48MoH Statistical Sleuthing: On Tony in the Paint
The opening subject for this feature — one where I try to pop my head in to answer questions, examine observations, and fact-check our staff when we say crazy things every once in a while — comes from commenter Andres in the last 48MoH TV postgame show, from the January 8th game at OKC. Andres asks, in short, where Tony ranks among players in the paint this season. As he recalls:
Two or three seasons ago, Tony Parker was always in the top 5 in points in the paint among all players. I think he even lead the league once. … Tony, for a couple of years now, isn’t getting to the paint nearly as well as he used to. Can you find out where Tony ranks among current players in scoring in the paint? … The last couple of years. Tony’s supposedly been the Spurs’ all-star caliber player. He’s supposed to be in his prime. But I think his game has been declining the last couple of seasons and guys like Conley, Gordon, Westbrook, Lawson, Rondo, etc all seem to outplay him. I’m not sure Tony has been a top 7 point guard for the last couple of seasons. Is it possible that he peaked at age 27?
All good questions, and all rather insightful, as well. Andres put words to something anyone who’s watched the Spurs this year can attest to be true; Tony’s finishing has been atrocious this year. While it’s early in the season, at nine games in, Tony’s at-rim field goal percentage (usually in the mid to high 60s) was sitting at 42.9% when Andres asked his question. That sounds bad, but it’s even worse when you look at him relative to his peers. Among players with 25+ minutes per game, Tony’s numbers have him in an astonishingly low rank. There are 144 players that play 25 or more minutes per game. Of those players, Tony’s at rim percentage was 138th. Really. You can look yourself. Here’s how that number — at 9 games in — compared to Tony’s recent performances:
Not good at all. You may look at this and wonder why Tony’s ranked so low — while 50-80 is pretty high (and above average among these 25+ mpg players), it’s a far cry from top 5. That’s because this includes big men, and is only a measure of field goal percentage. If you want a more unbiased estimator of his value in the paint, look no further than this excellent metric courtesy of Evan from The City. Part of Parker’s value isn’t just that he shoots an incredibly high percentage at the rim, it’s also that he shoots a ton of shots there. In 2011, Tony’s combination of high volume inside scoring and high percentage conversion had him ranked 6th in the league under Evan’s metric. We don’t have numbers for the last few years, but assuming similar distributions, it’s safe to say Parker would’ve been top 10 for most of those years and likely top 3 for several under that metric. So, it isn’t really a stretch to say he was a top-5 paint scorer these last few years. This year, though? He’s taking a league-average number of shots and making an astonishingly low percentage of them.
The fact is, Tony Parker has been playing atrocious, especially at the rim, and it’s tough to say whether this should make Spurs fans excited or terrified. Why excited? It’s easy to simply chalk this up to small sample size and assume he gets better as the year goes on, which would be an instant improvement to San Antonio’s already gelling offense. Terrified is more obvious — if this represents a permanent change in his game, the Spurs are essentially down to no all-star caliber offensive players. Tim Duncan’s offense has fallen off a cliff (an underrated stat — while Parker’s at-rim FG% is 138th, Duncan’s at-rim FG% is 137th among 25 mpg players), Manu is out for two months (and will be balky for a time after his return), and Parker is the Spurs’ last real star offensive player on the roster. If he can’t produce, we’re essentially hoping that teams keep respecting Tim and Tony’s game despite their falloff and relying on Pop’s offensive schemes to tide us over until Manu comes back. Personally, I have to assume the truth lies closer to the “small sample size” conclusion than the “Tony Parker is over the hill” one. There was no real sign last year that Parker’s game had fallen off this much, and even if he’s fallen off a bit, if he simply boomerangs back to a bit above league average his presence will improve our already potent offensive game.
The real question is whether San Antonio’s currently awful defense can sort itself out behind the Tiago-Kawhi core — and that, really, is the foremost key to whether the Spurs are a real contender this year or a team that’ll overperform in the regular season only to exit early when the playoffs come. I’ve been rather happy with what I’ve seen from Kawhi-Tiago units on defense, especially when they put Matt Bonner on the floor instead of DeJuan Blair. But that’s a subject for another day. In terms of Andres’ question, the facts are there to support the idea that Tony has fallen off significantly. Is it a temporary blip or the reality going forward? That’s your call.