Six Midseason Surprise NBA Stats (Advanced Stats Edition)
Last week, we took a look at some of the more shocking surface stats in the NBA this season. There was Tyson Chandler and his 12+ rebounds per game (quite the shock), a dude named Rodney McGruder and his near-1000 minutes played this season (who TF is that?), and Brook Lopez launching over five three-pointers a game (GTFOH). There were hardly enough abbreviations to show all the surprise!
This week we’ll look for some more NBA surprises, this time looking through the advanced stats the league has to offer. In one sense, it can be a lot harder to find surprises in the “PERs” and “win shares” of the world because most fans don’t know what the typical PER or win share might be at this point in the season. However, if we provide some context (Player X has a PER of 15, compared to Player Y who has a PER of 22), we can learn even more about the league and a lot of the players we know less about on the surface. So for these stats, there will be context provided in each section, as well as a brief explanation of the stat if it is metric that maybe not be known by all.
Before we start, a caveat. This article is not an article positing that advanced stats are 100 times better than your typical “points, rebounds and assists” stats we’ve been using for most of basketball history. Just last week we looked at those stats. I do believe that a lot can be learned from these “advanced” stats, but I also believe that there is a lot more work to be done (especially in measuring defensive impact) and one day we may look down on the modern advanced metrics as incredibly obtuse. With that caveat out of the way, let’s get to it.
Kyle Lowry: 7.34 ESPN Real Plus-Minus (2nd in NBA)
ESPN’s real plus-minus attempts to combine everything that a player does on the court for his team and shrink that down into a single number. Obviously that is a monumental task, but the thought process is along the lines of hockey’s plus-minus, i.e. how much better is your team when you are on the court than when you are off the court? As noted above, the stat isn’t perfect, but looking over the list, it is pretty accurate to what we would believe with our eyes. The top ten consists of: Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Paul Millsap and Stephen Curry. The stat has an offensive and defensive component, with Harden the worst defender of the top ten and Green the best defender of the top ten — fair to say that checks out.
Knowing all of that, it is pretty incredible that Kyle Lowry, a 30-year-old bowling ball who has been written off numerous times throughout his career, is second in the league in ESPN real plus-minus. The only man above him (Chris Paul) is a man who is a near-deity among NBA fans and writers who are big believers in the league’s advanced stats, and is considered among the “NBA Mega Star” tier even by those who don’t subscribe to advanced stats as heavily. (The fact that the difference between Paul in first and Lowry in second is bigger than the gap between Lowry in second and Rudy Gobert in 16th almost got the headline for this section, but we all know Paul is an advanced stat god already, and he is currently on the shelf with thumb injury to boot.) Lowry hasn’t been thought of that way often, and seeing as he once again won’t be starting in the NBA All-Star Game, it doesn’t seem as though the general opinion on Lowry has changed much in 2016–17, despite the fact that Lowry is playing the best basketball of his career right now. Lowry is the actual most important factor in the Raptors being second in the East, even if teammate DeMar DeRozan gets a bit more shine. Knowing Lowry’s personality, that is a slight that he doesn’t mind since it gives more attention to his good friend DeRozan, and it also means Lowry can keep that Jupiter-sized chip on his shoulder for not getting enough respect.
Enes Kanter: 24.7 PER (14th in the NBA)
PER is probably the advanced metric most basketball fans have heard of. It is the advanced metric that was first on the scene, and is regularly used by Bill Simmons in his “Book of Basketball.” It is another metric that attempts to be all-encompassing in its evaluation of a player, and has a pretty good track record of having the best names in NBA history posting strong results. The top ten seasons, all time, according to PER: Michael Jordan (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (three times), LeBron James (two times), and Stephen Curry (one time.) Yeah, that sounds about right.
This season there are only 13 names above everyone’s second-favorite Stache Brother out in Oklahoma City. Kanter, usually thought of as an inefficient offensive weapon who likely gives up as much on the other end of the court as he is worth on the offensive end, is having the best season of his career. Kanter possesses a 19.5 PER for his career, and has never reached the 24.7 figure he owns this season. Kanter is hitting the boards like a demon once again this season, especially on the offensive end. His assist and block rates are also the highest of his career, and his Value Above Replacement, according to Basketball-Reference, is already higher than any other season in his seven-year career. The absence of Kevin Durant has opened up more possessions for all Thunder players, and the 6’ 11” Turk is taking full advantage, with the highest usage rate of his career coming this season.
The only black mark on his record this season is that one time he was hell bent on trash-talking Durant. From the bench. While the Thunder were getting their asses handed to them by the Warriors. Not a good look.
Brandon Ingram: -1.9 Estimated Wins Added (Dead Last in the NBA)
We went positive with the first two stats, so it’s time to look at the other end of the spectrum of surprising stats. Ingram was, of course, the second overall pick in the most recent NBA Draft, entering the league as a spindly 6’ 9” forward out of Duke. The Lakers knew Ingram was going to be a bit of a project, thanks in part to his skinny frame (190 lbs.), as well as his extreme young age (he won’t turn 20 until next season).
That being said, they were probably hoping he would be something better than the literal worst player in the league. Ingram has experienced some severe growing pains, like Alan Thicke and Joanna Kerns-level Growing Pains. Ingram is shooting just 36.9 percent from the field, and an even worse 29.7 percent from the land of three. He has been bullied on defense and often looks lost on offense. He probably hasn’t actually been the worst player in the league this year (despite what real plus-minus says), but he has been a far cry from even above-average.
All that said, he is indeed still just 19 years old, and the Lakers have no reason to abandon all hope. To even be competing in the NBA at such a ripe age says a lot, and Ingram is indeed shooting better in January. It’s certainly been a rough start, though.
Kristaps Porzingis: 42.5 Defensive Field Goal Percentage at Rim (4th in NBA)
Defense in the NBA is still one of the hardest parts of the game to measure, but looking at how opponents shoot at the rim is a pretty good indicator of a big man’s defensive prowess. The Knicks second-year savior is among the best in the league here, and if we look at only players who play at least 20 minutes a game, he jumps from fourth overall (behind Stanley Johnson, Kyle Anderson, and Kevon Looney) to first overall. That’s right, there is no starter in the NBA who does a better job against opponents at the rim than The Lativian Gangbanger. A few of the names sitting just below Porzingis: Rudy Golbert (literally nicknamed “The Stifle Tower” and “The French Rejection”), Roy Hibbert (literally invented the idea of “verticality” when defending at the rim), and Draymond Green (literally kicks any opposing player at the rim in the nuts). That’s some awesome company to be sharing and should be a rare note of optimism in what has turned into a weird and slightly-depressing season for Knicks fans. Porzingis has seen his shot a bit off since his return from an Achilles injury, but once he shakes off the rust, it should be right back to his normal unicorn status for the rest of the season.
Derrick Rose: -2.25 ESPN Real Plus-Minus (342nd in the NBA)
What’s that Knicks fans? You thought you could be happy for more than five seconds? Wrong!
On the surface, D-Rose is having a bit of a bounceback season. He is averaging 18.1 points, and, more importantly, he has played in 41 of the 45 games he has shown up to. Of course, if you ask most Knicks fans (this one included), they might not mind if Rose decided to skip out on a few more games, as he has, in actuality, been one of the biggest drags on what could potentially be a fun, young Knicks team (highlighted by Big Willy Style and Kuuuuuuzzzz). If I have to watch Rose toss one more left-handed spinning layup over a seven-footer in the final minutes of a close game while Porzingis stands open at the top of the key, I might go postal. For all the crap Carmelo gets for being a ballhog, he is actually more of a ballstopper. If you’re open, Melo will find you and pass you the ball. When Rose drives to the hoop, it’s like he’s wearing the Sensory Deprivator 5000 from How I Met Your Mother. No one has a chance of getting the ball with those blinders on. Rose is averaging only 1.4 more assists per game than Carmelo, despite Rose being the team’s point guard and main ball handler. And it’s not like Melo is a passing savant. Rose is averaging fewer assists per game than Al Horford, and has fewer total assists this season than Boogie Cousins.
The worst part for Knicks fans? It’s not like Jeff Hornacek can just bench the (expensive) “star” in D-Rose, as his backup, Brandon Jennings, is somehow worse (376th in the NBA in ESPN Real Plus-Minus) and their third-stringer, Ron Baker, looks like an extremely lost member of the Beach Boys, circa 1967.
At least we’ve got Porzingis, right guys?
Nikola Jokic: Everything.
We’ll end with the lord and savior of advanced stats right now: Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets second-year center made a bit of a name for himself in the advanced stats community in his rookie season when he finished ninth, in the entire league, in ESPN Real Plus-Minus. There were some doubts during the offseason about that figure, I mean, was Jokic really better than Paul George and James Harden last season? Well, halfway into the 2016–17 season, Jokic is proving that 2015–16 was no fluke, at least in terms of the love the advanced stats show Jokic. The 6’ 10” Serbian center has “slipped” all the way to 14th in the NBA this season in ESPN Real Plus-Minus, but ESPN RPM is far from the only advanced stat to portray Jokic in a flattering light. Jokic currently sits tenth in the entire league in PER and fifth in true shooting percentage. He is seventh in win shares per 48 minutes and seventh in Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus/Minus. You like Value Over Replacement, Basketball-Reference’s WAR knockoff? He’s 15th there.
It’s really the offensive side of the ball where Jokic dominates, and his 128.2 Offensive Rating (once again, from Basketball-Reference) is not surprisingly tops in the entire league. This is a big man who averages 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per game, while shooting basically 60 percent from the field. Jokic may play most of his games for a Nuggets team that is off your radar a bit, but he’s worth staying up late just to watch. If you don’t trust the advanced metrics, just peep some of these highlights:
Some of the best: 0:26; 1:30; 2:10; 3:22; 4:10 and that doesn’t even include this peach:
That’s a little thing I like to call passing both the statistical test and the eye test.