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Getting to the Bottom of 4 and 5



One of the biggest themes that ran through the conversations of those of us who watched the Wolves play last year was the insistence of some that the Wolves need to acquire a "real" center so that Al Jefferson could move back to his "natural" position, the PF. 

This theme has spun off on a few tangents since the end of the season; the most notable of which is the 'Kevin Love duplicates what the team already has' argument, which is best represented by this post from Empty the Bench:
The primary reason last summer’s trade of Garnett was a success is that Minnesota netted future All Star Al Jefferson. He will be the second superstar power forward in Timberwolves history, but it appears McHale is intent on misusing his talents as well by forcing Big Al to center and refusing to surround him with complementary talent.
Then just hours later McHale did get cute and traded for Kevin Love, a player who is by all accounts completely redundant with Al Jefferson. For those few hundred people out there who actually watched Wolves games religiously last year it was painfully obvious that Al Jefferson thrived as a power forward and struggled as a center.
This move will force Big Al into the middle, a position where he is both uncomfortable and significantly less effective.
Jefferson was perhaps the best offensive power forward in the NBA last season. His 21.1 points, 50% field-goal shooting and 3.8 offensive rebounds a game were elite. He displays a polished set of footwork and post moves that are only rivaled by perhaps Duncan and Garnett. There is no finer power forward in the NBA in terms of low-post footwork and splitting a double team.

 Defensively Big Al struggled for most of the season, but it was most noticeable when he was asked to guard longer and stronger centers. He lacks lateral quickness, length, defensive footwork and the instincts to recover. The numbers back up that anecdotal assessment. While playing at power forward Jefferson’s PER was 29.3 while the opponent’s power forward had a PER of just 19.5. That +9.8 PER ratio is stellar. However, when Jefferson is moved to the middle his advantage quickly falls off. As a center his PER went down to 25.3 while the opposing center’s PER rose to 20.4, amounting to a mere +4.8 advantage. At least statistically, Al Jefferson was less than half as effective when asked to play center.

At first glance, this argument just seems to make sense: Al Jefferson is the Wolves' best player and he's playing out of position.  If the team wants to be good, Big Al should be allowed to play at the spot where he is truly dominant, and Kevin Love does not allow for such a thing to occur.  However, upon looking into the nuts and bolts of this argument, I'm not so sure that it holds much weight. 

Empty the Bench's Big Al at the 4 argument rests on 2 main points: anecdotal evidence of having watched Big Al "struggle" at the 5 compared to the 4 and PER data from 82 Games.  Those of us who have watched a fair amount of Wolves basketball can recognize where the post is coming from with the former, and those of us who read Britt's page are familiar with the latter. 

The problem here is that the data from 82 Games doesn't necessarily support the conclusion that Jefferson, and the Wolves, are better off with the big guy at the 4.  In fact, it is pretty much aligned against the argument that ETB is making. 

If you look at Jefferson's floor time stats by position, you will see, as ETB rightly notes, that Big Al has a much larger PER differential at the 4 than he does at the 5.  What you will also notice is that Jefferson played a total of 3% of his team's minutes at the 4 while logging nearly 70% at the 5.  I don't think I need to dig too deeply into the flaws of comparing sample sizes of such a wide variety. 

If you broke Jefferson's court time data from the entire year and transported its percentages into a single 48 minute game, 82 Game's data has him playing 33.12 minutes at the 5 while logging only 1.44 at the 4.  Again, comparing data with that big of a gap is problematic at best. 

Another item of note from Jefferson's floor time data is the net PER gain at each position.  Let's forget for a moment that we're talking about a 23 to 1 playing time ratio and concentrate on the fact that Jefferson's PER outperforms opposing 4s by 9.8 while "only" racking up a +4.8 at the 5.  What this comparison fails to do is note how Big Al came to these lofty numbers not only compared to his opponent, but compared to his own position as well.  What do I mean by this?

Jefferson's PER production at the 4 was 29.3.  He put up a 25.3 at the 5.  To give you an idea of just how good these numbers are, a 25 PER is listed as being in the range of a bona fide All-Star and a weak MVP candidate, while 29.3 is pretty much MVP territory.  As far as his own production is concerned, and not taking into account the big gap in minutes between each spot, Jefferson has a +4 PER at the 4 compared to the 5. 

Jefferson's opponents have a much smaller gap.  His marks at the 4 are able to rack up a borderline All-Starish 19.5 PER while centers bring the number up to 20.4.  That's a +0.9 (in Jefferson's favor) differential at the 4. 

Where am I going with all of this?  The bottom line with Jefferson's floor time stats is this: for a guy who spends nearly 70% of his team's floor time at the 5, he's putting up All Star numbers on the offensive end while allowing his opponents to put up numbers that may get them a few All Star votes if they were able to maintain that level of production for an entire year.  Big Al is a bad defender at both the 4 and 5, but he is an All Star performer at each position as well, and he was able to do so at the 5 with a much larger sample size than at the 4.  Does he carry a net PER gain at the 4 that is much more impressive than the 5?  Only if you are willing to give equal footing to every 1.44 minutes of court time compared to every 33.12 minutes. 

This comparison really starts to fall apart when you put Jefferson's floor time numbers into the greater context of the team's positional stats.  Out of all their positions, the only spot on the floor where the Wolves outscored, outrebounded, and out PER'd their opponents was at the 5.  Instead of asking questions about how Kevin Love is "completely redundant" to Al Jefferson, how about asking this: How on earth can a 22 win team even think about moving their best player away from their best position? 

Big Al is a center and a pretty damn good one at that.  If he is able to put up similar numbers next year at the 5, with 3 perimeter players who can shoot 40% from 3, as well as a 4 who will hopefully provide the team with a net gain at the position as well as being able to space the lane, the Wolves will be fine with Jefferson playing his "unnatural" position.  If Big Al was as effective as he was last year while playing out of position with a ton of double teams, bad perimeter d, 1/2 a point guard, and no secondary scoring threat...well, imagine what he could do with a real power forward next to him.