As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. Today we continue with James Johnson, Jason Terry, and John Lucas.
Follow James Johnson by becoming an undefeated kickboxer.
If you haven't drafted your fantasy basketball team yet, I have a super hot tip for you. Super hot, fresh off the presses. James Johnson is a solid player to have in fantasy. For real. He hurts your percentages a bit -- the shooting is poor, with bad three point conversion and a sub-par free throw percentage. And he doesn't tend to put up 30 minutes a game, for good reason. But he's extraordinarily effective at the tertiary stats -- Johnson proudly puts up best-in-class per-minute numbers for both steals and blocks, and features above average assist and rebounding rates for his position. He turns the ball over an incomprehensibly large amount, but not all leagues even pay attention to turnovers. And in most category leagues, a player that puts up tertiary statistics in the oft-forgotten categories like Johnson can end up being one of the most valuable fantasy players around. In leagues where people don't know a ton about fantasy sports, he can be extremely useful simply because he's incredibly nondescript and can be had in a relatively late round without anyone ever realizing he's a good get. Sneaky, folks. Very sneaky. Oh, don't you worry. I'll make sure to give more hot fantasy tips after all your drafts are done and gone next year, too. You're welcome.
I mention his fantasy chops primarily because, in my opinion, those are basically the most valuable of all chops present. I don't really love Johnson as a player outside of his fantasy value. Yet -- he has the potential to get better. Johnson tends to take a lot of extremely bad long-two-point shots that tank his percentages across the board, and diminish his offensive usefulness. He takes a lot of shots at the rim -- above the position average, in fact -- but last season converted on a below-average proportion of those at-rim shots and doesn't have any particular talent for finishing at the rim, except when he's matched on much smaller players. (In other words, when he's not playing out of position at the large forward.) He's decent at the dunk, but no artist like Demar DeRozan or power slammer like Chandler or Howard. Still, that wouldn't matter quite so much if his offensive game had any real polish outside of 3 feet -- merely average shooting outside that range combined with his usual 55-58% showings at the rim would average out to a well-above-par offensive player. Unfortunately, he isn't at par or anywhere close -- he was below the small forward average from every range outside of 9 feet, often by quite a lot. And, again, way too many long two pointers -- almost 30% of his shots last season came from 15-23 feet, which is absurd and quite unnecessary.
Defensively, he's no perimeter stopper (yet) but he's a useful fellow to have in your corner. Doesn't necessarily have the quickness to get around screens efficiently or the nimble footing needed to individually check quick wings. But he's got a lot of size, and he has the ability to absolutely overwhelm smaller players who attempt to post him up. He tends to focus more on getting the steal or the block than I'd like, and while he's a good weakside shot blocker, at his position I'd rather have a guy who goes one on one and gives strong contests than someone like Johnson who tends to cherry pick and go after the average statistical metrics. His defense didn't really impact the Toronto system much, a sign of both how oddly underutilized he is as a power forward and how effective Casey's system was at generating incredible defense even without his best defensive wing on the floor. Still, his defense is helpful to a team who's generally defenseless, so his presence should be much appreciated by the Kings -- there were very few positive defensive players on the Kings last year, and in Johnson, they finally have one with some positive skills. And the potential to get a lot better, if he works on his focus when defending individual players and develops a bit more quickness. He could be a shut-down defender someday if he could just focus his stat-grabbing powers into the things that really make defenders excel. He's got the body for it, and he could carve out a more effective career as a role player if he did it.
Off the court? Kickboxer from a family of martial artists. Went 20-0 professionally. Don't mess with James Johnson.
At some point, people who dislike Jason Terry -- myself included -- need to step back and simply start appreciating his production. And let's get this straight now -- I am no fan of Terry's. I think he's bombastic, self-obsessed, and preening. He needs to realize, at some point, that he is not an airplane. That is not him. He is not such an object. He is a man, and men cannot fly -- for they lack the wings and aerodynamically functional curves required to do so. No, Terry is not a plane, nor an NBA superstar. He has an irrational amount of self-confidence, and a frankly somewhat incredible ability to spin anything said about his play or his team's chances as a terrible insult. He's one of those guys who you may like on your team -- perhaps -- but who you absolutely despise playing against. And that's all, to some extent, to his credit. Even if it makes me dislike him.
But you know what? He probably was underrated in #NBARank, and in a general sense, Terry is of inconceivably low repute to a vast majority of the NBA's fans. And it makes no sense to me. Last season, Terry was the 5th best shooting guard in the NBA. Really. There were the obvious betters -- Kobe, Wade, Harden, Manu -- and you could make a reasonable case that Joe Johnson was better. Beyond those five? Nobody. Not a one. If you count Iguodala a shooting guard, he's better too -- but that's about it. You have to imagine that anyone else with his statistical resume last season in Los Angeles or New York would have gotten quite a bit more hype for it.
- Jason Terry shot an above average percentage from every single range of the floor, despite being assisted on less than 50% of his shots. (The average NBA shooting guard was assisted on 60% of their shots last season -- Ray Allen was assisted on over 75% of his.) There were few real flaws to Terry's offensive game -- he didn't get to the rim as much as he used to, and he drew fewer free throws, but he improved his jumper's accuracy to compensate and had a good year passing.
- Speaking of the passing, Terry's passing has been chronically underrated throughout his career. He's a gunner, but he's not one who never passes -- for his career he's posted an assist percentage around 25%, meaning that while Terry is on the floor, he assists on 25% of all field goals made. That's... actually quite good for a shooting guard, and in his late career, he's kept to roughly similar numbers. Turns the ball over a bit more than one would perhaps hope, but given his above-average assist rate, it's nothing phenomenally concerning -- he often acts as a pseudo-point when he's playing without a point guard, and that does tend to inflate one's turnover rate.
- He did all of this at the age of 34, well past his prime. He played over 30 minutes a night and missed only three games across the entire season. John Hollinger aptly described Terry as "the Ageless Wonder", and I have to agree. Let me put it this way -- in 2010, after Terry's objectively terrible playoffs, I had a sneaking suspicion that he'd be out of the rotation in favor of Rodrigue Beaubois in a year's time. Two years later, he's still one of the 5 or 6 best players at his position in the entire league. Eldritch.
No surprise, then -- I think Boston's switch from Ray Allen to Jason Terry is actually a pretty massive win for them. I don't know how much longer Terry's going to be able to continue putting up numbers like this, but I'm through with assuming he's got one foot out the door. The Boston offense should improve a decent amount with a player like Terry putting up 30 minutes of self-contained, efficient scoring. Terry is hardly dependent on the pieces around him to pass him the ball in exactly the right situation -- Allen was. The movement will help. I'm of the view that fewer minutes for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in favor of Brandon Bass and Jeff Green (as well as Avery Bradley being out or hobbling for 2-3 months) is going to completely cancel out the Allen upgrade. But that's just it -- Allen to Terry isn't a lateral move, as most seem to imply. It's a legitimate upgrade. At least for this season. It's possible that Terry finally begins to show his age. He will, at some point in this Celtics contract. But this season alone? Rondo's passing and Doc's crisp rotations should keep him as fresh (and annoying) as ever.
It's a constant refrain, here in the capsules. Per-minute productivity doesn't mean the player's necessarily a lock to be a decent player, nor does it necessarily translate to larger minutes. There's a general reason why this is true, one that's relatively less understood than it should be in sporting circles. So, let's try to explain it. Say we have a player -- call him George. George plays around 10 minutes a night... usually. He's one of two backups to a team's treasured star -- call him Geraldo. Let's say Geraldo is injured, and will be out for 7 or 8 games. How will George's minutes increase? Well, it's actually extremely unpredictable -- because there are two options, while we know his minutes will increase, we don't really know the magnitude of the jump. And that's primarily because if George is playing and he's put in 15 or so crummy minutes, the coach isn't just going to leave George on the court -- he'll play the other backup primary burn and relegate George to spot minutes. So, even in the presence of high-value playing time, George isn't necessarily going to play all of it -- he's going to play when he's good and sit when he's bad. Conversely, if he has 15 high-value minutes, chances are high George will double or triple his usual playing time -- the time is available, in theory, but it will likely only be extended to him if he's having a good game.
What I just described is the primary reason a backup who's generally average can end up with shockingly good statistics. If a player plays 5-10 minutes a night, a few outlier high-burn nights can skew the averages considerably. And with these kinds of players, high-burn nights simply don't happen unless the player is having a good night in the first place. Whether they found a good matchup, woke up on the right side of the bed, ate their Wheaties, etc -- games where fringe-ish players end up with 20-30 minutes tend to be games where the player is going supernova. Let's use last season's performance by John Lucas as an example. In his five top performances in minutes played, he accrued 156 minutes -- that calculates out to about 20% of the minutes he played in the entire season. In just five games. Were his minutes evenly distributed, we'd expect a five game sample to comprise 10% of his minutes played. How does this disparity translate to points? Well, he scored 109 points in these five games. He only scored 369 points in the season overall, meaning that in just five games, Lucas provided almost 30% of the points he scored in 2012. Consider: Lucas played fewer than 9 minutes in more than a third of his games this season. When you're dealing with such a low baseline, you end up giving a huge relative weight to these (fundamentally) skewed values.
This can have a rather outsized impact on raw averages -- in the field of statistics, this is a situation where an analyst would generally want to see the overall distance between the median and the mean and start to build intuition about why, exactly, they're so different. Then, potentially, take a long hard look at using the median as the descriptive statistic of choice. Despite being an extremely small sample, these five nights make up 30% of his scoring output. And it's a biased sample, too! If Lucas was having a poor night, he would've been promptly yanked. Which goes back to my original point -- high-minute nights for bit players are fundamentally biased samples, but they have a fundamentally higher impact on a player's averages. Ever wondered why some guy who performs like a scrub in all but a few random games every year has stats befitting an average, decent player? This general idea is your explanation. They get to overweight their best games in a way rotation players that have to play 30-35 minutes a night, off night or no, don't get to do. To sum it up -- if John Lucas goes 0-3, he'll be out at the next timeout. If Chris Bosh goes 0-3, he'll play 40 and have the chance to go 1-18.
All that said? John Lucas wasn't bad backup at all. Nor was any of this meant to imply he was. It IS meant to imply that stats are a bit useless without context when it comes time to assess where John Lucas fits in the game. The median trumps the mean, oftentimes, when it comes to assessing the value of players with skewed minutes distributions. That's the general point, not one about Lucas in particular -- I personally really like John Lucas as a guard off the bench. He's a good three point shooter, an aggressive scorer, and a decent ballhandler. He's quite undersized for a shooting guard, despite that being his natural position; no real point guard skills of note, although his size forces him to be matched with them. He had decent results as a defender by the numbers (adjusted +/- and Synergy), but watching tape, you can start to tell that less of his value comes from self-made defense than the general Chicago defensive schema Thibodeau put him in. Asik, Noah, and Gibson help out a lot, and cover for his size in a way he never quite got in his early career. He wasn't bad, per se -- used his quickness well, made the most out of the size he has, showed good ability to stay with guys laterally -- but his excellent defensive stats weren't necessarily something he caused more than something he lucked into with the help of the overall defense. Lucas turns 30 in less than a month, and he doesn't really have a ton of upside. But as a possible first-off-the-bench backup for Lowry in the event of a Calderon swap, the Raptors could do a lot worse. And this doesn't even cover Lucas as a person -- he's by all accounts an extraordinarily nice guy, and who's the feature of many heartwarming articles you can read if you want confirmation.
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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Mike L. got yesterday's riddles with a 3/3. (Although, I admit, Patrick... Derek Fisher would've been a great answer for the 2nd riddle as well.)
- Player #247 is constantly injured and doesn't fit with his team. Really needs to get his hops back. And come off the bench, too.
- Player #248 in 2010, was responsible for a huge bush league hit on Manu Ginobili in the playoffs. It infuriates me when thinking about it. Ugh.
- Player #249 was one of the quietest amnesties ever. I somehow didn't realize he was amnestied until preseason. He hasn't made it to a team... despite being barely 30 and having started 62 relatively decent games in 2011. "What. Really? What."
The season quite literally starts tonight. Lordy. I actually just got to a milestone of my own, here -- we're now officially 66% of the way through the capsules. Two thirds! The milestones will start going by a lot faster at this juncture, with the season as a backdrop to make time even quicker. Current projections of my end-date have the series, fittingly, wrapped up and tied with a bow on Christmas Eve. A nice gift. For now, enjoy the season's tidings. We'll have a general feature on Power Rankings up later today, as well -- hope you all enjoy it.
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