This piece will discuss one of the differences in today’s NBA and the NBA of the recent past and, more specifically, infer as to why having the wrong Primary Initiator can doom a team.
The attempt will be to shed light thoughts I’ve expressed but yet even begun to flesh out. A simple example: That Jimmy Butler is awesome, but almost certainly not good enough to be the lead on a championship team. And the same for a guy like DeMarcus Cousins or Paul George. What we’re really talking about here is why it’s difficult to win when a second or third tier initiator is the team’s best player.
It’s not an ironclad rule. After all, not long ago, Paul George was on an almost perfectly constructed Indiana Pacers team. It was a team missing but a single piece, a capable back-up Point Guard. And that piece ended up costing them a championship series vs. the Miami Heat. Perhaps even a championship, if they could beat the Spurs.
That’s the first problem with building around second and third tier stars. The team construction has to be absolutely flawless. Any flaw will become exposed in a series against the best teams. As it did against Miami, when D.J. Augustin couldn’t consistently initiate the offense, or even successfully bring the ball over half court, against the pressure of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.
The second problem is that your window is very small. The Indiana Pacers essentially had one year when they had a chance. 2012-13. The next year they met Miami in the Finals again, though this time it was obvious they were overmatched. The Pacers managed to win two games, but three of their losses were by at least twelve points, and Miami closed them out by 25. After that they blew the team up, and haven’t been competitive since.
But that’s not what I want to discuss today. What I want to talk about a little is the evolution of the Point Guard position, and why the best teams all seem to feature the best creators. Or in other words, an explanation of how Jimmy Butler arrived two decades too late.
Let’s Look At A Table
The table below is fairly simplistic. It lists the best Point Guards and the best Wings of the past twenty years side-by-side. Then it shows each player’s Assist Percentage, Usage Percentage, True Shooting Percentage, Offensive Box Plus-Minus and Defensive Box Plus-Minus, followed by the differences in each. These important thing to notice with the differences is that negative numbers favor Point Guards whereas positive numbers favor wings.
1) You of course may dispute which players I’ve listed at Wing and Point Guard. For the purpose of this exercise, Lebron James and Dwayne Wade were Point Guards in everything but name. Michael Jordan and Manu Ginobili were wings who could pass really well. From this perspective, it’s the Assist Percentage number that is most important.
2) You may also dispute which players I’ve listed in a given year. That’s fine as well. If you want to argue that Kobe was better than Ginobili in a given year, A-OK. There’s plenty of room for debate, and I actually have no set opinion on the issue, since team context has quite a bit of effect on value. I chose to include Ginobili so often quite simply because his metrics are just much better than every other Wing.
He’s one of the handful of most underrated players ever. Lebron is on this table 9 times in 10 years, and even after he handed over his regular season crown, he’s convincingly shown us he’s the best player in the world in the playoffs. However, it’s not by accident that Ginobili shows up on the table five times or that he was on five championship teams. Or even that the twilight of his career has been significantly more impactful than that of Kobe Bryant or many of his fellow brethren.
Very often the careers of the best players have the longest tails. Even if Ginobili isn’t the 2nd or 3rd or 4th best shooting guard ever, the fact that no one considers him in the conversation means there’s still work to do. If you take Kobe, West, Wade, that’s fine. However, Ginobili was really awesome. He does belong in that conversation.
3) One thing you’ll notice is that until you get to Lebron James, Box Plus-Minus basically always considers Point Guards average-at-best defenders. Most of them are indeed taking value off the table. Perhaps even mid-to-late career Gary Payton. Though I’m not so sure about that. He wasn’t that old in 2000.
4) This is one place where the best Wings generally have a significant advantage. It’s important too. Defense is probably the single easiest way a player can add value without using offensive possessions. It’s perhaps why I harp on it so much. Players who add value without using offensive possessions are important, and if you’ll notice the Wings with significantly positive defensive numbers are almost always on contenders.
5) I included Karl Malone as a Wing. Many years I could have included Garnett as well. The reason why. They have passing numbers befitting a Wing. I just wanted to show that this point is not exclusive of Wings. It applies to Bigs as well.
6) If you’ll note, that at the top of the table we find both Jordan and Malone. Great years for championship contenders. If you’ll notice, these players offensive value and defensive value both show advantages over the best Point Guards of their day. Sometimes significant advantages.
Box Plus-Minus is not an end-all-be-all, but as these players were also on the best team’s of their day, their two and a half point advantages over the Point Guards should perhaps not be taken with a grain of salt.
7) It’s possible that the most significant player on this board has the poorest Box-Plus Minus. I’m talking about Steve Nash. Though we’re still a year or two prior to the Phoenix Suns version of the player. That version of Steve Nash, in Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense but the league on the track where it is today.
He’s in no way as good as Lebron, but it’s possible he’s more influential. Lebron is just perhaps too unique to influence the game in the same way. He’s a once-upon-a-time type player. The ultimate combination of size, speed, strength, lateral athleticism, vertical leaping ability, intelligence, scoring ability, passing ability, dribbling skill and the will to win. No one is copying the things he does.
8) Though perhaps that’s not true. Perhaps it’s actually the combination of the two players that determined the current path of the NBA. What Nash did is that he pushed the league to embrace the three-point shot. What Lebron did is to take the player Michael Jordan was between 1987-1988 and 1989-1990 and expand upon it.
By that I mean, he’s the player who really makes Scoring and Passing equal parts of the Point Guard’s repertoire. You can see that by the relatively equal Usage and Assist Percentages in the mid-30 percent range.
9) Here’s Michael Jordan 1987-1990. (Per Basketball-Reference.com)
The keys here are the 30%+ Assist Percentages and Usage Percentages, the 61% True Shooting Percentage, the fact that Jordan adds defensive value.
10) Now here’s Lebron James from 2004-2014. (Also per Basketball-Reference.com)
Lebron James is a more passing oriented version of the same player. There’s differences of course in terms of style, in terms of minutiae. However, if we’re drawing in broad strokes, Lebron James is basically a bigger version of peak-era Michael Jordan. I don’t particularly care which one you would choose as the best. As far as perimeter players, I think you’re splitting hairs when choosing between Magic, Jordan and Lebron. We are just lucky we get to watch.
11) So High Usage+High Assist Percentage+Very Efficient Scoring. That combination is probably the most important feature of Lebron as Point Guard, at least as his game might be an influence on future generations. Though you can also see it in Tracy McGrady, who preceded Lebron but wasn’t quite the two-way player, and Dwayne Wade.
These players, in the shadow of Michael Jordan, greatly raised the scoring burden of Point Guards. As you can see following the trajectory of the table from past to the present day, that scoring burden is now a persistent feature of the best players of the position, including both Steph Curry and James Harden.
12) I listed McGrady at Wing, but more than any other player on the list, he perhaps belongs in the Point position. I just wanted to feature Nash as well. Not just because I see Nash as an important player to the history of the league and to the subject I am talking about, but because his inclusion makes apparent that the value a player takes off on one side of the ball is also important.
13) I could have easily included Russell Westbrook, but I didn’t for one main reason. While I think he should have undoubtedly started the All-Star game, I do think that metrics overrate Westbrook. Not for his impact on his current team, which they perhaps get right. Or at least approximate. But rather of how having a High Usage middling-efficiency Star caps the overall effectiveness of any offense for which he plays.
A team with such a player can be good on offense, sometimes very good, but if the Golden State Warriors are great, such a team will always fall short of greatness. At least on the offensive side of the ball. And we’re not even talking about how Russell Westbrook’s play may suppress, to a certain extant, the abilities of his most talented teammates. Since he so dominates the ball.
We can see evidence of this in the fact that Westbrook’s teams are often very middling in assists, despite the fact that he leads the league. Though we can also perhaps see evidence by looking at individual players.
Take Kevin Durant, whose efficiency has taken off with the Warriors. A career best 66% True Shooting Percentage, up from the still amazing 63% numbers he’d been sporting with Oklahoma City.
Take Victor Oladipo, who has career low passing numbers. By a significant margin. Though to be fair, Oladipo has significantly better shooting numbers from the field as well, mainly due to an uptick in assisted shots (up 7%), and his mediocre True Shooting number, is mostly due to the fact that his Free-Throw percentage has cratered. (From 83% to 71%). With a normal year from the foul line, Oladipo’s True Shooting number would be closer to 55%. A 2% leap over last year.
14) I’m probably going to write a piece about T.J. McConnell’s recent run of success in the next few weeks, and more specifically about the flaws of grading players individually by box score statistics. A piece which in a way also relates to what I am saying about Russell Westbrook here.
Box-Plus Minus is just not constructed to see how T.J. McConnell’s play leads to positive offensive possessions. Though we can begin to see it if we look at Team numbers, line-ups, and into Synergy Passing statistics. It’s a problem as it concerns Draymond Green’s role in the Warriors offense. It’s going to be a problem as it concerns Lonzo Ball as well. But only certain types of low Usage players truly expose this flaw.
As it regards McConnell, it’s possible it’ll be short lived, as there’s a potential fatal flaw in his game that a few teams have been able to expose. It’s possible it’s correctable. I don’t know. Though beyond that, I’m going to remain cryptic on the subject, since I like watching him and want to see him succeed. (No, this fatal flaw is not his shooting ability.)
15) What I really want to talk about is the last three years on the list. Though before we get to them specifically, please note I made this table about two weeks ago. Harden and Butler’s numbers have changed since then, but they still illustrate the point at hand. That is, the ridiculous firepower of the game’s best Point Guards.
16) Notice how early on in the table, the Point Guards lead Assist Percentage, generally by a significant margin, while the Wings lead Usage and often True Shooting. The Usage in particular by an equally significant margin.
Now fast forward to the last three years. Not only does the best Point Guard lead the best Wing in Assist Percentage, often by a greater margin than we’ve seen for some time, but they lead the best Wing in Usage and True Shooting Percentage also! By just as significant a margin!
17) I don’t use exclamation points often. Those sentences are worthy of exclamation points. Why? Look at the first Wing on the List and the last one. Michael Jordan. Jimmy Butler. It’s essentially the same season on both sides of the ball.
Let’s leave postseason heroics out of this. The best players of all time seemingly always have another level they can summon in the biggest moments. Just considering the regular season, Jimmy Butler is basically equivalent to late career Michael Jordan. Slightly lower Usage. Slightly higher Assist Percentage and True Shooting. Basically identical OBPM and DBPM. Except one thing, it’s no longer good enough.
In 1996-97, this version of Jimmy Butler is the best player in the league. Now that might still not be good enough if another guy has Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper on his team, but it gets you a lot closer than it does today.
Today, Jimmy Butler is arguably in the Top 10. There’s Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Giannis Antekounmpo, Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard. That’s before even getting to a guy like Joel Embiid, who seems to put himself in that conversation.
18) What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to build around a player like Jimmy Butler, especially if, like the Bulls, you are dying of impatience. The biggest mistake, trading two 1st round draft picks for Doug McDermott. Picks that could have easily become, oh, let’s say Rodney Hood and Nikola Jokic. Or let’s say they sign Robert Covington and Tyler Johnson as undrafted free agents.
Making all these moves is unlikely. But that’s also the kind of confluence you need to build around a guy like Jimmy Butler in today’s game.. You might get to make a mistake or two. You don’t get to make many of them. You definitely don’t get to miss on Nikola Jokic, essentially twice, since the Bulls traded away two chances to take him.
Tyler Johnson, Jimmy Butler, Rodney Hood, Robert Covington, Nikola Jokic. That’s a scary starting five.
19) Of course, this realization doesn’t just apply to the Jimmy Butlers of the world. It also applies to the Damian Lillards. I could have easily made this table in attempt to show how Damian Lillard is essentially as good as Kevin Johnson or Tim Hardaway. But whereas Kevin Johnson and Tim Hardaway were either the best or among the best Point Guards of their day, Damian Lillard, who is awesome, is a laggard.
20) So now, I’m not just talking about Damian Lillard, I’m talking about the 2017 NBA draft. I’m potentially talking about Dennis Smith, Jr. I’m potentially talking about Malik Monk. I’m even potentially talking about Markelle Fultz. If these players aren’t Curry, Harden, Westbrook good on offense, they are going to have to play defense to be the kinds of pieces a team can easily build around. Right now, that’s a question for all three.
21) That’s what we’re dealing with today. Compared to their brethren, neither Butler or Lillard create enough for their teammates. Lillard doesn’t even bother to play defense. These guys are great initiators, but for today’s game, they are probably the wrong ones. There’s just too big a gap between them and the best players at their position. The best players of this role. That’s not to say you pass these players up if you have the opportunity to acquire one.
Or that you trade them willy-nilly. It’s still hard to find a guy in the lower part of the Top 10, or even in the Top 15. Especially when one team is hoarding three such guys. (Obviously Golden State.) But it is to say that teams that do find themselves with such a player should express caution and patience in terms of team building. Either that or you can acquire a bunch of average or slightly above average players, and end up in NBA purgatory.
22) The difficult fact to accept is that even if team’s do express the proper amount of restraint, they might not get there. It’s just so hard to be perfect once you leave the upper reaches of the draft. Even there the best General Managers often swing and miss. For instance, it’s arguable that no team has been better acquiring talent late in the draft than Utah.
In recent years they’ve acquired Gordon Hayward at 9, Rudy Gobert at 27, Rodney Hood at 23. But they also missed on Dante Exum at 5, when Marcus Smart and Nikola Jokic were still on the board, and Trey Burke at 7, when they could have had Giannis. (They also made a major mistake, choosing to go with Derrick Favors over resigning Paul Millsap, but that’s besides the point.)
23) Or Milwaukee who picked Giannis at 15 and picked Malcolm Brogdon at 36, while selling the 38 pick that become Patrick McCaw and passing on Joel Embiid at 2 in favor of Jabari Parker.
Both of these mistakes are as easy criticize in hindsight as they would have been when they happened. These are basically equivalent to flubbing one-foot puts at both the Buick open and The Masters. But to do so is overlooking the fact that Milwaukee’s success on high degree of difficulty picks is astounding. At 15, they drafted Giannis, who might one day be a top 3 player, if not the best player in the league. At 36, they drafted Malcolm Brogdon who looks destined to become above average. These picks took genuine insight.
However, the organization also made mistakes in the Draft, in Trades, in Free Agency that are going to make it much more difficult to build going forward. Not the Brandon Knight for Brandon Jennings trade, which was a coup before they asked for the correct player as a throw-in: Khris Middleton. Then they also made the right decision to pass on Brandon Knight before Free Agency, but they chose the worst of three possible outcomes in the subsequent trade. Passing on a marginally protected Lakers pick that could still pay dividends for the Sixers, and passing on Isaiah Thomas. As its pretty clear that Thomas could have been the lead in a package for Knight.
The presence of Giannis might allow the Bucks to get away with these mistakes. He might end up that good. We’ll see. But it’s also possible they doom the Bucks to being one step behind the NBA’s other ascendant franchises.
Just imagine a core of Malcolm Brogdon, Patrick McCaw, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid with a possibly developing Thon Maker and then adding whoever the Lakers pick turns into. Or if you’d rather, trade that Lakers pick for Isaiah Thomas, who works much better on a team with Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo covering up mistakes than he would anywhere else. These are the kinds of teams that compete for championships. But to build them, they also take near perfect rates of success on often very difficult decisions.
24) For anyone wondering, let’s assume I’d screw up more than a few of these decisions as well. It’s easy to criticize when there’s space, both historical and logistical, between one and the actual decisions.
25) That is to say, the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks have really talented front offices. Really talented front offices makes mistakes. That’s the perhaps overlooked genius of Sam Hinkie. Tanking wasn’t just about losing a lot. It was also about the tacit acceptance that he was going to make mistakes in decision making, no matter how well prepared he was.
To get around this, Sam Hinkie had a couple of work-arounds. One, he acquired draft pick after draft pick after draft pick. Not all of them were successes. Even at the top of the draft, but acquiring more chances to succeed greatly mitigated the damage of mistakes, which are almost inevitable.
Two, trade swaps helped, which divorced to a great extent the value of draft picks from team success.
Three, there’s losing. Unfortunately for Sam Hinkie, management ran out of patient. But there’s no way the Sixers acquire both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons if they don’t lose and lose a lot.
Four, there’s going after supposedly low value unrestricted Free Agents instead of marginal veterans. The only real success for the Sixers from this endeavor comes in the form of Robert Covington. But better choices might have also led to a player like Tyler Johnson being in the organization, or even a guy like Langston Galloway, who probably wouldn’t make as much of an impact.
Five, not signing marginal veterans left the cap space to potentially sign Free Agents when the time came. When the team was good enough to attract the right Free Agents. Given the success and personality of Joel Embiid, perhaps as soon as this summer.
Sam Hinkie wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. No, I’m not talking about how acrimonious interactions with agents and bad optics impacted his destiny. I’m talking about the types of decision making mistakes we normally associate with General Managers. Passing on Giannis or Gobert, Jokic or Porzingis. But in the end, it probably won’t matter for the Sixers.
Hinkie put the organization in position to make two easy decisions, in picking Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, in never leveraging cap space for marginal improvement, and in adding many potentially high value draft picks to the Sixers stockade. Those four outcomes in conjunction are very likely going to prove much more important than the fact that he flubbed on any number of decisions of higher difficulty.
Every GM makes mistakes. The genius of Sam Hinkie was realizing this fact and devising a plan which allowed him to do so without significant negative effect.
Great article, but I'd change the title — Meet Sachin Gupta, The Driving Force Behind *All* of Sam Hinkie's Trades https://t.co/XOQp6BJhjF
— Sam Hinkie (@samhinkie) January 31, 2017
Random Scouting Note
I’m not a shot doctor by any means, though there seems to be a mechanical change in Josh Jackson’s shot that has lead to his recent success. The shot is in general much cleaner, much smoother, with much less wasted motion. If you watch the Kansas-Baylor game, you can actually see the difference in the two shots.
There’s a made three and a made mid-range jumper (this one after the whistle) in the first half that show this smoother, cleaner motion. Later on, there’s a three from NBA range where the stroke is more deliberate and has a bigger hitch, probably because the distance is farther away and he needs more strength to shoot from there. That one, he misses badly.
No, the shot still isn’t a very pretty or textbook shot. There may be a real reason why Jackson’s improved in the last couple of weeks.