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¿Cuál sería Pop hacer?

Denver Stiffs' resident statisticians look at the success the San Antonio Spurs have had drafting late in drafts and what the Nuggets could learn from them entering Thursday's draft.

George Hill, Tiago Splitter, Ian Mahinmi, Beno Udrih, Leandro Barbosa, John Salmons - what do all of these players have in common?  The first is that they're all playing in the NBA and are either starters or solid rotational players.  The second is that they were all drafted after the 22nd pick, the pick that the Nuggets have this year.  The last is they were all drafted by the San Antonio Spurs.  I'm going to take this a step further in a biased way (ignoring San Antonio's few misses in later rounds) and throw in Manu Ginobili (picked 57th), Luis Scola (picked 55th), Goran Dragic (picked 45th), and DeJuan Blair (picked 37th).  Contrast this to the Denver Nuggets who have a tough time hitting on top 10 picks, let alone late first round picks.  Since 1999, the Spurs have hit on EVERY single late 1st round draft pick.  The Nuggets are about 50% on similar picks. 

What are the Spurs doing that everyone else in the league isn't doing? 

Let's start with some basic draft theory.  In all sports, the draft is where dynasties and successful franchises are built.  There are several reasons why teams that draft well tend to do better in the win-loss column:  

1.  Pure economics of player salary vs production.  A rookie like Blake Griffin who can play at a superstar level is a hugely valuable asset because you're getting superstar or almost superstar production at a fraction of the cost.  Would you rather have James Harden at 4.3 million or Joe Johnson at 20 million?  A true superstar like LeBron, Wade or Dirk also makes sense economically because they're worth more than a max contract based on both production per dollar compared to the average NBA player and added value to a franchise (if there were no max salaries and teams could openly bid on LeBron, he may have received double the salary).   So we've established that rookies have the most value in terms of production per dollar while superstars also have value.  The players who have the worst value are above average players, some of which are thought to be superstars, coming off rookie contracts.  The problem is compounded when you max these guys out.  Think Kenyon Martin or any of the Knicks teams under Isaiah Thomas's management.  Veterans also have poor value, relatively, however the right veterans who are thought to be washed up can be used to fill roster holes on good teams(Antonio McDyess or Peja Stojakovich) given reduced offensive usage.   Also, keep in mind that players tend to get better at defense with age.  In an ideal world, you'd build your team with only superstars, good rookies, and veterans to fill in holes while completely ignoring players in their 2nd and 3rd contracts who aren't superstars.

2.  Very efficient players who do a variety of things well on the basketball court, affectionately referred to as superstars, for small market teams, are most easily obtained through the draft.  Additionally, they are very easily identifiable by most scouts/teams and thus need to be drafted at the top of the first round.

3.  Good drafting generally reflects well on the front office and their team building philosophy - they're outclassing their peers in one of the most critical aspects of team building, player evaluation.

Draft strategy changes depending on where a team is drafting.  For example, if you have a top 5 pick, your job is to identify and pick a superstar as roughly 2-3 superstars come out per year.  If your pick lies in the 10-20 range, your job is to find a solid starter / contributor or 2nd tier star.  If your pick is in the 20-60 range, your job is to find a contributor, specialist or, worst case, someone that's able to make your roster.  At the top of the first round, you have any good player with size and well-rounded players like Chris Paul who can do everything well.  Teams have very little comparative advantage when picking in the top 5 picks - and that's evidenced by the fact that "experts" almost always have the same top 3 or 4 picks and the top 2 picks are almost always universally agreed upon.  At the end of the first round, you have your Rajon Rondos of the world who are very good basketball players, but may have a fatal flaw like horrible shooting or good basketball players with character flaws like J.R. Smith.  

The crux of drafting well consists of 4 things.  The first is the ability to identify traits that contribute to winning that are not well-understood by other teams, or simply put, identifying value.  For example, scoring is overrated and dumb teams tend to overpay for scoring while failing to identify good defenders (defense is half the game!).  A smarter team will identify a good offensive player who is above average or very good with lower usage, but a great defender.  The second is a clear team identity and commitment to an offensive and defensive scheme.   For example, if you're a running team like the 7 seconds or less Suns, you want athletic bigs who can run the floor.  If you're Portland, you've built your team around offensive rebounding and shooting is not as important as defense and length.  Scheme is of utmost importance because you can draft specific players for specific roles that other teams may not consider.  Take Bruce Bowen - he was terrible on offense except for from the corner 3.  San Antonio never asked him to score and only asked him to defend at an elite level and shoot the corner 3.  Their scheme dictated that his weaknesses (his terrible offense from everywhere else on the court) didn't really matter.  It doesn't matter that J.J. Barea can't guard bigger point guards or rebound because Dallas goes to a zone and they have plenty of defensive rebounding.  The third is the ability to think with a long term perspective.  This is important because a team has to project a player into a scheme specific role, and identify which skills fit what they want that player to do and which skills they'll need to work on.   Lastly, a team must do its due diligence and look into injuries, psychological state, work ethic, etc.  This item should be pretty self explanatory.  A team cannot draft well in the later rounds without all four of the things I described above.

How do the Spurs identify value?  They realize that all teams can scout domestically, so they've chosen to focus their scouting attention on a wider player pool and scout internationally.  Notice the disproportionate amount of foreign players that they've drafted.  They're consistently identifying value that other teams aren't because they've built an international scouting organization and have a certain profile that they're looking for.  Poor organizations only scout in the US, so they miss out of the Dikembe Mutombos who don't make it over to college basketball programs.  If you're drafting Dikembe only after he has gone through the NCAAs, you end up having to draft him at the top of the first round.  If you can identify him when other teams can't, you can pick him up at the end of the 1st round.  Big men come at a premium and a good big man almost always goes in the top 2 picks, unless he's an international or high school player with risk (Marc Gasol, Scola, Bynum).   San Antonio identifies international players (Splitter and Mahinmi)  to develop and takes risks on domestic players (Blair's ACL).  They identify characteristics to draft for: efficient shooting, particularly from 3 point land, defense, and the ability to create turnovers - and they're very adept at spotting these traits.

What do the Spurs value from a team building perspective?  The Spurs are one of the most cerebral teams in the league and highly value intelligence and execution.  Athletically, they value quickness in their guards (because it stresses rotations), the 3 point shot (floor spacing) and defense.  They could care less if their players are good at getting their own shot because they can scheme open shots and don't necessarily need the shot creation.

Do the Spurs draft with a long term perspective in mind?  The Spurs generally draft with a 2-3 year development cycle where they ease players into the system, develop their skillsets, and teach them how to play Spurs basketball.  They drafted Splitter in 2007 and waited patiently until this year for him to join their roster and are grooming him as Duncan's replacement.  They drafted Ginobli in 1999 and he didn't play for them until the 2002-2003 season.  They're as long term as it gets.

Do the Spurs do their due diligence?  Their track record speaks for itself .  Oh, did I mention they took a chance on DeJuan Blair when every other team was scared of the fact that he has no ACLs?  

Before delving into the quantitative side of things, there has been a lot of work done on variables that correlate to success in the NBA, and one of the biggest predictors of NBA success is the ability to generate steals because steals correlate with athleticism and players need a certain level of athleticism to excel in the NBA (look at Ty Lawson in college - when he got drafted I knew he'd be a star because he was super efficient, continuously improving, and got a lot of steals).  Also, rebounding tends to stay pretty consistent and translate across different levels of competition.  I've prepared the following chart that looks at the various characteristics that the Spurs draft for.  As I mentioned above, the Spurs value efficiency on offense as determined by eFG%, TS%, and Points/Possession.  An elite eFG% is > 52%, an elite TS% is > 58%, and an elite Points/Possession is > 1.  If a player can't outperform those numbers internationally, they won't be able to do it at an NBA level.  A good DR% is > 25% for centers and ~20% for hybrid bigs like Nene.  

 


Stls/40

TS%

eFG%

Pts/Pos

Dreb%

Defensive Notes

Mahinmi

1.9

56%

51%

1.2

8%

Just enough athleticism, alters shots, poor fundamentals, needs to add strength.

Splitter

1.7

64%

58%

1.21

20%

Good stamina, active defender, solid defender, hustles

Udrih

1.5

62%

59%

1.08

 

Slow footspeed, gets beaten by faster defenders, good help side defender

Parker

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

 

 

Ginobili

3.6

57%

51%

1.17

 

Plays good defense, extremely intelligent defender, plays good on ball defense

Barbosa

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

 

 

Scola

1.3

63%

60%

1.19

22.90%

Solid man to man defender

Dragic

2.4

70%

69%

1.22

 

Played spectacular defense on whoever he was guarding, solid lateral quickness, athleticism, effort

 

There are several things that are pretty obvious from the chart.  San Antonio, for the most part, only drafts players with numbers that are off the charts in terms of offensive efficiency.  Against more athletic competition, those numbers would be expected to drop, but still remain high.  The second thing to notice is that all players maintain a Points / Possession way above 1.  The third thing to notice is the rate at which their players get steals.  The average NBA player averages around .7 steals per game.  Steals are important because they create extra possessions and, as mentioned above, players who get a lot of steals tend to have skillsets that translate well in the NBA.  Every Spurs player has an abnormally high steal rate for their position.  Finally, and most importantly, you'll note that the Spurs don't draft any players who are questionable defensively.  They have to at least defend at a baseline level.  If you read a lot of international scouting reports, you'll see a lot of comments such as "weak defender", "lacks lateral quickness", "can't defend the pick and roll".  The Spurs stay away from these guys.  One other thing to mention is that If you look at these guy's profiles on draft express there is significant sample size and body of work to evaluate from.  The Spurs don't take chances on "raw talent".

You're probably thinking to yourself, that's great, but how does this help the Nuggets out at #22.  Well, I'm advocating that the Nuggets look internationally with their pick because it's something few teams in the NBA are doing effectively, and a huge sustainable advantage.  In fact, given Masai Ujiri's background running the Raptors' Global Scouting, his background in starting international basketball camps, and his drafting of Carlos Delfino, Jose Calderon, and Andrea Bargnani all evidence indicates that he gets it and should play to his strengths.  There's no denying that the guy has an eye for spotting offensive talent in international basketball players.  However, if you compare the players the Raptors have drafted to the players the Spurs have drafted, you'll notice one crucial difference - the Raptors' players can't defend while the Spurs' players can.  Again, the Spurs excel in identifying basketball skills that are undervalued, quantifying them, and then drafting those players.  Most teams can't quantify the impact of good defenders on their own rosters (Memphis and Tony Allen), let alone on an international basketball stage.    If you can't play defense in the NBA, you can't stay on the court as your team defense will eventually be exposed like we saw in the finals with Peja and Bibby.  Masai's biggest problem when scouting for the Raptors was the fact that he either ignored defense or didn't have the mechanisms to properly evaluate defense.

Which international players should we look at?  I've prepared a similar chart below, containing the same stats that I hypothesized the Spurs look at.  Keep in mind the sample sizes are a little bit small in some cases, but it should be really obvious which players will make it in the NBA and which will not.  The strategy for evaluating players is 3 fold: 1. the players must be elite in terms of efficiency and points per possession.  2.  the players can't have large defensive question marks.  If they do, they should be correctable such as playing out of position.  Lack of desire should not be an issue.   3. they must get steals at a proficient level.   To me, there are 3 players that jump out - Jan Vesely, Leon Radosevic, and Milan Macvan.  Vesely is projected as a top 15 player and will most likely not be available when we pick, but he is super efficient and competes hard on defense - he creates a large number of steals but his rebounding leaves a lot to be desired.  The second best player on the board, in my opinion, is Radosevic.  He fits what the Spurs and myself would look for to a T.  High number of steals per 40 minutes, efficient shooting, high points per possession, rebounds well, and gives good effort on defense.  Macvan is probably worth taking a chance on - he scores very efficiently, defensive rebounds at an elite rate and compares very favorably to Luis Scola while playing hard on defense.

 


Stls/40

TS%

eFG%

Pts/Pos

Dreb%

Defensive Notes

Biyombo

0.8

56%

56%

0.98

13.40%

High impact defender, super athletic

Valanciunas

0.6

70%

74%

1.26

16.80%

Struggles with 1 on 1 defense, lacks strength, does a good job of challenging shots

Mirotic

1.2

63%

59%

1.23

8.80%

Had trouble defending the pick and roll, lacks effort on the defensive end

Vesely

1.9

65%

63%

1.2

10.60%

Intense competitor, has enough athleticism and length, lacks lateral quickness and ability to defend 1 on 1

Kanter

1.3

48%

43%

0.89

5.50%

Ineffective defender, instincts and positioning leave a lot to be desired, poor effort

Motiejunas

1.2

60%

56%

1.14

14.70%

Athletic enough to play defense, lacks desire, liability trying to defend on the perimeter

Nogueira 

No 

Sample

Size

Stay 

Away

 

Bertans

No 

Sample

Size

Stay 

Away

 

Bogdanovic

1.9

57%

52%

1.1

15.80%

Below average defender, struggles to defend average European players, poor lateral quickness

Radosevic

2.1

59%

56%

1.14

15.10%

Good fundamentals, good effort, struggles vs post ups plays, lacks girth

Macvan

1.2

65%

60%

1.26

22.80%

Plays tough low post defense, shows no reserves about getting physical, smart player, lacks lateral quickness

 

So there you have it - if I'm running the draft I'm not doing as George Karl says and trying to trade up.  I'm shooting for Radosevic in the first round and Macvan in the 2nd round.  I'm not advocating drafting these 2 guys with a myopic focus, that would be the opposite of what I described above with regards to doing your due diligence.  Every player should be evaluated, but the chances are much, much higher of getting a solid player if we look internationally.

Note:  Since I wrote this Radosevic and Nogueira have undeclared, so unfortunately the Nuggets can't draft Radosevic.  It doesn't change the general framework around player evaluation and we should still consider Macvan with one of our picks.

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