Tag Archives: Carmelo Anthony

The Vicious Law Of Averages

From an analytics perspective, a basketball game is a collection of thousands of intricately unique data points. At this moment in time we are able to measure and catalog a tremendous number of those data points, but many, many more still lie outside our reach. This enormous quantity of information simply can’t be held together in a useful way, with each point existing as a separate entity. Information is gleaned by looking for connections and patterns in those points. Often the simplest of statistical tools, like averages, are enough to smooth and group those separate points together. Like pulling back from a Magic Eye Poster, averaging data helps us make sense of the overwhelming stream of individual plays we watch unfold in front of us, creating an image, recognizable and comforting.

As a Pacers’ fan confidence can be an unfamiliar companion. The team has had plenty of success in the twenty years I’ve been watching them, but rarely can I remember cruising through a big game with any certainty of a positive outcome. The defining Pacers experience is still Reggie Miller’s late game heroics, but uncertainty is precisely what made them so enthralling. You always hoped the magic would be there, but you couldn’t ever quite count on it. However, as things began to unravel in the third quarter of Game 6 against the Knicks I found myself with an unexpected surge of calm because I saw a pattern developing in those disparate data points we call possessions.

In the third quarter the Knicks outscored the Pacers by eight, pulling dead even to begin the final quarter. New York had ridden a wave of absurdly accurate three-point shooting, making 6-of-7 in the quarter, but the real driving force was Carmelo Anthony. Through the first three quarters Anthony had scored 35 points, without a single turnover, on 13-of-22 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line. If you don’t have a calculator handy that’s an average of 1.35 points per possession, an obscenely efficient mark and well above his season average of 1.02. That efficiency had manifested with a collection of mid-range pull-ups and fadeaways from the post. Every shot was contested, but it didn’t matter – Anthony had the look. He was locked in, ready to put the Knicks on his back and drag them to an epic win.

But he was also playing way above his head, scoring at a rate of efficiency far above his season average.

The Law of Averages is a common statistical expression, but often misinterpreted. When you flip a coin you have an equal chance of landing on heads as you do of landing on tails. Stretched out over a large enough span of time the actual results of your flipping will eventually settle around the 50/50 mark. This is the Law of Averages. However, people often forget about the element of sample size. Six heads in a row doesn’t mean you’re due for tails. If you’ve landed on heads six times in a row, the probability of getting a tails on your next flip hasn’t increased. It’s still 50/50. Streaks of improbability will inevitably happen, but given a suitably large sample size the results will end up exactly where you expect them.

Going back to Game 6, just because Anthony made five shots in a row didn’t change the likelihood of him making or missing any his upcoming shots. The first three quarters were undoubtedly a streak of improbability but if the Pacers’ defense could maintain the same pressure and keep the odds stacked against him, eventually Anthony’s improbability would melt away. The only question was whether or not it would happen before the end of the game.

As the fourth quarter began in Game 6, the Law of Averages burst from the wings, wrestling Anthony to the ground. Over the next twelve minutes Anthony went 2-of-7 with three turnovers and not a single free throw. The graph below shows his rolling efficiency for the game, charted by each of the 34 possessions he used. Each mark on the line shows his overall points per possession up to that point. I’m sure you can spot the beginning of the fourth quarter.

AnthonyAverage

In the end as his the game rolled along Anthony found himself right back where we’d expect him to be, at his season long-average. As his shots kept dropping, I saw this average lurking and creeping in the shadows, getting ready to work its magic.

Anthony’s average efficiency was at a very high level this season, but for a variety of reasons in this game they needed sustained offensive efficiency of an improbable level. Ironically, a lot of the Knicks’ offense this season was built around capturing and harnessing these bursts of improbability from him, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton. Averages are not created by the consistent reproduction of a single act, they are an amalgamation of highs and lows. When the Knicks were able to pile highs upon highs, they were nearly unbeatable this season. But asking improbability to arrive when you need it most is a dangerous game. Michael Jordan seemed to have this ability. LeBron James has shown it at times. But as much talent as his offensive game encapsulates, Anthony has shown himself to be as subject to the law of averages as any other mortal man.

In some ways, the foundational element of this Pacers’ defense is not Roy Hibbert or Paul George, but the Law of Averages. Everything revolves around the belief that if they force you to take tough shots, you’ll miss enough for them to beat you. Sometimes tough shots go in, but the Pacers are counting on the fact that each game is a long enough sample size for the Law of Averages to catch up with their opponents. As Anthony was knocking down turn-arounds and fall-aways over their outstretched arms, the Pacers’ were putting their faith in the long-game, plugging away and hoping that their would be enough possessions for average to make an appearance.

The Regular Season Is Better Than The Playoffs

I am suffering, for the second straight year, from playoffs-induced writer’s block. It seems to be something that grips a fairly large percentage of the Hardwood Paroxysm writers. It got to the point last season that Matt Moore upbraided us on the blog’s daily email thread, saying he couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed that we couldn’t find more to say about all the storylines going on or proud that we generally write about such weirdo backwaters of the NBA that we were flummoxed by the postseason and all the general media attention lavished on it.

I’d like to think it’s the latter. Much as it is for teams, the regular season is a nearly bottomless place for writers, where so many things happen that many fly by unnoticed. If one team has another team’s number on a given night, the tables could just as easily be reversed a month down the line. It’s how the Wolves can lose to the Spurs 104-94 in early February and then turn around and hang 107 on San Antonio while giving up 83 a month later.

But in the playoffs, the character of the games changes dramatically, and not just in intensity. Weird things happen in a seven-game series. Ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks about it. Their 67-15 season and #1 seed in the West ended with a 4-2 first round defeat at the hands of the 42-40 Warriors. Were they exposed, or just victims of chance?

Or ask a player like Jerome James. After averaging 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds per game for his whole career, he played 11 postseason games for the Sonics in 2005 where he averaged 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Knicks promptly signed him to a 6 year, $30 million deal. In 2008 he played five minutes of basketball and made $5.8 million.

Or consider Nate Robinson in this year’s playoffs, where he went from sparkplug to starter. Last year he was on the Warriors. The year before that, he was an add-on in the deal that sent Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics to the Thunder to add size to the team. Chances are they weren’t after Nate. That was his second mid-season trade in a row, having been moved from the Knicks to the Celtics the year before.

But this postseason he averaged 16.3 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a PER of 15.8 for a Bulls team no one expected much out of without Derrick Rose. Having spent a good twenty minutes in a Chicago Bulls locker room while Nate held court and clowned, I know that in addition to knowing his team was depending on him, he knew his own personal price tag was going up with that tremendous display of grit and determination.

There’s a reason that some people only watch the playoffs. It’s some of the same reason that people say it’s only the last five minutes of a basketball game that matter. Storylines crystallize, outcomes hinge on a few crisp passes or one blown defensive assignment. It can feel for all the world like we’re seeing the real basketball at those moments, the best basketball.

But are we?

This year’s New York Knicks thrived in the regular season on a combination of relentless 3-point shooting (taking a league-leading 2,371 3-point shots and making them at a rate of 37.6%, good for fourth in the league) and small ball principles driven by Carmelo Anthony’s move to the power forward position. But in the playoffs, when the chips were down against the Pacers’ considerable length and defensive acumen, Mike Woodson went away from what had worked so well. He moved Anthony back to the small forward position and filled the paint with traditional bigs. This meant less driving room for J.R. Smith, who regressed to his worst shooting habits, and a sky-high usage rate of 37.7% for Anthony. They bowed out in the second round.

Were the Knicks we saw against the Pacers the true Knicks in some sense? They certainly weren’t the best Knicks, but then again, “true” and “best” don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, much as we wish they would.

Of course, if you’ve been following the leading lights of the daily basketball writing world—people like Zach Lowe at Grantland, Dan Devine and Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie, Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver at Sports Illustrated, Zach Harper and our founding father Matt Moore at CBS’ Eye on Sports, or Henry Abbott and the other great minds at TrueHoop, just to name a few—you already know about the Knicks’ devolution. You already know about Scott Brooks’ failure to adapt or innovate in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s injury. You already know how the Spurs frustrated and stymied Zach Randolph in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals. I mean, jeez: I just found out from Kelly Dwyer how the Memphis Grizzlies have a historically large number of left-handed players.

Trying to pull a good, overlooked angle out of the playoffs is a lot like being a good rebounder who’s 5’10” in a pickup game when a bunch of 6’4” guys show up to play. I know this because that’s exactly the guy I am. Rebounding goes from a matter of effort and determination to simply being physically impossible. As the number of teams gets cut in half, then in half again, then again, as the number of games on any given night goes from six to four to three to two to one, fewer and fewer things slip between the cracks of the hardwood.

But I love the cracks in the hardwood. Baseball diamonds don’t have cracks; football fields don’t have cracks. Whenever I watch those sports, I’m struck by how moments of play are always followed by moments of repose, by time to reset and prepare again. Basketball has those moments as well, but it also has a way of relentlessly piling things on top of each other, of collaging players and playsets and stats and patterns and then leaving it to all of us to pick apart and make sense of.

At least, it does in the regular season. As a fan, I love the playoffs. I love the wanton ridiculousness of them and the epic breakdowns and heroic comebacks and the way a series of games becomes a chess match of adjustments, an illustration of the way humans adapt and learn.

But as a writer, I might just love the regular season more, where the games stretch off into the distance. Where I can tell my wife the season is almost over—just 15 games left—and have her tell me, “That seems like a lot of games.” Where you can excavate meaning from meaninglessness, where some stats are valuable and other aren’t, where some storylines are short and others long. Where some things that seem very important for a few games can end up not being very important at all. Where the last week of the season for a lottery-bound team becomes an existential crisis. When it comes to the playoffs, I miss the inattentiveness, the corpulence, the slog, the torpor of the regular season.

The Conference Finals are upon us. The intensity is ramping up. It’s win or go home and that’s the reason everyone is watching this, the final five minutes of the NBA season. This is, after all, where amazing happens. I guess I just like when amazing plays hard-to-get.

Well, there’s always next year.

Time To Make The Sausage

There aren’t many certainties in today’s NBA, but beginning the month of May with MVP controversy is one thing you can always count on. There are no standardized qualifications for becoming the league’s official Most Valuable Player, and that creates a huge amount of inherent wiggle room, allowing voters to weigh different criteria in whatever way they see fit. That loose flexibility was shoved into the spotlight yesterday when Boston Globe columnist, Gary Washburn, revealed himself to be the lone voter who didn’t put LeBron James at the top of his ballot. Washburn went with Carmelo Anthony, and made his case public as part of yesterday’s announcement.

LeBron had an absolutely dominant season and it’s nigh impossible to find any reliable statistical metric by which he wasn’t the most productive player in the league this season. Washburn actually seemed to agree, and his argument was that although Anthony may not have been the better player, he was more important to his team. I’m not here to argue the merits of Washburn’s argument. But I would like to point out that this is an extreme example of separation between decision-making based on the power of statistics and the power of narrative. LeBron’s season presents some incredibly compelling storylines as well, but while there’s little space to argue against his statistical case, there’s plenty of room to argue about stories.

I don’t mean to imply that Washburn’s choice is somehow immature or incorrect because he gave more weight to the narrative elements of Anthony’s case. Stories are part of basketball; how we watch it, understand it, talk about it, and certainly how the media covers it. Stories are important and have always been a part of how the MVP award is decided. My own experiences as a basketball fan and amateur analyst are a constant balancing act between the narrative and the numeric. It’s an indelicate art and the line between the two moves constantly. One of the questions that the whole Washburn rigamarole raised for me was, exactly where that line falls for MVP voters in the aggregate. How much of MVP voting is based on statistics, literal or implied, and how much is based on a compelling story?

Narrative is an extremely complex idea to measure, but tracking the statistical case for MVP candidates is a little more straightforward. I began at Basketball-Reference’s Award Page, looking at the players who have received MVP votes over the last 10 seasons. Basketball-Reference is nice enough to include a limited statistical profile right alongside each player. The listed categories are age, games played, minutes per game, points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, blocks per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, Win Shares and win shares per 48 minutes. My intuition is that any MVP voter who does include statistics in their decision making probably doesn’t look much further than these categories, and so they seemed like a reasonable place to start.

The one category which is conspicuously absent from a voting perspective is team win percentage, which I added. The other changes I made were dropping total Win Shares, keeping just the per 48 minute version, and converting total games played to percentage of games played, adjusting for the lockout shortened season. I then regressed those categories onto the share of total possible points that each player received from the voters. The result was an R^2 value of 0.516, which means just over half the variation in MVP voting can be explained by players’ performance in those categories I mentioned above.

While that explains a significant block of variability, it still leaves nearly half of the story untold. That 0.484 is where the narrative comes in. The results of the regression analysis also include an equation by which you can project the share of possible MVP voting points a player should have received, based on those numbers. I did that for each of the top five vote-getters from those 10 seasons and put them in to this Tableau Visualization, along with the actual share of MVP vote they received.

[iframe]<iframe src=”http://public.tableausoftware.com/views/NBAsMostValuablePlayerResults/MVPVotingDashboard?:embed=y&:display_count=no” style=”border:0px #FFFFFF none;” name=”MVP Voting” scrolling=”no” frameborder=”1″ marginheight=”0px” marginwidth=”0px” height=”663px” width=”663px”></iframe>[/iframe]

You can play around and sort by year, looking at how each race shook out. The higher a player is on the vertical axis the more compelling their statistical case was. I’m making an assumption here, but the implication is that the difference between a player’s projected share and their actual share represents the power of their narrative. Player’s who fall low on the vertical axis, but far to the right on the horizontal axis would appear to be the ones with the most compelling narratives.

I put this visualization together for you to draw your own conclusions, but I’ll share I few seasons I found particularly interesting.

2013

2013 MVP

This was a year where the narrative component of the MVP voting went hand-in-hand with the statistical rationale. LeBron and Durant had big statistical edges and it was clearly reflected in the results. But those numbers also fell in with the storyline of two dominant stars elevating their games and leading their teams to a new level. I also thought it was interesting how much of a difference narrative made in the case of Carmelo Anthony. We already discussed how his story swayed Gary Washburn, but he apparently wasn’t the only one. Anthony finished third in this year’s voting despite a weaker statistical component to his case than either LeBron, Durant, Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul.

_____

2011

2011

This was one of the most memorable MVP votes for me and really exemplified the divide between analytic-minded decision makers, who advocated for Dwight Howard, and those drawn to the compelling one-against-the-world narrative of Derrick Rose’s season. In the end the award went to Rose, by a healthy margin. Amazingly, the regression equation seems to indicate that LeBron had a much stronger statistical case than either Rose or Howard, despite finishing third. This is a case where the negative narrative of the Heat’s ‘front-running’ and the ‘post-Decision’ backlash probably kept LeBron out of the top two spots.

_____

2008

2008

2008 was another fascinating year in terms of balancing narrative and production. There was a lot of push for Chris Paul who jumped several levels in production, leading the New Orleans Hornets’ to the second-best record in the Western Conference, along with building the most compelling statistical resume of the candidates. In the end he lost out to Kobe Bryant, who trumped Paul’s narrative with a career of dominance, that had at that point been unrecognized with an MVP award. Kevin Garnett finished third for his work in coalescing the Big Three in Boston and leading the Celtics to the best record in the league. LeBron James finished fourth, with the second-most compelling statistical resume but no enticing story to attach it to.

_____

2006

2006

This is another infamous award season. It was Nash’s second consecutive MVP, despite being the worst for the Nash-D’Antoni Suns, both in terms of wins and offensive efficiency. But it was a remarkable and, at the time, almost unbelievable duplication of what they had done in their first season together. This was especially true when you consider that Amare Stoudemire played just three games all season long. That the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ philosophy was able to sustain into a second season and prove a viable offensive strategy that wouldn’t dissipate once it was “figured out” by NBA defenses was the narrative that drove Nash to this award. LeBron finished second in the voting, but he was one of three players, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Chauncey Billups who had a more compelling statistical case.

_____

People on both sides of the narrative-numerical divide often seem to get their hackles up around the MVP Award, depending on which side prevails in a given year. While middle ground we currently walk always leaves someone frustrated, it’s by far preferable to the alternative. There is a place for logic and reason in the NBA and no one would be satisfied by a world where postseason awards were handed willy-nilly with no verifiable, objective reasoning to support those decisions. At the same time, making decisions with a formula only denies our human instinct to create, tell and consume stories. It may be a bumpy ride, but you can enjoy the MVP award both for what it is and for what it is not.

Gunner Power Rankings

Photo: Mark Runyon | Basketball Schedule

Ed. Note: The following is a guest post by Ryan Weisert. You can find more work by Ryan at TrueHoop sister site (brother blog?) Valley of the Suns and on his own Pop Culture blog. Follow him on Twitter to read more of his pretty damn entertaining musings.

Gunners. Players who do nothing on offense but shoot and score. When they’re on, we love to watch them. When they’re off, we love to hate them. And all the while, advanced stats tell us they do more harm than good. But sometimes advanced stats take the fun out of the game. Sometimes a guy chucking off-balance 20-footers is more fun to watch than ruthless efficiency. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, gunners have a place in the NBA.

But who is the biggest gunner of them all? How do we rank and quantify the “achievements” of those whom advanced stats have sought to expose? I give you the Gunner Rating.

Gunner Rating = (% of possessions ending in a missed FG) – (Assist Rate) – (Offensive Rebound Rate)

Essentially, the Gunner Rating is the % of possessions a player has a net negative effect on offense. Gunners miss a lot of shots, but unlike other, more well-rounded players, gunners don’t typically contribute in other ways like finding teammates for open shots or crashing the boards.

It should be noted that missed shots where the player earned free throws were not counted in the missed FG part of the equation, because getting to the line is generally a positive outcome (for everyone except Dwight Howard and the Denver Nuggets.) I applied this formula to every player in the NBA averaging at least 10 shots attempts per game. Here is the Top 10 list I came back with. I’ve included each player’s Gunner Rating and PER. (Stats compiled from ESPN.com and NBAWowy.com. Updated through the end of the regular season.

Rank

Name

Gunner Rating

PER

1

Carmelo Anthony

11.2%

24.83

2

Andrea Bargnani

9.9%

11.27

3

Michael Beasley

9.7%

10.91

4

Ben Gordon

9.7%

12.74

5

Marcus Thornton

9.0%

16.32

6

Rudy Gay

8.9%

15.66

7

J.R. Smith

8.7%

17.67

8

Eric Gordon

8.5%

15.43

9

Jamal Crawford

8.4%

16.89

10

Klay Thompson

8.3%

12.71

The first thing that stands out on this list is Carmelo Anthony. He’s the biggest gunner in the league by a fairly wide margin, but while the rest of his gunner colleagues are sporting an average or below-average PER, Melo has the fourth-highest PER in the league. His PER is strong for a variety of reasons. He leads the league in usage rate. He gets to the free throw line a ton. He rebounds quite well on the defensive end, and doesn’t turn the ball over. Plus, eventhough he shoots less than 45% from the field in the regular season, Anthony takes and makes so many threes that his eFG% is still very respectable. All that said he’s still an unrelenting gunner.

Consider this: Carmelo Anthony missed more shots (820) this year in just 67 games than anyone on the Lakers active roster attempted save Metta World Peace (823). More than 17% of Carmelo’s possessions this season ended in a missed shot. It takes a lot of bricks to build a scoring title trophy.

Another thing that stands out on this list is perhaps the names that aren’t on it. Kobe Bryant and Monta Ellis seem auspiciously absent. When I first crunched the numbers, I thought I had made a mistake when Bryant and Ellis were far outside the Top 10. But when I looked more closely, I saw that Kobe and Monta’s assist rates (7.9 and 8.2 respectively) were far too high to crack this list.

Michael Beasley warrants special mention in this post because he just achieved something so gunner-tastic, I previously thought it was impossible. His first year in Phoenix ended with more shot attempts than points. As a writer for Valley of the Suns, I can personally attest that Beasley was no fun to watch for much of the year, but even I didn’t imagine he was this bad.

Another gunner characteristic not captured in the formula above is shot selection. Most gunners have never seen a shot they wouldn’t take, and for many, that means long 2-pointers are a big part of their scoring attack. Here’s the formula adjusted to factor in missed long 2’s (essentially double-penalizing them):

ADJ Gunner Rating: (% of possessions ending in a missed FG) + (% of possessions ending in a missed Long 2) – (Assist Rate) – (Offensive Rebound Rate)

And here’s the adjusted Top 10:

Rank

Name

ADJ Gunner Rating

PER

1

Ben Gordon

15.6%

12.74

2

Carmelo Anthony

15.0%

24.83

3

Michael Beasley

14.3%

11.27

4

Andrea Bargnani

14.3%

10.91

5

Rudy Gay

12.3%

15.66

6

J.R. Smith

12.3%

17.67

7

Eric Gordon

12.2%

15.43

8

Jamal Crawford

11.9%

16.89

9

DeMar DeRozan

11.8%

14.81

10

Glen Davis

11.7%

15.09

Eight of the original names stay the same after factoring in missed long 2’s. Ben Gordon, who led the league in % of possession ending in a missed long 2 (5.9%), vaults past Carmelo in the adjusted rankings. Apparently Gordon’s involved in some sort of wager to see how many bad shots he can miss before Michael Jordan will have him killed. The new names at the bottom of the list are DeMar DeRozan and Glen Davis. Davis is no surprise as his limited athleticism pushes far outside the paint to find shots, but DeRozan is somewhat of a surprise. With his athleticism, it seems logical that DeRozan would prefer getting to the rim over 22-footers, but that is not the case. With the exception of LaMarcus Aldridge, no one in the NBA took and missed as many long 2’s this year as DeRozan. Aldridge ranked 11th in the adjusted gunner ratings.

Davis and DeRozan supplanted Marcus Thornton and Klay Thompson, both of who take shockingly few long 2’s.

What’s most interesting about this list is the number of guys on it who are getting crunch time minutes in the playoffs. J.R. Smith and Anthony are the keys to the Knicks’ offense. Likewise, the Clippers heavily rely on Jamal Crawford’s and his 16.5 points a night. Despite the fact that advanced stats have served mostly to point out their flaws, gunners, because of their confidence, fearlessness, and ability to create instant offense for their teams will always have a place in this league. And the NBA is better for it.

I Need A Hero(ball)

I’m ready to raze the advanced statistics movement — lay waste to its algorithmic ramparts and seize the Holy Land of the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the name of Heroball.

These 2013 playoffs have certainly picked their spots when it comes to bringing us to our feet, but what moments they’ve been. And they’ve largely resulted from Heroball, the oft derided, amorphous shadow cousin of “the right way.” LeBron James’s performance in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks was the paragon of efficiency, whether measured by counting or rate statistics: 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field. An 86.4% effective field goal percentage. 10 rebounds. Assisted on approximately 43% of his teammates’ made baskets when he was on the floor. Each time James handles the ball is a moment to appreciate the inner workings of a mastermind, like being a fly on the wall in da Vinci’s workshop — with HD compound vision.

Yet for all the spectacle of watching James in his effective glory, the most astounding moments are the visceral, not the academic. LeBron’s passing will leave you shaking your head; his decision to take the basketball and turn everything around him into the defensive equivalent of third graders performing as trees in a school play will leave you unleashing tribal screams into the vast darkness of the universe. When LeBron James engages in Heroball, the world stops — for everyone but him. And while its largely because these acts of valor are so incredibly efficient that they have such resonance, the efficiency is tangential to the experience. It’s perfect for analyzing the minutes, but subpar for capturing the moment.

And for all of his improvement as a post player and passer, Carmelo Anthony was still at his most entertaining this weekend when he went into full on Melo-mode, isolating his defender and finding the most ridiculous ways to get shots off and knock them down. Heroball brought Madison Square Garden to its feet and gives lift to the already astronomical stylings of JR Smith; without it, the Knicks are the Atlanta Hawks with fewer playoff series wins in recent history.

The only thing that makes Heroball more fun is when it comes at the end of the game, though — unless you’re a Warriors or Grizzlies fan. Professor Andre Miller and Chris Paul, two of the wiliest players in the league, both worshiped at the altar of legends. Both reduced twitter to a rambling mess of capital letters, exclamation points and various appeals to deities, basketball and general alike. And both rendered advanced statistics absolutely meaningless.

Were there more efficient options? Maybe in a points per possession sense, yes. But in terms of providing us with the very best of what NBA playoffs have to offer?

Let Heroball reign. Its expected value is off the charts. Especially when the very act of Heroball is the most efficient decision on the court, as it was with Chris Paul at the last second last night. Heroball is at its most beautiful when it takes its singular, insular focus, turns it on efficiency, and renders the numbers meaningless.

Chris Paul, in the clutch, is ridiculously efficient. His Heroball will tell you that.

LION FACE/LEMON FACE 4/12/13: IT’S NATE ROBINSON’S WORLD

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, unless of course you consider the show to be the NBA regular season in which case it’s actually ending very soon. Regardless, with the regular season winding down and the playoffs getting ready to start up, we’re bringing back America’s 34th favorite semi-running column: Lion Face/Lemon Face. As a refresher for those that forgot and introduction for those who are new here, Lion Faces are given to the best players, plays, or moments of the night; Lemon Faces are for the worst. Have a suggestion in the future? Tag it on Twitter with #LionFace or #LemonFace during a weeknight game and we’ll make sure one of our 921 writers see it. Without further ado, on to the LF/LF nominees from Thursday’s TNT doubleheader…

Lion Face: Nate Robinson

GIF from Beyond the Buzzer

It’s been a while since I watched professional wrestling regularly, but I do know that Wrestlemania XXIX was this past Sunday. I was shocked to find out and completely unaware that they unified five different championship belts, and they were apparently all won by Nate Robinson. Either that, or he is the most insured man on the planet after busting out the never before seen Discount Septuple Check following a three pointer. Robinson finished with 35 points on the night, a season high and the most points he’s scored in a game since New Year’s Day 2010. He also added 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, and infinite swag in helping the Bulls snap the Knicks’ 13 game winning streak.

Lemon Face: Jarrett Jack

GIF from DailyThunder.com

In the immortal words of Harry Doyle, “Juuuuuuuust a bit outside.” On the plus side, the Raiders are set to start Matt Flynn this year and Terrelle Pryor is currently Flynn’s backup, so if the whole basketball thing ends up not working out for Jack, he can still put that arm to use in Oakland.

Lion Face: Jimmy Butler

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/JeffGurt/status/322536544089042944"]

Butler has been playing extremely well lately having chipped in a double digit scoring effort in 10 of his last 12 games including his career high 22 tonight. Butler also pulled down 14 rebounds, another career high, against the Knicks. Not too shabby for the 30th pick of the 2011 Draft.

Lemon Face: This Bulls fan

GIF from @SBNationGIF

This is actually a fantastic shot, so don’t think that it got a Lemon Face because it was somehow the worst of the night. I’m giving this a Lemon Face only for the sole fact that it looks like she might be ready to actually ingest a full lemon sometime within the next four seconds. Also, what is Joakim Noah doing in the stands right behind her? Why isn’t he getting back on defense? And why is he wearing a t-shirt jersey?

Lion Face: The Durant-Westbrook Connection

Without question, Durant and Westbrook gave us the best sequence of the night. A swat by Westbrook followed up by Kevin Durant’s complete lack of regard for human life coupled with Golden State’s complete lack of regard for transition defense made this happened. Just sit back and enjoy it.

Lion Face: Golden State’s 3 Point Shooting

GoldenState3s

Typically, if you shoot 183.3% from beyond the arc, that’s a pretty solid shooting night. Unfortunately for the Warriors, this actually appears to bring down the torrid 248.8% they were apparently shooting coming into last night’s contest. If you’re the type of person that’s actually into “statistics” and “actual facts”, Golden State actually entered the game shooting 40.2% from 3, good enough for first in the NBA. They finished last night 7-16 from 3 to slightly raise their shooting percentage on the year. Consider this as more of a season long Lion Face honor because honestly, the Lion Faces are hard to come by when you get blown out by 19 points on national TV.

Lion Face: Guys named Kevin on the Thunder

Kevin Martin Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Martin Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Durant Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Durant Shot Chart via NBA.com

Kevin Martin: 8-10 from the field. 4-5 from beyond the arc. 3-3 from the line. 23 points in total. Yeah, Kevin Martin had himself a night off the bench for the Thunder. And if you ever wanted more proof that single game +/- is hilariously misleading at times, Martin finished with a +1 for the game. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant turned in a ho-hum 31-10-8 night on 10-16 field goals and shot 90% from the charity stripe. In the race for the scoring title, Durant now is averaging 28.2 points per game while Carmelo Anthony has widened his lead by averaging 28.6 points per contest. Speaking of Melo…

Limón Face: Carmelo Anthony

On one hand, Anthony became the first Knick to ever post six consecutive games of at least 35 points. In his five previous games, he shot at least 51% from the field, and shot over 60% in four of those five games. On the other hand, last night he needed 34 shots from the field to get his 36 points, and finished the game 13-34 (38%) including missing all four three-point attempts. It’s not often that a guy with a 36 point, 20 rebound effort deserves a Lemon Face, but 13-34 is far from Lionesque. Instead, he gets a hybrid of the two: the Limón Face.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com

2013 All-Star Profiles: Carmelo Anthony

From Flickr via nateeag

From Flickr via nateeag

Saying positive things about Carmelo Anthony is something that indecisively takes me out of my comfort zone. For years now, he’s been the preeminent inefficient gunner in the NBA. For some reason, this season has been something of a re-awakening for Melo in my mind. He’s playing his best basketball in years. Or is he?

What do the base stats say? He’s playing more minutes than he had since 2009-10 with Denver, which has translated to his highest scoring average (28.5) since 2006-2007. He’s right at his career average for rebounds per game, slightly below in assists per, and is taking more than 20 shots per game for the first time since the aforementioned 09-10 season. He’s also shooting well over 40% from deep, which seems to happen every other year for him.

On a more advanced front, we see that he’s posting career highs in True Shooting % (.567), eFG% (.513), and the ever popular Win Shares per 48 minutes (.184), while leading the league in Usage% for the first time in his career. Basically, he’s shooting more than he’s ever shot before, but at significantly higher rates than before. He’s still a chucker, but now he’s a chucker who shoots .511 on jumpers, compared to shooting .411 last season and .458 the year before that. Nearly every other facet of his game is the same. He draws fouls at the same rates, he rebounds at essentially the same clip as before, and he dishes out a few assists every once in a while. He is functionally the same player he’s always been. So why does it seem as though he’s elevated his play? Surely the Knicks being successful has something to do with it, pulling Melo into the same sort of MVP campaign Derrick Rose had when he won two years ago, but there has to be something more to this.

The answer is relatively simple: like LeBron before him, Melo finally accepted being a power forward. Not that it has a lot to do with his individual play (6 boards a game is a far cry from the expected contributions of an All-Star power forward), but one of the biggest strengths of this Knicks team is their spacing, and with Melo at the 4, they’e able to play Jason Kidd at the two. Despite Kidd’s recent struggles, the team’s two best lineups feature Kidd at the 2 and Melo at the 4. Anthony’s ability to play some of the best ball of his career at the 4 spot allows this Knicks team to station multiple players behind the arc and rain three down upon their opponents. Though their effectiveness in this setup has fallen since the start of the year, it’s still some of their most reliable offense, and with Tyson Chandler anchoring their defense, it makes them one of the most adaptable teams in the Eastern Conference, and as of now the only one who seems to have a real shot at dethroning the Heat.

So why does it seem like Carmelo Anthony is playing more efficiently than ever? I think it has something to do with his finally being the best player on a good team without being the key reason why that team wins. They can win games without Carmelo Anthony, is what I’m saying. He seems now to be a part of the whole rather than a singularly talented outlier. Now, finally, I see Carmelo Anthony for what he really is, and not what I think his production should classify him as. An All-Star.

The Dissection Of Shot Selection: Offensive Gravity

Gravity...

Last week, I used Hardwood Paroxysm to the story of my own personal obsession with shot selection. I’m of the camp that the quality of shots is one of the biggest factors in a team’s offensive success, an opinion I mean to continue codifying and supporting with evidence. My first contribution to this march forward was the development of Expected Points Per Shot (XPPS), a metric for evaluating the quality of a player or team’s shot selection. XPPS is built on the understanding that not all shots are created equal. A layup is much more likely to go in than a long jump shot. A three-pointer is also less likely to go in than a layup, but if it does go in it earns an extra point. All these trade-offs can be measured numerically. I’ve looked at 13 seasons of NBA shot data and calculated the expected value for shots from different areas of the floor. To calculate XPPS, I take a player or team’s shot selection and overlay those expected values to arrive at an average measure of expected points per shot for that player or team.

I have a few disclaimers before we go any further. The first is that XPPS relies on league averages, which means I use the same expected value on a corner three-pointer by Ray Allen as I do for one by Charlie Villanueva. Obviously this lumps everyone together and doesn’t account for a player’s own innate abilities and tendencies. For that reason I usually compare XPPS to Actual Points Per Shot. This helps us see who is over or under-performing the expected value of their shot selection. Second, we are measuring shot selection only by the expected value of each shot’s location. This doesn’t account for defensive proximity or game situation. Although we will be referring to the quality of shots this way in the aggregate, a corner three-pointer well defended and forced at the end of the shot clock is not necessarily a good shot just because it comes from that location. By the same token, mid-range jumpers have the lowest expected value of any shot location, but may actually be a good shot when a wide open opportunity is created within the flow of a well-structured offense. Also, although I use the phrase ‘per shot’ I include shooting fouls and free throws in my calculations, so ‘per scoring opportunity’ may be a better way of thinking about it.

The numbers for both players and teams can be found at Hickory-High. For me these numbers feel like an important first step to some deeper understandings of offensive efficiency. Over the next few weeks here at Hardwood Paroxysm I’m going to be digging into the numbers, trying to parse out trends and some of those important understandings. One of the first things I thought would be interesting to look at in the context of these XPPS numbers, is the way certain players affect the shot selection and shot performance of their teammates.

Nate Silver, of political analytics fame, put together some research in 2011 that found significant added value from a player like Carmelo Anthony in the way his offensive gravity created easier shots for his teammates. Silver’s research found that most of Anthony’s teammates with the Nuggets posted a significantly higher TS% when they played with Anthony as opposed to when they were on the floor without him. Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus did some more digging and found the shooting effect to be slightly smaller than Silver found, but that Anthony also decreased his teammates’ turnover rates quite a bit.

Using XPPS and Actual Points Per Shot we can further this discussion by looking at how the quality of a team’s shot selection and accuracy change with certain players on and off the floor. The first group of players to look at in this context are high-usage scorers, like Anthony. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that having a potent individual scorer, even one who isn’t particularly efficient, puts pressure on the defense, and creates more space for their teammates. To begin testing that idea, I collected the NBA’s top-20 in Usage Rate and calculated their team’s XPPS, Actual Points Per Shot, and Differential when they were on and off the floor. For the ‘on’ portion I subtracted the player’s own points and field goal attempts to focus the results on their teammates. Here is the raw data:

Screen shot 2013-01-10 at 6.59.49 AM

The table above is sorted by the difference in Team XPPS when a player is on the floor, versus when they are off the floor. I find it incredible that the two players in this group who seem to make the biggest difference in the quality of their team’s shot selection are Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton, both of whom flamed out spectacularly in Portland last season. It is important to remember that these numbers are subject to all the statistical noise one usually finds in On/Off statistics and are heavily influenced by both the other players on the floor and the quality of backups. However, we aren’t using these numbers to judge the overall quality of a player’s production, but rather to look at what they mean to their team. If data tables aren’t your thing, I’ve also created some graphs to show the numbers above.

The chart below shows the On/Off split for each player in XPPS:

USGXPPS

Although there definitely seems to be an effect, only a handful of players made a significant difference in the quality of their team’s shot selection. We could probably attribute many of the small differentials to the difference in quality between a starter and a reserve as opposed to a fundamental shift in offensive approach implemented by a specific player. Of course we also need to look at accuracy and the graph below shows each player’s On/Off split for Actual Points Per Shot:

USGPPS

When you look at the graphs, Felton’s importance becomes even more striking. Although he plays most of his minutes with Anthony, his On/Off XPPS split is +0.056, more than twice that of Anthony’s. That may not seem like a huge number, but again we’re looking at things on a per shot basis. Stretched out over 100 shots, the Knicks’ shot selection is nearly six points better with Felton on the floor.

We see the same thing when we look at accuracy, where the Knicks Actual Points Per Shot is +0.098 with Felton on the floor, nearly triple Anthony’s differential. Again, stretching that out over 100 shots that’s a difference of almost 10 points. In an effort to remove as much noise as possible, I also calculated Jason Kidd’s numbers, since he isn’t included in this high-usage group. The Knicks shot selection is slightly worse with Kidd on the floor compared to when he’s off the floor, a mark they are over-performing but not nearly as significantly as the differential for Anthony or Felton.

The Knicks success and overall offensive efficiency have been a huge surprise, at least to me, this season. I wrote in the summer that I was expecting more of the same from them this season, and that I thought Carmelo Anthony’s Olympic summer would actually reinforce his ball-stopping, product-over-process offensive ways. But Anthony is having a career season, especially with regards to his offensive efficiency. His Actual Points Per Shot is up to 1.194 this season, an increase of 0.145 over last season’s 1.049. Most of that bump is because of his three-point shooting. At this point in the season Anthony has made 42.8% of his 6.3 three-point attempts per 36 minutes, both career-highs by a wide margin. It’s possible that at some point in the season his long-range shooting will regress towards his career averages (see Mayo, O.J.), but his overall efficiency won’t drop too far because he has also significantly improved his shot selection this season. Anthony’s XPPS this season is 1.063, up from last season’s 1.045. When we look at his XPPS only when Felton is on the floor, it jumps to 1.072. That means even if Anthony’s shooting averages regress all the way to league averages, he’ll have improved his efficiency by 0.014 points per shot, or 1.4 points per 100 shots, just by improving his shot selection. There are a nearly infinite number of elements here at play, but clearly Felton is doing some positive things for the Knicks’ overall offensive well-being, helping lead the re-focused charge on efficient offensive choices.

One of the other interesting things that I noticed is that several of the players on this list who had a big effect on their team’s shot selection happened to be effective-passing guards and wings – Felton, Crawford, Nate Robinson, Kyrie Irving. Next week we’ll focus on a different group of players, those with high assist rates, and see if we can tease out their effect on the quality of team shot selection.

Synergy Sessions: Debut Edition

A relatively new tool in the world of advanced statistics, mySynergySports offers much in the way of furthering the conversation, as chronicled in HP’s Understanding Advanced Stats series. Author’s note: Please excuse the funky symbols occasionally encountered in older posts — they’re simply HTML leftovers from the Malaysian assault suffered earlier this year. The relevant content is still all there. One day I’ll get around to fixing up my previous posts, but for now my bucket is pretty full.

Synergy is unique in the stats world in it’s approach, giving researchers stats and annual ranks on players by the possession, specifically Points Per Possession (heretofore referred to as “PPP”), as well as logging and categorizing every possession by every player in every game in video logs on offense and defense. The defensive part is especially helpful since defense can often be difficult to quantify by straight numbers. Used in conjunction with other defensive stats we can now get a clearer picture of which players are truly having an impact on the D end of the floor.

However, Synergy is a subscription service with a finite number of ‘scripts available, so much of the basketball world doesn’t have access to these particular metrics. Never fear, we’re here to help!

First up, expounding on the #NBArank conversation on Carmelo Anthony, I got into an interesting exchange with a couple of New York Knicks fans and a Utah Jazz writer wherein I intimated that Melo has been basically the same player his entire career.

Aside from Melo and Big Al’s BasketballReference advanced stats, let’s see what we can find from Synergy, specifically in regards to passing and defense, two of the main points of contention in the convo. Both players posted career highs in AST% last season — Melo by a little, Al by a little more — but when it comes to Synergy, we don’t yet have specifics for the assist stat aside from being the Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler. Nevertheless, we can still learn something about how these players play offense by looking at the types of offensive plays they do post at Synergy. For instance, an isolation play is exactly what it says it is, and not assisted by a pass from a teammate.

As one would expect, Melo is primarily an Iso player, going to it 35.4% of the time, scoring a relatively meager 0.84 PPP on a mere 37.4% field goals, good for only 59th-best in the NBA. By contract, Al goes Iso only 6.3% of the time, scoring 0.83 PPP, 65th-best. Synergy has only been around for three seasons, but Melo went to the Iso about 37% of the time when with the Nuggets.

Jefferson’s go-to move on offense is obviously the Post-up, nearly half the time at 48.2%, scoring 0.96 PPP on 47.5% FGs, 18th-best in the NBA. The Post-up is Melo’s second-most common O play at 13% of the time where he lands 0.95 PPP on 44.3% FGs, good for the 21st ranking in the category. Melo should clearly be posting up more and going iso less. In Al Jefferson’s last year with the Minnesota Timberwolves he went to the Post-up an astonishing 57% of the time. His first year with the Jazz that dropped to 38% of the time. Clearly, once on a team known for passing Jefferson’s game met with adjustments.

Both players post their best PPP in the halfcourt offense on Cuts, a play made by slipping a defender, moving to the basket without the ball, then being found by a teammate. This would be Al’s second-most-used offensive play, 13.9% of the time, where he lands an astounding 1.27 PPP on 63.4% FGs. His last year in Minnesota Al Cut a paltry 6.8% of the time. He’s benefited greatly from the improved offensive system in Utah as compared to that in Minny. Melo goes to the Cut only 4.3% of the time, but he’s very successful when he does, posting 1.21 PPP on 61.1% FGs.

As for defense, in 2009-10 on Minny, Jefferson was overall ranked 299th giving up 0.93 PPP. In 2010-11, his first year in Utah, he leaped all the way up to 70th giving up 38.5% FGs on 0.82 PPP and only 0.74 PPP on 35.5% FGs on Post-Up defensive plays, which was 49% of the time. Surprisingly, his best D-ranking came this year on PnR defense, ranked 36th-best while giving up 0.83 PPP, his being the target of opposing PnRs about 10% of the time. 2011-12 saw some regression on defense, Jefferson falling back to 199th overall, giving up 0.84 PPP. His Post-up D remained solid giving up 0.77 PPP, and while he was targeted on PnRs less, 9.3% of the time, he gave up a not-so-hot 0.91 PPP. Clearly there’s work to be done here on Al’s part. It may worth noting here that Al Jefferson is one the top three clutch-time shot-blockers, so we know he’s capable of a better effort when the chips are down. Utah was in a lot of late-game situations last year.

2009-10 Carmelo saw him ranked a lowly 398th overall on defense, giving up 1.03 PPP in Iso situations, 0.98 in Post-Up, and 1.01 on Spot-ups, his three most common defensive stances. Remember, there’s only about 400-450 active NBA players at a given time, so that’s really bad. 2010-11 saw a moderate improvement to 331st overall, but he was still giving up nearly 1.00 PPP in most defensive situations. As noted by both Knicks fans and Clark, Melo improved — for him — fairly dramatically on defense last season for New York, giving up 0.84 PPP overall, good for a 240 ranking. His Post-up defense was an incredible 0.52 PPP, good for 2nd in the NBA, although he is quite a bit bigger than much of his competition at the 3-spot. He showed little interest for chasing his man, however, posting a dismal 1.13 PPP on D in Spot-up situations, ranked 344th. It’s pretty clear Melo still only plays D when it suits him, and I’d bet without looking that he leaks out in transition often on said Spot-ups.

RAY’S SO FLUFFY I’M GONNA DIE!

With his third team in just over a year’s time, and before we bounce to PDX, it should be noted that Felton wasn’t even close to the same player in NY as in Denver, where he was a cog in the Carmelo force-out trade. Obviously, he is primarily a P&R Ball Handler, an average of 42% of the time for an average 0.81 PPP, but his role changed dramatically in Iso and Spot-up between the two locales.

In New York he rarely went Iso, only 7.8% of the time, good for 0.80 PPP. Once traded to Denver Iso became more prevalent, 10.9% of the time, but good for only a measly 0.59 PPP on 28% FGs. This negative effect was counteracted, though, by the most stark contrast to be found, in the Spot-up game. With the Knicks, Felton took Spot-ups only 8% of the time, whereas once in the Mile High City it skyrocketed to 19.8% of the time, 1.25 PPP on almost 48% FG shooting. Where Felton scores best seems to be in Hand Off situations. There were far more of these in New York where it was 9.4% of his offensive game, good for 0.95 PPP. In Denver he only did so 2.7% of the time, but hit on 1.44 PPG, on 66.7% shooting.

On defense he was again two different players between the Knicks and Nugs. As the PnR Ball Handler on D he went from giving up 0.88 PPP in NY to 0.71 in Denver. In Spot-ups he went from giving up 1.24 PPP to 1.04 PPP. But these gains were negated Off Screens where in NY he gave up only 0.64, to Denver where he failed to fight over or through screens properly giving up 1.26 PPP.

Once in Portland Felton played Ball Handler less often, 39.6% of the time where he scored poorly at 0.70 PPP, only ranked 116 on 40% FG shooting. The Spot-up trend obtained with the Nuggets continued where he did well 17.8% of the time for 0.99 PPP, but shot only 37.8%. Isolation, never a strength, was seen nealry 10% of the time, but he scored only 0.74 PPP and 33.8% FGs. The Trailblazers were a bad fit. But that’s not news to you.

Felton wasn’t awful defensively for Portland, defending the PnR Handler 45.9% of the time and holding him to 0.79 PPP, but that’s where the D highlights end. In Iso, Spot-up, and Off Screens he gave up at least 0.90 PPP, and was particularly susceptible to opposing Post-ups, giving back 0.97 PPP.

It will be interesting to see what Mike Woodson does with Felton now back in New York once again, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Hey, at least he’s reportedly less fluffy.


In case you haven’t yet been apprised of how Enes Kanter spent his summer, he spent it in a way that would make Vince McMahon proud.

Kanter posted up 112 times, 30.2% of the time he was on the floor on offense, but scored only 0.79 PPP on his man. Yes, he had trouble getting above the rim. Billed as a rebound beast coming in, he certainly lived up to that end of the deal where he’s extremely fundamentally sound, going glass 25.6% of the time, scoring 0.97 PPP on Offensive Rebounds, a massive proportion of percentage on O. He was most successful on Cuts, 17.5% of the time for 1.14 PPP. A pretty clear pattern emerges here for the Jazz, that being ball and player movement, where their big men can get easy looks.

On defense Kanter still has some work to do where he gave up 1.05 PPP in Post-ups. He showed some promise on PnR defense, but didn’t defend it enough to qualify for a ranking, and often lost his man in the screen switch.

It’s exciting to see a player work so hard to buff up in the offseason. I just hope he worked on his basketball skills just as hard.

If I didn’t get to your Synergy Session question this time keep ‘em coming, I’ll be sure to fit you in in future posts.

Send mySynergySports questions to @Clintonite33 on Twitter, hastag #SynergySession

Expectations & Subversion: How The Spurs Let A Song Go Out Of Their Heart

Photo by Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden on Flickr

When it comes to comparing sports and music, there are few tropes as tired as linking jazz and basketball. Hell, I’ve done it. But as it goes with most clichés, it comes up again and again because there’s a kernel of truth in it, because it can be a useful way to see the game. Like a quintet on the bandstand playing a standard, the five players on the floor in basketball are working within a structure that allows for fluidity and improvisation. The things they’re doing are all interconnected, interdependent, and when one of them shifts his approach, it affects the entire fabric of the play. There’s initiative, understanding, recognition, response. The idea of basketball players as jazz musicians rewards our conception of the game as beautiful, a work of art, even.

But there are other ways to expand our sense of the game via music. What if we instead consider the plays a team runs as being akin to the basic units of pop music: the verse, the chorus, the bridge? After all, the cagiest pop songs play on our expectations with each new section, adding wrinkles and subverting convention, much like Steve Nash does with the basic pick and roll.

Consider, for example, the chorus of Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants,” which begins at 1:11 in the video below.

The chorus to the song is essentially the same refrain repeated twice, a common enough structure for the hook of a pop tune, but there’s something a little off-kilter about this particular one. The first time, the first line is a pickup into the chorus—that is, “What a girl wants” is sung so that it’s the word “wants” that falls on the first beat of the chorus. The second time through, the line lands slightly differently. It begins on the first beat and the word “wants” falls on the second beat of the chorus. It’s a little rhythmic trickery that keeps it from being repetitive.

And rhythmic trickery is more or less what defines the relationship between the pick and roll and the slip screen. Here’s Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol running the pick and roll (excuse the ABBA—it’s just the cost of doing business):

Being one of the most fundamental basketball plays, the bread-and-butter pick and roll establishes expectations. The big man will set the pick and the guard will run his man into the pick, letting the big man roll to the hoop. It’s the first time through the chorus. But once the defense is anticipating the straight pick and roll, it’s time to bring out the slip screen. Here’s Bryant and Gasol running it:

As you can see, as soon as Cousins has bought the pick and roll and started hedging in an attempt to stop Bryant from turning the corner towards the middle, Gasol breaks for the bucket, gets the easy pass from Bryant, then feeds it to Lamar Odom under the hoop. This is the second time through the chorus, where a little wrinkle keeps us on our toes.

But that’s playing in a subtle way with expectations. In both music and basketball you can go with a giant misdirection. Consider a staple of hard rock dynamics, the quiet chorus after the bridge as demonstrated by the Smashing Pumpkins in “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” (bridge starts at 2:28 if you want to skip ahead):

At 3:06, just when the conclusion of the bridge seems to be building towards another full-blast chorus, everything except for guitar and vocals drops out, plus the vocals are down an octave from early iterations of the chorus. We’re primed for the big guns, but the song goes in a completely different direction.

Now take a look at the wide-open three-pointer Steve Novak managed to get at the end of the Bulls-Knicks game on Easter at the end of regulation:

Jared Dubin does a great job of breaking down this entire play right here, but the basic thing that made such an open look possible is that everyone was expecting it to go to Carmelo Anthony. Once Anthony gets the ball at the three-point line, he’s doubled, allowing Novak to float out to the opposite side of the floor. His shot, unfortunately, doesn’t go down, but regardless of that, it’s a great play, made possible because everyone’s expecting the big heroic chorus from ‘Melo. Instead, they get the quiet, guitars-and-vocals chorus from Steve Novak.

The thing about basketball, though, is that these patterns don’t happen in isolation, but rather overlap and affect each other over the course of the game. The pick is the foundation of several different plays and can also be part of a larger scheme in either a directly useful or misdirecting way. When it comes to layering motifs and patterns, there a few teams that do it better than the San Antonio Spurs and few bands that do it better than Menomena.

Menomena, from Portland, Oregon, compose their music in a fairly unique way. One of the members begins with a part that gets recorded and then looped while the other members add new parts that interlock with the original part. The early result is reams of rough material that is then shaped into songs as parts are pulled away or added. By the time the compositions are complete and ready to be recorded as full songs, they’re often staggeringly complex songs built from the simplest pieces. Here’s an example from their 2007 album Friend and Foe, a song called “Wet and Rusting”:

You can hear the song begins with a spare melody (“I made you a present …”) repeated twice, followed by a second part sung once (“It’s hard to take risks …”). Since these lines are barely accompanied it’s hard to conceive of them as verses or choruses—they’re just bits right now. The form begins to repeat, but then extends under the second part, this time backed by a guitar line instead of the ghostly piano that backed it the first time. When the piano returns with drums and bass in tow, the words evaporate. The middle instrumental section stays at home harmonically with the first two parts but explores new textures. When the initial lyrical part returns at the 2:21 mark, there’s a new vocal line laid in under it. As the song reaches its dynamic peak, it’s not achieved with new material, but rather by juxtaposing all the previously played parts against one another. It’s an unusual way to build a song, but it’s pretty standard for a basketball offense.

Take the San Antonio Spurs. In a recent game against the Lakers, they hammered the pick and roll with Tony Parker and either Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter early, probably because the Lakers are notoriously weak defending it. They like to mix it up a bit, with Parker often dishing the ball off before running through the paint to emerge on the other side to receive it again and run the pick and roll. But eliminating transition baskets, the game on offense for the Spurs began with these three plays:

The first one is simple enough: Duncan steps out to set a screen, Parker gets separation from Ramon Sessions (who goes over the screen) and Andrew Bynum is too deep to defend the jumper. This is the first verse, the “I made you a present” of their sets. In the second play, Sessions tries going under the screen, but that still gives Parker room to shoot and he sinks it. This is the repeat of that first melody (“And when you unravel …”). In the third play, Splitter sets the pick and tries to roll, but Pau Gasol closes out and bothers the shot enough to force a miss. The Spurs have established the pattern and now the Lakers have reacted well enough to defend it.

So the next time they run a pick and roll, they run it a little differently:

Here, Splitter sets the pick twice and Bynum and Sessions both follow Parker while trying to shield Splitter from the pass as he roles. But in the meantime, Duncan has slipped away from his defender into the open space by the free throw line extended. He catches the pass from Parker and makes the jumper in rhythm. This is the development of the initial melody into the second melody, the “It’s hard to take risks” part of the Menomena song. It exists in the same general tonal world (that is, it’s not a key change or a big dynamic change), but it’s a little different approach, and just enough to throw us off guard.

But the Spurs haven’t forgotten about that first part. They go back to it, with Parker running a simple pick and roll again on the wing:

Sessions doesn’t want to leave Ginobili, so Parker has an open shot. It’s interesting to note that even as Parker makes the open jumper, Bynum has dropped too low in the post to defend Duncan if Parker had passed it off. This return to the fundamental pick and roll is not simply a rehash of the initial action, but instead is colored by the results of the earlier pick and rolls and Duncan’s made jumper. It is, effectively, the first melody supported by the xylophone and acoustic guitar from “Wet and Rusting.” It’s not just a play, but instead a play that’s been opened up by the plays preceding it.

As the game progresses and the Lakers try to counter the Spurs, the sets become more nuanced and layered. Look at these two possessions:

What begins as a pick and roll turns into multiple screens as the double comes on Parker. In both examples, Bonner’s initial pick is basically a decoy. It draws Gasol and Sessions to the ball and Bonner floats out to the three-point line on the opposite side of the floor. In the first clip, he dribbles closer before handing the ball off to Stephen Jackson and screening his man to allow Jackson the elbow jumper. In the second, Splitter steps out to set yet another pick that Gasol has to go around to get to Bonner, whom Bynum can’t effectively cover. Bonner drains the three. My favorite part of that second one is that Splitter’s screen is actually a slip screen and he’s rolling wide open to the basket as Gasol and Bynum try to close out on Bonner. If Bonner had wanted to, he could have dished it right to Splitter for an easy dunk or layup.

To me, this is the full development of what started as a basic pick and roll at the beginning of the game. That verse melody is now being layered against the secondary melody and a new melody on top of that while the rest of the band provides support. The Spurs have forced the Lakers to adjust and then adjusted to those adjustments. Looking at the second clip, by the time the play has gotten to this point:

… the Lakers are pretty much done for. Look at all the space that Bonner and Jackson have now on the right side of the floor. By the time it gets to here:

… Devin Ebanks has closed out on Jackson in the corner, creating space for Splitter to roll to the basket while Bonner lifts up for a three he’s more than capable of hitting. The Lakers have been manipulated into playing the Spurs’ game.

And by the end of “Wet and Rusting,” the listener has been suckered into Menomena’s game. We’ve heard each of the pieces that have come before in isolation and we’ve heard them pressed against each other, but by the time they all come together into a multiphonic rush of voices and instruments, we’re hearing something greater than the sum of its parts, something greater than that first melody, greater than a simple pick and roll.