Tales of Serge Ibaka’s demise are greatly exaggerated

After Toronto’s acquisition of Serge Ibaka last Tuesday, the reaction was generally positive. While many acknowledged the relatively low price of Terrence Ross and a mid-20’s first round pick, the trade was still not a slam dunk for one reason: Serge Ibaka is no longer elite. On Zach Lowe‘s podcast, he made it clear that Ibaka has been declining defensively for several years. For his part, Tom Haberstroh scoffed at the notion that he should care all too much about a trade surrounding a non-elite player.

Looking at Ibaka’s year to year stats, one can’t help but identify a clear peak. From 2012 to 2014, he amassed three First team all-defensive awards, achieved number 1 in blocks every year, and appeared in the NBA Finals once. In particular, His blocks per 100 possessions paints a worrying trend:

  • 2011: 6.9
  • 2012: 5.0
  • 2013: 4.1
  • 2014: 3.7
  • 2015: 2.9
  • 2016: 2.6

While this statistic is a very strong knock against the man known as “I-block-a,” blocks alone do not tell the whole story. As the power forward’s game has shifted towards the three point line on the offensive end, the league has been doing the same. Tasked with covering more perimeter oriented players, Ibaka has naturally had less opportunities for blocks. Therefore, it is more prudent to see how well players actually keep the ball of of the hoop when given the chance. Consider the following graph, featuring 9 of the best shot blockers in the past 4 years:

rim-protectors

Using SportsVU stats from nba.com, players are compared using opponent field goal percentage within 5 feet of the rim on a shot that they contest. The axis is reversed, leaving the best rim protectors, also known as “Goberts,” at the top. If you select for only Ibaka, you can see that the decline of the past four years is greatly exaggerated:

ibaka-vs-rim-protectors

Second only to the “Stifle Tower” from 2013 to 2015, only this year has Ibaka seen a precipitous fall in his percentages. There are many factors at play here, the most significant of which being the complete change in teams, systems, and teammates. Rumours have come out in the past week detailing Ibaka’s inability to fit in with the Magic. After all, who can blame him for not trying even 90% on a team going nowhere?

Interestingly, while the eye test may be saying that Ibaka’s calf injury in 2013 robbed him of his agility, it is possible that in 2014 he was once again the top of the class. The same cannot be said for two recent Raptor targets, Al Horford and Paul Millsap:

hawks-vs-rim-protectors

Having never reached the same defensive levels as Ibaka, these two former Hawks teammates are nevertheless applauded for “consistency” even while having a very similar season to the new Raptor’s “down” season. While there are other factors at play including ability to switch onto smaller players, there is nothing that suggests that they would have been better fits on the current Raptors lineup. Especially considering their ages of 30 and 31, there is no doubt that Ibaka can make at least an equivalent impact with the Raptors, if not greater.

All in all, the Raptor’s acquisition of Ibaka has to be seen as a huge win for the team. Not only do they acquire one of the league’s premier rim protectors, but they also did so at a fraction of the cost due to his perceived decline. I am confident that the Raptor’s gamble will pay off as Serge Ibaka is not just a great player, but an elite one still in his prime.

 

 

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Demar Derozan: Elite SG*

For the past few years, Demar Derozan has been considered to be a near elite player, with many obvious limitations. Perimetre shooting. Defence. As much as those have been expanded upon, his upside has also been touted. Low turnovers. Free throws. At the end of the day, can you really consider him elite, though? He certainly he thinks he is, tweeting out frustration over his ranking of SI.com recently. Nobody, not even the most arduent of Raptors fans, would belive that Derozan can be a Number one on a title winning team, or really as it stands the number two. Not in a league with Lebron and Durant.

But there lies the rub, and watch out because it’s going to get philosophical: Durant is technically the second best small forward in the league, right? Sure, he might be a perrenial MVP candidate, but at his position, he’s still second best with Leonard and George nipping at his heels. Point Guard has always been deep, Centre is getting an athletic revival via the past 4 drafts, and even Power Forward has been reinvented with elite jack of all trades like Green and Millsap at the top.

Which brings me back to Derozan, and more interestingly, his position as it currently stands. Harden is a PG, George and Butler are SFs, and Wade is now in the twilight of his career. Who else, but players with only one full season pedigrees like McCollum, Beal, and Middleton. If you think about it, Only Klay Thompson is in the way of Derozan being the best Shooting Guard in the league, but he will definitely settle for second.

With the league transitioning towards position fluidity, how important really is that asterisk? Second Best Shooting Guard *. I would argue that it is still very significant achievement, and here’s why: Teams still line up with five players beginning games, one for each position. In a league where every advantage is significant, Derozan lines up with an advantage over everybody but the Golden Boys from Oakland. He can punish two point guard lineups with his post ups, or even teams with a defence specialist at SG for Kyle Lowry (Detroit, anyone?) Derozan’s no role player. He’s a star. And not only is this league driven by advantages, it’s driven by stars. So throw that ranking and the backhand compliments back, Derozan. Prove everyone wrong. Show them why Toronto is so lucky to have the second best Shooting Guard. No asterisk needed.

 

The NBA adjusts to the Raptors – and the Raptors still won

It is a great time to be a Raptor fan right now. Sure, there’s the defeatist mentality that still looms over like a dark cloud, with two consecutive years of first round exits fresh in everyone’s mind. Whatever optimism that exists can be placed onto the Raptor’s MVP, and indeed a candidate for “second best player after Steph Curry.” That man, of course, being the unstoppable Kyle Lowry. Most notable has been his work with the bench unit of Joseph, Ross, Patterson, and Biyombo.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”und” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/TerrenceRoss?src=hash”>#TerrenceRoss</a&gt; <br>(h/t <a href=”https://twitter.com/DexterC73″>@DexterC73</a&gt; ) <a href=”https://t.co/ojXTlyOJRr”>pic.twitter.com/ojXTlyOJRr</a></p>&mdash; BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) <a href=”https://twitter.com/bballbreakdown/status/702989589988798465″>February 25, 2016</a></blockquote>
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The caveat, as it always is with bench units, is that it is coming against the opposition’s bench as well. The theory is that when the lineups get smaller come playoffs, that advantage will no longer be present. However, if you look at the past 5 games, you can see that the league is now adjusting by playing starters, and the Raptors are still coming out ahead. Let’s take a look at the past 5 games

February 26th, 2015 vs Cavaliers

Cavs Feb 26th

In the franchise-rocking game against the Cavaliers, the Lowry+Bench name was deployed for the second half of the third quarter. If you look up at the Cavalier’s roster during that time, who else do you see but the King himself. Even against Lebron and fellow starter Tristan Thompson, the Raptors held a 4 point advantage during that time span. Also notable is the time spent with Derozan instead of Ross at the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Raptors were a +12.

The previous two games before that were similar. While the Timberwolves were more traditional by only playing starter Gorgui Dieng and managing to break even during those times, the Knicks adjusted by playing Carmelo. The last game to look at is against Memphis, which points strongly to how opposing coaches are adjusting to the Raptors.

Griz vs Raptors

At the beginning of the Second Quarter, when the Lowry+Bench unit was in, the Raptors were a collective +4. Dave Joeger obviously wasn’t happy with that, as to counteract them in the fourth quarter, he counteracted the move by playing his best player – Mike Conley – the entirety of the time. This isn’t normal behavior for him.

Griz vs Suns

This snapshot, from the most recent game against the Suns, demonstrates the Grizzlie’s preferred approach of resting Conley at the beginning of the 4th quarter. From this point on, there is no use in diminishing the stength of  Kyle Lowry with the bench. They are already proving their mettle against All-Stars.

Comparing Valanciunas and Brook Lopez

When Jonas Valanciunas was drafted back in 2011,  the Toronto Raptors were a team in disarray. A look at their roster for that year reveals a lineup without many players with promise. Jack vs Calderon was replaced by Bayless vs Calderon in a never-ending merry-go-around to find an above average point guard. Ed Davis, who many believed a steal at his draft position, never found his groove. Andrea Bargnani, the supposed 7 foot tall European savior, had the highest Usage percentage on the team.

In Valanciunas, the Raptors once again had a player that fans could dream on. With efficient post moves and rock-solid defence, many saw Valanciunas as a pillar to build around for the future. While Trade Machine deals for stars inevitably begins and ends with the inclusion of Valanciunas, the big man has quietly progressed into an above average starting centre at the age of 23. While solid, he has yet to make that leap into stardom many envisioned for him. Going through the list of top centres in the game, it is hard to find comparables for big Val to aspire towards. Duncan, Gasol, Horford are all at the top of the mountain, but have passing vision that it’s tough to project onto the young centre. Howard, Jordan, Drummond, Whiteside, and Gobert are all defensive-minded players who offensively offer not much more as a roll man, which doesn’t leave many overlapping skills.

Finally, there’s Brook Lopez. A seven footer who has the free throw shooting of a guard, does work on the offensive glass, and punishes anyone who concedes deep post position. His weaknesses include a simplistic grasp of passing, slow-footedness on defence, and hilariously enough, teammates that don’t fully utilize his post-up abilities (Less than a quarter of his shots are off post ups, even with above average efficiency). As Lopez will never be the alpha dog on a contender, as the state of the Nets currently attests to, he can be a solid second banana who in his prime is a fringe-All Star. While it’s not a terribly exciting goal for Valanciunas, with him being now in his fourth year, it can only be seen as a realistic expectation.

With that being said, there’s still many improvements that Jonas will have to make to his game in order to lift it up to the 20 ppg level that Brook Lopez currently resides in. Firstly, if you break their shooting up into distances, you can see a disparity in how they get their points.

LopezValanciunasDistance

Notably, Valanciunas does a third more of his damage right beside the basket when compared to Lopez. The further out you go, the more that you can see the disparity. Lopez is very comfortable in the mid-range game, shooting above 46 % for the 6-19 foot range. You can also see it more clearly in the type of shots that the two big men take. LopezValanciunasShotSelection

With everything else being relatively equal, it really comes down to Jump shots vs Layups. The types of shots that Valanciunas enjoys taking feel very safe. He gets it close to the basket, makes a move or two, and lays it in. As evidenced by his now infamous propensity to pump fake at invisible opponents, he doesn’t completely trust his jumper just yet. Which is a shame, considering that he has such a good stroke. I am a believer that any big man who makes his free throws like big V should be able to at least trust his pick and pop skills from the key. Valanciunas is no different, as he shoots a great 45% from the midrange.

Whether it falls on the coaches, the guards, or Valanciunas himself, there’s a clear opportunity for improvement that is not being taken. Offensively, the biggest hurdle right now into at least the conversation for All-Star selection is a dependable jump shot. My next article will touch on just how important that would be to this Raptors team in particular.

 

Operating from the Post

During the current era of pace and space, much has been made about the death of the post. Along with this shift has been a counter wave of analysts suggesting that there are still uses for the art of posting up. Coming from esteemed analysts Zach Lowe and Coach Nick, it is suggested that even if post scoring is down, passes from the post can still be cornerstones for efficient offences. With that being said, it is important to put the to the test: If teams shift towards more passing than scoring out of the post, do their offences become more efficient?

To start off, I decided to categorize offences based on their usage of post touches. stats.nba.com conveniently provides when a post touch ends with a pass or shot, so I compiled them into one stat, Fga/Pass, or the ratio of shots to passes. If Coach Nick’s hypothesis is correct, that passing out of the post is more efficient, then teams that elect to pass instead of shoot, and thus have a lower Fga/Pass percentage, should be more efficient.

Firstly, I examined whether teams would have better overall effective shooting percentages. Theoretically, if a pass should lead to a more efficient offence, then there should be a negative correlation.

efg vs FGAPass

While this graph does demonstrate the negative correlation I was expecting, the R squared value is much too small to be able to glean anything of significance from it.

Secondly, on a hunch, I decided to look at the correlation between post touch passing and turnovers. Intuitively speaking, players who can pass from the post, such as Tim Duncan, tend to create a smoother flowing offence than a post bully. What I would expect to find is that a scorer is more prone to turnovers, and thus a positive correlation between Fga/Pass and TOV%.

FGApass vs TOV%

While the slope of the trendline matches my hypothesis, the problem again is in the correlation coefficient being far too low. For both graphs, the problem is evident in how spread out the data is.

In conclusion, while my research proved inconclusive in determining whether passing out of the post led to an efficient offence, mostly due to a small sample size, there is definitely room for further research using multiple years worth of data.

Inch by Inch: a game of luck

We live in an era where analytics have taken over sport. With Moneyball providing the doctrine and manifesto, the upheaval of old school sports has been religiously carried out over the past decade. However, in the effort to quantify all aspects of sport, we as fans have become too devoted to the church of meritocracy: where talent will always win out in the end.

I’ve grown up in this new age of sport, and yet the emotional element of it has always left a deeper impression. I can remember as far back as grade 7, I was pretending to be Al Pacino for a speech contest, trying to invoke the same aura of strength and determination.

 

The term “inch by inch” not only resonated in me emotionally, but it also changed the entire paradigm through which I view sport. To this day, I can’t shake the belief that overall, the outcomes of games and even seasons can depend on inches. When a baseball just sneaks under a fielder’s glove, the baseball gods are cursed. When a basketball bounces around the hoop for seemingly forever before going in the net, the basketball gods are praised. The point is, whether we consciously recognize it or not, luck is a force that controls every sport with an impartial hand. Nevermind how skilled you are, nobody is immune to the powers of luck.

Watching the Tottenham vs Watford game today, my jubilation at seeing my Hotspurs claim third in the table was dampened by the knowledge that with the better luck of a couple inches, Watford could have emerged victorious.

To recap: Lamela scores the first goal by nutmegging the last defender on his shot. The second, Ighalo nutmegs Dier on his way to a short breakaway. Lastly, Son, NOT EVEN LOOKING, backheels a shot through the legs of the keeper. Three goals, three nutmegs through the inches of free space between the legs. One late chance at a 2-1 win by Watford, cleared off the line by Hugo Lloris. Goal line technology says….

That was the game. One more inch on that shot and the repercussions would be massive.  You might think that it’s just one game, but the difference between a win and a loss to a near competitor is huge. Instead of being 6 points up on the 1st year premier league team as they are now, Tottenham would be tied. Just look at how one game between City and Arsenal changed the title race drastically, courtesy of the football mastermind Michael Caley:

Inch by inch, Tottenham conquered its competitor on its way to glory. Not in the ways of Al Pacino, mind you. The inches were not gained by strength and determination. Rather, you can chalk it up to the soccer gods.

On luck and super teams

The idea of a super team is a curious phenomenon within basketball circles. If you’re a fan of said superteam, then all of their strengths will take them to glory. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of any other of the 29 teams, then their weaknesses will eventually doom them. Being a fan of the San Antonio Spurs, I’ve heard many variations of the same defence of their current super team. The general idea goes that because the Spurs lack the egos that prevailed in super teams such as the Dwight Howard era Lakers, then the team would benefit from the individual sacrifices made. While that romantic idea of playing basketball “the right way” may sound like an obvious advantage, the truth is that much of it depends on an emotionless, uncontrollable entity: luck. No plan is perfect in the NBA because even if you reveal a perfectly planned superteam, then your opponents can use your obvious plan against you. Sometimes, it takes tinkering and luck to find the perfect fit, and sometimes from unexpected places. As a fan of the Spurs, it will not be their humility that will give me hope, but their ability to adapt. After all, even the best laid plans need a sprinkle of luck.

The biggest problem with one perfect, all-powerful plan is its transparency. If you build your team with a gameplan in mind, then you will have 29 teams trying to peck away at that one explicit gameplan. For example, you can believe that a key benefit of Aldridge over Splitter is his ability to be the release valve on drives with shots from distance. However, with that knowledge widely known, where can you expect other smart defences to put up their longs arms on each drive? Directly in front of wherever Lamarcus is. Take the previous Finals for example. Everyone knew that if you trap Curry, you’re getting a Draymond Green led 4 on 3. The plan is that you surround an excellent passer with shooters on either side. Everyone and their mothers knew this plan, and the Cavs, for games 2 and 3 at least, played Draymond like a fiddle by staying home on the shooters making this amazing passer shoot. Bogut had to be taken off for more offensive firepower as a result, the first time all season that had to happen. The same thing, that other teams make adjustments, can happen to any team with a super plan.

Super teams win with the lucky discoveries that lead to them discovering versatility. Without injuries to Bogut and Lee, the Warriors may have never discovered the world-destroying ability of putting the 6 foot 7 Green at the centre position. This adjustment, which many may have not thought of when the season started, ended up saving their season. Another example is the recent Heat super team that stumbled head first into discovering their identity. Why did it take them so long to gel? Egos? No, it was the inability to discover how to best utilize probably three of the most athletic players in the entire association. Their solution, which came with much tinkering, morphed into the terrifying, high-flying, trapping and recovering machine that came to define their short run. While Bosh’s lateral quickness may have not been the most obvious advantage to having the big three, it became instrumental for their chase down defensive scheme that won them two titles. It is the adjustments that come from random tinkering and luck that helps superteams win championships.

With that being said, this year, it is the Spur’s ability to adjust that will give me faith for an extended playoff run. It won’t be those unicorn photos of Kawhi smiling with Aldridge or the steely David West standing up for his teammates against nasty opponents. Despite the allure of a well-oiled and drama free collective, their road to victory will be more nuanced. With Lamarcus as a potential hub, can they get past the biggest hurdle from last year: a lack of chaos inducing dribble penetration. If Duncan shows signs of wear against the big centres thrown his way, can their roster of power forwards find ways to help him? With Kawhi’s budding pullup game, Parker getting pushed away from the basket, and Aldridge in the fold, can you get past potentially starting three players looking for separation for mid-range shots? I don’t care if the Spurs stumble butt first into solutions, but these technical questions, and many others, will define the success of this admittedly highly versatile lineup.

As the saying goes, no team ever won the championship in July. Everyone needs a little help along the way. Teams need to accept the fact that plan A most likely will not go unopposed. Lucky discoveries can go along way in forging a team’s identity. For the Spurs, it will all about be about their ability to adjust that helps them to the title. For a sport that sometimes can come down to miracle shots with 0.4 seconds remaining, it’s amazing how many people believe in fate.