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Hoops Lab: James Harden and Advanced Stats

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.

James Harden and Advanced NBA Stats

On Wednesday night 18 NBA teams played, including 16 that were making their season debut. But do you know which game I DVR'd to make sure that I got to watch? The Rockets vs. the Pistons. These were two lottery teams last year, neither of which I'm particularly a fan of. Why would this be the game of choice for me?

Because I'm absolutely fascinated to see how the James Harden Experiment works out in Houston.

Anyone that reads this column regularly knows that I am a big fan of the concept of advanced stats in the NBA. While the boxscore stats are the bottom line for our fantasy teams, I strongly believe that understanding who the best basketball players are overall plays a big role in helping us decide how to project fantasy stats moving forward. In other words, if I think that a player has superstar potential but plays a role on his team that doesn't let him reach that potential, one of the first things that I do is check out their advanced stats. I utilize the various +/- stats to get a better idea for how that player's presence impacts his team's bottom line, I look at more in-depth box score stats like true shooting percentage or rebound rate to see how efficiently the player is producing his stats, and I even look at the various composite box score stats like win shares, wins produced, PER, or wins above replacement player (WARP) to get a better idea of how productive and efficient a player has been on a per-minute basis.

This type of analysis is what prompted me to write an article less than a month into last season asking the question if Harden was actually a superstar, despite the fact that he was not even starting for his own team. Here is one of the first main passages in that article:

At this early stage of the season, Harden measures out 16th in the NBA in the composite box score measure PER, and a whopping seventh overall in the basketball-reference Win Shares stat. So the advanced box score stats love him. And he compounds those excellent box score results with the second-highest on- court/off-court +/- mark on the first-place Thunder (+11.18). Of course, +/- data require a big sample size before really telling a story - even a full season isn't really quite enough, let alone just a few weeks. Multi-year +/- results are much more compelling. So I checked out a four-year adjusted plus-minus study from 2008-2011, and sure enough, there is Harden near the top at No. 22 in the league behind primarily big-named players (with three other young or bench players ahead of him as well). By this point I'm starting to be convinced that, while maybe not a superstar yet, Harden certainly is putting up star-caliber numbers while remaining virtually anonymous to the public.

Harden would continue to put up excellent advanced stats for the rest of the season, as I noted in a tweet (@ProfessorDrz) immediately after he was traded to the Rockets: According to win shares/48 minutes and adjusted +/-, Harden was very arguably the best player on Thunder last year and among best in NBA.

Read that again. On a team that sported a consensus top-2 player in the NBA in Kevin Durant and another consensus top-10 player in Russell Westbrook, it was the sixth man on that team that measured out as possibly their best player according to various advanced stats.

Then, to top that off, we have Rockets GM Daryl Morey, the Billy Beane of the NBA who is an absolute advanced stats guru and has been publicly pining for a superstar centerpiece for a year, trading away a bunch of assets for Harden and immediately rewarding him with a max contract.

You know what that makes this Harden trade? The best test of advanced NBA stats that we've had in several years. Because if the advanced stats were correct, then we would expect to see him be an absolute stud this year in Houston. For the Rotowire Cheat Sheet, I adjusted Harden's per-minute projection from 33 to 38 minutes per game, and suddenly Harden moved into the top-5 of our projections right next to his two former teammates in Oklahoma. Like Morey, I'm putting my money where my mouth is when it comes to the advanced stats approach and suggesting that Harden will be one of the best players in the NBA this year.

Harden was certainly impressive in his monster debut on Wednesday, but that's just one game. This morning the radio waves in Detroit were full of folks saying that this was a fluke game for Harden, not an indication of who he really is. This season, then, will be a big test as to whether the stats were right or whether public perception was. I will be closely following this as the season plays out, and I'm really excited to have another real-life test for just how useful advanced stats might be at helping us really understand the game.

Around the League

Heat know who they are: While watching the Heat play the Celtics on Tuesday's season tip-off, it was clear that the Heat know exactly who they are as a team. That hasn't been the case in the past, but now it is. They are a small-ball squad where Chris Bosh will spend a lot of time at center and LeBron James will be playing a lot of power forward. They run a lot. They don't require a traditional point guard as long as LeBron is on the court. They are able to handle most defensive mismatches because LeBron is so ridiculously versatile and athletic that teams can't easily post him up with their power forwards, and if they do seal post, the rest of the Heat are quick enough in their rotations to still recover. I can't emphasize enough how well this bodes for the offensive seasons of LeBron and Wade, because the team is finally built such that opponents will pay in threes if they over-commit to stopping the two super-humans. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are going to hit a LOT of wide-open treys this year, and both looked good on Tuesday.

This was another interesting outcome from Wednesday: offensively, the Heat are now a Big Four . . . or at least a Big Two with a second two that can be Big on any given night. I expected Allen to maybe be a bigger part of their rotation than some were expecting (that's why I drafted him in so many leagues), but on Wednesday I saw an Allen that might just be as featured in the Heat offense as Bosh. We'll have to keep an eye on this, because it's possible that Allen was getting more shine because he was playing his former team. But just looking at how good he looked while getting so many wide-open looks from his sweet spots, it's hard to see him not holding onto this featured role. This could be bad for Bosh, as Ray's shots have to come from somewhere and neither LeBron nor Wade are going to slow down their shooting anytime soon.

Celtics still searching for identity: For the past five years the Celtics have known who they were: a defensive squad with only three or four talented offensive players that had to score just enough for the defense to win the game. This year, though, their remaining Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Paul Pierce are surrounded by six or seven more scorers. While this has real-life upside, it was bad for the real-life Celtics on Tuesday because it fooled them into thinking they could beat the Heat at Miami's own game (small ball and fast break). On the roto side this could be a bad thing for those looking at the Celtics for sleepers. Pierce, Rondo and Garnett are still going to get theirs. But after that, until a hierarchy forms it is hard to project which of Jason Terry, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger or Leandro Barbosa will get the hot hand on a given night. On Tuesday it was Barbosa, but I'm betting that for the next few weeks we'll see a merry-go-round of production on a nightly basis that will both tantalize and frustrate fantasy owners.

Princeton offense killing Nash: Like the Celtics, the Lakers also seem to be a team in search of an identity. I wrote in this space before that if they turn the keys over to Steve Nash I would expect all four of their big names to score at slightly lesser volume but better efficiency, which is good for fantasy owners. Instead, the Lakers have doubled-down on a Princeton offense that takes the ball out of Nash's hands and makes him a spectator. For one, this wastes Nash and kills his fantasy value. For two, it makes the offensive output of the other Lakers a lot less reliable. Charles Barkley said it well . . . the Princeton offense was conceived of to allow less-talented teams to slow down the game and compete against more-talented squads in one-off games. The Lakers, on the other hand, are supremely talented and want to beat teams in a best-of-seven series. Thus, the Princeton offense makes no sense for them. For the sake of all of their fantasy value (but especially Nash's) I'm hoping that Coach Mike Brown realizes this, puts the ball back in Nash's hands, and lets the pick-and-rolls go wild.

Two special rookies: Anthony Davis got to make his NBA debut against one of the best big men in NBA history on Wednesday. And while Duncan got his (24 points, 11 boards, 3 blks, 3 asts in 34 min), Davis' start had to make his fantasy owners feel wonderful. He "only" had seven boards and two combined steals/blocks, but you have to expect that those will come. But for him to score 21 points on 50% shooting from the field and a whopping 9-for-9 at the line was an eye-opener. If Davis remains a strong scorer with good shooting percentages, in addition to his expected dominance in the defensive categories, he could quickly turn into one of the best roto center options in the league.

Meanwhile, out in Portland, Damian Lillard scored 23 points with 11 assists in his debut. He became one of only three rookies in NBA history to go for 20 points and 10 assists in his first game. Lillard has impressed all offseason and looks poised to join Davis in a two-horse race for Rookie of the Year.

Bulls and Mavs without their stars: The Mavs will be without Dirk Nowitzki for about the next month, while the Bulls will be without Derrick Rose for a lot longer. Through two nights, the teams are 21, with each notching a victory in their debuts. Both teams are full of solid role players that can have productive nights. However, I think that the Mavs are doing it more with smoke-and-mirrors . . . the Jazz on Wednesday exposed their lack up front by getting 46 rebounds from four players (Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter), while the entire Mavs squad only pulled down 40. Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo are probably the most likely candidates for consistent roto production, but neither look that dependable.

On the other hand, the Bulls look poised to continue their habit of playing like a playoff team even without Rose. Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Luol Deng (with Taj Gibson off the bench) is still one of the best frontlines in the league, and if Richard Hamilton is finally healthy again he can still score (if nothing else). Both real-life and fantasy-wise, I expect the Bulls to still be strong without their best player.

Varejao for real? Anderson Varejao turned in a sick stat line Wednesday against the Wizards, grabbing a whopping 12 offensive rebounds on his way to a 23-rebound, 9-assist, 9-point, 2-block outing. I have no explanation at all for the nine assists, but the rebounds help tell a story. Varejao is likely to be a double-digit rebound player this year, but the majority of those will be defensive boards. It's the 12 offensive boards that are the non-repeatable part of the line. So, while 23 rebounds per game won't happen, he very well could average 11 or more.

Lowry and Lin look solid: Both Kyle Lowry and Jeremy Lin were unexpectedly strong roto producers at their previous stops, and both moved on to new squads this year . . . making them relative unknowns. At least for one night, both looked like they didn't miss a beat. Lin was never going to be the 3010 guy he was for his first few games with the Knicks last year, but I projected him to be a 17-point/7-assist/2-steal player this year for the Rockets (notching him at 40th on the RotoWire Cheat Sheet), and his debut (12 points, eight assists, four steals) was right in line with expectation. Meanwhile, Lowry was even better with 21 points, eight assists, seven boards, five steals, and two treys. It should be noted that both of these players replaced point guards that also tended to put up good roto stats, suggesting that these are fantasy friendly systems for point guards. This bodes well for their continued success this season.

Draft thoughts from Mock

Since the season has tipped off and most drafts have already taken place, this will be the last week for this section (next week look for the return of New Additions). In this space I've talked about a pure rotisserie draft and a rotisserie head-to-head draft. This week, let's look at a points-based head-to-head auction that I did on Monday. I had a $200 budget, and once you see my team you'll see that I spent a lot of it at the top.

LeBron James
Goran Dragic
Damian Lillard
Kevin Garnett
Luis Scola
Nikola Pekovic
Andrew Bogut
Jeff Teague
Andrei Kirilenko
Bradley Beal

This league has 12 teams, and each starts only five players (center, two forwards, two guards). The scoring system gives fantasy points (FPs) for points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. The way the scoring system breaks down, an average rosterable player scores about 8 FPs per game, a solid starter about 10 FPs, an all star about 12 FPs, and your MVPs anywhere above 14 FPs.

Because the rosters are so small, there is not much difference in talent level between the lower tier players on rosters and what is available on the free agency wire. Also, since there are so few starting slots, it is vitally important that you have some 1214+ FP players on your squad.

Because of these things, I used more than half of my budget on LeBron. I was simply not going to be outbid. He's always the best player in this type of scoring format, and is one of the few that can routinely turn in a 20 FP average over a full week. He was going to be on my team.

After LeBron, I had to be more frugal. I couldn't afford a second well-known star, so I tabbed big upside/relative unknown Goran Dragic to be my lieutenant. Based on my projections for the RotoWire Cheat Sheet, Dragic should be a 12 FP player this year.

I actually got bid-up a bit on Dragic, so my budget was really tight for this next slot. This league rewards guard play, so I went with a third guard in Lillard with my next big purchase. It makes me nervous to be so invested in a rookie, but Lillard shows every sign that he's the real deal. He blew up in both the Summer League and the preseason; he earned the starting point guard job for the Blazers outright; and everyone that watches him comes away impressed. If he gives me a reasonably consistent 11 FPs, my team will be hard to beat.

The last player that I invested in before getting down into the $1$2 range was Garnett. In a league with only five starting slots, a dual- eligible player is valuable. Garnett is eligible at both guard and forward, and last year he still averaged over 10 FPs in this scoring format.

After that, I took some chances. Scola from two years ago or healthy Bogut are both 10 FP players. Pekovic broke out for weeks at a time last season, and with Kevin Love injured, has the chance for a strong start to this season. I like Teague to take a step forward on offense in Atlanta this year now that Joe Johnson is in Brooklyn.

Kirilenko and Beal are purely end-of-the-roster fodder. AK47 is here because he could be solid early while Love is out, and Beal is a rookie that has the chance to shoot a lot while John Wall is injured. I'd be shocked if either are on my team by next month, as I expect them to be the first casualties of free agency.

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.