suck at everything but defense? And even there, isn't he really overrated? Well, casual NBA fan, that myth was actually dispelled almost exactly one year ago when Michael Lewis penned an article about Shane Battier, the Houston Rockets, and advanced basketball stats. It was basically the "Moneyball" of the NBA story and is still probably the most important thing written about the NBA in the past two years or so. If you haven't read it, you should read it now.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Okay, so now you know about how Shane Battier is underrated, how conventional stats don't capture his team contributions, and about how a smart and savvy player can help his team in nearly invisible ways? Right, well that's good. But you still don't know how this pertains to Will Graves? Doesn't he shoot too much and play as Robin-gone-power-mad-in-Batman's-absence like Ariza?

Well, lets focus on this:

One well-known statistic the Rockets’ front office pays attention to is plus-minus, which simply measures what happens to the score when any given player is on the court. In its crude form, plus-minus is hardly perfect: a player who finds himself on the same team with the world’s four best basketball players, and who plays only when they do, will have a plus-minus that looks pretty good, even if it says little about his play. Morey says that he and his staff can adjust for these potential distortions — though he is coy about how they do it — and render plus-minus a useful measure of a player’s effect on a basketball game. A good player might be a plus 3 — that is, his team averages 3 points more per game than its opponent when he is on the floor. In his best season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. At the time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him in the company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both perennial All-Stars. For his career he’s a plus 6. “Plus 6 is enormous,” Morey says. “It’s the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.” He names a few other players who were a plus 6 last season: Vince Carter, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady.

You can see where I'm about to go with this: Someone has calculated plus/minus for the NCAA this season. Guess who leads UNC in plus/minus? Well, actually Justin Watts, but set that aside for now and you get Will Graves. That's right, in an averaged pace game, having Will Graves on the court amounts to 7.4 extra points a game on offense and prevents the other team from scoring 4.0 extra points, giving him a plus/minus total edge of 11.4. Ed Davis, by contrast scores a 4.0.

So, some caveats: This data was only crunched up through late January. This is crude plus/minus (with a minor tempo adjustment), not the full-on mathematically-adjusted wizardry of the Rockets. Even if it was, there's still a looming question of how useful plus/minus data is due to noisiness of the data and the huge error bars. But bare with me for a second: is it possible that Will Graves of the ill-advised shots is potentially helping his team win in more ways than conventional statistics is letting on?

The short answer is that it seems plausible: Watching Will Graves play, he often makes the tough hustle plays and is often all over the place helping out his team. Less controversial advanced statistics also point to some hidden value in his game. For example, check out this. Did you realize that Will Graves turned the ball over so little? I didn't. He actually leads the ACC in lowest turnover rate and is one of the very best in the country! See how he also commits so few fouls. Remember how in the Michael Lewis article they talk about avoiding fouling as a hallmark of efficient defense? There is is: Hidden basketball value in Will Graves. Of course, looking at the Ken Pomeroy stats page, you can see it's not that hidden: Will Graves actually snuck past Ed Davis as the player on UNC with the highest offensive efficiency rating!

Now offensive efficiency rating is a stat developed by Dean Oliver and detailed in his book, Basketball on Paper, but, in short, the aim of the stat is to more thoroughly account for how well a player is scoring by taking into consideration the different values of three-pointers and free-throws, the players proficiency at each weighted into the equation. The one thing that this stat does, above and beyond what you get with True Shooting is take into account efficiency by possession rather than just shot. That is to say that, amongst other things, Offensive Rating adjusts for turnovers and offensive rebounding. So here's what this means: Because Will Graves rarely turns the ball over, he uses offensive possessions more reliably than players like Larry Drew who is a much better shooter, but turnover prone. A possession used by Will Graves results in a shot more often than other players who turn the ball over before they can even get off a shot. In the long run, Will's bad shooting and low turnovers are worth more on offense than Drew's good-shooting and high turnovers.

Long story short, it seems logical and likely that the plus/minus data is meaningful. Will Graves seems to be much better than the stats were giving him credit for.

What's this mean? Well, I still stand by much of what I said. The one thing that is truly different between Will Graves and Shane Battier is Shane's insistence on taking high efficiency shots. Will's proclivity for low-efficiency shots has been well-documented in this space before. And while technically a Will Graves possession is more offensively efficient than an Ed Davis one, I still stand by the idea that an active Ed Davis who gets a lot of touches makes our whole team play a lot better; not that there's anything revolutionary in suggesting a balanced attack.

In any case, my basic point remains: Will Graves isn't Trevor Ariza. He's Shane Battier and far better than many people (including and especially me) think.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Game Recap: UNC Vs. Maryland

In this game, UNC got off more shots than Maryland (69 vs. 68), won the rebounding battle, got to the foul line more and lost by 21 points.

This was a very different loss than the one against Virginia Tech where our strategic failings and unwillingness to make scrappy plays let a poor-shooting VT team get away with the win anyway. Maryland won because they can shoot the ball and they play tough defense. They outplayed us. It's as simple as that.

Right after the game, I tried to rationalize it, like fans do: They were just unreasonably hot and we got some unlucky bounces. In all fairness, they were pretty hot: 12 of 23 from the three-point line is pretty damn good and shooting 51.5% from the field overall is pretty excellent. Almost any team would be hard pressed to deal with that. What I want to stress, however, is that this isn't unusual for Maryland.

Look at this.

Maryland is the 17th best three-point shooting team in the nation. They are the best in the ACC. They have a number of players who are having incredible seasons from behind the arc. It was a good night for them, but you know what? Kind of just par for the course.

Now look at their defense. I thought that they had just absolutely had their best night ever on defense. I mean, they largely shut us down. Held to 37.7% from the field and 31.3% from the the three-point line is a first-class effort. Check those Maryland stats again; this is apparently just what they do. Maryland has the fourth best two-pointer defense in the entire nation, and they aren't slouches on three-point defense either. Our percentages on defense were about the same as every team that's played Maryland. They are just a top-notch defensive crew.

Looking at Marylands other numbers, it's hard not to be impressed: A sweet shooting, lock-down defensive team that never turns the ball over and has an elite playmaker in Grievis Vasquez? Wow. Maybe they are just a mirage, but if you guys want a sleeper pick for a team to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, look no further. Maryland has all the ingredients, and, if they can deploy them right, are due some post-season success.

Right. So I guess we have to talk about UNC now. Well, Marcus Ginyard overcame his shooting slump and had an overall great game. Actually, if you just looked at the boxs core, you could be excused for thinking there was a clerical error and they'd actually swapped Marcus and Larry Drew's line-- Drew took and missed six shots and had four turnovers. So good job, Marcus; snap out of it, Drew.

Deon, Ed, and Will had passable, if not great games. Mediocre, but not terrible play from Henson and Strickland, and the rest of the bench was pretty invisible. It was nowhere close to our worst performance of this season, which isn't a comforting thought, I know, but it was progress. Sadly, that's just not enough to compete against a really good Maryland team.

That's all I've got. Sorry.

Duke is Wednesday. A lot more to come.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Game Recap: UNC vs. Virginia Tech

We held Virginia Tech to 38.8% from the field and 21.1% from beyond the arc. We still lost. How is that possible? Well, we shot terribly, but amazingly we actually did shoot slightly better than Virginia Tech. If you've been following UNC this season, you can probably see the answer coming: Turnovers.

It was an error-prone mess. We also didn't do a particularly good job rebounding. As a result, we shot the ball 53 times and they got off 67 shots. They overcame our slight advantage in quality with sheer quantity.

In terms of who got the most shots, the team apparently decided to creep me out after I made a big deal about the wrong players taking way more shots than the other players. Six players took exactly seven shots apiece, with one more taking six. It was a creepily balanced attack. This is better than the wrong players taking far too many shots, but still not ideal. Ed Davis continued his ultra high efficiency onslaught, scoring 15 points off of only seven attempts from the field including two monster slams that would have blown the roof off the Dean Dome. Ed Davis should get a minimum of ten shots a game: That would go a long way towards winning.

John Henson had his coming out party, delivering, finally, on some of that super-high potential which I love so much. David Wear also delivered, coming through in ways that make me trust him a lot more. Sweet shooting and tough offensive rebounding almost make up for his other weaknesses. They both had big games and both made me excited about the future. Notably, their good minutes seemed to come at the power forward position. Roy has been trying Henson out at power forward from time to time and while it's clear that his small frame is still a liability on the defensive end, he's been way more successful on offense than at the small forward.

I think I jinxed Will Graves who took four three pointers and missed all of them. He did a much better job of playing in the flow of the offense though. Marcus Ginyard broke his shooting slump, sort of, by hitting two shots out of seven. He's up to four of twenty-four on the past four games. Marcus came off the bench in favor of Dex Strickland, who made the start and, puzzlingly, considering his past willingness to attack the rim, took only two shots for the second game in a row. Dex Strickland can have more shots once he stops turning the ball over.

A tough loss, but at least it offers an answer to the question, "What can you do when you shoot terribly, turn the ball over a lot, and fail to get the ball to your best player enough?" Just enjoy John Henson getting freaky on his way to hoop.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Where We Are Right Now

This is a post about UNC Men's Basketball. This might be a little bleak. You probably already knew that. I'm going to reiterate something that I have stated before and then try to add a little nuance. In the past two games, we have one a game and we have lost a game. What's been the difference: Will Graves.

That's right. It's back: The Will Graves Theory. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Will Graves Theory basically states that UNC will struggle when Will Graves tries to takes the most shots on the team and that UNC will do better when Will plays within the flow of the offense and concentrates on just shooting open threes when they are available. This theory is based on the basic idea of efficient scoring. In short, Will Graves isn't nearly as efficient at scoring points as Ed Davis (amongst others). If UNC leans heavily on its more efficient options and less on its less efficient options it will win games. The past two games illustrate this.

In the games against NC State and Virgina, we took 56 and 57 shots, and won by 15 and lost by 15 respectively. Excuse me if I steal the punchline, but you can see it coming anyway, so here we go: The reason we were so successful in one and not the other has to do with the distribution of the shots (and obviously other things like defense, but stick with me on this, okay?). Our most efficient option is easily Ed Davis. In the NC State game, he took eight shots; in the Virginia game, he took three shots. How does our best offensive player only get three shots? Let's talk about WIll Graves now. In the NC State game, Will Graves shot the ball seven times; in the Virginia game, Will Graves shot the ball 15 times-- he made roughly 30% of his shots in both outings. Will Graves, the worst shooting starter on our team, shot the ball five more times than our best shooting player, Ed Davis. Ladies and gentlemen, we can't win this way.

Will Graves is a fine player and an excellent complement in our offense. There is simply no way we can win when he is taking that many shots at the expense of our bread and butter scoring of Ed Davis. So please, everyone on the North Carolina Tar Heels, please, for the love of Dean Smith, get that ball to the low post! And Will Graves: Use better shot selection!

What constitutes better shot selection you say, Will? Well, the answer might make you happy: I'd like you to only concentrate on open threes. You know, those shots you effortlessly swish and take so much gusto in shooting, those shots that make the crowd lose its collective shit?

Excuse me, Will, let me explain for the audience.

Will Graves can shoot threes. He's been totally reliable at hitting the three over the past few games. In the NC State game, he shot three and made two. In the Virginia game, shot nine and made four. He's shooting 50% from the three point line in the past two games. That is beyond excellent. That makes a Will Graves three one of the most efficient shots available to the entire team. The problem is not Will Graves shooting too many threes. The problem is every other shot in his repertoire.

Outside of threes, Will Graves has shot 10% from the field in the past two games. He has made one shot in ten. You read that correctly. This is not just recently, either. On the season Will Graves shoots 32.8% on two-pointers and 40% on three-pointers. Because three-pointers are worth (as you might expect, you math whiz, you) more than two-pointers the difference is magnified. Effectively, you are looking at the choice between a 32.8% shot and a 60% shot. So, Will Graves, here is the secret to your own and to team success: cut the two-pointers out. Make it a three or look for a better shot.

It's not just Will Graves either: Larry Drew, you are honestly pretty great, but you need to either work on your drives or have more confidence in your long-bombs. Drew II shot made four out of eight three-pointers in the Virginia game and just one out of five two-pointers. Have I ever mentioned that UNC, in general. needs to take more threes? Oh, wait.

These guys can hit the three. If they can't drive or shoot mid-range jumpers, why wouldn't they shoot the three? Don't get me wrong, inside to Ed Davis should still be option one, but if we can't get it inside: Bombs, away.

Except for you, Marcus. Fun fact: Marcus Ginyard, a starter for your North Carolina Tar Heels has made exactly zero baskets over the past two games, and is two of 17 over the last three.

Sorry to throw in that last bit of bleakness there. I know things are bad now, but I really do believe that adjusting who gets the shots on our team will help us in a big way. I hope so at least. There is only so much yelling at the heavens I can do when I see Will chuck up contested mid-ranger jumper after contested mid-range jumper.