Category: Sports

Stephen Curry's Historic Season: Updated

Earlier in the 2015-16 NBA season, I took a look at how Curry's year was stacking up against some of the best in NBA history, a list which, naturally, included luminaries like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. (Kobe Bryant, however, did not make the cut, and you can read why I left out Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul Jabaar, both of whom certainly belong in the conversation.) See the original post for what went into the plots. Curry's astronomical numbers tapered off a bit throughout the course of the Golden State Warriors' record-breaking run of 73 wins and 9 losses, beating my beloved Chicago Bulls' 1995-96 mark of 72-10, but I think it's fair to say he had a year unlike any other—a truly unique and heretofore unfathomable player.

To say the least, the Warriors season has been remarkable and, if they romp through the playoffs like I suspect they might, they will have earned their stripes as the greatest team of all time. Likewise, Curry solidly has put his mark on the league and on the record books. He hit over 400—4 fucking hundred—three-pointers this year, which puts him so far above the previous record (his own) that calling it "rare air" would seem like a gross understatement.

I'm not going to say much, because I think these plots tell enough of the story, as muddled as they are. All data is from Basketball-Reference.com.

per_game_full_season

Curry's main competitors here are a shooting guard and a small forward, so it's no surprise to see his blocks and rebounds per game a bit lower. He did finish the season averaging 30.1 points per game and played fewer minutes per game than anyone on this list, which is worth considering.

standard_per_full_season

Remember that Jordan's 1995-96 three-point percentage can be solely attributed to the line having been moved in for those two years. With that in mind, Curry, obviously, is in a league of his own when it comes to shooting, which is also born out by his effective field goal percentage. I think we can agree, though, that LeBron had a pretty good year in 2012-13.

Rplot

This group of measures looks a little less'favorable for Curry. He is clearly the best offensive player of the bunch (yes, including Jordan), but, while he logged more than 2 steals per game, his defensive box plus-minus remains pretty abysmal compared to the others, with the exception of Durant. All this equates to a wash in the overall measure when comparing him to Jordan and LeBron.

advanced_full_season

The advanced stats make a pretty good case, if we needed one, for this one being among the top seasons. Curry's PER and WS/48 are right up there with the best of them. You might nick him for his VORP, even though he led the league this year. I suspect the fact that he played fewer minutes per game depressed his score a bit, but with the Warriors so stacked, I'm not sure how relevant the VORP is when comparing seasons like this. (Special pleading?)

Anyway, this year was something else.

Is Stephen Curry Having the Greatest NBA Season of All Time?

Anyone with an inkling of interest in NBA basketball will have learned by now that the Golden State Warriors are having a historic season. At the time of this writing, they are 24-1 and will very likely threaten the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72-10. That team was helmed by Michael Jordan and basically ruined me as a basketball fan in childhood. Anyone who remembers being a Bulls fan as a kid likely recalls the air of inevitability that hung around each of those championship teams, especially the 1996 squad.

Yet the Warriors may have a shot at being the best team of all time, and in the midst of this out-and-out steamroll, their point guard, Stephen Curry, may be having the best single player season in NBA history. FiveThirtyEight has a great piece on how novel Curry's own brand of greatness is, and I highly recommend you go read that prior to continuing this post.

Personally, I was curious to see how Curry's stacks up against the greatest seasons of all time. Watching him it seems obvious—and I don't usually fall back on intuition in basketball—that we have never seen anyone shoot the way he does. I will not be surprised in the least, provided his continued good health, if he goes down as the greatest shooter ever. It won't even be close. But is he Jordan or LeBron good?

I deliberated a bit about what to use as the primary criterion for selecting the best seasons and eventually settled on Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48). For one, I suspect PER overvalues shooters, whether or not they are efficient, and two, while Win Shares are commonly touted as one of the better metrics, I needed to use a rate statistic for comparison, because Curry has not yet played a full season and hence will not have had the opportunity to accrue enough Win Shares to put him in the top 10.

To get my final dataset, I pulled the top 9 WS/48 for point guards (PG), shooting guards (SG), and small forwards (SF) from Basketball-Reference.com (NBA/ABA combined), reasoning that power forwards and centers do not make for informative comparisons with a point guard, and then I added Curry's 2015–16 season to the list. The top 4 WS/48 spots, for the record, are split between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (ranked 1, 2, and 4) and Wilt Chamberlain (3), who were both centers. LeBron James is the first PG/SG/SF to appear on the list, taking the 5th spot. In all, four players were included in my dataset: Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant.

The plots below compare standard per game statistics for each player, standard percentages, and two sets of advanced/semi-advanced statistics. For the purposes of comparison, I would concentrate less on per game statistics and more on percentages and advanced stats, which will provide a much better idea about how Curry stacks up relative to the other players. I color coded the bars by each player's team to assist a bit in looking at individual seasons across statistics, and all of Curry's stats are through the first 22 games of the 2015–16 season.

pergame

Click for full-size image

Like I said, per game statistics can be misleading, but note here that Curry is playing fewer minutes than everyone else on the list, which depresses some of his per game averages relative to the other players. We also would not expect him to block many shots as a point guard. Even if we did, it should be mentioned that Jordan was the best shot-blocking guard of all time.

Click for full-size image

Click for full-size image

The second plot speaks for itself. Curry is easily having the best shooting season of the bunch, as his effective field goal percentage dwarfs those of his rivals. In fact, Jordan looks a little better on this chart than he should. Never a good three-point shooter, he logged his approximately 43% mark in 1995-96 because the NBA moved the three-point line in by over a foot, a change that persisted from 1994 through 1997 before the league switched back to the previous distance.

Offensively, Curry again outshines the others—no one appears to be in his league. Likewise, though, his overall box plus-minus remains comparable to the others' due to his apparent defensive deficit.

Click for full-size image

Click for full-size image

And finally, we get to what brought us here in the first place. Curry again dwarfs the rest as measured by WS/48, for which the league average is typically around .100. Furthermore, despite what I said about PER, it is still considered one of the better overall measures of a player's performance, and Curry's 2015-16 sits atop the greats here as well.

"Wait," you might say. "What about Value Over Replacement Player?"

Well, not so fast. Here is the equation for VORP, where BPM stands for box plus-minus:

(BPM - (-2.0)) \times (\% \text{ of minutes played}) \times \frac{\text{team games}}{82}

As you can see, that last term in the equation makes the VORPs incomparable until this season is in the books. For the record, at the time of this writing, Curry leads the league this with a VORP of 3.1. Russell Westrbook is second at 2.8.

In the end, the conclusion isn't very surprising: Curry is having a truly special season. If he continues at pace, he will have dominated the league in a fashion no one has ever done, and if you're not convinced that he could ever eclipse Jordan or LeBron, even for a single season, you will have to at least put him in the same conversation.

Side Note: I've been giving Kobe Bryant a hard time recently. He's a great player, but he is not in the same league as Michael Jordan, as folks have been fond of claiming. In fact, in case you were wondering why he was absent from this post, Bryant doesn't show up until #217 on the NBA/ABA list for WS/48. I may do a similar comparison between him, Jordan, and LeBron, and I am confident that we'll all see James is the real threat to Jordan's legacy as the GOAT. If you look at their stats here, Jordan and LeBron appear to be pretty close in skill and value.

GameScore and the 2014–15 NBA MVP Candidates

If you're a basketball fan — particularly an NBA fan — you've undoubtedly heard by now that the Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry won this year's MVP award. The only other real contender was James Harden of the Houston Rockets, but also in the mix were LeBron James (as usual), Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. Personally, I think Curry was the right pick, but no one could have argued all that bitterly had Harden won.

Needing to learn a little R, though, and inspired by a series of density charts looking at the game-by-game distribution of QB ratings for NFL quarterbacks, I decided to look at the distribution of GameScores (GmSc) among the top 5 MVP candidates for this year's NBA season. GmSc is based on John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating statistic, and while it has its problems, namely overvaluing scoring, it's good enough for my own modest purposes. The equation for GmSc is as follows:

GmSc = PTS + 0.4 \times FG - 0.7 \times FGA - 0.4 \times (FTA - FT) + 0.7 \times ORB + 0.3 \times DRB + STL + 0.7 \times AST + 0.7 \times BLK - 0.4 \times PF - TOV

The statistic is standardized so that a GmSc of 10 represents an average game.

The plots below were created using the ggplot2 package, which, as a n00b, I'm a fan of for its simplicity and the beauty of its graphical outputs. Continue reading

Jay Cutler Is One Tough SOB

You try that [screaming] with a pineapple down your windpipe. Monty Python's Flying Circus, Ep. 4: Owl Stretching Time, "Self Defence"
Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, User: Mike Shadle)

I'm no big Jay Cutler fan.  He throws off of his back foot; he holds on to the ball too long and too often when the defense is about to smash his face into the turf; he doesn't tuck the fucking ball when he rushes.

But Cutler is a pretty good quarterback.  In fact, about twenty teams in this league don't have a quarterback of his caliber, and what Jay did this season is impressive in its own right because he did it all with a pineapple down his windpipe.  The guy was sacked 52 times and played 15 regular season games, missing only one due to a concussion.  He was absolutely leveled a number of times and got back up, took the next snap, and played football.  One need only recall that disastrous game against the New York Giants that saw Cutler sacked nine times to know that he's not a quarterback who lies down on the job.

What follows is a back-of-the-envelope comparison of statistics.  There are other relevant numbers you could bring up; and there is certainly a discussion to be had if the numbers I've come up with really mean anything at all, but just for fun, let's take a look at how the quarterbacks who have been sacked at least fifty times in a season have fared over the last ten years:

Player Year Team Sacked QB Rating Record
Aaron Rodgers 2009 GNB 50 103.2 11-5
Ben Roethlisberger 2009 PIT 50 100.5 9-7
Jay Cutler 2010 CHI 52 86.3 11-5
Drew Bledsoe 2002 BUF 54 86.0 8-8
Mark Brunell 2001 JAX 57 84.1 6-10
Mark Brunell 2000 JAX 54 84.0 7-9
Jon Kitna 2007 DET 51 80.9 7-9
Jon Kitna 2006 DET 63 79.9 3-13
Steve Beuerlein 2000 CAR 62 79.7 7-9
Tim Couch 2001 CLE 51 73.1 7-9
David Carr 2005 HOU 68 69.5 2-14
David Carr 2002 HOU 76 62.8 4-12
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com

This is sorted by QB Rating—highest to lowest—and you'll see that Cutler's season ranks third.  Sure, he's actually at the high end of average on this list, but he ties Aaron Rodgers for having led his team to the best record: 11-5.  Even if we take away the Bears' questionable wins against the Lions and the Packers, Cutler would fall into a tie for second with Ben Roethlisberger at 9-7.

(On a side note, look at David Carr's rookie season in 2002 with the Houston Texans.  Seventy-six sacks.  What a welcome to the NFL.)

Cutler didn't play well in the NFC Championship; but he had a good season, all things considered, and he didn't deserve the backlash he received from fellow players and fans, especially considering that we now know he suffered a sprained MCL.  Lovie Smith and the Bears' medical staff made the decision to pull him, and it was the right one.  Cutler is no less of a football player because of it.

And he's certainly not a quitter.