Monday, July 21, 2014

The Frye Effect & Andrew Nicholson's Potential Second Chance

Since signing with the Orlando Magic, it's been mentioned by numerous media outlets that Channing Frye is a better player than his statistics indicate. I figure this blog is as good a platform as any to share an outstanding analysis created by RealGM's 'doct3r dr3' that precisely outlines that notion. Fan message boards get a bad reputation at times and solid quality such as this can sometimes get lost in the midst of annoying forum threads. Whether you agree with everything in the post below is beside the point, this is a very nicely balanced piece on Channing Frye's value and how Andrew Nicholson has an opportunity to get back into Jacque Vaughn's rotation by emulating his developing offensive game to be similar to Frye's in a way that benefits the team as a whole.

Frye Ef·fect \ˈfrī-i-ˈfekt, e-, ē-, ə-\
The positive offensive impact generated by a floor-spacing big through the creation of driving lanes, cutting lanes, and passing lanes for guards and wing players.

The effectiveness of Channing Frye in the Suns offense has been in the spotlight in the past couple of weeks. By now you've probably read the articles and watched the youtube videos that show his effectiveness (especially with Dragic) in the pick & pop.

But Frye's real impact on offense extends far beyond the actual shots he makes. It's in the spacing he creates for his teammates: slashers like Eric Bledsoe, and especially Goran Dragic. Frye's mere presence on the floor, as a three-point shooting big man with a quick trigger, forces opposing big men out of the lane, which creates driving lanes, cutting lanes, and passing lanes for guards and wing players.

Zach Lowe: "Frye becomes dangerous just by setting a pick, and there are Phoenix baskets that happen three or four passes after that pick precisely because of how Frye’s initial screen scrambled the defense."
Kirk Goldsberry: "Dragic is quick to point out that the return of Frye — the team’s most vital spacing agent — has been central to Phoenix’s dramatic offensive improvements. “Last year he had some heart problems and couldn’t play with us, so when I played pick-and-roll I didn’t have that space guy,” he says. “This year, when we play pick-and-roll, Channing stretches the floor so I have room to operate; I can get inside the paint and make other plays for him and everybody else. He just gives us that spacing, and especially for me and Eric he makes things much easier because nobody can rotate from him.”
Frye has a gravitational pull that forces bigs away from the rim, creating attacking corridors for Dragic, who excels at “turning the corner,” attacking the basket, and making plays. In turn, Dragic’s attacking abilities create wide-open looks for Frye or other perimeter shooters. This symbiosis is the heart of the Suns’ offensive ecosystem, and it is by no means an accident."

Let's have a look at the Frye effect in action.

Watch (0:40-1:35)

In the first play at (0:40), Frye takes his time coming down the court in semi-transition offense. Anthony Davis hangs around near the three-point line waiting for him, which leaves Dragic only one big man to beat at the rim. Next at (0:59), the Suns spread the floor with 5 three-point threats around the three-point line. When Dragic curls off the Frye down screen, he's all alone at the rim. Next, at (1:11) Frye sets a high screen for Dragic, drawing Babbitt out to the three-point line. Babbitt tries to hedge on Dragic, but he has to keep an eye on Frye, and so Dragic blows by him, with only one big man (who is also out of help position due to the Suns' floor spacing) left to beat at the rim. Finally at (1:26) the Suns again space the floor with 5 three-point threats. Frye spots up on the right wing, drawing Anthony Davis out to the free throw line. When Dragic cuts backdoor, he's by himself at the rim.

It turns out that what we observe on film is reflected in the numbers (obtained from When Frye is on the floor, his starting backcourt mates --especially Dragic-- shoot better from the field than when he's off.

TS% (with Frye)
+4.5 - G. Dragic (56.9% --> 61.4%)
+0.0 - E. Bledsoe (57.3% --> 57.3%)
-0.4 - G. Green (58.4% --> 58.0%)

eFG% (with Frye)
+7.0 - G. Dragic (51.3% --> 58.3%)
+1.6 - E. Bledsoe (51.2% --> 52.8%)
+0.6 - G. Green (54.3% --> 54.9%)

When we drill down into the numbers, we can start to paint the picture of what's happening with Dragic. When Frye takes the floor, Dragic becomes a more aggressive driver. His usage rate goes up, (23.9 --> 25.8) and the share of his made field goals that are unassisted goes up (69.1% --> 73.1%). A smaller percentage of his total FG attempts are three-pointers (29.9% --> 26.2%) and a larger percentage are shots within 3 feet of the rim (33.9% --> 37.7%). Along with this, his 3P% shoots up dramatically (29.1% --> 46.9%), suggesting the threes he does take are wide open when Frye is on the floor.

All of this has exciting implications for the Magic, whose offensive attack figures to feature a number of guards and wing players who primarily like to drive (Oladipo, Harris, Payton, A. Gordon) and slashers who can hit an open three (Oladipo, Harris, Fournier). The question is: what happens when Frye goes to the bench?

After attempting none his rookie year, Andrew Nicholson unveiled a new weapon in '13-14: the three-point shot -- specifically the corner three. After a hot start to the season, he cooled down and eventually settled into a respectable, if not world-beating 31.5% three-point percentage. It's still coming along, but with continued repetitions, Nicholson is on his way to building a reputation around the league as a three-point threat, demanding attention from opposing bigs.

Even now, in the nascent stages of his development as a stretch 4, Nicholson appears to be getting some respect from defenses. And that, as much as anything, contributes to the effectiveness of a team-oriented offensive attack. Without making shots or getting assists, or even touching the ball, watch how his threat from deep and intelligent floor spacing open things up on offense.

Watch (1:30-2:11)

In the first play at (1:30), Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday opt to switch on an Oladipo/Nicholson pick & roll. Oladipo could have easily passed it back to Nicholson in the post after the PG Holiday switches on to him, but after the switch Oladipo is able to elude Anthony Davis just enough and when Morrow collapses to help, Oladipo makes a tough cross-court pass to an open Afflalo in the corner. In the next play (1:40), Nicholson's high screen draws Jason Smith out to the three-point line, and Rivers and Morrow are forced to collapse to help on the driving Oladipo, which leaves E'Twaun Moore wide open for three. Next at (1:49), Nicholson and O'Quinn set a high double-screen for E'Twaun Moore, cutting off the ball. This action, along with Oladipo's dribble drive, causes enough confusion in the lane that it frees up both Nicholson and O'Quinn for open jumpers, which O'Quinn is able to convert. On the final play (2:03), the Magic's floor spacing, with Nicholson spotting up in the right corner, leaves Jeff Withey in a no-man's land for help defense. When Oladipo blows by Rivers and forces Onuaku to help, all it takes is a quick pass to O'Quinn and he's all alone at the rim.

Given the similarity of Nicholson's role as a floor spacer to Frye's, we might expect to find stats that show that Nicholson's presence is met with a similar improvement in the shooting of the Magic's guards; and it is -- but first a caveat. Nicholson played as a backup, so his lineups faced the defense of backup units more often than a starter's would. Now, it's not as though Nicholson didn't play with the starters at all: 60% of his minutes came with Oladipo, 44% came with Afflalo, 41% came with Harkless, and 39% came with Nelson. But without controlling for the level of opponent it's impossible to say how much of this observed effect is attributable to these sorts of opponent lineup effects.

TS% (with Nicholson)
+7.6 - J. Nelson (49.9% --> 57.5%)
+7.2 - E. Moore (47.7% --> 54.9%)
+3.7 - V. Oladipo (50% --> 53.7%)
+1.1 - T. Harris (54.2% --> 55.3%)

eFG% (with Nicholson)
+7.9 - J. Nelson (46.9% --> 54.8%)
+7.4 - V. Oladipo (43.7% --> 51.1%)
+6.3 - E. Moore (46% --> 52.3%)
+3.6 - T. Harris (47.9% --> 51.5%)

With Nicholson on the court, Oladipo seemed to become a more aggressive driver. His effectiveness also improved from both of the main high-yield areas. Oladipo's usage increased (23.6 --> 26.5) with Nicholson on the floor, and so did his propensity for dunks, as a share of his total FG attempts (3.5% --> 5.9%); a shift which helped improve his field goal percentage within 3 feet of the basket (50.7% --> 63.8%). These close shots were also more likely to be unassisted (68.3% --> 73.1%), suggesting he was driving into these shots himself [other sources of unassisted close shots are fast breaks and tip-ins, but when Nicholson took the floor, the share of Oladipo's FGs that were tip-ins stayed about the same (0.5% --> 0.4%), and game pace actually decreased (94.4 --> 93.6) so these explanations aren't very likely in this case]. Like Dragic with Frye, Oladipo's three point percentage also improved with Nicholson on the court (31.0% --> 36.8%), suggesting his threes were more open.

A similar effect is seen with Tobias Harris. When Nicholson takes the floor, his usage increases (21.5 --> 27.1). His shots were more frequently layups (23.6% --> 25.8%) -- which he converted at an improved rate (67.4% --> 70.6%) -- and less frequently three-pointers (18.0% --> 15.9%). The three-pointers that he did take, he converted at a dramatically higher rate (22.9% --> 38.1%), suggesting the threes he did take were more of the wide open variety.

So it seems as though, much like Frye, Nicholson's presence brings a positive impact on his teammates. But while Frye's presence results in a big net positive to his team's offense, the same wasn't quite true for Nicholson last season. Various plus/minus stats show that Nicholson was a net negative on offense this year, which means that whatever positive effects were seen in those players, must have been offset by his own struggles and/or concurrent lapses in other players. Indeed, Nicholson's presence seemed to bring on negative effects for some Magic players, most notably Vucevic, Afflalo, and Harkless.

TS% (with Nicholson)
-10.2 - N. Vucevic (55.0% --> 44.8%)
-4.4 - A. Afflalo (58.2% --> 53.8%)
-3.9 - M. Harkless (54.8% --> 50.9%)

eFG% (with Nicholson)
-9.9 - N. Vucevic (52.2% --> 42.3%)
-5.8 - A. Afflalo (53.5% --> 47.7%)
-5.1 - M. Harkless (53.4% --> 48.3%)

The reasons for this might have something to do with the kind of scoring threat Nicholson was last year. While Nicholson spotted up for three a lot and drew defensive attention like Frye did, the location of his spot-ups was very different. Consider their shot charts:

Clearly much more of Frye's threes came above the break, and much more of Nicholson's attempts were from the corner (91% of Nicholson's, versus 9.5% of Frye's). This is an important difference. The corner three is shorter than the above-the-break three. And while that makes for a more efficient shot in itself, it also causes the floor spacing effects to diminish. When you spot up in the corner, the defender does not have as far to travel to help out in the post, or to close out from the post.

Nicholson also operated more in the low post than Frye. About 37% of Nicholson's FGAs came within 10 ft of the rim, while only 21% of Frye's FGAs came from that range. And that combination (corner 3s + low post) means that he resided a lot on that baseline axis. Perhaps one explanation for the divergent effect Nicholson had on certain teammates is this very geometry. It is why he helped complement players that play on the wings (Oladipo, Nelson, Moore, Harris), but got in the way of players who thrive in the low post (Vucevic), baseline (Afflalo, Harkless) and corners (Afflalo, Harkless).

The numbers for Vucevic support the floor geometry theory. When Nicholson takes the floor, Vucevic strays further from the basket. The percentage of his FGAs from 0-3 ft decreases (43.2% --> 34.6%); while the percentages of shots from 4-9 ft (18.9% --> 23.1%) and 10-15 ft (10% --> 14.4%) increase. The percentage of his FGAs that are tip-ins decreases (13% --> 7.7%), as with dunks (4.4% --> 3.8%), layups (21.3% --> 20.2%), and hooks (18.1% --> 14.4%); while the percentage of midrange attempts increases (43.2% --> 53.8%). This happens despite the fact that offensive rebound opportunities are more plentiful for Vuc when Drew is on the floor, as the team shoots worse from the field (45.7% --> 40.1%) and records more field goal misses per 100 possessions (48.6 --> 52.6).

The numbers for Maurice Harkless also support the floor geometry theory. Harkless, whose offensive game largely consists of corner threes and shots at the rim, and who relies on assists from others to score, was taken out of his game somewhat when Nicholson took the floor. His FGs were assisted less often (66.3% --> 59.5%). He shot threes (32.5% --> 29.1%) and dunks (13.9% --> 8.1%) less often, and midrange shots more often (17.9% --> 23.3%) as a share of his overall attempts. His field goal percentages from within 3 ft (57.6% --> 48.8%) and from 3-point range (38.8% --> 36.0%) decreased.

Afflalo seemed to go into hero mode when Nicholson took the floor. His usage rate went up (22.8 --> 24.3). His share of layups (16.1% --> 14.4%) and three-pointers (29.8% --> 29.3%) decreased, while his share of midrange shots increased (53.8% --> 55.8%). Those midrange makes were assisted on much less often (52.1% --> 38.8%) as were his three-point makes (90.7% --> 76.2%). And, perhaps as a result, he shot a lot worse from midrange (45.3% --> 40.8%) and from three-point range (45.1% --> 33.3%). For all his improvement as a go-to scoring option, Afflalo is still better off taking shots created from good ball movement, but when Nicholson took the court, it appears he decided to run more isolations and take more midrange shots off the dribble.

The good news for Nicholson, going into 2014-15, is that these players that didn't work as well with him on offense are either gone (Afflalo) or figure to have their roles limited due to new acquisitions (Vucevic--Frye; Harkless--Gordon). And in their place will be more players who play on the wings (Oladipo, Payton, Harris, Fournier, Frye, etc.). Even if he makes only slight improvements as a threat from the corners, he should make for a really nice backup to Frye, providing a similar offensive impact on slashing guards like Oladipo and new additions Payton and Fournier, from the bench. And if he can add the above-the-break three, which seems like the next logical progression of his game, he'll be able draw defenses even further, and become something of a "mini-me" Frye clone off the bench.

But who's to say there can only be one floor-stretching big at a time? Frye played about 67% of his minutes at C last year, and by some measures he was more effective there than at PF. So what might happen if the Magic played them both together -- Frye at C, Nicholson at PF?

It just so happens the Suns rotation provided a nice natural experiment in that very question, in the form of their backup PF, the 6'9" Markieff Morris, a career 33.3% three-point shooter. Morris shot more from above the break than in the corners (about 89% above the break, 11% from the corners), making him more similar to Frye than Nicholson. But Suns coach Jeff Hornacek played Frye and Morris together a fair amount of time, so we can observe the effect these two floor-stretching bigs brought to the slashing backcourt.

There are sample size issues with some of these conditions, especially with Dragic, and particularly in the "both off" condition, which didn't see a lot of floor time. The most common scenario during Dragic's minutes was with fellow starter Frye, and without Morris (49.5% of Dragic's minutes). After that was with backup Morris and without Frye (28.3% of Dragic's minutes). Then comes BOTH Frye and Morris (18.1% of Dragic's minutes). And finally, almost insignificantly, NEITHER Frye or Morris (only 4.9% of Dragic's minutes). The "both off" condition was similarly rare for Bledsoe and Green (5.3% of Bledsoe's minutes, 6.3% of Green's minutes), so we probably ought to take that first column with a grain of salt.

We see here that in isolation, Morris has roughly similar effects on the guards' shooting (Green and Bledsoe actually seem to prefer Morris a bit). Again, the effect of facing backup opponent defensive units should be taken into account. But whatever the impact of one or the other stretch big man, the effect is greatly magnified by playing both together. Dragic, for example, goes from 49.3 eFG% with Morris and no Frye, to 55.8 eFG% with Frye and no Morris, to 66.1 eFG% with Frye and Morris together. This is truly a dramatic shift in shooting efficiency, which all told, translates to an increase of about 20 points per 100 possessions (108-->111-->128), and nearly 30 points per 100 shots (109-->118-->137).

One driver of this observed increase in shooting efficiency is that the Suns guards' three-point percentages improve fairly uniformly, suggesting that Frye and Morris together are creating more wide open looks from outside.

While much has been made of Rob Hennigan's accumulation of defensive-minded players (Oladipo, Payton, A. Gordon), and much concern raised about the offensive side of the ball, the Magic actually appear to be well on their way towards creating a very effective offensive team. The addition of Channing Frye should opens things up significantly on the offensive end. And if Andrew Nicholson keeps making strides and extends his range to above break, watch out NBA.

Orlando Magic Top 10 Plays of 2013-2014 Season

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Adidas Thinks the Orlando Magic Have Won a Championship

Thanks for making Magic fans around the globe feel sad, Adidas. If you don't know by now, the NBA revealed that special gold tabs on the back of collars will be placed on jerseys for those teams who have won NBA championships. The amount of titles won will also be written on those gold tabs (see Spurs jersey below). Apparently the folks behind the Adidas catalog for the NBA's new jerseys assumed the Magic have won an NBA championship, as the gold tabs on the Magic uniforms above show. Not yet. Not yet. I'm a fan of this new concept, it's like a gold star in soccer. Now let's see when the Magic actually deserve to have the gold tab on their jersey.