Boris Diaw and the Big Man Market (Part 1)
Editor’s Note: We understand that most of the players listed below are not available to the Spurs. This post is written from the perspective of evaluating the players who were available via buyout, and how they would have fit with the Spurs…hypothetically.
Hello, all. It’s been a while. I’ve been waylaid for a bit by some real life drama and writer’s block, but I’ve returned all the same. For my return post to 48MoH, I’m going to do a series of two or three posts assessing the market the Spurs navigated before settling on Boris Diaw as compared to our current rotation of bigs, and assess where our newest acquisition might help us out. Or, conversely, where he might trip us up! I’ll start with the overall picture using some basic composite statistics and drill down into some offensive numbers and shooting trends for the players the Spurs had available to target. This is going to be a rather table-heavy data-driven post, so do be careful. Math is dangerous. Numbers bite, after all.
To start us off, I’ll lay out the bigs that I’ll be highlighting in this post. Obviously, we have our current rotation — our four table-stakes big men in Duncan, Splitter, Blair, and Bonner. Then we have the flotsam that had made it to market after the trade deadline once they’d been cut by their teams. This group included J.J. Hickson (cut from the Kings), Boris Diaw (cut from the Bobcats), Ronny Turiaf (cut from the Nuggets), and Ryan Hollins (cut from the Cavs). Ryan Hollins had numbers bad enough that I simply cut him from the analysis. He would’ve served only as comic relief. For the purposes of comparison, I also included the player that I’ve been getting asked to analyze on Twitter f0r several months now, Chris Kaman. Many Spurs fans have the impression that he would be a significant upgrade over any of these other options. I’m not convinced, and by adding him to the analysis, we may be able to disprove either my initial disagreement with that statement or the general sense that he’s our missing piece. These numbers are from this season for all players but Turiaf, for whom I used last season’s numbers due to the fact that he’d played only 4 games this season before suffering a broken hand. Here are the overall statistics.
The statistics I’ve shared in the overall big-picture table are: Minutes Per Game (MPG), Height (in feet and inches), POS (a flexible measure of position that allows for players to be in-between two positions — numbers from here), Number of Possessions (POSS — the number of possessions they’ve been on the court for), Offensive and Defensive adjusted +/- (O-D, ORTG, DRTG — taken from Basketball Value), Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and Win Shares (WS). I thought this was a pretty decent cocktail of stats to get us started. For the purposes of interpretation of statistics you haven’t seen before, I highly recommend this essential primer to what the various advanced stats mean. I’ll be explaining them a bit, but it’s always best to learn things from the source. And that primer is the best source anyone could give you if you’d like to learn about advanced basketball statistics.
Overall, there’s a good mix of stories here. Most interesting is perhaps Tim Duncan’s relatively poor performance on offense this year from a plus/minus perspective — essentially what that indicates is that when Tim is off the court, adjusting for opposition strength, the Spurs have almost a 7 point better offense than they do when he’s on it. Of course, even with Tim’s awful +/- numbers on offense, he’s still almost a net positive based on his defense alone — he has the 2nd highest defensive on-court impact of anyone in this table. He also plays the 2nd most minutes, and has the 2nd highest win share. All rather crazy for a 35 year old. But alas.
The biggest story to me is the lacking performance of all the available on-market options in most of the overall statistical metrics. While they’re mostly rating out as net positives on defense, each and every one of the available big men performs terribly on offense, and none of them excepting Kaman actually have the size that Spurs fans have been looking for. Despite Kaman’s size, though, both Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf have a higher on-court defensive impact than Kaman does. Defense will be the subject of a post in the next few days, and in that post I’ll dive behind the +/- and start to come to a conclusion as to why that is. But as it stands, none of the on-market options have an above average PER. And none but Turiaf have positive win shares. From an APM (adjusted plus minus) perspective, Diaw looks reasonably decent — certainly the best on average of all the options on the table. Will that hold up to different statistical measure, though?
Let’s examine the offense specifically through some overall stats.
The statistics I’ve shared in the offensive stats table are: true shooting percentage (shooting percentage adjusting for free throw percentage and the added value of three point shots), points per possession (the average points generated when that player uses a possession), assist percentage (the percentage of their teammate’s field goals that the given player assisted on while he was on the floor), turnover percentage (the percentage of their own possessions that end in a turnover), and usage percentage (the percentage of team plays used by a player while that player is on the floor). These were acquired on Basketball Reference, Basketball Value, and Evan Z’s EZPM Player Rating Spreadsheet.
It’s here that we begin to see why exactly these players were waived (and why Kaman was a candidate to be waived himself). Offensively, they’re a mess. While every Spur on this list scores at a high percentage and above league average (especially Duncan, whose per-minute stats are relatively sparkling), there’s very little that any of the other big men do well in the big picture offensively. Hickson, Diaw, and Kaman score inefficiently and well below league average, with Kaman in particular committing the cardinal sin of using almost 30% of his team’s possessions despite shooting well below league average and turning the ball over on more possessions than he assists it, even with his league average assist rate. (This is, by the way, the main reason I’ve been very down on the idea that Kaman would improve the Spurs. He’s been a possession vortex for his entire career, and his efficiency hasn’t gotten any better in the last few years. He’d be more likely to throw off our offensive flow with poor decisionmaking and ill-advised shots than he would be to provide that elusive third big guy behind Tim and Tiago. But that’s neither here nor there.)
In the case of Diaw, he’s offensively very similar to Kaman, which worries me. He’s less of a possession vortex, which will be helpful, but he hasn’t shown much propensity to really capitalize on the possessions he gets since Steve Nash was around. He’s been a turnover magnet this year, and while he’ll be a willing distributor when he gets the ball, it’s hard to really see that being a useful skill on our current Spurs team. Parker, Manu, Duncan, and Neal have served admirably as ball-dominant creators — are we really going to want to put the ball in Boris Diaw’s hands and let him create for the team? It’s not a useless skill, obviously — Diaw’s assist rate is by far the highest among any big man in the league today, and under Pop’s offensive playbook, there’s no way anyone would argue that it’s not going to help the Spurs in one way or another. But I’m not sold on it being a dealbreaking skill, especially when coupled with a turnover every 5 possessions and 46.1% true shooting. Not exactly confidence inspiring numbers.
But what makes up that 46% shooting from our new benched center? Well, let’s look at some locational shooting data.
This is where things get a bit interesting, and where Diaw’s possible value comes into play. As you may have noticed in the first table, Diaw isn’t the tallest large forward. He’s 6’8″, clocking him in at a full one inch over DeJuan Blair. Ideally, then, we’d hope that we could play some minutes with Diaw spotting out to the midrange and allow him to space the floor in lineups featuring Splitter at center. His career numbers (and this season’s numbers) would seem to indicate the Spurs will be able to do that. He doesn’t have a legitimate three point shot (which is fine — I don’t think anyone really wants a second Bonner on the team) but he can bury a 16 foot extended jump shot. Given that, we can expect that he’ll be able to play the role of floor spacing big to allow the offense to flow better. If I had to guess, I’d assume this is one of the reasons we picked him up — maintaining spacing is incredibly important to the Spurs offense, and any player that can continue to improve and solidify that spacing is a player that can continue to improve San Antonio’s odds of a deep playoff run.
On the other hand, Diaw isn’t fantastic at the rim, and he really doesn’t have a shot in the “true” midrange at all. This is an aspect where Kaman could’ve helped, a touch — though it’s certainly under debate, given that he’d be such an incredible liability with his back to the basket and at the rim. Shooting 51% at the rim is bad — coupling that with almost 4 shots in that range a game? That’s — again — a player that clogs the offense. Perhaps Pop would’ve been able to get Kaman to abandon his bad habits. But is that something the Spurs really want to test out? I’m not sure. There’s no one right or wrong answer to it. On the other hand, J.J. Hickson again looks absolutely abhorrent, and Pop’s crack at the reporter a few weeks back who mentioned “Tiago’s shot” was rather well warranted, as we all already knew. Tiago doesn’t shoot outside of 6 feet with any regularity, and when he does, it rarely ends well. Ronny Turiaf used remarkably few possessions to do his work, but did it well and finished plays with aplomb. While Turiaf is generally known as a heart-and-hustle type, his general game is far more refined when healthy than most people give him credit for. He’s an excellent finisher and can convert around the basket with the best of them. And unlike players like Kaman and Diaw who hog the ball and use far too many possessions for their own good, Turiaf is perfectly fine playing a complementary role to the team’s main offensive cogs — his usage rate ranked 428th out of 452 eligible players in 2011. Given the current offensive flow, it could be argued that a player who doesn’t hog possessions would’ve been the best get for the Spurs right now.
By most offensive measures, that argument has legs. Does it apply to defense? That’s another story.
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Having passed the generally respectful “this post is over 1800 words, let’s wrap it up” point, I will save the defensive stats for this weekend and throughout next week as I finish this set of posts and give a bit more insight into our foray into the big man market. Have a good weekend, everybody. Glad to be back.