Sir Charles Thinks the NBA is Trash

Kousha Modanlou ◆ April 10, 2017

The NBA commentators on the TNT program are known for their fair share of bold claims and humorous, sometimes even outrageous, statements. Charles Barkley comes to mind as one of the pundits who makes such statements without the need for much proof behind them, other than his large gut feeling. One such argument which Barkley time and time again proposes is that the NBA, “is the worst it’s ever been from top to bottom.” This is an interesting notion, so let us break down this statement in terms of statistics. We shall use Barkley's MVP season (1992-1993) as the standard for when the NBA was at a high tier of competition and compare it to the current season.

In order to break down Barkley’s statement, it is critical to analyze what Barkley means when he says the NBA is at its “worst”. For our purposes, we will evaluate the level of play in the NBA by comparing averages of points, rebounds, blocks, steals, assists, turnovers, three-point shooting percentages, free-throw shooting percentages, and field goal shooting percentages between Barkley’s season and the current season. The figure below provides a comparison of the two seasons.

With the exception of field goal percentage, we see improvements in 3-Point, Free Throw, and 2-Point Shooting Percentages between the two seasons. The decline in the field goal percentage can be explained by the fact that players shot more two-pointers, which have a higher shooting percentage than three-pointers, in the 1992-1993 season. However, if we account for the fact that 3-Pointers are worth more than 2-Pointers, we notice increases in True Shooting Percentages and Effective Field Goal Percentages. Throughout the board, position-by-position, the NBA has seen an improvement in shooting abilities from 1992-1993 to 2016-2017. This improvement is a testament to the competitive level of shooting becoming more demanding over time, and requiring more players to improve their abilities to knock down shots.

For another metric to evaluate Barkley’s claim, we will also compare key per game statistics between Barkley’s season and the current season. The figure below provides a comparison of the two seasons.

By a small margin, teams have been scoring more points per game in the 2016-2017 season than in the 1992-1993 season. However, this is not to to say that defenses have drastically declined since then. In fact, there has been an increase of almost four defensive rebounds per game from 1992-1993 to 2016-2017. Instead, the increase in scoring may be explained by the fact that teams have become better at valuing possessions, as evidenced by reductions in turnover percentages. An improvement in players’ ball handling and decision-making when considering passes may be the cause of the reduction in turnovers, and may also explain the decline in assists between the seasons. Perhaps, the average number of blocks has declined as teams now embrace the outside shot more and are thereby less likely to be blocked from outside the paint, where there is less rim protection from big men.

Ultimately, we have to understand an evolution in the game of basketball itself. With changes in officiating styles and the elimination of players’ freedom to hand check, players have had no choice but to become slightly less aggressive, lest they want to commit unnecessary fouls. Consequently, in the current NBA, players have an easier time getting their shots off with less hands-on defense. Now, Barkley may hold bias to his own era because there was a greater emphasis on attacking the rim and being more physical defensively. He perhaps feels that the movement away from that style of play has made the game of basketball less competitive. However, we can point to the tremendous strides players have made in shooting skills and safety with the basketball to counter Sir Charles’ claim. What Barkley fails to realize when he criticizes the current state of the NBA is that the game of basketball is constantly evolving and just because the game has changed since Barkley’s season does not mean that “the NBA is the worst it has ever been.” 1

Edited by Neil Sharma

Are College Freshman the best prospects?

Stephen Chien ◆ March 30, 2017

In the present-day era of college basketball, John Calipari, one of the most influential basketball coaches in the nation, has spearheaded the movement of the “one-and-done rule”. In 2005, the National Basketball Association created a rule where players had to be one year out of high school in order to be eligible for the Draft. Nowadays, many coaches, such as Calipari, are trying their best to send college freshmen to the NBA. The University of Kentucky, where Calipari coaches, has made this a system in the last few years in basketball, completely transforming their roster year after year. Calipari’s reputation stems from the fact that he has constructed elite teams each season and allowed the potential of many of his players, who are mostly first-years, to shine in a way that NBA scouts appreciate. Numerous scouts rank freshmen extremely high, as they believe that they often have more potential than the basketball players who have spent more than a year in college. Sometimes, this proves to be true, such as with young talents like Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony Towns, and Kevin Durant. However, many young players never live to their expectations, like Greg Oden and Anthony Bennett, due to injuries, off-court antics, or just mediocre to below average performances on the court.

Tis made me wonder if college freshmen that made it to the NBA are the best players currently in the league. I used ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus statistic to calculate the 100 most efficient players currently in the NBA. The Real Plus/Minus stat calculates how much better a team performs when a certain player is on the floor playing. Using this data, I calculated the percentage of the top 100 players who were drafted as freshmen and surprisingly, it came out to only 22%. Other players who were drafted from college made up 55% of the top 100, with internationals and players drafted directly from high school making up the rest.

Many people often forget that superstars like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden spent more than a year in college to develop into the players they are today. Numerous players have developed into solid players, such as CJ McCollum and Jimmy Butler, who were both not “one and dones”. Even this current NBA season, Malcolm Brogdon, a rookie guard that spent four years at the University of Virginia, ranks 58th on the list and has been a solid role player for the Milwaukee Bucks.

What does this mean when drafting players in the future? In my opinion, scouts should be warier of a player’s age, even if he has great potential. Going into the NBA straight out of one year in college could be an overwhelming experience for some players and staying in college for more than one year could help develop their game. Players can often times be unprepared for a long 82 game regular season and the physicality, pace, and athleticism in the NBA. In addition, freshmen that are high lottery picks have extreme pressure exerted upon them, and as a 19-year-old teenager, that could be difficult to handle. Even though many teams realize that it may take years for players to perform well, some players lose playing time as a result of their team’s impatience, playing time that is necessary at that age to develop. A good example of a player that NBA teams regarded as having high potential was Bruno Caboclo, a mid-first rounder from 2014’s draft class. Hailed as the “Brazilian Kevin Durant”, Caboclo was 19 years old when he entered the NBA, similar to college freshmen entering the NBA. In the past two seasons, Bruno has barely played for the Raptors and primarily played in the NBA D-League. He has not performed well for the Raptors so far, exposing the risks involved with drafting freshmen.

However, rolling the dice for a college freshman prospect could be very rewarding. Anthony Davis, John Wall, and Kyrie Irving are all franchise cornerstones and one of the best, if not the best players on their teams. Lebron James went straight from high school to the pros and is simply one of the best to ever play the game. Although selecting a freshman in the draft is always a gamble, it could definitely pay off and result in high success. If I were to draft a player in the mid-lottery section, I would still draft the more experienced college player compared to the freshman unless I was extremely convinced that the freshman had unique, special talent that could tremendously improve the team. Teams should not automatically look to college freshmen as the answer to their problems, but equally examine players across the age spectrum.

Edited by Neil Sharma

The GOAT

Saksham Pruthi ◆ March 17, 2017

Unlike most other sports, basketball has the problem where it has become rather difficult to define one player as the GOAT, or the Greatest Of All Time. Sure, most people would argue that it would be blasphemous to name any other player other than Michael Jordan as the greatest player, but then who is number 2? From Magic to Kareem from Kobe to Duncan, there are simply too many options to make an unbiased claim for NBA rankings. That is why we must turn to the statistics.

Unfortunately, even statistics have a fatal flaw in that they do not count for intangible qualifications that make a certain NBA player astounding. For example, Wilt Chamberlain averaged a whopping 30.1 points and 22.6 rebounds a game, but is often times not considered the best center because of the fact that other centers such as Bill Russell recorded 11 rings in comparison to Wilt’s 2. Moreover, there are players like Kareem-Abdul Jabbar who practically invented a type of shot, in the sky-hook, whose value is not recorded in statistics, but has maintained its impact on the game of basketball even today.

The only way to then be able to objectively rank these players only seems to be through quantifying these aforementioned intangibles. This might seem counter-intuitive at first. The whole point of an intangible quality is that it cannot be quantified in the first place. However, if we were to use a standard metric of points for all players (saying each championship ring is worth 10 points for example) we can establish a relatively unbiased manner in which we may compare and rank NBA players.

The way this ranking system works is that it quantified not only points, rebounds, assists, steals etc. but also takes into factors such as clutchness, championships, etc. The clutchness value is measured by factoring in how many game winners the specific player has scored or even assisted upon, as playmaking is an important skill also and sometimes the best NBA players make a good shot instead of chucking up a rather difficult one. Each game winner is given a single point value, same with points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Some may argue that this may be misleading as big men and smaller NBA players have differing styles of play. However, this point system takes into fact that while NBA Big Men tend to get more rebounds and blocks, the smaller guards usually tend to make up for it by scoring more assists and steals respectively. Finally, the stats also factor in PER and win shares to make sure that the NBA player actually helped lead his team with efficiency to an admirable record.

One problem with this scoring system is that it fails to consider how the pace and the three-point line has revolutionized the NBA. After all, ask any NBA player to play before Stephen Curry and they will write you a list of all the stark differences between modern and older NBA teams. Nonetheless, though it might be rather difficult to compare players from different generations, this point system is still very adept and useful in that it can help differentiate between NBA players this season, and will assist in picking an NBA MVP for the season. To the left are the point totals for the top 5 MVP candidates according to NBA.com.1

The chart uses each player’s average stats for the season as of 3/6/17. That being said, despite the triple-double tear that Russell Westbrook has been on this season, when you factor in intangibles, it seems that the real MVP this season seems to be James Harden, thanks to him leading the Rockets to third in the west while also, nearly averaging a triple double himself.

Edited by Derek Topper, SAGB

The Decline of Rajon Rondo

Jake Hyman ◆ March 16, 2017

Not long ago, Rajon Rondo was considered one of the best point guard in the NBA. Making 4 straight all star appearances from 2010 to 2013 and leading the Boston Celtics following the trades of their veteran stars, Rondo looking poised to keep dominating in the NBA. However, a devastating ACL injury, changing tactics, and a poor attitude have derailed Rondo’s growth.

Rondo emerged as a solid distributer and fourth option on the Boston Celtics championship team of 2008. He continued to improve and contribute to competitive teams, leading the league in assists in consecutive seasons from 2011-2013. However, in January of 2013, in the midst of a career year averaging 13.7 points and 11.1 assists per game, Rondo suffered an ACL tear that ended his season and held him to just 30 games the following season. Since then, Rondo has played for four different teams and declined to a replacement-level player who was benched on his own bobblehead night in Chicago.

Never a good jump shooter or free throw shooter, Rondo relied on his driving and passing ability for success. However, following his injury, Rondo’s shooting ability regressed significantly, shooting 40.3 percent from the field during the 2013-14 season. Teams began daring Rondo to shoot, slacking off from him and cutting off his driving and passing lanes. In the 2015-16 season with the Sacramento Kings, Rondo ranked 293rd in the NBA with a True Shooting percentage of .507. Currently, Rondo has the 11th worst True Shooting percentage in the NBA at .431. The overall trend of NBA style of play toward pace and space with emphasis on shooting from all players for spacing purposes has also contributed toward Rondo’s decline in effectiveness.

The Dallas Mavericks, looking to make an NBA finals run, traded for Rondo in the 2014-15 season. Hoping that Rondo would return to his pre-injury form, the Mavericks sent a hefty package to the Celtics to acquire his services. Looking for a jolt to help propel them to the Finals, the Mavericks instead got poor play and a bad attitude from Rondo, resulting in his benching in the playoffs. The Mavericks were on pace to be one of the best teams in terms of offensive efficiency before Rondo’s arrival having an offensive efficiency rating of 110.1 points per 100 possessions. Following Rondo’s, arrival, the Mavericks had an efficiency rating of 103.4 points with Rondo on the court and a rating of 112.2 points with Rondo on the bench. This only got worse in the playoffs as the Mavericks averaged 22.9 more points per 100 possessions with Rondo off the court.

Similarly, Rondo’s effect on defense was also negative. In the playoffs the Mavericks gave up an astonishing 133.3 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court. Rondo appeared to experience somewhat of a resurgent season with the Kings in 2015-16, leading the league in assists. However, Rondo ranked 17th among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating or PER and was in the bottom seven in turnover rate. The Kings ranked 15th in offensive rating that season, mostly a product of Demarcus Cousins’ dominance.

Following this “resurgent” season Rondo signed a 2 year/ $27 million dollar deal with the Chicago Bulls. This season with the Bulls has been Rondo’s worst since his rookie season. Averaging only 6.5 assists and 6.9 points per game on dreadful 38.6 percent shooting, Rondo ranks 43rd among point guards in PER. Rondo also has the fewest win shares of his career, even fewer than his 30-game season following his return from injury. Additionally, Rondo ranks 57th among point guards in Real Plus/Minus mostly due to his Offensive Real Plus Minus of -2.53 which ranks 80th out of 91 point guards.

Now in his age 30 season, Rondo will likely continue to decline. Rondo’s elite defense and passing ability made him one of the top point guards in the NBA. He made the all-defensive team 4 straight seasons from 08/09-11/12 and ranked in the top 5 in assists for six straight seasons. Now, Rondo’s atrocious shooting and below-average defending has reduced his value to near replacement-level among point guards.

Derrick Rose Before and After the Injury

Vincent Chen ◆ March 6, 2017

Before his devastating ACL injury in 2012, Derrick Rose was destined for greatness. Raised in Chicago, Rose was Chicago’s best hope of winning another championship for the Bulls, a team that was once glorious under the leadership of Michael Jordan. Rose carried not only the team, but also the hopes and dreams of the city of Chicago. His flashy crossovers, his speed and explosiveness, and his thunderous dunks were once guaranteed to appear on highlight reels and led the Bulls to the league’s best record in 2011 and himself to the MVP trophy, the youngest to ever win the award in history. Yet, this all changed when he went down during a drive in 2012, which resulted in a torn ACL and endless whispers of “what if...”.

After the injury, Rose didn’t look like his old self; he drove to the basket less, he was less efficient on his mid-range shots, and he no longer threw down dunks, that once would receive uproars from stadium crowds. Rose never fully recovered from the injury, and a comparison of his stats before and after the injury clearly shows that.

I will use data from the official NBA website, where you can track the statistics of individual players during his active seasons. I will especially focus on the “Drive” category of the Player Tracking system. Again, I am mainly going to focus on the difference between metrics that measure Rose’s offensive effectiveness, such as points per game (PPG), assists per game (APG), effective field percentage (eFG%), free throw attempts per 48 minutes (FTA/48), and offensive rating (ORTG). I’m simply going to compare these stats for Derrick Rose before and after his injury to reflect how his ACL injury has drastically affected his playing style and effectiveness on the court.

From the picture above 1, we can see an obvious drop in all of the categories discussed in the previous section. After the injury, Rose scored less, passed the ball less, didn’t shoot the ball as effectively, and didn’t get to the free throw line as often. Most notably, his eFG% took a big dip, from 48.6% before the injury to 44.5% after the injury, possibly due to his altered shooting form. Since the power of shooting a jumper comes mostly from the knees and the legs, Rose had to alter his shooting form, albeit slightly, to accommodate his less powerful knees. Furthermore, he only averaged 4.8 APG, which isn’t a pretty number even for an attacking point guard. All this change is reflected on his offensive rating, which has the most significant decrease post- injury.

Before the injury, Rose had an offensive rating of 109.6, which is how many points a player can produce either by scoring or assisting per 100 possessions. After the injury, however, this number drops significantly to 95.6, which means Rose isn’t nearly as effective and involved on offense, as he once was. Although flashes of his athleticism that remind fans of his MVP form, Rose clearly has not been able to produce numbers that come anywhere close to the numbers he put up his MVP year.

Above, I tracked starting guards who have played at least 20 games and averaged at least 6 drives per game (through Jan. 12, 2017).2 Of the 14 guards listed, Rose’s FG% of 54% is only behind Eric Bledsoe and his percentage of points scored during those drives is 83%, which puts him only behind Damian Lillard. However, the percentage of the time that he passes the ball when he drives sits at 25.6%, which places him at 11 out of the 14 guards listed. This means that, although he has been an efficient and voluminous shooter around the basket, Rose is a fairly inefficient passer when kicking the ball out, and even when he does kick the ball out, he fails to pass the ball to the open shooters or good finishers. Of his passes, only 6.1% become assists, which also places him at 11th out of the 14 guards listed above. This leads us to ponder, if it’s truly better for Rose to pass the ball to someone like Joakim Noah, rather than driving to the basket, or is it better offensively for Rose to just shoot the ball every single time he drives?

Ever since the injury, Derrick Rose has not been able to consistently perform at a MVP level. As a guard that relies heavily on change of speed and direction, an ACL injury is truly devastating. However, Rose is still a well-above average athlete, and with his occasional bursts of speed and explosiveness, he is still one of the most exciting players to watch in the league. No longer the primary scorer on his new team, the New York Knicks, Rose will be able to play smarter and more efficiently as the season progresses. He may not be the MVP-level player that he used to be, but he is still certainly a force not easily stopped when he gets in groove.

Edited by Derek Topper, Sports Analytics Group at Berkeley

Can Cousins lead the Pelicans to an NBA title?

Sandeep Tiwari ◆ March 1, 2017

Not too long ago, centers were the most dominant players in the NBA. Wilt, Russell, Hakeem, Shaq, Kareem, Duncan, to name a few, were all the best players on NBA championship winning teams. However, in recent years, we’ve seen championship teams built on the shoulders of guards and forwards. From 2006 to 2016, the only Finals MVP who was a big man was Dirk Nowitski, a man who was really nothing like the dominant big men of old, and instead, found his success through a perimeter style of play. However, with the recent news that Demarcus Cousins is going to be paired up with Anthony Davis, it looks like things might change, and they might change fast.

The rest of the NBA should now be terrified of the New Orleans Pelicans, as the two best big men currently in the NBA are now on the same team. The Pelicans now have Davis and Cousins in their primes, which should strike fear into every NBA team. This is the first time since 1999, when Tim Duncan and David Robinson were on the same Spurs team that won the NBA championship, that two Hall of Fame big men have teamed up together in their primes. But even then, Duncan was only 22, and Robinson was 33 years old. Their windows were very short together because Robinson was aging. As for the Pelicans right now, Demarcus is 26, and Davis is only 23. For the next 5 years, the Pelicans should be set, as both of these All-Stars have established themselves as absolutely monstrous forces who are not only perfect for the current NBA, but also have styles which complement each other perfectly. This is because in today’s game, court spacing is crucial, and if you don’t have a team that can spread the court and guard multiple positions, you won’t find much success. Luckily for the Pelicans, both men can shoot, becoming real threats from the outside, and of course, they can post up and score around the basket with great efficiency. With that said, they do have different styles, but it seems as though these styles will mesh together seamlessly. Cousins is the kind of player who can run an offense, and even though he can score at a high rate, he is one of the best passing big men in the league. Since 2007, only three centers have averaged over 4.5 APG: Cousins, Al Horford, and Joakim Noah. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis has established himself as one of the greatest defensive players in the game. He is the only power forward since 2007 who has averaged over 2.5 blocks and 1.3 steals in a season, doing it three times since he was drafted. Therefore, these guys have established that they are the perfect 4-5 combo to play in this new style of basketball.

The Pelicans now have an incredible do-it-all passing big and an other-worldly do-it-all defensive force. The figure to the right shows the insane stats these men have been putting up this season.

This season, Cousins is currently averaging 27.8 points. 10.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. In the entirety of the league’s history, only three other players have averaged at least 27 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.3 steals in a season; those players are NBA legends: Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and David Robinson. Cousins is now on track to join this elite club. However, this isn’t surprising as, in the last three seasons, Cousins has averaged 26.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks. Only him and Kareem have put up those sorts of numbers between their third to fifth seasons. This means that Cousins is a legitimate superstar who should clearly be capable of leading a team to a championship, with him as the team’s best player.

But the frightening thing here is that Anthony Davis has also proven himself to be on the path to all-time greatness. This season, Davis is averaging 27.7 points, 12 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game. The only players to put up Davis’ kind of stat line in a season are Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Once again, this is unsurprising as Davis has been doing this since he joined the league in 2012. He has been an All-Star for the last four years, and for the last three years, he has averaged 25.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 2.5 blocks. The 23-year old Davis is the only player to average these kinds of numbers within his first five seasons in the NBA. This means that the combination of these two superstars is completely unprecedented, because both of these guys are doing things that have only been done by a few of the best big men to ever play.

In case you’re reading this and still aren’t convinced, let’s take a look at their per 100 possession numbers, a stat that shows how much a player would produce per 100 possessions of a game. There are only two players who have ever put up per 100 numbers of 37 points, 15.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks in a single season, and those two men are Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins, who now play on the same team.

Even without Demarcus Cousins, New Orleans has quietly become a better player than most people realize. Their defense has already proven to be solid as they rank top 10 in the league in terms of defensive efficiency. The addition of Cousins should bolster this above average defense. From 2014 to 2016, the Kings were a much better defensive team when Cousins was on the floor. This season, he has regressed defensively, but we can obviously point to the toxic environment in Sacramento and the huge offensive load he has been forced to carry night in and night out as an understandable explanation for that slip. In a new city, playing with another star who can relieve him of some of the burden, we can expect Cousins to return to his original defensive form. However, what has really been the major area of concern for the Pelicans has been their offense. Right now, they rank 27th in the league in offensive efficiency, but we can expect this stat to improve drastically with the arrival of Cousins.

However, for the Pelicans to become a championship team, they will also need to recruit new talent to surround Davis and Cousins. The good news is that they already have a player who seems like a great building block for their future, Jrue Holiday. Although his first three years in New Orleans were plagued by injury, this season, he has returned to near All-Star form. He is a good third player to pair with two transcendent big men. Plus, he’s only 26 years old and is just entering his prime. Additionally, over the next two summers, Chris Paul and Paul George will be entering free-agency and if the Pelicans can land either of those guys and fill the rest of their team with quality players, they might end up having a potential dynasty. This season, the Pelicans are just 2.5 games off of the 8th seed in the Western Conference. If Cousins and Davis can lead the Pelicans to a strong finish, we might find ourselves watching one of the most entertaining first-round matchups the NBA playoffs have ever seen. If this takes shape, the big question is whether or not the Warriors, who start Zaza Pachulia at center, will be able to stop two of the best big men in the NBA right now.