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NBA Reputations, Examined
Do the numbers back up the narratives for these three players?
More than any other league, the NBA lends itself to stories and characters, myths and legends. Reputations can be made in seconds and can linger long after they cease to be true. Below we will examine three players with outsized reputations to see if their 2020–2021 season numbers back up the narrative. Numbers from basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats.
Russ Westbrook’s shooting is well-known to have fallen off a cliff. But he had a sensational second-half run last season (for the second season in a row), so how bad could it have been? In a word: historic.
We limited the sample to just those players who shot at least two field goals per game from each area and played >500 minutes. As you can see above, he’s among the league’s worst at high volume jump shooting, and the drop-off happens almost immediately outside of traditional floater range (~10 feet).
There’s not really a lot of deeper analytical context necessary here. Russ takes a lot of difficult, off-the-dribble shots from deep that don’t translate to buckets very often.
Two fun notes on the 10–16 foot range:
1)The best FG% in this range, by a mile, is Richaun Holmes, whose funky push shot was chronicled at SBNation’s Sactown Royalty blog. I was astonished to find him at the top.
2) You can see Russ is the second-worst from 10–16 feet, but the worst? Jayson Tatum, who shot 34.9% from this range on almost three attempts per game (3% worse than Russ!). And if you’ve watched a lot of Celtics games, you can picture them: almost all tightly-contested fadeaways and stepbacks that look gorgeous the one in every three times that they drop.
Verdict: Reputation EXTREMELY true
Sexton raised eyebrows as a rookie for his complete and total willingness to never pass the ball. This caused numerous instances of evident frustration from resident manbaby Kevin Love, but he wasn’t the only one upset.
More insidiously, a bunch of anonymous sources attacked him in an article from The Athletic’s Joe Vardon his rookie year. He’s seemingly grown leaps and bounds since then, and yet just May this year, another article contained the scandalous tidbit that “opponents taunt [Cavs players] during games, ‘you know [Sexton’s] not going to pass you the ball.’”.
This is, uh, a bad look for a guy that was a borderline All-Star for the first few months of last season. However, do the numbers bear this out?
Ball-hoggery is surprisingly difficult to quantify, given that just looking at traditional stats such as usage rate, assist rate, etc., can be misleading. For example, Klay Thompson’s job is to shoot the ball whenever he touches it. You wouldn’t accuse Klay, scaffolding expert, of being a ball hog for doing his job, would you?
Similarly, not every pass can or should be an assist, and players like Sexton are possession finishers, not initiators. Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, and Steph Curry led the league in usage rate (essentially the % of a team’s possessions that end in shot or turnover by the player), and you rarely hear piggy complaints about them. Time of possession is also flawed, as point guards have massive TOP due to bringing the ball up the court every play.
Regardless, I wanted to see how Sexton ranked with some of his peers, so I created the following criteria to compare him to other ball-dominant players: usage rate > 23% (80th percentile in the NBA), >500 mins played, and no more than 2/3 of a player’s shots can be three-pointers (to eliminate spot-up shooters like Buddy Hield). This created a cohort of 85 players, from Hassan Whiteside to Fred VanVleet.
Within these 85 players, I looked at a few metrics (all data from NBA.com/stats) centered around passes and touches to estimate ball movement and potential hoggery. Sexton grades out as… pretty much average in all of them:
As you can see, these metrics suggest that Sexton is pretty middle of the pack for ball movement within this cohort of high usage players, and his TS%, while not incredible, suggests that he’s not just chucking bricks. He doesn’t seem to pass disproportionately less per minute or per touch, and he isn’t forcing up an insane number of shots or turnovers per possession.
I was surprised to find this. Of course, anyone who’s played basketball at any level knows that ball-hogging is about feel as much as actual passes, so his teammates are likely still right. It’s just hard to see in the data we have publicly available.
Verdict: Reputation undeserved (???)
Patrick Beverley is known for sticking to his mark like tree sap to my hands when I’m decorating a Christmas tree, except he’s harder to scrape off. But is his reputation still deserved?
The aforementioned Russ Westbrook has famously said, “he don’t guard nobody,” while others like Donovan Mitchell have credited Pat as “a hell of a defender.” We watched him bully, harass, and disrupt the eminently-bulliable Devin Booker in the playoffs last year, but he also has the most fouls per 100 possessions of any point guard who played at least 500 minutes
Here’s a fun fact: Pat Beverley has committed 3.1 fouls per game for his career, tied for 20th most of all time by a guard (along with his former coach, Doc Rivers). These fouls are a real problem, especially since a disconcerting number happens fifty feet from the basket.
Defensive metrics are not as good as offensive ones in capturing value, due to the various complexities in team defense, the role a player is supposed to play, individual matchups, etc. We won’t go into the details with these, but if you’re curious, you can learn more about advanced defensive stats at this old Reddit post here. So it’s best to look at many and hope they have a relatively consistent story. And with Beverley, that does seem to be the case:
We see here that Beverley is pretty consistently in the teens for any defensive measure we look at except Defensive Win shares, where he’s still well above average given the number of qualifying guards (~250 were included in that metric).
He might not be the absolute lockdown defender he once was, and he has lost a half-step at the age of 33, but the advanced defensive metrics still love him. And I’m sure Booker wouldn’t argue.
Verdict: Reputation true, and he’d be the first one to tell you