Monday, February 20, 2012

Is Jeremy Lin a Legitimate Impact Player?

After an extended hiatus, the researchers at Basketball I.Q. have returned with a topical analysis of New York Knick Jeremy Lin.  Specifically, today’s post represents a comparative analysis of Lin vis a vis the current professional game’s best point guards.  Today’s analysis looks to establish whether it is justified to consider Lin – at this point an international, cultural sensation – among the NBA’s elite point guards (or more accurately, in the parlance of Basketball I.Q., among the league’s elite Primary Distributors).  To make such an analysis more accessible, I will start with a glossary of statistical terms, which can be referred to by the reader:
SPR = [2PFGM + 1.5(3PFGM) + (FTM/2) + AST]/[FGA + (FTA/2) + AST + TOV]
TOT = TOV/[TOV + FGA + (FTA/2) + TRB + STL + AST]
SAR = [FGA + (FTA/2)]/AST
E = SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)
wCE = (MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
P/E = Salary/[SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
wP/E = Salary/(MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
EG = (Present Year’s E – Previous Year’s E)/(Previous Year’s E)
wEG = (Present Year’s wCE – Previous Year’s wCE)/(Previous Year’s wCE)

Jeremy Lin appears to have saved the New York Knicks’ season.  Struggling at 8-15, the team appeared to be heading toward one of its most disappointing seasons in the face of high expectations, and in so doing created an unusual agreement in perception shared by the team’s coach, Mike D’Antoni, and the New York sports media: that is, neither side could envision the team’s success without a capable point guard running the offensive end of the floor, especially given the nature of the coach’s ball screen-heavy offense – and the woeful start appeared to prove the point of both sides.
And then Lin arrived.  Quickly, the 8-15 team found itself at 16-16, suddenly challenging Philadelphia and Boston for their division lead.  And, everyone agreed, the missing ingredient all along had been Lin, the hidden point guard that had been buried on the bench and nearly cut by three NBA teams in the span of two months.  Beyond that, there has been cautious speculation (and, at times, not so cautious speculation) that New York is observing the ascension of one of the game’s premier players.
Today’s post will challenge that claim – at least in terms of Lin’s comparison to the game’s premier Primary Distributors (Basketball I.Q. prefers to not use the term “point guard,” which most commonly refers to the shortest player in a team’s starting line-up; rather, we use the term “Primary Distributor,” which refers to those players in the lowest quintile of Shot-to-Assist Ratio, or SAR, and represents those players most likely to pass the ball to his teammates.).  The formula for SAR is summarized in the glossary above, with a detailed explanation of this alternative statistic found in the Basketball I.Q. archives.
The best Primary Distributors in basketball, defined as those players with an SAR less than 2.77, would include Chris Paul (1.86), Deron Williams (2.52), Rajon Rondo (1.51), Steve Nash (1.04) and Derrick Rose (2.51).  With an SAR of 2.27, Lin easily falls within the Primary Distributor quintile, with a passing tendency that is not quite as generous as Nash, Rondo and Paul’s, but more generous than the generally unselfish play of Rose and Williams.
Today’s post will compare Lin to these five excellent players in four alternative statistical categories, all defined in the glossary above, as well as in previously archived Basketball I.Q. posts: Successful Possession Rate (SPR); Turnover-Adjusted Points per Shot (TAPPS); Turnovers per Touch (TOT); and the Shot Selection Index (SSI).

                        SPR      TAPPS TOT    SSI
Lin                   .564     0.894   .134     .503
Paul                 .601     1.001   .065     .266
Williams          .577     0.873   .110     .318
Rondo              .611     0.816   .109     .416
Nash                .656     0.943   .125     .207
Rose                .613     0.982   .082     .335

Each of the above statistics sheds a slightly different light on the game of each player, but for Lin, the statistics that seem to corroborate what everyone can tell just by watching him are the last two, TOT and SSI.  For all of Lin’s heroics, his box scores and late-night highlight reels are all tempered by his turnover rate, and his TOT substantiates this: at a rate of approximately 13.4% of all of his meaningful touches, Lin has the highest TOT of all the players recruited for this comparison.  Lin’s TOT is not that much higher than Nash’s (.134 vs. .125), and only moderately higher than that of Williams (.110) and Rondo (.109).  But it is considerably higher than Paul (.065) and Rose (.082), who take care of the ball with uncommon diligence for players who touch it so much and send it flying in so many different directions.  Perhaps it is unfair to compare Lin to those two players, who might have the best handle on the ball in the history of the game, since you would expect a Primary Distributor to turn the ball over approximately 10% of the time – but this is the only statistical category in which Lin is an outlier.  The subsequent alternative statistics will demonstrate that Lin is in fact “hanging” with the greats of the game – but if he wants to elevate his game to the level of the elite, he will need to take far better care of the ball and improve in the TOT category.
What redeems Lin of his recklessness with the ball is his uncanny shot selection – another point which even a casual observer could note with simple observation.  Lin takes the ball right at the basket, and he does so aggressively and without apology – which is why greater than 50% of his shots are free throws (.503).  This remarkable SSI demonstrates that Lin consistently gets himself open looks within a few feet of the basket, in which it behooves the defense to play him aggressively and perhaps even foul him, since the shots he takes are so high-percentage if not fiercely contested.  Lin’s knack for finding the lay-up lanes does not only cause the defense to collapse on him and open up the floor for his teammates – it results in several trips to the foul line, with lots of completely uncontested shots awarded to him for his effort.
No other player on this list comes close to creating so many high quality shots, where the defense would essentially prefer to foul you rather than just let the ball go up, with the possible exception of Rondo (.416).  But Rondo is a terrible free throw shooter – about 20% worse than the average player on this list – and it is possible that Rondo is fouled so often because his free throw shooting is actually lower percentage than much of his field goal shooting.  Williams, Paul and Rose all have SSI’s that hover around the NBA average, whereas only Nash is well below such an average.
The first two statistics, SPR and TAPPS, looks at a player’s ability to execute a play that results in his team’s ability to score in relation to his own missed shots and turnovers (SPR), and a player’s ability to score the basket himself in relation to his own missed shots and turnovers (TAPPS).  Lin has the lowest SPR on this list, though it is close to that of Deron Williams, and clearly this is the result of his low assist-to-turnover ratio.  This stat demonstrates that Lin would not only help his own game, but that of his entire team, if he can learn to make wiser decisions with the ball (and perhaps dribble it a little more effectively).
For TAPPS, Lin is right in the middle of the pack, ahead of Williams and Rondo, nipping at the heels of Nash, but well behind Paul and Rose (who, again, take remarkable care of the ball).  In this regard, if Lin were looking to improve his own ability to score with efficiency, he would not only reduce his turnovers, but he would also improve his free throw shooting: with the exception of Rondo, Lin is the poorest free throw shooter on this list (though, at 74%, it is not terrible).  If he could improve his free throw shooting by about 6% (not unusual for a player early in his career) and reduce his turnover rate by about 2 or 3%, he would be a legitimate back-up to Rose on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
A Basketball I.Q. composite statistic that takes into account SPR, TAPPS and TOT is Earnings (E), whose derivation is listed in the glossary above, as well as in archived posts.  Here is a list of the aforementioned players’ earnings, in descending order of value:

Paul                 2.537
Rose                2.513
Nash                2.474
Williams          2.340
Lin                   2.324
Rondo              2.318

Looking at this list, there appears to be a top tier of Primary Distributors, consisting of Paul, Rose and Nash (two of these players have been MVPs, and Paul is in the perennial discussion).  Then, there is a slight drop-off in performance, and the emergence of a second tier – with Lin solidly ensconced in the middle of that tier.
The initial assessment of Lin, only two weeks into the essential birth of his professional career, appears to be favorable – he is, indeed, an impact player at the NBA level, performing at a level just below that of an All-Star.  If he indeed turns out to still be on the steep part of the learning curve, then we may be witnessing the ascension of a backcourt player that will one day be mentioned alongside Frazier, Monroe and Barnett – but first he’ll have to hold on to the ball more, and practice his free throws.
Next post: Jeremy Lin vs. Ricky Rubio.

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