Sunday, May 18, 2014

Eastern Conference Finals: Hibbert and Bynum's Freaky Friday

A couple months ago when Indiana was flounder and the basketball world was awaiting the playoffs, we all worried the eastern conference would be a pointless slog. However, Indiana righted the ship, and they defeated a good Washington team with relative ease. Hibbert, in particular, has made a great comeback. It was seemingly an overnight transformation from a staggering zombie to the old defensive whiz we had known from earlier in the season -- he even rediscovered his offensive game.

But what caused his slump? What's odd is that he's done this before. After the large contract extension last season, he struggled with his shooting touch. Before the all-star game he averaged only 10.0 points per game on a ghastly 41.4 FG%, and after his scoring increased to 15.7 points on a 50.8 FG%. All his other stats had remained stable, and there were reports a nagging wrist injury destroyed his offensive game for the first half of the season. So by the all-star break last season, he was being called a massive disappointment on his large contract, and jump ahead a year to this season's all-star break he was a centerpiece defensive player who looked like a lock for Defensive Player of the Year. But after the all-star break, not only did his scoring and shooting percentages drop, everything did.  What happened?

Hibbert's all-star game splits are pretty astounding, but there's another factor here: the Bynum trade. Although Bynum barely played, his time on the team had a suspicious negative effect. Indiana played worse for multiple reasons -- it's rarely just one cause, even though everyone likes to posit their own theory -- and one of them was Evan Turner's quiet disaster on the court, but you can't blame Turner for Hibbert. What's strange is that Hibbert improved immediately after Bynum was released from the team in the playoffs.

The results are striking. His scoring decreased, and it was from both angles: his shooting efficiency plummeted to pathetic levels and he shot less often. Unfortunately, even though he assisted less often, his turnovers slightly increased. His rebounding fell off too, and it was in both areas. He even blocked less shots.

PTS/75 poss
TOV/75 poss
Blk/75 poss
GmSc/75 poss

Game score is a basic summation of box score stats invented by Hollinger as a single-game PER statistic. It was nearly chopped in half, which is, frankly, astounding. The graph below shows a 5-game rolling average; it shows how well he does in five game chunks (weighted by recency, so the most recent game is more important.) It's not perfect, but Hibbert's slide is apparent, and he hit a low point, obviously, versus Atlanta, and then had a meteoric rise to close the series and then help defeat Washington. It appears Hibbert progressively got worse as the season went on before hitting rock bottom in the playoffs, but it's a curious coincidence Hibbert improved considerably once Bynum was released.

.There are likelier causes to Hibbert's swoon. For instance, he put on extra muscle weight in the off-season, and it may have been too much for his 7' 2" frame to get through the season. When his game sank and his foot speed diminished, he also lost his confidence -- that's a possibility. Or, of course, when Bynum was signed he switched bodies with Roy Hibbert a la Freaky Friday, and Bynum's lack of effort led to Hibbert's awful second half of the season, while Hibbert was sidelined in Bynum's body. Just tell everyone the numbers support this theory.

Series notes:
-Miami is the magic elixir for Indiana's offense. Last season their offensive rating was 104.3, and against Miami in the playoffs they scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions. Since Miami is an above average defense, that's a fairly significant increase.
-LeBron's been playing historically good offensively in the playoffs, but he shouldn't be ignored because of the lowly eastern conference; they have been playing good defenses. (The Nets have had a good defense since January.)
-Hibbert, as highlighted above, was terrible during the second half of the season, but he did destroy Greg Oden in a late season game, and Oden has barely played since then. That's quite remarkable, and a sad twist in a strange tale of two centers.
-Last playoffs Wade couldn't crack a 50 TS%, and now he's hanging around 55 TS%. It's a bit astounding LeBron won a title with Wade being unable to shoot well for most of the playoffs; he gets little credit for that.
-Paul George, meanwhile, is averaging 22/9 with a 57 TS% and great defense. The fickle NBA audience has turned on him already, but he's lived up to the hype.
-At the beginning of the season I criticized Miami heavily for going after Beasley because I felt that even Beasley at his best is the wrong fit. He had a good start to the season, but then faded and lost a spot in the rotation due to poor defense. And when replaced by virtually everyone else on the team, the team is better. Sorry for being right, Miami.
-Homecourt advantage is tossed around a lot when discussing series outcomes, but I've seen very little detailing the important of homecourt advantage in the playoffs. People probably assume the same kind of strength as in the regular season but without any stats backing up that claim; however, I do think most people actually think homecourt advantage is greater in the playoffs. The complicating factors are that better teams play more often on homecourt and there's no back-to-back games in the playoffs -- since more away teams play on the end of a back-to-back, this reduces the strength of HCA. But looking at the past three playoffs (2011 to 2013), and adding a "virtual" game to any series with an odd number of games so that teams have the same number of home and away games, homecourt advantage is +3.84. That's much greater than the typical value assumed (3.2) -- and without back-to-back games, it drops to a mere 2.8. Given how strong the crowds are in the playoffs, this shouldn't be a surprise.
-Full season results are more predictive than post all-star break results for teams -- which does not bode well for Miami. If Indiana is back, they should not be lightly handled.
-Miami beat Brooklyn by an average of 5.4 points per game. Since Brooklyn was a +1.4 point differential team after January first (when their rotation settled after dealing with injuries) in a weak conference, this suggests Miami is a +6 strength team. Miami also beat Charlotte by 10 a game, and since Charlotte was a -1 SRS team that suggests a strength of +9. By reasonable estimates in the playoffs, Miami has been a (roughly) +7.5 team. The assertion that they were coasting in the regular season and would shift a gear in the playoffs is at the very least plausible. Having Wade for every game, of course, is a tremendous help. The only problem now is a recovered Indiana team that matches up well.
-Indiana took game 1, but the game was an offspring of the past few games we've seen from them. Hibbert and West bully their way inside, while Miami makes runs when Indiana goes to their bench. This should be another close series. 

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