Last week, I wrote a second installment of a new feature looking at some statistical quirks and odd happenings over the prior week's action. To me, any time in the first month or two is a good time to be looking at NBA stats. There's not quite enough time for the trends to take on set-in-stone significance, but one can ignore them at their own peril. For just about every absurd statistical quirk that will fade as time goes on, the early season throws a truthful tiding or two to keep you on your toes. So, as an ongoing feature, I'm going to try and take a weekly look at some recent trends of note and take my best stab at determining whether they're fated to fade or a reflection of the new normal. I will also, at the bottom of the post, keep a running tally of the trends I've previously enumerated and their current status. My current plan: three new trends per week, and a weekly enumeration of prior trends. Let's get to it, then.
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Observation #1: EASTERN CONFERENCE ALL-STAR GUARDS ARE HARD TO FIND
When you think of the Eastern Conference, it's not particularly hard to come up with names that sound like they should be all-star quality. Whether it's guards that made the all-star team before or have the unimpeachable all-star chops of a young player coming into their own, in the preseason, the thought was simple. The East's surfeit of talent had finally come to call, lifting the conference up into a tier of respectability heretofore unseen by man. Kyrie, Rose, Wall, Williams -- the talent was undeniable.
Here are a few things we know about all-stars. First, we know they play at least 30 minutes a night. Only one player has ever made an all-star game averaging fewer than 25 minutes a night, and only five have made it averaging fewer than 27 -- you need to be on the court for well over half the game to get consideration. Secondly, although this may surprise you, you generally need to have an above-average PER. Only 60 players have gotten an all-star bid in the past 60 years with a PER under 15, and only one of those occurred in the last 20 years. In general, you need to be at least marginally above average to merit consideration for a spot. Finally, the kicker -- your team needs to win, at least a little bit. Only 1 or 2 all-stars a season will hail from a losing team, and they generally hail from a team that's suffered massive injury trauma.
Having said all that, please take a look at the following table of the NBA's top 20 guard performances this season for those playing above 27 minutes a game, ranked by win shares. Please note: there are only 61 guards averaging over that minutes total. I've included a few below the top 20, with their rank next to their name. Because I am helpful, I have marked all western guards in red and all eastern guards in blue.
Player Tm G MP WS TS% PER FG% 3P% FT% 1 Chris Paul LAC 11 36.2 2.2 0.56 26.8 0.42 0.24 0.96 2 Andre Iguodala GSW 11 37.0 2.0 0.72 19.4 0.61 0.52 0.60 3 Klay Thompson GSW 11 35.5 1.9 0.67 20.2 0.53 0.51 0.82 4 Stephen Curry GSW 10 32.7 1.7 0.60 24.0 0.46 0.44 0.89 5 Wesley Matthews POR 11 35.1 1.7 0.71 19.2 0.55 0.53 0.76 6 Arron Afflalo ORL 10 36.9 1.6 0.62 21.4 0.49 0.50 0.80 7 Kevin Martin MIN 10 35.1 1.6 0.60 21.7 0.45 0.47 0.91 8 Eric Bledsoe PHO 9 34.8 1.5 0.61 23.9 0.50 0.29 0.83 9 Ty Lawson DEN 10 36.9 1.5 0.56 23.7 0.46 0.32 0.79 10 Damian Lillard POR 11 37.0 1.5 0.55 19.2 0.40 0.40 0.86 11 Mike Conley MEM 11 32.6 1.4 0.60 23.0 0.51 0.32 0.87 12 James Harden HOU 10 39.8 1.4 0.59 21.6 0.44 0.29 0.86 13 Jeremy Lin HOU 11 33.8 1.3 0.66 19.3 0.53 0.44 0.79 14 Kyle Lowry TOR 11 35.4 1.3 0.52 16.0 0.39 0.36 0.67 15 Lance Stephenson IND 10 33.8 1.2 0.54 15.3 0.46 0.45 0.55 16 Tony Parker SAS 10 31.5 1.1 0.57 20.3 0.54 0.27 0.65 17 J.J. Redick LAC 11 29.4 1.1 0.61 18.9 0.46 0.38 0.95 18 Jeff Teague ATL 10 34.3 1.1 0.54 21.2 0.44 0.25 0.76 19 Jodie Meeks LAL 12 27.5 1.0 0.69 16.1 0.53 0.49 0.77 20 Steve Blake LAL 12 31.9 0.9 0.54 14.4 0.40 0.46 0.77 ... 22 DeMar DeRozan TOR 11 38.2 0.9 0.49 16.1 0.40 0.35 0.82 ... -------------------- ALL PLAYERS BELOW THIS LINE ARE BELOW THE AVERAGE --------------------------- ... 33 Evan Turner PHI 12 36.5 0.6 0.54 17.3 0.47 0.19 0.84 34 John Wall WAS 9 36.9 0.6 0.47 16.9 0.37 0.32 0.85 36 Kyrie Irving CLE 11 35.8 0.5 0.49 17.6 0.40 0.35 0.82 39 Dwyane Wade MIA 9 33.2 0.5 0.52 18.5 0.48 0.29 0.61 43 Brandon Jennings DET 7 34.3 0.4 0.47 19.6 0.38 0.31 0.71 44 Joe Johnson BRK 10 33.0 0.4 0.50 12.0 0.40 0.34 0.80 48 Bradley Beal WAS 9 40.1 0.3 0.51 13.1 0.41 0.45 0.73 54 Kemba Walker CHA 11 34.7 0.2 0.42 12.7 0.33 0.26 0.78 60 Derrick Rose CHI 8 31.4 -0.1 0.44 9.2 0.34 0.33 0.88
Seriously, what? There are only five eastern conference guards with above-average win-shares among guards playing 27+ MPG. Jeff Teague and Brandon Jennings are leading Eastern Conference guards in PER. Ray Allen, Arron Afflalo, and Mario Chalmers are leading Eastern guards in shooting -- add in James Anderson, O.J. Mayo, and Martell Webster and you have the only six eastern conference guards with a TS% over 55%. This isn't just a "below average" thing. Eastern conference guards have been an absolute horror-show in the early going, and none have been more disappointing than the conference's anointed preseason all-stars. Derrick Rose is currently sporting negative win shares and a PER of 9. Kyrie Irving's PER is barely above average and he's shooting identical percentages to DeMar DeRozan (seriously, look at them -- to date, both players are shooting 40-35-82). Deron Williams is barely averaging 25 minutes a night, and as such, isn't even on this list. Dwyane Wade is posting by large margin the worst numbers of his entire career and playing lackadaisical defense... and he's probably the most deserving all-star in the East's guard slate right now. It's that bad.
If I had to pick out who "deserves" an Eastern conference all-star spot right now, I'd probably err on the side of Wade, Teague, Afflalo, and Turner. Which is... special, let's put it that way. Much like last season, you can make a case for Jennings and Wall and Irving as Eastern all-stars. Unlike last season, it's not really that any of those three are playing anything even remotely approaching decent basketball -- it's simply that they aren't completely embarrassing themselves, and in this Eastern conference, "not embarrassing yourself" appears to be just about good enough to "deserve" an all-star spot. Conversely, look at the embarrassment of riches in the West. Parker, Paul, and Curry all look like locks, and their production has been phenomenal to date. But Mike Conley has been world's better than anything the East has put up, as has Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. As has Harden and Lin. And don't forget Lillard or Westbrook. Hell, Eric Freaking Gordon has been putting up great numbers compared to his eastern counterparts, and he's world's away from his first all-star selection in the West.
All this is to say: there will probably be five guards from the Western conference selected to this year's all-star game, and there will probably be four or five guards from the Eastern conference selected to this year's all-star game. Don't for one second think that the Eastern selection will mean quite as much as the Western selection, and don't for one moment forget that there are legitimately zero guards in the East that would currently make even a cursory cut for a Western selection.
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Observation #2: MIAMI HAS A POINT GUARD CRISIS
"Wait, what? Really?"
That overstates it, but... sort of. After a year or so of scuffling in wanting for a point guard worth their salt, the Heat finally seemed to converge nicely around Chalmers in 2012. They haven't really looked back ever since -- and it must be noted that they really haven't needed to, as Chalmers has been decent enough to keep the show going without breaking anything and keeping things relatively tied down for LeBron and Wade to orchestrate the show. Chalmers isn't broken, so there's no real reason to fix him, yes?
Well, again -- sort of. Norris Cole was an abhorrent NBA player in his first few seasons -- bad at shooting, worse at running an offense, worse still at playing defense. He didn't really fit seamlessly into the Heat's system, to the point where he duplicated skills that needed no duplication and was bereft of skills that the heat needed dearly. So they buried him on the bench and the thought was that he'd take a bigger role when the time came that he'd finally learned how to run an NBA offense.
If early season numbers are accurate, that time might very well be now.
After noticing Cole's strong impact in the excellent Dallas game a few nights back, I took a dip into the stat-pool. Using Evan Zamir's NBAWowy tool, I took a look at how the Heat offense was faring under Chalmers and under Cole. The results were surprising. The Heat offense is scoring 1.08 points per possession with Chalmers on the floor, which is quite nice... but they're scoring 1.22 points per possession with Cole on the floor, which is borderline unholy. The difference is mainly due to differential shooting percentages -- they're shooting better from three and better from midrange with Cole on the floor -- but I admit that my main curiosity was whether the Heat were taking a different profile of overall shots with Cole on the floor. The answer: a little bit. Cole isn't much of a three point marksman, so the expectation should be that the Heat take fewer threes with him on the floor -- and they take marginally fewer. They take a few more midrange shots, but shoot significantly better from that range. They have more dunk attempts and more tip shots than they do under Chalmers, but slightly fewer layups.
Does this mean that the Heat should dramatically cut Chalmers from their rotation in pursuit of more production from Cole? Probably not -- Chalmers is still a better defender than Cole, even if he takes a lot of stupid risks, and there's something to be said for continuity. For my part, I don't think the raw difference in PPP is going to hold up over time. Although they're shooting better under Cole, they're shooting worse shots. That probably isn't going to lead to a sustainable gap between them. That said, both players have a very different way of running the game, and from an adaptation standpoint, it's always nice to have new options. I'd bet you anything Spolestra's already drawing up some new strategies to spring on teams in the playoffs using their differential styles to keep the opposing defense off guard. A bit of a scary development for the rest of the league, all things considered.
NOTE: I don't really have any explanation for this, but the Heat are actually being outscored with Chalmers on the floor, as opponents are averaging 1.09 PPP with Chalmers on the floor and 1.01 PPP with Cole on the floor. This is not a reflection of their defense, as Chalmers really is a better defender in space than his man. He does, as I said, take a lot of stupid risks... but on the whole he's a bit better than Cole. I don't really know what's up with that. Especially since Chalmers shared almost triple the minutes with LeBron/Bosh/Wade than Cole did. Not sure what to say about that, so I'm just going to place that here and let you think about it. Think about what you've done, readers.
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Observation #3: THE ATLANTIC DIVISION MIGHT BE HISTORICALLY BAD
Because I don't store data on teams by-division (and don't have a large number of years in my "team stats by year" personal database), I don't have many statistics on their historical comparables. But I do have a decent number of statistics on their overall performance to date. And let's be real, for a moment -- if things continue as they've played out to date, the Atlantic division may very well end up being a historically awful display of NBA futility. Some facts about the division:
Collectively, the division as a whole is on a 12 game losing streak. None of the five teams from the Atlantic Division have won a game in regulation since Toronto's 103-86 upset of the Grizzlies last Wednesday. That's right -- almost a week. If the Knicks and the Celtics lose tonight, it'll stretch to a 14 game losing streak, and officially stretch the division's collective streak without a regulation win to a week. (Note: there were two OT wins in that period by Brooklyn and Philadelphia)
Currently, the division has been outscored by 4.1 points per game over a collective 53 games. Their collective record as a division is 19-34. I've heard a lot of people note that the division has a lot of close losses. True. But the expected win percentage of a team that is outscored 4.1 points per game is 36%, and 36% of 53 games is, well... 19 wins. [uncomfortable side glance] Really, though, to bring you some context: only 5 teams lost by more than four points a game over the course of the 2013 season. Those teams: CLE (-4.7), ORL (-7.0), CHA (-9.2), SAC (-4.9), and PHX (-6.5). Yikes.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the only team in the division with a winning home record. Every other team has a losing home record, and every team in the division has a losing road record. It is not a fun time to be an Atlantic division fan attending games. (Not coincidentally, the Sixers are currently leading the division. You know, almost one month into the season. The Sixers start James Anderson and have been missing their starting point guard. It's a great look.)
The division seems incredibly awful, but I sincerely doubt this particular trend is going to maintain going forward. They've got one hilarious saving grace right now -- they haven't played themselves. So far, they've only played one intra-division game this season, a showdown where the Raptors beat the Celtics. The division will necessarily go 1-1 on every game they play against themselves, with a net margin of zero. This is going to drag their collective point margin closer to zero, and provide a consistent source of wins. Even if the division loses_ every other game they play this year_, they'll go 36-36 with a margin of zero on the 72 intra-divison games that they play. And, I mean, they can't possibly lose every other game they play... right?
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TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?
"The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... The league average pace is currently down to 94.9. As it was last week, it's still the fastest since 1994 -- just a tiny bit slower, is all. Status: STILL TRUE.
"Stephen Curry is currently shooting nine three pointers a game, putting him on pace to smash through the all-time three pointers attempted mark in the 2nd quarter of game 75." ... Yeah, definitely not. He's missed a game and is now down to seven three-point attempts a game. He isn't going to smash the all-time attempted record, although his last-year record of three pointers made is an outside possibility. Might transition this off the trend list next week. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
"LeBron James is playing well over 36 MPG. He should not be playing this much, for rest reasons." ... He's down to exactly 36 MPG. I'm OK with this. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
"Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." ... Still completely reasonable. Only one player over 36 (Luol Deng) and everyone else in the low 30s to high 20s. It's a Popovich-type rotation right now. Status: STILL CONFUSING, STILL TRUE.
"The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." ... Nope. Officially gonna state it -- this Denver team isn't an absurdly awful basketball team. They aren't very good, and I'm going to be shocked if they finish the season over 0.500, but they're a respectable low-tier playoff contender that'd easily make the playoffs in the East. Their main issue is their defense, which is awful, but their post-Karl offense is still reasonably effective. Status: AWFUL, PERHAPS NOT ABSURDLY THOUGH?
"The Houston Rockets are currently taking one free throw for every two shots. This is a nearly historically unprecedented rate, and hasn't been seen since the 1950s." ... This one's maintaining. It went down a tad because of a single off-game, which makes one think that if Harden and Dwight combine to miss 10-15 games, this one might be lost. But their overall rate went from 0.511 last week to 0.497 this week, which still has them at a hilarious 4th all-time in free throw attempts per field goal attempts. Status: HISTORY BEING MADE
"Damian Lillard can't finish. He also can't stop making threes -- he's completely inverted his shooting percentages from his rookie year, despite neither looking particularly different." ... This one is starting to revert to the mean. At writing, Lillard was at 46% from three and 36% from two -- he is now at 40% from three and 40% from two, so last week showed Lillard finally finishing at the rim and draining the long twos he used to while his above the break three stopped being quite so lethal. Bears watching, but it appears this was just a strange glitch in the matrix. Status: REVERTING TO THE MEAN
"Andre Iguodala has the 5th worst free throw percentage in the league among players taking more than 2.5 shots a night -- if this doesn't improve, hack-an-Iggy is going to be a reasonable strategy for Golden State's opposition to pursue." ... At writing, Iguodala was under 50% at 47%. He's now at 60%, which is... well, it's not great, but it's a damn sight better than the point where a hack-an-Iggy strategy would make sense. This is a bit more in tune with his career averages, as well, so it would make sense if he maintains here over the full season. We'll keep watching, but this one seems like a trend that's died. Status: FLY AWAY TREND, BE FREE AS THE NIGHT