Blogcat’s Take, 5/17: Most Improved Bobcat
Okay, friends, colleagues, people to whom I owe money, etc...this is my last write-up of the magical 2013-14 season. For the next few weeks I’m retreating back to my fortress of solitude, where I’ll converse with a hologram of my dead alien father. Unless or until the Bobcats do something stupid or ridiculous, I’ll save my thoughts for whomever they pick at the draft...and even then I will only get so agitated, because by then we’ll all be Hornets! For now, though, just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, I’m nominating a highly unexpected candidate for Most Improved Bobcat.
I’ll start by saying that this one caught me by surprise. Considering Al Jefferson’s All-NBA season, considering Kemba Walker’s emergence as an upper-echelon point guard, and just considering Josh McRoberts, period, I thought surely one of them would be my blossoming butterfly. But when I checked the numbers, well, I wouldn’t say I was floored exactly, but I was certainly carpeted or at least rugged. Player Efficiency Rating is definitely not the end-all, be-all, but for my money it’s the end-most and be-most, at least when it comes to assessing improvement. This is because it measures production on a per-minute basis, so we’re not conflating improvement with more playing time. And although it’s skewed much more toward offensive numbers, I feel like offense is generally harder to be good at than defense, so offensive improvement should be considered more significant than defensive improvement. With that in mind, using Basketball-Reference.com’s stats, look at the 2013 PER comparisons with 2014 for our core mainstays:
|Player||2013 PER||2014 PER||% Improvement|
Player X, as you may have guessed...is Democratic Republic of Congo's own...Bismack Biyombo! I know, I know. His selection as most improved player comes loaded, comes SAGGING, with caveats. In fact, you should read these next two paragraphs in the voice of the guy going through the disclaimer legalese for a contest in a radio commercial. Let’s start with the most obvious: Biyombo actually played less than half the time in 2014 as he played in 2013. In fact, the deeper I look into his playing time stats the more I feel like Dave going through the wormhole at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here are two of my favorites: Biz appeared in 13 more games than Anthony Tolliver but actually played 276 fewer minutes. Perhaps more anti-impressive was that he played 28 more games than Chris Douglas-Roberts but only 56 more minutes. So less of Biyombo was definitely more this year, which is not generally an argument for someone’s improvement.
Meanwhile, during that dwindling amount of time he was on the court, Bismack continued to play offense like a gigantic African contemplating the value of throwing a spheroid into a shiny metallic object for the first time—an object, by the way, whose netting would be much better served protecting a hut from giant, malaria carrying insects. I spent nearly every second of Biyombo’s playing time basically waiting for Big Al Jefferson to come back in and replace him. My mentality of those first 5 minutes of the fourth quarter during which Biyombo spelled Jefferson was not dissimilar to that of a Yankee fan knowing that Mariano is warming up in the bullpen: if we can just keep the lead, we can turn it over to our closer. And say what you will (and have, and will again repeatedly in the future, probably while breaking something in anger) about him, Biyombo could usually hold that lead. Biyombo had the third-highest net-defensive numbers among the regulars, trailing only MKG and Walker. On an individual level, Biyombo improved his opponent PER from 17.7 last year to 16.0 this year, according to 82games.com. And yes, watching Biyombo enter the offensive half-court set was like watching Donald Sterling entering Chris Rock’s family reunion: everything was certain to grind to a halt. But in Biz’s defense, his most common 5-man unit—by nearly triple that of the next most common—was Walker, Henderson, MKG, and McRoberts. It’s not like he was surrounded with scorers.
Let’s look at what he also did well: defensive rebounding. Biyombo captured 27% of all defensive rebounding opportunities, per NBA.com. Among guys who played at least 70 games this year, that was 8th best in the league. And in terms of improvement, it’s up from 20.4% last year. His block percentage also jumped from last year, from 5.3% to 6.3%. But the real improvement was in the shooting: Biz’s TS% orgasmed from .472 in 2013 to .611 this year. Folks, pause a moment to consider those numbers, because not even Scott Bakula makes that kind of leap. In terms of pure stats, he literally went from one of the worst shooters in the league to one of the best. For once I’m not even exaggerating, I literally do mean literally: among players who appeared in 70 games in 2013, Biyombo had the 9th worst TS% in the league. This year, it was the 10thbest (and to show you how far through the looking glass we’ve gone, Biyombo was right behind #9 Steph Curry. #8, by the way, was a hookah-smoking caterpillar.). This was due to very simple reasons: he kept his shots close, he finished them better, and he drew more fouls. In 2013, 63.5% of Biz’s shot attempts were from inside the restricted area; this year, 71.5% were. Meanwhile, his FG% in the restricted area was 55.5% last year and 69.9% this year, while his free throw rate went from .410 to .618. Biyombo knew his limitations and improved where he could. Besides a low-post game, a mid-range game, fewer personal fouls, and fewer turnovers, what more could you want?
I understand that Bismack Biyombo’s comically low usage rate of 9.6% was that of a single perforated square of toilet paper. And I understand why it makes the case for his improvement extremely problematic. A) It’s clearly creating bizarro small sample stats, it probably says more about the cascading benefits of having Jefferson do ALL of the heavy lifting at the 5-spot, and C) it also probably reflects more upon the great coaching of Steve Clifford than on anything Biz himself has done. But his usage rate in 2013 was only 10.2%, so it’s not like he was ball-hogging it before. And as I laid out, Biz did improve his shooting, his rebounding, and his defense. And in his highly-structured, highly-concentrated format, this crack-cocaine version of Bismack was...not the worst thing in the world. So in the absence of any other obvious candidates, I’m giving my completely non-existent award to Biz. I now fully expect to wake up as a decrepit old man staring into the monolith, and seeing a gigantic Bismack Biyombo fetus orbiting the planet. See you at the draft!
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