Thursday, August 1, 2013

Amazing Individual Scoring, A Losing Offense: The Story of Adrian Dantley

Introduction

When a young basketball fan enters the world of advanced stats, it's like rediscovering the NBA -- new stories emerge from these twisted stats, huge numbers lurking in waters once thought mute and dull (Walton's modest stats dwarfed by his enormous impact when he's in the game versus out, Ginobili's per possession numbers, Battier the no-stats all-star.) Conventional wisdom valued points per game, especially flashy scoring, and titles. Garnett was called a shell of a superstar, not a true one, because it was Duncan who took his teams to the promised lands, never mind the actual context of their teammates and support. But suddenly, once Garnett was placed besides other talented players in Boston, his team was dominant in the regular season and picked up a title. What changed? Some would say he "learned" how to win, or that he finally had someone to take the mantle of "go-to" player, like all games are decided with the last shot; but advanced stats say he's been great for a long time and it's no coincidence he won a title: he had talented teammates and still had a lot of talent himself.

One of the mini-revolutions has been reappropriating "field-goal percentage," like how batting averaged was eclipsed by OPS, with the invention of true-shooting percentage or similar metrics. By factoring in three-pointers and foul shots, players who were ignored for their efficiency now stood out -- Billups, for example, with his rare combination of foul-drawing, free-throw accuracy, and three-point shooting. But another name stood out in the NBA's history, clearly separating himself from the field in a exquisite season, the only peers being athletic, foul-drawing machine beasts in Barkley/Amare:

Table 1: the peaks of efficiency for high scoring seasons

Year
Minutes
TS%
Usage
Points per game
Adrian Dantley
1983-84
2984
65.2
28.2
30.6
Charles Barkley
1987-88
3170
66.5
26.7
28.3
Amare Stoudemire
2007-08
2677
65.6
28.2
25.2

Yes, only three guys have had a 65 TS% season on a high usage. And it's not a fluke season either. There have only been 14 seasons with +62 TS% and +25 usage. Besides Barkley and Stoudemire, Kemp and Malone sneak in as other athletic foul-drawing beasts, along with a season from sharpshooter Reggie Miller and the twin transcendent seasons from LeBron and Durant. Only Barkley and Amare have done it more than once (twice each) besides Dantley ... who had five such seasons.

Dantley wasn't highly regarded even in his own era, depending on who you ask, so did TS% unearth some previously forgotten and discarded powerful offensive weapon? Or is his offense all smoke and mirrors, his overall impact minuscule compared to his shooting efficiency, as suggested by the criticisms he received when he played and some recent appraisals? Was he an underrated offensive force of nature and a victim or circumstance (bad teams), was he at fault for his team's failures? Or, as the case goes in most situations, is the truth somewhere in between?

Dantley's game

The typical Adrian Dantley possession began with an entry pass to the midrange area. Dantley would catch the ball, pivot toward the basket in triple threat position, and then go to work with two main options: a flat-footed "jump" shot, more accurate than it looked, or a sneaky drive to the basket. He had no problems getting to the rim without resistance and rarely missed point blank. If a defender came to challenge his shot, he was a master at drawing a foul shot. During his prime, he would average over ten free throws a game. He was a player bound to the floor, never going up for the big dunk, and instead used excellent footwork and a nice touch off the glass to score over bigger players. He would often set up even closer to the rim and would bully his opponent with his moves. If he had rebounded more, it would have been easy to mistake him for a seven-foot low post center. There are few modern comparisons. Andre Miller's ground-bound game and craft post moves are close, but outside of a 50-point explosion he was never a similar scorer.

Early career

Dantley was a major talent coming out of college. With Notre Dame, he was first team all-American twice, and he's still second all-time in points in college history, as well as first for free throws attempted and made, which would be a precursor of things to come. Before he played in the NBA, he led the US to a gold medal in the Olympics as the leading scorer. But perhaps his most impressive achievement was ending UCLA's win streak at 88 games. It was an encouraging start to a career, one brimming with promise and growth.

Adrian Dantley was drafted sixth overall by the Buffalo Braves, and immediately went to work as a 20 points per game scorer. The Braves were a terrible team despite a few interesting names on the roster, like Bob McAdoo, injured and ravaged by drug abuse; Moses Malone was strangely on the roster, but he was traded after two games for two draft picks; Randy Smith in one of his many seasons scoring 20 points or more; and the semi-obscure Ernie DiGregorio, who averaged 90.2% from the line for his career (but did not have enough attempts to qualify for the all-time leaderboard.) The Braves were slightly above average the season before, and before that nearly hit 50 wins; they were on a downward trajectory. Dantley, however, was a bright new star, and he won rookie of the year, which should have theoretically eased fears about the team's strength. But Dantley was traded after the season ended, and remains the only rookie of the year who was traded right after his rookie season.

While the executives of the past were often comically inept (the NBA's infamous Ted Stepien rule was made to stop an owner from destroying his franchise's future by continually sending out first round picks), as the Buffalo owner was obsessed with obtaining Billy Knight, the trade was a sign of things to come for young Adrian Dantley. However, it should be noted that Knight was the leading ABA scorer two years ago and just came off an NBA season second in scoring. Additionally, there were rumors owner John Brown, who used to own an ABA team, wanted to acquire old ABA players. Buffalo entered the new season with a completely new roster, only four returning players receiving more than 500 minutes in '78, but they didn't seem to miss their high-scoring rookie of the year: although they lost more games, their point differential increased, and, most alarmingly, their offensive rating increased by nearly three points. This would become a theme with Dantley. (In a cosmic coincidence, Billy Knight went on to become an "embattled" GM of the Atlanta Hawks, before stepping down in 2008.)

Both the Pacers and Braves experienced heavy roster turnover from '77 to '78, so I wouldn't recommend cross-matching seasons to estimate Dantley's impact. The Braves received just 34% of their total minutes from returning players, and only 25% of their minutes were the same between seasons; the Pacers were similar, with 38% and 25%, respectively. The league was still following the chaotic wake of the merger, and some owners, especially in small markets, were making bizarre decisions and rash changes. For what it's worth, the Braves got slightly better after trading Dantley, and the Pacers got slightly worse, although there were a large number of other new players and Dantley only played 23 games. However, since Dantley was traded during the season (for James Edwards and Earl Tatum), we can estimate his impact by comparing the team's record and point differential when he was in the game versus when he wasn't.

In the 23 games Dantley had with Indiana, they won only 9 games but had an ever-so-slightly below average point differential with a higher than average level of competition. Doing some adjusting (using "pseudo" SRS, which is just point differential + average opposition SRS and homecourt advantage), they had an SRS of +0.5. That's a 42 win pace -- not great, but not terrible either. Then after Dantley left, the team took a significant step down -- an SRS of -3.5 and 37 losses.

We can do the same with the Lakers, who conversely had 26 games without Dantley. However, Kareem missed 20 games at the beginning of the season, all of which were before the trade. While the Lakers did not play well in the six games without Dantley but with Kareem, there are not enough games to make a determination about his impact, and it serves as a reminder of the dangers of blindly using with/without stats.

In the following season, Dantley continued his scoring binges but his playing time was limited by the presence of the young Jamaal Wilkes who played the same position. An injury limited Dantley to 60 games, and while he was out Wilkes was able to showcase his talent. Once again, Dantley was traded because management preferred another forward who was not remotely the same level as a scorer. Personality clashes and attitude problems are often not the best topics in sports because the speculation can devolve into armchair psychology and baseless accusations, but a common thread in Dantley's travels was his ego and the many conflicts he had with coaches or other players. The incompetence of basketball GM's in the late 70's and early 80's would partially explain why he was traded so often, but he had problems coexisting with other stars and management -- there's no other reason for an automatic scorer and a rookie of the year to be shipped around like a Netflix disc.

In the 22 games without Dantley, the Lakers were indeed worse without him, but only by a small margin -- their adjusted point differential fell from +2.9  to +2.7, including the playoffs. Although Dantley's scoring was valuable, the Lakers felt more comfortable going with Wilkes because Dantley demanded the ball and played inside, which was an area still commanded by Kareem. The next season, the Lakers added Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper, and, obviously, improved significantly -- they won 60 games and a title. With the great number of new players (the '79 and '80 teams only shared 50% of the same minutes from the same guys), and the arrival of a legend in Magic, it's unfair to state the team got better without him because it was an entirely new team.

On a sad note, the man he was traded for was Spencer Haywood, who was suffering with drug problems and was suspended by the team before the 1980 playoffs.

The middle years: Utah Jazz

Before Dantley's arrival, the Jazz were moved from New Orleans to Utah to alleviate financial problems (i.e. heavy taxes and falling attendance.) The team, which had only won 26 games the year before, had only two returning players, and had its three aging stars jettisoned as Goodrich retired, Haywood was traded before the season, and Maravich after. They had even traded Truck Robinson, a 24/13 player, midway through the previous season. The Jazz were effectively an expansion team and Dantley got to start over with one devoid of talent. The Jazz finished the 1980 season with roughly the same results as the year before -- 24 wins and a similar point differential -- but with worse defense and a better offense, which was actually above average for the league.

Yet this was Dantley's prime. In his next seven seasons, all in Utah, he would never dip below a 60 TS%, and his PER was between 24.2 and 24.6 in all but one year. He averaged over 30 four straight times and took two scoring titles. But the Jazz had little success -- they were typically a losing team with a mediocre or below average offense. Was this a case of Garnett in Minnesota or was it a player who thrived by putting up good stats on a bad team? Going purely by the numbers, Dantley as a scoring forward compared favorably to Larry Bird:

Table 2: Dantley versus Bird
Adrian Dantley
Larry Bird
Year
Minutes
TOV%
TS%
Usage
PPG
PER
Minutes
TOV%
TS%
Usage
PPG
PER
1980
2674
13.5
63.5
27.8
28.0
24.3
2955
14.0
53.8
25.3
21.3
20.5
1981
3417
12.5
62.2
28.4
30.7
24.3
3239
14.9
528
24.3
21.2
19.9
1982
3222
13.3
63.1
27.9
30.3
24.2
2923
13.8
55.7
25.2
22.9
22.6
1983
887
13.7
66.1
26.1
30.7
24.4
2982
12.6
56.1
25.0
23.6
24.1
1984
2984
12.4
65.2
28.2
30.6
24.6
3028
12.1
55.2
26.7
24.2
24.2
1985
1971
12.4
60.7
27.7
26.6
21.9
3161
11.2
58.5
28.5
28.7
26.5
1986
2744
11.4
62.9
30.0
29.8
24.6
3113
12.7
58.0
27.6
25.8
25.6
1987
2736
11.3
61.4
23.7
21.5
18.6
3005
12.4
61.2
27.5
28.2
26.4
1988
2144
10.8
61.9
24.2
20.0
19.9
2965
10.2
60.8
30.2
29.9
27.8

Dantley and Bird were about the same age too, which makes the comparison all the more interesting. Dantley saw his numbers limited in '87 and '88 due to the depth of Detroit, and both players depreciated strongly after the 1988 season. Dantley, however, came out of college early to provide more quality seasons. But why was Bird universally regarded as the superior player? Why was it such a landslide?

Dantley is a one-dimensional scorer, and that became more apparent in Utah. Once a team leading rebounder in college, Dantley lost some of his rebounding prowess and offered little else. He didn't really pass or defend, and he was a one-on-one scorer: give him the ball and get out of the way. He didn't play off other players, like Larry Bird, and some players hated playing with him. Individual efficiency doesn't matter if it doesn't translate well to the team level, and some people think Dantley's game negatively impacted his teammates to a degree that washed away some of his benefits from scoring.

Using three different seasons in which Dantley missed a significant stretch of games, we (again) have more estimates for his impact. In his first season (1980) he missed 14 games, and the team went 2 and 12 -- however, the team was horrible for the entire season, with and without him, and they actually improved their point differential by a small amount with him gone.  With such a depleted, terrible roster, it's not an encouraging sign.

In 1983, Dantley missed most of the season after tearing ligaments in his shooting wrist. In his absence, the team went 21 and 39 with an adjusted point differential of -3.8. With him, they had a slightly better win percentage but a worse point differential of -5.4. This is one highly cited occurrence of Dantley's faint impact as a basketball player, but when a player misses most of the season we can analyze the surrounding ones for another type of estimate of his value.

The '82 and '83 teams shared much of the same personal, but the '83 squad was marginally better. Taking a closer look, the team was actually better because of their defense and their offense actually took a nosedive. The "big" difference in the roster between the two teams, other than Dantley's injury, was Mark Eaton, who was instantly a defensive force. The next season, 1984, the team's offense skyrocketed while the defense actually slipped; but the offense was such an improvement the team won 45 games. The '83 and '84 squads were very similar, with 86% of its minutes going to guys from the previous season and 65% of the minutes were exactly the same between the seasons. The largest difference was Dantley's minutes, Eaton playing a bit more, and the addition of Thurl Bailey, a rookie power forward with limited production. The offensive rating improved by 7.8 points, a huge increase, suggesting that Dantley does actually have a large offensive benefit. These seasons were right in the center of Dantley's prime when he was averaging 30 a game, and his '84 season was probably his best: a TS% of 65 aided by an incredible 11.4 free throw attempts a game.

Dantley had another injury plagued year in 1985, which saw the Jazz suffer a steep fall in their offensive game but it was countered almost point for point by an improved defense. It was also another sign of Dantley's positive impact -- with Dantley the point differential was +0.7, while without him it sank to -2.5. That's the difference between a team with 44 wins and one with 32.

The next season was his last in Utah, and it was the first season of Jazz legend Karl Malone. It was a transitional year with Stockon still coming off the bench. The Jazz were 42-40 with a slightly negative point differential and an offensive rating of 104.2. The next year, the team was 44-38 with a slightly positive point differential (SRS) and an offensive rating of 104.1, suggesting that the loss of Dantley had no impact on their offense. But, again, you need context -- Malone improved in his second season (his PER, for one, jumped from 13.7 to 18.0) and received more playing time, and Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith was out the season before with a foot injury. There was continuity elsewhere, as the seasons shared nearly 80% of the same minutes distribution, but the growth of Malone and Stockton were likely enough to replace Dantley's production. In 1988, the Jazz had their first great season under the new duo, but defense was the team's calling card, especially when Jerry Sloan took over in 1989. As Adrian faded into the team's past and neared retirement, Malone put up a series of highly efficient 27 to 30 point seasons, echoing Dantley's role as Utah's first star. He never had the success of Stockton or Malone, but some circumstances were beyond his control.

Unfortunately, the trade happened for a reason. The coach Frank Layden had suffered years of arguments with Dantley and apparently didn't want to suffer through any more. He was traded for a bit player in his 30's, Kent Benson, and a younger 20 points per game scorer, Kelly Tripucka, who had two disastrous seasons in Utah before leaving. Once again, the trade package that netted Dantley was an embarrassing one -- and it wouldn't be the last time.

The later stages: a fall from paradise

Detroit was a promising young team built around Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, where Dantley was replacing Tripucka as their go-to wing scorer. It was already a deep team, with Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, and Vinnie Johnson in the depth chart. The Pistons had 46 wins, due to an adjusted point differential of 1.4, an offensive efficiency of 109.0 and a defensive efficiency of 107.9. The next season saw a significant improvement -- 52 wins and a point differential of 3.5 with an offensive rating of 109.2 and a defensive rating of 105.8. The major additions besides Dantley were Dennis Rodman and John Salley, explaining the improvement on defense, but the switch of Dantley and Tripucka had no measurable effect, even though the team saw improvement from young guys like Dumars.

Nevertheless, Dantley was a vital piece and leading scorer of two strong Pistons teams that went deep into the playoffs, losing to the Celtics in seven games the first year and losing to the Lakers in seven games in a heartbreaking finals. It would be erroneous to say he choked: Dantley received a concussion in the final Celtics game, while Thomas gave up an infamous turnover to Bird costing them game 5, and in the Lakers series Thomas was hampered by an ankle injury and had a subpar game 7.

A set of 13 missed games in 1988 allows for another opportunity to estimate his impact. Finally, there's complete box score information available, meaning possessions can be tracked and offensive/defensive efficiency calculated. In the 69 regular season games with Dantley, the Pistons won 44 games with an adjusted point differential of +5.1. Without Dantley, they won 10 games with only 3 losses and a point differential of +7.6, improving by a decent amount. A further inspection reveals the offense fell off without Dantley by 2.3 points, even though the opposition's defense was slightly worse. It was their defense that obliterated opponents when he was gone. It is perhaps no coincidence that Dennis Rodman replaced him in the lineup: it would explain the loss of offense and the stifling defense. Also, if you include the playoffs, the results with Dantley barely change with a slightly better offense and a slightly worse defense.

Midway through the 1989 season, Dantley was traded for another scoring forward (Aguirre) because of conflicts with head coach Chuck Daly and clashes with Isiah Thomas over the reins of the team. The Pistons also reasoned that Aguirre would be a better fit because he was willing to accept a smaller role and work within the offense. Dantley's highly effective post game took up a great deal of space and some argued it often stalled Detroit's offense. Mitch Albom argued at the time that his age was also starting to become an issue -- he was 32, his game appeared to be slipping, and Aguirre was four years younger.

In the 42 games with Dantley, the Pistons won 30 games with an adjusted point differential of +4.5. In the 40 regular season games without him, they were 33-7 and their point differential ballooned to +7.6, which indicates a strong title contender. Their defense tightened up, dropping 0.8 efficiency points, but it was their offense that took off: from a rating of 108.5 to 113.2 (for reference, the Lakers led the league with a 113.8 offensive rating with one of the greatest offensive teams ever.) If you include the playoffs, the results only improve -- the icing on the cake being a sweep of the Lakers in the finals, sending Kareem into retirement.

The following season was another excellent one for Detroit, who slipped a little offensively but fought through Ewing's Knicks, Jordan's Bulls, and the Drexler Blazers for a second title. Aguirre was reduced to a part-time starter who only scored 14 a game, while defensive player of the year Rodman enjoyed an expanded role and Isiah a greater control of the offense. Dantley's responsibilities had been replaced by an even distribution to the rest of the team -- and nothing appeared to have been lost.

One interesting detail of Dantley's time in Detroit is his reduced role. After years of being the undisputed leading scorer on his own team, he went to a balanced squad with an already established star. Dantley's usage % plummeted by over 6 points (for more context, usage is the percentage of team possessions you use on offense, and he went from third highest usage in '86 to 42nd among players with at least 1000 minutes.) However, his shooting efficiency dropped too: the better supporting cast apparently didn't help his offensive game. He was truly a one-on-one player.

In Dallas, Dantley was succumbing to the slow grind of time. Being cast off a championship contender probably didn't help his motivation either, as his numbers were significantly worse in the second half of the '89 season in Dallas, even though he stated he was proud of being mentally strong and shook off the constant trades. For the first time since playing in Los Angeles, he averaged under 20 points a game, and by the 1990 season he was only scoring 14 a game. His time in Dallas was unnoteworthy, like a quiet moment before death.

Before the Mavericks received Dantley, they were stumbling through a mediocre season barely keeping their heads above the 0.500 line. After the trade, the team lost 20 out of their 31 games with an adjusted point differential of -5.3 (compared to +0.4 before the trade.) Oddly enough, Aguirre was disliked in Dallas, and a few players were happy to see him gone, but they struggled on both ends after he left. The offensive rating fell from 108.6 (above average) to 105.4 (a couple points below average) while the defense gave up as many points as the offense lost: from a rating of 107.7 to 110.3. Starting center James Donaldson went down in early March with a major injury and missed the rest of the season, but in the eight games with Dantley before the team still had terrible results.

Fortunately, the next season was better, even though Dantley missed half the season with injuries. The Mavericks won 9 more games, but that's misleading as their offensive rating basically stayed the same with only a small improvement in their defense. Without him in the game, including the playoffs, the Mavericks were essentially the same: the point differential hardly budged and they had a slightly higher win percentage. They were swept in the playoffs by the Blazers, and it was Dantley's last season with Dallas.

With a touch of poetic irony, the Mavericks got much worse after Dantley was waived and left for the Milwaukee Bucks (it should be noted the Mavs had a rash of injuries to their key players and lost Sam Perkins to free agency), but this was his farewell tour. He only played ten games with the Bucks in 1991 as his last appearance on the court. After a brief stint playing overseas, he eventually came back to the NBA as an assistant coach and was the subject of a bizarre news story where he switched from small forward to crossing guard.

Conclusion: 

Dantley has been the subject of articles before, with one groundbreaking article detailing how Dantley's efficiency was overrated because it didn't translate to the team level. He's an example of Braess' paradox: the optimal choice for the individual is not the optimal choice for the system. An urban freeway is typically used to illustrate this, as it's faster for anyone to use one but because of the congestion it would be better for everyone in the system if a few cars used side-streets, even if those cars experienced longer travel times. What's best for the individual may not be best for the group.

Dantley's story is the story of incredible efficiency and consistent scoring, but it's also the story of his former teams finding glory after he leaves -- he spent time with the Lakers right before the arrival of Magic, he was in Utah before Stockton and Malone built a perennial winner, and he was with the Pistons before they won back-to-back titles.

While Dantley nearly won a title and any narrative stating he was never good enough to be a leading scorer on a champion is not true, since the Pistons were a game away in 1988, it's important to understand Dantley was traded for another scoring forward and the Pistons steamed away unencumbered, winning two titles. He was typically traded for another scoring small forward with no defense without ill effects. Even though his efficiency suggested otherwise, the trades suggest his impact was on the level of guys like Tripucka and Aguirre.

Reviewing the team stats with and without Dantley in Table 3, the best evidence for his positive impact is from his early seasons in the league. Unfortunately, Kareem nearly missed all the games with the Lakers before Dantley was traded, meaning there's only six games to estimate his impact. While the Jazz were worse with Dantley in 1983, the adjacent seasons suggest they missed his offense. Since there was no detailed box score information available prior to 1986, it's difficult to surmise why some of his teams improved or barely missed his scoring. For example, in 1988 the Pistons played better without him, but it was because of Rodman replacing him in the starting lineup: their offense slipped but their defense was off the charts. Consequently, any extrapolation of a player's value from with/without stats is just a rough estimation prone to serious systematic errors, like a terrible bench exposed or a young player getting his chance to break out.

Table 3: Adrian Dantley's with/without stats
Team
Year
Games with/out
SRS w/ AD
SRS no AD
Diff.
OffEff w/ AD
OffEff no AD
DefEff w/ AD
DefEff no AD
Ind. Pacers
1978
23/59
0.5
-3.5
+4.0




LA Lakers* (P)
1978
59/6
4.9
-3.3
+8.2




LA Lakers
1979
60/22
3.0
2.7
+0.4




LA Lakers (P)
1979
68/22
2.9
2.7
+0.2




Utah Jazz
1980
68/14
-6.0
-4.2
-1.9




Utah Jazz
1983
22/60
-5.4
-3.8
-1.6




Utah Jazz
1985
55/27
0.7
-2.5
+3.2




Det. Pistons
1988
69/13
5.1
7.6
-2.6
110.8
108.5
105.9
101.5
Det. Pistons (P)
1988
92/13
5.9
7.6
1.8
110.1
108.5
105.2
101.5
Det. Pistons
1989
42/40
4.5
7.6
-3.1
108.5
113.2
104.3
105.2
Det. Pistons (P)
1989
42/57
4.5
8.4
-3.9
108.5
113.3
104.3
105.1
Dallas Mavs.
1989
31/51
-5.3
0.4
-5.7
105.4
108.6
110.3
107.7
Dallas Mavs. (P)
1990
45/40
0.1
-0.2
+0.3
106.8
107.4
106.8
108.0
*Only includes games with Kareem in the lineup
(P) Playoffs included

Who is Adrian Dantley? He's a phenomenal scorer who carves up a defense with his crafty post game, even though he's 6' 5"; his field-goal percentage is something only big men should have, and he draws foul shots like a dominant big man too. But he's also a selfish, one-on-one scorer who works on his own and feuds with his coaches. Perhaps he's a "good stats on a bad team" player, better suited to somewhere like the late 70's Pacers or the Jazz pre-Malone; but he nearly won a title and his scoring is useful. With the unavailability of detailed play-by-play data and the lack of recorded games, we will never know with certainty how valuable he was -- yet we know he's a truly unique player and we may never see someone like him again. Adrian Dantley: your ball-stopping and one-dimensional play may have erased some of the value from your scoring, but what a dimension it was.
  
Table 4: Dantley’s teams before or after his arrival
Team
Year
With AD
Wins
SRS
OffEff
DefEff
PlyrMin%
Cont%
Buffalo Braves 
1977
Yes
30
-4.3
97.6
102.0


Buffalo Braves
1978
No
27
-3.6
100.3
103.8
34
25
LA Lakers
1979
Yes
47
3.0
106.1
103.2


LA Lakers
1980
No
60
5.4
109.5
103.9
61
50
Utah Jazz
1979
No
26
-6.0
99.6
105.4


Utah Jazz
1980
Yes
24
-5.7
104.2
110.4
11
10
Utah Jazz
1986
Yes
42
-0.7
104.2
104.6


Utah Jazz
1987
No
44
0.1
104.1
103.7
73
69
Detroit Pistons
1986
No
46
1.4
109.0
107.9


Detroit Pistons
1987
Yes
52
3.5
109.2
105.8
62
57
Important note: a large number of factors are involved here, due to player movement and growth
SRS is an adjusted point differential: margin of victory with opposition strength
OffEff and DefEff is in terms of points scored (or allowed) per 100 possessions
PlyrMin% is the percentage of minutes from returning players
Cont% (aka continuity %) is the percentage of minutes the previous season shares with the current one

9 comments:

  1. A nice career retrospective, but I don't agree with some points here.

    "He didn't really pass or defend, and he was a one-on-one scorer: give him the ball and get out of the way."

    Counter-evidence? Put the numbers down, and watch the '88 NBA Finals. He played well in a handful of games in the Finals, and the Lakers had issues guarding Dantley throughout the series since he could take any defender that was guarding him to the basket. (After all, which team do you know purposely guards a potent offensive player one-on-one? That only takes place if they're concentrating on guarding a more potent player.) He saw the most double teams out of any Piston and he often tilted the floor towards him and opened up looks for his teammates on the weak side. If he was doubled, he effectively passed out of the post and registrered his fair share of hockey assists (or would-be hockey assists if his teammates missed the shot). He wasn't the off-ball shooting type, running around screens and the like, but that wasn't something that was needed from him. By the way, the guy was also past his prime.

    It seems that Dantley is often brushed into a corner because of his mediocre with-without numbers, and conclusions are drawn without much thought given to the on-court action, personnel, ancillary skillsets, and coaching philosophies that heavily influence the numbers. It's tempting to put all the blame on Dantley, but analysis can hardly be valid or accurate if these things are not considered. These aren't carefully designed science experiments with rigid controls, and basketball is more complex than that. Especially when more than one player plays on a team, and other people are responsible for putting it all together.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I watched a lot of that series while I compiled this. I saw plays like Dantley blocking someone posting him up, nice assists by Dantley, etc. He's not a pure black hole. But his assist rates were pretty low, and he didn't offer much else besides scoring. I base some of those points (didn't really pass or defend) based on articles from writers at the time or someone contemporary like Neil Paine.

      From what I've seen on studies about the value of usage, assists/passing are very important. I've heard people use a product of usage and assists in models, which means that usage on its own wasn't found to be valuable. (Though drawing a double team or the ability to create is important; it's just that a combination of playmaking and shot creation is even more important.)

      It's not just the with/without numbers: coaches and some players did not like him, and the contemporary opinion was pretty low compared to how effective he was as a scorer. Read the Mitch Albom link. There's a reason he was shipped around so much, and I think some guys got so sick of his personality they didn't play effectively with him on the court. That's just a hypothesis, but again ... many contemporary accounts were not kind.

      The ultimate point here is to say that no, he's not a, say, top ten offensive player ever; but he's also not a negative on offense. His scoring *is* very useful, and the with/without numbers are very noisy and influenced by many factors.

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    2. That's a fair conclusion. Although to quibble for a bit, I'd argue that sometimes we overvalue assists as a proxy for playmaking; using today's NBA as an example I'd point to someone like say a prime Dirk Nowitzki who could certainly create plays for others without being his team's prime "set-up" guy. If opposing defenses have to account for your scoring by throwing extra defenders toward your side of the floor, that in of itself opens up opportunities for your teammates. With regards to that series, Dantley was obviously the main target of the Lakers defense. The Lakers were more content with doubling Dantley and letting someone else beat them than putting AJ Green on an island defensively, and players like Laimbeer were beneficiaries of this action with their ability to knock them the open 10-15 ft shot. The Pistons almost won a title with that strategy as well, just needed some more breaks to go their way.

      I think that one should also keep in mind that this was an era where teams didn't explore the insane spacing offenses that we see in the modern NBA; during Game 1 of the '88 Finals Dick Stockton said admirably of Dantley that he made a living for a decade scoring at the rim. That was both a blessing and a curse for his teams, because he was a unique player (a forward in a guard's body) who needed the real estate down low to score points. Compare his skills to Bird, who was always a threat from the 3-pt line (even during the 80s when 3s weren't as commonplace, Bird was in the top 10 for the decade in 3pa/36 min) and could use the midrange jumper as a primary weapon, as opposed to Dantley who looked to slash or post-up before shooting the jumper. Putting personality aside, I think this made Bird more essential to his teams than Dantley because the traditional bigs of the era had their room to score at the rim. That's not so much the case today where even seven-footers hoist up jumpers from outside. (Perhaps an analogy to use here would be the decrease in demand for talented RBs in the NFL, who are still out there but aren't as essential in today's passer-friendly league.) Super-efficient offenses have been implemented in today's game where a talented post/paint player acts as a "floor vacuum" to complement the floor spacers. Dantley is retired and is helping his community as a crossing guard, but I would love for a prime version of Dantley to lead an offense where he's in a lineup of marksmen. Lesser players than Dantley have been driving centerpieces of those offenses.

      IMHO, players like Dantley go in the "elite skills, wrong era" group of NBA greats, and it all has to do with how basketball teams are constructed. Now, the objection to this is that it is based on a hypothetical, but 1) it's rooted in fundamental knowledge of team basketball dynamics, so it's not implausible; and 2) GMs have to think about this *anyway* as they build their squads. You wouldn't go after Shaquille O'Neal if your team already has a less spectacular post player but lacks outside shooting, and that is because even impact has to be taken into proper context. Dantley is still one of the best offensive players in history; less versatile and dynamic than Bird, but with elite skills that could greatly lift offenses, in the appropriate context.

      Enjoy the blog, by the way. Valuable source of basketball information.

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    3. Some other Dantley thoughts (in response to posts on RealGM):

      "Dantley dribbled the ball too long and made teammates shoot with no shot clock."

      This is an odd criticism. For one, its purely based on anecdotal evidence (which can be highly exaggerated); for another, Dantley was such a gifted scorer that he drew double teams that generated wide-open shots for teammates. Those are desired at *any* time in a possession. You posted the nice link about pts/poss with 21+ seconds used in a possession, but you would think those are mostly shots taken by players who have to create their own bailout shot at the buzzer, as opposed to a ready-catch-shoot shot in rhythm. Dantley was capable of creating his own shot, but he was just as adept at making the defense commit a double team to start a chain to passes to the open man. A strategy used by *every* star in history.

      Not to drive the video evidence into the ground here, but this clip exemplifies the above points as well as the issue of floor-spacing in Dantley's era of basketball http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxuGpmFRNng
      Specifically the Pistons possessions at 5:48 and 8:35. Dantley waits to draw the double team, and on both possessions he unselfishly makes the pass to the open player so he can make the hockey assist to the open shooter, away from the rotating Lakers defense. The only issue was that the Pistons lone decent shooter in Laimbeer was on the bench, and the players spacing the floor were the anemic/streaky range shooters in Thomas and Dumars (who didn't utilize the 3-ball in his young career). In today's NBA, where shooters from distance are used on every roster (and elite squads use offenses designed to space the floor from distance), Dantley would have a field day being the driving offensive force of his teams.

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  2. the approach to today's game is correct in the sense that the 3-pt shot is used as a floor-spreading weapon, but also misguided in thinking that 3-pt shots and layups (only going for the open shot) is the best way to play the game. the result has been unskilled big men that are only used to set screens and dunk, shooting guards that only do "3-and-D" and a league that is pg-happy, where virtually every team has a decent one. the end result will be massive stalemates, as teams play robotically with frontcourt players and sg's that are unskilled like some football positions. the strategy of only attempting open shots and the resulting stalemates will become boring and fans will stop watching. if every team is basing their offense around getting open shots, you have a stalemate.

    but a player like dantley would actually dominate in today's game with the superior spacing. unfortunately, there aren't any players like dantley left. say what you want about "strong side flood" or "weakside shading" in today's game - those defensive looks were the standard back in dantley's day when literally 2 three pointers were attempted per game (compared to 20 per game today) and so all 5 defenders stood in the paint or within a step or two of the paint on every play. consequently, "strong side flood" or "weakside shading" occurred on every play as a standard back then, and those contemporary terms only describe today's easier paint and mid-range environment where it is less congested and easier to score. right now teams don't realize this, because they are blinded by analytics that have mistaken assumptions about the efg of mid-range and 3-pt shots, and as a result, this robotic style of basketball has temporarily taken over.

    however, i predict that at some point, to break the stalemates, teams will realize how much easier it is to score from the mid-range and the post now due to the extra room, and the mid-range and post games (guys like dantley) will come roaring back. it has to. teams will realize that a good mid-range player can have a superior efg from mid-range then 3-pt shot (the efg of a 3-pt shot plummets at even the slightest contest, whereas the correlation is not nearly as high for a mid-range shot). most importantly, the PACE will go back to where it was in the 80's because mid-range don't take any time to set up (and back then, substantially all non-at-the-rim shots were mid-range shots). not that many people, almost nobody realize that this is the reason for the higher pace in the 80's. with the rise of the 3-pt shot, came the decline in pace. there is also less of a defensive counter-strategy to a good mid-range player that has it going. skill will actually matter again at the 2-5 positions and pace will be where it was in the 80's. stalemates wouldn't occur because the individual post and mid-range skill of a player would unique to each team. the game would be superior actually because it would include the 3-pt shooting as well - so basically imagine the 80's pace WITH long-range bombs. this is where the game will be in 10 years. maybe 20.

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  3. In Table 1 you have mixed up the PPG for Barkley and Dantley. It was Dantley who averaged 30.6ppg. Barkley never averaged 30ppg.

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    1. Whoops sorry about that. It's fixed now. There's always the possibility of a human error when copying/pasting for a table. It's why I love making software make charts/stats for me.

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  4. Dantley is one of only 2 players to have averaged 30+ ppg through a season with less than 20 field goal attempts per game. The other is Karl Malone who did it in 89/90. Remarkably, Dantley went four full seasons, from 1980 to 1984, averaging 30.5ppg with only 19.3 field goal attempts per game during that stretch.

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  5. for 1988, shouldn't the difference be -1.8?

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