The Pick and Roll Eternal

This summer the often stormy marriage of Amare Stoudemire and the Phoenix Suns was finally dissolved. Amare joined his former coach Mike D’Antoni with the New York Knicks and in doing so split apart one of the NBA’s great pick and roll combos. Steve Nash stayed to soldier on in Phoenix and try to remake the Suns vaunted offense with the leftover pieces. While it could be worse, things haven’t been overly rosy for Nash or Stoudemire, the Suns or the Knicks.

Amare

While Amare may be finding the perfect bagel with lox is a lot easier to come by in his new home, open shots are not. In addition to the nightly struggle to produce at the same level, Amare has been vocally frustrated with his team’s inability to win games. The Knicks are off to a 6-8 start and Amare has found a few things more difficult to accomplish on the court at Madison Square Garden. The table below shows Amare’s stats for this season and last season. The bottom row of the table shows the percent increase or decline in his production in each category.

At first glance Amare’s stats seem pretty similar to last season. He is scoring and rebounding at roughly the same rate while his steals, assists and blocks have increased. The big difference is coming in his scoring efficiency. Amare’s FG% has dropped by more than 5 points. Another change hinted at by the numbers is where his shots are coming from. Last season 61.2% of Amare’s baskets were assisted on, many of those from Steve Nash. This year Amare is be asked to create a lot more of his offense on his own. Only 48.7% of his baskets have been assisted on this season and his turnovers have increased by more than 40% per 40 minutes. This drop in his scoring efficiency and resulting rise in turnovers is exhibited in some overall player ratings such as PER and Wins Produced per 48.

As usual rumors are swirling in New York about trade possibilities, so help may be on the way before the season is over. For all his desire to be the central offensive figure on a team, Amare is discovering, as Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, James Jones and Shawn Marion have before him, that it’s a lot easier to maximize your offensive skills when Steve Nash is setting you up.

The Suns

The Suns have posted an Offensive Rating of 109.4 in the 12 games they’ve played with Steve Nash. That’s a pretty rough drop off from the league best 112.7 they posted last year, but it would still rank them as second best in the league behind the Lakers. The make-up of their offense has changed without Amare and this change is best exhibited in their shot selection. The table below shows the Suns’ shot breakdown from last season and this season. For each category you can see what percentage of their field goal attempts came from that area and what their field goal percentage was on those shots.

There would appear to be a big change in the percentage of their shots which are coming At the Rim and from <10ft. However, there has been some discussion that the play by play data which Hoopdata uses to track those shots may have changed how they are classified this season. If you add those two categories together though you can see the Suns are essentially taking the same percentage of their shots from inside of 10ft. as they were last year. They are shooting slightly more three pointers and slightly less long two pointers, which is definitely a good thing.

The real change comes in two areas. The Suns are finishing at a much lower rate on shots <10ft., an area where Amare lived on offense. They are also making a much lower percentage of their three pointers. Amare’s departure is a factor here as well. Without him on the floor the Suns are even more one-dimensional, reducing open space for their shooters and allowing teams to give more attention to defending the three point line.

Knowing that they couldn’t simply acquire another player to fill the hole left by Amare, the Suns went with a combination approach. They added Josh Childress, Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick. In terms of style of play and skill set Warrick seems like the player who most closely mirrors what Amare did for the Suns. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to entirely replace him, the Suns hoped Turkoglu and Childress could bolster their already impressive wing rotation to make that an even bigger strength.

Because of the need to factor in elements besides box scores statistics comparing Amare to his primary replacement, Hakim Warrick, is not a zero-sum game. However, a glance at the table below and a few numeric approximations could lead you to the largely correct conclusion that Warrick is providing somewhere in the area of 75% of Stoudemire’s statistical production at roughly 25% of the cost. Not a bad deal all things considered.

I also find it interesting that some of the categories in which Amare has seen the biggest decline sinse leaving the the Suns are the same areas in which Warrick has seen the biggest increase in his production. Warrick’s FG% is up roughly 14 points and the percentage of his baskets which are assisted on his risen by roughly 7 points. Warrick is a player with distinct limitations on the basketball court but Steve Nash is helping him make the most of his talents.

Steve Nash

I heard plenty of talk this summer about how Amare might find things more difficult than he expected in New York. There was also discussion to spare on how the Suns’ offense would suffer without him, likely dragging them out of the Western Conference elite. While the Suns’ offensive decline was largely predicted, I don’t remember much discussion on the effect Amare’s departure might have on Steve Nash’s individual numbers. The attitude seemed to be that Nash made his supporting cast great and would largely be able to continue at the same pace regardless of the pieces around him. While the Suns’ offensive numbers would sufffer, I am not sure anyone predicted how much losing Amare as a weapon would cause Nash’s individual numbers to suffer as well.

Steve Nash’s assists have declined from 11.0 per game last season to 8.9 this season. His Assist Rate (the percentage of his possessions which end in an assist) has declined from 39.28, 4th best in the league, to 31.04, 13th in the league. The easy answer would be that no Amare, Nash’s most significant offensive weapon last season, is responsible for most of that decline.

Wanting to hone in on that idea I went through the play-by-play data for the Suns games last season and this season and counted how many assists Nash handed out to each player and from what area the shot came from. The top two tables are from last season, the bottom two tables are from this season. The left tables just show the total assists, the tables on the right show the assists per game.

In terms of roster changes the Suns essentially replaced Amare Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa and Louis Amundson with Josh Childress, Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick. Nash is handing out roughly the same assists per game on three pointers and on shots <10ft. However he is handing out a lot less assists on shots at the rim and on mid and long range jumpers, shots which were Amare’s bread and butter.

Last season Nash handed out 4.049 assists per game to Amare, Barbosa and Amundson, with 3.354 of those going to Amare. This season Nash is handing out only 2.667 assists per game to Warrick, Turkoglu and Childress. The Suns’ three new roster additions are receiving less assists per game from Nash than Amare was on his own. All three players have offensive limitations but I think Phoenix was expecting slightly more shot-making contributions from them when they were acquired. It’s difficult to pin all of this decline on them not getting open or not making shots, but Steve Nash’s record of creating offense for this teammates pretty much speaks for itself.

Jared Dudley and Channing Frye are also receiving slightly fewer assists per game from Nash as opposed to last season. I wanted to point out, although I didn’t track it specifically, that a huge percentage of Frye’s assists from Nash came in the first half of last season, so this season’s numbers could be considered part of that general decline. As teams became more aware of him as a three point threat the open space he found at the beginning of last year was a lot less common. Jason Richardson is the only Sun who is receiving significantly more assists from Nash this season than last season.

The Grass is Always Greener

Amare’s departure for New York doesn’t appear to have catastrophic consequences for anyone involved. The Suns could have had an outside shot at competing for a championship this season, but even without Amare they remain one of the best offensive teams in the league. There is every indication that they will compete for a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference this season. Amare will continue to put up big numbers and will get the attention he desired in doing so.

Even so, it’s sad to watch the dissolution of this great tandem. For the past six seasons watching them run the pick and roll in Phoenix was an absolute joy. In the NBA there are many more stories of near misses than there are of championship glory, and the Suns have their share. I wonder if it any point this season, Amare will catch a SportsCenter highlight of Nash feeding Warrick for a dunk and wonder what might have happened if he had stayed.

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9 Comments

Filed under NBA, Phoenix Suns, Statistical Analysis

9 responses to “The Pick and Roll Eternal

  1. Chicago Tim

    This raises all kinds of questions for me. Doesn’t this go against one of the principles 0f WoW, that from, say, age 24-32, absent major injuries, stats tend to remain consistent from year to year even as players change teams or teams change personnel or coaches? Is the exception for Nash as one of the best point guards in history similar to the exception for Phil Jackson as a coach? Do we see the same effect for other superstar point guards? What about superstars at other positions? Is this more true for assist leaders or players who pair with assist leaders than with, for example, scoring or rebounding leaders?

    • Dr. Berri may have a different answer, but my view is that the statistic consistency from year to year is rooted in fact but is still a generalization. Even in the way you phrased it “tend to remain consistent.” There will always be outliers and I think another basic tenet of the Wages of Wins viewpoint is to identify and characterize those outliers for what they are as opposed to getting caught up in them and mis-reading their predictive value.

      The other thing is, I believe the work Dr. Berri’s done with statistical consistency is mostly in reference to Wins Produced. My gut (Dr. Berri is cringing as I write this) tells me that while the framework of categories which calculate Wins Produced my remain consistent, there can be changes in individual categories. This is just one example, but when Steve Nash was 24 he was averaging 2.4 turnovers per 36. Up until age 29 this number stayed mostly under 3.0 (he had one season at 3.1). Since turning 30 his turnovers have risen to being consistently above 3.5 per 36. I don’t have WP48 numbers going back that far but I would guess the increase in his turnovers was offset by a corresponding rise in his FG% which make his WP48 numbers look consistent over that time span.

      With Amara and Warrick the main categories which seem to have been affected by Nash is their FG% because of percentage of their baskets which were assisted on by Nash. My guess is that over the course of the season their FG% will stay the close to where they are now, but we won’t see huge changes in their WP48 from last season.

      I think that changing teams, coaches, systems, teammates can create statistical changes but not across the board. Playing with Steve Nash can get you more open shots and consequently a better FG%, but it won’t make you a better rebounder, shot blocker or help you take care of the ball. All of those statistics work together to create the WP48 metric and it’s unlikely that a coach/system/teammate change will create a change in enough of those categories to create a statistically significant difference in WP48. I also think the coach/system/teammates that can create this change are pretty far and few between. 75% of the league uses roughly the same offensive and defensive systems. Coaches as true motivators for professional men of this age are rare. Teammates who can truly make you better are far and few between as well.

      I guess I don’t have a lot of statistical evidence for this viewpoint, but that’s kind of how I look at it. It’s definitely something worth discussing though.

      • It’s worth noting, I think, that Nash’s WP48 hasn’t dropped much at all, and given the small sample size and all, could end up looking very similar to last season.

        However, even if it does remain where it is, one might be able to argue that this is as much due to age as losing Amare.

        That said, I think this is an excellent post!

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  3. Curious where you pulled these numbers and how you got them — not because I’m questioning the legitimacy 🙂 I’d like to do something similar for Rodney Stuckey, as his assist numbers have risen substantially this year.

    • As far as Nash’s WP48 I’m assuming it will remain pretty similar this year. I was thinking more about the effect his passing and offensive creation has on his teammates. Even if his assists fall off slightly his shootin percentages and other categories should keep his WP48 strong.

      As far as the numbers I assume you mean the assist totals for each teammate and area. I went through the ESPN play by play reports for each game and just marked down who each assist from Nash went to and what distance the shot came from. I then double checked my totals against the totals for each distance that Hoopdata has. It’s pretty tedious but the information is pretty interesting I think. If you were wondering about the source for different numbers in there just let me know.

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