As I was making my way through the interwebs earlier tonight, I saw an article on Hardwood Paroxysm comparing Andrea Bargnani so far this season to Dirk Nowitzki. Before I read the article I was thinking, man, someone is feeling optimistic. Then I read the article. And my mind nearly exploded.
Bargnani is a center/power forward for the Toronto Raptors; he was drafted first overall in 2006, ahead of guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy (not as impressive now), Rajon Rondo, and…. actually, that draft sucked. While he scores a good amount, Bargnani doesn’t do much of anything else. But as the Paroxysm article points out, his numbers so far this year are pretty comparable to Dirk last year, and Dirk was pretty good, right? Let’s take a look at Bargs (all numbers per-36 minutes when relevant): he’s shooting a little less than last year, but his field goal percentage is at an all-time high; actually 40 points above his previous career-high. His three point percentage is low for him, but he isn’t shooting as many so it isn’t hurting as much. His free throw percentage is also a little low for him, but he’s getting to the line more than ever and 80% is still pretty good. He’s at a career high in rebounding, with most of it coming on the defensive end. He’s also at a career high in assists and career low in fouls. These transfer over to his advanced stats; his true shooting percentage is 39 points over his previous career high and his effective field goal percentage is 23 points higher.
This all came as a surprise to me, especially since I read about it while the Raptors were giving the Wizards their first win of the season. It’s also because Bargnani is the poster boy for one-dimensional, unhelpful scorers according to Wins Produced. Bargs has in fact led the league in negative wins produced before due to his lack of a desire to do anything besides shoot and the minutes he keeps getting anyway. WP isn’t alone in that opinion, although it varies somewhat; Win Shares has had him consistently below average, PER never had him as average until last year (and ok, he was a half point over average in 2010), both flavors of RAPM say he’s below average, ezPM says he’s below average, ASPM says he’s below average… it isn’t a question of if he’s bad, but how bad. So his performance through 9 games so far (that’s what bball-reference currently has, although his game tonight was fairly consistent) is surprising.
How surprising? Let’s say Bargnani gets to 2800 minutes, like he played in 2010. At his current Win Shares, he would produce over 10 wins, which is over two-thirds of his career WS production. His PER has jumped about 7 points, which would be worth 18 wins or more than his career PER production. ezPM has him as a plus player for the first time ever; RAPM has him either a bit below average or a bit above, depending on which link you click. Wins Produced isn’t quite as impressed, but his WP48 of .07 would be only the second time he wasn’t negative (with the first time being a rating of .002). The .07 corresponds to only 4 wins over 2800 minutes, but last year he cost the Raptors 6 wins, so that’s quite a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I’m ready for a world where Andrea Bargnani is a borderline-average player.
The other half of what’s surprising about Bargnani is his usage. Or I imagine it should be surprising for some people. A fair number of people in the NBA stats community believe in a usage-efficiency trade-off, and commonly point to a post by Eli Witus. The post claims that when a player has to increase his usage (technically, increasing his shots taken, free throws taken, and/or turnovers) he becomes less efficient. I’ve noted in the past that the regression is pretty weak, and we should assume that perhaps usage has an influence on efficiency but there are many other things that affect efficiency, and likely affect it more than usage. But I still see the usage-efficiency trade-off argument appear pretty often.
So the ‘surprising’ part about Bargnani is that he’s doing all this with a career-high usage level. It’s a 28.9%, which is up only a little from last year’s 28.1%, but both are 5% higher than anything in his first four seasons. Thus Bargnani becomes an example of the inconsistency of the trade-off: from 2010 to 2011 he fits the bill, increasing his usage and playing worse. But from 2011 to this season, he increases his usage and plays better.
There’s a lot of basketball left to play obviously, so Bargnani could return to form. And I would be pretty comfortable with that. But in the meantime, he is full of all sorts of surprises. Some people might even think he’s making ‘the leap’, which I don’t have any numbers on but I bet is pretty rare for guys who have already played five years and 11,000 minutes. We’ll have to see how his season turns out.