NBA Stats of the Week: 2/26-3/4

uspw_6865642_crop_exact

In a new segment I’ll be doing every Tuesday on here, I’ll pick out the noteworthy statistics that occurred around the league in the last week. It’s worth noting that many of the single-game historical references only go back to the 1985-1986 season (the limitations of the Basketball-Reference.com play index for game finding). For convenience, “all-time” may mean “since 85-86” in many cases in this article.

  • Stephen Curry: On Wednesday of last week, Curry scored 54 points in a road game against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. This performance placed Curry third all-time among the top scoring performances by visiting players, putting him just behind Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and just ahead of Lebron James. That’s not exactly the worst company to be in. Furthermore, Stephen Curry joins four other players as being the only players to make at least 11 3-pointers in a game. Of the five players who have accomplished that feat, Curry did not only did so on the fewest number of three-point attempts, but also recorded the most points and assists ever by someone that made that many threes in a ballgame. Unfortunately from Curry’s perspective, he may not view the game as better than the games the others players had, since Curry was the only player to lose in such a game. When you add in the game that Curry had the night before in Indiana where he shot 7-10 from beyond the arc, he became the eighth player ever to make at least 7 3-pointers in consecutive games. Curry had already achieved this feat earlier this season against Sacramento and Charlotte (7-12 and 8-13 shooting threes, respectively), making him the first player ever to score 7 threes in consecutive games more than once in his career. The game following the one against the Knicks, Curry took on the Celtics and was unable to follow up the feat. Only Mike Miller and George McCloud have scored 7 three-pointers in three straight games.
  • Lebron James: What hasn’t Lebron done? Whatever it is, he added to it a little more in the last week, especially in his win last Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings. In that game, Lebron set his new career high in assists with 16. His previous career high had been 15, set three times before he joined the Heat. Lebron’s achievements in that game go far beyond the highlights of his own career. They reach a historical level too. For instance, he joined just three other players in NBA history to record a game of at least 40 points and 16 assists. The entire month of February was historically good for Lebron James as well. Lebron set the record for PER in a single month, putting up a player efficiency rating of 38.34 in February. For a metric that sets 15.0 as it’s “average”, it was a pretty unbelievable series of games for James that month, to say the very least.
  • Joakim Noah: The center for the Bulls had a career game last Thursday, scoring 23 points, grabbing 21 boards, and blocking 11 shots. The 21 rebound performance was tied for Noah’s second most rebounds in any game of his career. When he blocked eleven shots that night, it set his personal best for blocked shots in a game. Noah’s performance put him along side Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Shawn Bradley as players who have had 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 blocked shots in a game.
  • Chandler Parsons: Parsons had a career night on Sunday, when he scored 32 points on 12-13 shooting from the field against the Mavericks. Parsons is the first player in over three seasons to score at least that many points on 92% shooting or better.  He joins a list of 15 players to have ever done that since the 1985-86 season.
  • Amir Johnson: Johnson had a 23 point, 15-rebound performance off the bench for the Raptors on Monday. What’s even more impressive is that he didn’t miss a single field goal attempt. 49 players have had a game of at least 23-15 as a reserve. Amir Johnson is the only one of these 49 players that didn’t miss a shot. Unfortunately for Johnson, the spectacular performance came in a loss to the Warriors.
  • Luke Walton: On a less impressive (but still a little bit impressive) statistic from the last week, Luke Walton tallied 12 assists and 0 rebounds against the Knicks on Tuesday. Walton is the one of two non-guards to ever do this (the other being George Hill). As a sidenote, Luke Walton scored 2 points and Grant Hill scored 31 points. In case we’re still short on Luke Walton love, here is my Luke Skywalton photoshop.

LukeSkywalton

You can follow me on twitter at @SkylerJGilbert.

Just How Good is Kyrie Irving?

kyrie-irving-cavs

I’ll be honest, and I’m pretty ashamed of this at this point. Before the 2011 NBA draft, I was arguing that Derrick Williams should have been the first overall pick in the draft. I doubted Kyrie Irving’s athleticism, defense, and I feared that he was bound for an injury-plagued career after his only year of college at Duke University lasted only nine games due to an injured ligament in his toe. My doubts were actually accurate and inaccurate at the same time. Kyrie Irving isn’t a great on-ball defender, albeit he is improving. Irving did sprain his shoulder towards the end of his rookie season, along with a finger injury in the beginning of the current season that sidelined him for a few weeks. Lastly, Kyrie Irving can’t throw down monster jams like Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose can. He can’t run the floor with the speed and quickness of Rajon Rondo or Chris Paul. So, as you can see, my pre-draft concerns were legitimate. The problem with that evaluation of Kyrie Irving is that I didn’t account for just HOW GOOD he is at everything else.

Leadership: When Lebron James left Cleveland before the 2010-11 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were left with a dismal roster with no promising young talent besides Anderson Varejao, and a team that was simply incapable of being competitive. During the middle of that season, the Cleveland Cavaliers reached a level of horribleness that was previously unseen in the NBA. Between the dates of November 30 and February 9, the squad posted a record of 1-36, including an NBA-record of 39 consecutive games without winning in regulation. Many of these games were blow-outs, including a 55 point loss to the Lakers in Staples Center. Let’s just say they were bad. On May 17, 2011, in Secaucus, New Jersey, the tide finally turned in favor of the Cavaliers. They won the NBA draft lottery, which meant the rights to draft Kyrie Irving. Irving had to wait longer than most NBA rookies do to begin what he had already waited his whole life for, due to the 2011 NBA lock-out.

Once the season finally began, Kyrie was a clear leader of the franchise. Despite being just 19 years old, he was the one that took the shots at the end of the game. He was the one that led the team in scoring and usage %. He was the one that rallied the troops in the locker room to prepare for a big home game. Quite a responsibility for a teenager. This season, now 20, Kyrie Irving has evolved as a player, into an all-star. He has also further evolved in his leadership abilities. Cavaliers coach Byron Scott said that Irving  is “understanding what it takes to be a leader as far as communicating with his teammates and making his teammates better. That’s the next level for him … [and] he’s well on his way”.

Shooting Ability: One of the parts of Kyrie Irving’s game that is unexpectedly elite, based on evidence from high school and college, is his three point shooting. Only two starting point guards in the NBA have shot the long ball at a more efficient clip than Irving’s 42.9%. Their names are Stephen Curry and Jose Calderon. Unlike Kyrie Irving, Curry and Calderon shoot many of their threes directly off someone else’s pass. A catch-and-shoot three-pointer is much easier than one off the dribble. Just look at these numbers comparing Kyrie Irving to Stephen Curry.

Kyrie Irving: 3PT% (spot-up): .543. 3PT% (isolation): .448

Stephen Curry: 3PT% (spot-up): .532. 3PT% (isolation): .400

Stephen Curry is better than Irving in other kinds of shots, such as in transition or as the pick-and-roll ball handler, but I doubt most of you expected Kyrie Irving to be a better spot-up shooter than Stephen Curry.

Although the three-point shootout at the All-Star Saturday Night festivities is generally viewed as something that is just for fun and unimportant, it is a good indicator of a player’s pure shooting ability. Kyrie Irving was the second point guard ever to win, along with Mark Price, who may be the greatest shooter to have ever played. Just watch.

Scoring Ability:

Being able to shoot the ball is nice, but it is far from the only thing necessary to be a great scorer in the NBA. Just look at Michael Jordan, probably the greatest scorer of all-time. What set him apart from all of the rest? He wasn’t an elite scorer. Heck, when he did the three-point shoot-out he scored all of 6 points. Jordan was the greatest of all-time in being able to create shots. If you give a contested fall-away jumper to prime Michael Jordan and to prime Kobe Bryant, Kobe would have been much more likely to make it. That wasn’t MJ’s style, though. He could get himself open with ease and knock down an easier shot attempt.

Kyrie Irving is more of a Michael Jordan-type scorer. His elite ball handling enables him to get himself in a good position to knock down a jumper. Consider this sequence in a recent game against the Minnesota Timberwolves:

Screenshot (2)

Kyrie Irving gets the ball in the post from teammate Alonzo Gee, just five seconds remaining on the shot clock, with Luke Ridnour at his back.

Screenshot (3)

Here we are about a second later in the play. Kyrie is now isolated on the right side of the floor with Luke Ridnour still guarding him. He has turned from the post to face the basket, and throws a jab step to the right towards the baseline.

Screenshot (4)

Kyrie is now penetrating through the lane to his left, setting up an easy lay-in. This play doesn’t seem like much, but it certainly displays some basketball maturity. Most young players don’t really understand that 5 seconds is plenty of time to still make a play and set up a score. Many players put in Kyrie’s situation, which came at the end of a broken play, would have tried some turn-around fade-away jumper that is certainly less likely to fall than this one. Also noteworthy in this play was the little jab step he used to get Luke Ridnour off-balance. NBA defenders are taught to key the ball handler at the waist. Your waist doesn’t move on head fakes, but it will on jab steps like this one.

Here is a second example of Kyrie’s scoring ability, taken from a big win against the Oklahoma City Thunder a couple of weeks ago:

Screenshot (5)

Game is on the line. Cavs up 113-110 with :23 left on the game clock and :09 left on the shot clock. OKC needs to stop the Cavs here to give themselves a chance. Luckily for us, we get to watch Kyrie Irving on an isolation with Russell Westbrook guarding him.

Screenshot (6)

Here we have another example of Kyrie’s elite ball handling skills. I’m not sure if you saw him break Brandon Knight’s ankles at the Young Stars Game last Friday, but it was something special. In this play, Kyrie puts a quick double crossover on Westbrook and drives to his left.

Screenshot (7)   Screenshot (8)

Kyrie pulls up from about 10 feet from the hoop and pump-fakes hard and quick. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who came over to help, are both fooled and go airborne. Kyrie waits for the bodies to pass and throws up a jumper in traffic.

Screenshot (9)

Drains it. The shot, although you can’t tell based on this, was a bank-shot. It was the end of a big home win against an elite team. Kyrie Irving put the Cavaliers on his back down the stretch in that game.

Kyrie Irving is 2nd in the NBA among all qualified players in isolation PPP. By comparison, Lebron James ranks 4th in the league and Kevin Durant ranks 13th. Irving is able to do most of this with his elite ball handling and remarkable maturity for a player who still isn’t even old enough to legally drink alcohol.

Where Do We Rank Him?

Here are some numbers comparing Kyrie Irving to other top-tier PG’s in the NBA this season. Not included among elite point guards are Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, both of whom are presently injured. These numbers are per 36 minutes played.

Player              Age  G  FG  FGA  FG%  3P 3PA  3P%  FT FTA  FT% TRB  AST STL TOV  PTS
Stephen Curry        24 49 7.1 16.4 .437 3.0 6.7 .447 3.0 3.3 .905 3.9  6.3 1.5 2.7 20.3
Jrue Holiday         22 47 7.3 16.1 .452 1.0 2.8 .353 2.3 3.0 .775 3.9  8.4 1.4 3.8 17.9
Kyrie Irving         20 42 8.8 18.8 .466 2.0 4.7 .425 4.3 5.1 .848 3.7  5.7 1.7 3.3 23.9
Tony Parker          30 52 9.0 16.9 .535 0.5 1.2 .386 4.4 5.3 .830 3.3  8.4 1.0 2.8 22.9
Chris Paul           27 44 6.4 13.2 .482 1.3 3.8 .353 4.2 4.7 .884 3.7 10.5 2.8 2.3 18.3
Russell Westbrook    24 53 8.0 18.8 .426 1.3 3.9 .328 5.5 6.9 .795 5.2  8.1 2.0 3.6 22.8

A couple things are apparent just with these basic measures. Kyrie Irving scores at a higher rate than any other point guard. On the downside for Irving, the point guard’s role is normally as a facilitator and he has assist numbers that pale in comparison to Chris Paul or Tony Parker. Some of this can be attributed to having poor teammates, but let’s not forget that Steve Nash was able to accumulate over a dozen assists per 36 minutes in each of his last three seasons in Phoenix. His teammates were also poor, but the best passing point guards are able to set up teammates at a high clip even if they aren’t All-star caliber players. It’s difficult to accurately see who is the most efficient without looking at more advanced metrics such as true shooting % or effective shooting percentage, so let’s lay down the red carpet and bring in advanced numbers as well.

Player              Age  G  PER  TS% eFG% TRB% AST% STL% TOV% USG% ORtg DRtg WS/48

Stephen Curry        24 49 19.9 .569 .528  6.0 29.6  2.1 13.3 25.6  112  108  .152
Jrue Holiday         22 47 18.2 .512 .482  6.2 40.9  2.0 17.7 27.3  101  106  .078
Kyrie Irving         20 42 22.3 .567 .519  6.0 30.7  2.4 13.7 30.0  110  109  .143
Tony Parker          30 52 24.5 .597 .549  5.4 41.4  1.4 12.8 28.2  118  105  .233
Chris Paul           27 44 26.8 .597 .533  6.1 47.3  4.1 13.3 22.2  128  101  .297
Russell Westbrook    24 53 23.0 .522 .459  8.3 40.0  2.8 14.1 32.1  109  104  .177

As far as PER goes, Kyrie Irving is better than Curry or Holiday but trails Westbrook, Paul, and Parker. Irving’s AST% is actually better than that of Stephen Curry despite not having the offensive weapons and shooters Curry has. His defensive rating of 109 is a bit disconcerting, and Irving has been much criticized of his defense. However, offensive and defensive ratings are in many ways, team statistics, and are difficult to pin on a single player. I mean, Derek Fisher once had an offensive rating of 117 despite shooting 42% from the field and putting up 3.2 APG. It may have had more to do with the fact that he was on the floor with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom that season. Kyrie Irving may not be the best defender in basketball, but I believe he’s much better than this stat claims.

Based on Synergy Sports Technology, which analyzes a player’s ability in every play type, offense or defense, Kyrie Irving allows only 0.57 points per possession on isolation plays against him. Let’s compare that to Chris Paul, known league-wide as an elite perimeter defender. Paul’s success on isolation isn’t nearly as good as Kyrie’s. He allows 0.96 points per possession on isolation plays. Irving even leads CP3 in overall defense (0.83 PPP to 0.84 PPP). I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Irving is a better defender than Chris Paul, due to other variables involved that include defensive help on isolation plays and the fact that Irving sometimes doesn’t guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player, but I think it provides sufficient evidence to say that he’s not terrible on defense.

Kyrie Irving isn’t the best healthy NBA point guard. Chris Paul is better. So is Tony Parker. Russell Westbrook might even be better too. That’s besides the point. He’s an elite player, a leader to his team, one of the best shooters in basketball, an unbelievable shot creator (especially for someone with so little experience), and a vastly underrated defensive game. AND HE’S TWENTY YEARS OLD. It’s exciting to root for a player with as much youth and potential as Kyrie Irving has. There hasn’t been a twenty year old in the NBA playing as well as Kyrie Irving since Lebron James, the man that he was drafted to replace. What a beautiful irony.

Skyler Gilbert is a contributor for Hoop City Blog. He’d like to thank 82games.com, mysynergysports.com hoopdata.com, and basketball-reference.com for helping him compile the statistics used in the article. You can follow him at @skylerjgilbert. Also, it’s weird for him to be referring to himself in the third person so he’s going to conclude this article. He’s also adding this final sentence so the word count passes 2000.

Rounding Up RFAs the Right Move

Credit: ESPN.com

The deadline for re-signing upcoming restricted free agents (RFAs) came and went at midnight Wednesday night (or Thursday morning, same thing) and many intriguing potential free agents declined that opportunity by committing to long-term deals with their teams. These players are James Harden (with his new team), Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry, Taj Gibson, Jrue Holiday, and DeMar DeRozan. That these teams wrapped up their free agents at market value or higher suggests that restricted free agency may no longer be a safety net for teams who have them.

Historically, RFAs have very little leverage in contract negotiations. Their teams have the right to match any contract offer, and since it would take a complete overpay from another team to force the rights-holding team from matching, usually little movement occurs. The most notable exception comes via the Poison Pill Provision (PPP) of the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was used by Houston to obtain Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik this summer and by Toronto when signing Landry Fields. However, the PPP couldn’t be used with any notable RFAs this coming summer, as all were first round draft picks who are not subjected to the PPP.

So why did teams decide to re-sign these free agents? Well, it’s difficult to narrow it down to just one reason. One notable factor is that a crapton of teams have significant cap space for next summer. According to John Hollinger (insider only), as many as 13 teams should have enough cap room to sign a player to a max contract just this summer. Some, such as Utah, Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, and now Houston, have a young core in place and would like to add some missing pieces who also happen to be young. Others, such as Charlotte and Orlando, just need as much talent as possible and might be willing to pay for it. Given that the unrestricted free agent market looks awfully barren (hello, bidding war for Josh Smith’s services!), you get an environment where even a below-average player like DeMar DeRozan gets a ton of money just because a team can spend it.

One ongoing example of the market going crazy is the Eric Gordon saga in New Orleans. Because of his injury history, they refused to give him a contract before the deadline last year. He played nine games at a decent level last season. But because they let him get to free agency, he received a max contract offer from Phoenix. The Hornets didn’t want to lose him without receiving compensation, so they were practically forced to match. Now, with knee injuries still nagging Gordon and his future in doubt,  the Hornets have little to work with and a lot of money to pay. The biggest peril of letting the market set the price is that the market for free agents might be inflated. Now that Gordon’s injured goods, the Hornets might regret not locking him up. While the Warriors did the same for Curry, they paid less than his on-court value because his health remains a question.

A second factor for the surge in signings could be a premium for youth. With the notable exception of an older but very valuable Taj Gibson (whose contract is, for my money, the best among all these), the newly signed players have yet to reach age 25. Stephen Curry and Ty Lawson are 24. James Harden and DeMar DeRozan are 23. Jrue Holiday is just 22. As rookie contracts have shortened under recent CBAs, and as most impact players now leave after just one year of college, youth hits the free agent market earlier than ever. Signing rookies to extensions prevents this happening, though at the cost of paying more for their services than their production warrants.

And third, another factor may be that all are considered key pieces of the future of their teams. The three point guards are expected to lead their team to the playoffs this year and down the road. Toronto expects DeRozan to be among the leaders of a rising contender, brimming with youth. Houston expects Harden to be the star the team builds around. And Chicago expects Taj Gibson to be the part of the backbone of one of the league’s stingiest defenses for years to come.

Upcoming free agents who haven’t re-signed mostly have questions about their places in the future of their franchises. For the re-signed players, the franchises gave indications that they wanted the players long-term. Tyreke Evans’s place in Sacramento’s future remains a mystery. They have no position for him now and look to have found someone else (DeMarcus Cousins) to build their team around. For someone like Brandon Jennings, who has a bit of an inflated sense of his self-worth, his team has no real direction, and despite having talent to build around they haven’t committed to any one plan. Jeff Teague’s Hawks just recently made several major personnel moves, and the team isn’t quite sure how it will look in the future.

Simply put: the teams that re-signed their players consider them part of the future and, even if some overpaid (mainly Philadelphia and especially Toronto), the market would have overpaid in place of the teams. And since they planned on retaining their players anyway, re-signing the players was the right move.