Broom on the Warpath

Redskins, Wizards, Nationals, Capitals -- and Other Stuff
3 Jul

Sports As Metaphor: The Blake Leeper Story

Last week, I wrote about a sprinter named Blake Leeper, who is in deep preparations for the Paralympic World Championships later this month in France. Leeper was born without legs below the knee, but with the use of prosthetics was able to run cross country and play varsity basketball in high school.

When he graduated high school, his athletic career seemed to be over -- until he saw Oscar Pistorius and others competing in the 2008 Paralympics using the high-tech "blade" prosthetics. Leeper, then 18 years old, immediately applied for grants and sponsorships to raise the $15,000 necessary to get his own set and join the competition.

Last year, he tied Pistorius for the fastest paralympic 100 meters at 10.91. A new record is in Leeper's sights this month.

For me, Leeper's life -- and the entire Paralympic movement -- is a quintessential sports story, which means it's a quintessential human story. I'm writing about Leeper from afar at the moment, but I would love to write the movie version someday. It's a story that deserves telling.

Sports, movies, novels, TV series serve the same purpose in our culture. They're a metaphor for life, a ritual reenactment of the reality that life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles to achieve a goal. This is true for everyone -- no matter how rich or poor, no matter the ethnicity or religion. The specific obstacles may differ, but life will test each of us in some way. It's up to us how we handle it.

This is the basic plot of every story ever told: a character is presented with a challenge and must do something to overcome it. Overcoming one challenge leads to another, which leads to another, and so on to the end of the movie, or the fourth quarter. Unless there's overtime.

In Hollywood, the character usually overcomes the odds in the end because we love a happy ending. In team sports, there's a "two-sides of the coin" ending -- one team succeeds, one team fails. In individual sports, there's typically one victor, but "success" can be measured in many ways. For Tiger Woods, a fifth place finish in the U.S. Open is a failure. For a 16-year old qualifier, fifth place is an achievement. The underlying point remains: sports is an oft-exaggerated metaphor for the process of facing and overcoming challenges.

Probably 30 years ago now, I saw what I still think of as the most impressive athletic performance I've ever witnessed. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation held a swimathon fund raiser. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that affects the digestive system and the lungs. Specifically, people with CF produce a thick mucus that clogs the lungs (making breathing more difficult) and makes them more susceptible to pulmonary infections.

My younger brother -- then maybe 9 or 10 years old -- signed up to swim. We went around the neighborhood hitting up family friends and complete strangers for pledges. When they heard my brother would be swimming, they made larger commitments per lap. One person promised $10 per lap.

On the day of the event, my brother got in the pool at 8:00 a.m. and swam. And swam and swam and swam...lap after lap, back and forth across the pool. He came out of the water for 5-10 minute breaks, but continued swimming laps until the event ended in the afternoon. That day, he swam approximately two and a half miles -- an amazing display of determination and endurance because my brother has cystic fibrosis. That's why the pledges were so big. No one thought he could swim more than a hundred laps.

This is why a guy like Blake Leeper fascinates me. Born without legs below the knee, he got his first prosthetics at 9 months and decided with his family that it would be an excuse for absolutely nothing. The prosthetics he wore to run cross country and play basketball weren't high-tech blades. What got him through was hard work and the determination to overcome a handicap.

Now equipped with prosthetics that restore what he likely would have been able to do naturally, Leeper is a top paralympic athlete who hopes to compete in the able-bodied Olympics in 2016. I'll be following his progress. And taking notes for the screenplay.


28 Jun

The Technology Behind Blake Leeper


Yesterday, I wrote about an athlete named Blake Leeper, who I stumbled across recently. Leeper, who was born without legs below the knee, will be sprinting in next month's Paralympic World Championships in Lyon, France with the aid of the kind of high-tech prosthetic "blades" used by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius.

Despite being born without lower legs, Leeper played basketball and ran cross country throughout high school. Leeper thought his athletic career was over when he graduated from high school -- right up until he saw Pistorius and others running in the 2008 Paralympic Games with prosthetic blades.

He promptly raised the $15,000 to get a set of blades for himself. It took him three months to get comfortable with the new prosthetics. In his first race in 2009, he qualified for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team.

Last July in Canada, he tied Pistorius' 100-meter paralympic world record with a time of 10.91 seconds. Like Pistorius, Leeper is hoping to compete in the Olympics as an able-bodied athlete.

The blades were developed by a medical engineer named Van Phillips, who figured out how to build prosthetics that store kinetic energy like a spring, which allows athletes to run and jump effectively.

The blades are constructed of a reinforced carbon fiber -- a strong, light-weight material that's now used in an array of settings from athletic gear to bicycles, sailboats and nearly any equipment where high strength-to-weight ratio is important.

The manufacturing process involves layering together 30 to 90 carbon fiber sheets, which is then autoclaved to remove bubbles and fuse the sheets into a solid plate. Once the plate has cooled, it's cut into the now-familiar blade shape, which is then bolted to a carbon fiber socket that's custom fit to Leeper's legs.

Spikes, developed by Nike research, are mounted to the bottom of the blade, which aid in traction and help athletes such as Leeper sprint at maximum speed.

The blades are slightly longer than a runner's biological leg and foot would be. The curve replaces the ankle hinge with a compression that bends and releases with every stride. When a runner is standing still, he looks like he's standing on tiptoe because there's very little compression of the ankle curve. And oh yeah, no running backward -- the blades have no heel and are designed for forward motion only. Wearers report that the blades almost seem to have a mind of their own. It's nearly impossible to stand still and it's even difficult to move slowly in them. It takes strength and training to control them.

The prosthetics do a remarkable job of restoring a person to a performance level near his biological potential. In a study done to determine whether Pistorius was gaining an unfair advantage competing in the able-bodied Olympics, researchers found that biological legs had an elastic energy return of 93-95 percent. The return from carbon fiber blades: 92 percent.

While the technology is fascinating, the real story is the dedication and hard work of athletes like Blake Leeper, who are stretching the boundaries of what's possible for people with disabilities.


27 Jun

The 2013 NBA Draft: Ye Olde Draft Analyzer (YODA) Rankings

 

Yeah, I know the draft is already underway. Sue me, I've been busy. Won't go too deep into the weeds on this. Below are the scores each player received in Ye Olde Draft Analyzer (YODA), which is my attempt at developing a system to objectively evaluate NCAA draft prospects.

YODA uses box score stats that have been run through a stat formula I've developed to measure a player's overall productivity. It includes adjustments for a prospects age, athletic/physical tools, and his team's strength of schedule.

Below are the prospects with first round grades in YODA and their YODA score. The top score in YODA history is a 36, which was posted by Shaquille O'Neal in his sophomore season. Here's how monstrous that season was: the next best was Anthony Davis...with a 28.

2013 Overall YODA Ratings

  1. Victor Oladipo -- SG, Indiana -- 19
  2. Cody Zeller -- PF, Indiana -- 14
  3. Nerlens Noel -- C, Kentucky -- 9
  4. Ben McLemore -- SG, Kansas -- 8
  5. Otto Porter -- SF, Georgetown -- 8
  6. Steven Adams -- C, Pittsburgh -- 8
  7. Anthony Bennett -- PF, Nevada-Las Vegas -- 8
  8. Trey Burke -- PG, Michigan -- 7
  9. Kelly Olynyk -- C, Gonzaga -- 7
  10. Michael Carter-Williams -- PG, Syracuse -- 6
  11. Gorgui Dieng -- C, Louisville -- 6
  12. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope -- SG, Georgia -- 6
  13. Shane Larkin -- PG, Miami (FL) -- 6
  14. Reggie Bullock -- SF, North Carolina -- 5
  15. C.J. McCollum -- SG, Lehigh -- 5
  16. Tyrus McGee -- SG, Iowa State -- 4
  17. Jeff Withey -- C, Kansas -- 4
  18. Mason Plumlee -- PF, Duke -- 3
  19. Shabazz Muhammad -- SF, UCLA -- 3
  20. Alex Oriakhi -- PF, Missouri -- 3
  21. Zeke Marshall -- C, Akron -- 2
  22. Nate Wolters -- PG, South Dakota State -- 2
  23. Ray McCallum -- PG, Detroit Mercy -- 2
  24. Elias Harris -- SF, Gonzaga -- 2
  25. Jamaal Franklin -- SG, San Diego State -- 2
  26. Allen Crabbe -- SG, California -- 2
  27. Gregory Echenique -- C, Creighton -- 1
  28. James Southerland -- SF, Syracuse -- 1
  29. D.J. Stephens -- PF, Memphis -- 1
  30. Carrick Felix -- SG, Arizona State -- 1
  31. Kevin Young -- SF, Kansas -- 1
  32. Mike Muscala -- C, Bucknell -- 0
  33. Solomon Hill -- SF, Arizona -- 0
  34. Ryan Broekhoff -- SF, Valpariso -- 0
  35. Pierce Hornung -- SF, Colorado State -- 0
  36. Colton Iverson -- C, Colorado State -- 0
  37. Ryan Kelly -- C, Duke -- 0
  38. Erick Green -- PG, Virginia Tech -- 0
  39. Maurice Kemp -- SF, East Carolina -- 0

That's more than enough since once a YODA score drops below a 3, the player's prospects as a pro diminish significantly. 

The most notable disagreement between YODA and the draft sites and NBA scouts is Maryland center Alex Len. Over at Draft Express, Len was listed as their top prospect in this year's draft. In the actual draft, he went 5th overall. In YODA, he ranks 43rd with a score of -1. I'm not arrogant enough to say that I'm right and DX and GMs are wrong, but I do think YODA suggests Len is not as strong a prospect as he's reputed to be. His college production wasn't impressive -- especially considering his relatively weak team and less than overwhelming schedule.

I expect to write more about the draft using YODA in a week or so when my schedule at least edges back toward normal.

Until then, Wizards fans can feel pretty good about getting Otto Porter at third overall -- sort of the SF version of Bradley Beal. Cody Zeller or Nerlens Noel also would have made good picks in that spot (since Victor Oladipo was taken with the 2nd pick), but Porter should make a good pro.


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27 Jun

Blake Leeper Leads U.S. Into Paralympic World Championships

 The IPC Athletics World Championships will be held next month in Lyon, France. Competing for the United States is a sprinter named Blake Leeper, who was born with both legs missing below the knee. He's worn prosthetics since he was nine months old. At birth, the doctor told his mother, Enid that Leeper would never walk.

"We decided we would treat him as if he did have limbs," Enid said. "No exceptions."

Leeper's athletic career was inspired in part by his parents employing some reverse psychology. "I remember my parents telling me that the doctor said I'd never be involved in athletic activity," Leeper said. "They said I wouldn't be able to run and jump like the rest of the kids. That I would have to play the piano or something like that."

In keeping with his motto, "Life if 10% what you deal with and 90% how you deal with it," Leeper figured out how to run and jump well enough to play on his high school's varsity basketball team -- before he had access to high-tech prosthetics like those used by South African sprinter Oscar Pastorius.

When those prosthetics became available, Leeper leaped at the opportunity to compete in track and field. His first race was at the 2009 Endeavor Games in Oklahoma, and he made his international debut in Rio di Janero that same year.

He's coached by Olympic great Joaquim Cruz. Leeper, 23 years old, earned a physics degree from San Diego State University, and is currently studying medicine at the University of Tennessee. His personal goal is to compete as an able-bodied athlete in the 2016 Olympic Games.


21 May

The 2013 NBA Draft According to YODA

 

The most important day of the NBA calendar for Wizards fans is upon us -- The NBA Draft Lottery. Tonight, the Wizards will learn just how far back they'll move when the ping pong balls have stopped bouncing.

Sitting eighth by virtue of their all-in chase for that elusive ninth "seed," the most likely outcome is the team staying right where they are and ending up with the eighth selection. Here are the chances for each of Washington's possibilities tonight (ordered from greatest likelihood to least):

  • 8th pick -- 70.2%
  • 9th pick -- 16.5%
  • 3rd pick -- 4.8%
  • 2nd pick -- 4.1%
  • 1st pick -- 3.5%
  • 10th pick -- 0.8%
  • 11th pick -- 0.1%
Between now and draft day, you're going to hear the "This Draft Is The Suck" anthem. In my analysis, using my draft database (dubbed Ye Olde Draft Analyzer -- YODA for short), there doesn't look to be an all-time elite at the top, but there are a number of players with the potential to be contributors at the NBA level. There are potential All-Stars as well -- depending on how hard and smart they work.

Before presenting YODA's first look at the 2013 draft, a few words about it. YODA is based on a player's NCAA production and his physical measurements and athletic tests at the NBA draft combines. Why use the combine athletic data? Because it's the publicly available OBJECTIVE measure of a player's athletic ability.

YODA takes each player's per minute stats, adjusts for age/class, position and level of competition, incorporates the combine data and spits out a final grade. Also, there's an assessment of a player's handsomeness. (Just kidding on that last one.) If a player doesn't participate in a draft combine, there is no bonus/penalty awarded for size or athleticism.

For today, I'm presenting players by their "tiers" in YODA -- I'll dig in deeper with more information from the database as we get closer to the draft.

Tiers are, in effect, broad groupings of players who are approximately the same level of prospect. The tiers run from 10 to zero (well, technically there are a handful of guys who somehow achieved negative tiers -- two of them (JJ Reddick and Nazr Mohammed went on to play in the NBA, so go figure). Here are the tiers with sample players for each.

EDIT -- nate33 over at RealGM suggested I change some of the sample players. So, I've done that in a few places to show a more "representative" player. 

1 -- Shaquille O'Neal (SO) -- Shaq's the only guy to hit this level.

2 -- No one. Yeah, that's how outlandish Shaq was that year. No other player in my ever-growing database has even reached a 9. 

3 -- Anthony Davis (FR), Shaquille O'Neal (JR), Kevin Love (FR), Hakeem Olajuwon (SO), Kevin Durant (FR)

4 -- Patrick Ewing (SR, JR, FR), Grant Hill (JR), Tim Duncan (SR), Elton Brand (SO), Shawn Marion (FR)

5 -- Chris Webber (FR), Shane Battier (SR), Elton Brand (FR), Paul Millsap (JR) Dwyane Wade (SO & FR), John Wall (FR), Kenyon Martin (JR), Carmelo Anthony (FR), Joakim Noah (JR)

6 -- Jason Kidd (FR), Al Horford (JR), Stephen Curry (JR), James Harden (FR), Chris Wilcox (SO), Gilbert Arenas (SO), Rudy Gay (SO), Josh Howard (SR)

7 -- Cole Aldrich (FR), Alec Burks (SO), Mario Chalmers (SO), Brandon Roy (JR), Greg Monroe (SO), David Lee (FR), Nate Robinson (JR), Etan Thomas (SR)

8 -- Steve Blake (JR), Javale McGee (SO), Jeff Taylor (SR), Danny Granger (FR), Chris Singleton (JR)

9 -- Matt Barnes (SO), Morris Almond (JR), Robert Sacre (SO), Jared Jeffries (SO), Tyshawn Taylor (SR), Lance Goulbourne (SR), Ryan Gomes (SR)

10 -- Garrett Temple (FR & JR), Morris Almond (SO), Vernon Macklin (SR), Darius Miller (FR)

Got all that? There's a quiz later.

Basically, the higher the tier, the more likely the player is to be a better pro. To merit a first round pick, a player needs to land in tier 4 or higher. Tier 3 are second rounders.

So, with all that preamble, here's this year's draft by tier (note, no one rated into tiers 1, 2 or 3):

Tier 4

  • Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana
Tier 5
  • Cody Zeller, C, Indiana
Tier 6
  • Trey Burke, PG, Michigan
  • Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky
  • Kelly Olynyk, C, Gonzaga
  • Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas
  • Otto Porter, SF, Georgetown
  • Anthony Bennett, PF, UNLV
  • Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Syracuse
  • Gorgui Dieng, C, Louisville
  • Steven Adams, C, Pittsburgh
Tier 7
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, PG, Georgia
  • Shane Larkin, PG, Miami
  • Reggie Bullock, SF, North Carolina
  • C.J. McCollum, SG, Lehigh
  • Tyrus McGee, SG, Iowa State
  • Jeff Withey, C, Kansas
  • Mason Plumlee, PF, Duke
  • James Southerland, SF, Syracuse
  • D.J. Stephens, PF, Memphis
  • Shabazz Muhammad, SF, UCLA
  • Alex Oriakhi, PF, Missouri
  • Arsalan Kazemi, PF, Oregon
  • Zeke Marshall, C, Akron
  • Mike Muscala, C, Bucknell
  • Nate Wolters, PG, South Dakota State
  • Ray McCallum, PG, Detroit Mercy
  • Elias Harris, SF, Gonzaga
  • Jamaal Franklin, SG, San Diego State
  • Russ Smith, PG, Louisville
  • Allen Crabbe, SG, California
  • Gregory Echenique, C, Creighton
  • Alex Len, C, Maryland
  • Kevin Young, SF, Kanas
I could keep going, but that's a first round worth of names, plus a few into the second round. 

At the top, Oladipo looks to be just as good a prospect as recent first overall selections like Kyrie Irving (tier 5) and John Wall (tier 5). He's not a historically good prospect like Anthony Davis, but he has the tools and production of a player who should be an excellent pro.

Cody Zeller (tier 5) would be another worthy top overall pick in many drafts, and would be a top 2-3 pick in virtually every class. 

Lots more to come as the draft gets nearer.


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1 May

Wizards Similarity Scores: The Epic Fail Edition

 

So far, I've posted two sets of similarity scores for Wizards players: the Young Guns (Bradley Beal and John Wall), and the Oldsters (Emeka Okafor and Nene). Comparable players for Wall and Beal included a pleasing mix of future All-Stars and All-NBA producers. The comps for Okafor and Nene were solid pros past their primes.

Today is the "epic fail" edition -- a look at the team's recent first round picks: Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton.

Is it fair to apply the "epic fail" tag to these three? Well, while they're still young and have the potential to improve if they word hard enough and smart enough, their performance this past season doesn't suggest they'll become anything more than NBA bench-warmers.

In Player Production Average, my overall rating stat that accounts for pace, defense and the level of competition a player faces while on the floor, Vesely was the 5th least productive player in the league, Seraphin was 9th least productive and Singleton was 11th (minimum 500 total minutes played). Not encouraging.

Let's take 'em in order from least productive. First up, Vesely.

Quick note: The similarity scores are generated using per minute stats that have been standardized to a pace of 100 possessions per game. They include every 500-minute or more player season since the 1977-78 season, which is where my database stops at the moment. The "test" player is perfectly identical to himself, of course. His score is set at 100. The "sim scores" closest to 100 are more similar. I wrote a bit more about the method in the first post -- the one about Wall and Beal.

In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level.

PLAYER  POS  SEASON AGE TEAM SIM
SCORE
PPA
SEAS
PPA
PEAK
AGE
PEAK
Jan Vesely  PF  2012-13  22  WAS  100  19 70  21 
Byron Houston SF  1993-94  24  GSW  94  21 60  26 
Corny Thompson PF  1982-83  22  DAL  93  5 22 
Jim Smith PF  1981-82  23  SDC  93  28 59  24 
Bill Curley PF  1994-95  22  DET  92  26 26  22 & 25 
Jim Petersen PF  1984-85  22  HOU  92  11 91  24 
Petur Gudmundsson 1981-82  23  POR  92  19 61  29 
Mike Peplowski 1993-94  23  SAC  91  45 45  23 
Clifford Rozier 1995-96  23  GSW  90  43 121  24 
Cedric Simmons PF  2006-07  21  NOK  89  19 19  21 
Hilton Armstrong 2007-08  23  NOH  89  12 61  22 
                 

This list of similars gives me no hope that Vesely will become a useful player. Improvement is theoretically possible, but players who produce as little as Vesely did this season typically don't grow into quality performers later. The highest peak season among this group was Rozier's 121 -- but it was over just 700 minutes, and it was followed by a swift reversion to his previous ineptitude.

Oddly (at least to me), Vesely's rookie season similars aren't much more encouraging. They include A.C. Green, who had a long and productive career, but Green didn't crater in his second season. Other names: Jim Petersen, Jason Collins, Peter Verhoeven, Kenny Dennard, Johan Petro, Kurt Nimphius, Scott Hastings, Jon Koncak... You get the point. 

Next up: Seraphin.

PLAYERS  POS  SEASON  AGE  TEAM  SIM
SCORE 
PPA
SEAS 
PPA
PEAK 
AGE
PEAK
 
Kevin Seraphin  2012-13  23  WAS  100  22  95  21 
Marcus Fizer PF  2000-01  22  CHI  90  26 80  24 
Doug Smith PF  1992-93  23  DAL  89  28 65  24 
Maurice Taylor PF  2002-03  26  HOU  88  27  82  24 
Clifford Robinson PF  1989-90  23  POR  88  14 143  32 
Byron Mullens 2011-12  22  CHA  88  61 73  23 
Reggie Johnson PF  1980-81  23  SAS  87  62 97  24 
Purvis Short SF  1978-79  21  GSW  87  69 121  28 
Doug Smith PF  1991-92  22  DAL  86  51 65  24 
Albert King SF  1986-87  27  NJN  86  35 105  23 
William Bedford 1986-87  23  PHO  85  22 66  27 
                 

A little more hope for Seraphin when looking at these comps, but not a ton. Robinson's career took off when he developed into a terrific defender. Short became a decent player after a so-so start, but he was a small forward -- not a big. Seraphin is more likely than Vesely to develop into a useful player -- a statement that's very much damning with faint praise. He'll probably hang around the league for a few years because he's tall and nimble and shoots a lot. The Wizards shouldn't expect much from him, however.

Last up: Singleton.

PLAYER  POS  SEASON  AGE  TEAM  SIM
SCORE 
PPA
SEAS 
PPA
PEAK 
AGE
PEAK
 
Chris Singleton  PF  2012-13  23  WAS  100  24 56  22 
Viktor Khryapa SF  2004-05  22  POR  93  31 71  23 
Donald Hodge F/C  1992-93  23  DAL  91  19 81  22 
Hanno Mottola 2001-02  25  ATL  90  23 23  25 
Michael Doleac 2001-02  24  CLE  90  34 69  26 
Loren Meyer 1995-96  23  DAL  90  35 35  23 
Bo Ellis PF  1977-78  23  DEN  89  47 81  25 
DeMarre Carroll SF  2009-10  23  MEM  89  24 100  26 
Joe Wolf 1989-90  25  LAC  89  23 55  26 
Linton Johnson SF  2003-04  23  CHI  88  58 76  26 
Brian Scalabrine PF  2003-04  25  NJN  88  43 68  26 
                 

Singleton's list is about as encouraging as Vesely's. The bright side is that most of his comps seem to peak at 25-26. The downside: none of 'em were much good. Carroll finally got to average this season -- the best performance of his career. At their best, Singleton's comps were a bit above replacement level. We're talking about maxing out as the 10th or 11th man.

So, no hope for Vesely, very little for Seraphin and next to none for Singleton. Quite the haul for a trio selected 6th, 17th and 18th overall.


29 Apr

2013 NFL Draft Grades


You won't find me evaluating NFL draft prospects because I assure from the outset: I know nothing. I watch almost zero college football, and the publicly available stats probably mean less in evaluating potential professional football players than they do in any other sport.

But, I can still generate draft grades based on what the experts at ESPN say. Over on the ESPN website, their team of football sages evaluate nearly every draftable prospect and assign him a numerical score from 0-100 -- 100 being an elite prospect, below 10 being players the ESPN scouts think aren't even worth a look as a training camp body.

The immediate problem: how to generate the grades. I have numerical scores for every player (and I filled in a score of 25 for the one or two players without grades from the ESPN scouts -- I think the only drafted player this year was a punter), but there are important variables that need to be considered such as the number of draft picks and where a team is picking.

Getting a highly-rated player with the top pick in the draft doesn't take much skill -- that's what should happen. Ending up with a high total value shouldn't be much of a challenge if a team uses 11 picks (as three did this year); but might be tougher with just five selections. So, I'm going to post some scores using a few different ways of looking at the draft, and then combine them all into a Unified Draft Grade.

First look: total value. This is simple stuff -- add up the draft scores for each player a team selected and...voila...a total value score. To make comparisons easier, I've set the top score to 100 and scaled the other scores below.

Total Value

  1. Ravens -- 100
  2. Cardinals -- 99
  3. 49ers -- 99
  4. Packers -- 98
  5. Bengals -- 94
  6. Seahawks -- 91
  7. Vikings -- 90
  8. Raiders -- 90
  9. Steelers -- 88
  10. Dolphins -- 88
  11. Eagles -- 87
  12. Texans -- 87
  13. Titans -- 86
  14. Bills -- 80
  15. Cowboys -- 80
  16. Broncos -- 77
  17. Lions -- 76
  18. Rams -- 76
  19. Jaguars -- 76
  20. Jets -- 75
  21. Chiefs -- 75
  22. Falcons -- 74
  23. Patriots -- 72
  24. Giants -- 68
  25. Redskins -- 68
  26. Bears -- 65
  27. Chargers -- 64
  28. Colts -- 63
  29. Buccaneers -- 58
  30. Saints -- 55
  31. Panthers -- 52
  32. Browns -- 46

You see the potential pitfall right away -- total value is heavily dependent on the total number of picks. The correlation between draft picks used and total value is a high 0.92. Every team in the top 10 used at least nine draft picks. The 49ers, Packers and Seahawks each used 11. If they didn't get more total value than the Saints, Panthers and Browns (each of whom used five picks), it'd be a catastrophic scouting failure.

So, here's another look, this time looking at average value per draft pick used. Once again, the top score is set to 100 and the others are scaled beneath.

Average Value Per Pick Used

  1. Cowboys -- 100
  2. Cardinals -- 97
  3. Broncos -- 97
  4. Saints -- 96
  5. Bears -- 96
  6. Eagles -- 96
  7. Rams -- 95
  8. Titans -- 95
  9. Jets -- 94
  10. Chargers -- 94
  11. Panthers -- 91
  12. Patriots -- 90
  13. Bills -- 89
  14. Ravens -- 88
  15. Vikings -- 88
  16. Steelers -- 86
  17. Giants -- 86
  18. Dolphins -- 86
  19. Texans -- 85
  20. Redskins -- 85
  21. Buccaneers -- 85
  22. Jaguars -- 84
  23. Bengals -- 83
  24. Chiefs -- 82
  25. Browns -- 82
  26. Falcons -- 81
  27. Colts -- 79
  28. 49ers -- 79
  29. Raiders -- 79
  30. Packers -- 78
  31. Lions -- 74
  32. Seahawks -- 73
The rankings have changed significantly. Seattle was sixth in total value, but 32nd in value per pick. Dallas was 15th in total value, but first in value per pick. And so on.

Something else to note is how much tighter the scores are. When looking at total value, the average "standardized" score was 78. In average value per pick used, the 31st ranked team had a 78 -- average was 87.

But, we're only part way home because we still haven't accounted for draft position. Teams that pick first should get better players. If we're evaluating a team's drafting skill, draft position needs to be considered. So, here are two looks -- the first is Weighted Total Value and the second is Weighted Value Per Pick Used. In these "weighted" rankings, teams are rewarded for selecting a highly-rated player later in the draft.

Weighted Total Value

  1. Seahawks -- 100
  2. Ravens -- 98
  3. Packers -- 90
  4. Bengals -- 78
  5. 49ers -- 78
  6. Cardinals -- 77
  7. Raiders -- 73
  8. Vikings -- 72
  9. Falcons -- 71
  10. Texans -- 71
  11. Steelers -- 70
  12. Eagles -- 67
  13. Broncos -- 66
  14. Redskins -- 66
  15. Patriots -- 62
  16. Dolphins -- 61
  17. Titans -- 59
  18. Colts -- 59
  19. Lions -- 57
  20. Chiefs -- 57
  21. Bears -- 55
  22. Bills -- 55
  23. Cowboys -- 55
  24. Jaguars -- 51
  25. Giants -- 49
  26. Rams -- 44
  27. Buccaneers -- 42
  28. Chargers -- 41
  29. Browns -- 39
  30. Jets -- 39
  31. Saints -- 33
  32. Panthers -- 32
Lots more variability in this measure, but...it's still heavily dependent on the total number of picks. Weighting by where a team picks reduces that correlation I mentioned earlier in the raw total value section from 0.92 to 0.87. Not much of a change.

So, final "test" before we get to the unified grades:

Weighted Value Per Pick Used

  1. Ravens -- 100
  2. Broncos -- 97
  3. Redskins -- 96
  4. Bears -- 94
  5. Seahawks -- 93
  6. Falcons -- 90
  7. Patriots -- 90
  8. Cardinals -- 87
  9. Colts -- 86
  10. Eagles -- 85
  11. Packers -- 84
  12. Vikings -- 82
  13. Browns -- 80
  14. Texans -- 80
  15. Bengals -- 80
  16. Steelers -- 80
  17. Cowboys -- 80
  18. Titans -- 86
  19. Raiders -- 74
  20. Chiefs -- 73
  21. 49ers -- 72
  22. Giants -- 71
  23. Buccaneers -- 71
  24. Bills -- 70
  25. Chargers -- 69
  26. Dolphins -- 69
  27. Saints -- 68
  28. Lions -- 65
  29. Panthers -- 65
  30. Rams -- 65
  31. Jaguars -- 64
  32. Jets -- 57
The rankings shuffle again, this time with the Ravens back in the top spot. Check out the Redskins in third, suggesting Washington may have gotten good value out of its relatively later draft picks.

In formulating final grades for the teams, keep in mind that different measures can be valued differently depending on what a franchise needs. For a team with numerous roster holes or in need of overall depth, a high total value may be desirable, even if it takes a lot of picks to get there.

For a deep team looking for a few guys to put it over the top or to plug a hole here or there, perhaps a high average would be better.

The weighted measures get at a front office's drafting skill -- to the extent that the ESPN grades are accurate. That's an issue beyond the scope of this blog post. Assessing their accuracy would take some time, but wouldn't be a particularly challenging study to do. I'm a bit lacking in the time part of the equation, however.

Last list -- the Unified Draft Grade, which is the average score from each of the four categories listed above.

Unified Draft Grade

  1. Ravens -- 97
  2. Cardinals -- 90
  3. Seahawks -- 89
  4. Packers -- 87
  5. Broncos -- 84
  6. Bengals -- 84
  7. Eagles -- 84
  8. Vikings -- 83
  9. 49ers -- 82
  10. Steelers -- 81
  11. Texans -- 81
  12. Falcons -- 79
  13. Raiders -- 79
  14. Titans -- 79
  15. Redskins -- 79
  16. Patriots -- 79
  17. Cowboys -- 78
  18. Bears -- 78
  19. Dolphins -- 76
  20. Bills -- 74
  21. Colts -- 72
  22. Chiefs -- 72
  23. Rams -- 70
  24. Jaguars -- 69
  25. Giants -- 69
  26. Lions -- 68
  27. Chargers -- 67
  28. Jets -- 66
  29. Buccaneers -- 64
  30. Saints -- 63
  31. Browns -- 62
  32. Panthers -- 60
These numbers suggest the Redskins had a pretty average draft. They did better in the average per pick used and the weighted average per pick used categories, but a bit worse in total value and weighted total value. This is should be expected since they had fewer picks than average (the team used six picks, the average team used 7.9, including compensatory selections), and they didn't have a first round pick because of the Robert Griffin III trade.

25 Apr

Are Redskins Winning the Offseason?

 

Since Dan Snyder bought the Redskins 14 years ago, the team has been run like a bizarro fantasy team. Big name free agent? Sign him the moment the clock strikes 12 and the free agency season is open. A Washington free agent? Sign him at a bargain price or let him leave. No big loss -- there's a free agent market full of potential replacements.

The results...no so good. Since Snyder took over (including his first season, which was really a team constructed by Charley Casserly and John Kent Cooke) the team's record is 101-123. An average season under Synder's leadership is 7-9. Good enough to be in the playoff hunt in November, bad enough to miss. The team's best record over the past 14 years: 10-6, which they've done three times (that first season, the second year of Joe Gibbs 2.0, and this past season).

For years now, the team has been derided for their efforts to "win" the offseason with splashy signings and high-profile acquisitions. 

But there's a different management team in place now, and their professional restraint may finally be giving Washington what Snyder long coveted -- an authentic offseason "win."

The cynic could argue that this "restraint" displayed by Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen is little more than the salary cap penalty the league imposed. While I think that's part of it, the reality is that there are an array of accounting and renegotiating maneuvers the Skins could have employed to push cap money into future years and still sign big-name free agents now. Heck, this used to be standard practice for the team even without a cap penalty.

Shanahan and Allen have resisted that temptation and have instead preserved the team's cap flexibility for the future. They have done some renegotiating of existing contracts, but in virtually every case have focused on a straight salary reduction rather than increasing the player's cap hit in the future.

They've brought back contributors from last year at reasonable prices, including DeAngelo Hall (who they released and re-signed at a quarter of his previously scheduled salary), Fred Davis, Tyler Polumbus, Kedric Golston, Rob Jackson and Logan Paulsen.

They've signed a few "fill in the gaps" free agents like Darryl Tapp, Jeremy Trueblood, Tony Pashos and E.J. Biggers. Biggers, a solid, versatile cornerback who performs well in coverage, could end up being a major steal at a league minimum price tag.

As I examine the Redskins depth chart with an eye toward the NFL draft getting under way tonight, I'm fairly impressed with the transformation Shanahan and Allen have accomplished. It used to be that the roster would have a star here or there (at least in name) and then...dreck. The current roster has some quality players in starting positions, and then...solid players behind them. There's depth in Washington for the first time in years.

Here are my thoughts on Redskins personnel needs:

  1. Safety -- Easily the team's least deep position. Brandon Meriweather was injured last season, but has the ability to be a good strong safety in 2013. The free safety is Reed Doughty, a guy the Skins have been trying to get rid of for years.
  2. Inside Linebacker -- Perry Riley is solid, but after him there are question marks. London Fletcher finally showed some signs of age last year, though he was still better than average. He'll probably return, but retirement is a possibility. Washington needs to add some quality depth.
  3. Center -- Will Montgomery has done an adequate job, but still gets pushed back too often. 
  4. Tight End -- With Fred Davis, Logan Paulsen and Niles Paul, the team should be set. But, Davis is trying to come back from a torn Achilles, Paulsen is more of a blocker than a pass-catcher, and Paul didn't accomplish much last season converting to TE from WR. If there's a pass-catching TE with potential in the later rounds, he could find a home in burgundy and gold.
  5. Cornerback -- At this point we're solidly into "it would be nice to have" territory. As in, it would be nice to have a young cornerback with potential to become a starter in the next 2-3 years. For the upcoming year, Washington's corners look decent with Hall, Josh Wilson, and Biggers.
  6. Wide Receiver -- The team's top four is set. It would be nice to add a young receiver who could beat out Dezmon Briscoe and Aldrick Robinson for that fifth spot and perhaps grow into a bigger role as Santana Moss enters the twilight of his career.
Given the solid state of Washington's roster, my expectation for this weekend's draft is that Shanahan and Allen will look to add a starting safety and to increase overall depth. About the only thing that would surprise me is if they picked a quarterback.


24 Apr

Wizards Similarity Scores: The Oldsters

 

Yesterday, I posted "similarity scores" for the Wizards young guns: John Wall and Bradley Beal. The results left an optimistic afterglow. Their similars were a healthy mix of solid professionals, All-Stars and All-NBA types -- suggesting good things from the team's backcourt duo.

Today, I'm pointing the spreadsheet at the oldsters who man the frontcourt: Emeka Okafor and Nene Hilario. I've found the team's strategy of coupling aging big men with youthful guards to be puzzling, but I've written about that previously. Several times. In several venues. For now, let's focus on what the Wizards have in these two. First up: Okafor.

I explained similarity scores in yesterday's column. If you want more detail, I encourage you to click the link above and give it a read. Here's the short version: my similarity score system measures the difference between players in 14 statistical categories. The smaller the overall difference once those category differences have been combined, the more similar the players.

My similarity calculator uses per minute stats that have been standardized to a pace of 100 possessions per 48 minutes, which permits for comparison across eras. The "test" player's Sim Score is always 100. The closer to 100 the similar is, the more...umm...similar he is to the "test" player. The database includes every player season with 500 or more minutes since 1977-78.

Got all that?

PLAYER  POS  SEASON  AGE  TEAM SIM
SCORE
PPA
SEAS
PPA
PEAK
AGE
PEAK
Emeka Okafor 2012-13  30  WAS 100  138  178  24 
Billy Paultz 1978-79  30  SAS  88  122 164  29 
Olden Polynice 1995-96  31  SAC  87  126 127  29 
Joe Smith PF  2003-04  28  MIL  87  143 143  28 
Emeka Okafor 2011-12  29 NOH  87  123 178  24 
Kris Humphries PF  2010-11  25  NJN  87  146  146  25 
Swen Nater 1978-79  29  SDC  87  125 147  31 
Benoit Benjamin 1994-95  30  NJN  86  96 132  25 
Bill Walton 1983-84  31  SDC  86  138 223  25 
Lorenzen Wright 2003-04  28  MEM  86  98 110  29 
P.J. Brown PF  1999-00  30  MIA  86  138 177  33 
                 

Don't get too happy about seeing Bill Walton's name on the list. This was the post-injury Walton who was more of a rebounder/defender type than the do-everything star he'd been before his numerous foot and ankle problems.

Overall, the list is about what I expected: solid, unspectacular players who can contribute, but can't carry a team. The collective record of the teams Okafor's similars played for: 378-426 -- a .470 winning percentage (which translates to about 39 wins over an 82-game schedule).

It's also worth noting that of the 11 players listed as Okafor's similars (including Okafor), 9 had their peak season at a younger age. The point should be obvious: players don't typically get better in their 30s. 

PLAYER POS SEASON AGE TEAM SIM
SCORE
PPA
SEAS 
PPA
PEAK 
AGE
PEAK
 
Nene Hilario  PF  2012-13  30  WAS  100  119 176  28 
Mickey Johnson PF  1981-82  29  MIL  92  131 145  27 
Danny Manning PF  1996-97  30  PHO  90  107 157  25 
Frank Brickowski PF  1990-91  31  MIL  89  123 123  31 
Mickey Johnson PF  1980-81  28  MIL  89  115 145  27 
Shareef Abdur-Rahim PF  2005-06  29  SAC  89  116 145  26 
George McGinnis PF  1980-81  30  IND  89  81 145  27 
Christian Laettner PF  1997-98  28  ATL  89  127 146  27 
Mickey Johnson PF  1983-84  31  GSW  88  83 145  27 
Armen Gilliam PF  1994-95  30  NJN  87  126 137  27 
Kenny Carr PF  1983-84  28  POR  87  126 126  28 
                 
I know what you're thinking: Who's Mickey Johnson? Gotta admit that I have zero recollection of ever seeing him play, although with a career than spanned from 1974-1986 I surely watched him a number of times. Johnson was a PF listed at 6-10 and 190 pounds. Not a typo -- a 190 pound, power forward. If he'd come along in the 2000s, he'd almost certainly be directed to the weight room where he'd add 40 pounds of muscle. Or he'd be a stretch four. Judging by the numbers, Johnson looks more like a hybrid 3/4 where Nene is a 4/5. He scored, passed and was at least a competent defender. He was also a bit of turnover machine.

Overall, a solid group of players, but none who were stars. It's worth keeping in mind that this was one of Nene's less productive seasons. If I'd developed similarity stats earlier, his comps would have been more impressive. The question about him, of course, is whether his performance this season was purely caused by injuries or whether it's a sign of age-related deterioration. Either way, the Wizards should be concerned. Older players often have more injury trouble than younger ones. And, even if his diminished production this year was due to injury, he'll be 31 next season, which is an age where NBA players typically have a drop-off.

Considering the size and length of his contract, the Wizards are hoping Nene can stay healthy and productive for a few more years. But, this is the hazard in buying the post-30 years of a player's career. Like Okafor's list, Nene's comps peaked before they were 30. Mickey Johnson -- the guy who shows up most frequently -- didn't have a season average or better after age 29. That was a long time ago, and medical care, nutrition and conditioning are much improved. So there's hope Nene can be productive. He's not likely to recapture the high level of play Denver enjoyed 2008-11, but there's a reasonable chance he can be at least solid.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this check-in on the oldsters is merely a reinforcement of what I've thought since the Wizards acquired them: they need to find some younger PF/C types who can play. Nene and Okafor aren't going to last much longer, even in a best-case scenario. At minimum, the team needs to acquire frontcourt depth for next season. The team has no short or long-term options to replace either of them currently on the roster. 

Questions or comments? Leave me a note in the comment section or tweet me @broom_kevin.


23 Apr

Wizards Similarity Scores: Young Guns Edition

 

At this point in major sports history, there are few "original" players. By that, I mean that players in today's game tend to perform in significant ways like players that preceded them. Careers often follow a familiar trajectory to similar players that came before -- which is one of the big reasons fans and analysts often talk about who a player reminds them of.

So far as I know, Bill James (the Godfather of Sports Analytics) was the first to develop "similarity scores," in which he compared players using their statistics. Others followed suit in baseball -- tweaking the approach to their own liking. Several good analysts have generated similarity scores for NBA players, including APBRmetrics' Mike Goodman, Kevin Pelton, and the good folks at Basketball Reference.

As a card carrying member of the stat goober club, I'm (for the first time) taking a stab at generating my own similarity scores. My approach has a few advantages. First, I actually understand how they're being created. And second, I don't have to bug Mike and Kevin for their results.

I won't go too far into the weeds on the method because I'd prefer you continue reading. My basic approach is...umm...similar to the others -- I measure the difference between Player A's performance in season X and every other player season with 500 or more minutes since 1977-78. 

In my similarity scores, I use per minute box score statistics that have been standardized to a pace of 100 possessions per 48 minutes. The categories used are: age, minutes, field goal attempts, three point attempts, free throw attempts, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, personal fouls, points and PPA. 

Regular readers know that PPA stands for Player Production Average, which is an overall rating stat I developed. It's a pace-adjusted, per minute stat that incorporates defense and a "degree of difficulty" factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the court. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better and 45 = replacement level.

Okay, enough about that. Let's get to the scores. For today, I want to focus on the Wizards young guns -- John Wall and Bradley Beal. The team is hoping they'll form a dynamic back court that will lead the team successfully for the next decade.

Here are the players my system says are most similar to what Wall and Beal produced this season. Note that the "base" player (Wall in the first table and Beal in the second) has a score of 100. The "similars" are stacked below. The closer to 100 a player is, the more similar. Also note that I've included the player's PPA for that season as well as his peak PPA and his age when he peaked.

PLAYER  POS SEASON  AGE  TEAM  SIM 
SCORE
PPA
SEASON
PPA
PEAK
AGE
PEAK
John Wall  PG  2012-13  22  WAS  100 139 139 22
Russell Westbrook PG  2010-11 22 OKC 87 167  177  24 
Stephon Marbury PG 1999-00  22  NJN  87  135 164  27 
Tony Parker PG 2005-06  23  SAS  86  158 187  30 
Tony Parker PG 2007-08  25  SAS  86  145 187  30 
Sam Cassell PG 1997-98  28  NJN  86  132  178  34 
Tony Parker PG 2004-05  22  SAS  85  136  187  30
Ray Williams PG 1979-80  25  NYK 84  145  145  25 
Tony Parker PG  2006-07  24  SAS  84  173 187  30 
Russell Westbrook PG  2009-10  21  OKC  84  123 177  24 
Reggie Theus PG  1982-83  25  CHI  83  122  132  28 
                 

Kinda interesting that the similarity system produced so many PGs without including position or size as variables.

Also interesting to see that a) Wall's similars are/were high-quality players for the most part, and b) virtually all peaked at least a couple years later. Cassell's name is intriguing. At age 28, it was his first above-average season, and it came at a time when the typical NBA player is maintaining whatever he's become before beginning to decline in his early 30s. Cassell was just coming into his own, and wouldn't reach his peak until age 34. 

And, Beal:

PLAYER  POS  SEASON  AGE  TEAM  SIM
SCORE 
PPA
SEASON 
PPA
PEAK 
AGE
PEAK
 
Bradley Beal  SG  2012-13  19  WAS  100  92  92  19 
Ray Allen SG  1996-97  21  MIL  92  100  197  25 
Mike Miller SF  2001-02  21  ORL  91  97  140  22 
Jason Richardson SG  2002-03  22  GSW  90  91  141  25 
Jason Richardson SG  2001-02  21  GSW  88  84 141  25 
Dennis Scott SF  1992-93  24  ORL  88  89  141  27 
Thaddeus Young PF  2009-10  21  PHI  88  91  153  24 
Brandon Knight PG  2012-13  21  DET  87  64  64  21 
Cuttino Mobley SG  1999-00  24  HOU  87  90  114  25 
Kyle Korver SF 2006-07 25 PHI 87 79  129  31 
Metta World Peace SF 1999-00 20  CHI 87  91  143  27 
                 

Seeing Ray Allen's rookie season show up as most similar to Beal's is highly encouraging. Allen is one of the best shooter's in league history and that peak PPA of 197 is All-NBA worthy. I'm also encouraged to a few players 5-6 years older show up in comparison. That Beal at age 19 performed at a level close players with several years of NBA experience bodes well for his capacity to improve. I also liked seeing the number of forwards showing up -- indicative that Beal plays "bigger" than his measured size and his position.

Beal's similars are a bit more hit and miss than Wall's, which is exactly what we should expect. While Beal improved radically during the season, his overall performance was a bit below average. What we know is that he has the potential to become a great player. But, if he doesn't put in the work to improve his body and his game, he won't fulfill that potential. 

The bright side in these comps is that each of these guys (except Brandon Knight, who just completed his second season) became productive NBA players for many seasons. This suggests that Beal's floor is "above average" and his ceiling is in the vicinity of "All-NBA."

Taken together, the similarity scores suggest the Wizards should have a dynamic back court that could produce legitimate All-Stars and All-NBA candidates within the next 2-3 years.