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SSC: Timberwolves centric review of "Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How a Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other" by Robert Ayer

Articles are beginning to trickle in from the Sloan Sports conference taking place this weekend in Boston at MIT. One of the more interesting articles I’ve read so far is "Big 2’s and Big 3’s: Analyzing How a Team’s Best Players Complement Each Other" by Robert Ayer. In the paper, Mr. Ayer looks specifically at roster construction and what combinations of Big 2’s and Big 3’s over perform or under perform their efficiency statistics in earning wins. Below the fold, I give a broad overview of the concepts of the article, and quick conclusion on what it says about the Wolves current roster.

The first step in conducting such an analysis is how to classify types of players. The short story is that the author used the following statistical categories to group players: points per game, offensive rebounds per game, defensive rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, blocks per game, turnovers per game, personal fouls per game, field goal attempts per game, field goals made per game, free throw attempts per game, free throws made per game, 3 pointers attempted per game, and 3 pointers made per game. The long story is written in the article, go read it.

  • Cluster-1: Limited, role-playing centers: Erick Dampier, Tree Rollins
  • Cluster-2: High scoring, dynamic guards (mostly 2 guards, but some 3’s like Grant Hill), typically not great 3 point shooters, or if they are, don’t shoot very many: Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Tracy McGrady, Adrian Dantley.
  • Cluster-3: Somewhat limited, role-playing backcourt players: John Paxson, Jose Berea
  • Cluster-4: Wing 3 point shooters: Dan Marleje, Shane Battier
  • Cluster 5-: Dynamic, well-rounded power forwards, strong rebounding, dynamic 3’s: Chris Webber, Pau Gasol, Kevin McHale
  • Cluster-7: High scoring, high assist, high steals, high turnover point guards, who don’t shoot 3s: Kevin Johnson, Isaiah Thomas
  • Cluster-8: Multi-faceted, high scoring wings, with high assists for their position and are great 3 point shooters: Paul Pierce, Danny Ainge
  • Cluster-9: Pass first, low scoring point guards: Avery Johnson, Mark Jackson
  • Cluster-10: Limited 4’s; very strong rebounders, defense oriented: Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Buck Williams
  • Cluster 11: 3 point shooting bigs, i.e. stretch 4’s: Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Detlef Schrempf
  • Cluster 12: High scoring post players, high rebounds, high blocks: Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson
  • Cluster 13: Well-rounded small forwards; generally don’t shoot many 3 pointers: Luol Deng, James Worthy
  • Cluster 14: Role-playing big men without an exceptional skill, but contribute in several categories: Udonis Haslem, Kurt Thomas

For example, classifying the current Timberwolves Big 3, I would place Kevin Love within cluster 5 (even though he definitely shares features with Cluster 11) and I would place Ricky Rubio within Cluster 9. Placing Pekovic is probably the hardest player of the three to do because of his defensive limitations at center. In that sense, he probably resembles Cluster 5 the most as a dynamic well rounded power center that scores well and is a strong rebounder; however, I will admit this is a debatable point.

The study then looked at cluster combination of teams to evaluate which clusters over performed or underperformed efficiency metrics. The first conclusion I want to point out is one TWolves fans have known since 1989:

Finally, the analysis highlighted the importance of multi-faceted small forwards, who shoot 3 pointers well. Teams that featured this type of player tended to over-perform expected wins by the greatest amount, as long as there was not another similar player among the top players on the team.

After 20+ seasons of NBA basketball at the Target Center, the Wolves are still in search of this multi-faceted small forward.

A second conclusion aligns very much with conventional wisdom:

Talented, high-scoring centers fit well with more limited, defense-oriented power forwards who rebound very well, which also aligns with conventional wisdom.

Finally, the data tables given at the conclusion of the paper give the metrics for various combinations of Big 2’s and Big 3’s. The worst performing combination of any Big 2 or Big 3 is a 5-5-9 combination that, you guessed it, are the likeliest fits for Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Ricky Rubio.

What does this say about our team as currently constructed? Should the Wolves blow up the Big 3, and trade Pekovic, based on this analysis? Tough questions. But on a more positive note, the study also looked at coaches and Rick Adleman, while not ranked the best, is clearly an above average coach.

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