Why Have the Warriors Struggled Versus Houston?

(Written for Blue Man Hoop)

In the last 8 days, the Warriors have suffered two discouraging losses to the Houston Rockets. The first, a blowout in Houston, saw the Warriors score only 83.2 points per 100 possessions while allowing 105.2.  James Harden scored 34 points on a 65.5 percent true shooting percentage, while Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson were held to a combined 12-of-40 shooting.  Monday night, the Warriors lost the rematch in Oakland.  Though the offense was excellent, scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions, the Rockets surpassed it, scoring 117.7.

In both games against the Rockets, the Warriors have seemed overmatched. Houston’s offense has effortlessly sliced through the Warriors defense while the Warriors offense has at times been slowed, especially when Diwght Howard and Patrick Beverley share the court. While both Houston games were played without Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ matchup issues seem significant.  Patrick Beverley fits the mold for Curry defenders. Quick and physical, Beverley is able to deny open shots from the perimeter, forcing Curry into a lurking Dwight Howard in the paint.  Howard also has a significant effect in denying Curry on the perimeter.  His ability to hedge and recover on screens, contrary to the Rockets’ typical strategy, gives the Houston perimeter time to recover to Curry without surrendering easy baskets to the role man. Part of this is due to Andrew Bogut’s offensive limitations.  When Howard is defending Bogut, he can hedge a few extra steps on Curry, and play aggressive off ball help defense, knowing that Bogut must reach the basket to be effective offensively. In the two games versus Houston, Curry has scored 42 points on 35 true shooting attempts (possessions used excluding turnovers).  While his 57.1 percent true shooting percentage versus Houston is only slightly below the season average of 59.5, Curry has struggled from the field. Ignoring the free throws that have salvaged his scoring, Curry has scored .846 points per shot.

The real offensive struggles come from the pieces surrounding Curry.  Harrison Barnes has shot a mediocre 50 percent true shooting percentage versus Houston, while Klay Thompson has shot a mind-numbingly horrendous 33.9 true shooting percent, per NBA Wowy.  While Barnes has not excelled, he has not been especially damaging. Thompson, typically an efficient scorer, has crippled the Warriors offense.

Here is Thompson’s shot chart versus Houston, via NBA.com

(Disclaimer: the following should not be viewed by children below the age of 13)

Picture 6


Part of Thompson’s struggles, beyond field goal variance, may be due to the defensive burden of defending James Harden. When Iguodala returns, Thompson may have more success offensively simply due to the decreased expenditure of energy on defense.

David Lee also creates some damaging matchup issues versus Houston.  Lee is too slow to defend wings in Houston’s four-out attack, and does nothing to slow guards against the pick and roll. ESPN writer Ethan Strauss made a video displaying Lee’s struggles defending Terrence Jones in the first game versus Houston:

The Warriors struggles versus Houston, though not entirely condemning, are an issue.  The Warriors have not done an effective job optimizing the expected value of a high percentage of their possessions. To overcome Houston, and many of the West’s great teams, the Warriors must do a better job positioning themselves for success.

Old Dogs, Same Tricks


The more things change, the more they stay the same – or so it is said.  Last season, I wrote about the Spurs’ use of Tim Duncan in pin-down sets, focusing on a game winning play versus the Los Angeles Clippers.

Nine months later, San Antonio faced a similar situation. With possession in the final moments of their game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Spurs were able to gain the lead with a two point attempt. Famous for their motion sets, San Antonio often runs loop plays that flow into pick and rolls for Tony Parker, or sets to free shooters in the corner.  NBA teams rarely rely on big men in end of game situations. Big men are less able to score with only the single move allowed for by the time restraints, while their position on the court makes a clean entry pass less likely. The Spurs entered the ball to Manu Ginobili in what appeared to be the beginnings of a motion set, or a basic isolation. However, rather than running to the corner, the in bounds passer set an unexpected screen for Duncan, freeing the aging center for the game winning jump shot.

Although neither complicated nor especially well executed, this play reveals a subtle piece of the Spurs excellence. From Tony Parker’s off-beat finishes to Kawhi Leonard’s defensive wanderings, the Spurs are able to play off the expectations of their opponents, creating the minute advantages needed to swing possessions, games, and seasons.

Nightly Picks: 11-19-13


Minnesota Timberwolves (-3.5) at Washington Wizards

Washington’s defense, absent Emeka Okafor, has not yet approached last year’s potency, while John Wall and Bradley Beal have struggled offensively.  They face the Timberwolves, who, after a season of three point ineptitude, rifled the barrels of their once useless muskets, adding Kevin Martin and a healthy Kevin Love.  Now, the Minnesota offense is among the best in the league. While Minnesota’s lack of rim protection remains an issue, they rebound well enough to muster a respectably efficient defense.  The John Wall-Ricky Rubio matchup will be fun.  Both point guards are creative passers -Rubio especially so- and pesky defenders.

Detroit Pistons (-4) versus New York Knicks

Though Tyson Chandler is considered the anchor of the Knicks’ defense, it is their offense that has suffered most dramatically in his absence.  New York has taken threes at a much lower rate compared to last season, and is embroiled in typical Knickerbocker dysfunction.  Carmelo Anthony will have many opportunities to score against Corey Brewer and Minnesota, however it is unlikely that he or the rest of the Knicks can overcome a more talented, less dysfunctional Minnesota team.

Atlanta Hawks (+9.5) at Miami Heat

Houston Rockets (-11) versus Boston Celtics

Phoenix Suns (+1.5) at Sacramento Kings

The Hidden Value of Stephen Curry

Centuries from now, as our descendants laugh at the misguided politicians denying the presence of a global cooling epidemic, the preachers will tell tales of the legend that was Stephen Curry, he of the golden jump shot, flames spewing from his fingertips. No spot on the court was free of his fury, no shot too far, no lane too tight.  However, for all the glorious parts to his game, one significant facet often goes unmentioned.

Watch the Thunder defend Curry on this possession:

The Warriors set a basic down screen for Curry. Typically, a player would run outside the screen closer to the sideline.  Russell Westbrook knows this, and, wanting to deny the jump shot, tries to fight over Bogut’s screen rather than sliding under.  Curry recognizes Westbrook’s strategy, and cuts back on the other side of the screen.  Steven Adams, Oklahoma City’s rookie center, steps towards Curry to delay his catch and give Westbrook time to recover. This action gives Bogut an easy lane to the hope, and, more importantly, Adams almost definitely knows this.

A huge portion of the value of Curry’s shooting is not the shooting itself, but the threat.  Players know that the expected value of a Curry three is very high. Per Vantage Sports, Curry shoots 55 percent on three point attempts after using an off ball screen. To put that in perspective, a Curry three point attempt off a screen is worth 165 points per 100 possessions. The Miami Heat, the league’s best offense, score 111.5 points per 100 possessions.

Against nearly every other player in the league, Adams would simply allow the player to receive the ball a bit more open than usual, trusting Westbrook to recover.  Against Curry, Adams takes two steps to hedge, hoping that Serge Ibaka can rotate to Bogut with minimal time.

Stephen Curry is already considered one of the most productive offensive players in the league.  His passing creates a variety of opportunities for teammates, while few parallel his scoring prowess. However, the attention Curry draw’s off the ball is itself incredibly valuable.  While many factors have contributed to his success, Andre Iguodala is having the best season of his career in part because of the space he receives playing alongside Curry.

Offensive creation is often discussed, and, with the emergence of SportsVu and similar technologies, we will soon be able to quantify what was once an ephemeral description.  Stephen Curry’s mere presence shapes the movements of everyone on the court, and, while the magnitude of this effect remains unknown to the common observer, NBA teams can make much more concrete judgements, measuring the deviance from expected location of defenders in Curry’s presence, or similar actions.

Nightly Picks: Night Two

Once more unto the breach, dear friends”


In which our valiant hero again attempts to conquer the enigmatic lands of predictive analysis.

Miami Heat (-12.5) versus Milwaukee Bucks

The Heat, as per usual, have not had a strong start to the season.  However, with Larry Sanders expected to miss the next six or so weeks, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade should not have too difficult a time finishing through the Milwaukee defense. At least Sanders thumb did the world a service before its demise:

Washington Wizards (+6.5) at Dallas Mavericks

Coming off what may be their best game of the year, an overtime loss to the Thunder, Washington looks to take advantage of a mediocre Dallas defense.  Through eight games the Mavericks have surrendered 106 points per 100 possessions.  While Washington has been no better on the season, the integration of Marcin Gortat has slowed their progression towards last season’s levels. While the absence of Emeka Okafor removes the anchor of what was a top five defensive unit, Washington retains the surrounding personnel.  Okafor, while good, is not irreplaceable.

Detroit Pistons (+10) at Golden State Warriors

Despite two recent losses, the first without Steph Curry, the Warriors have impressed to start the season. Detroit, contrary to expectations, has overcome spacing issues on offense, scoring 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Detroit, on the second night of a back to back, appears unlikely to win in Oakland, but has the interior defensive presence to mitigate the chances of a dramatic blowout.

New Orleans Pelicans (-2) at Los Angeles Lakers

While the Pelicans have suffered through offensive and defensive inconsistency to begin the season, they have one significant advantage over the Lakers: good players.  Los Angeles has done a good job embracing the high variance strategies optimal for underdogs, gunning threes and gambling defensively, but has already lost to the Pelicans, and does not have the defense to contain New Orleans’ bevy of creators.

Also of note:


Nightly Picks: The Return

To the degenerate gamblers worldwide, for they shall inherit the earth… on this next hand, I swear.


Atlanta Hawks (-2.5) at Charlotte Bobcats

Although both teams are 3 and 3, this is not an even game.  Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System ranks Atlanta at 0.00, exactly average, while Charlotte is -5.75 27th in the league.  While SRS is not incredibly predictive, it provides a nice summary of the relative schedule difficulty and performance of teams. With the much maligned Josh Smith and his shot selection now in Detroit, the Atlanta defense has suffered.  Al Horford is a very good defender, and one of my favorite players in the league, but he cannot entirely compensate for Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver’s weak perimeter defense and Paul Millsap’s absent interior protection.  However, the Atlanta offense has been excellent, scoring 106.9 points per 100 possessions, and Charlotte, while better than in years past, is simply not a very good team.

Memphis Grizzlies (+6.5) at Indiana Pacers

Indiana, though undefeated, has not been untouchable to start the season, facing close finishes versus the Pelicans and Nets.  The excellent defense typical of these teams has only consistently appeared in Indiana, as Memphis has allowed 105.1 points per 100 possessions 18th in the league.  However, so long as Memphis has Marc Gasol and Tony Allen on the roster they should capable of dominant defensive performances, especially against an Indiana offense that is prone to some very ugly spurts, scoring 102.6 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the league.  Do not think that the Pacers are “due” for a loss, a basic gambler’s fallacy. Indiana is 5-2 against the spread (Memphis is only 1-5), and 6.5 quite a few points to be giving a team that just shut down the mighty Warriors offense.

San Antonio Spurs (-6.5) At Philadelphia 76ers

Although Philadelphia, with the emergence of Michael Carter-Williams, is a more talented team than expected, the Spurs, resolute in their march against time, will not halt for the upstart Sixers. San Antonio has been out of rhythm offensively, but boasts the third best defense in the league, allowing 96.7 points per 100 possessions.  Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green leave San Antonio capable of defending Philadelphia’s perimeter creators, while Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes can do little to defend Tony Parker’s forays to the rim.

Orlando Magic (+3) at Boston Celtics

In this matchup of expected tankers, one bold team must shrug off the narrative and win.  Of course, the Magic have actually done a pretty good job of this so far, beating the Clippers and destroying the Nets and Pelicans.  While the Celtics have three wins as well, including a win over Orlando, they have not played at the same level.  Both the Celtics offense and defense rank below Orlando’s, and, without Rajon Rondo in the mix, Orlando has a much more talented squad. Home court advantage has historically been worth around three points, meaning Vegas thinks that these teams are approximately even (or at least they think that the betting public thinks so, which may be a more accurate conclusion).  Orlando, despite what single game results may show, has been a better team so far this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers (+8) at Chicago Bulls

It may have been more efficient to abandon these picks and simply say “all the road teams”.  Both Cleveland and Chicago have struggled this season. Chicago should be a much better team, but has not adapted to a re-structured read-and-react offense and is not performing near its potential defensively.  Cleveland, much like Chicago, has floundered on offense, as Mike Brown coached teams are wont to do, but has excelled defensively, as is also typical of teams under Mike Brown’s tutelage.

Utah Jazz (+3) versus Denver Nuggets

The first home team picked on the night, Utah, faces a team whose starting center, Javale McGee, is expected to miss an extended period of time with a stress fracture in his left leg.  While Javale has not exactly excelled to start the season, anything that results in more minutes for J.J. Hickson is inherently bad. The Jazz awful start to the season may be remedied by every NBA teams favorite medicine, an opponent completely lacking in defense.

Detroit Pistons (+4.5) at Portland Trailblazers

Detroit and Portland are in similar positions. Both teams have solid young cores, along with veteran stars in Josh Smith and LaMarcus Aldridge, and are fighting for a playoff spot from the fringes of their conference.  However, the Pistons and Blazers face contrasting problems. Detroit faces a spacing crisis, but should be an effective defensive team, while Portland has incredible offensive firepower and little to back it up on the other end.

Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Clippers: Off the Board

As of 12:06 Monday morning, Pinnacle Sports and Bovada Online have not released a line for this matchup.  I would guess that the Clippers, at home, will be favored by around three points.  Both teams offer incredible offenses, questionable defenses, and MVP candidates. This should be a very, very fun game.

A Look Into Tyreke Evans’ Struggles

Written for The Bird Writes:

New Orleans Pelicans v Houston Rockets - Pre-Season

So far, the Pelicans’ season has provided mixed results.  While the both the offense and defense have struggled for spurts, New Orleans ranks 11th in the league in both categories, per Basketball-Reference.  Perhaps more importantly, Anthony Davis has been incredible.  Through six games, Davis has played at a level he was not expected to reach for several years. Although their scoring could be more efficient, Eric Gordon has effectively carved through opposing defenses, while Jrue Holiday is developing chemistry with Davis in the pick and roll.  However, something has been missing (besides Ryan Anderson): Tyreke Evans.

This offseason, the Pelicans traded Greivis Vasquez and Robin Lopez for the right to sign Evans to a 4 year, $43.9 million deal. Last season in Sacramento, Evans added to the relentless rim assaults of his rookie year. After underwhelming second and third seasons, Evans developed a more consistent off ball game and refined his jump shot, resulting in the most efficient scoring season of his career.

Evans was expected to provide the Pelicans with a consistent offensive presence off the bench, and perhaps to serve as the long-term replacement for Eric Gordon. Instead, he has brought, well, mostly nothing.  Through six games, Evans is shooting a 2013 Austin Rivers-esque 37.2 percent true shooting percentage, scoring 8.5 points on 10.8 shots per game.

Although the diminutive sample size means that a portion of Evans struggles are simply the random variance in missed shots, a there appear to be a few recurring issues limiting Evans’ effectiveness.

While no more than a mediocre shooter, an increased willingness to attempt three pointers last season made Evans a much more effective off-ball player, and opened occasional opportunities to drive throughout the game.  After attempting a three pointer on 17.4 percent of his field goal attempts last season, Evans’ three point attempt rate has dropped to 9.2 percent, only slightly above Al-Farouq Aminu territory.  However, the absence of any three point shooting seems to be the symptom of a more important issue.

When the Pelicans acquired Evans during the offseason, I expected him to fill a similar role to offseason, primarily functioning as an on ball creator complemented by occasional off ball spurts.  While I assumed that Evans main role would be as the offensive focal point off the bench, his incorporation into the Pelicans’ offense should be much more creative than it has been so far this season.

Evans has been successful initiating an offense. However, repeated attacks of a set defense from the top of the court will never produce efficient results.  Far too many of Evans’ offensive possessions look like these:

While Evans’ has always been relied upon as a halfcourt creator, New Orleans has the personnel to put Evans in better positions.  While Ryan Anderson’s absence limits the offensive possibilities, even a simple pin down to give Evans’ space before receiving the ball would be preferable to seconds of standing above the break, staring at a prepared defense.

Last season, 24.4 percent of Evans shots, free throw attempts, or turnovers were generated in transition. In this season’s six games, transition has constituted only 18.3 percent of Evans’ offense, per Synergy Sports.  Transition is generally the most efficient offensive category, and Evans’ with his unique combination of strength and speed, has excelled in the open court through his career.  It seems likely that this low volume of transition opportunities is more of a product of a small sample size than of a conscious.  However, the Pelicans were a very “slow” offensive team last season, and currently sit at 26th in pace in the young season. A portion of these pace “problems” appear to be rooted in the lack of speed among non-Anthony Davis big men.  When Davis and Evans play together, the Pelicans average 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes, the equivalent of a slightly above league average pace.  When Evans plays without Davis, the Pelicans slow to 82.4 possessions per 48 minutes, 7.6 possessions per 48 fewer than the league-slowest Toronto Raptors.  Expect this without-Davis pace to rise, especially once Anderson returns, hopefully providing more opportunities in transition for Evans.

The central facet to Evans’ success has been his ability to get to and finish at the rim.  So far this season, it appears as if someone has robbed Evans of this power (trying to avoid a Thunderstruck reference).  After converting 55.8 percent of his of his 495 shots near the rim last season, Evans has converted only 16 of 37, 43.2 percent, of such attempts this year.

Evans’ struggles around the rim results from two issues.  He has received fewer opportunities to get all the way to the rim, resulting in more contested layups and floaters, and is shooting a very low percentage on these attempts.  Evans has the strength and body control to make a higher percentage of these relatively difficult attempts:


Though disastrous so far, the Evans’ experiment is nowhere near a failure.  Six games is never a determinant sample, unless of course you are determining that Anthony Davis is the greatest player in NBA history, and many of Evans’ struggles are rooted in solvable problems.

The Importance of Depth

It is commonly accepted that star-caliber players determine success.  Though some teams follow ulterior paths, the majority of NBA teams are constructed around a few high-level players or are in pursuit of those players.  Despite this, roster depth, or a lack thereof, is used as a critical in the analysis of a team.

A large portion of many teams’ successes appears to be based on the contributions of their perceived role players.  In recent seasons, the Denver Nuggets have swarmed opponents with a ten-deep collection of talented players.  The Los Angeles Clippers’ “bench mob” sprinted its way to game-changing runs, while the Spurs seemingly have a continuous collection of players capable of perfectly filling their system.

However, these non-elite players are often dependent on the better players on their roster.  Elite and very good players impact a game in such a way that allows lesser player to increase their production, be it LeBron drawing help defense in the mid-post and finding Shane Battier in the corner, Tony Parker drawing the defensive attention on a pick and roll and setting up Tiago Splitter, or Kevin Garnett patrolling the paint and closing driving lanes allowing Rajon Rondo to aggressively hound opponents and passing lanes (That’s not to suggest that Rondo is not a very good player, just that without Garnett’s incredible defense behind him the value of Rondo’s selective defensive aggressiveness would diminish).

So, how important is roster depth?   In an attempt to display the relative value of roster depth versus “star power”, I ran a linear regression comparing the  total Win Shares of the top X players on a team with that teams net rating, points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions, for the 60 rosters of the last two NBA seasons.  Ideally, more data would be gathered.  As the process is relatively simple I will attempt to add further years’ data in the future.

Win Shares are not a perfect indicator of player quality, but serve as a decent proxy (and are easiest to convert excel in team units).  It is worth mentioning that the high r-squared values do not necessarily suggest a high predictive worth for Win Shares.  The defensive win shares formula is largely based on team defensive efficiency, so the likelihood of a relatively high correlation between a group of players’ win shares and that team’s net rating is increased.  Net rating, or efficiency differential, is a better indicator of team quality and a better predictor of future results than team wins, so net rating was used as the dependent variable.

Here are the results the effect of the total win shares of the top 3 players on a team by aggregate win shares on net rating:


For every increase of one total win share, an increase of 0.63 is expected for net rating.

For the top 9 players:


For the top 9 players, an increase of 1 total Win Share adds 0.4 points for net rating.

This table shows the relationship for other groups of players:

Number of Players Increase in Net Rating Per Win Share (slope) R-Squared
Top 3 0.63 0.70
Top 5 0.49 0.77
Top 7 0.43 0.81
Top 9 0.40 0.83
Top 12 0.37 0.81


These results clearly display that as the increase in win shares is spread out over a larger group of players the expected return in net rating diminishes.  This suggests that it is preferable for a teams’ top few players to be better by a unit than a larger group or a single player of lower quality.  To many, this is intuitive.  It is better for your best player to be very good than for a few lesser players to improve.  However, some teams are constructed in such a way that their top one to three players are of lower quality than other teams while the comparison of a larger group is closer.

For a team like the Pelicans who, at least by win shares, lack elite players but have a collection of high quality players, this is a significant dilemma.  Having your aggregate talent spread over a greater amount of players may be less productive for than having that talent concentrated among fewer players.  Fortunately, the Pelicans are in position to “add” elite level players.  Anthony Davis has the potential to be one of the top five players in the NBA, while Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans have the skills and athleticism to produce at a higher rate.

The value of top players versus depth likely affected a few key decisions this offseason.  The Golden State Warriors lost bench leaders Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry to free agency, but added Iguodala. Though the departure of Jack and Landry was not specifically prompted by Iguodala’s arrival, the Warriors seem to believe that the value of retaining the depth granted by Jack and Landry did not match the potential of adding a single high caliber player.

The value of talent concentration versus depth is one of the several questions facing NBA front offices, and an issue the Pelicans will surely address several times in the near future.