By Stephen Shea, Ph.D. (@SteveShea33)
May 6, 2015
There is a player whose production is among a rare and elite class that involves the likes of LeBron and Durant, whose skill set is perfectly suited for the modern NBA game, and who is still younger than certain prospects likely to be drafted this summer. In fact, there is only one such player, and it’s not who you’d guess it would be.
The NBA Game is Changing
Today’s NBA is not the NBA your parents watched. The most obvious difference is the increase in 3-point shooting. When the Bulls won their last title in ’98, they did so with a team that took a total of 962 3-pointers. This season, every team has taken at least 1,223 3-pointers, and the Houston Rockets have taken a remarkable 2,680 3-pointers. The following chart demonstrates the rapid growth of 3-point shooting in the NBA.
The growth of analytics at least partially explains the offensive evolution. The analytics in support of the 3-point shot comes on two fronts.
First, 3-point attempts are typically more efficient than mid-range jumpers. Perhaps this is best explained through a gambling analogy. Suppose there were two new games in the casino. In one of these games, the player can expect to win 40% of the time. In the other, the player wins 35% of the time. At this point, the first game appears to be the better choice. But, we have left out one very important detail, the payouts. In the first game, the player wins $2 on a $1 bet. In the second game, the player wins $3 on a $1 bet. In this situation, the player should be paid (on average) $0.80 for every $1 bet in the first game. He should be paid $1.05 for every $1 bet on the second game. It is now clear that the second game is superior. The first game was the mid-range jump shot where players shot just under 40% this season. The second game was the 3-point shot where players shot just over 35% this season. Teams get significantly more points for each 3-point attempt than they do for each mid-range jump shot.
A 3-point shooter provides value not only in his made 3-point shots, but also in his ability to keep the defense honest. This is the second analytics argument supporting the rapid increase in 3-point shooting. The analytics buzz phrase for this phenomenon is floor spacing.
In 2001, the NBA abolished its illegal defense rule. The league replaced old rule with a milder restriction that prevented defenders from standing in the key for 3 seconds if they weren’t guarding an opponent. The new rules allowed NBA teams to play zone. It allowed weak side defenders to drop off of their men (without doubling another player) to dissuade opponents from attacking the hoop.
There were concerns among some of the game’s greatest minds that these rule changes would stifle offenses. Pat Riley suggested, “There’s not going to be anybody able to drive.”
Pat Riley eventually built a team in Miami that was quite effective driving to the hoop. Riley landed the ultimate driver in LeBron, but even LeBron wasn’t going to be consistently successful getting to the hoop without some help. If the new rules weren’t going to prevent weak side defenders from clogging the lane, then the 3-point shooting ability of the weak side offense must. Riley surrounded LeBron with shooters like Ray Allen, Mike Miller, and Shane Battier. LeBron could take most defenders one-on-one, and with sharpshooters stationed on the perimeter, no other defenders could help. Miami’s offense was a nightmare for NBA defenses.
The presence of good 3-point shooters on the perimeter stretches the defense creating more room for players to drive and cut.
A New Position: The Versatile Forward (VF)
The NBA game is changing, and then so should the type of players made to thrive in it. Modern NBA offenses need to emphasize floor spacing, but a team can’t field five J.J. Redicks simply because they can shoot. NBA teams also need size and strength. Thus, a new position, the Versatile Forward (VF), was born. Forwards must have the size to defend bigger opponents and to rebound. In the modern game, the best forwards, the VFs, will also be able to step out to the perimeter, shoot the 3, and in the ideal scenario, attack off the dribble.
This season, the Hawks have risen to the top of the East with a VF in Paul Millsap. The Warriors lead the NBA with a VF in Draymond Green. Last season, VFs LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard met in the Finals. Across the league, teams are finding success with forwards that possess a truly versatile skill set.
Hiding Among the Game’s Elite
Let’s see which NBA forwards have produced like a superstar VF this season. The elite VFs must be able to score and rebound. They must also be able to shoot 3s. This season, only six players averaged at least 15 points and 6 rebounds per game, while also shooting 35% (on at least two 3-point attempts per game). Only six VFs met these minimum requirements. They were Love, Millsap, Bosh, Durant, LeBron, and our mystery man.
Who might be missing? This grossly undervalued NBA player is not only among the NBA’s elite VFs, but also the youngest by four years to make the list.
This player is only the 4th player in the last five seasons to meet the minimum requirements outlined above while still 22 years old or younger. The others were Love, Durant and George.
The NBA’s most underrated player is Tobias Harris.
Exceptional Play in Suboptimal Conditions
The 2014-15 Magic were not a good team. That’s obvious given the team lost 57 games. More than that, they lacked lineup consistency. No lineup played more than 211 minutes together. The team fired its coach midseason. And, the player most often with the ball was an inexperienced rookie guard.
Orlando has an intriguing young core with lots of potential, but let’s not confuse that with production.
While the Warriors had an offense and defense firing on all cylinders, the Magic spent most of the season in the shop.
Let us walk through a sample Orlando possession to get a sense of what Tobias had to work with this season. The following stills are taken from NBA.com’s movement animations.
In the second quarter of Orlando’s April 1st matchup against San Antonio, the Magic ran a play to get Harris the ball at the top of the key with 15 seconds on the shot clock. (See the image below. Harris is #12.) Harris is very dangerous with the ball in this position. His 3-point shooting ability means his defender must play him close. His ability to handle the ball on the drive, and his size and strength to finish at the hoop mean the other Orlando defenders must be prepared to help. From the top of the key, Harris can drive left or right, and while driving down the lane, all Orlando players are an easy one pass away should the defense collapse on Harris. Giving Harris the ball in this position is a good strategy for Orlando, and something they should consider doing a lot more.
Next, Vucevic comes up to set a screen for Harris. Again, we support this move. Harris is the team’s most dangerous ball handler in pick and rolls. The savvy San Antonio defense knows Harris is a serious threat coming off of the screen and they double him.
With two players covering Harris, San Antonio only has three defenders to cover the other four Magic. This should be a great situation for the offense, but it is here where we see Orlando’s issues spacing the floor.
In the second image, Elfrid Payton (#4) is on the weak side 3-point line. Payton is a 26% 3-point shooter and gets no respect from San Antonio’s defense. It’s almost as if he’s not on the court. When Harris is doubled, San Antonio has to guard four players with 3 defenders. However, this is an advantage for Orlando only if San Antonio actually has to guard all four Magic.
It gets worse. Orlando is playing both Dedmon (#3) and Vucevic (#9), two bigs who are not offensive threats beyond mid-range. Since Dedmon and Vucevic cannot draw their defenders out of the lane, they might as well linger near the hoop (as they are during this play).
The problem for Harris is that with Vucevic, Dedmon, their two defenders, and Payton’s defender dropping to help, there is no room for Harris to drive. This is a floor spacing DISASTER.
Harris saves the offensive set by attacking the double team on Oladipo’s side (#5). See the third image below. There is so much respect for Harris’s ability to drive that Harris draws a third defender, the player guarding Oladipo one pass away in the corner.
Harris then kicks to the open Oladipo in the corner. Oladipo hits the open corner 3.
This play demonstrates several things. It shows Harris’s ability to handle the ball from the perimeter and create for his teammates. It shows how much respect Harris gets from the intelligent and well-trained San Antonio defense. Finally, this play shows how little space Harris has to operate on offense due to Orlando’s lack of floor spacing.
Now imagine that instead of Payton and Dedmon on the weak side, Harris had Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap or Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. In either situation, Harris would have two less defenders and one less offensive player in the lane. Imagine how much more productive Harris would be as a playmaker with better shooters around him. Imagine how much more efficient he could be driving to the hoop with less defenders in his path.
In the modern NBA game, the forward with the versatility to shoot from the perimeter, handle the ball on drives and post up is king.
This season, Harris shot 36.4% from three. Let’s break that down a bit further. He shot:
- 38.0% on catch and shoot threes.
- 39.4% on threes taken with 4 or more seconds on the shot clock.
- 37.9% on open 3s (when no defender was within 4 feet).
The following shows how these shooting percentages compare to the 2014-15 league averages.
There are forwards that can score, rebound and shoot. As we have seen, the list isn’t long and contains some of the league’s most sought after talent (such as Durant and Love). Not all of these forwards’ versatility extends to ball handling on the perimeter.
The pick and roll is a staple of the modern NBA offense. Big men with limited shooting or ball handling skills are relegated to rolling, but occasionally, a forward comes along that is also efficient handling the ball off of screens, opening up the possibility for the offense to create defensive mismatches.
Harris had 150 possessions as the ball handler, and he was actually Orlando’s most efficient player in those situations. The table below shows the pick and roll ball handler statistics for the Magic this season (as recorded by Synergy).
Orlando Pick and Roll Ball Handler Efficiency
Harris averaged 0.85 points per possession. That’s considerably better than the league average of 0.79. For comparison, Harris’s 0.85 points per possession was better than that of Eric Bledsoe, Rudy Gay, Monta Ellis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and Dwyane Wade.
Orlando tended to run their on-the-ball screens for Oladipo and Payton. Payton, in particular, was far less efficient than Harris. This presents one of many examples where Orlando underutilized Harris.
The data shows that Harris is an efficient ball handler on the perimeter and possesses excellent shooting range. Does his offensive versatility extend to the post?
According to Synergy, Harris had 106 post up possessions and averaged 1.04 points per possession (PPP). He was the most efficient post up player in the NBA (among players with at least 100 post up possessions).
Check out how Harris’s post efficiency compared with some of the game’s elite post players.
The Best Defense is No Shot at All
It’s foolish to judge an NFL cornerback only by his pass deflections and interceptions. The best cornerbacks rarely leave their man open enough for the pass attempt, and even when they do, the smarter quarterbacks often choose to challenge another defender. It’s hard for a cornerback to get an interception when the quarterback is afraid to challenge him.
The NBA is similar. Offenses can typically avoid any one defender, especially if that defender isn’t charged with guarding the rim. When a team does not like the defensive matchup on their first offensive option, a simple screen can switch the defenders.
When judging NBA defenders, it’s important to look beyond opponent shooting percentages. Giving up the shot (especially at the rim) is already a partial failure. Offenses will try to avoid the best defenders. Even when challenged, the best defenders force passes or turnovers before shots. The best defense in the NBA is no shot at all.
Synergy tracks defensive possessions in the NBA. They track when the defender faces isolations, pick and rolls, post-ups, hand-offs, and off-the-ball screens. We will refer to the collection of these defensive possessions as Defensive Possessions Against (DPA). Together, these constitute all of the defensive possessions (that Synergy tracks) where the defender is in a position to defend his man with all of his defensive options available. It excludes transition plays, put-backs after offensive rebounds, and kick outs after the shooters’ defenders dropped to help.
The chart below displays the DPA, points allowed on DPA, and FGM on DPA per 48 minutes played for six Orlando Magic. These are the six Magic that played at least 1000 minutes in 2014-15.
Orlando Defense on DPA
Tobias had the fewest DPA, the fewest points allowed and the fewest FGM against. All of the data suggests that Tobias is either proficient at preventing shots when opponents attack him or opponents are not choosing to attack Tobias as often as his teammates. In either case, the data supports that Tobias is a capable defender.
On the DPA, opponents shot 38% against Tobias. That number is respectable. For comparison, Oladipo and Payton both allowed opponents to shoot 44%. When we factor in the low rate at which Tobias allows shots, we see his overall defensive performance is quite impressive. Tobias allowed 2.51 FGM per 48 minutes played. Harris played 34.8 minutes per game. So, he allowed 1.82 FGM on DPA per game. Even if Harris had held opponents to a ridiculously low 28% shooting on DPA, it would have only reduced is FGA against by .5 FGM per game (or 1 FG every 2 games).
The numbers suggest that Tobias Harris is one of the better VFs in the NBA today. Statistically, he stands among some of the game’s biggest stars. He is only 22 years old and has been praised for his character and work ethic. Harris is certain to improve on his already first-class ability. Tobias Harris is the most underrated player in the NBA, but it won’t be long before he gets the credit he deserves.