I’m not mathematical genius, by I am a big supporter of the analytics movement in the NBA. I’m a big Kevin Pelton fan, and John Hollinger is the reason I decided to get ESPN Insider (he left for the Grizzlies a few months later). While nowhere near as far along as the same movement in Major League Baseball (admittedly an easier sport to study as baseball players are not as dependent on their peers in showing their own individual skills as basketball players are), I still enjoy learning about new methods others who study the NBA are using to assess the value of individual player’s skills when it comes to winning basketball games. However, even though there have been tremendous strides made in these areas, I still seem some fundamental flaws.
I began thinking about this while listening to NBA Lockdown with Bruce Bowen. For those who may be relatively new to the NBA, Bowen was the starting small forward for the San Antonio Spurs from 2001, 2008. Bowen’s defense was considered such a critical part of the Spurs championships in 2003, 2005, and 2007 that his number was retired by San Antonio in March of 2012. For his career, Bowen was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team from 2004-2008 after earning a spot on the second team from 2001 to 2003. A tremendous player to be sure, but this information only tells half of the story. Bowen also retired with career averages of 6.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.2 apg, and a career PER of 8.2, just over half of league average. Bowen’s counting statistics on defense weren’t impressive either, as he average 0.8 steals and 0.4 blocks over his career. Yet when I surveyed basketball fans I knew who between Bowen and Carmelo Anthony they would rather have on a team such as the Los Angeles Clippers or Oklahoma City Thunder while playing in the Western Conference Finals, the answer was split down the middle with my brother-in-law providing the most detailed answer. “Depends on the team. If it was the Thunder and I’m the Clippers, Bruce Bowen. I’ve already got offense”, was his response via text. Still, even with Bowen’s terrific defense, does it ever make sense to pick a player with a career PER of 8.2 over one whose career PER is 20.8?
If you pull up any of Bowen’s season stats that are available on 82games.com, you’ll find that opposing wings had a below average PER when guarded by Bowen, but still much higher than he ever had himself. This flies in the face of the idea that an effective player has to be able to outscore their counterpart for them to be an effective member of their team’s rotation. While advanced metrics on defense are still a long way from perfect, anyone one who saw Bowen play could also see his impact on defense and understand why the San Antonio Spurts (arguably the smartest organization in the NBA) valued him so much. And while Bowen may not have been an efficient player in terms of PER, he did have one area where he was very efficient, three point shooting. While he only averaged 6.1 points per game, Bowen had an excellent career average of 39% from three and led the entire league in three point percentage with a 44 percent mark during the 2002-2003 season. With an average of 2.4 attempts per game, Bowen shot just enough (usually from the corners) for teams to have to guard him. The choice was simple but impossible to answer, leave open a great three point shooter or guard him and leave more space for the Spurs Big Three of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili to operate? The Spurts understood before many other teams that Bowen’s three point shooting could give their offense important spacing. This “inefficient” offensive player was critical in making the Spurs offense run efficiently on its way to three NBA championships.
So how does this affect the Cavaliers? Just before the season began, Jason Lloyd wrote about how Mike Brown wanted Alonzo Gee to become the Cavaliers’ version of Bruce Bowen. A “3-and-D” player like that would be a great fit next to ball dominant players such as Kyrie Irving and Andrew Bynum. The results thus far have been mixed. While he is shooting 35 percent from deep (right about league average), Gee is averaging only one three point attempt per game, not nearly enough to create space on offense by forcing opposing defenses to respect his shooting from that area. In fact, although his field goal, three point, and free throw percentages are all up compared to last season (and are all above his career averages), his PER is substantially lower. This is mostly due to the fact that he is only attempting 3.4 field goals per game, compared to 9.1 the year before. The question therefore is how often does Gee have to shoot to keep his efficiency rating high while not shooting so much that his efficiency drops due to overuse of a player with his skill set? It has been proven that when Gee is given too much offensive responsibility (usually due to injuries to teammates), his efficiency drops tremendously. Some of this is due to Gee trying to create off the dribble instead of just taking catch-and-shoot jumpers and cutting to the rim for lobs. Some of this is due to Gee having a poor handle. The ideal situation would be for Gee to come off the bench behind a better scoring small forward who can also play defense, and to stick to his offensive strengths at all times. To his credit, Gee usually does this. His understanding of his status as a role player and what he needs to do to stay in the league is one of the biggest reasons Gee has carved out a niche in the NBA despite not being drafted out of college. At the same time, Gee is playing just 19.9 minutes a game, down over 11 minutes per game from the previous season, and is currently sixth on the team in minutes per game, hardly the time given to a typical starter in this league. While the Cavaliers assuredly would like more offense from their starting small forward, Gee’s defense and shot selection probably make him a better fit than some of the NBA’s ball stoppers who score a bit more often but don’t supply any defense. For example, Carmelo Anthony scores enough that he would still be an upgrade, J.R. Smith may not.
Throughout the first quarter of the season, the Cavaliers have proven to be a much better team in games when Gee and fellow wing C.J. Miles provide enough offensive punch to keep the opposition from focusing exclusively on fellow starters Irving, Bynum, and Tristan Thompson. If both men can keep up their current percentages on three pointers, while increasing having Gee increase his attempts to at least two per game, this would provide spacing on offense to go along with Gee’s defense making him an underrated, although not ideal, part of the Cavalier’s starting lineup.