The D'Antoni Effect Part Two: The Bigs

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Grab a snack or a refreshing beverage and clear out some time as we take another deep dive into the numbers to see what type of effect Mike D'Antoni's system has had on the Lakers big men in the 2013-14 season.

First of all I just wanted to thank all of you that added some insight to the discourse on this topic with actual statistics in the comments of the last piece. On to the big men!

For Part 2 of this piece on Mike D’Antoni’s effect on player performance (part 1 here), I will examine the big men on the Lakers roster this season and how they have performed relative to their careers. But before we fully delve into more statistical analysis again, I wanted to again reiterate that in my opinion it is impossible for us to know with 100% certainty what led to a player's performance, be it improved or worse. It could be coaching, natural growth due to aging, system fit (or lack thereof), personal issues or motivation, contract situation, etc. All of these things can affect player performance positively or adversely, and in different amounts for each player. For the purposes of this piece and the first part of it, I am merely leaving open the possibility that D'Antoni had a large effect (again positive OR negative) on these players as head coach, as most of the narratives around this team suggest.

(Credit to Basketball Reference for all of their wonderfully useful statistics. All counting stats are per-36 minutes)

Ryan Kelly - Yes, this is his rookie season, and thus we have no NBA statistics to compare his performance this year to. However, it is still impressive to look at the statistics that the 48th player selected in this year’s draft (and one that was considered weak at that) has managed to produce under D’Antoni. Ryan Kelly was the 8th power forward selected in the most recent draft (including 2 of the first 4 overall picks, and of the seven players selected before Kelly, two have yet to play in the league: Livio Jean-Charles (Spurs 28th pick, stashed overseas) and Grant Jerrett (Thunder 40th pick, marinating in the D-League). So let’s see how Kelly compares to his five compatriots who have also gotten NBA playing time this year:

(as an aside, it has to be taken into account that Kelly played four years at Duke, giving him more experience than any player other than Mike Muscala)

Well one interesting tidbit that we can see from just Kelly's stats is that he definitely reinforces his "stretch four" credentials, with a Three Point Attempt Rate of almost 41%, with none of the other rookie fours coming in above even 25%. Looking at comparisons of these rookies though, Kelly definitely can make an argument for being the most effective member of the class. Given that Tony Mitchell and Mike Muscala have both played less than 100 minutes at the time of this writing, their stats are not very significant yet, and thus kind of have to be taken out of comparison (I left them in the charts so that people could see that). Out of the remaining four "fours" of Kelly, Bennett, Olynyk, and Zeller, the Lakers' draft pick has both the highest True Shooting Percentage (TS%) and Effective Field Goal Percentage (EFG%), as well as the lowest usage rate. This demonstrates to me that Ryan is being put in optimal situations to have success, and not being forced into doing things that are outside of his skill set. He does have the lowest PER other than the historically bad first overall pick Bennett, but that also likely is an effect of his lower usage rate giving him fewer opportunities to compile the raw stats that factor into the calculation of PER. An additional indicator of Kelly being put in optimal situations to succeed and play to his strengths is the fact that of the four rookies, he has by far the lowest turnover percentage (TOV%). There are many factors that go into how effective Kelly has been, but one major factor has to be the coaching; both for his preparedness to contribute despite missing a ton of off-season development due to injuries, as well as his efficiency, which demonstrates he is being put in situations to maximize his skillset.

For much more on Ryan Kelly, read Blake and Ben. Time to move on before we have to rename the site Silver Screen and Ryan Kelly.

Robert Sacre - Speaking of late second round draft picks, second year player Robert Sacre was (as most patrons of this site know) the very last pick of his draft class of 2012. Given the success rate for draft picks that late, his chances of success for the fifth year senior were nowhere near a given. Let's see how he has done:

Now, with the qualifier that also applies to all of these younger players that they are expected to improve from their first to their second year, Sacre's growth is impressive. The Gonzaga product improved in almost every category across the board, even with an uptick in usage rate that I would have expected to lead to a downturn in efficiency. However Sacre used more possessions and also cut down on how often he turned it over. He still fouls like a madman, but 4.7 per 36 minutes is better than 6.7. Given more opportunities this year, he also made a massive jump in PER. It is evident when watching Sacre that while he may not be D'Antoni's perfect ideal of a big man, he does do a lot of things the coach loves, including setting monster screens and rolling hard to the rim, sucking defenders with him as he goes. His endless hustle is no doubt part of his personality, but it fits perfectly with the style of energetic, frenetically moving basketball that D'Antoni idealizes. Therefore, it makes sense that after his first full training camp under the coach, Sacre would be prepared to contribute in this coaching context.

Wesley Johnson - As the 4th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Wesley Johnson flamed out spectacularly in his first two years in Minnesota as well as his third year in Phoenix. However, as such a high draft pick who was also long, rangy, and athletic; he was considered an ideal reclamation project as an undersized but quick four man in the Shawn Marion mold as an absolute best case scenario. That is why he is listed here rather than with the guards in part one. Let's see how that worked out:

Well, in the positive column, Wesley managed to put up his highest PER since he entered the league, but only by .7 points and a 10.9 PER is still disappointing. He also had the most efficient shooting seasons of his career, lending further credence to the idea that D'Antoni is getting these guys open shots in situations that maximize their skill sets. For Johnson, this means a lot of running out in transition and attempting to get layups or dunks off of leak-outs. In what is becoming a theme across this piece, Johnson's turnover percentage was up from his career norm, his second highest season by that metric. It is evident why when you watch the Lakers this year; when Wes is asked to create offense for himself or make more than one read on a play, he often looks lost and confused.

So despite looking like he is straight out of central casting for an NBA player, Johnson just does not seem destined to be a very notable one. His improvements in efficiency this year are commendable, but they have still not led to a player worthy of the 4th overall selection in the NBA draft. In my opinion, the fact that Wes was slightly better by most of his shooting metrics could be another case of expected improvement from a young lottery pick, but it could also be indicative, or in combination with, a coaching staff maximizing his potential.

Jordan Hill - The usage and playing time of Jordan Hill has been a common talk of debate among Lakers Nation this season, with many in the anti-tank crowd arguing that he is the best player on the team and should be playing more. While his status as the best player on the team is debatable, it cannot be argued that Jordan has been one of the most effective players on the roster when healthy. Let's look at how his production this year compares with his career norms:

The first thing that popped out to me in these charts was that Jordan is obviously an incredibly effective rebounder, but that his offensive rebound percentage (ORB%) has dropped precipitously this year back to his career norms of around 14% after grabbing nearly 20% of available offensive boards over his (limited) games played for Los Angeles the previous two seasons. And for all of the criticism that he is not playing enough, he is still playing the most minutes per game of his career (per Basketball Reference). Additionally, Jordan posted his highest shooting numbers of his career in terms of FG% per 36 minutes, as well as TS% and eFG%. He also posted his highest PER ever if you exclude the seven games he played towards the end of the 2011-12 season when the Lakers first acquired him, while posting one of his higher usage rates of his career which was likely a contributing factor, as well as statistical evidence that he may not be as underused as some people believe. If anything, it is in the Lakers best interests at this point to further underuse him, as over the past few games he has been undoubtedly one of the best players on the floor and helping lead the Lakers to victories that hurt their lottery odds.

With all of that said it does appear that D'Antoni's system/coaching have led to Jordan Hill making slight improvements this year. A lot of this makes sense, as D'Antoni prefers his bigs to mainly set picks and roll hard to the rim, all while keeping up the manic activity level that he attempts to coax out of all of his players. All of these are things that Jordan provides, and so it follows that he would put up good individual numbers in such a system.

Chris Kaman - I have let my personal feelings on Kaman be known, and obviously he is not the type of player that has been theorized that D'Antoni empowers and improves, but let's take a look at how his statistics were affected by "the system":

As this season winds down, Kaman is on track to have played his fewest minutes of any season; and if you were just to look at his numbers in a vacuum, it would be hard to see why.

Hilariously, Kaman is averaging the most shot attempts per-36 minutes in his entire career, mostly as a result of his first, second and third options being "shoot" on the nights when he does get minutes. However, on the occasions he does deign to pass, he has been effective at it, with the highest assist percentage (AST%) of his career. These two stats show that when he has been in the game, Kaman has been the focal point of the offense, which is backed up by his having the second highest usage rate of his career. This usage has been relatively efficient as well, with the Kave Man posting his second highest FG%, and third highest EFG% and TS% respectively. It would seem that given his effectiveness, that he should be playing more. However, because this next man that we are going to discuss is the highest paid active Lakers player and thus given much more power and role while playing the same position; that does not work.

Pau Gasol - if not for Carmelo Anthony, Pau would probably be the poster child for a player not buying into how D'Antoni wants to play on offense, and it has been sad to see the Big Spaniard end his Lakers tenure in such an ignominious fashion this year. Let's take a peek at what Pau has been able to do this year under a coach he has been openly feuding with all year:

Gasol has really fallen off this year. His FG%, TS%, and EFG% are all among the lowest marks of his career. His assists, both counting and percentage wise, are not too far off of his career norms, but both his shooting marks declining and assist marks staying normal-ish are most likely the result of his huge usage rating, the second highest of his career and his highest as a Laker. At this stage of his career, Gasol having the ball that much is too heavy a load given that he no longer can create his own shot as effectively, as demonstrated by his drop-off in shooting efficiency. He is still a good passer though, so he can find the open man and be productive in that way, but it is still not enough to produce wins. Pau also shoots himself in the foot a lot by not rolling hard enough to the basket and creating higher percentage looks that way, either through a stubbornness or inability to do so.

Even the positive "jumps" are really a mirage. Gasol is averaging more rebounds per 36 minutes, with the uptick mostly due to defensive rebounds (getting the highest defensive rebound percentage [DRB%], and averaging 8.8 DRBs per-36, up from a career average of 6.6). Rebounds are obviously important, and this uptick IS partially due to D'Antoni, but it is not improvement. The higher rebounds can most likely be chalked up to two factors: pace (more rebounds to collect feeding the raw statistics) as well as fewer "rebounders" on the court. Due to D'Antoni's preference to play one "traditional big", Pau is often sharing the floor with smaller players, and thus is likely to get more rebounds that perhaps would have been collected by a more traditional big were they on the floor. This leads us back to the "Kaman conundrum."

In that link, Mike D'Antoni breaks down his thought process honestly and openly on the struggle to find minutes for all of the big men on his roster. He admits that getting Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre in games to give them development time is his priority to see what they can develop into. He is also candid in mentioning that

"It’s tough because when you do the math and if you’re going to play Pau 30 minutes..."

Essentially confirming that due to Pau's role as a team leader and veteran, he is basically guaranteed at least that much playing time. That much playing time, though, is arguably leading to a lot of the Lakers' problems. Let's look at Pau and Kaman this season next to each other.

In his limited minutes, Kaman has been the more effective player. A lot of times with players given limited minutes, those minutes are coming off of the bench and against other teams less effective bench players, and thus one could argue that the statistics are less meaningful due to their decreased competition level. In this case, the situation is different because Chris Kaman really only plays when Pau is out, and thus has collected a lot of those stats against other teams' starters. Looking at the stats the two have put up, it is hard to argue that all things being equal, Kaman should not be playing ahead of Gasol at this point if the team was playing for anything. Kaman does turn the ball over more, but is significantly more effective in his shooting percentages, as well as giving far more effort on the defensive end than Gasol has this season. As Ben was pointing out on Twitter last week, Gasol leaving at the deadline most likely would have been a blow to the Lakers lottery odds, as just by virtue of trying on defense (as well as his slightly more efficient offense), Kaman would improve this team and Gasol has been our "tank commander."

Getting back to the main question of this piece, it is clear that D'Antoni did not improve either of these players, which was again expected given their veteran status and being on the back ends of their careers. While he did not improve, Kaman did bounce back from a down year in Dallas despite his open disdain for D'Antoni, and showed that he could still be a valuable bench big for a contender. Gasol still has value in the league, but needs to take a significantly reduced role than he had this year if he wants to contribute to a good team.

Conclusions

What did we learn? One main point to take away is definitely that increases in usage rate definitely can lead to inflated counting stats, sometimes but not exclusively at the expense of efficiency. Also, the narrative of D'Antoni empowering young players to be at their most effective seems to hold true for the Lakers younger guys in Sacre, Kelly, and to a lesser extent Johnson.

But what this research has really reinforced for me is something that has seemed to have been proved time and time again: if a player buys into Mike D'Antoni's system, rolls hard to the hoop, moves the ball, and runs out in transition, they will put up better raw statistics and get paid. But I suppose the real question, given how bad the Lakers have been this year, and the Knicks under D'Antoni before them, is if this production can translate to winning. I would argue that his tenure with the Suns proves that it can. Yes, it's true they never won a championship, but they had some horrific luck in the playoffs that led to that more than anything D'Antoni did. There is a reason that the concepts he semi-introduced to the league during his Suns tenure have become so commonplace: it is just an efficient and effective way to play. That is why players put up such good numbers doing it when they commit.

Some will see this argument and posit that most of that success was due to D'Antoni having an in-his-prime Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, etc., and the Suns' legendary training staff to keep them healthy. To this I would respond: Of course! The most important factor to succeeding in the NBA is having good players. In New York, D'Antoni endured the losing pains of an intentional cap-clearing rebuild, until they signed Stoudemire in 2010 who, along with Raymond Felton and other talented pieces, led to a resurgence of sorts in the Big Apple. This was thrown into disarray by the trade for Carmelo Anthony, a talented player, but one that never truly bought into playing the sort of basketball that D'Antoni prefers; thus their lack of success together. This could point to a lack of flexibility scheme-wise from the coach, but last year he demonstrated a willingness to change and play to his roster's strengths of post play after injuries and the strong personalities forced his hand.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but after doing this research, mine is that D'Antoni was a factor in the individual improvement of these young players who bought in this year. Sure, some of their growth was due to aging and maturing, but I believe that the offensive statistics point to D'Antoni putting these various pieces into roles where they can have some limited success in the context of this awful team. The reality is that after the injury bug hit, there is not a coach in the world who could have gotten many more, if any, wins out of this team. This current collection of players is just not good enough to win very many games. What D'Antoni has done, however, is keep these players playing together and hard for longer than could be expected given the circumstances of their record. While it has not translated to success given the nightly talent disparity, the individual production and growth of these players is a promising sign that Mike D'Antoni could lead a successful team once again if given more gifted players.

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