Tuesday Dream Links

Shane Battier, I think, is one of the weirdest players in the league. That's not a shocking statement or anything - it is, after all, why Michael Lewis wrote that article about him - but I think we tend to assume around here that everyone accepts Shane's greatness, on some level. That clearly isn't the case, sadly. And that shouldn't be surprising, because (as I said previously) he's a weird player. So I'd like to kick off this week with a focus on the No-Stats All Star and perhaps shed some light on his disguised value.

The two most frequent criticisms I hear about Battier's game are:

  1. He contributes nothing on offense
  2. He has lost his defensive touch, or his defensive value was always overstated.

The first criticism stems from a misunderstanding of the way players can contribute to the offense. Volume shooters (Kobe, McGrady, Arenas, Steve Francis, etc.) help their teams (even if, sometimes, they aren't particularly efficient) by using possessions and "creating" (as vague a term as that is, it describes something real, I think). Efficient shooters (Steve Kerr, Novak, Ariza prior to this season) help their teams by not taking bad shot and converting the opportunities they're given at a very high rate. Battier obviously falls into this second category, scoring primarily as a spot-up shooter around the arc.

To say that Battier doesn't have an offensive game is foolish. He's efficient, even if he doesn't take many shots, and that matters. Not everyone can use 25% of the team's possessions, and so having somebody who can simply convert open field goals is very valuable.

The second criticism is a little more difficult to address. Shane's reputation is based almost entirely around his defense, and he has acquired (rightly or wrongly) a reputation as a "shut-down defender."

Matt Moore (of Hardwood Paroxysm fame) interviewed Chris Ballard (author of "The Art of a Beautiful Game") a few days ago. Ballard's book (which Tom reviewed a few weeks ago) includes a chapter on Battier. Roughly the last half of Moore's interview focuses on Battier, statistics, and (most interestingly) the Rockets' Front Office.

Ballard describes the defensive strategy employed by the Rockets against Brandon Roy and the Blazers in the playoffs last year. Roy, unlike Kobe, does not really favor a particularly side of the basket when scoring, driving to either side with equal frequency and converting field goals at roughly the same rate. However, Roy was better able to "create" to his left ("create" here meaning "creating space"), but was more likely to pass out to a teammate when driving to his right.

The Rockets, somewhat counter-intuitively, decided to force Roy to his left. He'd be able to score at a better rate and would make some nice highlight-reel plays, but he wouldn't be as able to get his teammates involved.

Shane can be a shut-down defender. We've seen him wreck Kobe's game at times, slow Melo down, and force LeBron James into the worst game of his career. But Ballard shows us that the way the Rockets think about good defense and the way they use Battier is a lot more complex than simply shutting down the other team's main scorer.

Consider this an endorsement for adjusted plus-minus, which we know the Rockets look at. APM is subject to a lot of noise, and it isn't useful on any level smaller than an entire season, but it should (theoretically) capture the obscured parts of team defense. While boxscore-based metrics tend to show that Battier's a good wing player, I think APM is probably the best way to evaluate a player like Shane. APM metrics generally show Battier is a pretty good player, though it's clear that the Rockets think he's more than that. I'm inclined to trust the guys with all the proprietary stats.

Carl Landry will be getting the first start of his career Wednesday against the Clippers. Scola, however, will be absent for the first time in his career. What does this mean for the Rockets?

Scola hasn't quite lived up to the "20-10" predictions from this summer, but that's partly because of a decline in minutes and an overall decline in the Rockets' defense. Averaged out across 36 minutes, his stats look pretty good, and he's currently 2nd in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. That's probably where losing Luis hurts the most, as Landry is simply nowhere near as good on the defensive glass.

Still, Carl Landry is an offensive dynamo. He currently leads the Rockets in free throw attempts, free throw percentage, field goal percentage, points per minute, true shooting percentage, PER, and he doesn't turn the ball over often. Also, he's their leading shot-blocker, and those stats come on a usage rate not far behind Ariza and Brooks. So there's a good case to be made that Carl Landry is the Rockets' best offensive player right now, and that has become especially evident as the Rockets live and die by his contributions off the bench. Should he be starting regularly? Probably not, given Scola's rebounding abilities, but (as has been said numerous times around here) he's making a great case for Sixth-Man of the Year.

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As long as we're on the subject of Shane Battier, Henry Abbott posted a story about Shane's college days a while back, and I never really got around to posting it here. Turns out, Shane likes to win, but he's not a dick about it.

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Jason Friedman writes about the Rockets in close games, noting that winning close games is mostly a matter of luck, but the Rockets also need to improve their execution in the half-court offense.

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Basketball Prospectus has three articles that I thought were particularly interesting. First, Pelton wrote about the three centers (Gasol, Oden, and Thabeet) involved in the Grizzlies' upset of the Blazers last week. We knocked Oden a lot around here last season, but I'm starting to come around on him, and Pelton agrees.

 

Add it up and, on a per-minute basis, only six players rate as more effective. Oden's WARP ranking--13th--is much lower, which points to the biggest remaining weakness in his game: foul trouble. His rate of fouls per possession has come down slightly, but Oden is still averaging 4.1 fouls a game and 6.7 per 40 minutes, which inevitably limits his time on the court. Nate McMillan has played things very cautiously with Oden, subbing him out early in the first quarter and rarely playing him with two fouls in the second quarter. Oden has played more than 30 minutes just once all season, and that required overtime at Atlanta. If he is able to get closer to 30 minutes a night than his current 24.6, Oden's rise will be impossible to ignore.

Second, Pelton looks at the All-O, No-D Toronto Raptors. What they've "accomplished" in Toronto is pretty astounding, actually:

 

It's been reported, most prominently by ESPN.com's John Hollinger (Insider only), that Toronto has posted the league's best Offensive Rating thus far, as well as its worst Defensive Rating. On its own, that's a mean feat, one accomplished just twice since the NBA-ABA merger and not in the last 25 years. (The Raptors' semi-dubious predecessors: the 1978-79 Houston Rockets and 1981-82 Denver Nuggets.) But saying the team merely has the best offense and worst defense in the league actually understates the magnitude of the kind of extremism we're seeing in Toronto. It's very early, but so far the Raptors have both the best offense and the worst defense since the merger, as measured by percentage above or below league average.

Last, Pelton investigates rookie sensation Brandon Jennings' recent slump:

Since scoring 26 points in Milwaukee’s win over Memphis on Nov. 21, rookie Bucks phenom Brandon Jennings has been in something of a slump. Entering tonight’s game against Chicago, Jennings had shot 29.0 percent (20-of-69) in his last four games. Not coincidentally, the Bucks had lost each of those games. With Andrew Bogut anchoring the defense in his return to the lineup, Milwaukee got the win tonight, but Jennings (5-for-15) shot poorly again.

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Kelly Dwyer reviews the Rockets' win over the Durants:

23 offensive boards for Houston in the win, they seemed quicker - geez, how many times am I going to write this in 2009-10? - to every loose ball, and stayed patient and active on the offensive end while trying to anticipate angles and look for the best shot possible.

In spite of Trevor Ariza(notes) (7-23 shooting, missing eight of nine from behind the arc) continually trying to shoot his team out of the game, the Rockets made up for his miscues and Luis Scola's(notes) absence (Scola was whacked in the face by Etan Thomas(notes) just 22 seconds into the game) by finding Carl Landry(notes) and David Andersen(notes) inside.

This is something I've been hearing more of, and I'm not so sure about it. Is Ariza really killing the Rockets' offense? Looking at the stats would seem to confirm that. A while back I linked to a Basketball Reference article about the '94 Rockets, and part of the discussion was about high-usage, low-efficiency guys like Cassell and Maxwell and their contributions to a championship-level team. And, inasmuch as the Rockets have clearly directed Ariza to shoot more, and they're clearly note reigning him in now that his efficiency has dropped, I'm not so sure that his contributions are a net negative on offense.

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The Nets lost their 17th-straight game on Sunday, tying the '89 Heat and '99 Clippers for most consecutive losses to begin a season. Rough, right? Oh, and they're next game is against the Mavs, so they'll probably break that particular milestone, too. B-Ref looks at all three historically bad teams, what they did wrong, and what they did to rebound from such awful seasons.

Oh, and Shoals over at the Baseline looks at the Nets' subsequent firing of head coach Lawrence Frank.

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Dave Berri takes another look at Kevin Durant. While PER, WP48 (Berri's stat), and most observers thought Durant made a huge leap in his second year, APM showed him as still a net-negative to his team.

Of course, there was another potential explanation.  Adjusted plus-minus is a very inconsistent measure.  The year-to-year correlations are very low (there is a great deal of "noise" in the model).  So it could be Durant’s adjusted plus-minus was due to his supposedly awful defensive skills.  Or it could be noise in the model.

After 15 games this year it is beginning to look like "noise" was the culprit.  According to BasketballValue.com, Durant’s adjusted plus-minus score is 16.09.  This is the second highest mark on the team.  So it looks like everyone is now in agreement.  Durant is officially a "good" player (ain’t that a relief?).

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Lastly, in honor of the Rockets' win over OKC, here's a video of Rudy T beating up Scotty Brooks.


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