With the All-Star Game and the trade deadline around the corner, it's appraisal time in the NBA.
Front offices and fan bases alike are taking inventory of the league, taking stock of the players' and teams' strengths and weaknesses, trying to get a grip on where improvements need to be made. But, as happens in most walks of life, reputations lag behind reality. Conventional wisdom often might not prove to be wisdom at all.
Where's the disconnect? Here are eight surprising statistics that buck the conventional wisdom.
The conventional wisdom: Golden State is an offense-first team.
The unconventional stat: 16th in pace-adjusted offense, fourth in pace-adjusted defense.
Stephen Curry. Klay Thompson. David Lee. With that high-scoring trio, the Warriors have to be one of the most potent offenses in the league, right? Not under Mark Jackson. The Warriors appear to be a high-octane offense because they churn out 99 possessions per game (fifth-highest in the league). But it's mostly fool's gold. Once we control for their tempo, they're actually worse than league average on that end of the floor.
The Warriors should be better at putting the ball in the basket, but they've rolled to a 29-20 record on the back of their defense, which ranks in the top five in fewest points allowed per possession. Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut have made this team a surprisingly stingy squad, but Golden State isn't going anywhere with Harrison Barnes and Jordan Crawford delivering sub-10 PERs like they are.
The conventional wisdom: Evan Turner is having a breakout season.
The unconventional stat: 13.6 PER
Turner's fourth season in the NBA is a classic case of pace inflation. He's averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists, stats that, to the naked eye, seem to fuel the notion that he finally has figured out the NBA game. But the 76ers' style of play has more to do with his big numbers than vastly improved skill.
The 76ers crank out 102.3 possessions per-game -- three more than the next-speediest team and about six more than average. This means more shots for Turner and more opportunities to drive up his points per game. For possible suitors at the trade deadline, Turner's below-average 13.6 PER is a more honest appraisal of his abilities than his glossy traditional stats. Don't buy into the hype.
The conventional wisdom: Blake Griffin is a bad defender.
The unconventional stat: 71st percentile in pick-and-roll defense.
For too many observers, assessing a big man's defense comes down to a singular question: "How many blocks per game does he have?" That measuring stick has never been kind to short-armed Griffin, who has just 0.6 blocks per game this season. But even for the best swatters, a blocked shot explains only a couple of stops over the course of a 95-possession game. What about the other 93?
Enter the pick-and-roll defense. Among the gallery of Synergy statistics, Griffin shines in their measure of perhaps the most important defensive skill for a big man in today's NBA. Griffin has allowed just 142 points on 202 plays that ended with the ball going to the big in a pick-and-roll. That's 0.7 points per play, a rating that ranks among the top half of big men in the league. Couple that with the versatility that allows Doc Rivers to put Griffin on LeBron James, as he did Wednesday night, and you have yourself a far more useful defender than his reputation suggests.
The conventional wisdom: Anthony Davis is an elite rim protector.
The unconventional stat: 60.4 percent opponent field goal percentage at the rim.
Undeniably, "The Brow" has taken his game to the next level in his sophomore season with a top-five PER (26.7) and a league-leading 132 blocked shots. Among NBA players, he is a revelation. But for some viewers, this might be a revelation, as well: Opponents shoot better at the rim when he's on the floor than when he's on the bench.
Pulling up the NBA's StatsCube database, we find that the Pelicans allow 60.4 percent shooting in the restricted area with Davis on the floor. With him on the bench? That drops to 57.1 percent. Although that's not all on Davis, he still has some work to do if he wants to approach the level of elite paint landlords such as Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. And Davis has all the time in the world to do that. He is just 20 years old and well on his way, but he could use some help.
The conventional wisdom: LaMarcus Aldridge is a world-class scorer.
The unconventional stat: Below-average 51.5 true shooting percentage.
We'd like to think the basketball audience has become more nuanced in the past 50 years than just blindly trusting points per game. But the buzz surrounding Aldridge's season suggests we have a ways to go. The truth is that his gaudy scoring average of 24.1 points per game overstates his scoring prowess.
Although we don't typically think of big men as high-volume shooters, Aldridge is more Allen Iverson than he is Tim Duncan. He leads the league in field goal attempts (he has 42 more than Kevin Durant in 89 fewer minutes), and his 51.5 percent true shooting percentage -- a shooting efficiency metric that incorporates 3-point shooting and free throws -- ranks 138th among those qualified for the scoring title. Again: 138th. Bottom line: Aldridge is an elite shot-taker, not shot-maker.
The conventional wisdom: Lance Stephenson is an All-Star snub.
The unconventional stat: Sub-20 PER in triple-double games.
For casual viewers, leaving Stephenson off the All-Star ballot might seem like a crime. I mean, look at all of those triple-doubles! We've been conditioned to believe that triple-doubles are badges of outstanding play. But is that really the case? Is tallying 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists (Stephenson's outing against Boston on Dec. 22) automatically a better performance than, say, LeBron James' game when he put up 30 points on 13-for-17 shooting, 9 rebounds and 9 assists against Utah on Dec. 16? Of course not. Triple-doubles might be tidy, but they're not especially telling.
If you still think Stephenson should get the New Orleans nod because of his propensity to tally triple-doubles, consider this: Stephenson's PER in triple-double games is 19.6, lower than fellow All-Star snub Kyle Lowry's PER in all games (20.0). So, at Stephenson's supposed statistical best, he doesn't measure up to Lowry's productivity on an average night. If there's someone who deserves to sneak into the All-Star festivities, it's Lowry, the East's best point guard, not Stephenson, who is having a good but not great season.
The conventional wisdom: J.J. Hickson is a top-notch rebounder.
The unconventional stat: His teams rebound better with him off the floor.
When the Nuggets signed Hickson for the midlevel exception this summer, Denver general manager Tim Connelly billed the big man as "a relentless rebounder" in the team's news release. Based on traditional statistics, that might be the case; he averaged 12.8 rebounds per 36 minutes last season and has 12.1 boards per 36 minutes this season. By this measure, he's one of the five best rebounders in the game.
But a funny thing happens when Hickson goes to the bench: His teams actually do better on the boards. This season, the Nuggets collect 50.6 percent of available rebounds when he's on the floor, but that rises to 51.5 percent when he's on the bench, according to NBA.com. Last season in Portland, same thing: The Blazers actually rebounded a hair better with him on the bench. That shouldn't happen with a player of his reputation. So, is Hickson a relentless rebounder or a relentless rebound thief? Take heed, potential trade partners.
The conventional wisdom: The Heat are better with small ball.
The unconventional stat: Plus-17.6.
Remember when the Heat reinvented themselves by going "small" and deploying Chris Bosh at the 5? That's so 2013. Erik Spoelstra, ever eager to push the envelope, has tasked Bosh with stretching his range beyond the 3-point line to open the door for "big" lineups with Chris Andersen and Greg Oden. And it's working. We've seen the Bosh-Birdman duo play about 10 minutes per game this season, and the formation has blown out opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
That's far more fruitful than the team's plus-6.7 differential overall. It's early, but Spoelstra also should like what he sees from Oden next to Bosh so far; the Heat have outscored opponents 91-79 with that duo on the floor in 39 minutes of action. Given Indiana's rise, the Heat might be thinking this more and more as we approach the postseason -- go big or go home.