NBA Statistics: A deep look at the first options on EVERY NBA TEAM in 2012-2013

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Some people like to put words in others' mouths. I didn't go to journalism school, I went to medical school. And what I learned is food goes in there, not words. And sometimes other things. Like thermostats. So, before everyone goes off the deep end . . . I think that if you are trying to win in this league you need a star. You need a dude who can play really well when the system breaks down; and someone who does great on a consistent basis that you can actually build a system around. If you build the system and then wait for a star to fall in your lap you are doing it wrong, unless you are an attractive free agent destination.

Small market teams need to find that star first, and make that star feel at home quickly -- because otherwise they may take their talents elsewhere fast. Veteran journeymen are just happy to get another contract. Young stars are the limiting reagent in the success experiment. So, in order to find that star I decided to look at the first options on every team in the league as of this moment. I did this thing last year with just the 16 playoff teams. But apparently some people criticized that for being too apples to oranges. If we need to look objectively at the Utah Jazz we need to increasingly find evidence to support the Utah Jazz. Or at least that's the party line, comrade. I'm on #TeamUsingMyBrain here, so I don't have a party affiliation, or desire to one day be part of the part. As a result I favor numbers, and the numbers may say something different than what you're used to hearing from people with greater reach.

What the data says is that this season the average (n = 30) first option on teams plays 35.0 mpg, scores 19.7 ppg, has a PER of 20.2, a PPS of 1.25, takes 15.8 shots a game, gets to the line 5.1 times a game, and has a Go Rating of 98.3. All while making $10.765 million this season. The data is far from perfect because two teams are bereft of their 'real' first option (Indiana is without Danny Granger, and Chicago without Derrick Rose). Furthermore, 10 of the 30 first options used here are on rookie deals -- which pushes their average salary down from what the market would price them at. Still, while there are some hick-ups here . . . the data is something we can use at to see:

a) what the average performance is for a first option

b) what the differences are between the Eastern and Western Conferences

c) how this differs between good teams, middle of the pack teams, and the best teams

and ultimately, d) where does Al Jefferson rank?

Some Jazz fans are vocal against Al Jefferson. Some media guys tell us his poops smell like freshly baked pie. Some other fans defend him like they are in a blood pact. Me? I think he would be one of the best 2nd options in the league -- but as far as being a first option . . . he's not the guy you build your team around IF you want to be a serious contender. Of course, what I want and what an NBA team may want are different. And clearly, if money is looked at, a lot of teams think differently than I do.

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The Data:

Do you like numbers? Well, I hope you do.

First_option_-_big_table
Yes, click on this for the full image (in a new window)

This is broken down by conference, and then by to the day, playoff seeding. It's a lot to digest, but this are just the raw numbers. If you group information it's easier to figure out . . . so . . . here ya go:

First_option_-_groupings

The groupings are for:

  • The entire NBA, Top 20, and Top 10,
  • The Average, Top 10, Playoff Teams, and Top 5 of each conference,
  • and just Bigmen

From this we see a bunch of stuff . . . but let's save that all for the next section.

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What the Data Tells us:

The first thing that really pops out is that players in the East make more than players in the West. More of the bigger markets, older teams, and more rabid fanbases are out there. And the primary options get paid more. Or at least that's the case for the Top teams. The average salary for the Top 5 teams' first options in the West this year are $11.4 million, in the East it's $15.0 million. Over all the guys in the West 1 to 15 make more than their counter parts in the East. A big reason for that is the fact that Kobe, and his $28 million, is not playing for a Top 5 Western team right now. If the Lakers were doing better then we'd see that the Top teams pay their top scoring option top dollar. Effectively, you get what you pay for. Or, at least, you should.

The next 'big' thing is that the first options on the best teams are usually more individual capable as first options. For the NBA as a whole the mean PPG is 19.7, for the Top 20 teams it's 20.5 PPG, and for the Top 10 teams it's 21.3 PPG. The FGA changes for those three periods are small, going from 15.8 FGA to 16.2 for the Top 20 teams, and topping off at 16.2 for the Top 10. The players score more while not necessarily taking more shots per game. What are the ways this happens? Well, the first is that the players on the better teams end up shooting a better percentage because they are implicitly better; or alternatively, they get more free throw attempts. We can argue about which it is. But the data tells us that the 30 team mean FG% is 46.1%, for the Top 20 teams it's 47.2 fg%, and for the Top 10 it's 49.4 fg%. Of course, the data also shows us that the FTA per game values are 5.1, then 5.3 and then 5.4 for the same breakdowns.

It's a bit of both really -- but the better teams are led by players who score more efficiently, either by shooting a better fg% or by getting to the line more. Factor that into their price tag and the market they play in (for the most part) and you can make a series of relationships between all of those points. The best players get paid the most, play the best, and play for the best teams -- most of which are in big markets.

So far NONE of this is surprising.

What about my pet stat Gestalt Offensive Rating (GO Rating)? Well, the Full 30 team mean is 98.3, the Top 20 is 105.5, and the Top 10 teams are led by guys performing at a 116.1 GO Rating level. It ramps up significantly. This is also seen in the Mean PER breakdowns of 20.2 to 21.2 to 22.9. The top players on the top teams are way better players on offense and overall. Even the most 'pure' statistic of Points per Shot (PPS) follows the same trend.

The obvious check of more MPG isn't a factor here as all three groups (All NBA, Top 20, and Top 10) all have first options who are playing 35 MPG (with a few decimal points inbetween the three). At least now we have validation for the star centric theory of the NBA. The stars that shine the brightest seem to be leading their team to more wins this year.

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Apples and Apples:

This is a Utah Jazz blog so let's look at Al Jefferson. Big Al is in a contract year and right now I get the feeling that the Jazz front office wants to build our team around him. Our off-season moves last year indicated as much by bringing in better spot up shooters to make sure he has more room to go one on one this year (I see you Mo Williams, Randy Foye, and Marvin Williams). If Big Al is really worthy of building around his numbers will indicate as much.

Okay, looking at Al's contract (he's making $15 million this year) he's way above average for the entire NBA. He's also above average for the Western conference, the Top 5 teams in the West, or even the Bigmen alone (as they are reported to be overpaid). In fact the only apples to apples we have here between Big Al by salary is that he's making as much as the Top Scoring options in the East's Top 5. In fact, he's making more ($15,000,000 > $14,996,355 on average). Who are the guys in his apples to apples financial bracket? LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, David West (should be Danny Granger), Luol Deng (should be Derrick Rose), and Brook Lopez. Yeah. I don't think Big Al is equal to those guys. He's a better first option than West and Deng. He's about equal to Brook Lopez, though Brook is much more efficient.

The $15 million (on average) club:

  • James: 30.5 PER, 26.7 PPG, 55.5 FG%, 1.44 PPS, 183.8 GO Rating
  • Anthony: 24.1 PER, 28.4 PPG, 45.0 FG%, 1.30 PPS, 163.3 GO Rating
  • West: 20.2 PER, 17.3 PPG, 48.8 FG%, 1.18 PPS, 72.2 GO Rating
  • Deng: 15.2 PER, 17.2 PPG, 43.0 FG%, 1.15 PPS, 59.9 GO Rating
  • Lopez: 25.4 PER, 18.7 PPG, 52.6 FG%, 1.32 PPS, 94.6 GO Rating
  • Jefferson: 20.2 PER, 17.1 PPG, 47.5 FG%, 1.11 PPS, 68.5 GO Rating

Okay, congrats Big Al fans, he's better than Deng. Who isn't a first option in real life. The Top 5 East Teams have guys who average out to making less money this season that Big Al. For the most part, three of those guys you can build around, but only two are real stars. Al is not one of them.

Money may be a bad factor to use because a) Bigmen are overpaid, and b) We didn't give Al that contract. Fine. Let's move beyond money (btw, Kevin Durant is making $1.7 million more than Al this year.... food for thought). let's look at shots per game.

Big Al shoots the ball 15.4 times a game, he's our first option but he's not dominant. He's only scoring 17.1 ppg, but hey, he's only shooting the ball 15 times a game. Other guys with low FGA have the same problem -- see there's Josh Smith, who shoots 15.7 times a game and only is scoring 16.9 ppg! Okay, there's also guys like Deng who is shooting less than Al and scoring more. In fact he's not the only one. Here are the guys who take less FGA and score more than Big Al: Kemba Walker, Luol Deng, Paul Pierce, Davis West, DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez, Blake Griffin, and O.J. Mayo. Arron Afflalo is almost there, Danilo Gallinari too. Afflalo is 0.4 ppg lower than Big Al while shooting 1.3 times less a game. Gallo is 0.1 ppg lower than Big Al while shooting 2.3 times less a game.

What seems to be the big difference? (Big enough that 1/3rd of the NBA's Top guys shoot less shots a game than yours, but score more points) It's either three point shooting (and we saw from last game that Al is about as great as you'd want from your center at threes) or free throws. The apples to apples thing here is Free throws. All of the top guys on these teams get to the line.

In fact, it's one of the JOBS of Top scorers to get to the line. You have the ball in your hands the most to finish plays. You take the most shots on your team per game, and per season. You're the one the offense is built around. Your job is to make life hard on the defense, and you can do that by drawing fouls. Fouls help you out and help out all the other players on your team because the OTHER TEAM has to manage against fouls as well. The more you draw the less aggressive they can play defense.

So let's look at FTA.

Did you know that out of all 30 NBA Teams, the Utah Jazz are led by the guy who draws the least fouls a game? Not a single guy in that table gets to the line less a game than Al Jefferson. He's getting there 2.9 times a game, the n = 30 average is 5.1 times a game. The Top 20 teams are led by guys who get there 5.6 times a game. And the Top 10 teams are led by guys who shoot 6.3 FTA per game. Al Jefferson is severely below average here. He's worst in his entire class. DeMarcus Cousins? 5.5 FTA per game. Danilo Gallinari? 4.9 FTA per game. Kemba Walker? 4.2 FTA per game. Gordan Dragic? 4.1 FTA per game. Arron Afflalo? 3.4 FTA per game.

Al Jefferson is the absolute worst out of all the first options at getting to the line. And this hurts him because he's not going to start making it up by getting better at threes. And thus, he does poorly at hurting the other team with drawing fouls (one of the job descriptions for being a first option), and secondly, he can't seem to make up the deficit in scoring efficiency. A big part of this is style of play. Al works to get open shots, but they are sometimes the most difficult shots. He gets style points, but if the ball doesn't go in it's wasted effort.

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Noooo, anything other than Bigs vs Al is apples and oranges:

Okay, let's look at how Big Al fares against the other Bigs who are on this list (n = 10).

  • Salary: $15 million (Jefferson) vs. $10.986 (Big Men Average) -- Al makes more
  • PPG: 17.1 PPG (Jefferson) vs. 17.6 (BMA) -- Al scores less
  • FG%: 47.5 fg% vs 47.0 fg% -- Al shoots better from the field
  • PPS: 1.11 vs. 1.18 -- But overall scores less per shot
  • FT%: 83.2 ft% vs 71.5 ft% -- Al shoots better from the line
  • FTA/Game: 2.9 vs. 4.8 -- but rarely gets there during a game
  • PER: 20.2 vs. 20.2 -- congrats!
  • GO Rating: 68.5 GO vs 72.8 GO -- Al is less dangerous with the ball in his hands

So, just who is this great group of bigs Al is competing with (and looking overpaid in?): David West, Brook Lopez, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, and DeMarcus Cousins. Would you actually build your team around any of those guys? Portland and Minnesota are trying, and they're both non-playoff teams. Would you build your team around Big Al? Not if you're trying to win.

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CHARTS!

Here's the 30 guys based on Points per Game (PPG)

First_option_-_ppg

Here's the 30 guys based on Player Efficiency Rating (PER)

First_option_-_per

Here's the 30 guys based on Gestalt Offensive Rating (GO Rating)

First_option_-_go_rating

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Al Jefferson:

Al Jefferson is below average as a first option. Some of the metrics puts him as a Bottom 10 guy on a 30 guy list. He's getting paid like a Top 10 guy though. He doesn't do one of the fundamental things first options all seem to be able to do (get to the line, put the other team on their heels on defense because of fouls). He's also less efficient at scoring. He can't make up the difference because his play style doesn't get to the line, and he's not a three point shooter.

His passing has improved, but even against the other 9 bigs their AST% is better (14.1 AST% vs 12.3 AST%). Big Al does not turn over the ball, but a huge part of that is the fact that when he gets the ball he doesn't even dribble, he tries to shoot. Passing is a novelty to him, but not a natural part of his game. I applaud him for getting better at it -- but a first option isn't just there to state his own scoring -- he's supposed to make the game easier for the other four guys wearing the same jersey. You do this by either drawing fouls (and making the defense less aggressive as a whole), or by drawing in defenders which then leave your team mates open. Al Jefferson's inefficient scoring, and low AST% means that a lot of times the defense lets Al Jefferson beat Al Jefferson by taking increasingly difficult shots that do not reward him with free throws.

He's a lovely human being. A great team mate. A friendly individual. He helps the team chemistry. He has a very large bed. And I LOVE LOVE LOVE IT when he goes to the rim on shots. When he dunks the ball or goes into contact he plays like a first option. He is a slow starter, and absolutely a wreck on defense. Some of the guys who make Al Jefferson money on this list are worth it, some are not. A lot of these guys play defense. However, not all of them do.

There is no doubt that Al Jefferson is the best option we have RIGHT NOW to be a first option. There's no doubt in my mind that if you're going to win now with this roster, Big Al has to be the straw that stirs the drink. That said, Al is a free agent this off-season and his performance as a first option is below average and overpriced. He's just not good enough to help us win more. He helps us win now. But he's never going to be the first guy on a Top 10 team.

And that's the deal. I want the Jazz to be true contenders, I want us to be a Top 10 team in the league again, if not better. And you just can't can't can't can't can't can't do it with Al Jefferson as the first option -- unless you somehow get a whole bunch of second options who all play defense to be #2-9 on the roster.

Big Al is a good guy, but according to the numbers, nice guys finish close to last.

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MAKING SURE THINGS ARE TAGGED PROPERLY:

Eastern Conference players and teams used: LeBron James, Miami Heat; Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks; David West and Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers; Luol Deng and Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls; Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets; Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks; Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks; Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics; Jrue Holiday Philadelphia 76ers; Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons; Rudy Gay, Toronto Raptors; Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic; Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers; John Wall, Washington Wizards; Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats.

Western Conference players and teams used: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs; Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder; Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers; Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets; Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz; James Harden, Houston Rockets; LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers; Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers; O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks; Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves; DeMarcus Cousins; Sacramento Kings; Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns; Eric Gordon, New Orleans Hornets.

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