A Very Gothic Ginobili Statistical Q&A: Part 1, Playoffs

Posted on Mon 28 May 2012 in Features by Aaron McGuire

This was an idea we had a few weeks back, when I posted the "Last 21 Game" efficiency rating posts both here and at 48 Minutes of Hell. An understated aspect of those posts that I was experimenting with was that I, for the day it was posted, attempted to respond to every twitter question regarding the stats used (or any statistical trend readers wanted to hear about). Probably should've advertised it more.

In a combined sense, I got a lot of great questions from the 48MoH commenters and my twitter followers -- so many, in fact, that I'd like to codify it and make it a feature. As it's memorial day, I have the day off and have a chance to actually spend most of the day sifting through data, and it's a good opportunity to kick this off. To start the discussion, here's a table of team playoff efficiency stats vs regular season efficiency stats.

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A few notes, perhaps to help the questions arise:

  • Somewhat impressively, Memphis and Denver finished their first round series with positive efficiency differentials. Given that the Lakers and the Clippers got curbstomped in the second round, it leads one to an interesting question: would Memphis and Denver have been stronger second round foes for the Spurs and the Thunder?

  • While everyone waxes poetic about the Spurs offense, and asked how the Spurs would respond to a stout Thunder defense, it's worth noting that the Spurs are also the best defense the Thunder have faced so far as well. In last night's game, I thought the most interesting fact wasn't just the fact that the Spurs offense found itself challenged by the OKC defense -- it was also the OKC offense finding itself shiftless against the best defense that it's faced so far, as well. The only one "better" were the Mavericks, whose defensive rating is a bit misleading -- they haven't been a top 10 defensive team in the last half of the season and their playoff performance matched their second half stats far more than their first half stats.

  • The much-ballyhooed slowing of pace that comes with the playoffs has occurred in force, with the playoff-average pace of 91.1 falling all the way to 88.9. The biggest offenders? The Knicks fell from 93.2 possessions per game in the regular season to 86.9 in the playoffs, a difference of 6.3 possessions per game. Also notable were the Nuggets (who fell 3.9 possessions per game) and the Thunder (who have fallen 3.3 possessions per game). The Clippers, Jazz and Spurs have scarcely fallen at all, though -- an indication that the Spurs have in large part succeeded in forcing the tempo. In last night's game, they succeeded in kind, as the game was played at a blistering pace of 95.9.

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QUESTION #1: Do you think the San Antonio adjusts more to the length and athleticism of Oklahoma City in game two? Or do you think they'll have the same struggles they had in the first three quarters? from @NoSwaggT

A little of both. I thought the Spurs offense struggled a bit too much, in game 1. Some of that is very replicable for the Thunder -- they're a better defense than either the Clippers or the Jazz, after all. And they seemed to have done an excellent job scouting the Spurs offense. One of the biggest things Memphis did to drive last year's upset was disrupt the Spurs' passing lanes -- the Thunder were following the Grizzlies' playbook to a T in terms of passing disruption, and it showed in their ability to get the Spurs to revert to an isolation-heavy offense for many stretches of last night's game. So in that sense, the struggles won't be entirely abated.

But there are reasons to think that the Spurs' fourth quarter explosion wasn't a fluke, either. First, the Spurs reverted to the same ball movement that they had success with during the regular season -- by percentage, there were more PnR/cutting plays in the fourth than in the first few quarters. Second, the Spurs absolutely missed a bevy of open shots in the first half that very nearly cost them the game, as well as a remarkably poor transition attack. In the fourth, they hit their open shots and stopped doing the things that weren't working (like transition offense).

Which probably deserves its own notation. While the Thunder's transition defense was about as good as you get, it's hard to imagine the Spurs scoring 0.4 points per transition possession as the series goes on, especially since they averaged an NBA-best 1.24 points per possession in transition during the regular season. Over a full series, the Spurs will shoot a bit better on open threes and won't be so lost in transition. But the Thunder's advantage in the passing lanes and their well-scouted defensive attack won't go away -- the question now is how well Pop adjusts to it. In last year's Memphis series, he didn't do a particularly good job -- this year, though, the personell is better and the Spurs' current defensive attack is much, much better than last. I think they can adjust, but the Thunder aren't going to miss all their open shots on a regular basis either.

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QUESTION #2: How often does Tiago score on pick and rolls? from @_chrisblack

Quite a lot. In 168 possessions as the roll man on the pick and roll, Tiago averages 1.32 points per possession -- he scores 66.7% of the time in those situations, and finishes baskets at a 71% conversion rate on 121 shots. Twelve of Tiago's 28 and -1 baskets came on the pick and roll this year. It's one of the most deadly offensive tools in the Spurs' arsenal, and the chemistry between Manu and Tiago is something to keep an eye on every time they share the court.

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QUESTION #3: Has the east been worse offensively in the playoffs? Or has pace just slowed down and the lower scores happened because of it? from @sstewart1617

Good question. It's not just the pace, nope. In the regular season, the East's 8 playoff teams averaged an offensive rating of 105. Not incredible, but well above average. In the playoffs? Try 98. A decrease of 7 points per 100 possessions, pace-adjusted. If you feel like the East wasn't this unwatchable in the regular season, you'd be right -- it wasn't. The offense we've seen in the east so far has been a special kind of awful.

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QUESTION #4: Does the high mpg that guys like Kobe and LeBron play actually make a difference in their play in the 4th? Or late in a series? from @sstewart1617

I don't have a ton of stats on this, but the eye test would tend to say yes, at least for me. For an example, I'd look at the last two years of titles -- while Kobe played very well for most of the finals, he broke down late in the fourth in several key games of the 2010 finals, with an emphasis on his clunker in game 7 that most people remember but never properly contextualize -- Kobe had played an insane number of minutes the entire playoffs, and was coming off two games of virtuoso performances. He looked exhausted, and by all accounts, he was. Last year's finals have gotten a lot of press, but not necessarily for the reasons they should. LeBron was absolutely worn down by the end of games once he got to the finals -- part of that was the excellent Dallas defense (and their effective "force LeBron to run around" scheme), but part of that was the fact that Spolestra had played him 44 minutes per game in the playoffs up to the finals, then increased his minutes load when they got there. The same was actually true in 2007, when LeBron had the first awful series of his life against the champion 2007 Spurs. Part of it was obviously Bowen, but people rarely understand just how awful Bruce was at guarding LeBron during the regular season. He used to be terrible at it. If LeBron hadn't been completely exhausted by the finals, having played 45 minutes per game in the run-up, it's likely that the 2007 finals would have been at least slightly more competitive than the annihilation they became.

Long story short? If you have good defenders, it's a lot easier to guard a player when they're exhausted and can't get their legs under their shot.

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QUESTION #5: What's OKC's best crunch time lineup? Are they making a mistake by not playing Sefalosha in the 4th? from @steven_lebron

I don't have stats on how OKC's lineups performed at specific times of the game, but it looks unlikely Thabo is part of those lineups. According to Basketball-Value, the only lineup Thabo played in that got more than 20 minutes of burn in the regular season with a +/- better than their season average was a Westbrook-Thabo-Durant-Ibaka-Collison lineup that registered a +11.9 in 21.99 minutes of play -- other than that, he had just two lineups that fit that criterion; one with a negative differential and one representing his time with the starting unit, where the team produced slightly under their season average production. This is backed up by Thabo's stats on 82Games.com, where his clutch stats indicate that the team was markedly worse in the clutch when Thabo was on the floor.

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QUESTION #6: Kawhi Leonard had the worst +/- at -16. This may mean nothing, but what did KL do poorly in game 1? How can he improve? from @TBJ_soldier

He actually didn't do that bad a job defending Durant -- while Jackson did a better job cutting off Durant's shots, he also fouled him on every other possession and gave the Thunder free points at the line. Consider the stats from the game, here. With Kawhi on the floor, Durant shot 47% from the field, to 25% when Kawhi was off the floor. However, he also averaged only 6 FTA per 36 minutes and 6 rebounds per 36 minutes. With Jackson on the floor, Durant averaged 16 FTA per 36 and 12 rebounds -- both of these are obviously well above his season averages. Jackson also held him to 25% shooting, which is incredible. Anyway. Kawhi did a very good job keeping Durant under his usual free throw attempts and provided a very different defensive look on KD. As for what he did poorly? Primarily offense. He averaged 1.05 points per possession in the regular season, with 1.39 off the cut and 1.31 in transition. In game 1, he shot 33% from three, 2-6 from two point range, and turned the ball over twice for an abysmal 0.64 PPP, the 2nd worst total on the team. In game two, he needs to actually make the open shots he missed during the opening salvo and continue playing Durant tough. Also, continue rebounding -- Kawhi was a major part of the Spurs' huge advantage in rebounding percentage during the game, and that may have been the factor that decided the game in the first place.

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QUESTION #7: how many charlotte bobcats from @CardboardGerald

There were 16 players who suited up for the Charlotte Bobcats this season. The number 16 is notable because it is the number that Hall of Fame Power Forward Matt Bonner wore in his first two years with the Charlotte Bobcats. This is the only reason such a number is notable.

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QUESTION #8: Who's played better defense on star guards/forwards, Danny Green or Kahwi Leaonard? from @sstewart1617

Clearly, Danny Green. Kahwi Leaonard is not a person who exists, Sam. ... Okay, for real though. Green's defense has been overall worse than Kawhi's this year, at least in the overall synergy numbers and through +/-. It's arguable that Kawhi has played far more minutes on better players, too, given that Pop has tended to give Kawhi the Bowen-esque assignments without remorse. I'm not sure of the best way to quickly get you an answer on this, so I'd go with my intuition and say that Kawhi probably got harder matchups and played more minutes on star players, meaning that the large gap between him and Danny in the overall numbers would therefore extend to star players as well.

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QUESTION #9: Is Tiago Splitter's cuteness to effectiveness ratio the best in the NBA? from @sstewart1617's wife

Probably not. The "cuteness to effectiveness" ratio is probably a stat that would underrate Tiago. He's simply too effective -- even if you give him 5 or 6 on a 10 point cuteness scale, he's _certainly_got a high number on the effectiveness scale. Compare that to, say, someone like Nick Young (who my friend Monique has a decisive crush on) or someone like Gordon Hayward or George Hill who have high reported cuteness but markedly lower effectiveness. Probably not a very favorable stat for Tiago, all things considered. Sorry.

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QUESTION #10: It wasn't his shooting hand, but is there any statistical correlation between Tiago's hand injury and his sudden drop in FT%? from @calebjsaenz

That's a really good observation. The injury Caleb is referring to occurred in game 2 of the NBA playoffs, where Tiago suffered a sprained left wrist on a freak fall in the first quarter. Splitting Tiago's free throws by pre-injury and post-injury, you get the following split:

  • Pre-Injury, Tiago made 125 out of 183 free throws this season -- or, 68.3%.
  • Post-Injury, Tiago made 9 out of 28 free throws this season -- or, 32.1%.
Extremely small sample size, but there you go. It does appear that Tiago has shot significantly worse from the line since the sprained wrist, and it's entirely possible that his slump is rooted in the injury. I'd note that in game 4 of the Jazz series, Tiago shot 4-5 from the line, but since that game he has yet to make more than a single free throw in a single game. That's a bad sign going forward, as Tiago's improved free throw form was one of the big reasons he's been so effective this season. But it's also possible the prolonged slump will call Chip's attention to the problem and lead to some personal work on trying to rebuild Tiago's shot on the fly, or at least get him to stop overcompensating for the wrist. Either way, it's a definite trend to watch going forward, and a great observation. Thanks for the question.

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QUESTION #11: Who gains the most from playing small in the WCF, the Spurs or the Thunder? And how did Boston fare against lineups with LeBron playing PF? from Jared Dubin of Hardwood Paroxysm

Jared always asks the tough questions!

Over the whole season, the Spurs had limited-to-none success with true smallball. No lineup with Duncan at C and a non-big at PF that played over 19 minutes in the regular season registered an above-0.500 winning percentage. The same was true for Tiago Splitter, the next most commonly played center on San Antonio's roster. Thunder lineups with Durant at the 4 played significantly better, putting up a net rating of +15.3 in serious minutes and showing themselves to be one of the best possible configurations of the Thunder's roster. Personally, I'm not convinced that this lineup is going to be nearly as effective against San Antonio. The biggest problem the Thunder face against the Spurs -- beyond the obvious defensive problem of keeping San Antonio's league-best offense in check -- is rebounding. I covered extensively in my Thunder/Spurs preview the problems facing the Thunder on the boards, and while Durant is a great rebounder at the four, I'm not sure he can hack it on the boards against the front lines the Spurs will be putting out there in this series. So I think it's a general push, personally.

As for the second question, I've put together a spreadsheet that details every instance of LeBron at the four during the regular season. In about 70 regular season minutes across 4 games against Boston, lineups with LeBron at the four ended up with a net rating of +0.0. Yes, exactly zero. They gave up as many points as they scored (161 both ways). This might sound strange, but it's actually a pretty good result for the Heat -- the Celtics beat the Heat 3/4 times this season, with an average differential of +7.8. For a lineup to have +0.0 when the overall picture is that bleak, that's a reasonably good result. And a good sign that even with Bosh out, the Heat aren't exactly chopped liver if they play the LeBron at the 4 lineup. Especially considering the Celtics are missing Avery Bradley, and may as well be missing Ray Allen at this point.

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QUESTION #12: I'm interested in the Spurs' success relative to possessions per game. Is there a number of possessions per game that seem to treat them unfavorably? That is, say, less than 90 or some such. Is there actually a pace at which they play better or worse, or is that just something we make up? from Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell

Interesting query. There does seem to be a slight correlation. Per Hoopdata calculations, when the Spurs use over 95 possessions in a game, they're virtually unbeatable -- they're 29-3, with one of the three losses the loss to Portland where Pop sat every starter but Kawhi and didn't give a crap about anything. However, their record is relatively indistinguishable in the super-low ranges to the mid-tier ranges of possessions per game -- to wit, the Spurs are 5-4 at under 91 possessions and 17-9 in games where they use 91-95 possessions. So it appears that slower is better, for Spurs opponents. But it's extremely rare that the Spurs actually allow their opponents to dictate the tempo and force a game to be as slow as that. Still. The relationship is there.

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QUESTION #13: What have the Celtics' most effective defensive lineups been over the course of the postseason, and who has led the Heat's offensive resurgence? from @NickFlynt

Essentially, any lineup starring Kevin Garnett. Lineups with Garnett in them have had a combined defensive rating of 86.9, which is nothing if not bananaphones. No other player on the team is close, with Avery Bradley the only other rotation player with an on-court DRtg under 90. As for the Heat, you might be surprised to hear it, but it's the bench. Ignoring the players who have played less than 100 minutes in the postseason (sorry, Juwan Howard), check out the Heat's rotation players ranked by the Heat's offensive rating with that player on/off the court in the playoffs:

  1. Mike Miller; 235 minutes, 113 ORtg on the court, 105 ORtg off the court.
  2. Joel Anthony; 257 minutes, 111 ORtg on the court, 106 ORtg off the court.
  3. Udonis Haslem; 179 minutes, 110 ORtg on the court, 108 ORtg off the court.
  4. LeBron James; 442 minutes, 109 ORtg on the court, 105 ORtg off the court.
  5. Chris Bosh; 182 minutes, 109 ORtg on the court, 108 ORtg off the court.
  6. Shane Battier; 314 minutes, 109 ORtg on the court, 108 ORtg off the court.
  7. Dwyane Wade; 407 minutes, 108 ORtg on the court, 109 ORtg off the court.
  8. Mario Chalmers; 369 minutes, 105 ORtg on the court, 116 ORtg off the court.
Essentially, the Heat have been very good offensively with LeBron, Haslem, Anthony, and Miller on the court. Mario Chalmers has been absolutely horrible, and the Heat offense has been slightly worse so far in the playoffs with Wade on the court. LeBron has been very important too, especially when you consider that in 11 games, there were only 528 possible minutes he could've played at all. So, the Heat have been markedly better on offense with LeBron on the floor, but certain bench players have improved the Heat offense as well. Not exactly what most people would expect, but an interesting result.

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QUESTION #14: Are Kevin Garnett's obscene +/- numbers in the playoffs due to his offense, his defense, or both? from @SixerSense

Both. The Celtics have a DRtg (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 87 with him on the floor and 117 with him off the floor. On the other hand, the Celtics have an ORtg (points scored per 100 possessions) of 102 with him on the court and 85 with him off the court. So, basically, they've been a shady-but-decent offensive team with him on the court and a lights out defensive team, as opposed to the worst offense/defense combination in human history with him off the court. Yep.

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QUESTION #15: Do the Spurs want to face Boston or Miami in a theoretical finals matchup? from @TBJ_Soldier

I don't like answering hypotheticals like this, especially given how hard of a series OKC is going to put up to possibly prevent the Spurs from even getting there. However, it has to be Boston. The Celtics are one of the worst offenses to get to a conference finals in the history of the league. Amazing defense or not, they're a one-man team that's relying on a 36 year old Kevin Garnett to do literally everything on the court, game-in and game-out. It would be one of the most mismatched finals ever, possibly even moreso than 2007. In other words: yes, the Spurs would rather have Boston than the team with the reigning MVP and a still-in-his-prime finals MVP from a previous title team.

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QUESTION #16: What box score stats predict winning the best? from @PGPostUp

I'm not a huge fan of the Wages of Wins network, for reasons which are extensively outlined here. But if you want to look at simple regressions of which box score statistics correlate to winning, they've got a relatively detailed body of work on the subject, which can be found in their "about" section. In particular, Arturo Galletti has a nice post on the matter here. I'm more a fan of Dean Oliver's work on the four factors of basketball, which is his attempt at finding the most predictive box score statistics. Another INCREDIBLE resource (and the one I'm most fond of pointing people to) comes from friend of the site Evan Z., whose Advanced Stats Primer is by far the best in class and explains virtually every derivation of the box score statistics that you can use to predict wins. I'd start with Wages, move on to Four Factor stats, and then go through Evan's Primer if you want a step by step journey of increasing complexity into the seedy world of basketball statistics.

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A few notes on the questions, now. I'll answer anything I can, so long as the question involves basketball numbers of some form. Questions about playoff teams are preferred, but not required. I'd prefer if you left the questions in one of the following forms: the comments of this post, sent on twitter (@docrostov), or emailed to our staff email (staff@gothicginobili.com). That way, I don't have to go looking into my Quora account seven weeks into the future only to find I missed a question. (None of you would do that, right?) I hope to do these Q&A sessions a few times a month, as I feel I get a lot of questions on twitter regarding numbers behind basketball and I think this is a great forum to start addressing those. I'll be answering questions until a few hours after MIA-BOS game 1. So ask away, folks.