November 24, 2004

NBA Notes (and Juan Castro)

I keep promising to write more about the NBA without actually doing it, so today I'm going to finally pretend to be a basketball blogger. Plus, I have a few choice words about the Twins' big free agent signing.

Twenty-Footers

Philadelphia swingman Kyle Korver -- who looks amazingly like "Theo" from the Real World/Road Rules Challenges on MTV -- has one of the more interesting stat lines of the young season. Korver has played 10 games for a total of 281 minutes and has attempted 84 shots -- 67 of them from three-point land. The ratio was even more lopsided before his last two games, when "only" 11 of his 21 shots were from long range. In his first eight games, 56 of Korver's 63 shots (88.9%) were three-pointers.

I know a lot of people like to talk about the three-pointer as something negative, but I've always been of the belief that teams with good shooters need to shot more threes. It is difficult for a team to shoot 50% from two-point range, but it's not all that tough for them to shoot the equivalent of that -- 33.3% -- from three-point range. All of which is why I love the way Phoenix and Seattle are playing so far this year, hoisting up 22 three-pointers per game. Their offenses look an awful lot like what you'd see if you were watching me play NBA Live 2005.

I am clearly no expert on basketball strategy or coaching, but what seems obvious to me is that teams should eschew difficult two-point shots in favor of three-pointers. I'm all for dunks, layups and uncontested mid-range jumpers, but if you're going to shoot a 20-footer with a hand in your face, you might as well step back a few feet and at least make it worth 50% more. Plus, you can typically get a decent look at a three-pointer at any point during a possession, giving a team more time to run their offense in an effort to get an easy shot. And when you miss a three-pointer, there's usually more of an opportunity for an offensive rebound.

On that same sort of note, I have sung the praises of a stat called "Adjusted Field Goal Percentage" in this space before. It basically accounts for the fact that a guy who goes 4-for-10 from three-point land has actually scored 12 points, compared to a guy who goes 4-for-10 on two-pointers only coming up with eight points. That's a huge difference and something that isn't accurately portrayed in simple field goal percentage. There are better stats for measuring this sort of thing than adjFG%, but it is easy to calculate -- ((PTS-FTM)/FGA)/2 -- and readily available at ESPN.com.

So far this season, Korver is leading the world in adjFG%, thanks to shooting a remarkable 70.6% on two-pointers and 44.8% on three-pointers. All of which adds up to an adjFG% of 67.9%, efficiency Shaquille O'Neal can't even come close to matching while staying three feet from the basket at all times. I have only seen the 76ers play once so far this year, so I can't say for sure, but it seems obvious that Korver is either throwing up three-pointers or nailing easy two-pointers, with nothing in between.

In other words, 20-footers are for suckers.

UPDATE: Here's a great e-mail I got from longtime reader Kevin Pelton, over at HoopsWorld.com:

We're truly watching history in the making here with Korver. Here's where he'd rank amongst the most three-heavy players of all time, minimum 500 FGAs:
Player             Year  3A/FGA

-------------------------------
KYLE KORVER 04-05 0.798
Walter McCarty 03-04 0.700
Chuck Person 95-96 0.657
Voshon Lenard 96-97 0.646
Matt Maloney 96-97 0.620

That group essentially features guys, like Korver, who were key players for their team. If you cut down to 250 FGAs, there is one bigger specialist.

Player             Year  3A/FGA

-------------------------------
Dan Majerle 01-02 0.813
Dee Brown 99-00 0.725
Dan Majerle 99-00 0.720
Dee Brown 98-99 0.705

I saw Korver play once, and it looks like when he does upfake or drive, he's looking to pass. His assists are way up this year, which, along with his rebounding and the otherworldliness of his shooting, has allowed him to become a key player and not just a shooter.

Fifteen-Footers

One trend that I've noticed so far this year is that teams are going to the free throw line a lot more than they have in past seasons. The average NBA team attempted 23.8 free throws per game in 2001-02, 24.4 per game in 2002-03, and 24.2 per game last season. So far this year, teams are averaging 26.9 free throw attempts per game. That may not seem like a huge difference, but it is an 11.1% increase over last season and last year only three teams -- the Lakers, Clippers, and Wizards -- averaged that many.

As you might guess, the extra team free throws are mostly trickling down to star players. Right now there are five different players averaging 10+ free throw attempts per game, 12 players averaging 8+, and a total of 30 players attempting at least six per game. Compare those numbers to years past:

             FT ATTEMPTS / G

SEASON 10+ 8+ 6+
2001-02 1 4 14
2002-03 1 5 17
2003-04 1 5 13
2004-05 5 12 30

The only player to average more than 10 free throw attempts per game in any of the past three seasons is O'Neal, who did so each year (averaging 10.7, 10.8, and 10.1). He is once again attempting 10+ this season with 11.7 per game (also up, just like everyone else), but ranks just third in the league, behind Dwyane Wade (12.3/G) and Kobe Bryant (12.1). It's still very early in the season and the sample-sizes are small enough that things could go back to normal pretty easily, but it'll be something to keep an eye on for the rest of the year.

I've read and heard that the NBA has instructed officials to crack down on calling fouls in various circumstances and this is certainly an interesting way to deal with the decreased scoring problem. However, I don't think the fact that scores have been down over the past several years is really the actual issue, but rather a result of a change in the overall style of play that has people disinterested. Sending teams to the line a few extra times per game so they can get an easy couple points, while upping the scoring, isn't fixing much of anything. (Although I could see where calling things closer may eventually lead to more free-flowing offense.)

Juan Castro

The Minnesota Twins signed Juan Castro yesterday. Before I complain about this, I just want to make it very clear that I have no problem with signing Castro, at least in theory. Every team needs bench players and the Twins in particular have never been deep in middle infielders. Plus, if this means the Twins are less likely to bring Luis Rivas back next season, I'm all for it. I never even thought to discuss Castro when I wrote a few thousand words on the available free agents at each position earlier this month, but adding some punchless utility infielder is never a particularly big deal.

However, what strikes me as problematic are the terms of the deal. First, the Twins gave him a two-year contract with an option for a third season. I can't for the life of me think of a reason to give a player like Castro two guaranteed years, let alone a third year that you have to spend money to buy him out of. He is the type of player -- a good defender with zero offensive skills -- who is available every single year, and usually for no more than a minor-league, non-guaranteed contract.

The Twins signed a nearly identical utility infielder, Augie Ojeda, to a typical minor-league deal last year and he ended up doing very well for them in 30 late-season games, after spending most of the season in the minors. But why two guaranteed years for a guy who in no way differentiates himself from the deep pool of potential backup infielders like Ojeda that are available each offseason?

Beyond that, not only is Castro guaranteed money over the next two years, he's guaranteed a relatively large amount of money. Castro will make $1 million in both 2005 and 2006, and then the Twins will decide if they'd rather pay him another $1 million to play in 2007 or buy him out for $50,000. That means, at the very least, a team that figures to have a payroll of around $55 million in each of the next two years just committed to paying a run-of-the-mill utility infielder three times the minimum salary ... for two seasons!

I just can't wrap my head around this deal. It's not a horrible, franchise-crippling move by any means, but it is one of those things that sort of shakes your belief system. With most deals I think are bad ones, there is at least a discernible "logic" behind them; with this deal I can't see one at all. There is no way the market for Castro forced Terry Ryan to give him two guaranteed years to secure his services, and even if it did, who cares? There are plenty of guys just like him who will play for a one-year deal.

And if for some reason you feel the need to lock up your utility infielder for more than a year and you're going to give him a million bucks per season, why not at least try to sign someone with a little value? You're telling me none of Jose Vizcaino, Pokey Reese, Craig Counsell, Jose Valentin, Chris Gomez, Barry Larkin, Jose Hernandez or Ramon Martinez could have been had for $2 million over two years?

Every year, every team in the majors signs a handful of guys like Castro to either fill bench roles in the big leagues or provide insurance at Triple-A. It's almost as if Ryan just decided to pick one of those guys at random and hand him this contract. I can't even begin to imagine the sales pitch Castro's agent gave to the Twins. "Listen Terry, he's just an useless as Rivas, but he'll only cost you one-third as much!"

Oh, and here's a little stat I stumbled across while trying to find something to explain this deal: During Castro's 10-year career (1995-2004), no hitter in all of baseball has had a worse on-base percentage (.269) or OPS (.600) in as many plate appearances (1,742). Chew on that for a while, and then think about the fact that he'll make about three times as much as Justin Morneau over the life of his contract.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- About Those Predictions ... (by Aaron Gleeman)


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