Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Paul Plays D

It was a wild night in the NBA tonight (the Magic getting ripped off by the NBA, the Spurs getting ripped by the Hornets), but one thing stood out to me and it needs to be addressed:

Chris Paul can play some defense.

Late in the season - probably in response to the raging MVP debate - a flurry of stats came out that attempted to prove that Paul was an inferior defensive player. Something about adjusted plus/minus numbers that proved New Orleans was a defensively superior team when Paul was off the floor. It all struck me as overly complicated and ignorant of some critical factors such as: pace, who the backups are guarding, and garbage time minutes. Plus, I just felt like I'd rather trust my eyes on this one, since Paul always seemed to be a disruptive factor on both ends of the court.

[Update: It appears that I'm quite the rube when it comes to understanding Adjusted Plus/Minus. See the comments below, to which I have no real counter. So I definitely back off my harsh critique of the stats, but remain certain that his work on defense was the key to last night's game.]

Tonight, I felt validated, because Chris Paul was a monster.

Sure, he dominated offensively, but what else is new. He had 30 and 12 with just one turnover, continuing his reign of terror over opposing defenses. He embarrassed defenders with ridiculous slashing drives, hit tough floaters, and set up Chandler for dunks and Peja for threes. In other words, he had a typical Chris Paul game.

It was on defense where I really took notice of his ability to control the game. He kept Tony Parker completely under wraps with great footwork and an innate ability to go under or over screens when the situation calls for it. The NBA is such a pick-and-roll league than when a perimeter guy can deftly slide around screeners, it makes everything easier for the defense. So that's one skill that he's got in spades, adjusted plus/minus be damned.

Another area where Paul is terrific is as a double-teamer. He's so quick and has such instincts that he can get down to double from virtually anywhere on the floor, no matter how many passes away he is from the target. He's not as good at closing out (mainly because he likes to lurk around for steals), but when the game plan is to funnel the ball back out, that's not a huge problem. He did a great job harassing Duncan in the lowpost tonight and has quietly been the key to New Orleans' success doubling everything.

Paul's also a vacuum on long rebounds and with his speed and ball-handling, he can turn a bricked three into two points in mere seconds. In fact, his hands are so strong and he moves from the glass to full speed so quickly that long rebounds are pretty much turnovers for the Spurs. Parker actually does this as well, but he's an inferior rebounder to Paul, so it doesn't happen as often.

Finally, there are the steals. Everyone knows Paul is the best in the game at picking pockets and playing passing lanes, but the thing that makes his thievery special is his timing. Nearly every steal is a back-breaker for the opponent. He doesn't just tip balls to a teammate and then trot the ball up the floor, but instead he slips around a dribbler, knocks the ball loose, and takes off for a transition basket. Or he scores and quickly pivots to steal and score for a four-point swing. Or he'll break up an opponent's fast break by recovering from a Hornets' turnover and jumping the outlet pass. It's just sick how good he is in the lanes.

All told, he's actually dominating the game from the defensive end of the floor. Not only is New Orleans far better off with him on the court (as always, blindly trust stats are your own peril), you would be hard pressed to find a perimeter defender having as big of an impact on the NBA playoffs.

So let's put all the "weak defense" nonsense to rest, because this guy can play some D.


j.d. hastings said...

Does adjusted +/- account not count for pace? I wonder how it would be affected by addressing it per possession. Would that make sense? The fact is those + or - figures are a result of a player being on the floor for however many possessions. If Kwame Brown is able to limit the number of possessions each team has and only costs his team 5 points instead of 10, then he deserves some credit for that.

As to the "who is his backup guarding" I think that's a non-issue. While it may explain his numbers relative to Janero Pargo, it can't be used to explain his numbers relative to other starting point guards in the NBA whose backups would have the same supposed advantage. CP3 guards the same people as Derron Williams, so to compare their numbers is completely valid. If Williams still has better numbers than his backup then its fair to expect the same from CP3. In fact, I'd say Paul has one undeniable advantage on the "who he has to guard" front: He never has to guard himself.

I'm absolutely not trying to denigrate Paul. I suspect that what you say about this defensive intensity is true. If he has issues there it wouldn't be from effort. And he is a joy to watch offensively or when running with a steal or rebound.

But I think it makes sense that he would have some defensive issues as a result of his size. The same has always been true of AI, who also has tried to make up for it with increasing his steals. I would never think of questioning AI's MVP season because he couldn't guard everyone though, just as I'm not going to question Paul's bona fides as an MVP candidate.

Any attempt to denigrate Paul is myopic and small minded to me, but we need to keep everything in perspective. Sometimes stats can be misleading, but that's often because people are using them to say things they don't say. So I disagree with your specific criticisms of the adjusted +/- stats here, but if Adjusted +/- tried to claim that the Hornets are better off without Paul on the floor, I'd have to say it fails the laugh test.

Anyways, just my $.02.

nick said...

A few things:

First, adjusted plus/minus takes into account pace, backups, opponents, and garbage minutes. That's why it's adjusted and very complicated and far more useful than unadjusted which doesn't account for any of that.

Second, it's not just adjusted plus/minus that doesn't look good for Paul, it's adjusted opp.PG eFG%, where he's also poor.

Third, the conclusion from these statistics is that Chris Paul has been playing below average defense throughout the season. It is not that he can't play good defense.

He can be a good defender. He just, for whatever reason, wasn't during the regular season.

Fourth, these statistics are imperfect, and I think they probably underrate Paul's defense to a certain extent. But to dismiss them outright in favor of your eyes, especially when they throw up red flags like these, is probably not the best idea.

Think about it this way:

Dave Berri has a good thought about stats: they can tell you "how" but they can't tell you "why." The "how" here is that the Hornets' defensive rating goes up when he's out and opposing PGs shoot abnormally well when he's in. This isn't disputable.

But this doesn't cover the "why," which may be and likely is more complicated than just "he's a bad defender." But you shouldn't rule out entirely, especially considering Paul's height, that he perhaps isn't as good as you think.

Adam Hoff said...

I rarely post comments, but these were some terrific responses. You are right that I am probably overrrating him. You are also right that those stats spoke only to regular season (although I observed many of the same things then). All good stuff. But the man is playing some defense - there's no denying that.

I will update the post to reflect my limited understanding of the stats behind all of this.

nick said...

Oh, I agree. Paul looked great last night. I think what you have with him is probably three factors:

1) Over the course of a season, he exerts so much energy on offense, he has to conserve a bit on defense. This is true for most excellent perimeter offensive players. It's a lot to ask.

2) He doubles a lot, which means he leaves his man, which means he gets better shots.

3) To be fair, he's also small and seems to have trouble keeping bigger, stronger PGs, like Baron Davis and Deron Williams, from scoring. Against a guy like Parker though, he's in his element, especially when you add in playoff motivation.

j.d. hastings said...

Also, games come quicker in the regular season, and you have less time to prepare for opponents. That means a player may have less energy and less specific knowledge about how to defend. By rights, everybody's defense should improve in the playoffs with the increased rest and knowledge of opponents.

To say nothing of the fact that both these games have been played in New Orleans. We know CP3 was more human in Dallas than at home last series, so it'll be interesting to follow this up when they're in San Antonio.

Anonymous said...

I think Paul is a very smart and instinctive defender. But making a defensive impact takes more energy than anything. When he wants (and thinks it necessary) to make an impact on D, he excerts the energy and is very effective.

But his energy is better spent on the offensive end, directing the offense.

Perhaps the reason the D improves when he is on the bench is because the Hornets bring in energy guys (Julian Wright, Pargo, etc...)

I love watching this team because they play the right way, and Paul is the leader.

Anonymous said...

I actually did read something to the effect that adjusted +/- underrates Paul because the Hornets second unit players defend like crazy (I think on Hornets 247). My thought is that, if Paul plays the majority of minutes in each game, and the Hornets are a very good defensive team, he is most likely a part of that. It would probably be hard to be a good defensive team if your leader in MPG is a bad defender.

Also, John Hollinger's stats rated him pretty high defensively (enough to warrant all-defensive team honorable mention).

Jeffrey said...

Forget pacing; does adjusted +/- take account of who else is on the floor, both with Paul and on the other side of the ball? It's a ridiculous stat to begin with, using points as a proxy for everything else going on around the ball, but if Paul is on the floor when everyone else's A-team is on the floor, then +/- is also measuring how good the Hornets and their opponents are when he's not on the floor. In that way, it says as much about Paul as it does about our bench/rotation, which is to say: very little.

I think you're right to trust your eyes; Paul is destroying on every level. Aside from terrorizing the third highest-scorer in the 08 playoffs (Parker), I had a perfect view last night of Paul taking on Duncan on a huge one on one mismatch in the paint, and Paul caused him to miss, straight-up. Dude is a beast.

Other stats like the opponents' FG may or may not be a little higher for Paul, but look at both the absolute and relative %s--we're talking about fractions of a %age point. It's not even about 'why' versus 'how'--it's about watching what's going on in front of your eyes. Paul is a rare talent to be reveled in.

j.d. hastings said...


The "Adjusted" in adjusted +/- refers to it taking into account the other players on the floor. How they do this is the complicated bit that's above my head. They do explain it at 82games.com I think. But it definitely does take into account who is on the floor with Paul. In fact, the players adjusted +/- credits most with the Hornets' success are Peja and David West. The question I have to wonder about is- are those players being over-valued because Paul is actually making them better?

I don't know how to answer that question. Yes, assists are important there, but assists can be misleading if a selfish ball player refuses to pass the ball unless he's assured of getting the stat (think Stephon Marbury) then his assists won't actually measure whether he improves his teammates (I tend to believe Paul's assists do measure his positive effect on teammates though). On the other hand a player with fewer assists can command aggressive double teams leading to more open shots for his teammates. It may take 2 or 3 passes to find that teammate, but the effect is to Make his teammates better (Think of any dominant big man for this example. (And I'd say Kobe Bryant is somewhere in between the Chris Paul type and the Dominant bigman type of making teammates better- both getting good assists and removing defenders from other players)).

The reason it is tempting to use "points as a proxy for everything else going on around the ball" is because ultimately point differential is literally what wins or loses games. If Zach Randolph or Stephon Marbury are out on a bad team trying to gather as many rebounds or assists as they can (thus increasing their PER)regardless of the team's performance, adjusted +/- is trying to capture that. If a player is scoring for the sake of scoring, it'd show up the same in the +/- if he is making his team less efficient than the opposition.

So I don't think this statistical measure is "ridiculous," though it's not the only measure to take into account and it's not perfect. What's in front of our eyes will always be important but there are a billion reasons to always distrust subjective evaluation. These stats are very useful to try to remove the edge of bias, but again, they must be used with a full understanding of what they measure and not be taken to say more than they measure. If observation and measurement continually diverge, then it's important to understand where the divergence lies (What in the numbers makes the equation lean on the side of Peja making Paul better instead of vice versa. Have we been slighting Peja(though Paul is still awesome)?) If the divergence is judged to be unreasonable, then maybe they need to be tweaked. But you shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Personally I believe Chris Paul would gnaw off his right foot if he thought it would get him a win, and that he puts true effort in defense. But that doesn't mean he will always be succesful or that he has all the tools he'd need to become Tayshaun Prince...

Anonymous said...

The other guys, he is defending are NBA players as well, and they too get paid to score. For those who think he is NOT a great defender, leads me to believe that you do NOT watch many of the games. Being as I am a hornets fan from back in the early Charlotte days, the days of Rex Chapman, David Wingate, Muggsy Bogues, and J.R. Reid, having watched Paul, completely undress said great pg's in Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, and Deron Williams this year. You have to realize that his impact on D is not always by defending his own man. Hence why he led the league in steals. Now there are times where the team performs when he is not in the game, but how bad does the offense suffer when he is not on the floor?

Humil said...

It's quite easy to sound all sophisticated with these complicated derivative numbers.

Ultimately, what is it that these stats say? One would typically get good results when putting on the floor the highest +/- rated players? Even if you pick from the top 5 such players from each of the 5 positions in the league and mix and matched them, out of all of the combinations there would still be no guarantee.

How about creating a category of "Savvy" and try to peg some numbers together to show who's got it? Why not just drop all of the pretentious mumbo-jumbo about objectivity and statistical whatever the... It seems like that would be the approach of the likes of Greg Popovich, who must have a no-nonsense squint of the eye on every player in addition to the stats. Those who use statistics that much are pretty much just replacing the joys of the sport with some Apollonian need for order and sense.

I worry that one of the consequence of the geeking of watching sports is that people forget to marvel at the physical prowess and the amazing combination of bodily movements... When did writing about the relative dominance and ranking of players replace "did you see that move?"

I admire these who think math is cool, because i see a lot of value in a logical mind and deduction is certainly the pinnacle of human endeavor. But whatever, those who dispute CP3's performance based on those numbers have missed the point. He embodies the intangible in the major-league, prime-time ways. Some article had mentioned the closeness of LeBron and CP3, and I chuckled. Yep, CP3 is essentially the smaller version of LBJ, just as beastly in the Point Guard ways... He gets into other pgs' heads, doubles other big men, keeps the whole floor pretty much every time he touches the ball. He even punked Bruce Bowen better than any other ole dude in the league.

Adjust +/- aside, most comments concerned in this topic uses suspect language such as "I don't doubt/suspect/question his intensity on D, but as for results, since they are not recorded in stat, too bad..." Freakin' watch the game, eagle-eye his movements and what they do cause, then use that informed opinion to tell me that he come up short... but good effort??

Fools... One final suggestion, couldn't there be a surveyed stat called "Least Desired Opponent" voted by all players with significant minutes? Sort of pseudo-scientific like the MVP voting, but only call it the LDO and see who is consistently in the top voting. I mean... whose information is more applicable and full of insight? Those who play 80+ games a year with the most talented group of professional ballers, or some beer-drinking stat geeks who may have played middle-school ball?

But I don't mean to denigrate the brainy hardwork of the the Dave Berri and the like of the world, surely he and the others have put in enormous effort and would not hesitate in sticking a pencil into their hamroids if that makes their stats seem more relevant.

Anonymous said...

zsyI don't know about these+/= numbers,but I know for a fact that Paul's defensive PER numbers have skyrocketted since Pargo starting playing major minutes with him.I can only surmise that this is because he's getting credit for Pargo's defending PG's while he's actually guarding the SG.Pargo is completely incapable of defending larger players.If you watch the Game 2 tape again I think you'd see that Tony Parker scored 7 points while Pargo was guarding him and 4 while Paul was guarding him.This is the exact same pattern Hornets fans have seen since Pargo began to hit shots and get major minutes with the starters.