In late January I took a look at how Rajon Rondo compared with the other elite point guards in the league, according to 5 different advanced stats (PER, Win Shares, Wins Produced, Roland Rating from 82games.com, and Adjusted +/-). Late last month I compared Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with the best wings in the NBA using the same measures. Now I'm back to do the same thing with Kevin Garnett, to see how he compares with the best big men in the NBA according to the advanced stats.
I think KG is a very interesting test case for these advanced stats, because according to the traditional box score stats KG is arguably the least accomplished among the Big 4 this year. Rondo leads the league in assists and steals, two point guard staple categories. Pierce and Allen are both among the most efficient shooter/scorers in the league, within range of the famous 40/50/90 standard. But KG, at 15 points and 9 boards, just looks...regular. There's little in the traditional box scores to separate him from the Andray Blatche and DeMarcus Cousins of the world, let alone putting him among the big man elite in the league.
Yet, I know that Garnett is among the best bigs in the league. Or at least, I thought I knew that...but then again I'm a big fan, so maybe I was just biased? Or maybe, as many fans and analysts have taken to saying, Garnett's contributions are more intangible than tangible at this stage in his career. Maybe his emotional leadership and communication skills are the only things that separate him from the pack, but the actual numbers that people use to quantify the game are no longer his friend in his current role and career stage. Especially since defense, where he is still unquestionably one of the best, isn't really directly measured in most common stats.
But, just in case, let's take a look. The following is a snap-shot of 25 of the best big men (power forwards and centers, both) in the NBA, according to the 5 advanced stats mentioned previously. And like before, though I have the category values recorded for all 25 players in all 5 stats, for the sake of brevity I'll only make charts for the top-15 in each category before putting all 25 into the final rankings. Without further ado...
PER: Hollinger's stat, probably the most popular of the "advanced stats", favorable (compared to other advanced stats) to volume scorers and players that generate a lot of free throws; generally ranks those considered "great" by the general public well, though also will tend to have role players with good scoring-per-minute very highly.
Win Shares: From Basketball-reference.com, emphasizes shooting/scoring efficiency; loves points per shot (thus values FTs drawn). To account for different minutes played, we're going to look at Win Shares per 48 minutes played.
Wins Produced: Dave Berri's controversial stat (most likely to be trashed on an APBRmetric board) is also the one seemingly growing fastest in popular usage; wins produced values what he defines as possessions, so loves rebounds, steals, and blocks and doesn't like TOs; doesn't value shot creation, but does value assists. We'll look at Wins Produced per 48 minutes.
Roland Rating: 82games.com's Roland Rating is based upon a combination of PER and +/- stats. It looks at the individual PER of each player, the PER of their primary defensive assignment, and subtracts the 2 for a 1-on-1 value then they combine that 1-on-1 value with a team-impact based on-court/off-court +/- stat to get the rating. Tends to produce fewest "what???" rankings, because players that rank out highly in both the 1-on-1 and team stats are almost universally who we consider to be among the best in the game...though the order at the top isn't always what you'd expect. (Note: 82games last updated on March 5, so these results are only current to that date)
1-year Adjusted +/-: This is Basketballvalue.com's APM calculation. For the point guards I used 1-year APM, which I don't love because APM is so incredibly noisy that a single year (or less) doesn't give conclusive answers. For the wings I used 2-year APM (which still may be too short for an APM calculation and also includes data from last season, which I really don't like) because at the time there were too many "no freaking way" values in the 1-year APMs that didn't match either the 2-year average or any stretch of common sense. I actually like longer APM calculations, 4 years or more, to really clean up the noise and give a robust effect. Nevertheless, we're talking about this year specifically and the 1-year values seem to have been cleaned up since I did the wings, so I'm back to using the 1-year APM here (with associated standard error):
|APM 1 yr||APM 1 yr SE|
Overall Rank orders: Giving each of our 25 guys a '1' through '25' ranking based on where they ranked in each stat, here is a summary of how each guy did. I'll add an average across the 5 stats (with standard error) to give us a better idea how our seat-of-the-pants-advanced-stat-cross-section-view ranks KG with respect to 25 of the best big men in the NBA:
|PER||WS48||WP48||Rld Rtg||APM||Avg.||Std. Er.|
As we saw with both the point guards (Chris Paul) and the wings (LeBron James), one big man stood out as clearly the best according to the advanced stats. Dwight Howard was alone at the top among bigs, ranking first in three of the five measures looked at and top-3 in all five. Call this the stats MVP-tier.
Next, there is a group of five or six big men that all have a statistical argument for second-best big man in the league: Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Garnett, Love, Bynum, and maybe Horford. Finding KG on this level, which I'll call the top-shelf, shows that KG is still among the best bigs in the game on a tangible, quantifiable level. It's not all intangibles and mind games, he's actually still packing a statistical punch as well.
There was a lot more variation across the stats for the bigs than for the point guards or wings, which led to larger standard errors. Thus, Horford could either be grouped with the top-shelf bigs above or the second-tier bigs because his standard error would place him in either set. The other second tier bigs, by the numbers, include Tim Duncan, Aldridge, Griffin, Nene, Odom and maybe Randolph (like Horford, his standard error would get him into either this level or the next).
Interestingly, the two Kevins with Timberwolves ties seem to be opposite sides of the coin from each other. Kevin Love would be challenging Dwight Howard for the top big in the league honors, if you looked only at the three box score-based stats used here. But in the two stats that factor in +/- impact, Love is down among the lower third of bigs. On the other hand, KG would be solid among the box score based advanced stats (eighth among bigs), but in the two categories that factor in +/- (which would include defensive impact) he's among the top few in the game. Zach Randolph is another like Love that looked great in the box scores and struggled in the +/- categories, while Aldridge is another like KG that looked outstanding in +/- but not as strong in the boxes. Just some food for thought.
These rankings illustrate what it is that makes the Lakers so strong and dangerous: they have THREE big men among the top two tiers, including two on tier-1. No other team in the league has even two bigs in the top-2 tiers, let along 3. If the Celtics ever get healthy they can use quality big depth around KG to take the battle to LA, and the Bulls and Hawks are no slouches themselves, but in terms of quantity and quality the Lakers bigs are extremely strong.
Rookie wonder Griffin measures out well here, among the better bigs in the league, though he's still behind old-man Duncan, which many casual observers probably wouldn't suspect just based on the Sportscenter highlights and box scores.
The player that finished surprisingly low in the rankings is Amare Stoudemire, who was actually getting MVP buzz just a month or two ago. Now, according to the stats I looked at here, Amare would rank 18th among big men alone. His PER looks great, but he is among the lowest rankings in each of the other 4 stats that I looked at. Stat may have helped revive Madison Square Garden and helped bring the spotlight back to the Knicks, but the stats suggest that what he's producing on the court may not be quite as special as the buzz he was able to create off the court.
All in all, this has been an interesting study. The Celtics didn't have anyone on the "stats MVP level" at any position, but they had four guys measure out as "top-tier" in the league at their position. Like the Lakers' bigs, that's a unique finding in the league. True, the Big-4 may be sacrificing a bit in stats and attention for the sake of the team. But if you put on your nerd hat, it's clear that all four are tangibly, quantifiably performing at elite levels this year. Which is a big reason why #18 is on the horizon.