RotoWire Partners

Hoops Lab: The Professor Talks Hoop

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings is a Neural Engineer by day, and RotoWire's senior basketball columnist by night. He's a two-time winner of the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

I was trying not to, but I have to do it. Be forewarned, as my next words may cause some of you to hemorrhage from your eyes.

I'm going to talk about Tim Tebow. Again.

But the thing is, I'm not approaching the Tebow story from the same angle as the national media. I'm not concerned about his morals. I'm not one that has been preaching that his throwing mechanics suck, so therefore he must stink. I wasn't a fan of his when he was turning in one of the best college careers in history, and as an Ohioan I have plenty of bitter memories about the Broncos (still not over "The Drive" and "The Fumble", but I digress). No, none of those things are what make Tebow so interesting to me.

Instead, as a statistician, I find it absolutely fascinating that according to every traditional football quarterback stat there is, Tebow is terrible. As in, one of the worst quarterbacks ever to play terrible. And yet, despite that, when he plays all of a sudden the team starts winning. How is that possible?

One thought is that it must be a fluke, right? In stats there can be flukes, especially with a small sample size. You could flip a coin five times and get five 'heads' in a row, even though the odds say there's only a 1 in 32 chance of that happening. The NFL only plays between 16 and 20 times in a given year, and we're still talking about essentially Tebow's first full year, so in theory all of this could be a fluke. The Broncos have gotten wins against several opposing backup quarterbacks this season, and they've gotten blitzed a couple of times when they've faced tougher competition, which lends credence to the fluke hypothesis.

But that's not a satisfying answer of itself, because it still doesn't explain the success in the face of Tebow's "awful" numbers. For instance, the Broncos had the second-worst record in the NFL last season (4-12) despite starting quarterback Kyle Orton finishing 15th in the NFL in passer rating (87.9). This season, the Broncos started the season 1-4 despite Orton again posting a better passer rating than Tebow. Then, Tebow took over, and the team has gone 8-4 with a playoff victory, despite Tebow sporting a passer rating of 72.9 that was 28th in the league. Yes, the Broncos may have caught some breaks with opponent injuries, but if Tebow really was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league that shouldn't have mattered. The Broncos' winning record is also not fully explained by their having an improved defense or strong running back performance, because Tebow was playing with the same running backs and defense that Orton had. So, despite the confounding factors, it certainly LOOKS like Tebow's performance is not accurately reflected in the available NFL box scores.

Which lets me transition to basketball. Because, like the NFL, the NBA also has a box score that does not fully encompass every aspect of the game. We as fantasy owners care a lot about the main eight or nine box score stats, but those barely cover defense at all and don't do a complete job on offense, either. But unlike the NFL, which really doesn't have any means to directly measure how much a player like Tebow might be contributing to winning, the NBA actually DOES have such stats... the +/- stats.

Hockey was actually the first sport to use +/- stats, essentially counting up how many points a team scores vs. how many they give up when a certain player was on the ice. About 10 years ago statisticians started publicly keeping track of that same info for NBA players, but that was just where it started. A basic +/- calculation will by-definition rate players on good teams higher than it should (and players on bad teams lower), just because a good team will score more points as a whole than a bad team. So, the stats guys started modifying the +/- stats, first subtracting a player's off-court +/- from his on-court +/- to correct for team strength. Then, they took it further by keeping track of the +/- of different combos of players together, then finally taking it to the extreme of calculating the +/- for every combination of players that played a single minute.

And that's where it got fun.

Because from there, the stats guys now had the means to turn this entire +/- calculation into a huge algebra problem, using every combination of players in the entire NBA to solve for which player was really contributing the most to a team winning. And this family of stats became known as "adjusted plus-minus", or APM, because it adjusted the standard +/- stats to make it more applicable as a measure of individual play. This, then, gives us a way to evaluate players that is completely independent from the box score stats. For example:

Kevin Love is a fantasy beast. He is once again ranked near the top of all fantasy raters this season, after finishing as the no. 5 player overall in the Yahoo! ratings last season. Steve Nash, on the other hand, seemed to fall off last season. His box score stats were his worst in years, as reflected by his No. 43 overall finish in the Y! ratings last year. According to any box score stat there is, Love was much better than Nash last year. Yet if you go check out the 2011 season APM calculation at Basketball Valueyou'll find Nash at second in the NBA with a +14.41 mark from last season, with Love down in the 40s at +5.38. The same story is reflected in the 2011 Regularized APM stats calculated in a slightly different way on another site, where Nash finished sixth while Love finished outside of the top-100. And Nash isn't the only "washed up vet" that finished ahead of Love in the +/- stats, as you'll also find Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett solidly ahead of Love on both lists. But how can this be?

This can be because again, basketball box score stats don't cover the entire game. In this case, Love is great at generating points and rebounds, but he's terrible on defense, and defense is one of the areas for which successful teams truly rely on their big men. This is very similar to Amar'e Stoudemire, another box score bandit with weak defense that actually finished below Love in both APM calculations cited above. This is why Duncan and Garnett, still two of the best defenders in the game even at their advanced ages, measured out so much higher in team impact despite their dwindling box score contributions. Or why Nash, whose on-court offensive impact is much larger than simple points or assists totals, is also among the league leaders.

Box score stats are great for getting an individual more attention, a larger contract, or a higher fantasy draft slot. But when it comes to how much an individual is helping his team win, the box scores aren't equipped to measure it in basketball. Or, apparently, in football, where despite all odds and QB ratings we'll be preparing to watch Tebow lead the erstwhile 1-4 Broncos into the AFC Final Four against Tom Brady's Patriots. Unbelievable.

Around the League

James on a mission: Before the season began I had LeBron James at the top of my personal player rankings, but I didn't move him to the top of the Rotowire fantasy basketball cheat sheet until Tuesday. It has become clear that what I wrote in the Rotowire 150 about James: "Best actual player, poised for leap with post game and motivation from last season", is true. James is playing like he's on a mission this year, finally using his size to dominate at the rim (59.3% FG). That percentage likely comes down at some point, but I'm expecting dominance this year (i.e. he's not a sell-high for me).

Evans waking up: In the comments of last week's Hoops Lab, Maxdogov called me out for still having Tyreke Evans in the top 20 of the Rotowire cheat sheet. I was really high on Evans this season, so his back-to-back single-digit scoring efforts last week gave me pause (and Max ammunition). Since then, though, Evans put up back-to-back games averaging 27 points/6.5 rebounds/6.5 assists. He may not do that every game, but I do feel more comfortable about where I had him ranked.

Jennings finally who I THOUGHT he was: As a prognosticator I'm also happy to see Brandon Jennings finally starting to play the way I had expected him to for the last two years. Last season my projections for Jennings would have had him in the top-30 in roto rankings, but he never lived up to it, and after the season I mentioned him as one I got wrong in my season-end accountability column. This season I projected him similarly, but thorugh the first nine games he's pretty much right on the pace I estimated which has him at No. 35 by average in the Yahoo! player rater.

Gasol's stepping up: In last week's Lab I pointed out that both Gasol brothers were in situations to watch, with Pau Gasol battling the surging Andrew Bynum for the title of best big man on the Lakers and Marc Gasol getting the chance to increase his role with Zach Randolph going down. To date, both Gasols have answered the challenge, with Marc posting averages that have him ranked No. 6 in the Y! player rater, and Pau maintaining his spot at No. 15.

Dropping Warriors: Over the last several seasons the Warriors have been one of the most fantasy friendly offenses in the NBA, running a fast-paced Don Nelson offense in which everyone got to shoot a lot from pretty much anywhere they wanted. Even when Keith Smart took over last year, he kept the offense fast-paced (No. 5 in NBA in pace) and perimeter oriented. This season Mark Jackson took over as the head coach for the Warriors, and the difference is apparent.

The Warriors have slowed down to 17th in the NBA in pace, and their scoring has dropped from 103.4 ppg (7th in NBA) to 92.2 ppg (23rd in NBA). The players whose values have been affected the most thus far are David Lee and Dorell Wright. Lee relied on scoring volume and high percentages from easy shots to maintain a high rating since he doesn't contribute much defensively, while Wright's value was tied entirely into his 3-point shooting (attempts down by more than two per game). Both players may warm up a bit, but the new environment seems likely to limit their ceilings this year.

Chandler and Varejao making their marks: Tyson Chandler and Anderson Varejao are traditionally decent roto players, but this season they are currently rated No. 9 and No. 54 by average in the Y! rater. The reason for their high marks are that both are consistent double-double threats, but this season their defensive numbers are better than usual. Chandler is up over a steal per game with two blocks, while Varejao is at almost two steals and a block. Both paces seem sustainable, and while I don't look for either to be the best player on a winning team, they both look like strong contributors moving forward this season.

Highlighted Tweets (follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz)

Curry's ankle:
Last Thursday I tweeted, Stephen Curry with third ankle sprain in 2 weeks, this time just running up court...Big issue. He's going to slide further down the rankings.

Curry's ankle is a real problem, because it just continues to come up again and again. Without the ankle issue Curry would very arguably be a top-five roto player, but as is I currently have him no. 24 and wonder if even that is too high.

Gordon's knee:
Eric Gordon is out for 2 - 3 weeks with knee swelling. As a Gordon owner, this worries me both short- and long-term.

This tweet sparked a mini conversation between Jeff Stotts (@RotowireATC) and me about Gordon's knee. My issue was that the knee injury is unexplained, early in the year, and to a player that has a history of injury problems - a trifecta of bad. But Jeff had the best tweet in the exchange: "@ProfessorDrz Bone contusions, particularly in the heel and knee, scare me. Very hard to avoid stress and let properly heal."

Calderon strong again:
Raptors scoring purely Andrea Bargnani (5 straight 20+ point games) and DeMar DeRozan (20+ in 3 of last 5). Jose Calderon 3 straight double-digit assists.

Entering this season I really wondered if this might not be the year that Jerryd Bayless overtook Calderon to become the starting lead guard for the Raptors. Instead, through the first few weeks Calderon has widened the gap by averaging almost nine assists to go with his 12 points, 1-plus treys, and excellent shooting percentages.

Up-tempo Blazers:
First time really watching Portland this year. Didn't realize they were so up-tempo. Good fit with their athletic personnel.

I watched the Trail Blazers/Lakers game last Thursday (or at least as much as was shown on TV after the painful triple-overtime Bulls-Hawks game), and was struck by how up-tempo the Blazers played. And how well that tempo works for this team. LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews, Ray Felton and Jamal Crawford are all guys that can get out and run and finish in transition, either at the rim or with open jumpers. Felton still hasn't recaptured the magic he had with the Knicks last season, but I'm high on all four of the others having strong seasons this year.

Bryant and McGrady, 2012: These were three straight re-tweets that I sent this week:

1. Kobe has been getting pregame numbing injections to play with his injured wrist.

2. Tracy McGrady: "When you have God-given talent, I think that that kind of hinders your practice habits and that's what I think it did to me' (from Chris Tomasson)

3. Tracy McGrady: "Had I not been so talented, I probably would have busted my (butt) in practice." (Tomasson)

People these days forget that back in 2003, there was a legitimate debate as to who was better between Bryant and McGrady. They were drafted as high school prodigies a year apart, and by '03 both were hitting their peaks and dominating the game. But in his own words, McGrady was taking his talent a bit for granted and not practicing as hard as he could (which could have led directly to his physical issues). Meanwhile, Bryant is so obsessed with being the best at basketball that he is willing to take painful injections every game in order to play. These three tweets, in a nutshell, sum up the differences in the careers of Bryant and McGrady.

New Additions

Iman Shumpert (51% owned in Yahoo leagues): Shumpert seems to be reprising Landry Fields' surprising rookie contributor role from last season. Expected to be a defensive specialist, Shumpert is averaging more than 13 points, four boards, almost four assists and a trey per game to go along with the expected defensive stats (more than two steals per game).

Derrick Favors (44% owned): Favors is a raw talent that is still in the learning process. He's only playing a bit more than 20 minutes per game, but he has three double-digit rebound games and 12 blocks over his last five games. In the only game this season that he played more than 26 minutes he posted a 20-point/11-rebound double-double. He's worth a speculative long-term add, as he could earn starter minutes down the road.

Luke Ridnour (19% owned): I expect Ricky Rubio to take over as the Timberwolves starting PG at some point this year. Then again, I spent most of last season expecting Ridnour to lose his starter's job, and he just kept holding on and turning in solid numbers. This season he's doing the same thus far, playing starter's minutes and finding value with a combo of decent scoring, treys, assists, steals and percentages on a given night.

Byron Mullens (16% owned): Mullens was a good college player who found himself chained to the bench in Oklahoma City. This season he's getting the chance to play with the Bobcats, and is thus far taking advantage of the opportunity. He has two double-doubles in his last three games and double-digit scoring in five of his last six despite only playing 20-25 minutes per game. The Bobcats are thin up front, and Mullens is only a third year player, so he has upside potential this season.

Nate Robinson (13% owned): Last week I suggested picking up Robinson as a speculative buy. Now, he's played a few games, and the speculation is bearing out. Robinson is built to play in the type of guard-heavy/low-expectations environment in Golden State, and with Stephen Curry's continuing ankle issues Robinson could get starters minutes for extended periods.

Best Players in NBA history

In this section of the Lab I pick one of the top players in NBA history as voted on in this project and discuss some of his career accomplishments... in other words, what made him so great that he deserves a spot among the greatest? I'm going to start moving the body of this section to a weekly blog entry, but I'll still highlight the player in this space. This week's player is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another on the short list of players with an argument for Greatest of All Time status. Abdul-Jabbar's case is built on sheer domination in numbers and accolades that compares favorably with any player in history. Here's one historic fact about Abdul-Jabbar:

1. Abdul-Jabbar is the only player in NBA history with at least six MVP awards AND six NBA championship rings. Bill Russell has 11 rings and five MVPS, while Michael Jordan has six rings and five MVPs. No other player has more than four MVPs.

For the rest of Abdul-Jabbar's highlights, be sure to check out the blog.

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.