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Review of talent grading methods

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Before getting into my draft grades for 2014 prospects, I’d like to review how I grade each category. First, my grades are from 1 to 11 in 3 categories: Physical motion/impact (Explosiveness, ballhandling, size, lateral quickness) talent, Skill impact (shoot, post, pass) talent and Feel for the Game talent. The grades go by this rubric:

11: Transcendent, 10: Incredible 9: Elite, 8: Great, 7: Very good, 6: Decent, 5: Average, 4: Lacking, 3: Weak, 2: Very poor, 1: Awful

What the overall grades mean:

25+: Perennial all-star talent, 23-24: Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent, 19-22: Blue Chip starter talent, 17-18: Rotation player to Blue Chip starter talent, 14-16: Rotation player talent, 12-13: Deep bench to rotation player talent, 11 or lower: Deep bench player talent

Physical motion/impact (Explosiveness, ballhandling, size, lateral quickness) talent grade:

This is the one category my methods for grading has changed since the 2013 draft. When looking at my grades in that draft and what I have seen so far in the NBA, it’s largely in this category I regret some grades. For example, I graded Anthony Bennett 9, Kelly Olynyk 6, Alex Len 7, CJ McCollum 5, Trey Burke 4 in the category. All of those I would now rate as at least 2 points lower. I also rated Giannis Antetokounmpo a 4 in the category, which looks 2 or 3 points too low. On the whole, despite these corrections and others, unlike 2012 where admittedly I made major mistakes grading players such as Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard and do not expect to outperform the NBA, despite a few mistakes here and there I expect my 2013 order despite imperfections to perform better than the way the NBA really drafted the players – especially since I am quite critical of the way the NBA picked players. I am very happy with how my grades in the skill impact and feel for the game categories have panned out so far in the NBA, so I should be in range of what I predicted. But am eager to do better in the 2014 draft.

It took me some time to settle on a consistent way to grade each of the elements of this category against each other. How to rate a tall player who struggles with athleticism and ballhandling, or an athletic player without ballhandling, for example. Here is how I do it now:

I begin by evaluating how they break through the defense at the “point of attack” on offense, which typically comes through a combination of first step athleticism and ballhandling. Being able to drive past defenders and the opponent is huge for a player’s offensive game and “physically impacting the game”, by typically allowing a player to drive to the basket. I thus give a player a beginning grade covering their explosiveness and ballhandling together. After I get this “primary grade”, I then adjust it according to their size (including both length and strength) and their lateral quickness, which finds most use defensively.

For example, I will rate C.J. McCollum this way. McCollum was a hard player for me to evaluate in this category last year for multiple reasons. First is I wasn’t sure whether to rate him as a PG or SG, where he’d be at a size disadvantage. At the time I chose PG, but I will now side with SG based on Portland’s long term role for him there. Secondly, he had little explosiveness but was a very tricky ballhandler.

When looking at his “point of attack” driving in clips like this

Despite his ballhandling I don’t see much burst from McCollum at “point of attack”. I will rate him as a 3 to begin, thus. Before adjusting for size and lateral quickness. He is short for a shooting guard, without more than average strength for the position and does not appear to have lateral quickness. So I will adjust him down to a 2, not downgrading him more from a reservation about going all the way to 1 except for the absolute most unable talents in the category.

What about the rest of his talent? CJ’s college career and start to the NBA season shows an impressive outside shooting resume, while his feel for the game is terrific. Giving him a grade like 8 in the skill impact category and 9 in feel for the game would make his overall grade 19, which isn’t as high as I originally rated him (21) but is enough to pass “blue chip starter” threshold makes a productive, if unspectacular season unlikely as a smart outside shooting role player. But if his shooting goes downhill, he may find himself more of a irrelevant role player.

To recap

Primary grade (Explosiveness+Ballhandling): 3

Size: -1

Lateral quickness: /

Final Physical motion/impact (Explosiveness, ballhandling, size, lateral quickness) talent grade: 2 (Very poor)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade

Grading this category has become relatively straight forward to me. Internally, like the physical impact category, I use a primary grade-secondary grade system.

I come up with a baseline grade by evaluating their shooting “range”. For a PG, SG, or SF, to get a high grade like 8 or higher, they have to be a great 3 point shooter, with both % and volume. It’s usually relatively simple to see the scale of 3 point shooting skill for perimeter cases. In some cases, such as Demar Derozan’s mid-range jumpshot or Tony Parker’s finishing in the paint, there are other ways to give players credit for “shooting” that goes beyond 3 point range. For PFs and Cs since shooting range is more rare, a terrific midrange jumpshooter without 3 point range, still rates high compared to his position. For example even though his shooting range is less than theirs, Lamarcus Aldridge gets as much credit as a shooter as Wes Matthews and Nic Batum in my system, since his midrange jumpshooting for a power forward is as rare as 3 point shooting for a SG or SF.

For college prospects, it can be difficult to rate players just by 3 point shooting, because of small sample size. If a player takes 120 3s over the entire NCAA season, 48 for 120 is 40% and 36 for 120 is 30%. The difference between a poor and great shooting season is a little slim and suspect to chance. Thus there are two other factors I use. A major one is free throw %, as most great shooters in the NBA are matched by the mechanics to be elite free throw shooters. For legitimately great shooting 3 point prospects, I usually look for a FT% of at least 80%, over 85% is especially rare and special. A prospect who hits 42% from 3 and 75% from the FT line worries me, for example. He may become a great 3 point shooter, but he may not as well. Some prospects like Wes Johnson, Xavier Henry, Adam Morrison lately have been drafted to be sharpshooters, despite a FT in the 70s. That also made me concerned about Otto Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s shooting last year, both in the 70s for FT. For prospects like that, I typically give them a grade like 6 in the category, representing a conservative approach to their shooting talent. Another indicator of NBA shooting skill is volume of 3 point attempts. While I consider 3pt and FTs %s to be the most important, it makes one more comfortable to see a player having the confidence to put up a ton of 3s, instead of just taking them when wide open. Paul George is a good example of the power of FT and volume as indicators. In his sophomore season in college at Fresno St., he hit only a mediocre 35.3% from 3, but did it on 5.75 3 point attempts a game and a 90.9% mark from the FT line. Those were two important reasons to believe in him as a shooter. As for PFs and Cs who are evaluated as midrange jumpshooters in the NBA, the benchmark for FT% I look to see is more like over 70%, albeit mid to high 60% is not too bad either.

After evaluating them as a shooter, I adjust upward if they show special post or passing skill. However, I don’t lower a player’s grade if they lack post or passing skills. It is possible for a player to be near perfectly graded in the category as a whole without them. For example, I’m not going to downgrade Stephen Curry’s skill impact talent for not posting up, or Dirk Nowitzki’s for lacking standout passing skills. Their shooting skill (along with passing for Curry and post skills for Dirk) is enough to make them perfect for their positions without it.

To give an example of grading in this category, here is how I would rate Kelly Olynyk from last year’s draft:

Olynyk did not have true 3 point range in college, hitting 30% on less than 1 attempt a game (9 for 30). However that’s better than most PF or Cs will perform from 3pt. In addition, he was a strong midrange jumpshooter. He hit 77.6% from the FT line his junior season, which is well above average for a big. Overall, it’s enough for me to rate him a 7 in the category as a baseline grade, with the assumption he would have a midrange jumpshot in the pros, if not more.

Olynyk made some passes in college, but at 1.7 assists per game, it’s not enough for me to adjust his grade (yet). Nor did his post ability stand out enough. So I left him at a 7.

To recap:

Primary grade (Shooting range): 7

Post up skills: /

Passing skills: /

Final skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 7

It may turn out that this grade is too low. Olynyk is 20 for 68 from 3pt (29.4%) in 48 Gs which isn’t elite, but for a prospect adjusting to a longer NBA line, none too shabby. He is also over 80% from the FT line on a small sample size. Olynyk with good to great 3 point shooting eventually would be worth 8 or 9 in the category, considering the rarity of 3 point shooting bigs. This would help balance out grading him too high in the physical impact category.

Feel for the Game

This category is perhaps where I lose people the most, but is actually the easiest for me to grade by this point. I’ve broken it down to identifying feel for the game in two areas – Driving to the rim through traffic or posting up. Thus I can watch a video (X scores Y points) and only pay attention to the plays doing one of those two things. I figure in both cases, the player is under physical duress and is under danger of being “rushed” by the players around him. Therefore his feel has a place to shine.

When judging drives or post up, I look for who is the most fluid, balanced and poised. Often with players who have a high feel for the game, there is a “slo-mo” effect, where they make the game look slower for them than everyone else. (Kyle Anderson at UCLA, who’s feel for the game is one of the best in the class, literally has been given the nickname Slo-Mo).

Most tend to identify feel for the game most when it is elite. When asking what makes a player like Andre Miller, Tony Parker or Paul Pierce great, most would be able to call upon feel for the game as their gift. In this draft, Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Tyler Ennis, Kyle Anderson, Dario Saric are all receiving credit for their special feel. What gets lost is the talent’s importance for everyone else. Recognizing who lacks it and who has it in above average, but not elite rates.

To give a visual example of feel for the game, here is 3 clips:

First is Russell Westbrook, who I would rate as having below average feel for the game. He drives at :20, :35, :57, 1:05, 1:16, 2:28, 3:00, 3:18 and posts up at 1:12, 1:40

Now compare the “smoothness” and balance on his drives or lack thereof, to Damian Lillard, who I would rate as above average in feel for the game but not elite. He drives at :32, 1:00, 1:19, 1:50.

A major difference I see between the Lillard and Westbrook drives in addition to greater control, is Lillard has a greater ability to “change pace” according to the situation, this adjustment catching defenders off balance.

I am not sure if everyone will be able to see this immediately. It may be hard for some to remove themselves from the perception of Westbrook’s assist per game numbers and overall competence, to see him rating below Lillard in this category. Here is another example of a player I would rate as “below average” in feel for the game

Here is a similar example using centers, first Jonas Valanciunas who I rate as below average feel for the game. He posts up at 0:54, 1:05, 2:58,

Now here is Andre Drummond, who I would rate as above average but not elite. He posts up at :41, :53, 1:02, 2:17

Even if one doesn’t see the difference between those pairs, then the difference between Westbrook or Valanciunas and the following ELITE feel for the game players, is unmistakable:

Here is Tony Parker, who drives at :07, :11, :16, :40, 1:45, but with players at this level of feel for the game, one doesn’t need to look at just the drives, it shows up in everything he does as an aesthetically pleasing, slippery, artistic type of play

Here is Andre Miller, a gold standard for feel for the game and the “slo-mo” effect. He posts up or drives at :18, :51, :56, 1:00, 1:05, 1:28, 1:35, 1:57, 2:09, 2:14, 2:25, 2:48, 3:13

In Miler and Parker, the change of pace and slipperiness Lillard started to show in his clip, gets taken to another level entirely

Here’s Roy Hibbert, who has elite feel for the game for a C. He posts up at 0:01, :50, 1:17, 1:33, 2:06, 2:16, 2:47,

Marc Gasol is another center with elite feel for the game. He posts up at :32, 1:04, 1:22, 1:33, but his feel is largely impossible to miss in the other plays as well

So at the least, we know that players like Miller, Parker, Hibbert, Gasol have a special fluidity, control and pace to their game, that would supercharge any players talent level. And we can ask “how much does player X have of that?” Personally, I feel I am confident in grading between 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10/11. What I am not as good at admittedly, is seeing the difference between 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I know when players don’t appear to have feel for the game, but struggle consistently rating how little they have of it. Part of this is that the number of players with low feel for the game is much smaller than above average. This is because it’s evidently harder to become an NBA caliber talent without it. It’s the same reason why such a high proportion of players in the NBA are good to great athletes. To make it into a rotation with subpar athleticism requires relatively rare skill level and feel for the game. For that reason you will likely rarely see me rate a player below a 4 or 5 in feel for the game.

Let’s look at a player from last year’s draft, Victor Oladipo. He drives at :10, :27, 1:34, 2:51, 3:12, 3:23, 3:33, 3:54

Oladipo certainly shows a lot of what the above average feel for the game players have, in terms of fluidity, ability to change pace and balance. Personally because I have been doing this for a while, I have a specific grade that comes to mind after seeing the above drives – and that grade is 8. Just below the elite feel perimeter players like Miller and Parker showed and probably below C.J. McCollum’s in this clip, but above Lillard.

Written by jr.

March 4, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Introducing the 95% theory

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Despite confidence in my talent grading system, not even if I rate the players talent in my 3 categories correctly, will it prove a perfect measure of a prospect.

Prospects are human beings and the NBA is a sport where psychological nuance matters. How hard an effort a player gives on and off the court clearly affects their career, as does other factors like confidence, or commitment to getting along with teammates on and off the court.

Up to this point my position has largely been to rate a player’s talent level and accept imperfection rating whether they’ll get there since it is too hard to know. When the media jumps on a prospect for not caring about the game or a lack of motor there’s as big a risk this ends up totally unfounded, such as for Andre Drummond coming out of Connecticut.

Nevertheless it creates a concern. For example I rated Anthony Bennett’s talent 1st in the 2013 draft, yet judging from his start there is a possibility he never makes it in the NBA. How is this conceivable? Because even the highest of talent is no guarantee. What if Bennett became one of the all time great headcases? A player with so much anxiety on the court that he fell below a “Mendoza line” of confidence, meaning any shot he took had his head so far in the way to be a disaster? In the case of something like this, Bennett’s mental affliction would be like Greg Oden’s blowing out his knees. And in the case of both talent evaluation would be made irrelevant.

Now in reality, I don’t consider there to be many enigmas in the league. My theory on why is this. I believe most are weeded out by the time of the draft. Professional athletes play at a level of physical conditioning foreign and above regular human beings, which means virtual everyone who gets high enough to be noticed by the NBA is already a physical workout obsessive. That’s before considering the skill level to make the NBA also typically needs a history of practicing hard every day by prospects. In regards to confidence and anxiety the same weeding out factor may occur. The prospect who’s a nervous wreck in game competitions, doesn’t make it to be one of the best 18-22 year old players in the world not in the NBA in the first place. His game will already have been affected. A pro sports league is largely reserved for freaks of the world in not only talent, but confidence and off the court commitment to their sport. Most of the players who are talented enough to be standout NBA starters but were too enigmatic to mentally, probably are not in the NBA – more likely they’re people who never decided to chase after the NBA job, instead going for a regular job or college degree.

However of course, enigmas sneak through. How many? I’ve decided a number I like is 5%, or 95% of players in the NBA once they get a foot in the door (the future of undrafted players becomes less clear to me) eventually reach their talent. At least by the way I measure it. In a 450 player league this would mean 22 enigmas, however if discounting players young enough to be underperforming because of developmental pains only, something like 15 of 300 “established” players is a more reasonable ratio.

Naming 15 enigmas is actually harder than it seems. Here is my best attempt:

Michael Beasley

One of the first names that come to mind. Boasts a rare combination of feel for the game and skill level for a PF and is an above average athlete. Enough to be a star PF, never gotten close.

Charlie Villaneuva

Andray Blatche

Hedo Turkoglu

I list these players together because all 3 have high skill level and feel for the game at their position to make up ok physical tools. Out of seemingly laziness, never have consistently played to their talent, albeit shown flashes.

Josh Smith

J.R. Smith

The Smith duo are both enigmas. Like the above players I rate them as having above average feel for the game, but they play a low IQ brand of shot selection due to non-basketball mental flaws.

Jeff Green

Rudy Gay

Both players are rock solid SFs and Gay has turned it on in Sacramento, yet remain frustrating. Both players have a high fluidity and feel for the game, while Gay has great athleticism/size and ok skill, Green has both good physical tools and skill. Neither are a chasm away from their talent like a Beasley but when comparing them to a more valuable SF like Luol Deng the difference is likely non-talent.

D.J. Augustin

Eric Maynor

Neither player are as widely adknowledged enigmas as the above, however my system rates them as better talents than they’ve shown. Augustin has the shooting ability and feel to be an established borderline starter/backup a la Jameer Nelson, while Maynor’s strong feel and adequate shooting and quickness should also make him a strong backup at the least. This season in Washington right when his talent should be blossoming, he’s been one of the worst players in the NBA.

Jamal Crawford

Crawford is a player who’s had a rock solid career, however I personally see the talent to have been a consistent star. Crawford was one of the league’s best shooters, had an above average feel and despite average athleticism, had the ballhandling to get into the paint.

Andrea Bargnani

Bargnani is a player I almost left off the list, because due to feel for the game problems I feel his struggles are more explainable by talent than others do. However between his demeanor and shooting falling apart in recent years, he’s a player who carries himself so much like an underperforming one, that it feels fair to put him on. At the least, Bargnani does not help teams win games like his talent should.

Danny Green

Green is a player who’s barely played 5000 minutes in the regular season and postseason, so it may not be fair to put him on this list yet. But in his 5th season when he should be breaking out, he’s taken a step back statistically. His shooting, great feel and size/athleticism combo despite ballhandling issues, gives him the talent to be a top 10 SG in the NBA. Green is also a player who struggled to find a place early in his career due to an enigmatic work ethic, he’s admitted.

Andrew Bynum

Bynum is a player who for a handful of years with the Lakers, was reaching his talent level. At this point obviously, that is no longer the case for enigmatic reasons.

Carmelo Anthony

Deron Williams

It may not be fair to put these two players on the list considering they still peaked at a top 10, superstar level. However I hardly been impressed by their demeanor or physical conditioning and they typically carry themselves in an enigmatic way. It’s conceivable that as great of players they were, they could still be underperformers – if they had the talent to do what Kevin Durant and Chris Paul have done.

That’s 16 names, with a few players like Green, Anthony and Williams being somewhat of stretches.

Mind you, this doesn’t include younger players who may eventually be on this list. Here is my case for enigma “candidates”:

Anthony Bennett

Clearly deserves the mention for how he’s started. Bennett is blessed with the strong athleticism, feel and perimeter skills to be a star PF.
Derrick Williams

Patrick Patterson

Earl Clark

Both Williams and Patterson have the perimeter skill, feel and enough athleticism to be above average or top 10 starters in my opinion. Their production so far has been mediocre albeit Patterson is starting to shine in Toronto.

Clark has been in the league long enough to make the non-young player list, however he’s actually played less minutes than either Williams or Patterson, therefore it’s conceivable he is as much prospect. Like them for a PF he has intriguing perimeter skill, feel and athleticism.

Jimmer Fredette

Jan Vesely

Jimmer is a player I’ve listed numerous times as one I’m impressed by, with elite shooting and feel and more respectable athleticism/speed than his reputation.

Vesely has athleticism and feel, while his skill problems are a major concern. I’m not incredibly high on Vesely, but I do feel he can mark out a place in the league as a backup big man and this season he’s begun to get there.

Harrison Barnes

Something of a younger Jeff Green or Rudy Gay, Barnes has strong feel and perimeter skill for a SF and elite size/athleticism despite ballhandling issues, but continues to frustrate in Golden State

Dion Waiters

Waiters ability to drive to the basket, his feel and coming along shooting make him a high upside SG, however there’s a risk he’s a selfish jerk of a teammate it would appear

Meyers Leonard

Scott Machado

Kenny Kadji

Jeremy Lamb

These are players that I ranked top 5 in the 2012 and 2013 drafts who’ve yet to produce at that level yet, therefore I may as well list them. Meyers has perimeter jumpshot and athleticism for a 7 footer enough to be a top 10-15 C, while Machado has fine athleticism, feel and a passable jumper to be a starter. The two remind me of Marcin Gortat and Kyle Lowry respectively in talent. Lamb has elite feel, perimeter skill and is a good physical talent. Kadji has perimeter skills and feel for a power forward.

Kadji appears to be the most worrisome of the four. Not only due to question marks regarding the opportunity an undrafted player like Kadji or Machado gets compared to a lottery pick like Leonard or Lamb, but a German team cut him after a few weeks apparently because of his attitude. The coach even lambasting him by saying to paraphrase “To us when a player is talented it is isn’t just from the neck down”. It’s hard to tell how serious his misgivings were, it could have simply been a minor mistake breaking a rule about partying or drinking or involving a girl, but nevertheless it’s not a great sign for his commitment to reaching his talent in the NBA.

So if a “95% rule” approach was true, what would it mean? In my 2013 draft I used these probabilities for my talent grades being incorrect, due to changes such as shooting differences, athleticism being hidden at a young age, etc.

Within 0 points of the above talent grades (rounded, as is for all these numbers) – 30%
Within +1 or -1 – 70% (+1: 20%, -1: 20%)
Within +2 or -2 – 90% (+2: 10%, -2: 10%)
Within +3 or -3 – 97% (+3: 3.5%, -3: 3.5%)
Within +4 or -4 – 99% (+4: 1%, -4: 1%)
Within +5 or -5 – 99.5%+ (+5: 0.5%, -5: 0.5%)

Using this for example Anthony Bennett had an overall grade of 25 to top the class, but with the above probabilities it spelled out like this:

65% Perennial all-star talent (25+)
95% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent (23-24)
99.5%+ Blue Chip starter talent (19+)

Likewise my 2nd highest group of players at grade 22 Kelly Olynyk, Kenny Kadji, Dennis Schroeder’s probabilities worked out to this

Grade of 22 (Kelly Olynyk, Kenny Kadji, Dennis Schroeder)
5% Perennial all-star talent (25+)
35% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent (23+)
98.5% Blue Chip starter talent (19+)
99.5%+ Rotation player to Blue Chip starter talent (17+)

The 3rd highest group of players at grade 21 were Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, C.J. McCollum

Grade of 21 (Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, C.J. McCollum)

1.5% Perennial all-star talent (25+)
15% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent
 (23+)
95% Blue Chip starter talent
 (19+)
99.5% Rotation player to Blue Chip starter talent (17+)
99.5%+ Rotation player talent

However this is all only measuring talent, not the odds of them reaching it or not. For example even if I said Bennett was a virtual lock to have starting talent, it doesn’t mean he was a lock to reach this talent. But if adding in a rough 95% probability of a drafted player reaching their talent, then my new estimates would be:

Anthony Bennett

62% Perennial all-star
90% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star
95% Blue Chip starter
95% Rotation player

Kelly Olynyk and Dennis Schroeder:

5% Perennial all-star
33% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star
93.5% Blue Chip starter
95% Rotation player

Victor Oladipo, Alex Len, C.J. McCollum

1.5% Perennial all-star talent
14% Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star
90% Blue Chip starter
94% Rotation player to Blue Chip starter
95% Rotation player

However, in reality there was probably reason to believe before the draft a Bennett or Schroeder had a higher chance at being an enigma than a player with the competitive streak in college of Victor Oladipo. But I feel more comfortable using the 95% rule for everyone.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers even if we could say there was only a 5% chance of the PF they took 1st overall falling short of being a starter and good player, it’s early enough to panic about whether they hit that 5% like a dart on a bullseye.

Written by jr.

January 18, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Talent grading the Pacers and Blazers starting lineups!

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The Indiana Pacers and Portland Trailblazers are two of biggest and fun stories of the year, with a combined 34-5 record to start the season.

Both sport well balanced, cohesive teams and neither relied on ‘tanking’ to build its core. Not counting the lockout season, the Blazers haven’t been under 30 wins since 2005-2006 while the Pacers haven’t seen 1988-1989. A combination of talent evaluation through slick trades, signings or late round drafting have helped them build contenders.

Here is how my talent grading system rates each starting 5

Portland Trailblazers

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent

Damian Lillard and Lamarcus Aldridge lead the way in this category. Lillard is both an above average athlete and has great ballhandling skills, allowing him to blow by opponents and to the rim. A good frame for a point guard also helps his finishing. Lillard is a talented slasher physically.

Although Portland likes to use him on the perimeter, Lamarcus Aldridge is also an above average athlete and can use his explosiveness to make plays. His size and mobility helps him physically on the defensive end as well.

The rest of the starting lineup has mixed results in my physical impact talent category. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum both lack either the athleticism or ballhandling to attack the basket explosively, becoming perimeter orientated shooters. Matthews has good size for a SG helping him on the defensive end, while Batum is one of the longest players at his position.

Mirroring Matthews and Batum, Robin Lopez is an average athlete at center but has impressive length, helping him contest or block shots.

Physical impact talent (Athleticism, size, ballhandling) talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 8

Wesley Matthews: 3

Nicolas Batum: 4

Lamarcus Aldridge: 7

Robin Lopez: 6

(Average: 5.8)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent:

I rate three of the Blazers as among the best at their position in this category: Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Lamarcus Aldridge. LIllard is already one of the best shooters at point guard both spotting up and off the dribble and is an adequate passer for a point guard. Lamarcus Aldridge is one of the best midrange shooters at PF and has developed an outstanding post repertoire, with his length helping in that area. Nicolas Batum is both an elite shooter at SF and has strong point forward skills. He also has the length to play in the post.

Wesley Matthews is largely a spot up shooter from skill perspective, but is one of the best in the league at that skill.

Robin Lopez is the weakest link in the starting 5 for skill. He can finish around the rim a bit and is developing midrange, which is enough for average ability for center.

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 9

Wesley Matthews: 8

Nicolas Batum: 9

Lamarcus Aldridge: 9

Robin Lopez: 5

(Average: 8.0)

Feel for the Game talent:

This category is also a strength for the Blazers. I’ve come to largely use fluidity and the ease/control of a player’s game as the measure of feel for the game and instincts. Batum and Aldridge are two of the most fluid and natural players at their position, while Matthews is also known for his mistake-free, natural game on both ends.

I wouldn’t call Lillard elite in feel for the game, but he has control and craftiness and enough fluidity to be above average. I would also rate Robin Lopez’s feel to be above average, which helps him make the right decisions offensively and defensively.

Feel for the Game talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 7

Wesley Matthews: 8

Nicolas Batum: 9

Lamarcus Aldridge: 9

Robin Lopez: 7

(Average: 8.0)

Here is the players total grades:

Damian Lillard

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 7

Total talent grade: 23

Wesley Matthews

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 3

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 8

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 19

Nicolas Batum

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 4

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 22

Lamarcus Aldridge

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 25

Robin Lopez

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 6

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 5

Feel for the Game talent grade: 7

Total talent grade: 18

I tend to treat 19 as a threshold of sorts for “blue chip” and 25 as a “true star” talent, so using these grades Lamarcus would rate among the league’s elite talent, Lillard and Batum a next tier down and Matthews and Lopez on the edge of blue chip status.

The Blazers have a tremendous skill impact talent due to their shooters and Aldridge at PF, with good to elite feel for the game across the board. While physical impact isn’t their strength due the lack of slashing at SG and SF, the team length defensively is great and they get enough from Lillard and Aldridge attacking the basket offensively.

Indiana Pacers

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent:

My top rated Pacer in this category is Lance Stephenson. Lance has a strong combination of athleticism, ballhandling and strength giving him ideal slashing tools for a shooting guard.

Paul George is an impressive athlete with elite length for his position, albeit ballhandling can push him to the perimeter and prevent an elite grade in this category for me.

Roy Hibbert is a difficult player to grade in this category. On one hand he has sluggish athleticism and speed, however he is one of the longest players in the league, especially valuable at C helping him block shots. I would rate him as above average in physical impact talent.

The two remaining Pacers starters George Hill and David West are limited in the category. Hill is a big PG defensively, but has impressive ballhandling and speed, hurting his ability to attack the basket. West is strong but is neither explosive athletically or long at PF.

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grades:

George Hill: 4

Lance Stephenson: 8

Paul George: 7

David West: 3

Roy Hibbert: 6

(Average: 5.6)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent

Paul George and David West lead the way in this category for me. George has turned himself into one of the best outside shooters in the league, uses his length to create midrange shots and has both passing skills and post potential. West has long been a master of the midrange jumper at PF and has post skills near and away from the rim.

George Hill is an impressive open 3 point jumpshooter and decent passer, but has struggled to create at a high volume from the perimeter. Roy Hibbert has strength and moves in the post and can shoot a few feet out, but is not a skill first player and can struggle with touch.

Lance Stephenson is the weakest link in this category. His jumpshot has long been a work in progress, a big weakness at shooting guard. He does have passing and post talent.

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grades:

George HIll: 7

Lance Stephenson: 4

Paul George: 9

David West: 9

Roy Hibbert: 6

(Average: 7.0)

Feel for the Game talent:

I rate Paul George’s feel for the game as one of the best in the NBA, showing supernatural fluidity, ease and control offensively along with his defensive instincts.

David West and Roy Hibbert are also among the best at their position in the category. West has superior craftiness and timing against his opponents, while Hibbert is the big easy recognizing plays offensively and defensively.

Hill is a noticeably smooth decision maker and thinker compared to his position. Stephenson is the most erratic Pacer in the starting lineup but I have always been impressed by his feel, fluidity and control on his drives. As he matures he can catch up to the rest of the Pacers in high IQ play thanks to this feel and raw instinct talent.

Feel for the Game talent grades;

George Hill: 8

Lance Stephenson: 8

Paul George: 10

David West: 9

Roy Hibbert: 9

(Average: 8.8)

Total grades:

George Hill

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 4

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 7

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 19

Lance Stephenson

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 8

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 4

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 20

Paul George

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 10

Total talent grade: 26

David West

Physical impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 3

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 21

Roy Hibbert

Physical impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 6

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 6

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 21

Mirroring the Blazers, the Pacers have one talent in Paul George that rises above the rest, but importantly surround him with at least blue chip talents. The combination of elite feel for the game and length as a team helps them dominate defensively, while offensively they lean on their skill level to win games.

I believe it’s useful to cross compare a few of these players, to see the impact of each category.

For example, I gave Lamarcus Aldridge and David West and identical score in my skill impact and feel for the game categories. This means my system rates the difference between them in talent, as coming from Lamarcus Aldridge’s greater physical tools (athleticism and size). In fact I believe it’s reasonable to say that outside of physical talents, Aldridge and West are practically the exact player.

Likewise Paul George and Nic Batum’s skill level and feel for the game is very similar, as is Damian Lillard and George Hill’s. George and Lillard are both more physically dynamic players, helping them attack the basket get to a level up.

Roy Hibbert and Robin Lopez likewise rate similarly in my physical impact and skill impact categories. However Hibbert’s elite feel for the game gives him an advantage.

Wesley Matthews and Lance Stephenson are very hard to cross compare in this way, since Matthews strength of shooting is Lance’s weakness and Lance’s slashing is Matthews’ weakness. I’d use a player like Manu Ginobili or James Harden, to show what Lance’s talent could be if he had a shooting game like Wesley Matthews’. Or the reverse, Matthews may also be Harden or Manu if he could drive like Lance.

Coincidentally, adding up the grades of both starting lineups add up to the exact same score of 107, or an average of 21.4. Although the Trail Blazers came out of nowhere, for me their starting lineup’s talent level checks out as contention caliber.

Is Paul Pierce as talented as Larry Bird?

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, American basketball player for the Boston Ce...

, American basketball player for the Boston Celtics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve resisted applying my talent grading system to historical players for a few reasons. For one, I consider my system useful to separate talents into tiers, but not evaluate players in the same tier against each other. If a player has a score of 30 in my grading and another a score of 32, that difference is small enough that it played little to no role in their careers, not to mention within the range of subjectivity.

Secondly, ranking players’ talents before my time has its difficulties.

However in my private rankings of players, a player who’s score stands out to me as against conventional wisdom and against my previous opinion of him, is Larry Bird. Bird grades as a superstar talent, but there are around 30 players who’d grade higher than him. Certainly this seems low for a player in everyone’s top 10 players of all time. To be fair, even a top 30 or 40 talent in the NBA is a freaking awesome player. Furthermore talent is not production and it’s reasonable to argue Bird outperformed his raw talent level to become of the top 10 or 15 players of all time.

So why does Bird grade lower than expected? Noteably, in the skill impact and feel for the game categories, Bird cruises to perfect scores of 11. He’s arguably the greatest of all time in both categories, not just for small forwards but for any position. His shooting, shot creation, passing, post skills are otherworldly – and he’s a definitive example of a basketball genius instinctively.

Where Bird slips is his physical impact on the game. In regards to explosiveness and attacking players off the dribble, he is average for the small forward position. Part of the evidence for this Bird usually putting up 5 to 6 free throw attempts a game, mediocre for a high volume scorer. Bird is not a player who overwhelmed players physically, just like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash and post surgery Chris Paul didn’t/don’t have to in modern day. To his credit, one way Bird impacts the game physically is his excellent rebounding numbers for a small forward, albeit I’d give more credit for his rebounding to his instincts and feel than physical tools.

It’s hard for me to justify giving Bird more than a 5 or 6 in physical impact on the game. When added to his skill and feel for the game, his total grade is 27 or 28. This is well past the range I consider a perennial all-star threshold (23-24) and typical for some other superstars, so it’s nothing to sniff at, just not as high as expected.

I find it interesting to compare him to Paul Pierce. Now, conventional wisdom says Larry Bird is on a different plane of talent than Pierce. One is transcendent and the other, very good.

But Pierce rates well against Bird. Like Larry, Pierce’s most noticeable trait is his supernatural feel for the game. He’s one of the first players that come to mind for the term, Pierce has the ultimate “old man’s game” in his natural smoothness, ability to make his game look slower than it is and instincts. Pierce’s skill impact is also one of the best of his generation for a wing player. He’s a terrific 3pt and midrange shooter and shot creator, with an array of post abilities and moves. He’s also a great passer. In regards to skill plays, Pierce can do just about everything he wants. Pierce isn’t at Larry’s level as a perimeter shooter and passer, but he’s not far off. For these categories, I like a grade of 11 in feel for the game for Pierce and 10 in skill impact.

On the other hand, Pierce’s physical impact impresses me more than Bird. Pierce especially in his younger days had deceptively great explosiveness and slashing ability, as evidenced by much greater free throw attempt numbers than Bird, peaking at 8-9 attempts a game. Helping his slashing is that Pierce is such a great ballhandler, that it helped him penetrate and attack even if other players were more athletic. In regards to slashing off the dribble, Pierce isn’t at the level of freakish wings like Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Tracy McGrady, but he’s above average. I’ll give him a grade of 7 or 8 in the category.

When added together, this gives Pierce a score of 28 or 29. This puts him in the conversation for top 30-35 most talented players in history, which I believe is fair.

All in all, it’s hard for me to see where Bird separates himself in talent from Pierce. He’s the more skilled perimeter player, but Pierce is more talented at slashing and physically imposing himself on the game.

Part of this isn’t so much about Bird, as it is Pierce’s talent being underrated, perhaps. The guy has a fantastic and unique skillset, one of the best pure scorers and most intelligent players in history. One wonders if Pierce had found himself anchoring 60 win teams at the same point Dirk Nowitzki was, if Pierce would’ve also made the leap to widely considered MVP caliber player. I don’t believe in either talent or statistics, the difference between Pierce and a Dirk Nowitzki is significant.

For this reasons, Bird being called “only” as talented as Pierce, is not that large of an insult. Bird is a fantastic talent who’s will, work ethic and confidence helped his maximize his talent level and have one of the best careers ever. But I don’t consider the gap between him and Pierce to be as significant, as others do.

Written by jr.

March 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm