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NBA Statistics: A deep look at the Top 30 Scoring Bigmen in the Game, and the overt Genius of Big Al Jefferson

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

I'm a hater. Or at least, that's what about 5-20 e-mails I get a week make sure to point out to me. I'm a hater because I, clearly, hate my team. I also hate my coach, my front office, and my team's best player. Again, I'm a hater, or so that's the impression I get from reading my fan mail. I can summarize it to basically being critical of Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson, and his reliance upon ever decreasing scoring efficiency in order to 'get his'. Sure, most of the non-Utah world has come to terms with Jefferson's limitations on defense; and that's not even a point his greatest supporters contest anymore. For me his value is on offense. And as a $15 million dollar first option in a contract year, well, that's where his value should be seen the most.

Previously I've tried to find out where Big Al stands against an increasingly large number of time frames, player databases, and sample sizes. Each of them have left me feeling worse about Jefferson, and made me wish I had all those hours back. Still, people are goo-goo-ga-ga for Big Al. He's a remarkable human being, a superb teammate, even a capable veteran mentor. But he's paid to be "the man" on offense. And that's his primary role with the team he's currently on. As a result, all serious quantitative evaluations of Jefferson should start there.

Others have looked at his game and fallen deeply in love with it. And I'm not arrogant enough to believe, implicitly, that my point of view is the most superior point of view. I'm not some cocky guy to automatically brush off a point of view that differs from mine. After all, I get people who care enough about this sport who will take the time to tweet, DM, text, or e-mail me their feelings and ideas. It's only normal for a rational, objective, thinking human being to try to evaluate all of that information in a serious way. I'm not learning if I just want to retain my own biases. After all, people do send me their ideas; I'd be doing a bad job of expanding my own knowledge if I didn't try to see it from their shoes.

Perhaps, yes, perhaps I'm missing the overt genius of Big Al Jefferson? That he's unique in his ability to score as a bigman. That he operates down low with few peers, if any. And that his old school game is truly old school -- and reflective of the time we all grew up falling in love with the game.

Those are three interesting premises, or rationalizations, for loving Big Al. If I'm missing out on the love, I should start there. So let's begin.



Al Jefferson is unique in his ability to score as a bigman

Right now with all the rule changes that benefit wings who can shoot, slash, and score we feel as though the Bigman as a primary offensive force has gone away with the dinosaur. Teams don't really go inside/out anymore. Al Jefferson is the last relic of a simpler, more true form of basketball. Well, if he's really all that (and according to the people who champion him the most) he is. And if I'm ever going to get to see Big Al from their point of view I'm going to need to try to test for this. If I see him for his warts only, I may miss out the parts of him that are amazing. And one of the primary ideas here is that Big Al is one of the last true bigmen who can score.


Just straight up looking at points per game (PPG) he's 10th out of the top 30 Bigmen in the league in scoring. (Data set: LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, David Lee, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Al Horford, Tim Duncan, Josh Smith, Dirk Nowitzki, Al Jefferson, DeMarcus Cousins, David West, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Ryan Anderson, Carlos Boozer, Nikola Pekovic, Greg Monroe, Zach Randolph, Glen Davis, Paul Millsap, Kevin Garnett, Marc Gasol, Amare Stoudemire, Anderson Varejao, Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, J.J. Hickson, Ersan Ilyasova, and Pau Gasol) He also takes the 4th most shots per game. He's 27th out of 30 in FTA. His PPS (important for bigmen who need to be efficient in a guard's league) is worse at 28th. But his FG% is middle of the pack (17th, below average, but still not that bad).


Being 10th best in PPG, while being 4th best in shot attempts tells us something. Yes, being Top 10 puts him in elite-ish company for a big, but he's not really unique here when 9 other guys score more than he does. Furthermore, only three guys shot more often than he does -- but 9 guys score more than he does. If he was unique he would be GOOD, I hope. He scores 0.2 ppg more than DeMarcus, while shooting +1.7 more times a game. If your definition of being unique as a bigman scorer -- last of a dying breed -- then being slightly less efficient than Cousins is not the way to defend your case.

Maybe it's not really about points though. Okay, let's agree that it CAN'T be about points because he's not unique here. He's 10th. He's 10th while taking the 4th most shots. And he's one of the least efficient guys here, while abjectly failing one of the historically important characteristics of a good, highly regarded first option bigman. The only guys who get to the line less are Ryan Anderson and Ersan Ilyasova. That's it. We have to agree that the first premise is untrue before we can go on. Al is not unique as a bigman scorer in terms of actually scoring points. He does it in an inefficient way (yes, he doesn't turn the ball over, but its not like he makes the defense hurt when he's on the floor either -- at least not in the numbers department), and it's not unique. You're not winning me over by being the Monta Ellis of bigmen.



Al Jefferson operates down low with few peers, if any

Okay, this one HAS to be right. Not just for the sake that I'm missing out on his overt genius on offense. But I mean in general. We all know that Big Al is great down low. All the announcers say it on local and national broadcasts -- and they're never incorrect about anything. Furthermore, he worked with Kevin McHale for years. He knows a lot of post moves. He rares gets his shot blocked. Okay, Al isn't unique in scoring ability. What makes the difference here, and the feather in his cap, has to be the way he scores. Al puts in work in the paint. Fact.


This one is a little more complicated. First of all, according to Hoopdata (which is not updated every night, but gets most of its' data absolutely correct) -- if you naturalize these numbers so that each player happens to play the same amount of minutes -- it looks kinda funny for this point as well. Out of all 30 players guess what? Well, Out of all 30 players if you played them all 40 minutes a game . . . Al Jefferson would be #1 in . . . shots per game . . . . at the location of . . . well, at shots per game overall. He shoots the most. No one shoots more. Al Jefferson, against 29 other bigmen, will shoot the most shots over a fixed amount of time. Well, then it's a shoe in that he should also be award the #1 rank for shots up close at the rim right?


Al shoots the most shots (did I mention that before yet?), but would STILL rank 20th out of 30 in shots per game at the rim. Twenty out of thirty.

Jefferson is #2 at shots from 3-9 feet out (wheezie range), but that range may indicate post ability, but he's moving farther and farther away from the rim here. If he's a beast inside he shouldn't be taking rolling one handed push shots going AWAY from the rim right? Being a beast is not the same thing as ballet. Al is also #6 in shots from 10-15', aka the extended Wheezie. Probably the most damning is that he takes the vast majority of his shots from 16-23' out, 7.0 times in 40 minutes of action. That would put him at #3 in this group of 30 bigmen. He's a jump shooter who strays away from the paint more and more and more.


Yes, 19 guys go to the rim more than Big Al. If being 20th means operating down low, then there must be 19 surgeon generals out there. Of course, getting shots close to the rim does not necessarily indicate they are good in the post. That said, Synergy ranks Big Al as #51 in scoring off of Post-Ups. I thought he was supposed to be one of the best. That he was supposed to have few peers, if any?

He shoots the most, and is still 20th at shooting shots at the rim. And that sucks. It sucks for two big reasons. The first is that the location he shots the most from is not his best location. And second, the shot he should be shooting the most from, his amazing shot location, is the one we comically think he does a lot.



Two reasons why this sucks

Here are the Top 10 Bigmen who shot the most shots from 16-23' per 40 mins:


See, Al is #3 on that list for most shots per game from that spot. He's also #8 on that list in fg% from that spot. One way to look at it is to say he's expanding his game. I think he's just being lazy and taking what the defense gives him. He's not a Bosh or KG or Dirk. He shouldn't be taking 7 shots a game from there. He's not being his best by being lazy and taking what the defense gives him. Especially when you look at . . .


. . . the Top 10 Bigmen who shot the most shots at the rim per 40 mins:

Okay, some of these guys CLEARLY bang inside a lot harder and more frequently that Jefferson does. In the first investigation we saw that Al isn't unique in being a bigman who can score. Here we're seeing that he's almost going in the paint inside almost as an after thought.


Which is HORRIBLE, because he would have been #2 on this list in RANK for fg% at the rim. He's KILLING it from there. But he's not shooting from there. Instead he's shooting it from the worst spot on the floor for him.

It's insanity.

Seriously, let's break it down further. He shoots 7.0 shots a game from 16-23 feet out. And he makes 40.7% of those shots.

7.0 x 0.407 = 2.849 FGM

And we see that he shoots 4.8 shots a game at the rime, and he makes 72.9% of those shots.

4.8 x 0.729 - 3.4992 FGM

You don't need to go to college (so some of our younger, or less education focused readers, will see this) to know that 3.4992 is a larger number than 2.849.

So while Big Al is GOOD as scoring at the rim, he continues to try to redefine himself into a spot up shooter. And while he shoots outside nearly one and a half more times a game, his actual points he's getting his team from there is 20% off.

This is not a genius move. This is taking what the defense gives him (the majority of these shots are his face up shots from the triple threat -- not drive and kick shots created for him). He should instead back down the other team's bigman and use his post moves (which everyone agrees he's supposed to have), and manufacture his own shot at the rim. After all, even if he misses -- he should draw enough contact to go to the line.

I think that some of the evidence suggests that Al does indeed operate down low. And his FG% definitely shows his ability to score down low; but his 4.8 FGA from down low shows me that he doesn't give his team the overt production he should from down low. Furthermore, he continues to shoot more and more from the outside, a place where he is #3 in FGA for this group, while being #8 out of that Top 10 group in actually making that shot.

In the season Kyle Korver became the top 3pt% player in history he was widely regarded as good from downtown, one of the best even. But he became so gunshy that he just stopped shooting the shot he was precisely on the floor to take. Maybe this is what we're seeing with Big Al now? He's good at what he's good at, but has stopped doing what he's good at now for some reason that makes sense to only him?

He shoots the most out of all 30 of these bigmen, but still is only #20 in shot attempts inside. He does the Wheezie and gets the 2nd most shots from 3 to 9 feet out. That has to count for something. Similarly, being able to score downlow when he puts some effort into it has to count as well. I remember seeing him go one on one against Tim Duncan early this season on the road and scoring on him three times in a row when he went to the rim.

Yes, I think we can say that Big Al operates down low. Sadly, we see him more and more on the golf course now, and less and less in the operating room. I'd have to give this concept a half point.



Big Al plays an old school bigman's game

This should dovetail nicely with how he's good in the paint, and one of the best scorers inside (if you throw away the #51 rank from Synergy Sports on post ups -- you know, where they have him shooting only 44.0 FG% from). To test how old school he is I compared him to the Top 20 bigman scorers from the 1988-1989 season. So yes, he'll be going up against "old school bigmen" like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Terry Cummings, Patrick Ewing, Kevin McHale, Moses Malone, Robert Parish and so on. Yeah, a lot of those guys were Hall of Famers -- but this time was also a time where the Top 20 bigmen scorers also included Benoit Benjamin, Mike Gminski, Roy Tarpley and so on. Not all the guys in this data set were first options, or All-Stars. Some of these guys would be scrubs in this era. So let's look and see how Al compares to the Old School bigmen.


Okay, well, he's below average in everything except shots. And here we see that he's #7th in shot attempts per game, but drops down to #15th in points per game. Somewhere along the line his shot attempts have stopped getting him points. And compared to the oldschool guys -- they pretty much kick his butt, particularly the other first option bigmen.

If anything, you could ague that Jefferson would be a solid 2nd or 3rd option back in the 80s, and that as far as traditional oldschool bigman production -- dude just doesn't have it. He's so inefficient here, he never gets to the line (he's LAST in both of those categories), and he's a volume scorer here.

Does he play an oldschool bigman's game? Well, he doesn't go to the rim or try to. He doesn't get to the line. He doesn't shoot a high fg%. He has a very low PPS value. And let's not forget in the previous section we see him shooting 7 shots a game from 16 to 23 feet out.

I wish I knew more languages so I could say no in so many different ways.

Big Al is a less good version of Ken Norman and arguably as good as Roy Tarpley. So I guess using the transitive property of algebra, they would both get $15 million a year to play today.

The good news here is that if we shipped Big Al back in time he'd probably be known as being a quantum leap in face up, outside shooting bigmen. Where as today we laud him for being a throwback, back to the basket guy. You know, for a guy who takes most of his shots from 16 to 23 feet.



The Game has changed, Big Al is still an overt Genius -- you're still a hater

Okay, so I gave Big Al a fail on being a unique scoring big. I gave him half a point for being someone who operates down low. And I give him another fail on being an oldschool big. (Having a post move or two doesn't make you oldschool anymore than having a layup makes you oldschool. It's just a shot. Being oldschool is a style of play, and the brutal efficiency of his peers in that era show him to be very newschool indeed.)

What we see is that Al, on the whole, is awesome. Somehow his awesomeness has yet again failed to come through the data. So let's just say the game has changed, the qualities you want from a primary inside scorer have changed. And the priorities a primary inside scorer has for shot distributions have also change. Also, Big Al is improving himself by taking 7 shots a game outside the paint. Furthermore, just because he makes less points overall from outside despite shooting 1.5x more from outside doesn't mean anything. And shying away from contact like a shrinking violet is just the next evolution in how bigmen will play this game.

Okay fine.

Let's look at the evolution of several Big Men scorers in TODAY's game.

Dwight Howard is a bigman who gets to the line, and shoots in the paint. He's a power player. (Big Al is not) He's also athletic. (Big Al is not, but seriously, when has being un-athletic ever been a good thing?)


Yup, almost all of his shots over his entire career are at the rim or in the paint.

Brook Lopez has played less years in the league, but looks to carry the torch for scoring bigs.


Yes, here we see a little more variation in shot location distribution -- but the overwhelming majority of his shots come inside.

Z-Bo? Yes, let's look at Zach Randolph next.


Ah-ha, he used to be all over the place (Thanks Isiah Thomas and your Knicks), but once he got good coaching and started to really be noticed for his on court performance we see a much tighter distribution that is condensed and focused around an inside game. The Blue and Red bars are the biggest ones here, as the same with Dwight and Brook. Of course, All three of these guys have been All-Stars and/or All-NBA players. they are doing it right, while being primary first option bigmen. (Dwight would be on any other team that didn't have Kobe or Kevin Durant or LeBron James on it)

What about Big Al? What about his evolution? What does his evolution say about his abilities as a throwback, amazing, unique, great paint operator?


Okay, he's evolving in a different direction. The purple (the 16 feet and out range) is dominating now, and gets bigger and bigger every year. we already saw how he takes a lot of these shots despite not being in the performance bracket to DESERVE to take all those shots. Back in 2009? Pre-injury? Yes, Big Al may have been a big-time, unique inside scoring, old school, throwback player that made you feel all warm and gooey inside.

He's not the same guy he was in 2009. People change. Some people change for the better. Some people change for the worst. I just spent 10 hours of my weekend looking at Big Al because people felt like I haven't given him his fare shake over the years he's been here in Utah. I looked past my biases to see the good things he has done. I think it would be a good show of faith for some of the people who called me out on this to look inside their own perceptions and try to see all the ways Big Al just doesn't measure up -- ON OFFENSE. (Not even talking about conditioning, or defense, or whatever -- just on offense, which is where he's supposed to dominate)

Maybe some people really hold onto that 2009 version of Big Al and don't want to see the 2013 version that he is today. He's not as young, or injury free as he used to be. He's settling more and more for what the defense gives him. It must be in the scouting report that he's only making 40% of his outside jumpers. If me, a guy who writes on a BLOG, and is NOT AN INSIDER, can see this -- I'm sure professional team scouts saw it way before I did.

He's not the guy he used to be, and we may be sentimental and love who he was. But in the fast moving arena of sports -- I've once again come to see that right now Big Al isn't the guy we'd want him to be. He does work in the paint well when he does go there; but he doesn't go there enough. He shoots his worst shot more and more. He's not old school. And he seriously fails at some of the core principles of being a reliable inside scorer: he doesn't shoot well, he doesn't get to the line enough, and he doesn't shoot from the right places as much as he should.

And this sucks, because if there was ever a player on this Utah Jazz team who deserved to be loved it's Big Al. He is one of the best guys out there. Superb team mate. He makes everyone laugh. He takes control of a room. He's a huge personality. He takes guys under his wing. He helps out with his community. He does charity for the sake of charity, he doesn't do something and bring a camera crew with him. He's a great guy. He's a great teammate. He's a great person.

But the number one metric needed to be looked at when evaluating what he's supposed to do on the basketball court is to score efficiently like a bigman first option scorer. Once again, he fails to convince me of his worth there. I want to see the overt genius of Big Al Jefferson.

Maybe it's just the little things that I should look at, and not the big picture? I'd be happier with the little things. Who needs a championship when a first round exit will do? Who needs a hero on the court, when Big Al is so obviously a hero off the court?

Maybe that's his genius after all.




So this just happened.


And I obliged.


Big Al -- still not awesome here. #20/30 in FG%. #4/30 in PPG, but #1 in FGA/Game. #18/30 in FTA per game, and #27 in PPS. What's the next attack going to be on my methods? I should only compare him to other guys from Mississippi who have beards?