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Into the Wormhole: Lost In NBA Numbers

Felipe Melecio looks at the 2015 NBA season through his advanced stats NBA goggles.

NBA, Tim Duncan


As the NBA tips off another season, the Association is littered with plenty of narratives: will LeBron James finally lead the city of Cleveland to a championship? Is this Kobe Bryant‘s final season? Will Derrick Rose finally stay healthy for a full season? Is this Kevin Durant‘s final season in OKC? Is this the year Anthony Davis wins MVP? Can the Golden State Warriors repeat?

Another contending team, the San Antonio Spurs, also created major headlines when it was announced they had acquired prized free agent, LaMarcus Aldridge. A passing of the torch of sorts, the Spurs have a player they can build around as soon as Tim Duncan decides it is time to retire. In the meantime, they will be contending for a title.

Offensively, the Spurs should be good to go. Defensively, however, is where many pundits have questions as both Duncan and Aldridge, for some reason, are perceived to be soft, frontcourt players. Who will protect the paint and the rim in San Antonio?

For that, we take a closer look at advanced stats available at NBA.com. Taking a look at last season’s individual players’ opponent shooting percentages, we can see who the “best” players are at every part of the floor from a defensive standpoint.

RESTRICTED AREA

We begin with the Spurs’ “problem” and that’s the rim area. Ranking every player by Field Goal Percentage Against in the Restricted Area (the dotted area in the paint, underneath the basket; minimum 16.4 average field goal attempts against (106 players ranked)), we can see a usual list of suspects:

Ibaka, no surprise here, had the lowest opponent FG% in the restricted area last season (53.8 percent). His teammate, Durant, was second at 54.7 percent. Gasol was third at 54.8 percent. In fourth, was Gasol’s teammate, Jimmy Butler (55.0). Throw in Rose (55.4) and Noah (56.6) and one can see why the Chicago Bulls had a reputation for defensive prowess last year.

In ninth was Tim Duncan (56.0 percent), despite his advanced age and deteriorating athleticism, opponents had a hard time shooting close to the basket whenever Duncan was defending the area. Which would bring us to Aldridge, who many people questioned as a rim protector. At 59.8 percent, Aldridge ranks in the top 50 players in this category (43rd overall) alongside his ex-teammate, Nicolas Batum and fellow big-men, Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani.

IN THE PAINT

What about the rest of the paint? We can also view Field Goal Percentage in the Paint (non-Restrictive Area–minimum 7.5 field goal attempts in this area; 98 players ranked). At 34.8 percent, both Zach Randolph and Kevin Durant led the league in this category. Ibaka was 12th this time around, but a guy like Tyson Chandler finished in fourth (35.1). Other notable big men include:

In terms of frontcourt players, not many surprises are seen here. So we go back to Duncan and Aldridge. How do they stack up? Duncan ranked 27th in this category. As one can see, Duncan is comfortably anchored below the rim on defense. As far as Aldridge goes, he ranked 64th in this category (40.4). So the Spurs have two guys who do a good job of protecting the rim, but might struggle against some of the more skilled, big men who don’t have to be too close to the basket in order to score.

LUCKY NUMBER EIGHT

We can even look at distance in both five and eight-foot intervals. In this case, we’ll see how the duo does with opponents attempting field goals at less than eight feet from the basket (minimum average field goal attempts of 21.5; 103 players ranked).

No surprise, there’s Ibaka at the top spot. There’s Butler in second and Durant at third. Duncan is ninth (51.6). Not mentioned before is the fact that the versatile Kawhi Leonard ranks pretty highly in these scenarios (51.9). Aldridge ranked 34th (53.9) in this category.

So perhaps Aldridge and Duncan might not be an elite duo when it comes to protecting the rim this upcoming season, but they can still be a pretty good defensive pairing.

I’M THE CAPTAIN NOW

Much of a deal was made in Chicago about the Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose rift. Rose still believes he’s the leader of the team. Butler, who just inked a new long-term deal, thinks he should be the man. Not just from an intangible standpoint, but also thinks he should get more touches, more shots, more points, more everything. The offense should go through Jimmy.

Unfortunately for Butler, Rose is still the point guard and has the ability to score without the need of teammates setting him up. Looking at Percent of Field Goals Made Unassisted (basically, the percentage of times a player did not need help to score baskets), Rose led the Bulls in this category at 65.4 percent. Pau Gasol and Butler finished as distant runner-ups (38.1 and 37.1 percent respectively).

To Butler’s credit, he has been improving his mid-range game since his second season (his first full season in the NBA), has looked to aggressively draw fouls, and his unassisted field goals made percentages have also gone up, but that’s mainly due to the absence of Rose. So it will be very interesting to see if Butler can continue to improve his offensive game and co-exist with another player who also demands the ball at all times.

Read More: NBA DFS Primer, Guiding Thoughts

Photo Credit: Erik Thureson / Fox Sports / Flickr / Creative Commons 2.0

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