Michael Lewis’ piece from the Sunday New York Times on Shane Battier and the Rockets has made the rounds, but I wanted to zero in on a particularly insightful morsel buried deep in the article:
I spent the second half with Sam Hinkie, the vice president of basketball operations and the head of basketball analytics in the Rockets’ front office. The game went back and forth. Bryant kept missing more shots than he made. Neither team got much of a lead. More remarkable than the game were Hinkie’s reactions — and it soon became clear that while he obviously wanted the Rockets to win, he was responding to different events on the court than the typical Rockets (or N.B.A.) fan was.
“I care a lot more about what ought to have happened than what actually happens,” said Hinkie, who has an M.B.A. from Stanford. The routine N.B.A. game, he explained, is decided by a tiny percentage of the total points scored. A team scores on average about 100 points a game, but two out of three N.B.A. games are decided by fewer than 6 points — two or three possessions. The effect of this, in his mind, was to raise significantly the importance of every little thing that happened. The Lakers’ Trevor Ariza, who makes 29 percent of his 3-point shots, hit a crazy 3-pointer, and as the crowd moaned, Hinkie was almost distraught. “That Ariza shot, that is really painful,” he said. “Because it’s a near-random event. And it’s a 3-point swing.” When Bryant drove to the basket, instead of being forced to take a jump shot, he said: “That’s three-eighths of a point. These things accumulate.”
In this probabilistic spirit we watched the battle between Battier and Bryant. From Hinkie’s standpoint, it was going extremely well: “With most guys, Shane can kick them from their good zone to bad zone, but with Kobe you’re just picking your poison. It’s the epitome of, Which way do you want to die?” Only the Rockets weren’t dying. Battier had once again turned Bryant into a less-efficient machine of death. Even when the shots dropped, they came from the places on the court where the Rockets’ front office didn’t mind seeing them drop. “That’s all you can do,” Hinkie said, after Bryant sank an 18-footer. “Get him to an inefficient spot and contest.” And then all of a sudden it was 97-95, Lakers, with a bit more than three minutes to play, and someone called timeout. “We’re in it,” Hinkie said, happily. “And some of what happens from here on will be randomness.”
Hinkie’s point is important: If Trevor Ariza is launching contested 3-point shots, your team has accomplished its goal defensively — even if Ariza’s 3PA falls through the basket. If you take tonight’s game against PHX as an example, it’s important to know that Steve Nash is a decidedly better player driving to his left than driving to his right. Baron is probably aware of this and, as a result, will shade him right. [Whatever issues you might have with Baron, he's always been a heady one-on-one defender when he wants to be.] It’s equally important that you funnel Nash left because, believe it or not, he’s a lousy mid-range jump shooter from the left side of the floor this season. Now, if the Clippers accomplish that, close quickly, and Nash still hits those shots, well…sometimes the dealer draws to 21. You can control how you play the percentages, but you can’t control the outcome.
Offensively, the Clippers need to work for high-percentage shots, irrespective if they go in, which is Hinkie’s outlook. Did you know that Eric Gordon’s PPP is almost twice as high when he catches-and-shoots than when he takes a dribble [1.13 v. 0.67]? That he’s far more efficient when he drives to the hole than when he pulls up, even from short distance — especially when he goes left? That if he’s filling the left lane in transition, the Clippers are far more likely to convert than if he’s on the right side?
Zach Randolph is pretty damned efficient when he opts for a face-up jumper in isolation from the right side, and he’s deadly as a spot-up shooter, converting 1.15 points per possession in that situation.
If the Clippers want to maximize Al Thornton’s efficiency, they should have him drive the baseline from the left side. If he insists on a pull-up jumper, he’s almost twice as likely to convert points from the left side than the right. And most surprisingly, Thornton is a very efficient post player on the right block. This presents complications if Zach is in the game, but Dunleavy might want to consider featuring Al there at times, particularly against a smaller defender.
There will always be nights — particularly on the road — when shots don’t fall. But now that the Clippers are comparatively healthy, try watching the game like you’re Sam Hinkie, with an eye toward each shot attempt and its likelihood to produce points. Cheer when the Clippers generate a high-percentage shot, even if it doesn’t go in. At the same time, sit on your hands if Al launches a contested no-dribble jumper, a situation in which he’s terribly inefficient, even if he drains it.