Another Coach Bites the Dust

Cleveland Cavaliers Tyronn Lue is the latest coach to be fired after a poor start to a season. The announcement that Cavs GM Koby Altman had relieved Lue of his coaching duties came out early yesterday morning, October 28th. Lue and the Cavaliers opened the season with an 0-6 record, which didn’t come as a surprise to many with the current roster and early season injuries.

When a team has a bad record the person that takes the majority of the blame is the head coach. The coach is the easiest person to blame because they are who we see making decisions on the court. The truth is, they really aren’t making all of these decisions alone, and when a coach gets fired because of a bad record it is usually hiding a bigger problem.

Tyronn Lue Released as Cavs Head Coach
Former Cavaliers Head Coach Tyronn Lue: Photo Credit ESPN.com

Every NBA team has a front office staff with analysts that aid in decision making. They are involved with decisions like signing players and identifying what lineups play best together on the court. Even though the coach decides who is in the game in real time, there is analysis and statistics to back the decisions that were made.

When you really think about it, coaches have much less impact on the game than we give them credit for. When the game is on the line, a coach can draw up the perfect play or have the perfect plan, but if the players don’t perform the team loses. Even if the players do perform, there are times that the opponent is flat out better and still outperforms your team even when they play their best. If your roster isn’t good enough to compete with the others in the league, it doesn’t matter who your coach is. The next coach of the Cavaliers will have the same exact roster and the same challenges ahead of him, so I find it hard to believe that the coaching change will have a big impact on the team’s performance.

Even though a coach doesn’t have as much impact over a team’s success as we often believe, they are still more than just a figurehead. I believe the main thing a coach brings to an organization is their coaching system. This is probably where the coach has the most impact on a team’s performance.

Mike D'Antoni - Houston Rockets Head Coach
Mike D’Antoni Houston Rockets Head Coach: Photo Credit Wikipedia.com

The most sought-after coaches in the league are appealing because they have a system with a unique identity that has proven to be successful in the past. Mike D’Antoni, now coaching the Houston Rockets, is known for his jump-shot heavy, offensively potent coaching style.

D’Antoni has had a marvelous coaching career when it comes to his win loss ratio and has had no shortage of stars. He’s even had the pleasure of coaching MVP caliber players like Kobe Bryant and James Harden. When you look at D’Antoni’s worst seasons, they just happen to be with his worst rosters. When he had 27 wins with LA in the 2013-14 season, he found himself guiding a Lakers team that had two key starters, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, appearing in only 21 combined games due to injury.

The fact of the matter is good players can play well with or without good coaches. It’s ideal to have a good coach along with good players, but if your roster is not skilled enough to compete with the rest of the NBA no coaching change can make up for skill level gaps.

In the case of Tyronn Lue, replacing him with another coach isn’t going to turn Cleveland’s season around and I don’t think that the Cavs believe that either. I think Cleveland has identified what type of roster they are hoping to have long-term and don’t think Lue’s system will work with it. If the Cavs want to see an immediate change in the win column, they will likely need to see significant changes in their roster, not their coaching staff.

It’s Raining 3’s

In the last ten years (between the 2008-09 and 2017-18 seasons) the average number of three-pointers attempted by teams per game has increased 59.9 percent. That’s over ten more three-point shot attempts a game per team. The rapid growth in the popularity of the three-point shot has taken the game by storm and shows no signs of slowing down with a team average of 31.7 three-point shot attempts taken per game (as of the morning of October 25).

3 Point Attempts

Along with the increase in three-point attempts, we have seen an increase in points scored per game and a decrease in two-point shot attempts. This shows us that the way basketball is played has drastically changed. The traditional big man who thrived off of minimal movement and exclusively scoring in the paint is starting to disappear or be forced to adjust to a faster more versatile playing style. Andre Drummond for example, the player to record the worst free throw shooting percentage in NBA history (35.5 percent in 2015-16), has taken more three-point shots in the Pistons first three games this season than he did in his first three years in the NBA.

How did this happen? There used to be a time when players like Ray Allen and Kyle Korver were few and far between. How did three-point shooting go from being a specialty to being a necessity? Well, there are a few main stages that have contributed to the shooting change in the NBA, and surprise, it starts with the Golden State Warriors.

Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely teams shooting high volumes of three-pointers before the Curry and Thompson stole the show. The Orlando Magic, for example, put up 27.3 three-pointers per game in the 2008-09 season where they ultimately fell to Kobe’s Lakers in game five of the NBA finals. But the 2012-13 NBA season is where the splash brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, began to build a brand of excellence and success based wonderous three-point shooting.

splash brothers
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson; Splash Brothers – Photo Credit to thebiglead.com

Curry and Thompson went on to have five consecutive 50 plus win seasons as well as breaking the regular season win record with 73 in the 2015-16 season. In this time span, the two original splash brothers averaged no less than fourteen three-point attempts per game between the two of them. Now, Curry and Thompson hold the top five spots on the leaderboard for three-point field goals scored in a season (Curry has the record at 402 in 2015-2016).

The Warriors continued to brand success with the three-pointer every year. As if two accurate, high volume shooters weren’t enough, they added another All-Star to the roster in 2016, Kevin Durant, who fit right in shooting five or more three-pointers per game in his first two season with the Warriors. Golden State has now won three NBA Championships in the last four years with this playing style and other teams around the league took notice.

Houston, another team that has spurred the three-point revolution, moved to a high volume three-point offense around the same time as the Warriors in 2012-13 and have recently become one of the strongest offenses in the West. Last year, the Rockets became the first team in NBA history to average more three-pointers per game than two-point field goals and they nearly eliminated the Golden State Warriors from the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals.

As more teams find success with the three-ball, more teams try to replicate the playing style. As of the morning of October 25th, there are no NBA teams averaging less than twenty-one three-pointers attempted per game, and there are twenty-one teams averaging thirty or more attempts per game. Three-point shooting is on the rise and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon. One question this leaves us with is how likely are we to see four-point shots in NBA basketball?

Is Hayward Hurting the Celtics?

The 2018-19 season is in full swing and the Boston Celtics’ start has been somewhat underwhelming. The pre-season favorites to win the East are sitting in seventh place with a 2-2 record after losses to the Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors. With only four games played, it seems a little early to be worried about this team, but they have struggled with some pretty weak competition thus far. In the first four games, they have lost to Orlando and barely beat the New York Knicks in a 2-point win. These performances have left fans a little restless and questioning if Gordan Hayward is to blame for the team’s early struggles.

Gordon Hayward Celtics
Gordon Hayward – Photo Credit: express.co.uk

Taking a look at Hayward’s numbers, the answer is no, he is not to blame. The main stat that concerns Celtics fans is the 11.7 points per game (PPG). Outside of the 5 minutes Hayward played last year, he hasn’t averaged less than 14 PPG since the 2011-12 season and in each of the three seasons preceding his ankle injury, he averaged over 19 PPG. The main reason for change in Hayward’s scoring so far is a result of fewer shot attempts.

In Hayward’s last three full seasons (where he averaged 19.3, 19.7, and 21.9 PPG) he attempted between 14 and 16 shots per game. This season, Hayward is averaging 11 shots per game and is making three-pointers at the second highest rate in his career.

Gordon Hayward Shot Attempts by Points Gray

Another factor we need to look at is who would be playing if Hayward wasn’t. The two players who have seen the biggest drop in minutes since Hayward entered the starting lineup are Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. Smart, though he is a stellar defensive presence, shot only 36.7 percent from the field last year, and averaged 10.2 points per game. Rozier, had a much more meaningful offensive presence, especially in the post season. He had his best NBA season scoring 11.3 points per game shooting 39.5 percent from the floor.

Even when Rozier was seeing regular minutes last year, he averaged numbers rather similar to what Hayward is putting up right now. It makes a lot more sense for the Celtics to bet on Hayward, a former NBA All-Star, returning to his high production levels than to put their faith in a post season standout who averaged double digit scoring for the first time in his young career. The more playing time Hayward gets, the more likely we are to see how effectively he will bounce back from his season off.

Kyrie Irving Jumpshot
Kyrie Irving Jumpshot – Photo Credit Nandita; Pintrest

One player that I would argue has had a large impact on the Celtics’ early struggles is Kyrie Irving. Last year, the Celtics got used to Irving producing 24.4 points per game shooting at just under a 50 percent from the floor. This year, he has only put up 16.5 points per game with a 39.1 percent field goal percentage. Irving will need to get of his slump soon if the Celtics are going to compete for the top spot in the East this year.

It has been a slow start for Celtics fans but the season isn’t doomed just yet. Hayward and Irving are both former All-Stars with multiple seasons of documented success. Personally, I feel very confident that both players are just in an early season lull and will soon be able to return to producing impressive stat lines at efficient scoring clips. On top of the likely upside Hayward and Irving bring to the team’s offense, Celtics fans can look forward to the development of rising star Jayson Tatum. In the first four games, he has averaged a double-double and twice as many rebounds per game as last year. Tatum is also enjoying increased assist and scoring numbers and should serve as a reliable source of offense until Kyrie and Hayward get back to the level we know they can produce at.

Is Rondo a Good Fit for The Lakers?

At this point in his career, Rajon Rondo may be known more for his temper and clashes with coaches than his accomplishments. Since Rondo was traded to the Mavericks in December of 2014, it has been a bumpy road. Even when he puts up respectable stat lines he can’t seem to find a long-term home. This season, Rondo finds himself as a Los Angeles Laker, his fifth team in five seasons.

When it comes to basketball IQ and ability, Rondo is no slouch. He has made a career off of dazzling passes and deceptive moves around the rim. As a result, he has led the NBA in assists three times (2011-12, 2012-13, and 2015-16), is a four-time NBA All-Star, and was the starting point guard of the 2007-08 champion Boston Celtics.

Rondo's Hustle Stats - ChartRondo's Shooting - Chart

It’s hard to imagine that a player with these accolades would have any trouble finding a long-term contract. Unfortunately, Rondo’s attitude and issues with teammates and coaches have become expected and seem to impact his performance. Drama reached its peak for Rondo when he played in Dallas and Chicago where he regularly butted heads with teammates and coaches. This is also when we see Rondo’s numbers take a dip.

It would be easy to say that Rondo’s performance issues were exclusively a result of his bad attitude. The only problem with that is even in Sacramento, where Rondo referred to the locker room as tense and called his teammates a bunch of bums, he performed relatively well. I believe that the explanation that shows why Rondo played well in Sacramento is revealing of what causes him to be successful in general. Rondo needs to be surrounded by talented teammates to produce at his highest level. His best seasons were when he was paired with the Boston Big Three and in Sacramento with DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and Darren Collison.

This might make you question why Rondo didn’t put up better numbers in Dallas when he was paired with Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. The answer stems from the issues between him and Head Coach Rick Carslile. Rondo saw inconsistent playing time and averaged less than 30 minutes per game for the first time since his second year in the league (2007-08 where he averaged 29.9 MPG). He was on a team and in an environment that didn’t give him the playing time or support he needed to succeed. Rondo saw similar issues with playing time in Chicago when he was benched for an extended period of time and regularly fought with veterans Dwayne Wade and Jimmy Butler.

Looking back at Rondo’s stats tells an interesting story. Though Rondo’s worst seasons seem to come when there was the most drama he has proven that he can still perform at a high level when given the opportunity. He led the league in assists when he played in Sacramento and posted respectful numbers in limited minutes as a Pelican.

To determine whether or not Rondo is a good fit for the Lakers we need to look at the environment he would be in as well as the players around him. Head Coach Luke Walton was hired when the Lakers were dealing with the aftermath of the issues between D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young. Long story short, he should have an idea on how to deal with locker room drama. If Walton isn’t enough to keep Rondo’s attitude in check, maybe LeBron James, the likely team leader, will have the respect of the former All-Star and ability to keep him in line.

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers
Rajon Rondo Bringing the ball up the court; Photo Credit to thesportsdaily.com

As far as the roster goes, there may not be a dominant big-man like in Rondo’s previous successful seasons, but there is no lack of talent. Players like Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have demonstrated the ability to score and stretch the floor leaving space for Rondo to drive the paint where he is most effective scoring. Rondo should have plenty of targets for his dazzling dimes.

It seems the only barrier to success for Rondo will be how the Lakers decide to split minutes among guards. With up and coming talents like Lonzo ball, Josh Hart, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, it may be hard for Rondo to earn the minutes he would need for a chance to return to All-Star production. Even though the Lakers will likely be able to handle Rondo’s attitude, it seems that Rondo will not be a part of the Lakers long-term plans. In my opinion, once Ball is able to return to his regular workload, Rondo will see limited minutes (under 30 per game) to allow for the development of younger prospects and will serve more as a veteran with experience to offer.

Pre-Season Power Rankings

The 2018-19 NBA season is finally here! In celebration of the tonight’s season opener  between Philadelphia and Boston I have created a homemade power ranking model (if you are just interested in the results, begin reading after Figure 1).

Process:

  1. Created a dataset representing the 2018-19 rosters.
    1. Data was collected from the previous season of play (2016-17 season used for Brandon Knight and Gordon Hayward) for returning players and preseason data was used for all rookies.
      1. Previous season data from basketballreference.com
      2. Pre-season data from foxsports.com
    2. Rookies were included if they played 4 or more preseason games in an attempt to only include players that will likely see significant playing time.
  2. Scaled the Data
    1. To get expected production statistics all teams players minutes per game were summed. Individual minutes per game were then divided by the team sum to get their expected playing time share (as a percentage) on their new roster.
    2. Each player’s individual statistics (ORB, DRB, etc.) were then divided by their minutes per game to get a stat per minute value.
    3. Finally, we set 240 minutes of playing time as the number of minutes each team will have (5 positions with 48 minutes of playing time each). I then calculated the new expected minutes per game by multiplying 240 by their expected playing time share from 2a.
    4. The data was then scaled to represent each player’s expected statistic outputs for the 2018-19 season by multiplying each individual’s per minute statistics by the expected minutes per game calculated in 2c.
  3. Scored the Results.
    1. Team points per game was the starting point for each team. Extra points were then added for other statistics based on how we would expect them to impact scoring (in the future I would like to use regression analysis to determine more meaningful coefficients in the following scale).
Scoring Scale Updated
Figure 1 – Scoring Scale for Extra Points

It is important to remember that this model isn’t intended to show where your favorite team will end up in the end of season standings. The goal of the model is to represent how good the teams are relative to each other. Some factors that could influence the end of season standings could be injuries, defensive ability, or difficulty of the teams’ schedule.

Don’t get to excited if your team isn’t where you expect it to be though. Rookie impact could be misleading due to the small preseason sample size, and teams like the Pelicans who have made major personnel changes will have to show that they can coexist and maintain their previous year’s production levels before we start saying they will compete with Golden State and Houston.

Final Rankings Updated
Figure 2 – Power Rankings

New York Knicks (Rank 8):

I have to say that New York’s acquisition of Trey Burke and waiving of Joakim Noah do not even come close to convincing me they will be a top 10 team this season.  The drafting of Kevin Knox is exciting, and he is a great prospect, but still not enough to launch the Knicks to the 8th best team in the league.

Orlando Magic (Rank 12):

Orlando is another team that I believe may have landed higher than they deserved. They did make very important moves this offseason re-signing Aaron Gordon and drafting Mo Bamba, but it doesn’t really offer the immediate impact needed to justify the 12th spot in the rankings. They are getting better, but still have a long way to go before being considered a top tier team.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum there are a handful of teams that appear to have unjustly fallen to low ranks.

Los Angeles Lakers (Rank 18):

Let’s start with the Los Angeles Lakers. Any team that manages to bring in LeBron James is easily expected to be a top contender. LeBron has proven time and time again that he alone can carry undeserving teams and players to the finals (If you’re not convinced just ask James Jones). Now, LeBron is surrounded by a plethora of young talent and is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Watch out for the Lakers this season.

Philadelphia 76ers (Rank 15):

Philadelphia is a team I would expect to earn a top 10 ranking as well. Reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are a force to be reckoned with on their own. With a healthy Markelle Fultz and other strong complementary pieces, the sixers have every right to be optimistic as this young team continues to grow.

Portland Trailblazers (Rank 21):

The last team I want to comment on that was clearly ranked lower than expected is Portland. Overall their core remained intact this offseason. If anything, the team saw a bit of improvement replacing Ed Davis with Jusuf Nurkic. They also brought in Seth Curry who has proven he can be an effective off the bench scorer when given the opportunity (48.1% Field goal percentage and 42.5% 3-point percentage in last active season). The problem with the Blazers is that they have been in this stage for too long. They aren’t good enough to win a championship, but they are good enough to avoid top draft picks. If the Blazers don’t make a serious move to go to the next level they will be stuck as an above average team until Lillard and McCollum decide to split.

Overall the model shows some interesting information. There are a handful of teams that just seem to be out of place and I will be looking for ways to improve rankings in the future. However, I do believe a lot of these rankings aren’t far off and could be revealing of some up and coming teams this season.