January 3, 2010

Monta's Plus-Minus In Detail

Tim Kawakami posted thoughts on this over the weekend, and Geoff Lepper, among others, has posted thoughts on said thoughts. We Worriers have been thinking similar thoughts for awhile now. Put simply, Monta Ellis's current plus-minus numbers are worse than any full-time player's has ever been. This is curious... dare I say, even thought-provoking.

Kawakami acknowledges, and Lepper emphasizes, that there's plenty of noise in Monta's off-court numbers, as he's only been off the floor for scattered garbage-time minutes. I largely agree. It's a point that loses its power as the season progresses -- the Warriors have now played 212 minutes with Monta on the bench, more than four games' worth of minutes, which ain't exactly chicken feed. And garbage time data is not as worthless as some believe... if your garbage-time unit consistently outscores its opponents, you should probably think about giving some of those guys bigger roles. (Monta's dogged defense and positive results in garbage time, in fact, is what got him on our map in the first place.) But overall, the point stands. Our non-Monta numbers are limited, noisy, and show an unsustainably high level of offensive efficiency. For now, we can disregard them.

But the on-court numbers are not as easy to ignore. Monta has played 1328 minutes, a full half-season for most NBA players. In that time, we have been outscored by 209 points. When Monta is on the floor, we get outscored by 7.6 points per 48 minutes. That's just about how much the Wizards got outscored by last year... they went 19-63. With Monta on the floor, we've played like one of the very worst teams in basketball, worse than even our record would indicate.

Now, that's not to say that this is all Monta's fault. We've suffered from injuries, from a lack of size, from stupid lineups, from error-prone young 'uns... we've got tons of issues that have nothing to do with Monta. Monta Ellis is not the problem. But thus far, he has been no kind of a solution, either. Tyreke Evans also leads an inexperienced and undersized team, and his Kings are 4.5 games better than Monta's Warriors. Is that all due to peripheral factors, or is Monta actually less effective than the other stars who put up big numbers?

Let's take a look at this situation, using plus-minus stats from 82games.com and the metrics at Basketball Prospectus. (Some of these won't include the last couple games... the numbers we're dealing with won't be perfect. But these last four games have not dramatically changed the shape of his season, as he has continued to put up below-par plus-minus numbers, despite big production.)

Starting with defense first... an analysis of our defense with Monta doesn't paint any kind of clear picture. Teams murder us in the paint and score with ease against us; that obviously sucks, but that's not really Monta's fault, and the (limited) off-court data doesn't exactly show our defense to be healthy with him sitting, either. There's no statistical indication that he's making a huge impact on that end, but he hasn't hurt, and given that he's drawn the toughest perimeter assignment most nights, my guess is we'd fare a bit worse without him. There is no indication that Monta's defense is a problem.

Offense is, it's safe to say, a different story. When Monta's on the floor, our offense is bad. Really bad. When he's been on the floor (through December 26th), we've scored just 102.5 points per 100 possessions. Only the Pacers, Bulls, Bobcats, Nets and Wolves have scored less effectively this season. With Monta, we rate poorly by each of Dean Oliver's Four Factors: we shoot inefficiently, we don't take many free throws, we almost never grab offensive rebounds, and we turn the ball over a whole bunch.

How much of this is Monta's fault? There's no polite way to say this, but... probably a lot of it. While he can't really be blamed for our offensive rebounding woes, as that has more to do with the lack of grownups in the frontcourt, he's implicated heavily in the other three problems. His scoring efficiency, while not terrible, is worse than most Warriors'; among guys who've played a lot; his .525 TS% ranks him ahead of only Randolph (by a hair) and Radmanovic, and he can't hold a candle to Maggette, Morrow or CJ. Turnovers? He leads the league by a mile, and in fact has a chance to break the thirty-year-old record for turnovers in a season. Free throws? He's taken his share, but his heavy minutes make his totals look more impressive than they are... he only takes 5.4 free throws per 36 minutes, below average for a featured shooting guard.

When Monta's on the floor, our offense is the Monta Ellis Show. And while it's fun to watch and impressive, it's not very helpful when it comes to winning basketball games. The Monta Ellis Show comes with a boatload of misses and turnovers, it precludes a number of more efficient specialized offensive weapons, and it features too few trips to the line. One might argue that our offense would be even worse without his Herculean effort, but there is no reason, statistical or otherwise, to believe that that's true. When Monta's off the floor this year, we shoot better, we turn it over less, we get to the line more often, and we even grab more offensive boards... we do everything better. Grains of salt abound when it comes to this off-court data, of course, but we competed just fine offensively with CJ at the helm last season, too. You'd have real trouble constructing a case that we need Monta Ellis to score. There is a good amount of offensive talent on this team.

The idea that Monta's brilliant moves and huge nights are hurting our offense will sound ludicrous and counterintuitive to some. They will scoff at the idea that a guy can give you 25 points a night and still hamper your ability to score. But those people will be ignoring the fact that a basketball offense is an equilibrium between players, not a mere summation of contributions. This is not baseball, where the addition of a big scorer has a linearly positive effect on your offense. Basketball is a game of inherent opportunity costs. And when Monta is shooting a fifteen-footer, Morrow and CJ are not taking threes, Maggette and Randolph are not getting themselves to the line, and Biedrins is not shooting from two feet away. Monta's Kobe routine closes off good options; that'd be okay if he was actually producing at a Kobe-type level, but he isn't. The result is that we score inefficiently and turn it over a lot.

None of this is to say that Monta sucks or should be benched or even that he's being selfish. He's making a good-faith and impressive effort to succeed in the role he's been given. But he is not succeeding, because the role simply asks for too much; he is good, but not this good. It's time to cut his minutes to 36 and his playmaking responsibilities to nil, to draw up some plays for some other guys and to stop pretending that the guy is All-World. He's not, but he's a very good player, and if we understand his limits and account for them properly, he can start to help us win some games.

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