This week’s mailbag features your questions on who deserves credit for the 3-point revolution, which Gasol brother was better at his peak, what’s plaguing the New Orleans Pelicans and more.
@kpelton Who do you give the most credit to this recent 3 point revolution in today’s game: D’Antoni’s Suns’ teams (7 second or less), Steph Curry or Daryl Morey’s analytics and the Rockets? #peltonmailbag
– Deven Parikh (@DParikh30) December 14, 2017
First, I think it’s worth asking whether any of them should get credit. This is sort of like an NBA version of the “great man” theory of history, which has largely been disregarded in favor of the theory that such individuals are products of their circumstances.
As I’ve noted before, the growth in NBA 3-point attempts has been remarkably consistent over time, and it mirrors that of other leagues that shoot even more 3s — and, presumably, have their own “great men” who get credit for it. I tend to believe that these outliers draw attention to the rising tide of 3s more than they are responsible for it.
That said, something does seem to be changing within the past few years. After 3-point attempts as a percentage of all field goals largely stood still from 2007-08 (22.2 percent) to 2011-12 (22.6 percent), they’ve exploded to 33.7 percent of all attempts so far this season. That’s as much growth over a six-season span as we saw in the previous 19 seasons; if we remain at the current pace, 2016-17 (an increase of 3.1 percentage points) and 2017-18 (2.1) will be the two largest season-to-season increases in attempt rates on record aside from when the line was first introduced and when it was moved in for the 1994-95 season.
I’m not sure which of the two modern options — if either — to give more credit for that explosion. It doesn’t really appear to be the case that coaches have changed their threshold for what level of 3-point shooting is acceptable based on the growing acceptance of statistical analysis, as percentages have stayed steady or even increased. So we’ve got more players capable of taking more 3s at an acceptable rate, and I don’t know whether that’s driven more by coaches encouraging players to practice and shoot 3s (particularly big men) or Curry-influenced players working harder to shoot 3s.
– Nikhil R Kutty (@Tepid_Waters) December 16, 2017
This is a fascinating question. Let’s start by defining when each Gasol peaked. For Marc, the answer is pretty clearly 2012-13, the season he won defensive player of the year — but, remarkably, wasn’t an All-Star. (Don’t blame me: I picked him.) As for Pau, I’m giving the 2010-11 Lakers version a slight edge over 2005-06, when he played for the Grizzlies. Having chosen those two Gasols, let’s compare them.
Offensively, Pau was the more valuable of the two. During 2010-11, he posted a .589 true shooting percentage, a little down from his peak in L.A. (he topped out at .617 in 2008-09) but still better than Marc managed as a leading option. After his first three seasons in a smaller role, Marc’s best true shooting percentage is .559 in 2012-13. Pau also had a higher usage rate and was a better offensive rebounder, so while Marc did have an edge in terms of assist rate in the seasons we’re comparing, I’d say Pau was probably a couple of points better in terms of team impact per 100 possessions.
At the other end, Marc’s DPOY was well supported by advanced metrics. While Marc blocked shots at a fairly average rate, he was a better shot blocker in the seasons we’re comparing than Pau, who was often playing power forward at the time. And Marc’s steal rate has been much better than Pau’s throughout their careers. His superior pick-and-roll defense and ability to communicate as the leader of the defense lengthen Marc’s advantage. If we’re quantifying it, I’d give him an edge of a couple of points per 100 possessions in terms of team impact.
Ultimately, I’d conclude the Gasols were pretty similar in terms of their peak impact because Marc’s defensive edge largely canceled out Pau’s more efficient offensive game. If I had to choose one to build a team around, I’d probably pick Marc because of my preference to have an elite defender at center.
“Hey, I was wondering what exactly is plaguing the Pelicans. There are a lot of positives for the team, but the end result is still somewhat mediocre. A team with two bona fide superstars and creative coaching seems like it should be doing much better.”
— Jonah C.
I’m not sure I think New Orleans should be doing much better. Before the season, our projections based on real plus-minus (RPM) had the Pelicans winning an average of about 42 games. So far, FiveThirtyEight’s CARM-Elo projections have them winning an average of … 42 games.
At the same time, New Orleans has interesting splits. The Pelicans have the NBA’s seventh-best offensive rating but rank 26th in defense, a gap that wasn’t predictable before the season. New Orleans was almost opposite a year ago, ranking 25th in offensive rating and ninth in defense. RPM projected more improvement on offense but only to league average, while ranking the Pelicans seventh on defense. So if New Orleans could combine the defense we expected with the offense they’ve had so far this season, that would be a team capable of contending for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Of course, teams often trade offense for defense, and there appears to be some of that happening with the Pelicans. Moving Rajon Rondo and E’Twaun Moore into the starting lineup alongside DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday has juiced New Orleans’ offense at the expense of the defense. Lineups with Holiday, Moore and Rondo on the perimeter have scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com/Stats, better than the Houston Rockets’ season-long offensive rating. However, their 111.8 defensive rating would be worst in the league by a wide margin.
Any results like that are inevitably going to regress to the mean, and part of the issue has been aberrant opponent 3-point shooting. (Teams are making 39.2 percent of their 3s against those lineups.) Still, they reflect the tough choices between offense and defense that Alvin Gentry and his coaching staff have to make. Because the Pelicans don’t have a capable two-way contributor at small forward, they’ve had to choose between the shooting supplied by Moore and Darius Miller or the defensive contributions of Dante Cunningham. (Solomon Hill, who has been more effective as a power forward, will fall into the latter category if and when he’s able to return from a torn hamstring.) I’m not sure I see an easy solution.
“Is it fair to say, at this juncture of the season, that the difference in quality between Eastern and Western Conferences was overblown? If we’re looking only at win totals right now, the Eastern Conference is actually slightly better.”
— Florin M.
Sure, that’s unquestionably true. The aforementioned RPM projections suggested that the West would win 58.7 percent of interconference matchups this season, and through Friday, the East had a 92-90 edge in such games. Given the number of remaining matchups, the West would have to win them at a 65 percent clip to match the projection, and that’s a larger gap than we’ve ever seen over a full season.
That said, the enduring power of preseason projections means we should still project the West to have the upper hand in interconference games going forward. Based on simulations of the remainder of the season, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) projects the West winning 51.9 percent of the remaining interconference matchups, while CARM-Elo is even more bullish about the West, which it projects winning 54.1 percent of remaining interconference games.