Which DeMarcus Cousins Will The Kings Get?

by 27. October 2010 15:29

Coming into the 2010 NBA Draft, practically anyone who relied on a statistical system for projecting NBA players had DeMarcus Cousins rated as the best player in the draft, and that’s not surprising given his gaudy college numbers: 58% TS%, 24.5 points per 40 pace adjusted, 15.9 rebounds per 40 pace adjusted, 0.73 FTA/FGA, etc. What stats don’t take into account, however, is players who are forced to (or in this case, choose to) make role changes once they reach the NBA, and anyone who scouted Cousins closely (especially dating back to high school) could’ve told you there’s a good chance he would make some stylistic changes to his offensive game in the pros. Based on his seven-game preseason sample, it looks like that’s exactly what has happened, and it isn’t for the better.

In the NCAA, DeMarcus Cousins was a bruising post player who physically overpowered everyone he faced, spending virtually all of his time operating in the painted area on the offensive end, leading him to post absurd rates of pulling in offensive rebound and getting to the free-throw line. In the pros, he still has a size and strength advantage against most centers, but if preseason is any indication, he’s already shying away from making consistent use of those skills, reverting back to the lackadaisical perimeter style he was known for in high school.

Thus far in the preseason, according to Synergy Sports Technology, Cousins has attempted 20 jump shots compared to 39 shots at the basket, which at first glance appears to be a pretty good ratio. Comparing it to what he did last season at Kentucky, however, it’s quite the fall off, as Cousins attempted 24 jump shots compared to 170 shots at the basket in his time there! Further, Cousins’ post efficiency has fallen off considerably, down to 0.77 points per possession from 0.93. On the whole, Cousins’ PPP in preseason was 0.83 on all possessions, compared to 1.00 in college.

Operating with a seven-game sample size against preseason competition, it’s hard to put too much confidence in the efficiency numbers, while there is some fall-off to be expected going against much higher levels of competition and having to adjust to the new game regardless. On the other hand, the shot selection tendencies are concerning, as that is largely a matter of choice, and watching the tape confirms reason for concern.

To his credit, on the 20 jump shots he took in preseason, Cousins scored 23 points, which is very good efficiency, but even if he maintains that in the long-term, he’s doing his team a disservice by spending so much time away from the basket, which takes away his two greatest strengths: the ability to draw fouls and his dominance on the offensive glass. Indeed, his FTA/FGA was a pedestrian 0.40 in the preseason, nearly half what it was in college, while his offensive rebounds per 40 dropped from 6.9 to 4.8. Another effect of his increased reliance on the perimeter game is his turnover rate rising from 0.15 per possession to 0.17, likely to rise even more if he keeps up this style in the pros, where regular season defense will be much stouter.

Watching his preseason games, Cousins isn’t working nearly as hard at establishing deep post possession, and when he does get the ball he’s relying far more frequently on finesse moves like turnaround jumpers from 10 feet out as opposed to trying to back his man down and get to the rim or draw the foul. His spot-up jumper has been falling frequently, and to his credit he hasn’t completely devolved into thinking he’s capable of taking jump shots off the dribble, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he did, as he did it frequently in high school.

Cousins’ face-up game has been a bit of a double-edged sword in preseason, as on one hand he is more agile than most centers he faces while at the same time having a size, strength, and length advantage, which makes him extremely deadly when he turns in for one-dribble drives out of the mid and high post. While Cousins has taken advantage of this thus far, he doesn’t realize this doesn’t work as well when he is operating off the wing as opposed to in the post, as he doesn’t have the ball-handling or change of direction ability to take his man off the dribble consistently from that far out, something that will lead to many turnovers.

As for other areas, you can already see minor indications of Cousins’ defensive rotations and running of the floor falling off, with him taking off plays and not staying completely involved on that end of the floor, and it’s something that could become even more concerning as the season wears on and the Kings inevitably rack up the losses. At Kentucky, Cousins had a demanding coach who draws a ton of respect, excellent leaders around him in John Wall and Patrick Patterson, was winning every game, and was playing for an NBA contract, four motivating factors that certainly helped keep him in line. With all of those things gone and 3.4million guaranteed in his pocket this season, what will he do when things start going awry?

With Samuel Dalembert ailing with a sore thigh early in the season, minutes will be readily available for Cousins, and the Kings have shown they will force feed minutes and possessions to their young players regardless of performance, so he should have plenty of opportunities to disprove the many concerns around his game (and plenty of opportunities to score lots of points, regardless of possession efficiency).

Things didn’t get off to a good start in preseason, but ultimately it’s just a seven-game sample of largely garbage time and the results don’t mean a thing, so this could easily have been a minor aberration that is quickly put behind him when his season tips off tonight. Given the mounting concerns around his game coming into the draft, however, these developments obviously aren’t encouraging, and if Cousins wants to live up to his potential in the NBA, he will need to remember why he was so highly regarded as a prospect and why he dominated statistically in college, as if he gets away from those things, things could derail rather quickly.

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Keys to the Loss: Heat vs Celtics

by 27. October 2010 11:24

While the Miami Heat managed to make the final score a respectable 80-88 against the Boston Celtics in their opening night matchup, the game was not very competitive for most of the night, with the Heat playing far below the expectations many set for them. The Heat finished the game with just an 87.9 Offensive Efficiency, and the offensive problems were far more severe than a problem of mere chemistry or unfamiliarity. Here are some of the key themes to why things went so wrong:

Link to Advanced Box Score

The Problem with Joel Anthony

Joel Anthony is a solid rotation player in the NBA, a great athlete capable of making contributions on defense and the boards, and theoretically he is exactly the kind of hustle player you’d expect to fit in well with a trio of All-Stars. This isn’t your every day trio of All-Stars, however, and there are a few reasons why he is not such an ideal fit.

From an offensive perspective, all of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade are players who operate predominantly inside the three-point line, all being players who get to the rim very frequently. Because of this, putting a player with Joel Anthony’s lack of perimeter game on the floor with them can make things very crowded, severely hurting floor spacing and allowing top-tier defensive teams like the Celtics the ability to seriously take advantage of aggressive help defense. It also clogs up the pick-and-roll game, as it allows the opposition to double hard off Anthony onto the ball-handler, while Anthony isn’t much of a threat to do anything if he receives the pass.

From a defensive perspective, you’d think Anthony’s abilities would be a big-time help to a trio of stars, many of whom don’t have a reputation for applying themselves equally on both sides of the ball, but again, these are not your typical All-Stars, as all of them are well above average, if not elite, defenders in this league. While the roster is largely different, it’s important to remember that the Heat actually ranked third in the league in Defensive Efficiency last year, and their coach clearly knows what he’s doing on this end of the floor. Combine all of those things together and Anthony’s contributions here are largely negligible, a big problem when his presence on offense can throw such a wrench into everything.

We Want Z!

On the contrary to Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a player who has the perfect offensive skill-set to complement the big three, being a highly intelligent player with the perimeter jumper and passing game to really open things up for the team. It’s no surprise that Ilgauskas posted a +17 +/- on the night in just 11 minutes (while everyone other than James was in the negative on the game), playing almost all of those minutes in the third quarter alongside James, where the Heat outscored the Celtics 27-18.

Ilgauskas’ benefits to the offense are multi-fold, first in terms of general floor spacing by being a potent catch-and-shoot option with three-point range and second by being the best pick-and-pop big man on the team outside of Bosh, a critical skill to have when playing alongside Wade and James.  Beyond that, it’s readily apparent he puts James a lot more at ease when they’re playing together, something the Heat really need from their primary ball-handler and scorer.

Defensively, Ilgauskas is underrated as a positional defender, though he clearly is a liability in the pick-and-roll game at this point of his career. Still, with three players who have the elite size, length, and athleticism like the Heat’s do, this is something that can be covered up, especially relative to the problems Joel Anthony brings on the offensive end. As strange as it sounds, the Heat’s role players around the big three are better served helping on offense than defense when you consider the coach’s strong points and the elite abilities of their stars.

Mis-Utilization of Chris Bosh

Chris Bosh had a terrible game offensively, largely in part to excellent team defense by the Celtics, excellent individual defense by Kevin Garnett, and very poor play by himself, but seeing where he was getting the ball in Miami’s offense is extremely concerning, especially considering what the Raptors’ offense was able to do for him.

Despite Steve Kerr’s repeated cries during the broadcast that Chris Bosh can’t post up, Bosh is actually one of the best post-up players in the entire NBA, ranking in the 90th percentile in post efficiency according to Synergy last season, scoring 1.09 PPP on a ridiculous 549 possessions in 70 games played. Only seven players in the entire NBA posted up for more possessions than Bosh last year (despite Bosh missing 12 games), and the closest to him in efficiency was Tim Duncan at 1.04 PPP!

So what went wrong against the Celtics? For one, nearly all of Bosh’s post-up opportunities saw him catching the ball 10 feet or more away from the basket, while the help defense the Celtics sent off Joel Anthony certainly didn’t help matters either. Pairing Bosh with a more threatening big man and using more off ball action in terms of screens and movement to free him down low will be critical to the Heat this year, and they’ll need to show a lot more creativity in getting him the ball this way in the future, as there was virtually none of it last night.

The Problem with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James

This may be the most concerning and critical factor of all in the quest for a championship, as even if the Heat sort out their rotation, floor spacing, and utilization of other players, it won’t be enough to save them from errant decision-making from their stars, not in series against the Magic, Celtics, and Lakers.

Too often last night it seemed to be decided with more than half the shot clock remaining that the best option for the Heat was for James or Wade to isolate their man and pull up for a 20-foot contested jumper, which worked about as well as you’d expect it to work. Having players with elite shot creating abilities like this is a massive luxury when the shot clock is running down or your team is down and you need someone to take over, both of which we saw on many occasions last night. But on the other hand, it is very much a double-edged sword if you allow it to bog down your normal halfcourt offense, and this it will be very important for James and Wade to tone down these tendencies, if not for the regular season (where they can get away with it against 75% of the league) then for inevitable postseason matchups against other elite teams. 

The other question here is will Erik Spoelstra have the willingness to really come down hard on his stars when they derail the offense (and likewise will the stars have the respect for him to listen). The silver lining here is all three of the Heat’s stars are highly competitive and want to win, plus with expectations so high they shouldn’t be content with letting things go sour for too long. Still, Pat Riley is obviously lurking in the wings, and the more performances we see like last night’s, the more the public will speculate about Riley descending from the front office to the sidelines once again.

Looking Forward

It’s easy to overreact about things based on one game, and the fact that the Heat only lost by eight and were within one possession with a minute to go last night despite playing so poorly puts in perspective how dangerous this team can be when they get things in full gear. Still, many of their problems won’t go away without adjustments, and it will be interesting to see how creative the coaching staff is in making them. The return of Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers to the lineup in the future will certainly help things from a floor spacing perspective, but it’s easy to see the Joel Anthony problem becoming a recurring issue against elite defenses should they keep their frontcourt rotation the same. Luckily for us fans, we only have to wait ‘til Friday’s game against the Magic to see another such match-up, where the Heat will obviously be looking to make a statement given how poorly their debut went against the Celtics.

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Who Should Start at Power Forward in Indiana?

by Eno Sarris 25. October 2010 13:50

There’s a job open in Indiana, and given their fast pace, three-heavy Jim O’Brien offense, fantasy owners should be interested. The competitors for the power forward spot there are Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough, two very different players, so it’s probable that one is more suited to the role than the other – and that we can use HoopData’s stats to figure out who that candidate is.

Next to them in the paint will stand Roy Hibbert, and although he’s been playing well this preseason, he does have some flaws to his game. Despite being large (7’2” and 278 lbs.), Hibbert is actually just an average rebounder for his position. He upped his total rebound rate (TRR) to 15.5 last year, and the average center sported a 14.8 rate. And that includes all of the centers in the game – if you sort for centers that played 25+ minutes a game, the average rebounding rate is 15.8. And he used to be worse.

So a strong rebounder in the four would be a good thing for this team, it seems. The problem is that neither McRoberts nor Hansbrough fits this need. McRoberts hasn’t seen a ton of minutes on the court, but in 12.5 minutes per game last year – the most in his career – his TRR was 13.2. Hansbrough’s, achieved in 17.6 minutes a game, was 14.8. The average power forward? 14.3 TRR (14.8 TRR for 25+ mpg).

But this is also a team that took the third-most threes in the league last year, so three-point shooting gives a slight nod in McRoberts’ direction. He hit 34.8% of his threes last year – barely above the break-even point (33.3%) – and once hit 38.5% of his threes at Duke. Then again, his last year saw him shoot 21.7% from three, so it’s no open-and-shut case even here.

McRoberts is only an inch taller than Hansbrough, but in one facet of the game he plays bigger. Last year, he was blocked on 8.9% of his shots – Hansbrough got rejected 13.8% of the time. Neither is particularly good at this facet of the game – the average is 6.6% at their position (6.3% for 25+ mpg) – but McRoberts is not a Blocks Allowed machine like Hansbrough. In fact, Hansbrough was 12th in the league in this dubious stat last year, and of the players ahead of him on that list, only Joel Pryzbilla and Chuck Hayes averaged more than 20 minutes per game. Whatever it might be, that's not 'playing large.'

Defense favors Hansbrough, though. The D was 1.45 points better than average with the Carolina option, while it was 1.67 points worse than average with the Duke option. For a team with a negative overall rating on defense but was also 15th overall in defensive efficiency per John Hollinger, it’s unclear how much of a priority this is. While it is worth noting that McRoberts was better than average in 2008-2009, that rating came in so few minutes (8.3) that it’s hard to put too much stock in it. The difference may be real - McRoberts has never had a reputation as a strong defender.

Unlike our first couple of spotlights, this one doesn’t have a neat ending. Both have shown the ability to score, but McRoberts has more range. Both are middling rebounders, but Hansbrough has the slight edge. Both aren’t monsters of the paint, but McRoberts doesn’t get blocked at twice the average rate for a four. Both are close to scratch defenders, but Hansbrough once again owns a slight edge. McRoberts has been starting in the preseason (6.2 rebounds in 22.6 MPG), but Hansbrough (4.5 rebounds in 18.75 mpg) was working his way back from injury and recently has been stealing time from him.

For fantasy owners in deeper leagues looking for value from their sleeper, McRoberts is the pick. Yahoo has Hansbrough ranked 178th going into the season, and McRoberts at 245th. If the race is as close as it seems here, that’s a lot of value going much later in the draft.

For Pacers fans wondering who their power forward should be, they’re just going to have to wait. More time on the court should sort out the difference between these two players when it comes to rebounding and defense, the two places where the edges are the slightest.

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Can Gilbert Arenas Return to Form?

by 22. October 2010 10:51

Coming off an extremely tumultuous season both on and off the court, expectations are all over the map for Gilbert Arenas this year. Having played just 45 games in the past three seasons combined (with his production and efficiency numbers falling below his normal levels in all three), it’s been a long time since Arenas played at a star-caliber level. With Arenas already pronouncing his willingness to play second fiddle to John Wall this year (at least on the court), what exactly can we expect from Arenas this season?

The first thing that’s important to look at in assessing Arenas is determining what was responsible for his massive falloff in proficiency since the 06-07 season. While Arenas’ usage rate (31.4 in 06-07, 32.0 in 09-10) hasn’t changed much over time, his TS% has plummeted from a very strong 56.5% to a well below average 51.1%, a big problem for someone using as many possessions as he does. Age and injuries obviously play somewhat of a factor here, but at 28 years old, Arenas is hardly an old-timer.

Shot locations actually tell much of the story with Gilbert’s offensive decline, as his shot selection has shifted noticeably from higher to lower efficiency areas of the floor. In 06-07, Arenas averaged 5.0 FGA per game at the rim, down to 3.9 in 09-10. His FTA likewise dropped from 9.7 to 6.5 per game, while his 3FGA dropped from 7.9 to 5.7. On the other hand, in terms of all shots between the rim and the three-point arc, Arenas took an additional 1.9 shots of that variety per game in 09-10, converting on those shots at terrible efficiencies around 40% (compared to 50% and higher eFG% at the rim and behind the arc).

While a good deal of Arenas’ shift in shot selection can be attributed to him not having the same explosiveness he had earlier in his career, affecting his ability to get to the rim as effectively, the fall off in three-point attempts is largely a schematic result of Flip Saunders’ offensive scheme, which heavily emphasizes long two-pointers. The 06-07 Eddie Jordan-coached Wizards took one three-point attempt for every 1.28 attempts from the 16-23 foot range, while Saunders’ bunch took one for every 1.73, one of the lowest rates in the league.

Looking at how things could change for Arenas this season, shot selection will obviously play a large part, as adjusting back to taking more shots in higher efficiency zones like he did earlier in his career should drastically help his percentages, but there is another reason to be optimistic about his offensive performance.

Playing most of his career at either the point guard or combo guard position, Arenas hasn’t had the privilege of playing alongside many elite playmakers in the backcourt (Antonio Daniels, Steve Blake, and Larry Hughes top the list of his sidekicks), forcing him to create a very high percentage of his own shots. This season, however, he will be in a situation where he will spend almost all of his time with either Kirk Hinrich or John Wall on the floor, either of which would easily rank as the best point guard he’s ever played alongside. The Wizards are likely to even start the season playing with all three in the starting lineup given their rough outlook at the small forward position, which will be a drastic change in scenery for Arenas.

While playing with a three-guard lineup should pose a lot of problems defensively, it actually is likely to improve the Wizards’ offensive efficiency, as it will make for a deadly transition attack, will give the team a ton of shot-creating options, and should spread the floor offensively, assuming Saunders allows Hinrich and Arenas to take advantage of their three-point shooting abilities. From a statistical standpoint, this could be a major boon for Arenas, as he should get a lot more open looks, something that didn’t happen very frequently in 09-10 where he was assisted on just 24.9% of his FGM (compared to 35.5% in 06-07).

While the Wizards’ problems at small forward leave them little choice but to go this route with their rotation until Josh Howard returns, it also is the best idea for inflating Arenas’ trade value, as his efficiencies should rise substantially offensively, while there aren’t many reliable statistics that can be used to measure the trade off it will have defensively.

Looking at Arenas’ limited 4-game, 81-minute preseason sample, there is already some evidence of change as he converted on a strong 58.4% TS%, though his usage dropped substantially to 20.7% as a result of him playing alongside two other shot creators. Obviously these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt and a much clearer picture will be painted in the first few weeks of the regular season.

By being put in a situation where his backcourt-mates’ floor-spacing and shot-creating abilities are both drastically improved compared to what he played alongside last season, Arenas should be due for a resurgence this year regardless of whether he adjusts his game. If he can build on that by reverting to taking more high efficiency shots like he did earlier in his career, both in terms of shot location and in terms of not settling for off-balanced, contested jumpers, Arenas could increase his offensive effectiveness by leaps and bounds. Because his usage will decline given the Wizards’ new guard-heavy roster, he likely won’t put up gaudy points totals like he was previously known for, but he could make up for that by spiking his scoring efficiency upward, something that should help the Wizards both in the wins column and potentially on the trade market.

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What Kind of Point Guard Can Jeff Teague Be?

by Eno Sarris 14. October 2010 02:13

If you ask fellow HoopData analyst and Wake Forest alumni Tom Haberstroh, the answer to the titular question is a simple equation:

Demon Deacon = Hall of Famer

But of course we should delve a little deeper. With Mike Bibby a liability on defense, and losing more lateral quickness by the day, and Jamal Crawford a perpetual tweener with an erratic shot that works better on the bench, there’s opportunity in Atlanta for Jeff Teague to step forward and take on more of a role this year.

In the preseason, he’s played one game and scored 20 points on 8-13 shooting, with six assists, four turnovers, two steals, one rebound and no threes. Not quite the sample we need. Let’s use last year’s numbers to see if the rate statistics show us what kind of point guard he might be.

With the team about 2.35 points worse on defense with Bibby on the court, the most important part of Teague’s game might be his defense. According to Basketballvalue.com, the Atlanta defense was .81 points better with Teague in there last year, so the switch between guards looks significant. Teague was also thought of as an excellent defensive guard at Wake Forest – though steals aren’t necessarily the best indicator, his 1.9 steals per game were impressive, and John Hollinger has shown that hustle stats often carry over fairly well from college. Teague should be the better defender, and provide fantasy teams with more steals than Bibby ever did.

Joe Johnson is the focal point of the offense – so much so that it’s often termed the “Iso-Joe” late in games. He’s got the highest usage rate on the Hawks (26.35 last year) and a decent assist rate for a shooting guard (18.28 last year, 16.55 average for at the position). The ideal point guard next to him might be a good defender that can shoot well from long distance and move the ball without a huge usage rate, it seems.

Teague? His assist rate was above average for point guards (29.01, 27.25 was average), and his usage rate last year (19.15) was spot-on average for point guards (19.05). So far so good. Unfortunately, Teague also shot 21.9% on threes last year, which isn’t ideal. Then again, it was on half an attempt per game, and he shot 42% from three in college, so that could improve easily.

What other point guards have this sort of package but played more minutes than Teague last year? Raymond Felton sits right next to Teague on the assist rate leaderboard (29.03 last year) and also had a 19.15 usage rate last year – and with his inconsistent shooting from three (32.7% career, despite 38.5% last year) and nice steals numbers (1.4 per game career), he seems like a great comp. Felton only shot 37.5% from three in college, so Teague has the chance to be better, too.

Teague won’t be a Steve Nash (39.28 assist rate) or even a Deron Williams (34.92 assist rate), but he creates assists at an above-average rate, is an above-average defender, and if his shooting improves, he can be a good scorer with an average usage rate. That’s a very valuable piece for a contending team (especially at his cost), and a great fantasy sleeper (especially late in the draft).

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