The Difference: Minnesota Timberwolves 105, Dallas Mavericks 90

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 25, 2012 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGame Flow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FTRORRTOR
Dallas96.093.844.210.524.611.6
Minnesota109.450.042.919.314.1

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Ricky Rubio (17 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds, four steals, seven turnovers) did a terrific job of getting the Wolves good looks both inside and out, be he hardly did all the work. Minnesota’s bigs fought hard to get good interior position and create contact once they received the entry pass, and the perimeter players worked diligently for a slice of open floor. The Wolves’ offensive success was hardly constant, but they at least seemed to know what worked and what didn’t, and sought to capitalize on their in-game strengths. Dallas, despite being a team of mismatch creation and utilization, didn’t quite share in that approach.
  • That said, there was a time in this game when the Mavs were pushing the pace not only as a means of getting easy transition buckets, but also forcing opponents to scramble into mismatches. On one particular first-quarter possession, Rubio was mismatched on Lamar Odom, giving Delonte West a chance to pull the ball out for a fake entry look before darting a pass to a wide open Brendan Haywood for an easy dunk. Haywood’s defender had snuck away to help on Odom, and West had correctly identified not only the mismatch, but its ripple effect.
  • The most succinct explanation possible for why the Mavs withered away on offense: they settled. Rarely is it so simple, but Minnesota applied defensive pressure, and Dallas recoiled. No rally. No response. There were simply too many pull-up threes and too many lazy sets. The Mavs tried to speed up their futile comeback attempt with quick jumpers early in the shot clock, but bricked pretty much every “momentum-changing” shot they attempted. I guess they did speed things up in a sense, merely not in the direction that they intended.

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The Clearest Of All Laws

Posted by Ian Levy on March 24, 2011 under Commentary | 15 Comments to Read

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Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.

It’s been just over three weeks since Corey Brewer signed with the Dallas Mavericks. Brewer is young, athletic and by all accounts, an extremely hard worker. However, the chief attraction for the Mavericks was his reputation as an excellent wing defender. So far he’s had trouble carving out a place for himself in Rick Carlisle’s rotation, averaging just 8.9 minutes per game over seven games. It’s difficult to draw conclusions with such a small sample size, but he hasn’t yet done anything to stand out at the defensive end.

What exactly is his defensive reputation based on? Watching him play we see a long and bouncy sliver of a forward. He competes on every defensive possession; he battles through screens, moves his feet on the perimeter, and displays a knack for using his length to contest shots. Defensive impact is notoriously hard to measure statistically, but is there any numeric evidence that his excellent tools and motor translate to an effect on an opposing team’s offense?

There are plenty of defensive statistics available. The issue is that none are accepted as a completely accurate metric, with opinions varying wildly on the value of each. Today we’re going to take a tour through some of these available statistics, examining Corey Brewer along the way and trying to pin down the quantity and quality of his defensive contributions. Since he’s spent such a short time with the Mavericks, most of the stats we look at will cover his entire season or just his games with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Box Score Statistics

These are the basics that everyone is familiar with: steals, blocks and rebounds. When we look at these stats per 40 minutes we find Brewer averaging 2.6 steals, 0.4 blocks and 4.5 rebounds. Compared to the league average for swingmen, Brewer is sub-par with regards to rebounds and blocks. However, he steals the ball at a rate nearly twice the league average.

Another way to look at these basic statistics is as a percentage of their opportunities. Steal Percentage, Block Percentage and Rebound Percentage (Ed. note: These measures have also been referred to as “rebounding rate,” etc. on this blog. The terms are completely synonymous.) are all statistics available from a variety of sources, including Hoopdata.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Stl% is calculated as the percentage of the opposing team’s offensive possessions on which a player records a steal. Blk% is calculated as the percentage of the opposing team’s shot attempts which are blocked by the player. Reb% is calculated as the percentage of available rebounds which a player grabs. Reb% is available as a total number, but can also be split into Offensive and Defensive Reb%.

Brewer’s total Reb% of 6.2% and his Blk% of 0.8% are both below average. Again, where he really shines is stealing the basketball. This season, Brewer ranks 4th in the league in Stl%, at 3.2%. He trails only Tony Allen, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul. Over the past four seasons, Brewer has the 17th best Stl% in the league, at 2.5%. Forcing turnovers is something the Mavericks have struggled with all season. They are currently 24th in the league, with an Opponent’s TOV% of 12.4%, well below the league average of 13.5%. Having Brewer on the floor to wreak havoc in the passing lanes could be a real asset in the playoffs.

On Court/Off Court Statistics

The premise with On Court/Off Court statistics is simple: look at how a team’s defense performs when a player is on the floor and compare that with how it performs when they’re off the floor. Theoretically, the player should be responsible for much of that difference. The problem is that these statistics have a lot of inherent “noise” in them. Since this model is essentially about comparison, trading minutes with a horrible defender can make someone look much better than they are. By the same token, a back-up may look much better than they are because they’re matched up against the opponent’s back-ups.

These statistics are available in a lot of different formats. 82games.com tracks several categories for On Court/Off Court, including Defensive Rating, eFG% allowed, Blk%, Reb%, Turnovers and Free Throw Attempts allowed. BasketballValue.com allows you to look at the On Court/Off Court Defensive Rating for a player overall, and broken down by the different five-man units the player was a part of.

Looking at these stats for Corey Brewer incorporates a lot of the “noise” we mentioned above. Brewer’s place in the Timberwolves’ rotation varied quite a bit. He started just under half of the 56 games he played with them. In 11 of those games he played fewer than 20 minutes. He played over 30 minutes 9 times. The Timberwolves are also ranked 26th this season in Defensive Rating, meaning Brewer played alongside some less than ideal defensive teammates, in a less than ideal defensive system.

To try and limit the influence of some of those factors in the statistics I isolated some five-man units Brewer was a part of to look at the On Court/Off Court Defensive Ratings. I started with the 6 units Brewer spent the most minutes playing with. For comparison, I pulled out any units that had the same four teammates but a replacement for Brewer. The table below shows the Defensive Ratings for each of those units.

Brewer Lineup Graph

In three of those lineups the team’s Defensive Rating was better with Brewer on the floor, in the other three it was worse. Inconclusive to say the least. I went over these lineups several times and couldn’t identify any common patterns, such as Wesley Johnson replacing Brewer making the defense significantly better. For the purposes of our discussion, it’s convenient that this case is a perfect illustration of some of the problems with On Court/Off Court statistics.

Play-by-Play Statistics

These metrics come directly from analysis of play-by-play data. The three I see utilize the most often are Individual Defensive Rating from Basketball-Reference.com, counterpart statistics from 82games.com, and possession category data from Synergy Sports Technology.

Individual Defensive Rating is a metric that was introduced by Dean Oliver in his book, Basketball on Paper. It’s based on the same principle as team Defensive Rating: how many points are allowed per 100 possessions. It’s calculated by using play-by-play data to figure out how many points the opposing player creates while the defensive player is on the floor.

Extensions of this data can be unreliable because it often assumes match-ups based on listed position, which is not always the case. Teams like the Mavs have a lot of positional interplay on both offense and defense, so some of the metrics derived from play-by-play data can be a bit problematic.

Brewer’s Individual Defensive Rating has only been below 110 once in his career: this season, where his time in Minnesota and Dallas have worked out too a rating of 109. The league average this season is 107.1. Granted, he’s played on some bad defensive teams in Minnesota, but this statistic theoretically captures just the points created by the opponent he’s guarding. Even when accounting for the defensive deficiencies of his teammates, Brewer does not look impressive by this metric.

Counterpart statisics are just an extension of Individual Defensive Rating. They’re also culled from play-by-play data, and show the eFG%, FTA/48, Reb/48, Ast/48, Pts/48 and PER for the opposing player while the defensive player is on the floor. Being calculated in the same way as Individual Defensive Rating, they can be unreliable for some of the same reasons. 82games displays these statistics broken down by the position that the defender was playing. The table below shows the counterpart statistics for Brewer’s time in Minnesota this season.

Pts/48Reb/48Ast/48TO/48FTA/48eFG%PER
SG21.84.93.53.35.549.0%14.8
SF22.17.43.82.86.850.2%17.5

Keeping in mind the shortcomings of these stats, we still don’t see much evidence of defensive impact. Brewer seems to be more potent defending shooting guards but still allows fairly healthy production. I would guess that shooting guards are a better matchup for him because his height creates an advantage and his lack of strength is less likely to be exploited. These numbers also reinforce his strength in creating turnovers. However, Brewer sends opposing players to the free throw line at a fairly high rate, which indicates that his aggressiveness may be hurting nearly as much as it helps.

The possession statistics from Synergy Sports Technology are a little different in that they come from video analysis. Each play from each game is reviewed on video and than categorized by the type of possession (post-up, transition, etc.). The fact that the data comes from video analysis solves some of the defensive cross-matching problems that the other play-by-play statistics have. The table below shows Brewer’s defensive possession statistics from his time in Minnesota.

Possession% of PossessionsPoints per PossessionRankFG%SF%TO%
Overall100%0.9228038.9%7.3%9.1%
Isolation16.8%0.9223344.3%13.3%12.0%
Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler20.5%0.8814339.7%10.9%15.8%
Post-Up4.5%0.73-29.4%4.5%9.1%
Pick-and-Roll Screener1%1.80-75.0%20.0%0%
Spot-Up36.9%0.9413036.1%2.7%4.4%
Off-Screen13.4%0.856036.8%4.5%7.6%
Hand Off6.5%1.097047.8%12.5%12.5%

Shoddy team defense certainly affects Brewer’s numbers here, but again there is very little to indicate we’re looking at an elite wing defender. He’s solid against the pick-and-roll, does a good job closing out on spot-up shooters, and creates a lot of turnovers. But he’s not in the top 50 in any category, and on several possession types, particularly isolations, is nearly as likely to commit a shooting foul as to force a turnover.

After all looking at all these numbers we end up right about where we started. Our eyes tell us that Brewer’s physical tools and motor make him a terrific defender. The statistics say he generates a lot of steals, but plenty of fouls as well, and for all his tools doesn’t seem to make a huge impact defensively, either individually or at the team level.

Both sides of this equation could change over the next three seasons in Dallas. Perhaps playing alongside better defensive teammates and in a more cohesive system will allow the statistics to catch up with what we see when we watch Brewer play. Or perhaps playing alongside more effective defenders will expose him as spastic in the Hansbroughnian style, not always able to control and channel his effort and energy into positive outcomes. The good news for Mavs fans is that, barring injury, I can’t envision any reasonable scenario where his defense would get worse.

Brewer is a perfect microcosm of the debate between old-school and new-school methods of player evaluation. Fans who gravitate towards observation for player evaluation will likely find some reasons why the numbers don’t fully capture his performance. Fans who gravitate towards statistics for player evaluation will likely find some reasons why our eyes can’t discern his true defensive impact. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, illustrating there’s still a wide gap between what we think we see and what we think we’ve measured.

Every Last Smudge

Posted by Rob Mahoney on December 3, 2010 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

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By most measures — objective or otherwise — the Minnesota Timberwolves are among the worst teams the NBA has to offer. They have the league’s second worst offense and its fifth worst defense. Their rotation is a mess. Their system and personnel are an odd fit. Most everything on the court is a bit of a struggle, save for one particular dimension of the game: rebounding.

Minnesota is a top-five offensive rebounding team and a top-10 defensive rebounding team, which is fairly remarkable given their weaknesses in every other aspect of the game. Kevin Love is a huge part of their success on the glass, but contributions from Darko Milicic and Anthony Tolliver round out the Wolves’ rebounding numbers, and offer the franchise some small token of success amidst all their ineptitude.

That makes the Mavs’ performance on the glass Wednesday night all the more significant. Dallas out-rebounded their opponents on both ends according to the single-game rebounding rate. Not worthy of a commemorative plaque, but considering Dallas’ relative struggles on the boards (the Mavs rank 13th in the league in defensive rebounding rate and a horrible 24th in offensive rebounding rate), it’s a showing that warrants a moment’s notice.

Or maybe more than a moment in the case of one particularly exemplary rebounding performance.

Tyson Chandler came out of the first half with four rebounds, but somehow finished the game with 18. Nice, right?

Oh, one more thing: he didn’t play a single second of the fourth quarter.

Chandler grabbed 14 boards (10 on the defensive end and four on the offensive end) over an eight-and-a-half-minute stretch in the third quarter. It was a favor to Chandler that the Wolves are the fastest team in the league and managed to pull the notoriously slow Mavs into playing an uptempo game, but 14 boards are 14 boards. Even the healthy push of pace doesn’t devalue that kind of volume.

It’s not that Chandler did anything out of the ordinary. This is just one of those occurrences in which effort and luck formed that perfect cocktail, one which all of us on this side of the lines had the pleasure of drinking in. Eat, watch Tyson Chandler, and be merry, folks.

Rumor Mongering: Dallas Gets Trade Crazy

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 27, 2009 under Rumors | 8 Comments to Read

Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning New wrote a piece outlining which of the Mavs’ assets are the most tradable, and also gives a pretty hefty list of potential targets that could be on Dallas’ radar.  Pure speculation?  Maybe.  But Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com thinks there’s more to it, and that there may be some legitimate team sentiment behind the rumors.

Dallas needs to do something.  Rotation shake-ups and motivational speeches have gone just about as far as they can go.  The team has some appealing assets and they have plenty of needs.  There are really two questions though.  First, can the Mavs even get the “right deal” done?  And second, does the “right deal” do enough to get the Mavs out of the first round of the playoffs?  The fan in me says yes, but the realist in me says no.  To say it’s an uphill battle is underselling it.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it, right?  So without further ado, a breakdown of each of Sefko’s proposed trades:

Jerry Stackhouse and Erick Dampier to Sacramento for Brad Miller and Kenny Thomas.

Why it works: The trade turns Stack’s contract into a player that’s immediately useful in Brad Miller, and Dallas doesn’t sacrifice 2010 cap flexibility.  Miller finally gives Mavs fans the scoring from the center position that they’ve always pined for, and he’s a much better passer than Dampier.  When Miller is focused, his ability to facilitate the offense can really open things up for the fringe contributors on the team.  Kenny Thomas also gives the Mavs another look at the second string power forward (or third string, whatever), and he’s not as bad as you probably think he is.  The Kings aren’t playing him, but Thomas hasn’t been all that bad in his few appearances for Sacramento this season, and could be able to contribute to a playoff team.

Why it doesn’t: Brad Miller just so happens to occupy the same offensive space as Dirk, meaning that someone is going to be out of their comfort zone on almost every play.  Miller also happens to be an inferior post defender, shot-blocker, and rebounder to Dampier.  Granted that Miller is in fact a more gifted scorer than Damp, he also relies on a higher usage rate that could require taking touches away from Dirk, Josh, and JET in order to accomodate Miller’s usual production.  Is that worth it?  Probably not.  You might be able to argue that this trade slightly favors Dallas, but even so it would be a marginal upgrade at best.


Jerry Stackhouse and Brandon Bass to Golden State for Stephen Jackson.

Why it works: This one is definitely the most interesting to me.  The 2 guard has been a problem all season, and Antoine Wright/Gerald Green/Dwane Casey’s kid probably aren’t the answer.  Wright’s passable some nights and unspectacularly awful others, and Green ranges from smile-worthy offensive explosion to migraine-inducing “rookie mistake” factory.  Jax would give the Mavs a great defender, a vocal leader, and a player who can drive, shoot, and set up his teammates.  Plus, this trade would give Dallas a quality wing player without giving up Josh Howard.

Why it doesn’t: The bench would be a disaster.  Who plays power forward?  James Singleton?  Ryan Hollins?  Shawne Williams?  It wouldn’t be pretty on the backlines, and Dallas would be hit hard in the low post and on the boards.  Or, I guess Carlisle could just play Dirk for 43 minutes a night.  That would work really well.  But the trouble doesn’t stop there; Stephen Jackson signed what is actually a pretty reasonable three-year, $28 million extension this season.  The wittle bitty problem with that is the fact that Jackson is nearly 31 right now, and at the end of his deal (2012-2013), he would be 35 years old.  Who knows how productive he’ll be by that time, and it could be a nightmare to move an aging wing scorer if things don’t work out.

Photo from Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images via ESPN.

Jerry Stackhouse and Brandon Bass to Chicago for Andres Nocioni.

Why it works: Noc gives the Mavs another weapon off the bench, or possibly a small forward to start alongside Howard.  He can stretch the floor, he’s a physical player, and would add firepower to a team that has trouble scoring at times.

Why it doesn’t: Nocioni’s contract is entirely too long, stretching to 2012-2013 (although that last year is a team option).  Some might call him an “irritant,” but I merely cite him as the primary example under the dictionary definition of “fake hustle.”  He’s almost constantly overaggressive both in terms of shot attempts and fouls, and while he is a physical defender he isn’t that great at D in general.  Trading Bass would open up a huge hole at the 4 (see above), and while Chicago may play Noc at the 4 for stretches, Dallas should have no business doing that.  He’s 6’7”, 201, and just tends to push people in the back.  Not exactly a dream come true.  Plus, his better offensive days look more like an exception than a rule at this point.


Jerry Stackhouse and Brandon Bass to Minnesota for Mike Miller.

Why it works: Mike Miller is a great player on the down year of all down years, somehow appearing to be one of the worst players in the Wolves’ regular rotation.  And that’s saying something.  I’d find it hard to believe that the Real Mike Miller isn’t buried beneath layer upon layer of Minnesota-induced psychosis, and the Mavs would hope to save Miller from himself.  When he’s rolling, he’s creating for his teammates, getting to the hoop, and one of the deadliest shooters in the game.  When he’s not, well, just look at his stats on the season.  Not too pretty.

Why it doesn’t: This trade doesn’t really seem like a possibility.  All indications point to Minny demanding back more compensation that just Bass and an expiring deal, and I’m sure they have their eyes on draft picks around the league.  Beyond that, Miller only makes the Mavs better at doing what they already do: shooting.  He would fix the starting shooting guard problem but open up the power forward Pandora’s Box, which could actually end up being a wash.  On top of that, there’s no guarantee that Miller won’t continue his reign as the Archduke of the Royal Principality of EPIC FAIL.

Jerry Stackhouse and Erick Dampier to Toronto for Jermaine O’Neal.

Why it works: It really, really doesn’t.

Why it doesn’t: Probably the worst deal on the list.  Turn our prized expiring deal and a healthy starting center into a possibly-more-talented-but-definitely-more-washed-up, oft-injured center.  Where do I sign up?


Brandon Bass To Detroit for Arron Afflalo.

Why it works: Arron Afflalo is exactly the type of young point guard the Mavs want to have going forward.  He’s already a good defender, shoots well, and plays the game without forcing the issue or making careless mistakes.  Another quality young playerdrafted by Joe Dumars.  Plus, dude has an awesome name.

Why it doesn’t: This trade could only make sense in tandem with another deal that would bring in frontcourt depth.  The Mavs already have J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, and even Matt Carroll to back-up Kidd if the situation calls for it, while Brandon Bass is the only line of defense between a potential Dirk Nowitzki energy and complete Maverick apocalypse.  I love Afflalo’s game and I love his potential, but this move doesn’t make sense for Dallas right now.

Photo from AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki.

Jerry Stackhouse and Brandon Bass to Oklahoma City for Earl Watson.

Why it works: I’m not really sure.  I guess Earl Watson would be another Kidd back-up, or possibly an insurance policy if Dallas decides to go another way this summer.  Otherwise, I’m speechless.

Why it doesn’t: Earl Watson just isn’t that good.  His jumper is errant, his playmaking skills are slightly above average, and his defense is unimpressive.  There’s a reason that his “steady veteran presence” has made its rounds throughout the league, let’s just put it that way.  Plus, giving up an expiring deal and arguably Dallas’ most promising young player for a piece that doesn’t fit on the team, isn’t a youngster, and isn’t anything better than average seems awfully silly.

Photo from NBAE/Getty Images/Kent Smith.

Josh Howard and J.J. Barea to Charlotte for Raja Bell and Raymond Felton.

Why it works: Raymond Felton would be the Mavs’ point guard of the future and Raja Bell would be a capable starting 2 guard who still retains some of the skills of a lockdown defender.  At once, this trade will fill a glaring hole for the Mavs at the 2 and procure Kidd’s protégé.

Why it doesn’t: The Mavs are giving up quite a bit for two ill-fitting pieces.  Josh Howard is still a hotbed of talent, whether he can harness it or not.  J.J. Barea not only holds status as a Mavericks folk hero, but penetrates well, knows when to look for his own shot, and has plenty of time to improve on a perfectly reasonable contract.  Meanwhile, Raymond Felton would possibly be forced into the shooting guard slot alongside Kidd or in a back-up role, meaning that he won’t have experience running the point full-time when he takes over and/or he won’t have the added experience of playing against top-flight players.  Meanwhile, Raja Bell could be an interesting addition to the Mavs roster if it still featured Howard, but in this case filling the hole at the 2 leaves an even bigger one at the 3.  Devean George might actually start.  I’m doing my best to keep in my enthusiasm.  Beyond that, Felton isn’t a great shooter, has stalled at times in his progression, and Raja Bell is already a shade behind his former self and only getting worse.

Photo from NBA.com

Josh Howard and Brandon Bass to Memphis for Mike Conley and Darko Milicic.

Why it works: Mike Conley is going to be a stud.  He has all the physical tools required of a great point guard, and while his play has been up and down, I see the good in him.  He’s probably the best option listed here in terms of young guards, and the Grizz apparently aren’t entirely opposed to the idea of parting ways with him.  If Memphis was rumored to be interested in Milwaukee’s Ramon Sessions and Joe Alexander for Conley, why wouldn’t they be interested in Howard/Bass?  Darko on the other hand, despite his neverending status as a 2003 Draft punchline, is a pretty decent big man.  Like Conley, he’s had good days and bad.  But he’s also a legit 7-foot shot blocker with plenty of room to grow and a nice presence in the low post.

Why it doesn’t: It doesn’t help the Mavs this season.  Darko would be able to play either power forward or center on any given night, but the small forward position would be awful.  Conley doesn’t fill any specific short-term need,and would be a luxury I’m not sure the Mavs can afford on a roster that needs some help.