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.

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