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Science says Deron Williams is the NBA's best backup Point Guard

Deron Williams Cavs GD

Cleveland already hosts the league’s best Small Forward, LeBron James. They have the best handles in Kyrie Irving. Most importantly, rings don’t lie; in 2016 Cleveland was the best. Following the wizard David Griffin’s newest acquisition, Cleveland may just notch another “best” in its belt: Deron Williams, the NBA’s best backup Point Guard. A baseless claim, however, is just that. To truly articulate Williams’s superiority data analysis is a must. So let’s get scientific.

Selecting a sample

For comparison I’ve taken a four point guard sample. Though not the average backup’s representation, each guard’s contributions garner league-wide recognition. When assembling this sample, player selection prioritized notable physical attributes, starter quality “Per 36” stat-lines and supporting cast quality. Following these qualifications, I chose:

Shaun Livingston, Golden State Warriors
Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
Cory Joseph, Toronto Raptors
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), each point guard hails from a top six playoff contender. Houston, the noteworthy exclusion, lacks representation as Lou Williams’s stats reflect his Los Angles tenure and Patrick Beverly shares James Harden’s starter’s minutes. Several other names in consideration, and the reason for their exclusion were:

Austin Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers: A combo guard, Rivers’ may serve as the Clippers primary backup guard, but his relatively recent point guard transition shifts his stats. Additionally Rivers’ lack of second unit assistance artificially inflates his stats. Finally Chris Paul’s absence this season forced Rivers into the starting lineup, once again artificially inflating his stats.

J.J. Barea, Dallas Mavericks: Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle ran the point using a rotating door philosophy. Seth Curry, Deron Williams and Barea all played relatively similar minutes throughout the season. Injury, subpar performance and experimentation all muddled the starter-backup line. Therefore, comparing Williams and either individual skews results.

Cameron Payne, Chicago Bulls: Considered a project player, Payne’s numbers don’t reflect performance, a result of Russel Westbrooks ball dominance. Additionally Payne’s injury limited playtime this season. Even once Payne returned, a minutes restriction limited court time.

Physical attributes:
When evaluating a player’s physical ability, this evaluation takes three categories into consideration. Height and wingspan generally correlate with defensive ability. Weight on the other hand gives insight regarding speed and one-on-one ability. The table below tracks each of these stats.

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Evaluating physical characteristics alone, Shaun Livingston is the immediately apparent outlier. The league’s tallest point guard, his wingspan and athleticism swallow opposing one guards. Lack of a jumpshot (we’ll explore this later) forces Livingston into the utility guard position, an oversized position player staple. Questions then occur regarding Livingston’s true value. Arguably Livingston’s impact derives from defensive position play, rather than true one guard skills.

On the spectrum’s other end, Marcus Smart’s heft determines his game. Unlike most modern one guards, Smart shoots the three ball poorly. Weight bequests a player charging ability, and Smart is no exception. Playing a Small Forward’s game, Smart’s tools share striking similarity with Williams who, according to Chris Herring of FiveThrityEight, drives 6.8 times per game since January 10th.

Among this sample, Williams occupies average physical tools, though removing physical outlier Shaun Livingston puts him slightly above average. Analyzing wingspan and height alone, Williams’s physical tools technically should provide him with a defensive mismatch. Though Williams’s defensive prowess isn’t highly touted, Williams held opponents to 43.6% shooting, average shooting percentage hovering slightly above 45%. Slightly above average, Williams passes the defensive eye test. Offensively, his size truly comes into play.

Provided Lue runs a smaller lineup, Williams’s size slots him somewhat well at shooting guard. Historically, Williams’s thrives alongside a slashing one guard. Here’s SB Nation’s Josh Bowe on exactly that,

“…Williams size can allow him to defend shooting guards and play with another point guard who is more adept at knifing into a defense off pick and rolls and let Williams happily spot up around the perimeter or hit the open man when the ball is swung his way. Williams was a far better shooter when he was allowed to spot up — he hit 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season…”

Bowe practically lays out Williams fit alongside Kyrie Irving. The league’s premier slasher, a pick and roll set ran through LeBron and Kyrie creates the exact look Williams looks for. Williams’s addition brings Cleveland another high basketball IQ passer. Cleveland’s bread and butter three-point play, the “Swing Swing,” prioritizes rapid passing around the arc. Traditionally Cleveland swings either driving player to wing or key to half wing to corner (sometimes referred to as “a hockey assist”). However, Williams’s specialty is a different pass. Herring notes that Williams’s recipients of passes that travel more than thirty feet perform at impossibly high efficiency,

“…The Mavs have a whopping 107.1 percent effective field-goal rate* off those [30+ feet] looks — far higher than the league average of 59.6 percent off such passes.”

In essence, Williams needs only situate himself wing-side, playing moderator between a kick out and open man across the court. Though Williams’s size doesn’t exclusively aid his passing ability. When Williams does slot into the swing swing’s shooter role, he’ll be prepared.

Cleveland has a reputation regarding good catch-and-shoot three point shooters. They become elite. Kyle Korver for example, in Atlanta he shot a 44% field goal percentage, making 40% from three. Flash forward and Korver currently shoots 52% from the field, and a scorching 51% from three. Assuming Williams even makes half those gains (say shoot 45% off catch-and-shoot threes), his three point shooting percentage should far surpass the league average. Height should only increase those numbers further.

Take a hypothetical series against the Boston Celtics. Kyrie Irving forces Brad Stevens’ defensive hand. At all times, Stevens should want either Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart hounding Irving, limiting his effectiveness. The result? Either 5’8” Isaiah Thomas or 6’2” Terry Rozier now picks up bulkier, taller Deron Williams, giving Williams a clear mismatch.

*Effective Field Goal Rate is traditional field goal rate, but considers three-point shots 50% more valuable than two point shots, allowing for the number to exceed 100%. Per 36:

When standardizing statistics, the NBA applies the “Per 36” constant. “Per-36” represents a player’s stats assuming pace held for 36 minutes. For example, a player averages 5 points and 3 rebounds in 12 minutes of play. His “Per-36” averages work out to 15 points and 9 rebounds “Per 36”. While not perfect (it’s unlikely a 12 minute per game player could hold pace over triple the normal playtime) the metric does help minimize the difference between starter’s performance and bench players through standardization of minutes. Deron Williams’s stats thus far reflect shared starter’s minutes, requiring a standardization tool’s compensation.

Another option to analyze stats involves “per-possession”, pace of play. “Per 36” standardizes numbers across different paces. For example, tracking the per-possession stats of Tyler Ulis compared to Dante Exum. Phoenix’s 107 possessions a game are almost 15 data points a night more than Utah’s. Where Ulis’s “Per-36” takes average game pace into account, his per-possession numbers are far more erratic. Ironically enough Cleveland holds the league average pace, making their stats most conducive for “per-possession” analysis, though only when comparing amongst themselves. As this study compares cross team, “Per-36” is employed.

*For more on Advanced Stats, see Marc Price: Advanced Stats in Basketball: An Explainer Series.

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