Don't let the minutia distract you from the big picture.
Data has never been more readily available than it is today for NBA fans, teams, decision-makers and analysts. There's no shortage of minutia to bury yourself in. An abundance of data can be dangerous, as we seek to make sense of every data point, spin it to validate beliefs and toy with the metrics to innovate and set ourselves apart.
To some degree, basketball is unquantifiable and immeasurable. Players make impact in ways that aren't statistically relevant. The danger of our current analytics method is that, while we have data and measures for more facets of the game, we still don't have it for all facets. Those who find ways to impact the game in ways that can't be quantified, particularly on defense, are at more of a disadvantage than ever.
This isn't some diatribe on anti-analytics. To the contrary, I'm a huge supporter and user of data to inform coaching and front office decisions.
So long as it's the right data.
We can't get farther away from remembering what the big picture is here: to win. Win games, but more importantly win postseason series and win championships. As draft season comes up, it's vital to look at some of the common threads of successful teams in the modern NBA and why that should always be the ultimate framing for discussing what functional skills a draft prospect brings to the table.
In 2020, 14 of the 25 All-Stars saw their teams make it to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. Of the 8 teams, six (Boston, LA Lakers, Toronto, Miami, Milwaukee, Houston) had multiple All-Stars, while the LA Clippers had Paul George narrowly miss an appearance and the Nuggets see a late-season emergence of Jamal Murray to All-Star production.
Elite talent wins games and championships. Bar none, the goal in the draft should be to accumulate All-Star talent whenever possible.
When discussing which players should go where in the top ten, we often think about "fit". The Cleveland Cavaliers have Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, for example, so they should avoid point guards and look at other positions with the 5th overall pick. Such an assumption is only valid if the Cavaliers believe Sexton and Garland are those All-Star building blocks and realistic anchors of a contender. Otherwise, by avoiding taking a guard based on fit would set them back farther.
There's a difference between a foundation and a championship foundation. The best players you currently have will always be your team's foundation, but that doesn't mean they can be part of a championship foundation. If you have the ability to add a player with traits to become an All-Star and a high-caliber alpha male, you take it.
The discussion shifts from there to "what traits make a player an All-Star that can win?"
This year, most All-Star wings or guards possessed the following qualities:
The bigs who made All-Star teams were very unique and play a variety of styles, but all are strong passers.
Shooting the 3 is King
The team who shot a higher percentage from 3 than their opponent this postseason, as of September 5th, went 31-16. That's equivalent of a 55-win team throughout the season.
It sounds simple: make more shots and win. Nothing has a greater correlation to winning games than making more shots than your opponent, regardless of how you get there.
But dive into the numbers a little more and a few patterns begin to stand out.
In those 12 games where the less-efficient 3-point shooting team won, they'd typically make up for it in volume. The winner made more treys in 8 of those 16 occasions. There were two games where teams shot the exact same percentage on the same attempts from deep, which are statistical anomalies but should be noted.
That means the team who makes fewer threes and shoots a poorer percentage is 8-37. That winning percentage would be the second-worst of the last decade, only with the Process Sixers proving more in futility.
Translation: You need to be able to shoot.
Beyond that, teams that shoot 40 percent from deep in a game this postseason are 12-3. All of those losses came when their opponent shot above 39 percent as well, negating the impressive factor.
Translation: shooting exceptionally well is almost a guarantee of success. The only thing that can beat it is, well, exceptional shooting from your opponent.
When evaluating prospects, I'm hyper-involved on 3-point shooting. College sample sizes can fluctuate in the one-and-done era, but a large reason I sour on some prospects that are touted by others is because they don't check either of these first two boxes we're discussing: they don't jump out as having that All-Star potential and as a role player they don't effectively add to shooting efficiency.
Why do guys like Matt Thomas of the Toronto Raptors or Duncan Robinson of the Miami Heat make their way into the league and earn playoff minutes on championship-caliber teams? They're elite at a role that's important today. Draft rankings should reflect as much. Elite shooting prospects make their way up my board, even if they lack well-rounded play elsewhere. If you're great at it, you'll find minutes and a role.
It's why Isaiah Joe is a top-fifteen prospect on my board, why I loved Corey Kispert before he withdrew to return to school, and why Nate Darling is higher than Isaiah Stewart or Jaden McDaniels. It's why I favor Nico Mannion over LaMelo Ball and Tyrell Terry over Tyrese Maxey. Those other playmaking skills are important, but shooting is king.
Defend the Paint
Even though 3-point shooting wins games, the law of averages dictates that over the course of a long season, 3-point defense is a little related to luck. Rates level out, and there's really only so much control a defender has over whether someone makes a shot over them.
What cannot happen is working so hard to prevent the 3-pointer that the rim becomes available. Even shooting 40 percent, the benchmark for victory featured above, only yields an expected point per shot of 1.2. That's the equivalent of shooting 60 percent at the rim.
Regardless of the luck your team is afforded on whether your opponent hits shots, one area that can be consistent and should be drilled is on defending the interior. It's backed up by those elite eight teams from this year.
Five of the eight were in the top-ten across the league in field goal defense at the rim, including the Bucks and Raptors as the top two.
Here's where the analysis comes in: two of the other three, the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat, play a more switch-heavy scheme based on their mobility at the 5. The Heat have All-Star Bam Adebayo to funnel things to and change defenses throughout the game. They were fourth in lowest amount of shots allowed at the rim -- their deterrence almost negates the high percentage.
The Rockets have embraced a unique style where they're willing to trade 3s for 2s. But more importantly, they're switch-heavy and don't allow a high amount of shots at the rim as a result. By switching at the point of attack, they negate any advantages gained on ball screens, which typically lead to finishes at the hoop.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, but the goal should be the same: defend the arc. That can be done by anchoring a big man nearby and challenging shots effectively (as seen in Drop coverage) or switching and being athletic enough to make rim attacks less frequent (usually done by switching).
What does that mean for big men prospects? Be very good at one of these. If you're functional at both, you're a rare piece that is highly valuable.
Only four teams ran post-ups on more than 7 percent of their possessions - only one over 8 percent. Why fixate on back-to-basket scoring if it's not a skill that'll be utilized at the next level? The only team above that was the Sixers, who feature Joel Embiid, the exception to the rule.
If a prospect's strength is in the post-up, and they don't provide one of the two main defensive PNR coverages, what role do they fill functionally? Daniel Theis are starting at the 5 on playoff teams. Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez gained relevance on offense by transitioning from post scorers to 3-point threats. All four are superb with angles defensively.
Be modern, don't just be good.