Analytics, Wings, and Burks+Hayward

How great is it we have this guy? You have no idea. But you will after reading just a little bit more.

It's funny that I'm going over this when The Utah Jazz Blog posts a podcast doing a bit of the same thing: looking at the advanced stats of our young players and seeing what they tell us. But fear not ... I'm doing this a little differently than Andy Larsen did. So go listen to their podcast and then come back here. Or read this first and then go there. It's all good.

I’ve mentioned the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference before, but this is the first time I am actually doing a post about it. The conference looks at really complex, innovative studies based on sports statistical analysis. Honestly, this kind of stuff makes PER look like grade school math.

And I’m not alone. Bill James, the pioneer in advanced statistical analysis of baseball, said that the real innovations are in basketball—because analyzing 5-on-5 dynamics is far, far more complex. This is obvious if you’ve tried to really analyze a play on Synergy. It honestly takes watching a play 10-15 times to really have a basic grasp of everything that happened. This is also why, while I complain about them occasionally, I don’t envy the job of NBA referees.

More after the jump

A study by Robert Ayers, Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How a Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other, attempts to determine which particular type of player is most important to establishing a winning team. For those who wish to read a summary, True Hoops has a great one. We all argue over this point a lot. Whether a great PG is necessary, whether the best teams are built on a dominant post player, etc., etc., etc. Well, this study tries to look at this question objectively, empirically, via stats.

And what is its conclusion?

The type of player most likely to facilitate a dominant team is: a versatile wing who can score, shoot 3’s, pass, rebound, and defend. Although I think stat thresholds can be over-emphasized, the study pinpointed this one specifically: 16+ ppg, 4+ rebounds, 4+ assists, and 37+ % 3P%. Isn’t it funny this looks an awful lot like Jeff Hornacek in his prime?

But I don’t want to dwell on the past. I want to look at the present, and see if it gives us any hope for the future. And for that, let’s go right to our two wing heroes:

Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks.

Here’s their current per-36 minute averages:

Hayward: 13.3 ppg, 4.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists. Although he struggled with his 3-point shot for most of the year, his career average is … 37%

Burks: 16.8 ppg, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists. His current 3P% is about that of Hayward’s (29%).

Yes. These two rookies kids (geez, I suppose I've been on NBA.com too much, and now I don't know how long Gordon's been a pro either) only need to develop one thing each for both to qualify as this type of player—the kind of player the study identifies as having the biggest impact on establishing an elite team. And what's pretty amazing is that we're not even talking about skill development. Hayward has the scoring skills. Burks has the passing skills. They both have the shooting stroke to get over 37% from three regularly, probably within a couple years or so. All they need is to establish the right mindset. Hayward needs to get a bit more of a scoring mindset. Burks needs to think to pass just a smidge more.

So, the future

I can easily imagine a future in which Hayward never reaches 16 ppg. I can also imagine a future in which Alec scores a lot but never reaches the 4 assists per game. But I’d be pretty surprised about any other deviances. I would be surprised if both weren’t regularly shooting 37% on 3’s within a couple years. I’d be surprised if they weren’t both at about 4 or more rebounds per game.

But that’s really not the point. It’s not about the thresholds. It’s about the type of player and the effect that kind of player has on a team. It’s about the right kind of players fitting together.

And it’s pretty exciting to me that not only do we have one of these kind of players, but we have two of them.

Going further into the study

And for those who are wondering "What Next? What works best once you have these kind of wings?" … well, here’s what’s next:

After identifying the type of player that makes the biggest difference, the study went on to analyze the two-player and then three-player combinations that contribute most for winning. Here are the results, quoted from True Hoops:

Ayers found the two-player combination that had the greatest positive effect on wins was a versatile, 3-point shooting wing with a high-scoring, high-rebounding center. Throw in a high-scoring, high-usage point guard and you have the most effective three-player combination.

I don’t know if our team will ever try it out—they seem so conventional and conservative at times—but doesn’t this seem to match the Favors-Hayward-Burks trifecta perfectly if the Jazz went with the Hayward/Burks combo at guard?

I sometimes think our current team is about as ill-fitted as you can get. So many players’ skill-sets just don’t seem to match either those of others or the game plan. I think that is why it’s so rare to see more than a couple players have a great game at the same time this year—which makes the success they've had this season is pretty remarkable.

But the future … that’s different. The pieces of the future are so well-matched that I sometimes grow impatient to see it happen right now.

And I haven’t even posted the miracle of the Enes Kanter + Derrick Favors frontcourt. That’s a post for another day.


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