PistonPowered Mailbag: A sidebar on translating stats, All-Star snubs and small forward solutions


Submit questions for the weekly PistonPowered Mailbag to  patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com or on Twitter @patrick_hayes.

I want to offer a quick thought building on Dan Feldman’s great, detailed post on the Pistons’ use of analytics from earlier today that everyone should definitely read. An excerpt from a talk Ken Catanella, Pistons director of basketball operations, gave at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference stood out to me:

And how could I add value walking in as a graduate assistant at that time?

I noticed a few things in terms of their pregame prep, and I was doing some video logging of opponent games. And I automated a process that created what now is commonplace, but over a decade ago was a rarity, is a shot-zone chart that had visuals and colors. At that point, I gave it to the coaching staff and thought nothing of it. And the next thing I knew, at the practice later that day, in preparation for the next day’s game, Coach had blown it up to an infinite size, brought it over to the bench where the guys were sitting. Of course, it was a proud moment for a geek like me, but he showed it to the guys and said, ‘This is what we have to do to stop this team if we play this player this way.’

And at that moment, I realized, if you can just find that niche of something that is missing or that you can add an element that can make them better at their job, they’re going to really appreciate you and trust that you have their best interests at heart.

I interviewed Kirk Goldsberry, whose amazing data visualization graphics highlighting advanced stats have been must-read at Grantland, The New York Times and a few other places over the last few years, last year. He said something similar:

There is really a lot of in-depth statistical work going on with complex and continuously evolving stats and measures in basketball, but there has always been a kind of push-back on that from people who may not understand or want to be bothered with the complex math or science behind it or who don’t think it’s a necessary element in the game. Do you think that work you’re doing, putting complex stats work into easy to understand graphics, can maybe help bridge that gap some?

I know it can. We’ve seen it in other domains. For instance in chemistry, the Periodic Table has made a huge set of chemical elements understandable in new ways. The power of graphics to simplify or translate statistical information into knowledge is one of the huge pillars of the project. My project is not unique in that sense, but it is unique in the context of basketball. I think that’s what it has the potential to do. Every one of those charts you look at is thousands of numbers encoded visually as opposed to encoded in a spreadsheet.

These spacial structures are immediately understandable to the human eye. You can take advantage of the most powerful sense we have as human beings, which is vision. I can show that chart to a basketball coach in four seconds and circle key areas with a Sharpie and walk away, and that coach has just understood the product of a really sophisticated statistical analysis in a few seconds without ever seeing brief notation, without ever seeing a decimal, without ever seeing some obtuse numerical jargon that, let’s face it, most basketball people and most human beings don’t communicate in that statistical language.

So yes, this helps people who are not domain experts in statistics understand statistics or at least understand the findings of statistical analysis. When you hear coaches or general managers or people in the media who are skeptical of statistical work or don’t see a use for it, to me, that’s on the analytics community, not the people pushing back. It’s part of our job to make our findings digestable by people. It’s the part of of the scientific process I like to describe as landing the plane. Great, you’ve done great analysis, you’ve found something out, now you know that. But I think that’s where a lot of people stop. One of the strengths of good visualization is it helps you land the plane in the sense that not only do you know that, now you’re sharing that with other people who also just learned that. The more effective you can be in that sharing, the better you are as a scientist, the better you are as a communicator.

Both guys touched on something really key — not advanced stats themselves, but how statistical analysts communicate their findings in plain English. At this point, there’s no debating the vital need for advanced stats work in the NBA (and in all sports, really). It’s a billion dollar industry with every team looking for every possible competitive advantage. Stats can help give a competitive advantage if properly analyzed and implemented into strategy, lineups, matchups, talent acquisition, etc. So it makes no sense for any team to employ so-called “non-believers.” Data visualization is a really powerful way to explain a complex topic to a general audience.

The key to getting all fans to embrace the importance of advanced stats lies in exactly what Catanella and Goldsberry are talking about — making them digestable and usable to anyone.

On to this week’s questions:

Is Andre Drummond really an All-Star “snub?” He’s the best player on the Pistons this season, but being a good player on a bad team usually doesn’t lead to an All-Star appearance. — Dan

I mean, it’s not a Kendrick Lamar losing to Macklemore level snub, but it’s still a snub. Drummond is having an incredible season for someone as young as he is, as Dan Feldman pointed out yesterday. He definitely deserves consideration, but I can’t say that any of the other bigs selected as reserves — Chris Bosh, Joakim Noah, Paul Millsap, Roy Hibbert — are unworthy All-Stars. Those are all really good players on better teams than the Pistons. I could quibble with picking DeMar DeRozan and Joe Johnson at the guard spots, but if you want two guards on your bench, you can’t replace one of those guys with Drummond (and really, Kyle Lowry should be in over either of those two and Arron Afflalo has a strong case as well).

So I dunno … I get why Pistons fans are mad about it. Drummond is the lone bright spot this season and the first player they’ve had actually deserving of an All-Star appearance in damn near a decade. I can’t feign much outrage over it though. I mean, Anthony Davis isn’t an All-Star and he’s arguably been the most fun player to watch in the league this season (at least among players not named Kevin Durant). The talent disparity between the West and East is so off balance that I’d be in favor of blowing up the entire All-Star format, letting fans, coaches, players and media (and bloggers!) vote for the top 24 players in the league regardless of conference, then have the top two coaches at the break take turns picking their roster. That’s probably too much work for an All-Star Game though.

Recently read a few reports of Boston looking to dump contracts. Think there is any chance either side goes for a Charlie V for Jeff Green trade? I doubt we’re signing any FA who’d be much better than him at SF and Boston gets a ton of Cap space. — Mark

Green is no great shakes, but he’s solid enough, expensive but not super expensive and still relatively young. I can’t see Boston just giving him away for just an expiring deal, but if the Pistons were willing to offer an expiring and a couple of future second round picks … that might be enticing to them if they’re truly trying to cut salary.

The problem is, Green is basically an average NBA starter. He’d be an upgrade, but not a drastic upgrade. If the Pistons can’t hope to do better than “average-ish starter” at the small forward position in a trade, I’d prefer they hold off on making an in-season deal and see what develops either in the draft or on the trade/free agent market in the offseason. My hunch is you can get a similarly productive player to Green for less money.

I’m curious if those questions are real or made up. — Brian

I addressed this last week in the DBB comments after the … uh … minor shitstorm I started last week, but just wanted to reiterate here: no, I have yet to resort to making up mailbag questions. Full disclosure — I do know a couple of the people socially who have submitted questions in the sixish weeks I’ve been doing this, but the majority of questions really do come to me from people on Twitter or through email. You’ll be able to tell when I’m making up questions if they start containing an inappropriate amount of Workaholics references and/or multiple quotes from C.M. Punk promos.

Utah, worst team in the west, is only 2 games behind Piston. U think Dumars regreting picking KCP over Burke? — FT33

Nah. Caldwell-Pope hasn’t had the opportunity to put up gaudy numbers because he hasn’t really been asked to, but he’s been a decently effective rookie. As a starter, he’s a fifth option on offense and he’s already emerged as a very good perimeter defender in a league where good perimeter defenders come at a premium. I thought passing on Burke was the wrong move and I still do. But Caldwell-Pope has closed that gap. Long-term, I still believe Burke is the better prospect but I’m not convinced that it’s impossible for Caldwell-Pope to surpass him. An athletic, lockdown defender who can knock down a corner three with consistency is a long-term starter in this league, and if his game evolves offensively to more than just being a spot-up shooter, he’s a potential All-Star considering the age of the league’s top shooting guards at the moment. I mean, in a year where DeMar DeRozan made an All-Star team and Arron Afflalo was a serious contender for it, is it really a stretch to think that Caldwell-Pope has the potential to be at least as good as those players?

Things could obviously change in both in favor or against the pick, but as of right now, there’s no real reason for Dumars to regret it.

I know there is a lot of talk about moving a big for someone who can space the floor, but i personally don’t think this is our biggest issue. With the cap space we have this summer it shouldn’t be too hard to sign someone to fill that role. What scares me is watching Jennings night after night treat each game like an AAU tournament. He seems to have no clue how to run an offense, and is only engaged when he’s jacking up shot after shot. I don’t see him meshing well with the other teammates, and Cheeks (don’t get me started) can’t seem to get through to him. Do see any way out of watching him for the next 3 seasons? I’ve been praying for a swap of Rondo/Green for Jennings and Moose/Smith. — Mark (times two)

Brandon Jennings is better than Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton (although Middleton is looking more and more live a very nice young find for Milwaukee). So even with Jennings’ flaws, that trade is a win for the Pistons. His contract isn’t overly expensive, he’s talented if inconsistent and either he’ll figure out how to be a more traditional point guard with improved shot selection or he’ll continue to be an erratic yet occasionally explosive offensive player. He has value in this league, likely more value than Knight will ever have. Playoff aspirations aside, the Pistons came into this season looking to upgrade the talent on the roster. I’m not convinced Jennings is a long-term fix in the minds of anyone in the organization at this point, but he represents a definite talent upgrade who hopefully won’t turn into a negative asset for the Pistons like a certain other high profile offseason acquisition.

Who do you think projects as the better offensive player between the two (Caldwell-Pope or Michigan State’s Gary Harris)? — @HiroBeats

This was asked before Harris’ lights out performance against Michigan which kind of clearly made the case before I even had to, but Harris is by far a better offensive prospect than Caldwell-Pope and he might be a better defensive prospect as well (taking nothing away from Caldwell-Pope). I can’t find the link, but Tom Izzo recently called Harris the best offensive and defensive player in the Big 10. That’s certainly a subjective (and likely biased) analysis, but Harris has been insanely good this season. MSU is missing two important starters and has hardly missed a beat, losing a close game to a very good Michigan team and then beating a tough Iowa team on the road (in a place where Iowa rarely loses). Harris and Keith Appling are insanely fun to watch on defense, and the fact that Harris is a likely to 10 pick this season is a major reason I’m hoping the Pistons land somewhere in the top eight. Obviously, I’d love them to end up with one of the draft’s stars, but if they fall just short of that? Ending up with a defender and shooter like Harris to add to their perimeter would be a lot of fun.

As for whether or not he’s better than Caldwell-Pope offensively? If Harris had come out after his freshman season, where he was good but not this good, he still was likely to get picked higher than KCP would’ve.

Here are some questions/musings I like to hear your opinion on: 1. I hear so much about Drummond working with Coach Sheed and how it is helping him. That´s a really cool story but I would love if we could get Big Ben to be his next development coach for the summer. How great would that be, him learning the defensive ropes from one of the best ever and the Palace being treated to the Wallace brothers on the bench. On a similar note don’t you just wish Rip Hamilton would retire already so that he could spent his summers with KCP?; 2. The Pistons are dead last in ft%, we know that. But I cannot understand why they rank so low in FTAs (17th). They should be foul magnets with their combination of interior focused scoring and weak foul shooters. Combined with the fact that we are the no. 1 off reb team shouldn’t the Pistons love it if Drummond gets fouled? He might miss one but that might just be another opportunity at an offensive rebound. I would love it if the Pistons realized they are better off playing as much in the bonus as they can, even with their dismal ft%. What´s your take on this? 3. Lastly while Drummond is our best player and Smith our highest paid one (and also the media focus) the Milwaukee and NO games showed again that game to game the Pistons go as Jennings goes. If he is engaged defensively, they are, if he picks his spots and plays unselfishly their offense flows and vice versa. However I´ve never seen him string four good quarters together in a Pistons uniform. He always has at least one bad or good stretch each game which is one of the primary reasons for the Pistons fourth quarter problem as well. So what´s the solution? Shouldn´t the Pistons get a reliable pg backup? One who is a good shooter and better defender than Bynum? And if they decide to go that way, who is available? I´d love this trade but I doubt Dumars would do it. (Notice that Beverly and D-Mo are the focus as I doubt Asik would quit his whining in Detroit and play backup). — Fabian

1. Short answer — I would LOVE to have Ben Wallace involved in the organization in an official capacity. I think he and Rasheed Wallace are two of the smartest bigs to play in the modern era and they could teach Drummond/Monroe a lot about offense and defense in the league. Unfortunately, with the rate Maurice Cheeks is going, I’m not sure him or any of his staff will be in place next season. I don’t really share your enthusiasm about Hamilton … I loved watching him when he was good, but Caldwell-Pope is probably already a better defender than Rip ever was and I’m not sure Hamilton’s long-two heavy offense is how the Pistons envision Caldwell-Pope fitting into their lineup. They need him to be a killer from the corner three spots.

2. I don’t know that lack of free throw attempts is a problem. They rank low in overall free throw attempts, but their 25.8 attempts per game are fifth in the league. The problem isn’t getting to the line — several Pistons are very good at that. The issue, as you point out, is converting those opportunities.

3. The Pistons should, theoretically, address some of their roster balance issues. Whether they actually have the means — through assets they’re willing to part with and other teams are interested in giving something of value for — is debatable. Drummond and Monroe are likely the two main pieces the Pistons have that would be of interest to other teams, and they’re unlikely to part with either. The Pistons would probably love to trade Smith, but his contract and less than stellar play make it doubtful they’d get any positive assets in return. The trade you suggest to Houston would be really unfair to the Rockets. They’re taking back the worst contract, giving up a prospect in Motiejunas, who at one time was considered a potential top five-ish pick and giving up a really solid PG in Beverly while getting no clear replacement for him. They had some reported interest in Smith in the offseason and still might, but they would have all the leverage in any deal — the Pistons would have to give up really good assets in order for Houston to take that contract because Smith’s value has tanked this season.