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The D'Antoni Effect: Did His Coaching Style Really Lead to Individual Improvement?

Much has been made of MDA's continuing presence on the sidelines next year for the Lakers. One of the cases for him to play? Indisputable improvement from many players on the team.

One of the prevailing themes throughout this 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers season has been Mike D’Antoni’s relative strengths and weaknesses as a head coach. You've all read the analysis, ranging from the negative "He doesn’t coach defense. Take the D out of his name" to the positive "Despite many of the criticisms of Mike D’Antoni as head coach, he has done a fantastic job of developing the younger players and putting the numerous reclamation projects on the roster on the right track towards having productive NBA careers."

So, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to examine the roster and see what type of effect D’Antoni has had on these players relative to their career performance thus far, and hopefully get a little closer to discovering just how many of these common talking points are based in fact, or whether they have just become easy narratives. This examination will be divided into two posts, and in this first one we will examine the guards/wings, which are considered by most to be D’Antoni’s strength.

Nick Young

Let’s begin with the fan favorite. The Los Angeles native spent most of the first half of the season as arguably the most entertaining player on and off the court, with the prevailing narrative being his team leadership and production in the absence of Kobe Bryant. Let's take a look at how much he actually improved per 36 minutes: (all stats per Basketball Reference)

From this chart it is apparent that Swaggy slightly improved on his averages per 36 minutes in just about every counting stat, especially his having a career high in FTs per 36 minutes with almost 2 more than his next highest season, showing that he has become a slightly more complete player this year under D'Antoni's tutelage. When perusing his BR page further, the most impressive improvement that Young made, at least in my opinion, was evidenced by his advanced statistics.

Not only did the USC alum improve upon his career PER average, posting his second highest season ever by that metric; he also tied a career high in usage rate while actually raising his true-shooting percentage to a career high level (which as you will see is a trend for these wings/guards under D'Antoni this year, a testament to his coaching and offensive system). It would seem by these metrics that he at least in some part was living up to the hype that was given to his development this year as a Los Angeles Laker.

Jordan Farmar

Nick Young's childhood friend is another Laker with ties to the Los Angeles area from both his prep days and his time at UCLA (as well as a previous stint with the team), who I thought had undoubtedly improved this year with Mike D'Antoni giving him the keys to the offense. Let's look at his numbers:

Well, it would seem that per 36 minutes, Jordan's stats did not seem to improve all of that much for the most part over his career best year for the then New Jersey Nets during the 2011-12 season. However, two noticeable differences among this set of numbers are that his assists per 36 bumped up to 7.7, a new career best and over 2 better than his career average. Let's take a look at the advanced numbers:

One thing that jumps out here is that Farmar set a new career high in usage rate by a full percentage point, which is significant because it shows how much he has been forced to run the show this year when he is healthy, as well as probably accounting for that bump in his assists per 36 minutes average. These numbers also show that while his PER and TS% have both been better than his career norms this year, they are also not quite up to career best levels, throwing a little shade on the narrative that this is the best Jordan has ever played (although one could argue that a dip in efficiency could be expected given the higher usage rate as well as the fact that he has been battling injuries all year). What is worrying, though, is that Farmar did set a new career high in turnover percentage with 19.1% of his plays ending in turnovers, his highest number since his rookie year when he posted 19%. Some of this can again be chalked up to his high usage rate and his ongoing injury struggles, but overall these numbers do not paint a strong case for Jordan playing at career best levels. That aside, his play before his most recent hamstring injury may be more indicative of future (healthy) performance than his season long numbers due to increasing comfort in Mike D'Antoni's offense as the season has progressed, and the Lakers front office will most likely be looking to keep Jordan around for next season as a productive guard option on the cheap. He has shown that when fully healthy he can be a contributor to an NBA team.

Xavier Henry

From the upset of the Clippers in the first game of the season, X has had numerous games where he flashed the potential that led Memphis to take him 12th overall in the draft. However, over the course of the season, his per 36 minutes statistics have not seen a significant improvement in most areas:

As you can see, most of Henry's numbers are slightly up from his career averages, but the only number this year to significantly rise from the mean per 36 minutes was his scoring, which while it went up 4 points, he did this on 2.3 more shots. The advanced numbers, however, paint a slightly prettier picture:

Here we do see the sum of all of the slight improvements in statistics for X. His PER, EFG%, and TS% all rose significantly this year, which can probably mostly be chalked up to the rise in his attempts of both three pointers (with a new by far career high 23% of his shots coming from distance) and free throws (up to 7.3 per 36 from a career high of 5.3), with his 3 point percentage staying around his career norm and free throw percentage improving slightly. Moreover, what is arguably most impressive is that Henry was able to improve this much while his usage rate skyrocketed to a new career high 23.2%, one would imaging largely as a product of the time he was forced to spend at point guard due to the wave of injuries decimating Lakers floor generals this year. Additionally, while playing out of position at the lead guard, Henry was able to keep his turnovers right around his career averages, not an easy task while playing a position that one has never been asked to play in the NBA before, and in an offense where the point guard is the engine that makes the entire thing go. One thing that has been a mark against Henry this year has been his extreme difficulty finishing at the rim, despite his breathtaking ability to create shots for himself there. On the plus side, this blight on his resume, in addition to his (accurate) label as injury prone, will likely cool his free agent market value to the degree that the front office would be able to retain him as another possible cheap option for next year. Even with these negatives in mind, I believe that for X the positives outweigh the negatives, and that he definitely has potential in this system if he was asked to play a slightly reduced role, and the fact that he was so well prepared to make in an impact has to be at least partially credited to the coaching of D'Antoni.

Kendall Marshall

I probably should have led with Marshall, as (at least for a while) he was exhibit A, B, and C among pundits and fans for the narrative of Mike D'Antoni empowering and improving these players. Let's take a look at how much Marshall has improved from his rookie year, keeping in mind that he was bad enough for the Suns to give up on him and the Wizards to cut him despite their own barren cupboard of backup point men:

In the case of Marshall and his small sample size of minutes, it is more illustrative to look at both his per 36 minutes stats alongside his advanced ones. And wow. Even with the caveat that he played (as of the time of this research) over 400 fewer minutes for Phoenix last season than he has thus far this season for the Lakers, the difference is stark, and does point toward the tutelage of Mike D'Antoni empowering a young player towards growth, while allowing for the possibility that it is just the natural growth of a young player given that lottery picks are expected to improve in their second year. Whatever the reasons, Marshall has shown significant improvement in his time with the Lakers, with the highlights being that while his usage rate rose up almost 3% (13.6 to 16.3), his turnover percentage actually dropped over a full percentage point. Most of his raw stats are similar, with the exception of his assists average rising by almost 4 full assists per 36 minutes, which is most likely due to his higher usage rate, as it is not like this Lakers squad is vastly outclassing the talent of the players that he had to work alongside during his rookie campaign last year in Phoenix.. Lastly, and possibly most impressively given the jump in usage rate, Marshall's efficiency rose both in terms of TS% and EFG%, with his PER also rising almost 6 points. This could also be due in part to his higher usage rate allowing him to compile a lot of the counting stats, like assists, that play into PER. So while some of Marshall's huge assist games that he has racked up this year may be somewhat smoke and mirrors, his overall uptick in efficiency has shown that in the context of this team, his absolute potential floor is as a productive backup point guard.

No matter the causes of this growth, be they the coaching of D'Antoni, the natural development of a lottery pick, or most likely a combination of factors, the Lakers do seem to have lucked into a bargain piece to evaluate next year in Kendall Marshall.

Jodie Meeks

Another player about whom the consensus seems to be that he has improved drastically this year in his first full campaign with a training camp under Mike D'Antoni. Let's look at how much:

Out of these aggregate stats per 36 minutes, there are several areas of note. For one, Jodie is shooting a career high in field goal percentage (both two point percentage and three point percentage), while also averaging a career high in points. He is averaging a few less rebounds, which is not as much of an issue as it would be if he were not a guard. Perhaps most interestingly, his raw three point attempts are at almost a career low.

Looking at his advanced statistics, there are also several numbers of interest. His PER is up a full 3 points from last year, and 2 better than his career average (his second best year by that metric ever, trailing his 09-10 season in Philadelphia). Meek's TS% is also .3% off of his career best and 3% better than his career average. His EFG% is also 3% up from his average, and is a new career high for him in the metric. A lot of this newfound efficiency is probably due to Jodie's hard work during the off-season on his finishing ability, as this year that particular aspect of his game is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was last year, when at times it could seem like he was unable to finish in the paint even if his life depended on it. Due partially in part to injuries, and part probably due to some new confidence in him from D'Antoni as a result of another off-season improvement, in this case his much better ball handling abilities, the former Wildcat sharpshooter's usage rate is also up 2.1% from his career norm, which combined with some of that usage coming out of position at point guard this year when injuries piled up probably contributed to his rise to a new career high in TOV%, with turnovers on 10.4% of his possessions. This higher usage rate also was a contributing factor to his rise in PER. Overall however, Meeks does seem to be another one of these guards that is putting up one his best career years this year for D'Antoni.

Kent Bazemore

In the case of Bazemore, and his fellow trade deadline addition MarShon Brooks after him, one has to take into account that all of these numbers in D'Antoni's system are in exceedingly small sample sizes, and thus must be taken with an entire salt shaker:

Even given the small sample size, the growth of Bazemore has been impressive. He is shooting career highs in FG%, 2P%, 3P%,TS%, and EFG%.  Most of the numbers are fairly similar to his career norms, but Bazemore's leap forward in development with the greenlight from D'Antoni to showcase himself for his next contract has been impressive, demonstrating that he may be another prospect possibly worth a roster spot and another look next year.

MarShon Brooks

The sample sizes here, at least for this season, are almost too small to be worth looking at given that the Lakers are his third team this season, but here they are anyway.

See what I mean with the small sizes skewing things? Well, we all now know for sure that the scouting reports on Brooks' love of shooting are true, with him hilariously averaging 31.2 points on 31.2 shots per 36 minutes in his 7 appearances for Golden State. He has played 11 games for LA as of this research, and possibly of note is that in those 11 games he posted career highs in most of his shooting metrics. Again, though, these sample sizes are too small to draw any real conclusions from.

Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant

These two old guys obviously do not fit the bill of "young guards for D'Antoni to improve" (although Kobe did post the highest EFG% and second highest TS% of his career last year in this offense) but they are worth a side note anyway due to their injury issues. Some of these issues are to be expected given their ages, but on the other hand it cannot be ignored that due to their age, playing at D'Antoni's preferred faster pace can lead to additional wear and tear on the body, which leaves players more susceptible to injuries, with the risks going up for older players. This is certainly not to blame Mike D'Antoni for the injury plague that this locker room has endured over the past year, because again quite a few of those players that were injured have already been shown to be "injury prone" (Henry, Farmar, etc.) or they are just aging veterans (such as Bryant and Nash); but this pace is possibly a contributing factor that cannot be ignored when looking at whether or not the front office should keep the coach for the remaining year on his contract and beyond. As nice as this production is from these players "when healthy", that has been a qualifier for too many of them this year, and the front office must take a real look at how much of these injuries can be attributed to pace of play.

To conclude part 1 of this examination of D'Antoni's effect on the players on this roster, it is clear that his system has led to positive production for most of the guards. All of these players (with the exception of Brooks, in my opinion) have shown themselves as worthy of a look in free agency if the price is right. However, I am in no way endorsing keeping all of these guys, as there has to be room for better players on next year's roster if the Lakers hope to improve on this dismal campaign. The thing that led me to this investigation was that I have heard chatter from various outlets this year that chalks up some of these improvements to empty numbers, improved raw stats due to the faster pace (2nd in the league in pace factor as of this writing), which is a valid critique for the jump in their raw stat averages, but on the flip side, that pace if anything makes some of these players growth in efficiency all the more impressive. So while I initially thought that this narrative of D'Antoni "empowering" these role players and former draft busts into career best years may have gotten started early in the year when the Lakers had a much better record than they do now, and every "flash-in-the-pan" game from one of them led to confirmation bias of it; it would seem that the improvement of these guards in this offensive system is not a mirage and does pose some significance.

For Part Two of this post, we will take a look at D'Antoni's effect on the performance of the big men on the roster relative to their career norms.

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