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    NBA Four Quarters (02/03/17)

    By Sean Pyritz


    Last week
    I detailed the case for expanding the rosters for the All-Star Game from 24 to 30. If the rosters were to be expanded, my picks for the three additional All-Stars would be as follows. Note that players who will be injured during the All-Star Break are ineligible (sorry Chris Paul).

    West



    Finally, the Utah Jazz have climbed into the upper half of the Western Conference, knocking on the door of the top four. Gordon Hayward is their star player and deserving of an All-Star selection, but Rudy Gobert has been their rock this year, playing in all 50 games as of this writing. The success of the Jazz has brought his defensive prowess into the limelight this season – he leads the league in blocks anchoring the 2nd best defense. His growth on the other side of the ball, bolstered by an incredible bevy of shooting and playmaking surrounding him, cements his spot on this All-Star team. Gobert is finishing around the rim at a rate comparable to his peers and better than at any other point in his career.



    It is hard to feel sorry for the man who owns the richest contract in NBA history, but Mike Conley's perennial All-Star rejection is transforming from sort of funny to tragic. The likely culprit for his absence this year is his missed games because Conley has put on his finest performance to date in his somewhat limited time. Conley also suffers from comparison to his Western Conference peers putting up all-time numbers. While Conley does not have the athleticism of a Westbrook, the jump shot of a Curry, or the passing vision of a Harden, he wins, particularly in crunch time, where he and Gasol take control of games to the frequent dismay of opponents.



    If Damian Lillard maintains his current production, he will become the first player in NBA history to miss the All-Star Game with the line of 26 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists. Just now entering his prime at age 26, this season has undoubtedly been his most effective, efficient, you name it of his young career. Unfortunately, the Blazers were everyone's favorite disappointing team when the All-Star teams came out (the Cavaliers own that spot currently). In the eyes of many, as the Blazers best player, Lillard shoulders significant “blame” for the Blazers subpar record. In the eyes behind these words, the best argument against Lillard is his defense, but his force of nature offense overwhelms and thus he rounds out my West roster.

    East



    No one will ever confuse Al Horford for a superstar player; too much of what he does well is indiscernible without a careful watching eye. It's even harder to discern how good he's been this year beneath the tsunami wave that is Isaiah Thomas. Statistically, Horford's numbers hold up against any of his previous All-Star appearances, with the exception of his field goal percentage, which he compensates for with additional three-pointers. Horford bolsters his case by leading all centers in assists with over five per game. The Boston Celtics are on pace for 52 wins with Horford in the lineup, a figure not solely contributable to Thomas. Boston deserves a second All-Star and Horford is that guy.



    What a remarkable season Bradley Beal is having alongside John Wall in Washington. Together, they have led the Wizards into the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture - a remarkable accomplishment given their disastrous start. The most important number for Beal is four, the number of games he has missed thus far. The oft-injured Beal is rewarding the Wizards front office for trusting him and giving him a monster five-year contract. His defensive effort may wane (as is the case with several Wizards players) but his offensive talent is All-Star worthy, especially as a shooting guard in an Eastern Conference.



    I already picked Joel Embiid to start the All-Star Game, but the coaches and media were presumably offended by his lack of games and minutes played, costing him that spot to Jimmy Butler (deserving in his own right). While Embiid would currently have played the fewest minutes of any All-Star reserve if selected, he is probably just four games away from passing the Steve Johnson 885-minute threshold – a reasonable possibility with nine games left until the break. However, I think Embiid is unfairly punished for matters outside of his control when he is not only already the best true center in the Eastern Conference, but also a superstar personality – an All-Star in every sense of the word.


    Skeptical Statistics – Possessions

    In our previous installment, I teased a skeptical analysis of the bedrock of the analytics movement – the possession. Take a look at the play below from this week's Lakers-Nuggets game.



    When Jordan Clarkson steals the ball back from Jamal Murray and then almost immediately drops the ball out of bounds, should that count as a Lakers possession? Does Clarkson ever really have the ball? With jokes about the Lakers general sloppiness aside, is this a representation of a general possession for the Lakers? These are not clear cut questions to answer and get at the heart of the complexities behind a possession. This specific example falls into a larger category of plays that I would classify as a non-possession (here specifically, I would say Denver had the ball knocked out of bounds and the possession continues, but I can see the other side). When I track games possession-by-possession by hand, there are a number of disqualifiers that eliminate a possession from consideration when calculating stats at the end of the game. Examples of these events include:

    · Loose ball fouls leading to bonus free throws
    · Fouls taken at the end of the game in a comeback attempt that lead to bonus free throws
    · End of quarter last second desperation shots

    The essence of a possession involves three things: (1) physical possession of the ball, (2) an attempt to score in a (3) reasonably normal fashion (within flow of the game). While this definition is far from direct, it is a starting to point to help establish a team's true capabilities, because, at the end of the day, the point of possession based analytics is to reflect how we can expect a team to perform on a given possession. These ancillary events muddy the waters. However, adjusting possessions for these types of plays would involve tedious tracking of games or pouring over often flawed play-by-play data, which is why most sites choose to estimate possessions. We will cover this estimation process next week.




    There is something happening down in Miami right now. An examination of their winning streak is a topic for another time when (if?) it ends. In the meantime, a special player coming off the bench deserves special recognition – James Johnson. An enigmatic journeyman, with a Josh Smith do-it-all potential to him, Johnson is on pace to play substantially more than he ever has and parlay a career year into a significant pay raise this offseason. During the Heat's win streak, it stands at nine so far, Johnson's line is impressive: 11.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game. His impact is even more prominent in the lineup data as he is featured in four of the Heat's most effective and prominent lineups during the streak. His versatility on both ends make him the perfect Swiss army knife to bring off the bench and earn our 6th Man of the Week award.


    Portland Turners

    We already discussed how Damian Lillard shoulders a disproportionate share of the blame for the Blazers struggles this year, but plenty has been written about another culprit in Portland – free agent signee Evan Turner. Obviously suffering from the transition to a new team, new city, and new system early in the year, Turner has now found a mutually beneficial home in the starting lineup. The Blazers are using Turner in a similar fashion to how the Warriors use Andre Iguodala – taking on difficult defensive assignments and handling the ball, allowing Lillard and McCollum to move off the ball more like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The results have been fantastic – Portland is 4-2 with a positive 4.7-point differential since the change. Whether it's the new role as a starter or a growing comfort with new teammates, Turner is turning around what was looking like a graveyard season for himself and the Blazers.
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