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The Pack and Mack: An Honest Look at the Point Guards

Our 3rd (or 4th) string point guard has gotten lots of flack this season. Is it deserved?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start out by saying that I’m not writing this as an unbiased journalist. I’m writing it as a blogger, not to mention a Utah Jazz fan, and I have biases and conceits when doing so. Here they are:

  1. Shelvin Mack is a consummate professional and all-around good guy, but I don’t like his game. He shoots too much, passes too little, and doesn’t protect the ball.
  2. Dante Exum has a higher ceiling, and should get a longer leash than Quin Snyder has given him this season.

Here we go.

Metric 1: The Box Score Line

Here is where our point guards shake out this season as far as the traditional “box score stats” go, being points, rebounds, assists, turnovers, shooting percentage and three-point percentage.

It should be obvious who PG3 is. It’s Shelvin! Just kidding, it’s George Hill, and it’s really not close. George has come under fire a lot lately, but he’s the best we have. Should the Jazz offer him a max deal? In my opinion, yes, provided they can also pay Gordon Hayward. George Hill is a solid basketball player and a big part of the team’s success next year. Who are we going to get to replace him? Probably nobody of his caliber.

PGs 1, 2, and 4 are more murky, but, based solely on this data set, there’s a clear second-best point guard, being PG1. Is it Exum? Nope, that would be one Shelvin Mack. Not only does he have the 2nd-highest PPG, but the 2nd-best FG% as well and on the 2nd-most attempts. I thought that it would be much worse than that.

PG2 and PG3 are similar. They’re all but tied in all categories except 3P%, and the are tied in FGM/FGA and FG%. PG2 is Neto, and PG4 is Exum. Notably, Neto has the highest 3P%, but Hill still makes the most, and his 3P% is only .002 points behind.

Preliminary Conclusion #1:

If we’re in “win-now” mode, it seems as though Shelvin Mack is the guy who should get 2nd-string minutes. It’s unclear who should play 3rd and 4th string between Exum and Neto. Oh, and we should re-sign George Hill.

These metrics show a lot, but not everything. Let’s go to some more advanced stats:

Metric 2: ORTG and DRTG

For the uninitiated, here is the Basketball Reference definition of ORTG and DRTG, respectively:

In Dean's words, "Individual offensive rating is the number of points produced by a player per hundred total individual possessions. In other words, 'How many points is a player likely to generate when he tries?'"

Just as Oliver's Offensive Rating represents points produced by the player per 100 possessions consumed, his Defensive Rating estimates how many points the player allowed per 100 possessions he individually faced while on the court.

There are big, hairy formulas to come to the totals, and you can look at them by clicking on that link, if you are so inclined. Here are the charts:

This one is to better illustrate the gaps between ORTG and DRTG. Here are the numbers:

If you guessed that PG1 was George Hill, you’d be right! The offense works better when he is on the floor, as he can pass the basketball and score it. He doesn’t appear to be the best defensive point guard on the team, though. No, that honor goes to PG2, Raul Neto, whose ORTG is almost as high as Hill’s. This didn’t surprise me, because the eyeball test seemed to indicate this as well. Neto just seems to have a better nose for the ball than any of the other point guards on the team.

PG3, who owns the worst ORTG and 3rd-best DRTG, is, unsurprisingly, Dante Exum. It’s hard to shoot 28% from 3-point land and have a high ORTG. Exum’s is well-below the league average of 108.7. And Exum’s vaunted defense? The number says that it’s not as good as we thought it was, but I think there are other factors at play here. The guy is a foul magnet, and that’s not entirely his fault. When people you’re guarding are going to the line, your DRTG is going to suffer. PG4, Shelvin Mack, owns the 3rd-best ORTG and, also predictably, (due my own, biased eye test) the worst DRTG.

Preliminary Conclusion 2:

These numbers aren’t any kinder to Exum than the last ones were. They still support George Hill, make Shelvin Mack look less-secure as the backup PG, and begin to make a case for Raul Neto being the backup, which, by the way, Coach Quin Snyder has been doing lately anyway.

Metric 2.1: NETRTG

Net rating is simply how many points per 100 possessions a team is ahead or behind while a player is on the floor. Here is what we have so far this season:

PG1 is Raul Neto, who boasts the best NETRTG. This makes sense because his DRTG is so good and his offensive rating is just slightly below the NBA average. Plus, he tends to play against bench units. PG3 is George Hill. Hill has a slightly above-average ORTG and his DRTG is still decent, has a diminished net rating compared to Neto, possibly because he is usually playing against starters. PGs 3 and 4 are, by this metric, riding the struggle bus. Their NETRTG is well-below the team-average 4.9.

Preliminary Conclusion 2.1:

This metric makes the case stronger for Hill and Neto being #1 and #2.

Metric 3: USG%, AST%, TOV%

This is a less-talked about stat, but an important one nonetheless. Back in January, our very own Amar wrote a critical piece about Shelvin Mack’s numbers in these categories. Has anything changed? Is Mack UATing up the Jazz? (He hadn’t played for quite some time until the Sacramento Kings game, so it’s safe to say that, if he has, it hasn’t been a recent thing) Is another point guard doing so? Let’s look:

Here are the definitions of the stats mentioned for your reference, courtesy of

Although the formula itself looks a bit more complicated, the basic idea is to look at a player's combination of field goal attempts, free throw attempts and turnovers, and find the percentage of the team totals he uses in those same categories.

So, high usage percentage + high assist percentage + low turnover percentage = good.

A metric that estimates the percentage of field goals made by a team that a particular player assisted on while he was in the game. By definition, field goals made by the player in question are excluded.

Easy enough. If anyone is still reading and still interested, John Stockton had a career AST% of 50.2%.

Although the formula itself looks a bit more complicated, the basic idea is to look at all a team's possessions while a particular player was on the floor, and find the percentage of those possessions in which the player committed a turnover. This value is then adjusted to yield the number of turnovers per 100 possessions. This value indicates, in part, how much negative impact a player has on his team by wasting valuable offensive possessions.

So, by this point, there should be no surprises as to who PG4 is. That would be, yes, Indiana George Hill by a landslide. He shoots a lot, but he protects the ball and sets up his teammates. That’s why he’s the starter and the others aren’t.

PG2 is Neto, who is the 2nd-best at moving the ball, but, to my surprise, owner of the lowest AST%.

PG1, the guard with the highest TOV% at nearly 20%, is Shelvin Mack. That, combined with his USG% and AST% tells us that he is rather fond of shooting, but not to the extend that I thought. He does, in fact, set up his teammates on the regular. However, his TOV% is alarming, and is, I suspect, the reason that many fans are frustrated with him. A semi-high USG% combined with turning the ball over one out of every five possessions is not a good trait in a point guard or any player.

Now we come to PG3, our very own Dante Exum. He doesn’t take a lot of shots, but he has a group-worst 13.9% assist percentage. His highest metric in this data set is turnover percentage. While it’s not as high as Shelvin’s, it’s still pretty high. Although we’ve seen flashes of brilliance, statistically Dante hasn’t done much on the court this season.

Preliminary Conclusion 3:

This is the strongest evidence yet that Shelvin Mack takes too many shots and doesn’t protect the ball. However, when he is on the floor he assists on 21.5% of the teams FGs, not far behind George Hill. So while the ball security criticisms are deserved, it’s not fair to say that Mack doesn’t/can’t pass.

Overall, Neto still seems like the 2nd-best option in this category. A turnover 1 out of every 7 possessions vs. 1 out of every 5 can be the difference between a win and a loss. Furthermore, this indicates that, while Neto doesn’t always get the assist, he often makes the pass that leads to an assist, being the primary ball handler. Fewer empty trips means that the point guard is doing his job well.

As for Exum, I don’t see data-based reasons among this set for playing him over Mack.

Metric 4: Offensive WS, Defensive WS, Overall WS and VORP

In the article that I keep citing, Amar mentioned a bevy of other stats that he didn’t put on his charts, saying only that Mack “wasn’t looking too pretty” in any of those categories. That would have made the article too long in a similar way to how this one is too long. However, and finally, I’m going to take a look at a few of them:

Here are more definitions for those who need them:

  • Win shares are the total number of wins in a team’s win total that can be attributed to each individual player. It’s not a winner-take-all MVP-style stat—each player racks up win shares as he racks up positive offensive and defensive stats. Offensive win shares are based solely on the player’s offensive contribution, and defensive win shares based on defensive performance. These PGs are all sitting at 2 WS or below. For perspective, Rudy Gobert leads the team with 13.1 win shares this season, Gordon Hayward has 9.6, Joe Ingles has 5, and Joe Johnson has 3.3.
  • VORP

Value over Replacement Player, or VORP, is a metric that estimates a player’s overall contribution to the team compared to what a theoretical replacement player would provide. The VORP calculation uses Box Plus/Minus (BPM) with the defined replacement player value to estimate how valuable a player is. Box Plus Minus is a complex stat on its own that is explained quite well by Basketball Reference. Essentially, BPM is using box score information with some weighting factors to evaluate a player’s contribution without considering playing time. VORP takes BPM and expands upon it by adding a minutes played weighting factor.


VORP sets the theoretical replacement player’s value at -2.0 points per 100 possessions, because some random schlub who isn’t normally in a team’s rotation is unlikely to be very good.

So, without further ado, let’s get to know the PGs in the chart. The solid green line of cells is PG1, who is George Hill. He blows the other point guards out of the water once again.

PG2 is Shelvin Mack. He actually hurts the team on offense, plays decent defense, and is basically as valuable as any other random point guard that the coach decides to chuck into the rotation.

PG3 is Exum, who appears to not help or hurt the team on offense, play decent defense, and—uh-oh—be worse than your average dude chucked into the rotation.

PG4 is Raul Neto. Neto, according to these metrics, plays a bit of offense and a smidgen of defense, and is just slightly better than non-rotation player XYZ.

Preliminary Conclusion:

George Hill is good, and the others are less-good.

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

Well, here it is, Jazzland: my initial biases are now more tempered than they were before. Here’s what I learned.

1. The Jazz should throw some money at George Hill, because he’s doing really good things for them. It would be difficult to find another player of his caliber.

2. Shelvin Mack is an offensive liability, but not nearly to the extent I thought. In fact, he’s statistically better than Dante Exum in most categories. Therefore, quit your grumbling whenever he comes into the game. He’s not going to help or hurt much more than Exum would have.

3. Raul Neto deserves the backup point guard spot. He’s not second-best in all the categories, but he is second-best in the ones that count. These stats show that he plays better defense and takes better care of the ball than the other two backups, if only marginally.

4. Dante Exum still needs time to develop. Look, folks, I’m all in for Exum. He’s a great kid, he’s shown that he can play basketball, and he’s a freak athlete. However, he’s playing like an ordinary to below-average point guard right now. Quin Snyder’s job is to win. We’re not in #TheProcess mode right now. The stats, at least, the ones I’ve shown in this article, don’t justify playing him for extended minutes at this point in the season.

So should we give up on Dante? No way! Like I said, he’s a freak athlete with scads of potential. My only critique of Quin Snyder is that he shouldn’t take Exum out whenever he makes a mistake. Play him against some bench units and let him learn. I still maintain that his ceiling is higher than Shelvin’s. Mack isn’t a freak athlete, (well, compared to me he is) even though he hasn’t played many NBA minutes he’s still 26 years old, and, well, it just doesn’t seem like he has the physical potential to be a dominant point guard in this league on either side of the ball.

Dante has awesome physical measurables, and if he can figure things out he’ll be doing things that Shelvin Mack will probably never be able to do. I’m not ready to call him a bust, but I’m also not ready to pull out the pitchforks just because Shelvin Mack is starting to see time again.

So, to sum up:

  • Stop bagging on Shelvin so much
  • Be patient with Exum
  • Be nice to George even if he decides to leave, but realize that he’s probably worth the money to keep here.

I’m interested to hear your takes in the comments. Got more metrics to look at? Let me hear ‘em.

Go Jazz!