Friday, December 10, 2010

Delusions in scouting. Best point guard debate. Efficiency matters.

A hot debate in the basketball world right now is taking place daily. Who is the best point guard in the NBA? I've heard some touting Deron Williams, while others prefer Chris Paul (pictured at right). Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, and Derrick Rose usually get a mention, and now Russell Westbrook is also getting some love from media members who work the NBA beat.


Those of you who read this space with any frequency know that we like to make our decisions on such topics by being, what Len Elmore refers to as, 'data informed' - which is opposed to 'data driven'. 


Some talent scouts forgo numbers altogether and opt to opine with just a 'feel', or gut reaction. The problem with any gut reaction in evaluating players is that we all, as humans, have emotions attached. Our eyes trick us. Our hearts lead us astray. ...Let me explain.


Visual delusion comes about in evaluation when a scout sees a player with outstanding athleticism and flash. High jumping players, explosive players, or players with Curly Neal ball-handling skills vault to the head of too many "big boards" simply because some scouts are reading too much into what their eyes easily see. 


It is easy to fall prey to the high-flying player who ALMOST pulls off the traffic dunk that "would've blown the roof off". Instead - he blows the dunk. Inevitably there is a long rebound which leads to a fast break for the opposition. That is a net of minus four points. ...I despise that. Yet there would surely be witnesses who stated they "loved the player's explosion" and "his ability to attack the rim". 

There were smart people who saw highlights of USC's ridiculously explosive dunk machine - Harold Miner (pictured at left) - and they assumed he was going to be a star. Some called him the next Michael Jordan


Yi Jianlian was drafted two positions before Joakim Noah in the 2007 NBA Draft. Scouts were correct in only one regard. Yi IS more athletic when it comes to a sprint race or a jumping contest. But of course there are no sprint races or high-jump bars in basketball. And we can all agree now that Noah - due to his basketball skills, toughness and grit - is the far superior player. 


There are scouts and smart people right now that have the gall to call dribbling wizard Kalin Lucas, of Michigan State, the best point guard in the Big Ten. Nevermind that Lucas presently has 25 assisted baskets and only one less turnover. Nevermind that Lucas seems incapable of finishing any play that involves him getting to the rim. He makes million dollar moves with his ball handling to penetrate the paint but the result is often not worth a dime.


My only guess is that those who argue of favor of Lucas have either not seen DeMetri McCamey (Illinois), Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin), and E'Twaun Moore (Purdue) - OR - those Lucas fans are suffering from the "herd mentality". If one ESPN analyst says "Kalin Lucas is the best point guard in the Big Ten" it is bound to be repeated by those who actually have not subjected themselves to watching an entire Wisconsin game. 


ASIDE: Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams play slow-ball. They are calculated and it honestly takes self-discipline for any hoops fan to get excited about seeing them play. I force myself to watch. And in so doing I have discovered that Taylor can coolly run a team AND make shots. 



As John Wooden so famously stated, "Never confuse activity for achievement." And I would add from Chuck D of Public Enemy, "Don't Believe the Hype!". 

If it is not our vision fooling us then it is our hearts that get in the way. When an underachiever achieves - our hearts feel good for the underachiever. Human nature kicks in and suddenly the less efficient player that works hard and scraps is getting more minutes from the coach. Now - in no way - am I saying that hard work and scrappiness is a bad thing or that it should not be rewarded.



I AM SAYING that often - coaches and scouts go too far with their love for an underdog (pictured at left). A decent example locally would be Darnell Jackson of the Sacramento Kings. He was not expected to make the team this season. But anyone who watched him play in the preseason - I'm sure - would think that Jackson overachieved. He knocked down a face up jumper here and there. He set effective screens. He dove on the floor. He scrapped and worked hard - and next thing you know - Darnell Jackson made the final roster for the 2010-11 season. 


Our hearts felt (feel) good about Jackson. But without data to inform us - it would be easy to over-value Jackson's worth. The 'data informed' know that Jackson has major holes in his game. He turns the ball over more than four times per assist. He is a poor free throw shooter (64% career) and most importantly he presently sports a .342 efficiency rating (EFR) which would have ranked 78th of the 85 Power Forwards that played enough minutes to be eligible in last season's final regular season stat audit. 


That Jackson has actually taken away minutes at various times this year from better, more efficient (yet less enthusiastic) players in Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, and Carl Landry is, to me, an example of an evaluation based too much on heart. I don't dislike Jackson at all. I just have a hard time believing he should have played over 20 minutes in three games already this season. 


In my evaluations of players - I've begun asking myself - "Do I feel like I have to root for this player to make the NBA or get minutes?". If the answer is yes - I'm immediately looking deeper at data to see if there is justification for him being in the NBA. You can keep ONE guy that you root for on the end of the bench (Jeremy Lin) but never more than one. 


Adding to our delusion, there is the 24 hour sports news cycle that we live in. ESPN (ABC) and CBS are the current homes for college basketball and the teams they feature are exposed more than teams in smaller conferences. And it is not just their actual games being played that are responsible for the exposure. Trust me on this one. I work in television. What makes the "air" is what is good for the network. 


In other words, if two plays are equally spectacular - but one occurred on a Saturday by a New Mexico State player - and the other happened during an ESPN televised Saturday game by a Big East, Villanova player, - the exposure advantage goes to the `Nova kid. His play will be seen repeatedly on nationally televised ESPN Sports Center, and on ESPN2, and ESPN-U. Sports talk shows such as PTI, Around the Horn, and the horrid Sports Nation will add fuel to the fire. ESPN Radio will chat up the player and talk glowingly of his highlight. 


The "build-up" occurs because there will be another game coming up on ESPN with the same Villanova player in it. It makes sense for ESPN to promote the players who play in the conferences that the network has contracts with. Meanwhile - the New Mexico State player likely gets no love outside of his region. 


The more we observe a player and allow his game to seep into our consciousness the easier it is to be comfortable with that player. Again, human nature. If player A is slightly better than player B but the scout saw player B play more often, and be seemingly constantly on National TV, chances are that the scout will gravitate toward the player he is more familiar with even when the data says to do otherwise.


And don't forget ESPN's presence on the internet. Chad Ford infamously helped a nation believe in 2003 that Darko Milicic should have been drafted before Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade



If Landry Fields (current New York Knicks rookie sensation - pictured at left) played in the Big East rather than the Pac 10 last season, I would argue that he would have likely been a more well known commodity and he would have never slipped to pick 39 in the 2010 NBA Draft.  His team, Stanford, didn't make the NCAA Tournament and his exposure was simply not on par with lesser players who balled in the SEC, ACC, or Big East. 


This media monopoly of the airwaves should NEVER be underestimated. It affects even the smartest of scouts who simply cannot isolate themselves enough to avoid the hype machine   known as ESPN that infiltrates any sports fan's life. 


The Efficiency Rating (EFR) is my slice of undeniable truth. However, the statistical formula that is so often referenced here has holes too. It is pure science. Points scored, plus assists, plus steals, plus rebounds, plus blocked shots minus missed field goals, minus missed free throws, minus turnovers - all divided by the number of minutes played. ... Strictly numbers.

Much like a hoe, the EFR is a tool.
The EFR is simply one part (a very BIG part) of the "tools" needed be 'data informed'. I believe in it because in 26 years of studying it - the EFR rarely fails. The most efficient teams win way more often than they lose. The EFR looks across a variety of measurable stats and levels the playing field between players who have played more minutes than others.  Perhaps the biggest key to the success of the EFR as a measuring tool lies in the use of figuring in turnovers and missed free throws which are simply overlooked too often in evaluation of players.


Efficiency isn't everything. Because the NBA and NCAA do not count, for example, charges taken, as a statistical category - the EFR has that proven positive attribute left out of the equation. The EFR does not allow for winning intangibles such as enthusiasm, professionalism, or willingness to be coached. The EFR does not account for solid, non-gambling defense, or the pass that leads to the pass that gets the assist.


ASIDE: For the record, we did add 'charges drawn' to the EFR formula once just to see how much it would raise a player's efficiency. Using Anderson Varejao's league leading standard in 2006-07 of one charge taken every 23 minutes, we were able to estimate that by season's end - a league-leading caliber charge taker, could raise his EFR by about .030. 


The EFR is not perfect. That is where a "feel" or plain old common sense has to be part of the process in evaluation. And there is no substitute for watching games. It is the combo of EFR and detailed, focused observation of games that leads to more accurate scouting.


Again - I want to stress that I love players with "heart". I love players that hustle. I want good guys on my team. That stated, the words of club owner Billy Sparks (pictured at left) in Purple Rain must be heeded. "This is a bid-ness! And you can't be too far gone to see that."


So give me players with the skill, talent, efficiency and athleticism it takes to produce WINS. The opposition can have the high jumper that rarely gets assists, or the "defensive specialist" that can't score to save his life. The other team can have that "point guard" that shoots with a full shot clock before making one pass. 


Which brings us back to the current debate about the best point guard in the NBA. (You thought I forgot?). The efficiency rating sees it this way:


#1 Chris Paul .741
#2 Steve Nash .684
#3 Russell Westbrook .672
#4 Deron Williams .659
#5 Stephen Curry .619
#6 Derrick Rose .585
#7 Rajon Rondo .576
#8 Tony Parker .570
#9 Raymond Felton .565
#10 Jameer Nelson .564


With EFR not being the end all, be all - we apply some "feel" and common sense to the above top-ten list. Paul's lead in EFR is so big that I can't justify saying another player's intangibles make him worthy of being ranked higher than Paul. So I'll go with Paul as the best in the NBA right now. 


Russell Westbrook drives by Jordan Farmar. 
But while the EFR list has Nash at #2 - common sense tells me that Nash is not a great defender, and he also misses a game here and there to protect his health because he is older than most other NBA PG's. Russell Westbrook is close to Nash in EFR and he is a GREAT defender with no limitations on his total minutes. So I'll take Westbrook as the current #2. Deron Williams, I think, vaults over Nash as well at this point for similar reasons. 


The point of all this rambling is that there is no one specific set of statistics that will ever give you a definitive answer when evaluating players. Likewise - a scout should never go totally on feel without using data as a tool to help. 


The best talent evaluators are the scouts that can combine science and common sense and balance the media hype with a dose of reality through close, focused observation. 


...And that is today's word. 

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