The Arbitrarian: Envisioning the Olympics

David Sparks is The Arbitrarian. He profiles his stastical work every Thursday here at Hardwood Paroxysm. David is glad to be back at school, especially with his new Trapper Keeper and abacus. This week he takes a look back at Olympic Basketball and the ramifications the numbers supply within.

Admittedly, it’s a little late for Olympic basketball coverage, given that the competition ended sometime around 4:00 am EST on Sunday morning, but Thursday is Arbitrarian day, and so today I’m going to try to tell the story of the US Men’s Olympic basketball team retrospectively, in statistics and graphics.

Predecessors

This most recent iteration of the US men’s basketball team was slated to “redeem” the American program in international competition. After several successive failures to dominate their competition, much was made about the degree to which the rest of the world had caught up to the level of American basketball and/or how the American players, because of [insert arbitrary reason here] would no longer be able to dominate in international competition. Several of the more recent US squads were derided as selfish, non-fundamentally sound, failing to take international competition seriously–the narrative was one of how hubris could lead even the mightiest to fall.

It has been said that during those dark years, the US was “just fielding all-star teams,” and that part of Jerry Colangelo’s plan for a return to dominance was to field carefully constructed teams, with role players and specialists–not just 12 guys who could score. To what extent is this true? How much credit does Colangelo’s craftsmanship deserve? As we like to do here, let’s take this subjective claim, and apply a little bit of rigor to see if it holds up without the patriotic feelings and stirring redemption narrative clouding our judgment. For answers, let us look to an application of the SPI style trichotomy:


(Note: If you turn captions on (second button from left on bottom), each diagram is labeled with its year. Also, hit pause and use the arrows to review each image at your own pace.)

Above is a series of graphics depicting the SPI styles (based on their NBA statistics) of each team fielded by the US in major international competition, from the Dream Team in 1992, to this year’s “Redeem” Team, with the exception of the 1998 World Championship team, which was largely composed of non-NBA players.

What differences can we identify in each team’s composition? Did Colangelo really put together a thoughtfully composed team? It appears to me that this was at least some part of the difference between this year’s team and those recent teams that ended in failure and disappointment. The main thing I notice, in comparing the 2002, ’04, and ’06 teams (although especially the first two) to each of the others, is a relative dearth in the pure perimeter region.

Each of these teams has an eclectic smattering of interior types–some years they appear more offensively-minded than others, and the 2008 Olympic team, interestingly has only three players classified as such in the SPI scheme. But look first at the 1992 team, which is stacked to the gills with players in the 10 o’clock to 12 o’clock range, meaning that their statistics indicate a focus on perimeter play, or an absence of focus on scoring, relative to the league. Such is the case, to a slightly lesser extent, with each of the other teams up through 2000.

In 2002, the perimeter appears to have become less of a priority, stocked with
Andre Miller, Davis, and young Jay Williams–good players, but not the “pure point” types which manned some of the other teams. Further, that team was full of Perimeter Scorer types, three of which (Reggie Miller, Finley, and Allen), are known more for their shooting than their all-around game.

2004 may have been an even more poorly-constructed team, with essentially no Pure Perimeter players. James and Wade are capable of facilitating, but this is not typically their primary role, and James played relatively few minutes anyway. Instead, that role was left mainly to Marbury and Iverson, who are known to look for their own shot as often as they pass–and this subjective reputation is backed up by the SPI analysis.

The 2006 team was much better–it is obvious that effort was made to compose a team of players of many different types–this is the only year in which there is at least one player from each sextant of the SPI plot. This is not necessarily a good thing for winning, but it indicates that thought was put into how each player would fit together into a whole. Further, two actual perimeter players were included, Paul and Hinrich, and this team performed substantially better than their Marbury- and Iverson-lead predecessors.

This year’s team sees a return to past glory, likely in no small part to a fully-stocked trio of Pure Perimeter players, able to push the ball up court and facilitate any of the able scorers on the team. Interior play was de-emphasized, as the team’s focus would be on a disruptive defensive style aimed at generating turnovers and leading to fast breaks–for this, speed, not size, was key.

In sum, it appears as though part of the credit for the USA’s Olympic success really might belong to Mr. Colangelo. Though it is the players on the floor who do the actual winning and losing, a large part of the results likely stemmed from what happened way before the opening tip.

Now that we have covered the pre-Olympic preparation phase, let us turn our attention to what actually happened in Beijing.

Assessing productivity in these Games

Due to limitations on the ease with which game-by-game data can be collected for the Olympic tournament, I will be discussing productivity (as measured by MEV) rather than value (as measured by MVP)–but here, the story is pretty clear.¹ Below is a list of each athlete, with their SPI factors, points- and MEV-per game numbers, and Valuable Contributions Ratio. I’ve also included what I call Points Per Points Possible (p4), which divides points scored by the number of points possible on each of their shot attempts (2 for all field goal attempts, plus an extra one on three-point attempts, plus one for each free throw attempt).


Many of the most productive individuals play professionally in the NBA. These numbers indicate that LeBron James was the most valuable to Team USA, but note that Wade was almost as productive in substantially fewer minutes (his VCR is the highest on the US team). As such, I have to name James the MVP (for the team and the whole tournament), but Wade is the US’s Most Efficient Player, which is exactly what the team needed from its first man off the bench.

How did contributions break down for each team? Below is a series of charts that plot the sources of production for each team, based on tournament-cumulative MEV. Each player is colored according to their SPI type, and players with negative MEV are zeroed out (because it’s hard to depict the area of a negative number):


Click here if you want a whole window full of these pie charts.

Among the best teams in the competition, Argentina was more highly dependent on their top-tier players than were Spain and the US. The two teams most reliant on a single player were China, anchored by Yao Ming, and Iran, lead by Ehadadi. Croatia appears to have had the most balanced contributions, although this is often a trait of weaker teams, because it is easier to field a team of equally poor players than one of equally excellent players.

What did each player produce individually? The table above gives the summary report of the points-value of each player’s production, in the form of MEV. Below, however, I have the complete breakdown of each player’s counting statistics for the Olympic tournament, as a percentage of the simple sum of these stats for that player. I have tried to arrange the graphs such that adjacent areas make for easy comparison of paired statistics–missed field goals is next to points, assists next to turnovers, offensive and defensive rebounds together, followed by the defensive statistics, etc. Players are sorted by MEV/gp. Coloration is of course derived from SPI type based on Olympic statistics.


Click here if you want a whole window full of these little pie charts.

Seeing these pie charts all together as small multiples allows us to easily compare two or more players. Note, for example, that Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh were almost perfect substitutes for one another: they have almost identical per-game MEVs, and their stat distributions look very similar–the only exception seems to be that Bosh seems to have grabbed relatively more defensive rebounds and turned the ball over slightly more, while Howard did a lot more fouling.

Carlos Delfino’s SPI color identifies him as a very tournament-representative player; that is, his relative distribution of scoring, perimeter, and interior statistics reflect that of all players collectively. The gray color indicates this league-relative neutrality, and he serves as a useful benchmark against which to compare others.

As is evidenced by his orange color and large segment devoted to pts and fgx, a large portion of Bryant’s statistical contributions came from scoring. However, these statistics likely do not give the full picture for Bryant, as his role for most of the duration of the tournament was to shut down the opposition’s best players, not unlike a “Doberman.”

Jason Kidd (very pale blue, about halfway down) is one of few players for whom pts is not the largest segment. Rather his defensive rebounds and assists took priority, although so too, unfortunately, did his turnovers and personal fouls.

Michael Redd (rusty color, much closer to the bottom of the list) offers an interesting example of the usefulness of such a visualization. The first thing one notices is that his pts sector is matched in size by his fgx sector–he missed almost as many baskets as he scored points. Tip for the uninitiated: this is not a productive way to play basketball.

Another way to look at the data is through parallel coordinate plots, which are useful for depicting the rank of an individual across multiple categories. Below, I present PC plots for each member of team USA, where the vertical axis indicates that individual’s rank in each of 9 metrics, relative to the entire pool of Olympic players. On each plot, for ease of comparison, I draw gray lines for the remainder of the US team, but highlight each player individually in their SPI color.


Click here if you want a whole window full of these parallel coordinate plots.

p4 is Points Per Points Possible, described above, AS:TO is the assist-to-turnover ratio, TR/min is total rebounds per minute, DEF:PF is (BK+ST)/PF, which is just an amateurish way of measuring defensive skill.

Looking at these plots, we can see that Wade performed very well. He is in the top four on the US team in each stat, and it is apparent that he is in the top half across the board among all Olympians. Redd, although he was called upon to provide a shooting spark off the bench, was mostly a dud, with a p4 among the lowest in the competition. Bryant was second lowest on the team, but his shooting efficiency looks to have been better than about a third of the Olympic players, and thus much better than Redd’s. Note that due to a small sample size, some of these ranks will appear odd, namely Redd’s high ranking on the DEF:PF statistic and Kidd’s high p4 rating. Neither of high rankings are what we would expect from these players, but Redd played relatively few minutes, and Kidd only took shots he couldn’t refuse to take, resulting in good ratings for in these areas over a small number of observations.

I would be very interested to hear any more insights you glean from the above displays–feel free to copy any of the charts for your own use, just also please provide a link back to HP.

Olympic style

We’ve seen the NBA styles of the players that make up Team USA, we’ve seen their SPI factors and even their specific statistical breakdown. Now, we turn to a full SPI Spectrum graphic depicting each Olympic competitor, and their type, based solely on their production in the Olympics. Player names are scaled according to their MEV totals, so that the most productive players are the easiest to spot.


Fullscreen Version

Several things stand out to me. First, I am impressed by the degree to which this Olympics-based diagram matches up with the NBA-based diagram, for players who appear in both. Redd, Bryant, Williams, Kirilenko, Howard, Yao and Boozer all played similar styles in these Olympic games as they did in the 07-08 NBA.

Even more enlightening are the differences: Louis Scola played much more of a scoring role for Argentina than he does for the Rockets (understandably so). Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul shifted their focus away from scoring, relative to their NBA style, likely because they were not required on this team to carry their team’s point production. Anthony’s purported focus on rebounding is reflected in his shift from a somewhat perimeter-biased Scorer to an Interior Scoring type. Jason Kidd became an even more extreme Scorer’s Opposite, eschewing shooting opportunities whenever possible.

The most significant shift, however, might be seen in the play of LeBron James. Last season in the NBA, James lined up at about 12 o’clock on the diagram; the style with which he most closely aligned was Perimeter Scorer. In these Olympics, however, James’ style reflects his commitment to doing whatever was needed by the team. His minty-green color and placement at a little before 11 o’clock reflect his Pure Perimeter style, though his relative proximity to the center of the diagram indicates that his fit here is not perfect. Rather than being the primary scorer for this team, as he is accustomed to being in Cleveland, James stepped up the defensive intensity, leading his team in blocks (with eight), and finishing second in the tournament in steals (with 19!), not to mention leading the tournament, by a landslide, in menacing scowls. Further, he was second on the US team in assists (30; Paul had 33), his assist-to-turnover ratio was a respectable 1.76, and he finished in the tournament top ten in total rebounds. To put it in perspective, the role James filled for this US team was similar to that played by Magic Johnson on the showtime Lakers, which is quite a niche, indeed.

Conclusion

In sum, we can see that at least some of the hype is true. There has been some well-placed cynicism regarding the extent to which the “Redeem Team,” and our collective impression thereof, is a product of marketing. I have no doubt that at least some of what we believe about this team and its players is fabricated for the purpose of generating a positive image, and greater sales. However, at least two claims made about this team can be empirically verified, and I have tried to do that here.

The first claim is that this team is different from the failures which came before. Using NBA statistics and the SPI Typology, I am inclined to believe that in construction, this team is different than its three previous iterations, and more similar in design to the Dream Teams of the 1990s.

The second claim is that the players on this team changed their styles to accomodate each other, to better fit together as a team. Comparing SPI positions in the Olympics to SPI positions in the NBA, we can see which players had similar statistical distributions, and those which modified their style. Each player on the US team was either accustomed to or able to lead their NBA teams in scoring on any given night, and in Olympic competition, this ability to rely on others to score allows (at least theoretically) unselfish play. The question was always whether or not this team of able shooters would be able to “put aside their egos” and fill a specific role for this team, which may or may not include a substantial amount of offensive production. By and large, it appears as though the players asked to do so have responded positively. Though several US team members played with styles similar to their NBA styles, this reflected the reported desire of the coaching staff and management of the team (i.e. Michael Redd is supposed to be a shooter). Other players saw drastic shifts in their style of play, especially movement away from a focus on scoring, as a universally capable offense permitted each individual to do less of the shooting than may be required on their NBA squads. Based on this graphical evidence, I am willing to advance a tentative rejection of the null hypothesis that the players did not fill the roles they were asked to. Rather, it appears as though they played as a cohesive unit, maximizing their strengths and possibly sacrificing for the team.

I hope this late coverage was worth waiting for. I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to any of the ideas I’ve put forward, and I would especially like to know if you see any interesting relationships jump out in any of the SPI diagrams. I haven’t even begun here to discuss the interesting similarities between several of the international players and those from our own NBA in the Olympics, I suppose I will leave that to you. As usual, I’d love to hear from you in the comments, and in the survey, and please Buzz this up!




¹ If you are particularly interested in game-by-game contributions and value, I did track a modified version of MVP for team USA throughout the Olympics and pre-Games warmups. You can see the per-game and cumulative results here.

Seth Carstens