Advanced stats make basketball better.
Advanced stats help prove two of my favorite Pistons players of all-time, Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer (yes, yes … I loved Laimbeer as a player even if I think the reasons so many fans want him to coach the team are flimsy ones), are also two of the most underrated basketball players of all-time.
But there are two other players who I’ve always loved watching: Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. Every proponent of advanced stats out there will give you layer after layer of evidence suggesting those guys are two of the most over-rated basketball players of all-time. I don’t care. Still love them.
Which brings me to Brandon Knight. Other than Greg Monroe, the only thing Pistons-related I’ve enjoyed watching this season is Knight. Unfortunately, as far as the advanced stats go, Mr. Knight is not a favorite. Ben Gulker of Detroit Bad Boys and I had a friendly back and forth on Twitter yesterday about Knight’s production, or lack thereof. Some of Ben’s very reasonable points:
To stir the pot a little more: Walker Russell is currently a better PG than Brandon Knight relative to TO’s and assists
The conclusions to be drawn will vary by the individual. I think it says Knight’s ceiling is lower than most as a result.
Now, I also should give Ben credit here for forming these opinions based on evidence available before Knight had even played a NBA game. He was not a fan of the Knight pick, and a sleeper player in the draft who he (and many others, myself included) liked a lot before the draft, Kenneth Faried, is averaging 16.5 rebounds and 5.8 blocks per 36 minutes in Denver, numbers that would no doubt be welcome additions for the Pistons right now. Faried’s college numbers gave very clear indicators that he’d have success as a pro. Knight’s advanced college numbers weren’t good predictors that he’d have future success. Doesn’t mean one will succeed and one will fail, necessarily, but there was evidence that Faried would be a steal and evidence that Knight has issues to fix in his game, which is likely why he fell to the Pistons in the first place.
Yesterday, I spent a lot of time looking up stats of other point guards from their rookie seasons, to basically say, “See! This player looked mistake-prone and inconsistent as a rookie too and now he’s awesome!” I successfully cherry-picked some fun stats too — Steve Nash’s 10.8 PER as a rookie is only slightly less brutal than Knight’s 10.0. Knight is shooting the three at a much better percentage than John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul or Jason Kidd did as rookies. He’s turning it over less than Kidd, Nash, Rondo and Rose.
I could also cite this passage from John Hollinger about then-rookie Russell Westbrook’s high turnover rate:
Westbrook also is the youngest of the three, the best defender and the only one who had to change positions upon arriving in the NBA. All of which suggests he’s only scratching the surface of his potential — as does the fact that he has a higher turnover ratio than the other two, which, in a paradoxical twist of logic, is actually a good thing for a rookie. Historically, those with high turnover rates have had much higher rates of improvement in subsequent seasons.
Tal Neiman and Yonatan Loewenstein of the Safra Center at Hebrew University have done the latest significant research on the hot hand, which was recently published in Nature. They find that after hitting a 3, NBA players will make their next one six percent less often than they would after a miss. (And it’s not because they see their buddies in offensive rebounding position, either — their teams do poorly on those possessions as a whole.)
“These results suggest that players attempt too many 3pt shots after a made 3pt,” write the researchers, “and too few after a missed 3pt.” It’s part of a bigger body of research about how humans learn. We have a tendency to put too much emphasis on things that just happened. That last made shot sends us a strong signal we are great shooters.
But let’s be honest: I’m not constructing a well-thought-out argument from the above. I’m putting together mixed and matched pieces specifically cherry-picked to make it look like I have a point when I really don’t. Knight is having a poor season so far. There isn’t a statistical argument to be made otherwise. So my solution is simple: I’m not going to bother much with Knight’s statistics this season. That sounds like an ignorant statement to make, especially for someone who makes a passing effort to pay attention to many different stats when making evaluations. It isn’t going to get me anywhere with Knight though.
I like watching him play. I think he’s intelligent, I think he plays with toughness and I can’t remember watching him this season and thinking he wasn’t playing as hard as he could. He cares about what he’s doing on the court, and frankly, that’s an improvement over a lot of players the Pistons have ran out there the last few seasons. Ben is right though — there’s a very good chance that Knight’s ceiling isn’t “All-Star.” And it’s frustrating that Knight is already talked about in those terms — a couple writers who shall remain nameless have mentioned Knight and Isiah Thomas in the same sentence. Shame on them.
The Pistons have one player right now — Monroe — who is a franchise cornerstone-type talent. They have two other youngish players, Stuckey and Jonas Jerebko, who are credible rotation players. Knight is a prospect. He’s talented, but so is every prospect. Physical tools are not an indicator of future success. He’s smart too, and hopefully that’s enough for him to take advantage of some of those physical gifts and become a good player. The Pistons have a tendency to set the bar too high for their young players (see: Stuckey/Chauncey Billups comparisons by the organization), and they are in danger of doing that with Knight, so I can understand the frustrations when the narrative of the team — that they’ve found their point guard of the future (and maybe an all-time great PG if those damned Isiah comparisons are to be believed …seriously, stop it!) — clashes with the statistical reality.
I don’t know how good Knight is capable of being. I hope he’s really far from a finished product right now. But my bar for him is exceedingly low. He came out of college needing development. He had no summer league or training camp. He was thrust into the starting lineup and huge minutes faster than the team wanted him to be because of injuries. There is a good chance he’s going to have a brutal season statistically. It’s important to be realistic and not set expectations for him too high before he’s even achieved minimal success. But it’s also OK, at this point, to be satisfied with subtle, incremental improvements — he’s turning it over slightly less (though still too much) and getting more assists (though still not enough) than he was earlier in the season. His jumper is streaky and a work in progress, but he’s shot from three at a decent percentage this season. I love advanced stats. I think it’s impossible for any writer who eschews using them to do a credible job covering a league that increasingly is using them. But as a fan, I can also shut off that reality and temper my expectations for Knight. It makes him much more fun to watch.