Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Position Matters

In his most recent column, Britt Robson goes into some detail describing the cascading positives resulting from the Timberwolves' moving Randy Foye permanently to his natural position at the off-guard. It's a persuasive and enlightening read, and I highly suggest checking it out. Robson details how the correctly constructed lineups can help create a more beneficial pace for the game as well as allow for appropriate spacing in the halfcourt, among other things. And he throws in this observation from Saturday's game against the Bulls:

Even with the Saturday night injury to Kevin Ollie, there should be no turning back on the commitment to keep playing Foye off the ball. After Ollie suffered a dislocated elbow and left a tie game just 3:37 into the first quarter versus the Bulls, Bassy Telfair manned the point for 38:47 of the remaining 44:23, and racked up a plus +22. By contrast, the Wolves were minus -12 in the two brief stints (comprising 5:36) that Bassy sat and Foye went back to the point.

That made me curious, so I went and checked out the "by position" splits at 82games, and found that this trend has held all season -- the Wolves are actually close to a .500 team when Foye is in at the 2, but are abysmal when he's playing the 1 (he's played at least 500 minutes at each spot, so the sample sizes aren't horribly small). Looking in detail at the lineup data, it's clear that the best-performing lineups that he's a part of involve him playing alongside either Kevin Ollie or Sebastian Telfair in the backcourt, while the worst pair him with Rashad McCants or Mike Miller (there are lineups with both him and Miller in together that perform well, but all of them have Miller playing the 3 with Ollie or Telfair in as point).

The differences here are drastic, and lead to the question (at least for me): what difference does it make? Why should the team look so different when a player is at the 2 rather than the 1? In an earlier post about Kevin Durant's move to the small forward position and the resulting improvement in both his and the team's performance (a result which has continued throughout the season so far), I mentioned the possibility of having an extra shooter on the floor providing more space in the mid-range areas where Durant is effective. However, in the case of moving a player from the point to the off-guard, that doesn't really seem to apply.

It's a question that's caused some consternation in the past -- that blog post from last May by Tom Ziller looks at perceptions about "pure points" vs. "combo guards," which, I think, is related to my question -- just looking at assists doesn't really tell us if someone is a better lead or off-guard, so what are the skills that we look for from a point guard (I'm talking here about the non Paul/Nash universe)?

Robson gives some thoughts:

There are subtle but crucial differences between being a freelance playmaker (which fits Foye's m.o.) and a point guard. To command the point guard slot, you need expansive, strategic court vision and an utterly reliable handle; otherwise, you aren't going to be able to effectively execute your half-court sets against opponents who have scouted the plays and worked up defensive wrinkles to stop them. The point guard's anticipatory vision and second-nature dribbling according to the split-second dictates of his brain and his instincts are key tools in his ability to counter the defensive gambits while keeping the set play reasonably in sync.

Robson focuses on the move to off-guard allowing Foye to score freely without the various restrictions of a lead guard.

Besides the mentioned skills, in general there are some more obvious considerations as well. For instance, if a player's most valuable (to a particular team) skill is scoring/attacking, it makes sense to get him the ball in the triple threat on the wing, where he is most dangerous, rather than already committed to a dribble at the top of the arc. Further, point guard coverage has gotten so wrapped up in the outliers like Chris Paul or Steve Nash who create almost the entirety of their team's offensive opportunities, that we've lost sight of the basic requirements. We say a point guard (since he's got the ball coming across the halfcourt line) often "initiates" the offense -- whether through a post-entry pass, a pass to the wing, penetration off of a screen, or whatever (in addition to his ballhandling, if you're ever wondering why Sasha Vujaucic never became a full-time point guard for the Lakers, watch him attempt to throw entry passes into the post -- every now and then he'll pick a lousy angle for the pass, usually resulting in a turnover). And the point needs to know what's going on -- if a shooter is curling off of a screen the ball needs to arrive at the destination at the same time as the shooter, so the pass has to leave the passer's hands well before that. These are little things, and they're obvious things, but I want to make sure they're not lost, and that we don't forget that these are skills, every bit as much as a polished post-up game, or an ability to shoot.

I'm harping on this a bit since, besides plus/minus numbers, there aren't great statistics to measure all of those skills that point gaurds bring to an offense. This is probably partly what motivates commentators to take the unneccesarily extreme position of measuring a point guard's abilities by looking at his team's won-loss record (similar to how some evaluate quarterbacks in football). Both of the extremes (judging solely on team performance, and judging solely on individual box-score statistics) cause problems unique to the evaluation of point guards in addition to the general problems they cause for evaluating any player. Robson's column illustrates the nuance and holism that really should always be involved in a discussion of a guard's natural position.

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