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Idiosyncrasies of the Past NBA Season
By Thomas Louis Posted in NBA on April 23, 2017 0 Comments
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This, as you may have noticed, was a fairly ridiculous season for statistics. What with Russell Westbrook’s usage, three-pointers being heaved like never before, and the most efficient offenses basketball has observed, plenty of trends have been noticed, spoken about, written about, complained about, yelled at about and informed condescendingly about.

Not all outlying statistics from 2017 have been noticed, though. There are any number of interesting statistical anomalies, depending on your definition of interesting. Here are some of them:

Damjan Rudez’ Free Throws

Damjan Rudez played 314 minutes for the Orlando Magic this season after being released by the Timberwolves. He had a bad season, posting career-lows in scoring and scoring efficiency, which is the summation of his contributions. He’s 6’10 and has never averaged more than 3 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is Boston Celtics-level rebounding. 

The anomaly, though, is that Damjan Rudez did not shoot a free throw this entire season. He logged the third-most minutes ever without attempting a free throw, behind only Luke Walton and Mike Miller of last season. This is somewhat to be expected, as 64 of his 88 FGA were from 3-point range. Nonetheless, the league average FT/FGA this season was still over 20%, so you would certainly expect some free throws off his 24 2PA.

Well, after searching a bit further, it really isn’t much of a mystery. Per, over 95% of his shots are jumpshots, third-highest of any player who played 40 or more games, behind only Luke Babbitt and Kyle Korver. Still, though. Zero free throws. He probably practiced them, too. Poor Damjan. 

No Turnovers, for anyone

The only two players in the NBA to commit a turnover this season were Russell Westbrook and James Harden, or so it seems. Despite the top-two high-volume MVP candidates setting all-time records in turnovers, the NBA set a record low in TOV% (which has been tracked since 1973), by a decent margin. Only 12.7% of possessions this season ended with a turnover, the lowest since 13.2% in 2007-08.

While it would be easy to just chalk this up to “refs don’t call travels anymore! Extra steps ruin basketball!”, that is not the case. Sure, this season has logged fewer travelling violations per game than recent years (0.769), but there are multiple seasons in the past with higher turnover rates, but lower travelling rates.

The big difference, though, is the bad pass turnovers. NBA teams averaged 5.175 bad pass TOs per game (yes, I know, I also want to use a pace-adjusted metric, but that is simply impossible, I’m sorry), which is the lowest by far since the NBA started tracking turnover types in 1996. The closest was last year, with 5.431 per game, and the lowest beyond that never dipped below 5.8. Teams in the 90s were making bad passes seven times a game! 

So, what gives? Why do teams suck ass at passing now? My first thought was that teams today are making fewer passes. This year, teams averaged almost exactly 300 passes per game – just over 299. I went back to the 2013-14 season (fun fact, the Warriors made the fewest passes per game – nice one, Mark Jackson), which is the furthest back NBA tracking data goes. The league average was 6.4 bad pass turnovers (almost a 25% difference), but the passers were almost exactly the same – 299.98 per game. Shit.

When in doubt, though, blame new trends on three-pointers. Three-point shooting has taken a ridiculous upswing this season, and it probably has some impact on the passing tendencies of teams. It’s harder to force a pass inside to a cutter than a spot-up shooter on the three-point line, and teams are running the high pick-and-roll more than ever before, instead of more complex motion offenses that could involve more passing lanes for opposing Kawhi Leonards of the world to jump into.

P.S. The Hornets set an NBA record for the lowest single-season TOV% mark ever. Way to go, guys.

Kicking Balls

I know what you’re thinking: “they track those?”. While it would be fun to determine whether or not Draymond set any records last postseason, I’m actually talking about kicked ball violations. If, for some reason, you watched the Timberwolves play at the Trailblazers on April 6th, you might remember Marv Albert and his giddy laughter upon seeing a kicked ball violation by Karl-Anthony Towns not long after showing a graphic displaying the Wolves’ towering league lead in the kicked ball column.

Well, it’s true: the Minnesota Timberwolves kicked a ball 85 times this season. The Pelicans were the next-highest at 58. Since they started tracking them (once again, 1996), the Wolves have the most kicked balls in a season, dwarfing the Pelicans’ 72 in the previous campaign. 

Some additional statistics can explain things, at least somewhat. The Timberwolves have three players in the top 5; Gorgui Dieng at first, Kris Dunn at third and Karl-Anthony Towns at 5th (Gorgui Dieng also set the all-time record for kicked balls, but I’m sure that everyone is tired of hearing about goddamned Gorgui Dieng all the time). That explains why the T-Wolves are first place, but doesn’t do much to explain why they’re playing soccer out there.

I half-expected to look back a few years and find Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls with a stranglehold on the kicking market. It makes sense; kicking the ball disrupts passers and puts the other team off its rhythm, a cornerstone of stifling defenses. However, no Chicago Bulls ever cracked the top 5 in kicked ball violations during Thibs’ tenure, nor the Bulls as a team. I’m just going to chalk it up to Thibs trying out a new defensive strategy. I don’t think it worked all that well, as the Timberwolves were inexplicably bad (unless you count “Zach Lavine” as an explanation) on defense for most of the year.

Bonus Timberwolves fact:

The Minnesota Timberwolves set a record this year for more losses after leading by 10 or more (19). Who held the record previously, you ask? The Timberwolves, in 2012-13. Just like this year, they were an elite first quarter team and then, well, sucked. It’s okay for me to say these saddening things because I’m a Timberwolves fan.

Danilo Gallinari, Bad Dunker

I don’t know if this has happened before. It would take a lot of work to find out if it has. It probably has, but it’s still super interesting.

Danilo Gallinari on dunks this per (per 31/39; 79.5%.

Danilo Gallinari from the free throw line this year: 349/387; 90.2%.

Don’t foul him! 

A Return to Competency for NBA Scorekeepers

When shot types began being recorded around 2010 (meaning differentiating layups from dunks or jumpshots from hook shots, and et cetera) in the play-by-play, every play until 2015-16 had a shot type of some sort. It probably wasn’t correct; NBA scorekeepers are terribly inconsistent at best (at worst, not entirely sure what shot types mean), but at least the shots existed.

Then, for some reason, 21 shots last season (14 of which were made buckets, which is even stranger) were entered as “No Shot”. They all happened in two games on the same day: November 9th, Warriors-Pistons and Clippers-Grizzlies. Thankfully, all shots have a type this season, so whatever experimental “driving fadeaway bank hook-dunks” the Warriors were trying were phased out by Adam Silver.

Jordan Hill Not Playing

Jordan Hill played 7 total games this season, for a total of 47 minutes, after being picked up by the Timberwolves and getting paid over $3.9 million. That’s $83,221 per floor minute, a rate almost 8 times higher than LeBron James. It’s even worse if we measure by contributions: aside from the 9 personal fouls, NBA players logged Jordan Hill’s entire season stat-line (12 points, 8 offensive rebounds, 6 defensive rebounds and a steal) in a single game 26 times – just this season. Andre Drummond alone did it six times.

The thing is, though, due to a combination of Zach Lavine’s ACL, Adreian Payne’s blood platelets and Nikola Pekovic’s entire existence, Hill was never inactive. He was always dressed and ready, sitting on the bench, accumulating DNP-CDs (for those new to basketball: Did Not Play – Coaches Decision). In fact, he managed to rack up more DNP-CDs (75) than anyone in NBA history! 

The story of Jordan Hill’s playing time is a captivating plot. He came into Minnesota after a fairly productive season (8.8 points, 6.2 rebounds in 20.7 minutes) with the Pacers, a playoff team that did not enlist his aid for any extended period of time in their 7-game series with Toronto. He was expected to be somewhat of a Greg Monroe-lite: an above-average post presence and capable rebounder off the bench. As it turned out, though, that’s not what was needed by Thibodeau.

Cole Aldrich, a great defender and rebounder (and nothing else) played in bench units alongside Nemanja Bjelica, a European “stretch” four who was theoretically capable of drilling open threes, but rarely did. Bjelica’s biggest contributions came when putting the ball on the deck and taking advantages of mismatches against slower bigs. 

Neither Cole Aldrich nor Jordan Hill can space the floor. When they’d go to the block, neither of them would have any space to post up without swarms of help defenders’ arms in their grills. The conclusion, then, for Tom Thibodeau, was to go with the one who was more capable of producing valuable minutes without any space or touches. Aldrich played 62 games and ended up with a USG% of 9.4, the lowest of any qualified player this season. Jordan Hill’s post presence was unnecessary and difficult to utilize, and everything else he brought to the table was matched by other options.

So Jordan Hill’s minutes must have all come in garbage time, right? 

Almost, but not quite. His first game, a blowout against a Conley-less, Gasol-less Memphis, he entered while up 25. Second, while being destroyed by the Thunder, down 24. Third, after being destroyed by Detroit, down 28. Then, out of nowhere: 18 minutes against the Thunder on Christmas Day! Hill was the first person off the bench with over 7 minutes left in the first. Here is the first sequence of play that happened in the NBA where Jordan Hill played minutes against starters (Jordan Hill is the one with the pineapple on his head):

Not too bad! That ended up being 2 of his only 4 points in the game, though, as he would go on to do nothing except for rebound – which is easily achieved with Cole Aldrich anyway. 

Jordan appeared against the Hawks in the game after Christmas, playing 6 minutes in garbage time, then continued to log 37 consecutive DNP-CDs. He got a couple scattered inconsequential appearances as the Wolves season got progressively more futile, until it eventually sputtered out in the best way possible, with the Knicks losing a coin toss. This is the end of the tale of Jordan Hill’s minutes.

Ultimately, Hill’s record-breaking DNP-CD sum was the result of a number of factors. He never got injured, so was never placed as an inactive. The Timberwolves don’t have a D-League affiliate. He was a great bench presence while not being a very good player, and an even worse fit for the team. Finally, it has to be said: he played on a Tom Thibodeau team. It’s only fitting that Thibodeau has now set an official record for not using bench players. Now if he could only apply some of the defensive stereotypes, that’d be great for The World’s Worst Basketball Franchise.

JaVale McGee

Everything about this guy’s season was an anomaly, especially if you thought his contributions as a player roughly equalled his contributions to Shaq’s television prestige. He signed with the Warriors and barely made the cut after preseason, making it the fourth team he’s played for in three years. Just like every role-playing journeyman, his USG% found itself at a career-high mark of 23.8. He was a net +10.1 per 100 possessions, and managed a fairly ridiculous 23/12/3.3 statline per 36 minutes, the first person since 95-96 David Robinson to do that while playing more than 10 games.

JaVale managed the highest ORB% this season, grabbing 15.8% of the Warriors’ misses. That puts him at 11th-best offensive rebounding season since the turn of the century (>75 GP), the significance of which is mostly because of how difficult it is to rebound when your team is chucking up threes, which could bounce anywhere.

To some, JaVale’s successes in Oakland could be a conundrum. “He’s supposed to be dumb,” people might think, “this is just luck!” The truth is that, be it luck, coincidence, or actual signs of mental growth, JaVale’s successes in Golden State are the result of excellent reactions to defensive overhelps and double-teams.

Curry runs the P&R with Draymond, Johnson switches, Exum doesn’t. Draymond receives the bounce pass and all of a sudden, it’s a 2v1. If Gobert stays home on JaVale, Draymond drives in for the dunk, or more likely tries to draw a foul. Gobert decides to prevent that and steps in on Dray. Green and McGee then display their remarkable alley-oop telepathy. Gobert has barely even finished his first step, and both players are already in the motions for a routine McGee dunk. By the way, this Curry/Dray PnR seems to consistently result in McGee dunks, as I went through probably 10 clips out of my first 15 that were the same exact play.

Once again, JaVale is able to instantly recognize when his man has strayed just a foot too far, and Iguodala, a comparably brilliant passer to Draymond, instantly notices the same thing. Two more:

JaVale is an excellent rim-runner, but plays like this aren’t just the result of his darting in the lane and his long arms. There are a few things to notice that happen before the result. First, a hard curry screen on Aminu forces a switch of McCollum onto Draymond. This allows the much taller Green to see the floor better and to make whatever pass he wants to. Then, after Curry gets the ball, he runs off a screen and his Jupiter-like gravity frees the lane of Meyers Leonard for a McGee slam. 

Watching Curry, McGee and Draymond work together to break down defenses is basketball porn. One mistake, one tiny misstep, and JaVale will be hanging from the rim a second later. Make a different mistake, and Curry will be hanging his dainty wrist in the air after swishing a triple. Every one of them, including JaVale, has a remarkable sixth sense for floor spacing and how to react to it, and it’s part of what makes the Warriors so fun to watch this year without Durant on the floor.

I just wanted to include this one because it’s funny. It actually has nothing to do with my assertion that McGee is smart. JaVale tries to get open by running around Trevor Ariza, doesn’t, but finishes the lob anyway because he’s a goddamn freak, and because Draymond Green is a wizard.

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