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These are the unsung NBA players missing the bubble

Despite a staggering rise in daily COVID-19 cases and a recalcitrant governor refusing to alter course, Florida will soon host the NBA’s resumed 2020 season. Beyond the players missing the bubble, we face news breaks on another players contracting the virus. These updates turn the usual excitement of an Adrian Wojnarowski Tweet into this grim doomscroll.

Reporters like Woj helped build an insatiable appetite for breaking news and scoops. Now, the media apparatus that announces trades or free agent landings now fights to be the first to share which poor athlete has this horrifying illness. 

For the next few months, we’ll turn “The Decision” into “The Diagnosis.” 

Appreciating the PLayers missing the bubble

I dread the first pundit who attacks an asymptomatic player for sitting out with a confirmed COVID case, or the retired great who watches one too many Last Dance reruns and confuses COVID with the Flu Game. 

Instead, we’ll continue to use this space to highlight the odd and the interesting. We can appreciate the work these players put in throughout the year. I wanted to highlight a few players missing the NBA bubble, the members of the eliminated teams that John Hollinger so lovingly labeled the “Delete Eight”.

I pulled all the 2019-20 season data for players with at least 500 minutes played and ran the numbers through my MVP scoring model, with the methodology broken out here. In short, the model calculates the z-score, or count of standard deviations from the league average, for several statistics for each player.

I added some weighting to the most important metrics within that bucket. Summarizing all metrics then provides one holistic number. Last year, the model picked Giannis as MVP, and I’ll use these results to highlight the Delete Eight gems.

These aren’t your Trae Youngs or Karl-Anthony Towns, bonafide stars with huge fanbases and acclaim. Instead, modeled after the great Zach Lowe’s Luke Walton All-Stars, I’ll focus on the unsung and under-appreciated. 

As always, all data unless noted otherwise is from our friends at Basketball Reference. 

Christian Wood is finally getting paid

For years, friend of the program Dylan has shouted from the electronic rooftops that Christian Wood will become a superstar. This year, Wood proved that prognostication right.

Wood, formerly a per-36 darling who couldn’t carve out a role in stints with the 76ers, Hornets, Bucks, or Pelicans, found a home in Detroit and started to thrive. In his column, Zach Lowe explained why Wood finally got his chance for the Pistons, and how his production improved.

Detroit had nothing to lose. “He’s still maturing, a work in progress,” said Dwane Casey, the Pistons coach. “There has never been a question about his talent.”

Wood exploded on offense while toggling easily between power forward and center: 13 points per game on 57% shooting, including 39% from deep. His numbers ballooned to 23 points and 10 rebounds after the Pistons traded Andre Drummond. Wood looked like a star who could fit with any frontcourt partner. Pair him with a shooter, and Wood dives for dunks. Tag-team him with a rim-runner, and Wood can work the perimeter.

Lowe quotes Wood explaining that “versatility is the best part of my game.” His breakout in my MVP model wholly supports that claim. Wood ended up 41st in the league-wide rankings, performing nicely in nearly all key metrics. 

How did he end up scoring?

This graph highlights the z-score for each stat: anything to the right will measure the number of standard deviations above the average NBA player Wood ended up for that stat.

Wood only produced subpar results for steals and assists. While not unexpected for a big to post low assists, his steal rate is only the 45th percentile for bigs per Cleaning the Glass. His statistical profile shows an efficient game with potential room to expand. Wood posted high true shooting numbers on a nearly-league average usage rate. He’s beloved by advanced stats like PER, BPM, and WS/48, highlighting an overall impact on an otherwise dreary Detroit team. I wish we could watch him spring through defenses like this in Orlando. 

If you’re looking for more details on Wood’s sudden ascent, I highly recommend this great post on the NBA Discussion subreddit, which highlights Wood and several other blossoming young prospects from this season.

Terry Teagle’s Starting Five

Earlier this year, Bojan Bogdanovic put up 35 points without a steal, rebound, assist, or block. I dubbed these oddities Teagles in honor of Terry Teagle, who produced three games with at least 20 points and no other counting stats. 

Instead of tracking these as specific games, I wanted to calculate a score that embodies the spirit of a Teagle. Here, we assign positive value to points per game, but negative value to all other counting stats; this effectively rewards players for scoring, but demerits them for any other contribution to the box score. 

The Knicks employ the top two Teagle Scores, with Wayne Ellington and Daymean Dotson ending up first and second respectively. They’re joined by Detroit’s Sekou Doumbouya and Langston Galloway, with the Cavs’ Collin Sexton rounding out the starting five. 

Oddly enough, Ellington leads the league in this metric while only scoring 5.1 points per game. His output in all other counting stats fell so low on the z-score count that he still ended up winning.

Remember, all numbers under zero represent standard deviations below the league average. 

Poor Wayne’s facing the wrong way all over.

The reluctant heroes, those bucket-averse stars

If the Teagle Score tracks buckets at any cost, what does the opposite look like? I pulled together two versions of a Reluctance Score, aiming to find the players who do everything but put the ball in the basket.

Version one flips the calculation of the Teagle Score, where points get dinged but all other stats get bumps. Here, Draymond Green takes pole position.

Even without his usual pals Steph Curry and Klay Thompson taking the scoring load, Draymond produced everywhere but at the basket. 

The funnier version tries to capture a very specific archetype: the super-powerful hero who could score all the time but actively chooses not to. What players post the highest true shooting rate, but very low usage rates?

Damian Jones win this contest, with a 7th percentile usage rate and 94th percentile efficiency, per Cleaning the GlassJones has a true shooting rate nearly three standard deviations higher than the league average, but barely takes any shots.

You might be thinking fewer shot attempts always produce efficiency. Surprisingly, there’s little correlation between lower usage and higher true shooting. Here’s that relationship for all eligible 2019-20 players.

Jones makes the most of his limited opportunities, but he’s got another player right behind him with a much higher efficiency rate.

That guy? He’s also fun for a different reason.

Mitchell Robinson keeping the block party going

I’ve written a ton about Mitchell Robinson, the springy big for the New York Knicks who offers tantalizing upside and wonderful defensive highlights. In fact, depending on how the statisticians end up calculating everything, Robinson may end up setting the league record in field goal percentage, just beating out Wilt Chamberlain in 1972-73.

Robinson mainly scores off dunks and put-backs, with 96% of his shots happening at the rim, per Cleaning the GlassJust look at this play from the final game of the season. Robinson blocks a shot, races down the other end, and skies up for an alley oop without missing a beat.

While he’s setting records for efficiency, Robinson’s impact defensively deserves his spot on his list. He blocked over 4% of opponent field goal attempts while on the court, again per Cleaning the Glass, good for the 94th percentile among bigs. Within the players missing the bubble, Robinson’s per-game block numbers stand as tall as he does. 

This boxplot shows the distribution of block z-scores among the eliminated teams: anything within the blue box falls within the 25th to 75th percentile, and any dots you see classify as outliers. I’ve helpfully pointed out where Robinson lands on this.

He pairs with RJ Barrett as the only bright spots in another miserable Knicks season. I can’t wait to see what he’s able to do next year.

Suggested readings

If you’re looking for more coverage on the players missing the bubble, check out this two part series by The Ringer’s Dan Devine, who dives into these franchises with his usual depth and humor. I also really enjoyed the podcasthe did with the No Dunks crew about this same topic. 

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Email me mike@warmthebench.com if you have any favorites that aren’t making the trip to Orlando, or ideas on future scoring systems I should investigate. Stay safe, and wear your mask!

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