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Last January Lionel Hollins, nearly everyone’s favorite to remain head coach at that time, downplayed statistical analysis saying:

We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that’s a bad trait all over the league that’s taken place. And the media has done it because it’s easy to go to the stats to make a point or to build up a player or tear down a player.
January 11, 2013 interview

Of course that was when Hollins was coaching Rudy Gay and he didn’t want Rudy traded.

Once Tayshaun Prince arrived in Memphis, Hollins played Prince to the near exclusion of his primary backups Quincy Pondexter and Austin Daye. Prince wasn’t the individual talent Rudy Gay was but his presence on the court allowed other players to develop their games further than they had with Rudy on the court. The Grizzlies responded with a furious finish to win a franchise high 56 regular season games and followed it with a run to the Western Conference Finals in the playoffs.

Of course, Hollins wasn’t retained as head coach and the rumors swirled that his refusal to buy into statistical analysis had a large impact on his not being returned. In comes Dave Joerger who the new Front Office chose to run their team but run it their way. No longer will the players rotation contradict the FO’s statistical information right?

Well the media has been taking up statistical analysis again to engage and enrage local fans only this time the player being bashed by statistical analysis isn’t Rudy Gay. This time it is Tayshaun Prince and the criticism is gaining a strong foothold among the fans. In the game against the Jazz, a Grizzlies win by the way where Tayshaun Prince scored the basket that broke the tie at 84 points each, Prince played almost 30 minutes but blew some open looks including a lay up at the end of the first half.

Fans started chanting to send in D-League reformation project James Johnson.

Why? The team is winning after all. The Grizzlies are 8-2 in March. The Grizzlies are 11-4 since the All-Star break and 26-10 since January 1. Those are some very good numbers.

To be honest Prince individually has not been good most of the season. He has a terrible PER number and WP48. PER is the rating system developed by John Hollinger, current Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Grizzlies. It gives Prince a meager 8.15 rating compared to a league average of 15.00. Clearly coming in at nearly half the league average is a bad thing.

WP48 (wins per 48 minutes) is another statistical evaluation system developed by recent 3 Shades of Blue guest Dave Berri in the books he co-authored titled Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins. Prince looks even worse using this system of evaluation being rated at 0.039 where the league average is .10. In Berri’s system that translates to costing the Grizzlies almost 2 wins this season so far.

Clearly the statistical analysis suggests the Grizzlies find someone else to play SF. What’s more the Grizzlies have not one but two players who are SFs capable of producing at or above the league average performance. Mike Miller, who has firmly established himself as the backup SF, has a PER of 12.39 (slightly below the league average) but a WP48 of .165 (well above the league average). James Johnson, the man out of the rotation currently, has even better statistical numbers with a PER of 19.31 and a WP48 of .229.

It is Johnson and his lack of playing time that is at the root of the current problem.

The statistics clearly suggest Prince shouldn’t be starting. In fact, if the team wants to limit the rotations to just two SFs playing Prince shouldn’t even be on the court at all. So why is Dave Joerger, supposedly on board with the front office (Hollinger) and statistical analysis, playing Prince instead of the other options? Why is Prince playing so much and Johnson is watching the game from the best seats in the house (at least the best seats since Hollins stopped pushing Jerryd Bayless around on the bench)? We know Prince is a solid defensive and offensive player but he’s old, he doesn’t score often with his way too flat trajectory on his shots and at times it appears the team is playing 4 against 5 when he is on the offensive end of the court.

James Johnson leads the league in blocked perimeter shots. Not just the team but the entire league! James Johnson makes things happen. Johnson stole the ball from the Spurs and hit the game tying 3 point shot in the final seconds of the game. Johnson is electric on the court and makes things happen. Fans love him. Why is he not playing?

Perhaps the answer lies in something Lionel Hollins said later in the same radio interview:

“I just think we get caught up in the stats. There are some guys that contribute so much that the stats don’t even talk about. A guy running the court, filling the lane 100% of the time is better than having a guy that’s a little more talented that fills the lane 40 percent of the time. That guy filling the lane 100 percent of the time is going to create a shot for somebody else.”

This is a difficult concept for lay people to understand. Doing the right thing for the team doesn’t help you get stats (obviously the key driver for most statistical analysis) but it does help the team win games and when Prince plays extended minutes the team wins games. How many? The Grizzlies are 19-19 when Prince plays 29 or fewer minutes but 21-8 when he plays more than 29 minutes according to Peter Edmiston’s WHBQ radio show. Clearly there is a correlation but is it a causal relationship or just a coincidence? Does Prince playing more than 29 minutes really give the Grizzlies a better chance at winning a game or not?

I don’t know the answer honestly. Perhaps there is a causal relationship. Perhaps there isn’t. Either way it is true to say the Grizzlies win more games when Prince plays extended minutes.

Consider this. James Johnson leading the league in perimeter blocked shots is both a nice stat and an irrelevant one. He could be getting those blocks because he isn’t in position to deny the shot in the first place and more shots aren’t blocked than are. Is it better to deny a shot being taken in the first place or to block a shot taken once or twice a game while allowing shots to be taken more often?

Clearly sometimes teams need someone to step up and make a play that isn’t what the coach drew up on the chalk board but trying to do that too often makes a player unreliable in coach’s eyes. After all if the player doesn’t make the play, and that happens often, then the coach looks bad in the fans eyes for the breakdown in the team’s defense.

And it isn’t like James Johnson has been tearing it up on the offensive end lately to compensate for defensive lapses either. In December, after JJ was called up from the D-League, he played 7 games and hit 50% of his FG attempts and 38.9% from the arc. In January those numbers dropped to 41.9% from the field and 20.0% from the arc. In February JJ hit 48.9% of his FG attempts but only 18.8% from the arc. If the idea was that Johnson would force defenses to spread the court that clearly isn’t the case anymore. Teams are more likely to pack the paint when Johnson is playing than when Prince is.

Over the same time periods Prince has been better from the perimeter. Tayshaun hit 39.1% of his 3 point shots in January. In February his 3 point shot percentage dropped to 33.3%. Still, if the objective is for defenses to be forced to spread the court coverage Prince is an improvement over Johnson in this regard.

So defensively JJ is more spectacular but not necessarily more effective than Prince. Offensively JJ is more dynamic but not more efficient. The team has a superior record when Prince gets extended minutes even if it doesn’t follow that Prince’s playing more minutes is the cause of the better team record.

The final argument I have heard as to why JJ isn’t playing is more has less to do with the present than the future but it is a valid point of discussion. The argument goes that if JJ isn’t playing this season he likely won’t resign with the Grizzlies in the off-season.

This could be a valid issue with one major corollary. Both Prince and Miller are very old in NBA years. Both players are 34 years old and in the NBA, just like nearly everything else, players start to decline as they age. Johnson at 27 is entering the prime of his career and should have years of productive play left in him long after Miller and Prince are retired. I understand the argument that Johnson likely will be looking to the future and won’t want to resign with Memphis if he isn’t getting playing time.

I just don’t know if I believe it.

Johnson has a young family now which is one of the reasons his game appears to have matured somewhat this season. He has played in Chicago, Toronto, and Sacramento already. Memphis salvaged his career from D-League purgatory and is a very inexpensive city to live in. Perhaps for Johnson, putting down roots in a city that loves him, should have playing time available in the very near future and is inexpensive to live in may convince Johnson to stay despite the lure of potentially larger paychecks elsewhere. Remember that Miller is a FA after the season and Prince will be on the last year of his contract next season. JJ could sign a one year deal to remain in Memphis anticipating a larger payday after next season and more playing time once Miller departs.

Either way, it makes little sense for the Grizzlies to worry about this now. It could just as easily work in reverse. Giving JJ more playing time could drive up his market value making it impossible for the Grizzlies to resign him in the off-season. Limiting his minutes now may diminish his market value this summer making it easier for the Grizzlies to re-sign him than if he plays. There have also been rumors that Zach Randolph may opt out of his contract to resign with the team for more years but less money. Those funds could help the Grizzlies resign Johnson as well even if he does receive an attractive offer elsewhere.

The Grizzlies have the luxury of playing their cards this way because the team is winning games while not including JJ in the regular rotation. If this wasn’t the case the fans would be making a lot more noise about Johnson not playing. It’s hard to be hyper critical of a team that is winning.

How this strategy will turn out the rest of the season and into the summer has yet to be determined. If the team fails to reach the lofty expectations from the pre-season then people will have a ready-made reason for the failure and the villain will once again be Coach Joerger.

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