A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

2010-11 NBA Predictions: ROY

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This is a tougher award to judge than I think anyone realizes.  Here’s the thing, if you asked most people how they judge the ROY compared to the MVP, I think they’d probably say they think about them similarly.  The MVP of the rookies if you will.  However, if you actually look at ROY’s from a +/- perspective, you start seeing some major problems.

Now let me elaborate for those of you not as stat-obsessed as I am.  +/- statistics simply measure how well how many points more than your opponent are scored while you’re on the court versus when you aren’t on the court.  It’s something that came from hockey, but in the last decade basketball statisticians have really taken it to the next level.

Analyze +/- data, and what you’ll find that pretty much any guy considered a strong candidate for the MVP does really well in the stat.  However, if you apply the same stat to ROY candidates, you’ll find chaos, and if you think about it, that makes perfect sense.  Rookies typically are not guys who completely turn around their team so much as they are guys considered to have great upside that the team decides to build around.  They’ve earned their primacy based on future value rather than present value.

If you don’t believe me, let’s consider LeBron James as a rookie.  The guy put up some big volume numbers as a rookie, and generated enough excitement that some silly MVP voters actually put him in their top 5.  Basketball though is a possession game like baseball in an inning game.  Scoring 20 points is no great feat if you shoot the ball enough, the trick is to do it without missing a ton of shots.  In the advanced statistics community we use something called True Shooting percentage to measure shooting efficiency – think of it as Field Goal percentage which factors in the added value of 3 pointers, and performance at the free throw line.  Typically, an average player has a TS% of around 53-54.  In LeBron’s rookie season he shot at 48.8%.  Last year LeBron shot at 60.4%.  As good as he is now, and as much potential he showed as a rookie, when you’re missing as many shots as he missed, you’re shouldn’t be on anyone’s MVP short list unless you’re an incredible defensive player.

To be clear though, that doesn’t mean that ROY votes tend to be unreasonable.  Voting in strict accordance with the “MVP of rookies” for this award using +/-, the rookie who does the best tends to be a guy who ended up on a team that’s actually trying to win right now, and found that that rookie could fill a niche toward that goal.  Thinking along these lines would have you pick Paul Millsap for ROY over Kevin Durant, and while I also won’t say that’s completely wrong, it seems pretty clear now that a ROY vote for Durant was prescient of something.

At the same time, there exist the Steve Francises of the world who garner the ROY for much the same reason as Durant, but never make the quantum leaps forward necessary for them to justify their place as the alpha of a contending team.  Thus, as I see it, there’s no really obvious way to determine ROY that’s best because there’s really no clearly correct definition for the award.  The best I can come up with is “The rookie who did the most this season to make us think he’ll have a great NBA career”, and even that seems quite weak.

Now why am I going into all of this if I’m just trying to predict who will actually win the ROY?  Because, when a player actually does contribute some star-type value in his rookie year, it does get factored in, and I can see that happening this year.

In most years, the ROY is the guy who gets his team to hand him the reins as their star.  To me the guy most likely to make that happen in John Wall.  The Wizards are desperate for a fresh start, and the last two ROYs were also point guards, also product of Coach Calipari.  Put it this way, if John Wall doesn’t put up some big numbers as a rookie, it’s probably because of his own lack of abilities as opposed to the team being unwilling to trust a rookie.

The GMs picked Wall quite easily for their prediction for ROY, undoubtedly partly for this reason.  To be fair to them, and to stop myself from claiming to be the daring contrarian, after the pre-season, the buzz is with someone else, and so I’m not exactly going out on a limb when I say my pick is Blake Griffin.

Now, it is entirely possible that come the regular season, Griffin will simply put up bigger numbers than any other rookie, and then win the ROY the old fashioned way.  What I’m hoping for with Griffin though is a bit more.  Undoubtedly, part of the reason we’re seeing rookies make so little true impact in recent years is that these rookies are so young.  John Wall is yet another one-and-done college guy, I don’t see him breaking this norm.  Griffin though, had 2 years in college, and then had last year injured, but with the Clippers, practicing and being an NBAer.  Add into that, Griffin wasn’t a guy anointed as a 7th greater as the next basketball messiah.  Griffin was not a guy who could have come straight out of high school and been a lottery pick.  He got to be the #1 pick of the 2009 draft by competing ferociously and dominating his college peers.

The last rookie we saw who really emerged something like full grown straight from the basketball womb was Tim Duncan.  Duncan of course, was also a skilled big man with a great attitude.  I don’t expect Griffin to have a career as good as Duncan’s, but I think he can skip a lot of the great stat, not so great impact phase young players go through if the Clippers hand him the reins.  In spite of what he’s shown in the pre-season, that’s far from a given, partly because the Clippers aren’t in quite as desperate of a situations as the Wizards, but here’s hoping they feel compelled to give him that vote of confidence.

Alright, before I end this prediction, I’ve got to mention the dark horse, Wall’s former UK teammate DeMarcus Cousins.  This is the guy who quite possibly goes #1 in the 2010 draft if not for his headcase issues.  It won’t shock me at all if he proves capable of thriving on the NBA level and we see no signs of Dennis Rodman or Eddy Curry in him(at least initially), but it still seems less likely that he’ll end up on top this year than Wall or Griffin.


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