3% Interest

Photo by mom2zamien via Flickr

There’s a world of difference in 3%. The lockout is an unfortunate illustration of how large a gap such a seemingly small sum can be, as 53% (or 47%, depending on one’s perspective) represents an impassable line in the sand, while 50% is the key to an 82-game paradise. School children in my hometown recently learned the importance of a few percentage points the hard way, as a change in the grading scale bumped the line below which a student is failing to 70% and the qualification for an A to 94% or higher – the latter decision generating a far larger front of parental frustration. For those children at the very bottom and very top, what was passable or extraordinary yesterday is damnable or above-average today.

3% has the potential to change the way some view Amar’e Stoudemire as well. Though his spectacular offensive performance during the first half of last season sowed the seeds of premature MVP speculation, the Knicks’ regression to the mean – even after acquiring Carmelo Anthony – and subsequent injuries to Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups during their first round flame-out against the Celtics gave rise to a tide of criticism against Stoudemire, Anthony and the defensive mentality of New York under coach Mike D’Antoni.  The sun-baked cauldron of basketball discussion turned hot to the touch by the lockout drought kept the fire lit under the questioning of the Knicks until the recent rash of player rankings once again stirred the pot on how properly rated these superstars really are.

While Anthony’s lackadaisical effort on defense and his reaction to that perception are well documented of late, the idea that Stoudemire is overrated has gone largely overlooked – until our lovely editor, Mr. Moore, decided to open the floodgates on twitter yesterday by questioning why some people view offensive production along a spectrum (great players, good, decent, below-average, bad, awful, etc.) while a player tends to either be a passable defender, a man capable of stopping an alien invasion with his bare hands – so long as the aliens can be defeated by suffocating ball denial – or such a saloon door that his only purpose for existence is to give John Wayne something cool through which to enter a room. One innocuous comment later – about how the difference between a “terrible” rebounder such as Stoudemire and a great rebounder is really only two rebounds per game – and the contretemps threatened to become a kerfuffle.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/HPbasketball/status/126382420789428224″]

The fact that a 22% increase in total rebounds is all that separates the worst rebounding power forward ever in history because he is just the worst from the double-stuffed legends of yore is a valid point, but it could use a bit of context. We all know that the Knicks play at a faster pace than most teams in the league (97.8 possessions per game last year according to HoopData.com, 4th fastest). More importantly, New York, due to differences in pace, turnover rate, free throw rate and percentage, and field goal percentage, sees almost four more total rebound opportunities per game than the average team. With Stoudemire on the floor for 76.6% of the team’s minutes in games in which he played, he sees three more rebound opportunities than someone playing comparable minutes on a league average team. Josh Smith outrebounded Stoudemire by .3 boards per game, but Smith’s rebound rate was 2.3% higher. Atlanta played at a below-average pace and Smith played less than Stoudemire per game, so Smith saw less rebounding opportunities.

That’s all of the obvious, “‘Advanced’ Stats 101” stuff. The interesting tidbit is the intersection between a simple, honest defense of Stoudemire’s rebounding – while he’s not the best, he’s more than passable, and if he grabbed just two more rebounds a game, he’d be a double-double monster – and a quantitative-based plea to help the Knicks in more ways than simply on the offensive end. Frankly, he’s not doing that as often as he has in the past. Throwing out 2005-06 when he missed all but a handful of games due to injury, Stoudemire has made a living in his career by owning the paint on offense. The percentage of his shots taken from the inside (per 82games.com) hadn’t dipped lower than 45% in 2008-09 and bounced back to 49% in 2009-10. Last year, though, the bread and butter vanished in some sort of biscuit-related shenanigans; Stoudemire took only 34% of his shots from the inside. It showed, too, as he posted the lowest TS% of his career, a full 5% below his previous low. There was a noticeable increase in his assist rate, so some of that decrease in post presence may have been by design, but it is a drastic reduction in performace in Stoudemire’s most effective area.

If the Knicks are going to take away from Stoudemire’s effectiveness as they try to build a new binary star system on offense, he must find other areas in which to produce. Much of the criticism of Stoudemire depends on asking for more effort on the defensive end and on the glass. If that’s fair – and that’s debatable – how much harder are people asking him to try? Can you put a number on what it means to go from terrible to elite?

It turns out that all we’re really asking for, if you want a little respect, is 3% more. With the 32.54 offensive rebound opportunities and 31.91 defensive Stoudemire saw on average last year, a 3% higher defensive rebounding rate (from 17.6% last year to 20.6%) combined with grabbing 2.2% more of the available offensive rebounds (from 7.8% to 10%) would result in Stoudemire becoming a top 10 rebounder for his position. He’d average 9.8 boards per game. The impact on the team would be significant as well; assuming that 66% of the additional boards would otherwise have gone to the other team (a conservative assumption), the Knicks would move from 24th (24.25%) to 19th (25.70%) in team offensive rebound rate. Their opponent’s average ORR would improve from 26th worst in the league (28.07% allowed) to 16th (26.09%). A sizable -3.82 ORR discrepancy would become a much more manageable -.39.

Rebounding on the offensive end may be of particular importance. New York ranked 2nd last year in percentage of field goal attempts from beyond the arc. The Knicks shot decently well from downtown – they posted an above-average eFG% - but they missed a higher percentage of total field goal attempts than the league average because of their reliance on the three and as a result allowed more rebounding opportunities per possession than most teams on that end of the court. Any contributions by Stoudemire toward maintaining possession for New York’s outside shooters can lessen the impact of his decreased presence in the paint, if in fact that trend continues.

The takeaway from all of this is the importance of the sum of the minute details that transpire on every trip down the court. That 3% increase in rebounding production amounts to a little less than one one-hundredth of a rebounding opportunity per possession going Stoudemire’s way instead of into the hands of any other player. It’s a matter of 3 inches at most on every single play, an intricate movement of mountainous parts crashing into each other in a game predicated on the preciousness of real estate. Every inch has its meaning and its value; finding that space and using it to maximum effectiveness is one of the most beautiful parts of the game.

Perhaps rebounding has been de-emphasized to Stoudemire. It is true that many of his teammates are among the best at their positions in rebounding, but the team still ranks in the bottom half of the league in total rebounding rate. Taken with the team’s inability to stop anyone on defense from any range, the importance of improvements in rebounding for New York cannot be overstated. Stoudemire has performed at a better rate before, if not an elite level – a 9.7% ORR in 2009-10, 10.1% in 2006-07; over 20% DRR in 2006-07 and 2007-2008. If he can do it again, maybe next year we’ll have a more intelligent discussion about his shortcomings.

Defensive debate, anyone?

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.