This morning Magic Johnson was on the Tom Joyner Morning Show on the radio. They were talking about Magic's business interests, but before the interview ended they started discussing the NBA. And when the Bulls were brought up, everyone laughed and made jokes about how Derrick Rose's back was hurting because he had to carry the team by himself. While it was a good joke, I have serious questions as to how valid that line of thought is. And not just for Rose, but for several of the players that are thought to be the most important players on their teams. Today let's look at a couple of prominent "R" named point guards as examples.
Rose was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA last season. Rajon Rondo was just named to his third straight All Star team, and you can't watch a nationally televised Celtics game without the announcers anointing Rondo as the key, the only hope for the Celtics this year with the Big Three getting older. But if you dig more into the impact stats, are these two really as valuable to their teams as their reputations would suggest? Are they even the most valuable players on their own teams?
Let's start with some general trends. For both the Bulls and the Celtics, they win with their defense more than anything else (ranked #1 and 2 in the NBA in team defensive rating in 2011, currently #2 and 4 in DRating in 2012). While Rondo has some All-Defensive team hardware, Rose clearly is not the defensive key in Chicago. Plus, point guards very rarely have a big quantitative impact on the defense and even with his All D-team selections, Rondo is not exception to that with a Defensive Adjusted Plus Minus score of 0.0 in a four year APM study from the 2008 - 2011 seasons, the exact same 0.0 score that Rose had on defense in that study. In other words, neither of them tend to make much impact, positively or negatively, on their given teams' defenses. So that's a huge portion of their team's success that, off the bat, Rose and Rondo aren't responsible for.
But surely they make up for it on the other side of the ball, right? Because the other side of the coin of point guards not hugely impacting defense is that they CAN and do tend to have big impacts on offense. And not surprisingly, both Rose (+1.9) and Rondo (+0.9) did have positive Offensive APM scores in that 4-year study posted above. But what IS surprising is the relatively modest scale of that offensive impact, as neither are within even shouting distance of the Steve Nash (+7.7 on offense), LeBron James (+6.6), Dwyane Wade (+6.2), Dirk Nowitzki (+5.0), Kobe Bryant (+4.7) crew that measured out as the top-5 offensive players in the NBA over the last four years in that study. While these are five great players, Rose as an MVP and Rondo as an All Star who makes his impact offensively should at least be close...but they aren't. But maybe that's because the study encompasses the last four years, which includes Rose's rookie year and Rondo's first year as a full-time starter. Young players notoriously don't do well in APM studies as they are just learning the game, so perhaps if we focus on just the last couple of years we'll see Rose and Rondo's monster impacts...
...Or maybe not. In a 2011 Regularized APM study, Rose's (+2.0) and Rondo's (+0.2) offensive APM scores look very similar to the 4-year study. So, what gives?
Well, first we should note that Rose's results here are still very good. An offensive RAPM of +2 would be among the top-30 or so in the league...not on the level of the Nash and Lebron types, but still very good. Rondo's mark, on the other hand, is down in the noise of making very little team impact at all. And if you look a bit closer at how they play the game, their APM marks start to make more sense. Over this season and last, Rose has averaged about 19 shots per game with one of the highest usage percentages in the league (up over 30%, 2nd in 2011 and currently 8th in 2012) and an effective field goal percentage right around 49%. Meanwhile, the league average in team effective field goal percentage in 2011 was 49.8% and this year is 48.2%. Put it together, and Rose is using up a huge portion of his team's possessions while essentially scoring at an efficiency that is right at league average. He is helping his team's offense with his ability to penetrate and create offense where none was before, but he is not tearing up the world like Nash does with his combo of brilliant passing and stupidly efficient scoring (56% EFG over this year and last).
And then there's Rondo. Rondo. We could go into the shooting percentages and usages to make the case, but it's a bit more intuitive here. While Rose is one of the best volume scorers in the league, Rondo actually struggles to score because of his terrible shot. He has worked on it and is a bit more consistent this season, but on the whole Rondo is a very ineffective jump shooter. As such, opposing teams often play entirely off of him and allow him to score as he will while focusing their defensive attention on Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. As such, Rondo may score some points and even rack up a great deal of assists by attacking the soft defense and finding passing angles to set up teammates. But he isn't actually creating new offense, because the points that he generates could have easily been produced in his absence with players like Pierce and Garnett doing more initiating while not playing against defenses quite as overloaded against them.
So we've looked at the fact that Rose and Rondo aren't producing quite the impact that one might expect, and we've considered some reasons for why that might be. Now, to the other unanswered question... if Rose and Rondo aren't necessarily their teams' MVPs, then who are? I'm glad you asked. Because if you look at the various +/- studies out there, the answers are consistent. In that four-year study that I linked above, the highest rated Bull is first-time All Star Luol Deng while the highest rated Celtics are Garnett and Pierce. If you go to the 2011 RAPM study for just last season, the highest rated Bull is Deng and the highest rated Celtics are Garnett and Pierce. And if you look at the raw on-court/off-court +/- values for the Bulls or the Celtics you'll see the same story... Deng and Garnett/Pierce at the top, with Rose and Rondo lagging behind. Based on all that we've talked about so far, it shouldn't be shocking then that the Bulls have gone 7 - 3 without Rose this season but only 4 - 3 without Deng, while the Celtics entered Wednesday having gone 6 - 3 without Rondo but 0 - 6 with a losing margin of -11.7 ppg without either Garnett or Pierce.
And bringing it home, the reason Garnett and Deng have such huge impact can be summed up in one word: defense. Garnett and Deng finished 1-2 in the NBA in defensive RAPM for 2011, as the key defensive cogs on teams that win with defense first. Plus, unlike their point guard counterparts, Pierce (+2.0 on offense, +1.7 on defense in 2011 RAPM study), Garnett (+1.3 on offense) and Deng (+0.9 on offense) all have positive impacts on both sides of the ball. For the Bulls, Rose is obviously and measurably a very good player, but Deng's contributions to the team's success may be slightly higher. For the Celtics, Rondo is a key cog but it is Garnett and Pierce that are (even now) driving the ship. In both cases, looking only at the box scores and team accolades aren't enough to tell the full story for how these players are impacting their team's results.
Around the League
• All Star Break: We are right up on the All Star Break, which comes early this season due to the Lockout schedule but seems to be right on time to a lot of injured players. The condensed schedule has led to more injuries than I can remember seeing is a season, but many of the injuries are more fatigue-related than ligament damage. Lots of tendinitis, strains and pulls are keeping players out of action. The rough schedule will continue in the second half, but this break in the action should at least reset most of the ouchy-injured players and let them return fresh next week. As far as advice, I'd suggest taking note of the players on your team that started off the season hot and then faded as the games added up. See if those players get out the gates fast in the second half of the season, and if they do you might look to sell them high before they wear down again.
• Durant and Westbrook too good: The Celtics entered Wednesday night having not allowed 100 points to the opposition in 29 straight games, the fourth-best mark since the inception of the shot clock. They had also gone 30 straight games without allowing a 30-point scoring game by an opponent, the longest streak in the NBA this year. Both of those marks got obliterated by the Thunder on Wednesday,and the reason was Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are playing at an absurd level right now. Durant and Westbrook had combined for 153 points in their previous two games, and they stayed on fire on Wednesday with another combined 59 points. With two players playing at this level on offense, especially with complimentary scoring styles, the Thunder are pretty much an unstoppable unit.
• So are LeBron and Wade: Not to be outdone by their OKC counterparts, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are also on fire right now with both ranking among the top-5 in the Yahoo! rankings over the past seven days. James is the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, and they are starting to exhibit the kind of synergy that they only showed in spurts last season. When Wade and James start competing for who can throw the best full-court alley-oop to the other, the opponent is in trouble.
• Melo is back (weekly Linsanity update): Somehow when I wasn't looking, the Knicks have become the most interesting fantasy team in the league. Last week I had planned to write my article lead entirely about Whitney Houston, but I felt absolutely bullied like I just had to weigh in on the rise of Jeremy Lin despite having already written a lot of words on Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. And this week it continues, as Anthony has finally returned from injury and is learning to play with Lin. Anthony is another for whom this All Star Break comes at the perfect time, as he has exhibited some rust in his return and also probably needs some practice time with his new point guard. Baron Davis is also back, in a pattern I expect to continue, Davis has gotten relatively few minutes and is purely the backup point guard to Lin moving forward. And speaking of Lin...I took some criticism in last week's column for moving Lin into my top-30 players on the cheat sheet, but I stand by it. He's turning the ball over way too much, but that will eventually settle down. And in the meantime he's still playing the Steve Nash role in the offense that made Nash a superstar... Lin is here to stay, folks.
• Johnson out: Joe Johnson is out the All Star break, including sitting out the All Star Game itself, due to knee tendinitis. Johnson is a poster child for the wear and tear phenomenon I pointed out above, and he will likely be fine to return after the break.
• Frye's awakening: After a terrible start to the season that had him left for dead, Channing Frye has really stepped up his game and earned bigger minutes in the last month. In February he has averaged more than 13 points with 6.0 boards and 1.8 treys in almost 28 minutes per game. Frye's value is entirely tied into those 3-pointers from a big man, and it appears that in the second half of the season he is ready to resume the type of value that he had as a top-50 player for much of last season.
• Spurs sit players despite streak: We've always suspected that the veteran Spurs might sit players for resting purposes at times this season, and they proved that in rather dramatic fashion on Tuesday night. Despite entering the game on a nine-game winning streak and facing off against a playoff-caliber Portland squad, the Spurs sat down Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Consequently, they got beat by 40. Nevertheless, Spurs Coach Greg Popovic seemed content with exchanging the loss for rest, proving that on any given day a Duncan or Parker owner could find themselves without one of their better players. Manu Ginobili also re-injured himself last week, this time with a strained oblique that likely keeps him down for a couple weeks after the All star Break.
• Celtics can't afford to do the same: After losing to the Thunder on Wednesday night, the Celtics find themselves two games under .500 and clinging to the last playoff slot in the East. As such, despite their veteran laden squad that needs rest, there's no way the Celtics can justify sitting any of their players just to get rest. As such, barring injury you should feel safe in starting any of your Celtics on any given night.
• Isaiah Thomas (43% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Thomas is one of the hottest pick-ups in the game, already up to 43% owned. He has shown flashes of brilliance all season, but after being inserted into the starting line-up he has back-to-back 20-point games and is averaging 23.5 points, eight assists and 5.5 boards in those outings.
• Marreese Speights (34% owned): This is more of a shout-out to Speights' good play than a suggestion that you make him a long-term pick-up. Zach Randolph has returned to basketball activities and likely returns next month, which would cut into Speights' playing time. But after playing poorly enough to fall completely out of my top-200 rankings for a week, Speights has responded by with five straight double-digit scoring efforts including two double-doubles (highlighted by a 20-point/18-rebound outing last week). He is still worth a short-term add until Randolph rejoins the team.
• Corey Brewer (20% owned): Brewer has responded well to extended playing time due to injury absences in Denver. He is averaging 16 points with 5.7 boards, 1.7 steals, two assists and 1.7 treys in his last three games and is worth a look for as long as he keeps getting 35 minutes per game.
• Kenneth Faried (14% owned): Faried is getting more and more comfortable with his injury-expanded role, including two double-doubles in his last three outings. He is still inconsistent, with those double-doubles bracketing a goose-egg game, but for those in deeper leagues looking for short-term rebounding role players Faried could be worth a shot.
The Best Player in NBA History series is on an All Star break of its own, but will return next week.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.