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.

 

 

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.

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.

A farewell to Tiago Splitter

A day after, and I still need to constantly repeat to myself: “Lamarcus Aldridge is a Spur. Lamarcus Aldridge is a Spur. Lamarcus Aldridge….” One of the best feelings in the world is when a plan falls perfectly into place. While I will in the coming week delve deeper into why the Aldridge signing is so pivotal, I wanted to highlight a player that has been lost in the shuffle as a part of this plan.

I am talking about the one and only, Tiago Splitter. Nicknamed Sparkles, the hulking Brazillian has actually brought steel to the Spur’s frontcourt. Despite being allergic to highlight blocks, Splitter has cemented himself as one of the elite defenders in the entire NBA.

As with most players, my fondest memories of Tiago come from the Spurs’ 2014 championship run. No hyperbole needed, the entire run could have ended before it barely got started without the Brazillian. Who could forget his amazing defence on Dirk, holding the hub of Dallas’ offence to a measily TS% of .480, well below the big German’s regular season rate at an elite .603. Tiago basically reduced one of the best jump shooters of our generation into a worse version of Andrea Bargnani. In a drama-filled seven game series, who knows what would have happened without plays like these:

Defence on Dirk Sunday April 20, 2014 1Q 9.00

Splitter simultaneously takes these tough post assignments while also chasing the speedy stretch fours around the perimetre. By doing this he has not only helped bring another championship to the city of San Antonio, but he has likely added years to the longevity of Tim Duncan. For that, Spurs fans are no doubt endlessly grateful. While he won’t be around to see the fruits of his labour this time around, his contributions should not be forgotten. Thanks Tiago.

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Oh hey, a wild block highlight appeared!

Among the numerous poetic justices dished out in this series, this may have been the sweetest. With memories of Lebron’s dunk in 2013 still fresh in my mind, I could not have been more proud than I was at that moment.

****

With that being said, I can understand why RC Buford and co. had to make this move. We just witnessed a finals where both Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mozgov were virtually unplayable at times. In this copycat league, we are likely to see a lot more defences being smart with playing small and switching. Offensively, that did not bode well for Tiago Splitter on the Spurs. We had already witnessed 2 finals where Boris Diaw’s offensive versatility was deemed equally if not more important. Here’s the thing: when defences switch a smaller player onto Tiago, he can’t do much about it. Please understand, it’s not his fault as posting up is not his game, but it nevertheless was detrimental to the Spurs.

To prove my point, I was just going to go to Synergy to find Tiago’s miserable post up stats. 1.07 PPP??? HAHaha… wait what? 92nd percentile? What is going on here?

It’s important to keep this all in perspective. Jeff Ayres, offensive juggernaut, is almost at the 95th percentile. Without being good enough to attract double teams, we can’t know for sure how good he is using these stats on such a small sample.

If we dig deeper into the numbers, we can get a clearer idea of Tiago’s actual role. A glance at his 2014/15 shot log reveals that he hardly ever actually iso’d in the post. He hardly took more than 3 dribbles and most of the time only touched the ball for long enough for a dive to the basket. Interestingly, he never took much time against a smaller player. Let’s break his game down with examples.

When he did go against Harrison Barnes, a very likely scenario against the Warriors, he succeed here despite not moving the much smaller Barnes an inch.

Splitter successful post up February 20, 2015 Q3 4.31

Against the smaller Josh Smith, Splitter displayed two bad tendencies. While his footwork gave him space to shoot, it made his release point very low and it brought it closer to the help defender in Dwight Howard. He does display his great vision later on in his post pass to a cutting Green while the Rockets scramble.

Splitter unsuccessful post up December 28, 2014 Q1 10.22

Without a reliable post up game to go 1 on 1 with, Splitter was always going to be a role player against certain teams. With the current shifts in the NBA, Splitter was likely never going to be a crucial cog in the next championship Spurs team. However, that’s perfectly okay. He has done more than enough already.

Synergy makes its triumphant return

It has been much too long, Synergy Sports.

When that tweet came out, I thought it was the end. No longer could us peasants be showered with the enormous wealth of information. It was the dark ages of basketball as we know it.

And then this morning:

The drought is over! And wow, is there alot to sift through! So let’s get started:

The data has been organised into 10 distinct play types, plus 1 miscellaneous category. The beauty of this new format is that no longer are players only accessible individually, but can be sorted in a leaderboard. Overall, the interface seems much cleaner. I can’t be the only who would try to scroll down when comparing two players, only for cuts to be blocked off right?

Seth Partnow has an excellent article over on Nylon Calculus briefing a baseline knowledge for using these Synergy stats. The biggest takeaway is that it punishes the players that everyone goes to to finish plays, even if the opportunity doesn’t present itself. A player that holds onto the ball in the post, then passes it out uselessly is not negatively impacted.

Seth also links to some beautiful charts organised by Austin Clemons and Peter Beshai. At first glance, they seem to be similar shot chart apps, but there are some nuanced differences. The advantages of Clemons’ app are that you can

  • Export the Data
  • Combine players
  • Choose entire teams
  • Select by Quarter
  • See defensive shot charts
  • Goes back all the way to 1997

While the advantages of Peter Beshai’s app are:

  • Compare up to 5 players
  • Much more interactive use interface. Seriously. #Dataisbeautiful
  • Provides numerical data for every single foot away instead of 3 zones.
  • Right side vs Left side differentiation
  • Contains leaderboards, boosting its ability to suck out time

Anyways, shall we get to the real star of the show, the data? Here are some random observations that I have made:

  • Houston’s defence: While its rim protection is below average, its 3 point defence is insanely good. This is the secret to their elite defence, the combination of Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and … of course Harden (who by some miracle is still top 10 in defensive win shares.) Another hypothesis worth looking into: They have really mobile big men who have no problem defending guards to the 3 point line
  • (Fun with small samples) As a Clipper, Austin Rivers iso’s more than Kobe
  • (Fun with small samples) As a spot up shooter in Boston, Tayshaun Prince has a higher PPP than Kyle Korver
  • The Andre Drummond post up experiment is failing badly. He has 0.67 PPP while taking more post up shots than Jonas Valanciunas.
  • Valanciunas is an elite post-up player with not enough touches. His 0.93 PPP is right around Griffin, Jefferson, Nowitzki, and Boogie
  • Durant vs Westbrook debate. Both take the same number of iso’s but while Durant is at the top of the mountain for PPP, Westbrook doesn’t even crack the top 100. Hmmmm…..
  • Drummond is 1st with 205 put back attempts. Next highest is Vucevic with nearly half at 113. What can you say, man forms a ******* wall
  • (Fun with SSS) In transition Tyler Hansborough
  • Although one would expect Boogie to be a transition monster, he has turned the ball over almost 40% of the time.
  • Do the Trail Blazers really play as a team. Lillard has 462 pick and roll possessions. Next highest? Batum with 88. Shut down Dame, shut down Portland.
  • On iso’s Jamal Crawford gets fouled more than half as many times as he actually makes a shot. Has anyone considered that? Just let him shoot? Same goes for Lou Williams.
  • I have long thought that the Raptor’s defensive woes are on the perimetre. For spot ups, they are bottom 10 in PPP, frequency, and fouls. Interestingly, they are also number 1 in turnovers caused on spot ups. Moral of the story? Stop Gambling, Toronto. That means you, Lowry.
  • The Cavaliers run iso’s more than any other team. What happened to those insipiring concepts of “team basketball?” But hey, they’re also 2nd in PPP, so whatever works, right?
  • Interesting phenomenon with Dalls big men. They average the least number of post-ups per game offensively, and yet get challenged with the fourth most number defensively. Is there a misconception that they’re soft inside? If there is, there shouldn’t be. They’re PPP on defensive post-ups is second best in the league. Tyson Chandler is elite. Even Dirk is getting in on it, with a fantastic 0.74 PPP.

As you can see, Synergy is a great tool for teasing out the nuanced aspects of the game of basketball. There’s a great deal of data out there, go try it for yourself!

Analyzing Kyle Lowry’s Defence

After a red-hot 22-6 start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have seemingly come back to earth with a 2-4 record on their most recent road trip. Granted, with the West Coast swing bringing about Western powerhouses such as the Clippers, Warriors, and Blazers, a winning record was never really in the cards.

Nevertheless, the streak has allowed the Hawks to take away the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The saying goes that to be the best, you have to beat the best, and for the Raptors, getting better starts on defense. That’s no cliche about defense, it is Toronto’s legitimate weakness. Chasing the Mavericks for best offensive rating, while 24th in the league on the other side of the court, (which is WORSE than the tanktastic 76ers) the Raptors have to get back to the defensive ferocity that made head coach Dewayne Casey famous. The biggest culprit: MVP Kyle Lowry.

Shocking, I know, but it’s the truth. Don’t just take it from me, take it from the man himself, courtesy of basketball genius Zach Lowe on Grantland:

“Our defense has slacked off. There are a few things we need to clean up, and we just gotta play harder.”

“Sometimes you overhelp because you want to protect each other. Sometimes you get burned.”

“That’s our scheme. We show. We rotate. It’s what coach teaches us. It’s hard work, but it’s what we do.”

That “scheme” is the Raptor’s hyperactive, rotation heavy defensive strategy. Forgoing the more conservative ICE strategy, outlined by coach Nick in the below video, the raptors rather allow the ball handler into the middle, immediately giving him passing options.

This is a difficult line to walk, as once in the middle, elite ball handlers can get to hoop with merely a half step in front of their defender. With the point guard dominance of the league currently, that defensive burden often falls to Kyle Lowry. With DeRozan out, Lowry has taken up the offensive slack, and his defense has suffered as a result. Take this play for example:

Kyle Lowry stuck on Pick

Lowry gets completely stuck on a simple pick and roll, allowing Stephen Curry the luxury of being able to double clutch before firing off a perfect pass. Again, when elite players see daylight, they can make you pay for it. This is especially dangerous for the Raptors, as their aforementioned scheme on pick and rolls forces tough rotations by the Raptors.

Kyle Lowry D causes rotations

Here, Lowry is barely bumped by Aldridge, and yet falls behind Lillard all the way to the free throw line, where Ross helps down, freeing up his own man. The main action lies elsewhere on the weakside, where Valanciunas rotating over to help on Lillard as well forces James Johnson to cover two players. A simple screen on him by Joel Freeland, and voila, open three pointer.

This entire system, while welcoming rotations, is ultimately undone by the type of deep penetration Lowry gives up on a regular basis. What’s worse is that his dismal play has a trickle down effect in more ways that one. For example, immediately after being plastered by a David Lee pick against Golden State, he found himself guarding Draymond Green while Greivis Vazquez was on Curry. Dewayne Casey would rather put the man they call the slow as Gravy on one of the fastest guards in the NBA. What;s worse is when I attempted to take a look at him guarding another fast guard in Eric Bledsoe.

PJ Tucker

Disappointingly, Lowry was never given the assignment of the opposing guard. For stretches, he wasn’t even on the other point guard, Goran Dragic. No, what you see here is Lowry guarding PJ TUCKER. What happened to the bulldog defender of last year?

The answer to Toronto’s troubles is to get Demar Derozan back ASAP. I realize it may sound obvious that an All-Star guard back would be key, but as I have shown, it is not his production the Raptors miss the most, but rather the responsibility he takes off the other All-Star hopeful (Vote Now!) In terms of defence, while Derozan had shown signs of improvement before his injury, it is the trickle down effect that can have great benefits for the Raptors.