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In the last post, we looked at the leaders in Expected Value (EV) on the defensive side of the ball for the 2010 playoffs. Not surprisingly, Dwight Howard was the winner there. Now let’s look at the offensive leaders in EV from the 2010 playoffs. There are three notable additions to the classic box score involved in that calculation:

“Help Needed” includes all of the points scored that were created by a teammate. I will have a post about it in the near future, but for now, think of Kobe Bryant driving down the lane and drawing hordes of defenders (an OC), setting up Andrew Bynum for an open dunk. In that case, Bynum’s dunk loses some value because it was created by another teammate. More on this in the future, though.

Here are the leaders in offensive EV from the 2010 playoffs, minimum 300 possessions played. All EV values are relative to league averge:

Offensive EV Leaders, 2010 Playoffs

As always, with playoff data, it’s important to remember particular matchups. Last year, Deron Williams dissected a soft Denver defense and then he made Derek Fisher look like an AARP member. Utah actually boasted the second best Offensive Rating in the playoffs — 114 pts per 100 possessions — but the defense let them down mightily. Here is the complete list of leaders in Offensive EV from the 2010 playoffs, minimum 300 possessions played.

Finally, we can combine the defensive and offensive components and view the overall Expected Value leaders from the 2010 playoffs:

2010 Playoffs, min 150 possessions; Def=Defensive EV; Off=Offensive EV

By just about any measure, Dwyane Wade had a fantastic series against Boston’s vaunted defense. LeBron James’ second round against Boston wasn’t quite as good (8.5 EV), but he tortured Chicago in the opening series. Of the three superheroes, Kobe had it the worst of against Boston, posting a 3.4 EV in the Finals.

For reference, the top series performances by EV from the 2010 playoffs (EV in parentheses):

  1. James vs. Chi (16.2)
  2. Gasol vs. Uta (12.8)
  3. Howard vs. Atl (12.5)
  4. Nelson vs. Cha (12.5)
  5. Wade vs.Bos (11.8)
  6. Bryant vs. Pho (11.8)
  7. Nash vs. SAS (10.8)
  8. D Will vs. Den (10.2)
  9. Dirk vs. SAS (9.3)
  10. James vs. Bos (8.5)

Paul Gasol had the highest EV of the 2010 NBA Finals (5.0). Here is the complete list of EV leaders from the 2010 playoffs, minimum 150 possessions played.

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If you missed the last post, it was an overview of Expected Value (EV). And while that approach is not a novel concept — check out this similar method — from what I gather, incorporating a large defensive component is. Most of the defensive numbers used are from my stat-tracking. As a refresher, the defensive component of EV includes:

So which individual players fare the best in this metric? Below are the top defensive players in EV from the 2010 playoffs, with defensive usage included as a reference for the size of a player’s role (minimum 30 defensive plays “used”):

2010 Playoffs; Minimum 30 defensive possessions used

Dwight Howard, not surprisingly, had the best playoffs on the defensive end according to this. It’s good to be cautious of how small-sampled the playoffs are, given that one or two games against a hot or cold shooting opponent could skew these numbers. Then again, half the all-defensive team is represented on the list above, and that doesn’t include reputable defenders like Joakim Noah, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Tony Allen.

Because the playoffs are not only small sampled in games, but in opponents, it’s always important to consider matchups. Which makes Allen’s performance — mostly versus Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — that much more impressive.

For those wondering about Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, they both just missed the cut. Garnett, to me, emphasizes the single greatest challenge in measuring individual defense causally: his greatest strength is probably communicating where to be and what is coming at all times to those around him. Now that’s difficult to quantify.

Finally, here is the complete list of defensive EV from the 2010 playoffs for all qualifying players (min 30 defensive possessions “used”).

Author’s Note: All EV values are relative to league average.

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When I was growing up, a “closer” was a term reserved for baseball pitchers. Specialists with strange facial hair who were only used when their teams protected narrow leads and needed three outs to finish the game.* Then a closer became someone with enough machismo to finish real estate deals. Kyra Sedgwick turned out to be The Closer. And finally, it devolved into a basketball term.

*I never understood the decision not to use closers when teams were behind by a run. Why opt for a lesser pitcher simply because a save opportunity wasn’t available?

In the NBA, a “closer” refers to star players who play well down the stretch of close games. Give them the ball, and they will guide a team to victory. Simplify the game and ride the best player to victory.

In other words, the best closers are the best offensive anchors at the end of tight games. So naturally, unless there is a drastic difference between normal performance and late-game performance, the best closers will be the best overall offensive players in the game.

Some people believe that clutch performance varies wildly in professional sports. That pro athletes are wired differently, some live for big moments and others shrink in them. And there is quality reasoning behind that thinking. So, when something like this starts rolling, it’s hard to stop its momentum:

It didn’t stop there. Mark Jackson kept calling Kobe Bryant the best closer during game coverage. Skip Bayless has echoed it. This informal 2009 poll of players agreed that Kobe was the King of Clutch.

Kobe’s shortcomings in such situations have been extensively documented. The meme floating around that he’s the de facto best closer/clutch player in the league is actually less erroneous than its evil twin, the Un-Clutch meme. That has been slapped on undeserving players like Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett before, and now it follows LeBron James.

Only LeBron James is plenty clutch. Actually, he’s the best closer in basketball. And it’s not even really close.

In the first batch of clutch numbers I crunched from 82 games, looking at the final 5 minutes of 5-point games or closer, LeBron practically lapped the field. In 477 minutes of closer duty from 2008 to 2010, LeBron’s Cavs were +27.2 per 36 minutes. That is mind-boggling, given that the best NBA teams in history are about +9 per 36 minutes. It’s even more superhuman when one considers how they’ve completely crumbled as a team without James.

He managed to score, rebound and distribute down the stretch of close games while shooting 10% better than league average in eFG%. Holy Superman, Batman! Frankly, he looks like the best player in NBA history based on his closer line.

The next set of numbers looked at playoff performances in such situations. Again, James showed the same pattern: his scoring, shooting and assist numbers spiked. Of the players examined in that post, only one other (Carmelo Anthony) improved his playoff shooting in the clutch, and only Steve Nash averaged more assists. Of course, LeBron scored at nearly double Nash’s rate.

It’s almost as if most of LeBron’s value is disproportionately unleashed at the end of close games. He is, in many ways, the ultimate closer.

Yet the indestructible meme following LeBron is that he’s not a closer.

Some argue that he’s too unselfish at the end of games. But he actually shot the ball more frequently than anyone from 2008-2010, including Kobe Bryant. He has attempted 69 attempts in the final 24 seconds of close games according to this ESPN study, which is about 10 per year. Again, more than anyone on the list.

Even his free throw shooting is refined when he’s closing. 81% on 187 free throw attempts from 2008-2010, up 6.3% from all other situations. He made 20 consecutive late-game free throws this year before missing one two weeks ago. The last time 82games ran “super clutch” numbers (final 2 minutes of a 3-point game), LeBron was in video-game land.

Last week, Kevin McHale opined on NBATV that Miami should have LeBron be a distrbutor down the stretch and let Wade be the team’s closer. Skip Bayless loves to slam his ESPN desk and note how Wade is a great closer and LBJ isn’t.*

I don’t know what it will take to kill those ideas. I suspect the way to destroy the Un-Clutch meme is to win a championship. Hopefully, In the meantime, this is a start.

*If pressed, here are my late-game offensive player rankings since 2003. Note Wade’s absence:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Steve Nash
  3. Kobe Bryant
  4. Manu Ginobili
  5. Chris Paul

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In a prior post, I introduced the concept of Opportunities Created (OC) as a measure of playmaking.

After 104 team games tracked in the 2011 regular season (that’s 52 full games, or about 9,000 possessions of basketball), the correlation coefficient of OC to team Offensive Rating is 0.41. Which makes it fairly relevant. (By comparison, here is a table of correlation coefficients of some other stats from some long-term data.) . As we would expect, creating unguarded shots for teammates is good!

Here are the players from the 2010 playoffs who averaged more than 5 OC per 100 possessions:

Steve Nash, as many might expect, is constantly drawing extra defensive attention and then making passes that lead to open shots. (Spoiler: we see the same trend this year from Nash.) Deron Williams also caused constant havoc, even in defeat, and those two lead the pack by a significant margin. Also note that the best perimeter stars in the game create opportunities at a frequent, and comparable, rate.

Leaders by Round (min 150 possessions)

Nash actually started slowly last year, and wasn’t the leader after one round. He then absolutely dissected the San Antonio defense, and Deron Williams did the same to Los Angeles in defeat. The top-10 in OC per 100 in the first round:

  1. Williams 14.0
  2. Ginobili 12.4
  3. Nash 11.9
  4. Westbrook 11.7
  5. James 11.4
  6. Wade 10.8
  7. Nelson 10.8
  8. Bryant 10.1
  9. Rose 9.1
  10. Parker 8.7

And in the second round:

  1. Nash 18.5
  2. Williams 17.3
  3. Ginobili 12.3
  4. Bryant 11.1
  5. Parker 10.0
  6. Nelson 9.0
  7. James 8.2
  8. Carter 6.8
  9. Johnson 6.7
  10. Rondo 6.0

In the Conference Finals:

  1. Nash 16.6
  2. Dragic 11.8
  3. Nelson 10.2
  4. Bryant 10.0
  5. Pierce 7.8

And the NBA Finals:

  1. Pierce 7.7
  2. Bryant 7.5
  3. R. Allen 5.2
  4. Farmar 4.5
  5. Rondo 4.2

Here is the full list of OC per 100 for players logging over 150 possessions in the 2010 playoffs.

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Unfortunately, Basketball-Reference doesn’t have a pace-adjusted scoring metric. I normalize most of my stats to an estimated 75 possessions played, which for points produces a “scoring rate,” per se. For instance, Wilt Chamberlain averaged over 50 points per game in 1962. But he played more than 130 possessions a game using the simple method of pace estimation. That comes out to about 28.1 pts/75, not enough to make the cut here.

Up to that point in NBA history, Chamberlain’s number was the highest scoring rate. Individual players just didn’t score as much — teams were more balanced before expansion and the advent of the 3-point line. So Wilt’s season did stand out in its time. For comparison, some other notable pre-1980 players and their highest career mark:

  • Bob McAdoo 26.7 in 1975.
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 25.4 in 1972.
  • Rick Barry 25.3 in 1975.
  • Tiny Archibald 25.0 in 1973.
  • Elgin Baylor, 24.7 in 1962.
  • Jerry West 23.4 in 1965.
  • Oscar Robertson 21.5 in 1968.

Listed below are the top scoring rate seasons in NBA history, measured in points scored per 75 possessions. “Rel TS%” is True Shooting% (TS%) relative to the league average. For example, if league average is 50% TS, and a player boasted a TS% of 53%, he would have a Rel TS% of 3%.

Regular Season

Yes, Michael Jordan owns seven of the eight best normalized scoring seasons ever. Not too shabby. Two other names that might surprise people are LeBron James and Karl Malone. Malone has three top-30 seasons, all at ridiculous shooting efficiency. James was a scoring machine before winning his first MVP, and holds four top-30 seasons.

What about playoff rates? Let’s only consider players who have played in at least two postseason series in a given playoff. If we do that, we get the following select club over 30 pts/75:

Playoffs (minimum 2 series played)

Again, MJ occupies more than half of the list, with LeBron’s 2009 epic playoff run topping the list. Some notable single-series performances that did not qualify: Jordan vs. Boston in 1986 (35.7 pts/75), Hakeem Olajuwon vs. Dallas in 1988 (34.9) and Dwyane Wade in 2009 (vs. Atlanta) and 2010 (vs. Boston) posted 31.2 pts/75 in both series.

The big Chicken and Egg question here: Are top-end scorers better than they were in the past, or have changes in the game simply facilitated more individual dominance?

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These rankings include a small adjustment for league status/competition. Otherwise, for example, Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967 would probably be 2nd (and 2nd is still a fair place). I’m not married to these rankings, but this certainly provides a good idea of where I hold the best seasons for these players.

  1. Michael Jordan (1991/1992)
  2. Magic Johnson (1987)
  3. Larry Bird (1986)
  4. Wilt Chamberlain (1967)
  5. Shaquille O’Neal (2000)
  6. Bill Russell (1964/1965)
  7. Tim Duncan (2003)
  8. LeBron James (2009)
  9. Hakeem Olajuwon (1995)
  10. Bill Walton (1977)
  11. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977)
  12. Kevin Garnett (2004)
  13. Bernard King (1984)
  14. Moses Malone (1982)
  15. Charles Barkley (1990)
  16. Kobe Bryant (2008)
  17. Dwyane Wade (2006/2009)
  18. Tracy McGrady (2003)
  19. Julius Erving (1976)
  20. Karl Malone (1998)
  21. Jerry West (1965)
  22. Steve Nash (2007)
  23. Dirk Nowitzki (2006)
  24. Oscar Robertson (1962)
  25. David Robinson (1994)

Honorable Mention to Chris Paul (2008), Bob Pettit (1959), Gary Payton (2000), Bob McAdoo (1975), George Gervin (1978), Rick Barry (1975) and Walt Frazier (1973).

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Top 50 NBA Careers

After embarking on a huge research project scanning most of the history of the NBA, I have finally compiled something resembling an all-time NBA list. (The main page for the project can be seen here: http://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewtopic.php?f=64&t=1004743).

I scored each season based on my assessment and rankings of the players from the project, then totaled the score to reach a career number. The numbers in parentheses are my approximation of that score, first for career, then for best single season that player had. I used that career number as a ballpark, and adjusted the rankings slightly based on peak performance. Without further ado, my top-50 NBA careers:

*Active player

  1. Michael Jordan (3.47 – 0.41)
  2. Bill Russell (3.19 – 0.32)
  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2.74 – 0.28)
  4. Magic Johnson (2.58 – 0.38)
  5. Larry Bird (2.38 – 0.38)
  6. Shaquille O’Neal (2.17 – 0.34)*
  7. Hakeem Olajuwon (2.11 – 0.28)
  8. Wilt Chamberlain (1.99 – 0.37)
  9. Tim Duncan (2.03 – 0.30)*
  10. Karl Malone (2.11 – 0.21)
  11. Julius Erving (1.64 – 0.21)
  12. Kevin Garnett (1.51 – 0.26)*
  13. Kobe Bryant (1.52 – 0.23)*
  14. Charles Barkley (1.47 – 0.23)
  15. Oscar Robertson (1.48 – 0.18)
  16. Jerry West (1.32 – 0.21)
  17. LeBron James (1.20 – 0.31)*
  18. Moses Malone (1.23 – 0.24)
  19. David Robinson (1.22 – 0.18)
  20. Dirk Nowitzki (1.14 – 0.19)*
  21. Bob Pettit (1.14 – 0.17)
  22. Scottie Pippen (0.95 – 0.14)
  23. Dwyane Wade (0.85 – 0.22)*
  24. Steve Nash (0.89 – 0.20)*
  25. Elgin Baylor (0.91 – 0.13)
  26. Gary Payton (0.83 – 0.16)
  27. Patrick Ewing (0.84 – 0.14)
  28. Rick Barry (0.80 – 0.13)
  29. Clyde Drexler (0.75 – 0.14)
  30. Isiah Thomas (0.70 – 0.15)
  31. Walt Frazier (0.69 – 0.13)
  32. George Gervin (0.67 – 0.15)
  33. Tracy McGrady (0.59 – 0.23)*
  34. John Stockton (0.67 – 0.09)
  35. Paul Pierce (0.63 – 0.10)*
  36. Elvin Hayes (0.55 – 0.11)
  37. John Havlicek (0.56 – 0.08)
  38. Bill Walton (0.33 – 0.28)
  39. Dominique Wilkins (0.52 – 0.10)
  40. Bob McAdoo (0.46 – 0.16)
  41. Kevin McHale (0.47 – 0.15)
  42. Reggie Miller (0.55 – 0.06)
  43. Marques Johnson (0.47 – 0.11)
  44. Bob Lanier (0.47 – 0.11)
  45. Kevin Johnson (0.52 – 0.08)
  46. Chris Paul (0.41 – 0.17)*
  47. Sam Jones (0.47 – 0.09)
  48. Sidney Moncrief (0.45 – 0.10)
  49. Grant Hill (0.42 – 0.13)
  50. Jason Kidd (0.44 – 0.10)

I used similar criteria that I used during the Retro Player of the Year Project:

  • Actual On-Court play valued, not potential
  • Players were evaluated relative to league in a given year, not in a vacuum
  • One final note: While this approximates a so-called GOAT list, it still doesn’t take into account different leagues with different rules, nor does it exactly mirror an all-time draft board if we were picking teams from scratch. I’d probably value peak play more heavily in such a hypothetical, but even then, versatility and circumstances can change a player’s value as well.

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