Over the years, the writers of 3 Shades of Blue have developed an unique relationship with the renowned author, economist and college professor Dave Berri. His books, Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins, helped take statistics from the classroom to the front offices of the NBA.
Before the playoffs began we discussed with Dave the Grizzlies prospects against the Los Angeles Clippers. His perspective was that the Grizzlies, while a very talented team, didn’t have a good chance against the Clippers. Obviously, this turned out to be a bit premature. During the Thunder series we approached Berri again to help understand what was happening with the Grizzlies. With exams and projects filling Berri’s time as well as ours, we couldn’t get together.
However, Berri didn’t forget the questions. With a small break between activities Berri was kind enough to tell us his thoughts on the Grizzlies playoff run so far and how things look going forward.
So in his own words, here is Dave Berri’s view of the upcoming Grizzlies-Spurs series. Special thanks to 3SOB contributor CarlCR for formatting the information tables below.
Dave Berri: Let me start with something we said in The Wages of Wins (and should have said a few weeks ago):
Playoffs are for fun, not for science!
A few years ago, I illustrated this point by quoting the following from
by Leonard Mlodinow. This wonderful book contains the following passage relevant to any discussion of predicting the winner in a best-of-seven playoff series.
This quote should be remembered by everyone who tries and forecast the playoffs. The samples are so small that it should not surprise us when “upsets” occur.
When it comes to basketball, a related issue should be kept in mind. Players tend to be very consistent in basketball over time. But over small samples, there can be quite a bit of variation. Consider Andrew Bogut of the Golden State Warriors. From the last game of Golden State’s first round series against the Nuggets through the first four games in the second round against the Spurs, Bogut grabbed 77 rebounds in 159 minutes. In Bogut’s other seven playoff games, though, he only grabbed 54 rebounds in 166 minutes (a per-minute rate quite close to his 2012-13 regular season performance).
So across five games, Bogut was apparently transformed from a “good” rebounder into essentially Dennis Rodman.
Then there is the game Klay Thompson played against the Spurs on May 8th. He scored 34 points on just 26 shots. Plus he added 14 rebounds and 3 steals. Such a performance exceeds what you would have typically seen by Michael Jordan. And is vastly different from what Thompson has done across his career to date.
And then there is Stephen Curry. As the following table illustrates, Curry was quite productive in the regular season, leading the Warriors in Wins Produced (numbers taken from theNBAgeek.com). In the first round, Curry was also quite productive, again leading Golden State in Wins Produced.
But in the second round against the Spurs, Curry was quite a bit below average (average Wins Produced per 48 – or WP48 – is 0.100).
It is tempting to try and explain all of these changes in performance. But again, although performance of NBA players tends to be consistent over time, performance from game-to-game – and series-to-series – can be quite different from what see across an entire season.
With that in mind, let me offer a few comments on what we have seen in the playoff thus far (this discussion is restricted to just the part of the playoffs relevant to the Grizzlies).
The First Round
Before the playoff began you asked me to predict the outcome of the Grizzlies’ first round series; and I noted that since the Clippers were “better” in the regular season the Clippers should be expected to win. Obviously that didn’t happen. To understand why, let’s look at what the Clippers players did in the regular season and the first round (playoff numbers provided by Arturo Galletti).
Before the series started I noted that Mike Conley was very good. But Chris Paul was better. And in the first round we saw that Conley was very good (all the Grizzlies numbers will be presented and discussed below). Again, an average player posts a WP48 of 0.100. Conley’s mark of 0.224 was more than twice as good as an average player.
But as one can see, Paul was indeed a bit better (with a mark of 0.280). Paul, though, didn’t quite get the help Conley got from his teammates. Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe were both quite productive in the regular season and the first round. But Blake Griffin – who was very productive in the regular season — was awful against the Grizzlies. And DeAndre Jordan – who was also well above average in the regular season – was also very unproductive.
Again, I emphasize. The sample size is only six games. If we played these games again – and everyone was healthy (remember, Griffin got hurt) – the outcome could be different. Remember, Griffin and Jordan are generally above average players. But across a small sample, even above average players can play quite poorly (especially when injuries are part of the story).
The big story in the second round was the Thunder’s loss of Russell Westbrook.
During the regular season, the Thunder were led in Wins Produced by Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, and Russell Westbrook (in that order).
So Westbrook was an above average point guard, but not as productive as Mike Conley (who posted a 0.195 WP48 in the regular season).
In the first round it appeared the Thunder struggled without Westbrook. And it appears those struggles continued in the second round. So is Westbrook the key?
Devin Dignam – at the Wages of Wins Journal – offered a different story. For here, let’s just look at the numbers for the Thunder in the regular season, first round, and second round.
The Thunder were led in the regular season by Durant, Ibaka, and Sefolosha. In the first round, all three were above average. In the second round, though, Ibaka was below average. And Durant – who was like LeBron James in the regular season – was merely very good in the second round. In addition, Kendrick Perkins went from being below average to being extremely bad.
Are all of the changes we observe due to the loss of Westbrook? It’s possible that’s the story. But then again, the samples in the playoffs are simply not large enough to draw firm conclusions (you might be sensing a recurring pattern to this analysis).
For the first time in franchise history, the Grizzlies have advanced to the Western Conference finals. Their opponents are the San Antonio Spurs, who are making their 9th appearance in the conference finals since 1995.
Across the past few years, the Spurs have been led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. As we can see below, each of these players were again above average in the regular season. In the post-season, though, each was above average in the first round and below average in the second round.
|Nando De Colo||1.92||0.1||0.04||0.216||0.04|
In contrast, Kawhi Leonard – who led the Spurs n WP48 in the regular season – has continued to be very productive throughout the playoffs. Danny Green has also been above average across the regular season and both rounds of the playoffs.
How does the Spurs compare to what we have seen from the Grizzlies?
Below are the Wins Produced numbers for the Grizzlies in the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. If we focus strictly on the regular season we see that the Grizzlies were not as good as the Spurs. But again, a similar story could be told about the Grizzlies’ first and second round opponents. And the Grizzlies have advanced to the conference finals.
Part of why the Grizzlies have advanced is that players on the Clippers and Thunder didn’t perform as well as they did in the regular season. But of course, part of the story is that some players on the Grizzlies have playedquite well.
As the above table illustrates, the following players were above average for the Grizzlies in the regular season, the first round, and the second round: Tony Allen, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Quincy Pondexter. These five players combined to produce nearly 41 of the team’s wins in the regular season. And these five have combined to produce nearly all of the Grizzlies wins in the playoffs. So, one would suspect that this quintet is the key to the Grizzlies advancing to the NBA Finals.
Then again…small samples make prediction difficult. And that means, some of these five players may not perform as well against the Spurs. Or someone else on the Grizzlies will play much better. Or somebody on the Spurs will play well
(or not play well).
Let me close with three final thoughts:
First, I want to make a quick Rudy Gay comment. Specifically, what Memphis has achieved since Rudy Gay has departed supports the notion that Gay was not really a key part of the Grizzlies’ past success. He certainly was never worth the contract he signed. Scorers like Gay are frequently overvalued in the NBA and remarkably easy to replace. We saw the same story when Allen Iverson left Philadelphia and Carmelo Anthony left Denver. The key to building a winning team in the NBA is to acquire productive players. And although many scorers (like LeBron James or Kevin Durant) are truly productive, there are scorers like Rudy Gay that simply do not produce many wins (despite what fans of these players might think).
Second, I want to repeat the following from Leonard Mlodinow