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Waterbugging Out

US Presswire

US Presswire

We are proud to feature this guest post from Seth Partnow. Seth is the creative mind behind the blog, Where Offense Happens, and can be found on Twitter, @WhrOffnsHppns.

Ty Lawson was a spectacular college player, arguably the best player on a North Carolina national championship team filled with future pros. He was drafted 18th. “Cardiac” Kemba Walker dragged a marginal Connecticut squad to a title, and was considered a reach when taken with the 9th pick. Trey Burke was national player of the year and lead Michigan to the championship game, yet fell to 9th as well. Isaiah Thomas was mostly noted for his near mononymity with Piston’s Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas, and seemed to fully embody the “Mr. Irrelevant” label given to the final pick in the draft when he was selected 60th in 2011.

Redrafting recent NBA drafts with perfect hindsight is always a fun game, especially in the wake of a general manager getting fired. Of course, this isn’t the least bit fair. Every draft is something of a crapshoot. Sheer math indicates that most players will fail. Of those that actually stick for more than a couple of seasons, an increasingly small number will reach each rung on the pyramid of NBA success. There are only about 240 rotation slots in the NBA, with maybe 60 (2 per team) opening in a given year. Competing for those spots are not only the 60 players drafted each season, but the roughly 200 non-rotation players on NBA rosters, the entirety of the NBDL and legion of European pros (be they overlooked American college stars, South Americans or native Greeks, Italians and Spaniards). Against this fierce competition, the inexactitudes of project the future skills and developments of an 18-to-21 year-old naturally lead to some mistakes which look silly in retrospect but actually represent the vagaries of chance.

That said, if a specific player type is consistently undervalued, that represents a systemic inefficiency, and running those drafts back would show most of the players mentioned above (not to mention other “scoring” point guards like Stephen Curry, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic) being selected significantly higher. Lawson arguably goes 4th knowing what we know now. Thomas is at worst a mid-first rounder and probably a top 10 pick, Burke goes no lower than about 6th in this past draft. Only Walker (who was seen as a reach at the time as the #9 pick) gets drafted in the same range. The reasons for the low value placed on this type of player was clear even to the most casual observer:

“Too small. Won’t be able to finish in traffic or get his shot off. Never be able to guard anybody.”

Since before Bobby Hurley was making his name as one of the greatest NCAA players of all time at Duke, the above mantra surfaced nearly every year at draft time to help explain why the latest superb collegiate playmaker was a long shot to even make the league, let alone become a high lottery pick. The ever increasing athleticism and size of the NBA player made the diminutive floor generals either an oddity (Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb), a throwback to an earlier era (Nate “Tiny” Archibald) or a burden for a team to overcome on the road to success rather than a cause of that success (Avery Johnson).

The NBA game allowed far more physicality than the collegiate version, with teams taking ever more aggressive approaches to intimidation and deterrence in the painted area.  Football metaphors became common, with championship contenders openly referring to the basket area as the “red zone” where no further progress was allowed without extensive body contact.  Even on the perimeter the league’s growing infatuation with finding the “next Magic” put a premium on size and strength over speed and skill.

This premium was evident in the order of selection in the NBA draft. From 1994 (the first year where the ultra-rough style patterned after Pat Riley’s Knicks became prevalent with the first retirement of Michael Jordan) til the rule changes cutting down on physicality on the perimeter, only three small  (by NBA standards) point guards without the otherworldly athleticism of an Allen Iverson or Stephon Marbury have been picked in the top ten – Damon Stoudamire, 7th in 1995; Mike Bibby, 2nd in 1998; and T.J. Ford, 8th in 2003.

Ford’s career is instructive as to the problems facing the diminutive point guard in the bygone era. Though not directly attributable to a specific play or collision, he missed what would have been his entire second season with a back problem. He performed well when he was able to stay on the court, but never played more than 75 games in a season. Ford only played 70 or more games three times in his eight years before retiring in 2012 at the age of 28 due to numerous scares related to his long-standing spinal issues. Without drawing a direct link between the overt physicality allowed early in his career to its untimely end, Ford’s plight embodied the fears of NBA teams — why risk a high draft pick on a player of slight stature and build who simply wouldn’t hold up to the punishment of the league’s grueling schedule?

In fact, over the period between 1994 and 2004, surprisingly few “pure” point guards were taken at all, with teams preferring to take wings with good ball-handling skills and “convert” them to point guards. Sometimes this was relatively successful, such as with Jalen Rose. Other times the attempted change didn’t take, and the player became an unreconstructed chucker like Jamal Crawford, or simply a good passing power forward such as Boris Diaw. The “pure” points who DID get drafted highly were either athletic freaks such as Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, or bruising types such as Chauncey Billups and Antonio Daniels.  A few perimeter-oriented players without the explosiveness of the top picks were selected, but these late round selections (Jacque Vaughn) were taken with the sure knowledge they would top out as competent backups.

Then, in 2004-2005, the league issued pre-season directives aimed at “cleaning up” the game by limiting the hand-checking that was turning attempts at any sort of dribble drive-based offense into rugby scrums and shot clock violations. The new found freedom of movement made rapid changes to the balance of power between offense and defense. Leaguewide offense increased from an average of 186.6 total points per game to 194.4. And this was not simply (or really at all) attributable to a quicker pace of play. Though pace did rise slightly, with teams combining for between one and two more total possessions in a game, on a per possession basis, offense rose sharply as well, with teams averaging 3.2 more points per 100 possessions than in 2003-2004. This remains the largest increase in scoring during the three-point era with only one other season even seeing a 2 point rise per hundred possessions. That was between 1993-94 and 1994-1995, which was not coincidentally the offseason during which the league began its three-year experiment with a shorter three-point line. In other words, the crackdown on hand-checking overlapped with an increase in offense more than 50% bigger than during a season in which the league made it easier to score by literally awarding more points to some made baskets.

The increased freedom of movement allowed by the elimination or at least severe reduction of perimeter hand-checking led to lower turnovers and better shooting from all over the court.  In 2003-2004, teams averaged a shade under 15 3PA/GM, though it has risen unevenly, this number has gone up year on year to an all-time high of 21.2 3PA/GM during the current season. This was also the beginning of the realization of the value of the three-point shot, especially of the corner three.

Though the effects of these changes are subtle, it can be easily deduced what skillsets should become more valuable as the league moves from an era of physical intimidation to one with more freedom of movement and wider spaces due to offenses spreading across the entire width of the court. Relatively speaking, the player who can initiate or take contact and bull his way into the lane is less valuable, while the one who can beat his defender off the dribble with quickness before hitting shooters on the outside; also being able to catch and shoot from distance himself, becomes more important.

Naturally, the transition wasn’t instantaneous. Established players with guaranteed contracts still held primacy, and further, the drafting strategies of teams did not change, at least not right away. Though the 2005 draft saw three points taken in the first five picks in Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Ray Felton, this was both an aberration and a demonstration of this point. The #2 pick in that draft was Marvin Williams, an undeveloped 6th man in his one year at North Carolina. Further, Deron Williams, and to some degree Felton, fit the old profile of the rugged, physically stout points who had come to dominate during the late 90s. It’s easy to say with perfect hindsight, but if the degree to which the NBA would become a Point Guards league was understood at all at the time, Paul would have gone 2nd at the lowest in that draft.

The next several drafts fit the old pattern – 2006, there wasn’t a pure PG drafted until Rajon Rondo at 21, followed by Kyle Lowry and Jordan Farmar in the late first round, while Randy Foye was drafted 7th with the intention of seeing if the slightly undersized 2 by NBA standards could become a point. The points taken in the lottery in 2008 were both athletic marvels, built like tailbacks in Derrick Rose and Jerry Bayless. The much taller, longer George Hill was the only other lead guard taken in the first round, at 26th by San Antonio. Looking back, that draft stands out for two players taken in the second round in Mario Chalmers and especially Goran Dragic who have taken great advantage of the league’s reliance on shooting and spacing. It is hard to imagine Dragic’s herky-jerky style being as effective in a league where defenders could simply lean on him with impunity.

2009 brought in a bumper crop of point men, with 11 selected in the first round.  But even though the number of points taken was high, the order of selection still showed an imperfect understanding of the new environment. The bruising Tyreke Evans was the first point selected, followed by two more with, at the very least, questionable shooting touches in Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn (both were taken by the Timberwolves, but readers in Minnesota will appreciate me not picking at that particular scab). It wasn’t until Steph Curry was selected 7th that a small, sharp-shooting point was taken. And there was question as to whether Curry was actually a point or a shooting guard. In fact it wasn’t until the Bucks selected Brandon Jennings at 10 that any of the guards selected completely fit the new profile. In 2011, while Kyrie Irving was selected first, he was a bigger, more physical point guard in a completely uncertain draft.  The next point taken was the muscular Brandon Knight at 8th followed by Walker. The pick was widely panned at the time as Walker was, you guessed it, “too small.” Thomas was almost literally an afterthought as the 60th and final pick.

Some quick statistical comparisons between the small point guards and the more phyisical players picked ahead of them is instructive. Obviously, statistics only tell part of the story, as injuries, roles and team context all factor heavily in a players’ output. Still it is hard to argue that Lawson has not been a significantly more productive NBA player than Evans:

Walker and Knight have both toiled on poor teams in Charlotte and in Detroit and Milwaukee respectively, but Walker has the definite edge especially in playmaking categories indicative of “point guard” skills:

And finally, despite Irving’s status as a All-star starter and probably Team USA selection, a comparison between him and Thomas belies the fact there were 58 players selected between them:

Even though Burke was the second point guard taken (assuming Orlando was fibbing when they claimed to want to turn Victor Oladipo into a lead guard, an experiment which predictably resulted in a blizzard of early season turnovers) his was a divisive selection, with questions about his defense, size and durability abounding. Though he has had an up-and-down season like many rookies, it is inescapable that Utah is far superior with him in the lineup: the Jazz have averaged 8.7 pts/100 possessions more on offense since Burke became a full time starter in late November. Without his absence for the first month of the season which allowed the early season flash of Michael Carter-Williams to take the pole position, Burke might well be considered a rookie of the year front-runner for his part in leading Utah on the path towards respectability. The Jazz are 16-20 with Burke starting and 1-13 without.

Looking at some of the specific ways in which the rule changes have benefited the smaller, quicker players, take the humble pick-and-roll. Whereas in the past a bigger stronger defender might be able to fight over a ball screen by bumping the ball-handler. These days, such a play is a near automatic foul call:


In Cole Patty’srecent profile of Lawson, he described some of the ways in which Lawson is able to use his speed and quickness to wreak havoc on a defense through both pure speed as well as the trickery of changes of pace. For example, while many players catch the ball from a standing start at the three point line before attacking, Lawson likes to catch the ball already on the move, blowing by a close out with his explosive first step:


Under the old regime, Jack could simply have put on arm bar on Lawson, using his superior size to impede Ty’s progress to the hoop, but since Jack knows any handsiness will be whistled, he is powerless to intervene. Of course if a defender is too deferential to Lawson’s speed, Lawson’s shooting ability is plenty sufficient to make the opposition pay:


These two plays represent the essential dilemma in which this breed of lighting quick, sharpshooting guards place the opposition. But is more than simply the ability to score in multiple ways. The inability to body check the ball handler in the pick-and-roll and similar plays has allowed these smaller guards to get into the middle of the defense, creating not just for themselves, but for others:


A player of Thomas’s size would have had a much more difficult time making this play in the past. Prior to 2005, Bayless would have been able to use his superior bulk to stop Thomas from using the screen at all by jumping up into his path:

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But since this bodycheck would be called a foul a majority of the time now, Bayless is forced to navigate over the screen and rely on Jared Sullinger, guarding the screener, to slow Thomas down. This puts Sullinger in an untenable position:

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Both Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins have lanes to the basket, Sullinger is forced to pick one, in this case stopping Thomas:

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Leaving Cousins a free roll into a layin:

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With the increased difficulty in containing ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll game, defenses became more sophisticated, using elaborate trapping and hedging systems which would hopefully allow defenders time to react, contain and recover to their own men. Here again, the quickness and nous of this new style of point guard serves them in good stead. A prime way to attack this trapping “ice” style of pick-and-roll coverage is for the ball-handler to “snake”, that is to dribble back in front of his screener, allowing him to beat the defense to the middle of the floor:

Of course this defense required mobile big men and was open to exploitation as the more mobile and/or better shooting screeners simply rolled earlier into open shots and drives.  Much more common now is the “ICE” (alternatively “blue” or “down” or a number of other terms) technique, where the man defending the ball moves forces the ball-handler away from the middle of the court where the screen defender has already set up a trap:


Again, the speed and quickness of these smaller points is sufficient to make up (at least offensively, many of these same players are defensively challenged!) for their lack of size and bulk. Despite the continued demonstration that these little men can make big difference among the giants of the NBA, it remains to be seen when or even if decision makers leaguewide will take notice. Certainly, the swiftly rising draft stock of Tyler Ennis would seem to indicate notice has been taken. Yet Ennis is the only player under 6’4 projected as a first rounder on DraftExpress’s latest mock. Perhaps a wise team will be rewarded for reaching on one of the current crop of waterbugs, such as Shabazz Napier of Connecticut, Keith Appling of Michigan State or Russ Smith of Louisville? Recent history suggests this is gamble worth taking.

  • drew

    In previous eras, it was standard for defenders to legally camp in the paint while guarding their man because there was no defensive 3 second rule and offensive players took all their shots closer to the basket (no threes)… this environment of exclusively taking 2-point shots and doing so in tight quarters meant that scoring 20 ppg in previous eras required a totally different skill set than scoring 20 ppg in today’s game of 3-pointers and offensive spacing.
    in today’s game, mid-range shots are shunned and perceived as lower percentage, tougher shots… but in previous eras, this was the only way to score… many of today’s players would struggle severely and be wildly inefficient in an environment of 2-point-shooting and no floor spacing to open up the paint area for high percentage looks… then when you consider the hand-checking and allowance of a more physical brand of basketball, you wonder just how many of today’s players would not make it in previous eras…
    for starters, at least 100 of today’s players would not make it in say 1986 because there were only 20 teams.

  • drew

    Lebron gets his stats and efficiency in an era of less physicality, offensive spacing, 3-pt shooting and optimal shot allocation strategy (3-pointers and layups), so Lebron’s stats cannot be compared like apples to apples with the greats of previous eras that played in eras without offensive spacing or 3-pointers, and where far more physicality and contested, “suboptimal” 2-pointers were the standard……………..

    how would LeBron fare taking all contested two’s like say Jordan had to do in 1988? Could he still shoot 60% true shooting like Jordan did? Lebron would not be able to employ his 3-pointers and layups strategy, because that strategy is only feasible WITH the offensive spacing the 3-pointers provide, and LeBron would not have this spacing in previous eras – LeBron would HAVE to shoot contested two-pointers as a standard like everyone else…. to be a top scorer in say 1987, you HAD to have an elite mid-range game – virtually every top scorer from that era did.

    • DrewIsAHater

      Is that why Sir Charles Barkley was so turrrible? No, he was a damn beast. Lebron is considered faster than most in a league were speed is key. He also has one of the highest basketball IQ of any player in the league. I wonder what other greats had high basketball IQ but were not shooters? Oh, Magic Johnson! Oh yeah, he was total garbage from what everyone remembers.

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