Problems with Talent Evaluation in Toronto

About two weeks ago Jeff Zillgitt argued in the USA Today that DeMar DeRozan is “stepping up” in his second season in the NBA

More comfortable and confident in his second year, DeRozan wants to stand out.

DeRozan has 14 games of 20 or more points — but 11 since Dec. 1. Those include 37 points against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 31 and 30 against the Miami Heat on Jan.22. He is developing into what the Raptors envisioned for the ninth pick of the 2009 draft — an athletic wing who can score near the rim or on mid-range shots.

“I know and understand the game a lot better than I did my first year. I was learning on the go,” DeRozan said.

Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano challenged DeRozan to make the rookie-sophomore game during All-Star weekend this season. DeRozan didn’t play in the game last season.

“He’s on a little bit of a mission,” Triano said. “I told him ‘Your goal is to make the sophomore game.’ When you look at his numbers, it’s a pretty good argument as to why he should.”

Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said the team has been meticulous in helping DeRozan improve.

“When I say that, it wasn’t only the things he was doing with our coaches on the practice court and coming back to get shots up every night,” Colangelo said. “But it’s also investing in the process of developing a young player.”

DeRozan started 65 games in his rookie season.

“It’s a learning experience you can put a price on,” said Colangelo who has studied similar athletic wing players in the first two years of their careers, guys such as Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, Detroit Pistons swingman Tracy McGrady, Houston Rockets guard Kevin Martin and San Antonio Spurs forward Richard Jefferson.

While not saying DeRozan will be just like any of those players, Colangelo said, “His development is trending in the right direction.”

Let me summarize the argument made by Triano and Colangelo (a summary based on the statements in bold above): After much work by DeRozan and the coaches in Toronto, DeRozan is improving.  We know this because this is the story the numbers tell.

If you review the article, the only numbers mentioned are scoring totals.  When we look at all the box score numbers, though, a different story emerges.   The following table reports DeRozan’s numbers in each of his first two seasons in the league.  The numbers in red are marks that are below the average numbers we see from an NBA shooting guard.

Let’s start with what DeRozan does well.  Relative to an average shooting guard, DeRozan is above average with respect to taking shots from the field and the free throw line, turnovers, and blocked shots.  Because he takes so many shots, he is also above average with respect to scoring.  And since – as the above story illustrates – people focus so much attention on scoring totals, DeRozan appears to be a “good” player; or at least a player trending in that direction.

But when we look at the other numbers, a different picture appears.  In his second season, DeRozan is below average with respect to shooting efficiency (from the field and line), rebounds, steals, assists, and personal fouls.  His assist numbers are especially low, suggesting that once DeRozan gets the ball he thinks first (and second and third) about taking a shot.  And who can blame him?  This strategy has led to praise from both his head coach and general manager. 

When we put all these numbers together, we see that DeRozan has posted the following Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] numbers at shooting guard (it appears DeRozan has also played some small forward, so his overall numbers – reported in the table below — are somewhat lower that what is shown right here):

  • 2009-10: 0.054
  • 2010-11: 0.026

So in both his first and second seasons, DeRozan has been below average as a shooting guard (average WP48 is 0.100).  But to the extent that two data points establish a trend, the trend line is not going up (as Colangelo contends).  No, it appears that DeRozan’s overall productivity is declining.  Certainly he is taking more shots and scoring more points.  But because he is not scoring efficiently, or doing anything else to help his team win games, DeRozan should not be thought of as a player the Raptors can build around.  One suspects, though, that this is exactly what the team is thinking.

The discussion of how the Raptors view DeRozan should remind people of past discussions of the Raptors and Andrea Bargnani.  Like DeRozan, Bargnani was a lottery pick by Colangelo and the Raptors.  And like DeRozan, Bargnani was

  • below average last year and
  • is offering even less this year. 

To see how much less, let’s look at where the Raptors are as a team this season. After 55 games in 2010-11, the Raptors have posted a -6.0 efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  Such a mark is consistent with a team that would win 17 of their first 55 games (the team has won 15 times).  When we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced, we can see where these wins are coming from.

As the above table notes, the team is being led in Wins Produced by Amir Johnson, Jose Calderon, and Ed Davis.  Each of these players is posting a WP48 mark above 0.200 (or twice the mark of an average player).  In general, teams with three players who are twice as good as average tend to be very good.  Unfortunately this team is being held back by the players who lead this team in shot attempts.

If you look at the statistics for the Toronto Raptors, we see the following players leading the team in field goal attempts per game: Andrea Bargnani, DeRozan, Leandro Barbosa, Linas Kleiza, and Sonny Weems.  These five players are the only players to attempt at least ten field goals per game.  And these five players have combined to produce -5.7 wins, with only Barbosa posting a WP48 mark in the positive range (and Barbosa is only barely above zero).

The evaluation of DeRozan suggests the Raptors’ decision-makers focus on scoring.  And when we look at the productivity of all the players who lead the Raptors in shots attempts, it seems that the problem in Toronto – remember this team has only won 15 games – might be with how players are evaluated.  Players seem to know that if they take shots and score, the Raptors decision-makers will be pleased.  Taking the actions that lead to wins (i.e. shooting efficiently, rebounding, taking care of the ball), don’t seem as important.  

Once again, the Raptors have only won 15 games this season.  When we look at the individual players, it appears that the players holding this team back are the players who are leading the team in shot attempts.  And it appears the people making decisions in Toronto can’t see past the scoring these players provide.

- DJ

P.S. If you would like even more discussion of the Toronto Raptors, click on over to NBAEh?  This blog – from Devin Dignam – examines the Raptors from the Wins Produced perspective.  In addition to providing some great analysis of the Raptors, Devin’s site also offers a list of Required Reading for anyone interested in Wins Produced. 

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