Here at the dawn of the NBA’s era of big brains and fancy thinking, basketball statistics are more complicated than ever. The best ones, though, still answer dead-simple questions: Which players are good? Which players are not? And of course: Which players are rarely passed the basketball? I stumbled into the answer to that last one back in 2013, and it’s about time for a 2016 update, because the NBA landscape is still dotted with players who do not know where to stand.
The formulation is pretty simple: The NBA’s player-tracking SportVU technology now provides the number of passes each player has received, which I divided by the player’s minutes and then normalized to passes per 36 minutes. Only players who averaged 15 minutes per game and made it into 20 games were included, to weed out those who were not a significant part of their team’s rotation for at least a quarter of the season.12
|PLAYER||TEAM||GAMES PLAYED||MINUTES PER GAME||PER GAME||PER 36 MINUTES||AVG. MIN. BETWEEN PASSES|
|Luc Mbah a Moute||LAC||73||17.1||8.7||18.3||2.0|
There’s a certain kind of player who ends up on this list — defensive big men and wings who can’t create their own offense and only see the ball when they’re wide open under the rim or wide open from three. The bigs tend to have better efficiency rates3 than the wings — some are even exceptional in the role — because wide-open dunks are easier shots than wide-open threes, and if the wings taking those threes could shoot, they’d see enough of the ball to avoid this list. But broadly defined efficiency can mislead: In the NBA, a player can have excellent efficiency numbers without a handle on certain crucial skills, like catching the ball or knowing where to stand.
Some of those on the list are terrific players in other respects. Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan stand out here as the three who have played the most minutes and as the three names that very obviously are not like the others.
Jordan is the league’s most fearsome shot blocker, leads the league in dunks for the third straight year — in large part because he’s become one of the best roll-men in the league — and every now and then, he shoots 20 or 30 free throws in a game because the NBA is absurd. Still, DJ is an example of limited touches in a limited role maximizing a player’s effectiveness.
Whiteside is a lot like Jordan, although he is a better free-throw shooter and is playing for less than $1 million this season — the DeAndre Jordan hostage crisis ended last summer with Jordan signing a four-year $87.6 million contract.
Drummond is a special case. He is demonstrably one of the most gifted players in the league. This season, he’s had 20 or more rebounds nine times — one less than the number of times he’s had fewer than 10. He’s bursting with potential, only 22 years old … and still not very good at offense. But according to data from SportVU, Drummond’s post-ups are Detroit’s second-most-common play type, after Reggie Jackson screen-and-rolls. This is insane. Despite his size, Drummond is in the bottom third in the league in post-up scoring efficiency, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology, yet takes 27 percent of his shots from the post. The Pistons seem set on letting Drummond learn on the job, however, because defenses have begun dropping on pick-and-rolls. Drummond is excellent on the pick-and-roll, but he and Jackson aren’t yet on the Paul-to-Jordan level of conjuring it out of thin air.
The others on the list are not as easily absolved, but here’s an explanation for a few notables just the same.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings
Cauley-Stein is in a tough spot. He landed on the most dysfunctional team in the league with a coach (George Karl) who has been trying to get himself fired since the offseason; a point guard (Rajon Rondo) who has managed to turn the assist — a fundamentally unselfish statistic — into an act of stat-hoarding; and chuckers and ball-hogs (DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Marco Belinelli, Omri Casspi, Ben McLemore) who are liable to make passionate love to the basketball right there on the Sleep Train Arena hardwood. Not many rookies will fare well in that situation.
But while Cauley-Stein has looked raw for much of the season, particularly on defense, his overall offensive numbers have been impressive. According to data from Synergy, he finds most of his shots cutting to the rim, on put-backs, in transition and as the roll man in pick-and-roll.4 While he’s below average on both cuts and put-backs, those are inherently efficient play-types to begin with; just hustling into position to try a put-back or filling the lane in transition is valuable. Overall, he’s near the top of the league in raw points per possession when he actually gets to touch the ball.
So why do Cauley-Stein’s teammates fail to pass him the ball, beyond the self-evident answers about being the Kings? Let’s go to the tape. Here is a selection of the 24 post-up possessions Cauley-Stein has used this season, according to Synergy.
Cauley-Stein doesn’t just lack touch and feel in the post; there are times it seems he doesn’t know where the rim is. (And for a seven-footer, he is on the wrong end of a concerning number of soul-snatching blocks.) Going by Synergy’s play charting, Cauley-Stein went a full three months without making a field goal off of a post-up — from Nov. 19 against Miami to Feb. 19 against Denver. He missed some time in there, but that’s still a span of 26 games in which he played. For the season, those 24 post-ups have produced just 13 points.
While post-ups make up just a small percentage of Cauley-Stein’s possessions, they’re the only plays where he’s asked to do much. Clearly, he has not done much with them, and the results certainly haven’t inspired much confidence in him.
Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Roberson is a 3-and-D wing who shoots 30.7 percent from three. In his defense, that’s up from his 27.1 percent lifetime number. (In his actual defense, he’s a good defender and has shot 41.7 percent on 24 threes from the right corner, which is something.5) When he’s on the floor, he’s used almost exclusively as a spot-up shooter; 33.6 percent of his possessions come there, according to Synergy — the rest come in transition or stray cuts to the basket. Here’s his shot chart from this year, from StatMuse:
What the chart can’t tell you is just how wide open he is on those shots from the corners. According to SportVU data, Roberson underperforms relative to how open his shots are — often wide-open looks from Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. This is enough of a trend on the Thunder that the team is tied for last in the league in 3-point percentage when left wide open (34.1 percent).
Roberson’s effect on the Thunder is a good illustration of how damaging carrying a wing with no range can be, even if it doesn’t show up in his personal numbers. Roberson is shooting 62.6 percent near the basket, his overall field goal percentage is 49.4, and his true shooting percentage is 56.5 — all respectable numbers. But put him on the floor, and the OKC offense falls to a shambles. His offensive Real Plus-Minus is -1.79, more than enough to offset his +1.11 defensive RPM. Roberson plays a lot of minutes with the starters, so his raw effect on points per possession are hard to pick up, but when he’s on the court, the Thunder shoot 32.3 percent from three; when he’s on the bench, they shoot 36.5 percent. (Anthony Morrow and Dion Waiters both shoot worse from the floor than Roberson but are considerably better 3-point shooters while being just-as-considerably worse at defense.)
Roberson is only 24, and plenty of guys older than he is have come up with a serviceable jumper. And the Thunder have kept on feeding him when he’s open, at least from time to time. But as the rotation tightens up heading into the playoffs, he really needs to make a few, or else we’re going to have a whole heap of Dion Waiters perpetrated upon us.
Bismack Biyombo, Toronto Raptors
Here is a great American success story of sorts. Two years ago, poor Biz was so far ahead of his peers in the category of not being passed the basketball that the gulf between him and the next-closest player on the list was larger than the one between second place and eighth. Bismack did not get the basketball, and for good reason. He could not catch or dribble or shoot or pass or even really just stand in one place on the court without flummoxing a teammate, or sometimes bowling him clean over.
But by last season, although his role and minutes had diminished, Biyombo was a full-fledged defensive anchor, combining exceptional rim protection with the lateral quicks to switch onto guards and help from the weak side.
This season, Biyombo is averaging eight rebounds per game in just 22 minutes off the bench, and opponents are shooting 45.1 percent at the rim when Biyombo is in the vicinity, which is right in range of Rudy Gobert, Serge Ibaka and the best shot-blockers and shot-alterers in the league. In March, he set a Raptors single-game record with 25 rebounds and scored a career-high 16 points. Biyombo has been a revelation. He has not, however, frequently been passed the basketball, and for good reason.
Here is a selection of plays from the month of April:
There’s a lot to absorb in this unfairly edited highlight reel of airballs, bobbled passes and more than a few indescribable sequences, but the bewilderment in the announcers’ voices at the 48-second, 1:10 and 1:40 marks says more or less what needs to be said. (A full accounting of Bismack’s plays from this month can be found here. It is not much different.)
Bismack has his uses on offense. He sets wide, sturdy (often moving) screens and has finally figured out how to roll to space from time to time. But he still frequently looks lost on offense, and he still can’t really catch a basketball. When he does, he tends to keep the ball low, where it can easily be stolen — this is why the ball always seems to fly five rows into the stands after it finds its way into Biyombo’s hands.
And yet Biyombo is an undeniably important member of the Raptors, who are locked into the No. 2-seed in the East and look liable to put up a fight against the Cavaliers in the playoffs. If it comes to that, interior defense will be crucial to Toronto’s success, since LeBron James teams attack the rim in the playoffs. A lot of the hard work will fall to Biyombo, who is very good at what he does but still will not be passed the ball.