Blogcat's Take, 3/12
It was simply amazing that of all the cream-puffs the Hornets have scarfed down on this home stand, the game against the Pistons was the one that caused the least amount of indigestion. This was probably due to sequences like the one below, in which the Hornets rotated like laser-guided dreidels on defense, forced a turnover, and launched a fast-break as if it were a tech stock IPO:
I thoroughly delighted in it for all of the obvious reasons: it was against a conference rival who is also vying for a playoff spot, it got us the tiebreaker against said rival, it continued the unbeaten-in-March streak, it further validated our place in the standings amidst all of the cupcakes we’ve been stuffing our faces with, we’ve now demonstrated twice that we can neutralize Andre Drummond by getting him in foul trouble early, we got a blended contribution on offense via 7 guys in double-figures, we had 42 points in the paint AND went 10-25 from 3-pt range, and Kemba Walker outplayed his All-Star Snub rival, Reggie Jackson.
Speaking of which (or should I say “whom”?), my original topic for this article was going to be a case for Kemba as the 3rd Team All-NBA point guard. Our little human special effect has been so on fire lately that I was beginning to wonder if he could “pull an Al Jefferson” by not making the All-Star Game but then making All-NBA, as Big Al did two seasons ago. But alas, even Johnnie Cochran couldn’t make that case—not yet, at least. We all know who has the First Team position sewn up, and Chris Paul is not on track to be the Second Team shoo-in, he’s a top-3 MVP candidate. After those two, you’re still left with Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, and John Wall comfortably ahead of Kemba in the point guard pecking order.
I still wish Kemba could get some hardware this season of some sort, and maybe it will be the Most Improved Player award, as Rick Bonnell wrote about a few weeks ago in the Charlotte Observer. The problem with THAT line of thinking is that there might actually be just as deserving a candidate for MIP right on Kemba’s own team: Marvin Williams. I’ll just stipulate right upfront that I don’t think Williams will actually win this award—this is the man I’ve dubbed “Mr. Invisible,” after all, and you can’t vote for what you can’t see. Moreover, going back 20 years, when the Milwaukee Bucks’ immortal Gheorghe Mureșan won the MIP award—a player you care so little about that you didn’t realize he was actually playing with the Washington Bullets—the average season in which a player has won this honor was his fourth. No player has ever won it past his 8th season (that would be Hedo Turkoglu, for those of you playing at home), and this is Marv’s 11th. Depending on how you look at it, it’s also not even going to be his best statistical season: Williams is currently averaging 11.1 PPG and he has done better than that three times in his career.
But here’s how you should look at it. Marv’s PER (according to Basketball-Reference.com) is currently at 16.3, which is an all-time high for him. Additionally, his PER last season was 11.8. In terms of year-over-year improvement, it’s jumped up 38% (which beats Kemba’s 22% increase from 17.6 to 21.5). Williams’ average PER over his previous 10 seasons was 13.4, so not only does his y-o-y improvement beat Walker’s, but the improvement over the entire arc of his career ties Walker’s y-o-y at 22%. Like Walker, Marvin has seen his traditional counting stats improve despite a relatively modest improvement in playing time:
MPG / PPG / RPG / APG / BPG / SPG
26.1 / 7.4 / 4.9 / 1.3 / 0.5 / 0.9
29.1 / 11.1 / 6.8 / 1.4 / 1.0 / 0.7
34.2 / 17.3 / 3.5 / 5.1 / 0.5 / 1.4
36.0 / 21.3 / 4.4 / 5.3 / 0.5 / 1.7
Marv has also matched Kemba with the neat little trick of improving his true-shooting percentage despite also increasing his usage rate: Williams shot a .541 TS% last year on a usage rate of 13.3% (side-note: 13.3%! We’re talking H.G. Wells-levels of invisibility here). This year he’s up to a .582 TS% on a 15.9% usage rate (slightly more visible, granted, but still, if only our federal government operated as transparently as Marvin). And this really gets to the core of Marvin’s improvement, his 3-pt shooting, which is at an all-time high of .398 and up significantly from last year’s .358. A weird little factoid tucked into Marvin’s 3-pt resurgence is that treys have actually constituted less of a percentage of Williams’ arsenal than they did last year; they make up 52% of his shots this year compared to 54% last year. This actually leads to the secret sauce behind Marvin’s improvement: his cut-back on long-2’s, which were 19% of his shots last year and just 10% of his shots last year. He’s gotten closer to the rim on his attempts this year, which has boosted his free throw rates and given himself more space when he does decide to shoot from distance. It’s a classic virtuous circle—the kind that would make my old systems engineering professor want to get out of bed in the morning and diagram. Having said all of that, though, Walker’s 3-pt improvement has been even more pronounced than Marvin’s: 30.4% to 37.9%.
Where Marvin really drops out in this completely theoretical, totally-never-going-to-exist Most Improved Player competition with Kemba Walker is on the defensive side of the ball. Defense is always harder to measure, but according to ESPN’s adjusted Real Plus-Minus metrics, Marv’s +1.03 has held the exact same ground as least year’s 1.03. Additionally, Williams’ defensive box plus/minus (per Basketball-Reference.com) has actually slipped slightly, dropping from 1.8 to 1.3. And on a per 100 possessions basis, the Hornets have given up fewer points without Williams on the court (99.2) than with him (103.3) this season. All this is in contrast to Kemba, whose improvement defensively is arguably more impressive than it is offensively. Walker jumped from a negative -2.00 defensive RPM last year to a +0.65 this year; to put that into context, he went from ranking 59th among PGs to 14th. His DBPM has held serve at 0.1, and although the team is also slightly more efficient without Kemba, it’s not as drastic as Marvin: 100.9 pp100p allowed without Kemba and 101.9 with Kemba. All that said, if you’d told me last year that I’d one day be uploading a Marvin Williams defensive highlight, I would have had an easier time imagining uploading a porno clip starring my sister. And yet, check out Marvin’s Jacob The Jeweler-worthy gem of a block-into-turnover against Minnesota earlier this week:
At the end of the season, it probably won’t be either of these two who wins the actual trophy. Kemba should definitely be on the shortlist, though: he’s in his fifth season, which aligns with the historical trend, and he’s improved in the true sense of the word—on a per-minute basis, rather than simply compiling more minutes. I still believe that what Marvin’s doing in his 11th season is at least as impressive as what Kemba’s doing in his 5th, but given the “U-shaped” arc of Williams’ career, maybe he’s a better fit for Comeback Player of the Year. The problem with that argument, though, is that a) the Comeback Player of the Year Award no longer exists in the NBA, and “invisibility” isn’t a diagnosable illness or injury from which one comes back. I should also note that I’m not sure I even want either of these guys to win the MIP award. Have you seen the list of winners? Gilbert Arenas, Turkoglu, Danny Granger, Bobby Simmons, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady…it’s a who’s-who of career implosions.
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