Reference Series: The Eye Test

You should stop looking at numbers and actually watch the games. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

*sigh*

If nobody ever said this again, the world would be a better place. There is not a single numbers guy out there, myself included, who does not factor in watching games to some extent. Just because somebody disagrees with your opinion of a player doesn’t mean they don’t watch, and just because they haven’t watched as many games as you doesn’t mean their opinion is less valid. The eye test is a good one, but to get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions.

So, while I’ve spent many many words on this site, LibertyBallers, reddit, and elsewhere talking about my statistical system, I’ve never actually explained how I personally use the eye test. After all, it makes up a not insignificant portion of player evaluation. I still start with the numbers, but the tape explains the numbers, and if they don’t, then there can be arguments, but it does not make one side more correct than the other – as with many things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

First, and most importantly, I start with a simple but critical premise: what makes a player good is not what he can do, but how consistently he can do it.

There are literally hundreds of players coming out of college every year who can make amazing plays. The guys in the D-League are capable of amazing things. But being capable of making amazing plays does not make you an amazing player. There are a ton of guys who are stupid athletic and capable of doing insane things and also not good NBA prospects because they simply lack the skills and/or consistency necessary to become NBA players.

In fact, I even have a name for guys who make incredible highlights but lack consistency: Vine All-Stars. I guess the name is outdated now with Vine disappearing, but the point stands. These are guys who look great if you only ever look at highlights, because the good plays they make are awesome. But there are approximately 195 possessions in a basketball game. If you make amazing plays on 5 of them every game, that still leaves 190 possessions that matter just as much. It is these more typical, standard possessions that define how good a player is.

Everybody knows small sample size applies to stats, but it applies equally to the eye test. A highlight tape or a highlight play simply is not useful in evaluating a player. The amount of times I’ve heard “does a bad player make that play?” or “do you still think he’s bad” after a player makes one good play is greater than 0. It should be 0. An NBA player, even the worst NBA player, should be capable of things that make us go wow. But that is no way to judge a player.

The average college player plays between 1,500 and 2,500 possessions in a season. Some of those possessions were awesome. Some of those possessions were awful. For scouting purposes? They’re worth noting but not worth focusing on. What’s much more interesting is all of those in the middle, because most possessions are not highlight OR lowlight worthy, but have a much bigger impact on the game by volume. That’s what I focus on, because it’s those rote, common plays that really point to a player’s skill level.

When scouting, most people focus on the player with the ball and the player defending the ball. That’s where the action is. And what happens there definitely matters. But most of the action takes place away from the ball, and for everybody other than PGs, that action is much more relevant to projection than what they do with it. On the ball is easy to look for – how well can a player dribble, hit pull-ups, pass, etc., and on defense, how well can a player navigate screens, stay in front of his man, use his hands, etc. But off the ball is where most players make their living.

So, on offense, I look for quality and timing of picks and cuts, positioning, and finding open spots and getting ready to receive passes. These are the things that make an offense work, and players who understand these nuances of the game and these secondary skills help an offense and show that they have an understanding of what they will need to do at the next level.

On defense, I look for ability to track off-ball movement, help and recover (for wings), help in the lane (for bigs), ball-man positioning, and navigation of pin-downs, flares, and other off-ball screens. It is a little harder to translate this to the NBA, as many NCAA teams run schemes that are not legal in the NBA, and many NCAA offenses don’t ask the same questions of the defense that NBA offenses do.

I also watch rebounding, a facet of the game that is too often ignored given its importance and that there is a rebound on more than 50 percent of all possessions. Rebounding is much more than size + length + jump. Boxing out is a skill. Reading a shot in the air and positioning for the bounce is a skill. Sneaking in to crash is a skill. These are all important to being a good NBA player, yet they are too often ignored.

I try to watch 2-4 games of as many prospects as I can. While I would like to watch more, I don’t have the time (and neither does anybody else not getting paid to do it!) Why 2-4 games? Because that is generally a large enough sample to see athleticism, potential top level ability, and everything mentioned above. I use this limited eye test to supplement the stats to try to get the strongest projection of a player I can. While watching more games of a player may give a more accurate picture of that player’s capabilities, if you’re not looking for the right things, watching every game still won’t make a difference. There’s also a tendency to judge players who you watch a lot differently than players you only watch a few times. This tends to manifest a bias for or against the players you watch simply because there is a stronger opinion about them than other players. Watching everybody roughly the same amount can eliminate some of this bias.

There’s a lot more to basketball than just your good/flashy plays. When watching games, look at all facets of a player’s game – to do otherwise can only lead to an incomplete picture.

Reference Series: Age

Back in January, I did a piece with Don Yates about the one-and-done rule. Buried in that piece, I wrote a section on age and development. I have referenced it so often since then that I am separating it out into its own piece here and expanding on it.

NBA draft prospects are typically discussed and separated by their college year. This is, quite frankly, a terrible system. Players in a given college year can be born more than a full year apart. This season, Markelle Fultz was born in May 1998 and Josh Jackson was born February 1997. Both are freshman. John Collins was born in September 1997 and Luke Kennard was born June 1996. Both are sophomores. Yet John Collins, the sophomore, is younger than Josh Jackson, the freshman. So why even bother talking about their college year?

I wanted to see if maybe there was some correlation between college year and future performance. I looked at it in two ways. First, I looked at the age and year top players (I used BPM and WS/48 to make this list, you may use a different method, but I think this is representative) entered the league. This was my “star search” – were superstars more predictable by age of first NBA season or draft year. Here were my results:

LeBron HSS 19
Durant Fr 19
Giannis Intl 19
Davis Fr 19
Westbrook So 20
Harden So 20
Paul So 20
Jokic Intl 20
Kawhi So 20
Lowry So 20
Cousins Fr 20
Conley Fr 20
Towns Fr 20
Hayward So 20
Jordan Fr 20
Wall Fr 20
Curry Jr 21
Gobert Intl 21
Griffin So 21
Butler Jr 22
Thomas Jr 22
Green Sr 22
Lillard Sr 22
M. Gasol Intl 24


4 19 year olds, 12 20 year olds, 3 21 year olds, 4 22 year olds, 1 24 year old. 1 high school senior, 7 freshmen, 7 sophomore, 3 junior, 2 senior, 4 international. Both year and age indicate that top players enter the league sooner rather than later, which is to be expected as most top players are identified early and come out early. There are many more players who play their first season at age 20 than age 19, so that could explain the difference, but looking at the four players on this list who entered at age 19, there is a common thread that points to something very interesting.

What do LeBron, Durant, Giannis, and Davis have in common? They are physical freaks of nature, guys who would have been top prospects by dint of physical attributes alone. Three of them were also considered generational prospects. Now, there’s too many variables to try to isolate any given variable, but I have often argued that prospects who enter the league young are judged before they have fully developed and are not given the opportunity they should be given. These four guys were going to be given every opportunity to succeed, and succeed they have.

A few years ago, a study was released regarding how hockey players born earlier in the year were given preferential treatment in youth hockey and in the draft even though there was no evidence that players born earlier in the year actually went on to be better players in the NHL. You can read about it here, here, and here (and elsewhere). Basically, youth hockey has a Dec. 31/Jan. 1 cutoff and when you’re 9, 10, 11 years old, the difference between being born in January and being born late in the year is massive. Players born earlier in the year are better simply by virtue of being older, and they are given more chances, better instruction, play against better competition, etc., while younger players are forgotten or left behind.

Looking at the above table, I wonder how many players drafted very young never developed into full-blown superstars because they were simply too young and were not given full opportunities to develop or shine. Maybe they weren’t ready emotionally or mentally. Maybe it’s just random noise, given that the NBA was dominated by guys like Kobe and Garnett for awhile, but at the same time, it was understood that straight from High School guys would take longer to develop than college players. It’s at least something to keep in mind when evaluating both draft prospects and young NBA players.

The second test I ran was looking at a wide range of players to see if there was any kind of pattern in terms of NBA growth. This included looking at stars, scrubs, players who entered young, players who entered old. I looked at about 50 players to try to get a good cross-section. Sometime during the upcoming season, I’m going to try to do a more detailed analysis, but it’s going to take time I don’t have right now to aggregate data, develop formulas, implement formulas, etc. So eying the data will have to suffice for now. Here is what I found:

  1. The age in which a player entered the league had no effect on growth curve. I can’t even confirm there was a higher rate of injury. It really looks like, as far as overall growth is concerned, it doesn’t matter what age you play your first NBA game.
  2. Pretty much without exception, players were bad before age 20 (there were a few age 19 backup quality seasons), took a leap at age 20 or 21, took another leap at age 22 or 23, and then basically all players showed either consistent growth through the late 20s or took another leap some time between 24 and 28.
  3. Age growth curves held steady among stars, midlevel guys, low level guys, HS guys, one-and-dones, multiple college years, and foreign guys.
  4. Age growth curves held steady across positions.
  5. Players occasionally had an “adjustment year” (year below what would be expected based on their age and the rest of their career) their first year, but it was not common and did not appear to follow any pattern.
  6. If you like using BPM, players with a BPM of -2.0 or better as a 19 year old typically go on to be stars, players between -2.1 and -4.0 have mixed outcomes ranging from 4th or 5th starter to washout (and there does not appear to be a pattern in that range – a -2.5 and a -3.5 appear to have the same probability of outcomes), and players below -4.0 are basically backups at best for their career (in part possibly because guys who play that poorly often stop receiving opportunities).

Now, I’m not going to say this is a perfect fit for every player, but as a prognosticator, I’m looking for high probability patterns, not 100% perfect fits, because they don’t exist. There will always be exceptions. But I’m comfortable using this as a projection fit for now.

In general, teams and fans are too quick to judge a player’s future value based on age 19-22 seasons without proper context and that do not represent a player’s peak talents. There is a bad tendency to look at what a guy does early in his career and use that as a baseline of his true talent level, when true talent level really is not established until age 23 or even later. So you have guys who end up with bad reputations (D’Angelo Russell and Tyus Jones come to mind as recent examples) despite doing absolutely nothing wrong and end up regarded far less than they should be because they just entered the league too early, and with guys who are not drafted particularly highly, often their careers end up on the wrong path for no reason other than being too young when they entered the league.

And it hurts everybody. Older (21-23 year old) players coming out of college are often not evaluated properly and are downgraded just because they weren’t highly touted and had a spikier growth curve. Younger (18-20 year old) players coming out of college with a lot of hype but before they’re really ready get tossed to the side before they’re fully formed and do not end up developing the skills they should have been, leading to a higher fail rate. The only players teams are really identifying well right now are true can’t miss guys.

Teams are discarding young guys for not being ready at an age nobody’s ready at, and teams are significantly underdrafting, underplaying, and giving far too few looks at older guys who had big talent spikes a little bit later than guys who had flatter growth. Teams are missing talent on both ends of the age curve due to misguided ideas (or, just as likely, a lack of thought altogether) about what players can and should look like and what improvement curves look like.

When you’re looking at prospects in this draft and around the league, put them in context. It can only help.

Reference Series: Defense

Some of you (especially the young’uns) may not know about the illegal defense rule changes and why iso players, whether in the post or from the wing, are not nearly as efficient or useful as they used to be. Despite the rules being changed prior to the 2001-2002 season and modern defenses starting to appear around 2008, basketball conversation still flows as if it were the 90s. It’s not the 90s anymore. The conversation needs to change.

A brief history lesson – prior to 2001, the NBA’s “illegal defense” rules basically mandated that you had to guard a man. The illegal defense rules were removed for the 01-02 season and replaced with the modern D3S rule. What did this mean? Prior to 01-02, you could not double off the ball. You had to be somewhat close to your man at all times. All help defense had to come late and could not remain indefinitely. Basically, if you wanted to go 1 on 1, all you needed was for everybody to clear out and you had a true 1 on 1. You couldn’t guard space. You could double team in theory, but you basically could only double team from the nearest man and only if he was near you and he had the ball. It meant that basketball was entirely a 1-on-1 game.

This article from when the vote on whether to remove the illegal defense rules was taking place is absolutely incredible, and I’m going to liberally quote from it here:

The changes are meant to encourage more movement and passing, while discouraging teams from steering offenses toward isolation plays, in which a majority of a team’s players stand idle on the weakside to draw defenders away from the ball. That trend has been a factor in the decrease in scoring over the past decade.

”I think it’s a huge mistake,” Miami Coach Pat Riley said last week. ”There’s not going to be anybody able to drive. With these rules, you’re going to be back in the 70’s in scoring. You can’t force pace.”

”It sounds very bold, and it is,” acknowledged Jerry Colangelo, the Phoenix Suns owner and chairman of the committee that submitted the recommendation two weeks ago. ”But at this point, it’s better than a tweak. The fact is, we don’t have any fluidity in our game right now. There is less ball movement and less player movement than there’s ever been.”

Most opponents of the rule changes agree with Colangelo that the game has become too stagnant and that the choreography of teamwork has all but disappeared from many arenas. But they don’t feel such a dramatic change will suddenly turn the game into the free-flowing style that will raise television ratings and increase fan interest.

”It would change the sport,” said Tomjanovich, one of the most vocal opponents of the zone defense. ”We should create a situation where great players get a chance to excel. Zones neutralize great athletic ability. People want to see guys who can soar to the basket.”

Calling the committee’s proposed changes a ”knee-jerk reaction to complaints about the pace of the game,” Riley added: ”Fans like to see Vince Carter play one on one outside. That stuff is going to be history. Isolation basketball has been part of the game ever since I’ve been in it.”

Other coaches like George Karl and Phil Jackson — weary of the increased focus on defense and the plodding halfcourt sets that have led to the game’s stagnation — are fine with the changes.

”I’m totally O.K. with the zone,” Jackson said. ”It’s going to hurt Shaq, but it’s still part of what the game has to be.”

”It will mess the game up,” Portland point guard Damon Stoudamire said. ”I’m not a big advocate of zone defense. That’s the reason why players leave college. You’re going to put a box-and-one on Vince Carter? Fans are paying money to see these games. You can’t just take away what has essentially made the N.B.A. what it is: one-on-one basketball.”

That is one of the major concerns among opponents: that coaches will have more control of the game.

”People will be coming up with all kinds of crazy defenses,” Tomjanovich said. ”I want what’s best for the N.B.A. I’m not sure these rule changes are.”

The committee watched old footage of N.B.A. games spliced in with new footage. One of the offensive sets was that of the Rockets, in which a player like Steve Francis was isolated on one side of the floor against his defender, while four other players emptied out on the other side of the floor.

”A typical Houston set is giving one guy the ball and sending everyone else away from him,” Colangelo said. ”Hardly anyone else is even involved. It’s not the lack of ball movement. People wonder whatever happened to the lost art of offensive rebounding. Players are no longer in position to rebound because of some of these sets.”

Charlotte forward Jamal Mashburn said: ”I don’t see how that’s going to promote scoring. You look at teams like the Lakers and the Heat. Shaq and Alonzo will be in the lane. Imagine playing against David Robinson and Tim Duncan, standing there in the middle in a 3-2 zone.”

This article is an absolutely incredible look at what the NBA was like and was an amazing predictor of the following decade and even explains exactly why the NBA has evolved the way it has. Basically, in the 90s, teams figured out that the best way to exploit the rules was to give the ball to their best player and get the other 4 guys as far away as possible. This meant that the stars got to be stars. Can you imagine trying to defend today’s top players without double teams? Can you imagine trying to defend Harden or Curry with no help defense at all? What kind of offensive numbers do you think they would put up?

“Jordan spoke passionately. If teams were able to play zone defenses, he said, he never would have had the career he did.”

Reading through those above quotes though, everybody is right. People like seeing iso plays. They are aesthetically pleasing when they work. The highlight the stars. The changes did hurt iso players like Shaq and Vince Carter (Allen Iverson is a prime example of somebody who was amazing before the rule changes and not nearly as good after them). There was no instant change, and in fact, at first, the worst fears of the people against the change came true.

You can actually see defensive rule changes by just following eFG. There were a bunch of rule changes for the 97-98 season, and you can see eFG tank from the previous year. It stays low through 03-04 – these rule changes didn’t actually work particularly well at first! A big part of it was that it would take a generation for players who grew up under the new rules to start coming into the league with the proper skillset.

Still trying to boost offense, prior to the 04-05 season, “New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.” And the game finally opened up – 04-05 saw the birth of Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, and eFG started going back up. It hit .497 in 07-08, and it has remained between .496 and .502 since (with the exception of the lockout year). This is basically defenses and offense trading adjustments. You can see it when you watch – defenders cheat and move all over the court now, seemingly always doubling wherever the ball is, and ball movement is extra important to unlock these defenses.

The most efficient modern offense is fairly easy to explain. It’s a pick and roll, followed by the ball handler getting into the paint and either going to the rim or passing, and then kicking the ball around trying to find a 3 or a layup/dunk. There’s usually multiple picks set on every play trying to free people. This means that, 15+ years after those rule changes that people were afraid were going to remove dynamism from the game, those players are back in vogue, as long as they have the right skillset and have shooters around them. Shooters, which, prior to around 2013, simply didn’t exist in high enough volume.

The defense is a little harder to explain. The short version is that the defense floods the side of the court where the ball is with an extra defender who is only guarding space/playing help D/providing doubles. This wasn’t legal until the illegal defense rule changes and wasn’t utilized until Thibodeau created it in roughly 07-08, and the Celtics that won the title that year. Pretty much all modern defenses are versions of Thibs’ defense, just like most modern offenses are versions of D’Antoni’s offense (include the purest version of it currently run by, uh, Mike D’Antoni).

The best way to show the difference in defense then vs. now is to just go to the tape.

Against post players, under modern defenses, help comes either from the weakside or from the weakest shooter. Here’s a pretty good breakdown. These are hard doubles. Here’s another example. Basically, you force the big to either make a tough cross-court pass which is far enough that the defense can rotate and recover, or you force him to pass back out to a covered strong-side teammate to reset the offense. There’s also soft doubles, where a weakside defender will “show” but not fully commit, which is just a different kind of double where the post player has an extra split second to operate but it’s easier to recover if he passes out.

Now, take a look at a few minutes of this, which is how defense used to be played. You’ll notice that if he gets doubled, it’s always from the closest strongside defender, and it’s usually late. You’ll also notice how often he goes baseline. This is basically impossible today. A modern defense would have the primary defender sit on his baseline hip, forcing him to the middle, where there would be a weakside help defender. You’re never going to see that in videos against the best known post players because that defense wasn’t legal. You can see the same thing here. An occasional late double, or a weak swipe, or maybe a second body from the closest offensive player (man, bad spacing on so many of these), but no modern doubles. They couldn’t legally do more than that. Another thing you don’t really see is fronting, which they couldn’t do because there was no weakside defender to help if you got beat.

Against non-post players, just watch this video. This is a fantastic breakdown of what I’ve written about here, with a lot of video and quotes about how the defense changes really sunk non-post players. Think of every drive you’ve seen that ends in the ball getting knocked away by a secondary defender. There’s no such thing as a 1-on-1 drive or play anymore. Defenses work as a team, and you have to be aware of defenders that could be coming from anywhere. It’s much harder to be a good iso player because help can come on time and can come from anywhere, which are huge changes.

All of the people quoted above who said that the defense changes would only hurt the product were correct – there needed to be further rule changes to open up the game, and techniques needed to be developed to bust zones. These days, you will very rarely see true zone defenses, with Rick Carlisle being one of the very few coaches I’m aware of who still keeps it in his bag of tricks. But tempo and movement are back, incredible athletic feats are back, and ratings and interest are up. They got it right! Eventually!

Recent drafts have featured players who were praised for their abilities in these situations, and they have predictably struggled, because while players can still find themselves in these situations, they are few and far between. It’s not bad to have the skills, but they are no longer primary, game-changing skills. The next AI or the next Shaq can’t exist, because the defenses they faced at their most dominant don’t exist.

It’s simply long past time to adjust analysis of these players. Judge them by their abilities in the modern game, not a game that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

DYBD: Putting the “Done” in One-and-Done

(This article initially appeared at LibertyBallers and is reproduced here for completeness only.)

Hey folks, welcome to the first official collaboration between Don Yates and Buster Ducks. If you don’t know us, we’re both long-winded, statistically minded draftniks. Don typically posts here in the LB Fanposts, Buster typically posts on his website, BusterDucks.com, or at DeepishThoughts.com. We’re trying this out for the first time, so suggestions are welcome, and if you want us to cover a topic, you can comment down below or you can tweet us, @DonYatesNBA and @BusterDucks.

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2016: The Big Board

(This article initially appeared at DeepishThoughts and is reproduced here for completeness only.)

IT’S TIME FOR THE 2016 BIG BOARD!! GET HYPED!!

I lied. Before I get to the Big Board, I’m going to include here a whole bunch of stuff that I’ve written over the course of this draft series and some other information so that this is at all understandable.

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Dinner with the Sixers

This isn’t part of my draft series, but the Sixers held a little shindig tonight – I think they called it Basketball and Business with Bryan Colangelo? something like that – and I was able to go. Just a few quick hitters regarding his comments (and mine!), most of these will probably only be interesting to Sixers fans.

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2016: Applying the Theory to This Year’s Prospects

(This article initially appeared at DEEPishThoughts and is reproduced here for completeness only.)

With less than two weeks until the 2016 draft, I guess I should start talking about the prospects in the 2016 draft.  I will try to link back to relevant articles where appropriate, but the two most important are probably Naming and Necessity and The FP System.  My big board (coming next week) is short on detail for individual players because the ranking is my primary concern, so this is where I will give deeper(ish) thoughts on some prospects that stand out to me as underrated, overrated, or just plain intriguing.  If you’re looking for analysis of Simmons or Ingram, I’ve already written a full article on them. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

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2016: It’s All About the Game, And How You Play It

(This article initially appeared at DEEPishThoughts and is reproduced here for completeness only.)

Hello, and welcome to my first article over here at DEEPish Thoughts.  Thanks to Chris for inviting me.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Buster Ducks, aka TheDuckyNinja.  I’ve been writing about the NBA Draft since 2014, and you can find everything I’ve written (including my 2016 Draft Series to date) over on BusterDucks.com.  Now, you may be asking yourself, “hey, doesn’t Kaiser do the draft analysis around here?”.  Kaiser writes great stuff, but for one, we don’t fully agree on everything, and, maybe, more importantly, my approach is much more theoretical – I only spend a few weeks discussing the actual prospects in the draft.  Why?  Well, as I always like to say, projecting prospects is really, really hard. Which means I’m much more interested in the process than the results.  A good process, will, over time, lead to better results.  And so I seek the best process. That’s ultimately what my Draft series is all about.

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Multistat Advanced Comparison (MAC)

Okay, so, not writing a full article or a draft series article this week.  Why?  Well, I got a spreadsheet with a whole lot of cool information and I’ve been messing around with it.  This is very much a work in progress, so by all means, throw suggestions at me.  I have way way way more information on this spreadsheet (pretty much every advanced stat from ESPN, BB-Ref, and 82Games) and plan on working with it more over the offseason.  So take this as a first draft or something.

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