Ryan Knaus

The Numbers Game

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Small Sample Size Statistics

Thursday, October 25, 2018


For NBA fans, Halloween gets second-billing behind opening night. We’ve already seen scary-good performances like Trae Young's 35 & 11 double-double, ghoulish injuries like Will Barton's 5-6 week absence for hip/core surgery, and a frightening melee involving Brandon Ingram, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo. Inevitably, though, the opening weeks of the NBA calendar also bring a deluge of outlandish stats (good and bad) which are the products of a small sample size.

 

If a player has only appeared in three regular-season games, how much stock should be put in their performance? Was it merely due to matchups, the absence of key teammates or sheer luck? Or was it a sign of things to come, an early indication of a sustainable trend? Today's column addresses some of these 'small sample size' statistics, with my takes on whether they appear to be meaningful and sustainable, or merely fluky.

 

Note: Portions of this were written before the conclusion of Wednesday's games, so the stats may have changed somewhat. I view any discrepancies as yet another example of the tiny sample size, where a single game can dramatically change a player's or team's stats!

 



Traes for Days? It's unfair to compare any rookie to a former MVP, let alone a two-time winner and three-time champion who ranks among the best shooters in league history. We're talking about Trae Young and Steph Curry, to whom he's drawn comparisons since erupting into the nation's consciousness with Oklahoma last year. Young himself isn't tamping down the talk, either, saying last January, "I think my game is more like Steph’s but my mindset is more like [Russell Westbrook] when it comes to I don’t care about anybody on the floor besides my teammates and the basketball."

 

Confidence is not lacking, clearly, and neither is the green light in Atlanta's offense. After coach Lloyd Pierce said there'd be a "competition" for the starting PG job between Young and Jeremy Lin, Young simply ran away with the gig and has averaged 23.0 points, 3.7 triples, 8.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 0.7 steals to begin his career. Which brings us to the most recent Young/Curry point of comparison – with a scintillating 35-point, 11-assist, 6-triple game vs. the Cavs on Sunday (on the road, no less), Trae joined Steph as the only players to hit those stratospheric numbers as rookies.

 

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I'll pause to sound the small-sample-size alarm. Young has played all of three games and his breakthrough performance came vs. the Cavaliers, whose defense has been moribund (allowing 118.9 points per 100 possessions, second-most in the league). So far this season, no player in the entire league has had more 'wide open' attempts than Young, at a whopping 6.7 per game. As scouting reports catch up to him, that won't last. For comparison, Curry (who is averaging a tidy 30.5 points) has had only 4.3 wide-open looks per game.

 

Conclusion: Not buying it. Trae has far exceeded my preseason take on him and looks like the real deal. That said, comparing him to Steph in any meaningful sense after three career games is ridiculous. Let's end this narrative. Just enjoy Trae on his own merits!

 

 

Tuck and Run? As I mentioned in a blurb after Sunday's game, P.J. Tucker finished with a startlingly low usage rate of 3.7% across 37 minutes of action (he made 1-of-2 FGs and 0-of-2 FTs with zero turnovers). He's currently sitting on an 8.7% usage rate for the season, higher only than a handful of players including Andre Iguodala and Jared Dudley. The lowest usage rate on record for a player averaging at least 30 minutes belongs to...Dennis Rodman! His absurd 6.4% usage with Dallas in 1999-00 is disqualified because he only played 12 games, but he still holds the record-low with 7.1% usage for the Spurs in 1993-94.

 

The only players I could find with lower qualifying rates were T.R. Dunn and Mark Eaton, which means Tucker is on pace to be the fourth-lowest usage since the stat was tracked (for guys playing 30+ minutes). I've shown in previous columns that usage correlates strongly to fantasy values, with only minutes and Player Impact Estimates as stronger indicators. You'd need to be a category monster like Rodman, or a shot-blocking machine like Eaton, to survive such invisibility on offense. Unfortunately, Tucker is neither of those things.

 

Conclusion: Legit. Tucker's usage will increase slightly (his career-low was 10.5% last year) but he could legitimately finish in single-digits. Either way, I don't see him holding value in 12-team leagues.

 

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Aytomatic from the FT Line? Deandre Ayton's free-throw shooting has been spectacular through three games. With a combined 11-of-12 mark from the line, he's making 91.7% of his freebies. No player in NBA history has shot better than 90.4% from the line for their career (Steve Nash), and the only other players above the 90% threshold are Mark Price and Stephen Curry. Wait a second, is Ayton the next Curry? No, that was Trae Young. Never mind. I truly love small sample sizes.

 

Ayton is a good free throw shooter, making 73.3% of his 191 attempts with Arizona last season (5.5 attempts per game). That's already a respectable number for a fantasy center. The list below shows centers who shot 75% or better on 4+ attempts 2017-18 season:

 

Player

%

FT attempts

Karl-Anthony Towns

85.8%

4.9

Anthony Davis

82.8%

8

Nikola Jokic

85.0%

4.2

Marc Gasol

83.4%

4.6

 

That's it. Other centers with strong percentages but fewer FT attempts include Enes Kanter, Nikola Vucevic, Jonas Valanciunas, Al Horford, Myles Turner and Jarrett Allen. This doesn't detract from them at all, but it emphasizes the importance of high-volume centers who won't tank your FT% – we can safely conclude Ayton isn’t in the must-punt-FT% realm of DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, etc.

 

Is it possible Ayton has improved his FT shooting to the point that his 73.3% from college is a very low bar? Absolutely, and his consistency dates to the preseason when he went a combined 21-of-27 from the stripe (77.8%).

 

Conclusion: He’s at 91.7%? Yeah, that can't last. I won't be surprised if Ayton hovers around 78-80% in his first pro season, but this early-season near-perfection is a red herring.

 

 

Pro-Boban or Ban-Boban? Boban Marjanovic was terrific in the Clippers' opener with 18 points (6-of-8 FGs, 6-of-6 FTs) and eight rebounds in 18 minutes. He followed up with 13 points and five boards in 16 minutes, leading many owners to cut injured or under-achieving players and snag him in the hopes that he'd earn a consistent 15-20 minute role. It's not much, but that's legitimately all he needs. In the two games since, he's vanished – five minutes on Sunday and a brief, scoreless appearance in Tuesday's loss to the Pelicans. Which early-season sampling is more truthful, his two-game surge or his two-game disappearance?

 

Dare I say, both? Depending upon matchups? But that he's more likely than not to ride the bench? I'm not anti-Boban whatsoever and stamped 'return to sender' on my invitation to the Haters Ball. He's simply too much fun to watch and his size isn't just a novelty – he's skilled around the hoop, rebounds everything in sight (career 22.7% rebound rate) and has terrific offensive efficiency (career 57.0% shooter). Doc Rivers likes him and Clips president Lawrence Frank talked him up during a recent broadcast, but I'm never too high (or low) when it comes to Boban.

 

In a league that's trending toward small-ball lineups and big men who stretch the court, he's simply a fish out of water. Last season he took 89.3% of his attempts on zero or one dribbles, which is perfectly fine since he's awesome on those shots, but it reduces his offense to putbacks and safety-valve plays. He's a good rim protector (opponents shot 3.2% worse vs. him than they're typical FG%) but also a liability in transition. He was a hot pickup after the Clips' opener this season, but (as with almost any player, Malik Monk included), I'll need to see multi-game consistency before I cut a reliable player for him. Is there a character limit on hashtags? #ListenDocMaybeDontFreeBobanOutrightButCmonAtLeastSupervisedProbation? Yeah, that's catchy.

 

Conclusion: Doomed to inconsistency. Boban's two-game surge was fun and it will happen again. He'll feast against certain lineups, but to think Boban can routinely match up vs. today's fast, athletic, court-stretching bigs is unrealistic.

 

 

Zach's Bullseye Shooting: Zach LaVine is shooting 61.8% from the field on high-volume attempts (18.3 shots per game). I drafted LaVine heavily in my leagues this year, so I have plenty of exposure to him and a rooting interest in his health and efficiency. That said, I'm not buying that a career 44.1% shooter will finish above that number with opposing defenses keyed into him with their top wing defender night after night. My hope (still) is that sheer volume will make up for high turnovers and any inefficiency...especially in points leagues. Chicago ranks 26th in defensive rating after three games and they're 11th in pace, so if nothing else – attack this matchup aggressively in DFS!

 

Conclusion: Small-Sample-Size Alert. LaVine's FG% will plummet but sheer volume of points, triples and supporting stats will make up the difference in H2H and most roto leagues. For points-leagues that don't penalize percentages, it's all water under the bridge.

 

 

Here is an assortment of other early-season curios worth exploring:

 

+ Per NBA.com, the Nets have the third-slowest pace in the league with an average of 99.33 possessions per game, ahead of only the Grizzlies and Spurs. They were No. 6 in the league last season. The real shocker is that their current pace isn’t far off last year’s (99.74) – they’ve fallen to No. 28 because seemingly every other team has picked up their own pace. Last year, NBA.com has only five teams with 100+ paces, but this season the total balloons to 26 teams! Teams have fresh legs, they’re using more small-ball lineups than ever, and subtle officiating changes have kept things moving. I’d be interested to see if pace trends down over the course of most seasons (we know it does in the playoffs), but either way I think the break-neck pace we’ve seen so far is unsustainable. If you drafted D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert or any other Nets player, don’t fret – Brooklyn will generate plenty of possessions.

 

+ Rajon Rondo leads the NBA with 10.5 dimes per game through two games. He’s also second in games-suspended (oops) and was thriving while Lonzo Ball was on a minute-limit and LeBron was merely warming up. Rondo will always drop dimes, but this early double-digit average won’t last long.

 

+ Zach Collins has averaged 2.7 blocks this season in 20.3 minutes per game. Those swats will come down to the 1.5-1.8 range soon enough.

 

+ The Pelicans are averaging a ridiculous 132.0 points per game, with an Offensive Rating of 122.2 – that’s more than 122 points generated per 100 possessions. They’re scoring almost 20 points more than last year’s highest-scoring team (Golden State) and the O-Rating is unheard of. Here are the highest Offensive Ratings in the league for the past five seasons:

 

Year

Team

Offensive Rating

2017-18

Houston Rockets

114

2016-17

Golden State Warriors

114.8

2015-16

Golden State Warriors

113.4

2014-15

Los Angeles Clippers

111.5

2013-14

Los Angeles Clippers

111.3

 

Career-high shooting abounds, including Anthony Davis (59.3% from the field), Nikola Mirotic (54.2%), E’Twaun Moore (52.8%) and Elfrid Payton (54.8%). Julius Randle is just below his personal best, and the only key player not getting in on the fun has been Jrue Holiday at 31.6%. As impressive as they’ve been, this obviously cannot last. They ran past a Rockets team that looked ill-prepared in the opener, and did whatever they wanted to the Kings’ so-called defense. They draw the Nets on Friday, so the party may not end quite yet, but that’s followed by more formidable challenges vs. the Jazz, Nuggets (at Denver) and Warriors (at Oracle). If they’re still flying high after those games, I’ll be astounded.

 

+ Jerami Grant is blocking 2.3 shots per game but shooting just 26.1% from the field and 50.0% from the line. He is who we thought he was.

 

+ Bulls PG Ryan Arcidiacono averaged 7.5 assists while shooting 57.1% from the field in 24.0 minutes. He was a DNP-CD on Monday but Kris Dunn’s return was brief and he’s expected to miss 4-6 weeks, so there’s a scramble for minutes between Cameron Payne, Arcidiacono, and new-to-the-scene guys like Shaquille Harrison and Tyler Ulis. It hardly matters who wins the bulk of PG minutes in Dunn’s absence, because of these guys are likely to have fantasy value. Oh right, as for Arcidiacono’s assists? Fluke.

 

+ Joe Ingles is averaging 4.0 triples and 2.7 steals per game in Utah’s first three contests. No player has had those numbers for an entire season. In fact, only one player has ever averaged 4.0 triples, and he’s done it three different times – Trae Young. That can’t be right. Oh yes, it was Stephen Curry. Steph is performing the feat again this year, as are six other players: Ingles, J.J. Redick, James Harden, Bradley Beal, Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton. Ingles’ steals are just as impressive and the only players joining him with 2.7 or more are Paul George and Jimmy Butler. This is obviously a small-sample-size situation, but you still have to be thrilled with how well Ingles has played (in a featured offensive role, no less) early in the season.

 

For plenty more takes on what’s transpired since opening night, be sure to check out the next RW Hoops Roundtable column coming Thursday, Oct. 25. We’ll be discussing which players we’re buying after hot starts, which players we’re skeptical of, and more! In the meantime, why not listen to the latest RW Hoops Podcast?



Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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