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Why You Should Definitely Start Panicking, In Handy Scatterplot Format

While nothing about this MSU basketball team is really clicking right now, the major problems clearly lie more on offense than on defense.  KenPom still has MSU as the 15th best defensive team in the country.  The team is holding opponents to 41.2% shooting inside the arc and shows signs of righting the ship on the defensive glass.  In terms of individual game performances, Duke is the only opponent to have hit the 110 mark in offensive efficiency, while MSU has held six opponents (including South Carolina and Texas) below the 100 mark.

And all those numbers have to be viewed in the context of the large number of easy transition baskets MSU has conceded due to offensive ineptitude, rather than defensive breakdowns.  That context makes the defensive 2-point percentage figure all the more remarkable.  (Admittedly, some of Texas' easy baskets last night were the result of a failure to hustle back on defense by MSU, but that's been the exception, not the rule.)

On offense, meanwhile, MSU has dropped all the way to #45 in adjusted efficiency.  The team's turnover percentage ranks 259th in the country.  Only 3-point shooting, which went missing last night, has kept the team afloat on the offensive end.  The team has yet to hit the 110 mark in offensive efficiency against a quality (top-100) opponent and has now put up two sub-90 clunkers.

Big picture, individual players aren't growing into the specific roles needed to form a coherent and effective offensive unit.  To illustrate that assertion, I've scatterplotted MSU's individual tempo-free indicators.  Technical stuff and perplexing graphical depiction after the jump.

Technical background:

Offensive rating is a measure of an individual player's efficiency. In its simplest form, it's points produced divided by possessions used. If you want to know more than that, you must read Dean Oliver's Basketball on Paper. Otherwise you'll have to take my word that the formula is about as good as it gets for assessing personal efficiency based on the stats that are recorded.

Values of ORtg fall in the same range as team efficiencies - 100 is about average, higher values are better. Considering that individual stats are often dependent on team interactions, to say that Player A is better than Player B because he has a better offensive rating is a serious misuse of this metric.

A very important aspect of offensive rating is that it must be used in conjunction with the possession usage (%Poss) column to have any value. The average player will use 20% of his team's possessions while he is on the court. The majority of players fall between 15% and 25%. A player that has a high offensive rating and uses a lot of possessions is especially valuable (example: Adam Morrison, 122.8 ORtg, 31.4% possessions used).

To get a sense of how individual offensive performances fit into team performance, the two indicators described above can be plotted against each other.  For example, here's last season's MSU player data (numbers pulled from StatSheet):


The midpoint on the vertical axis is set somewhat arbitrarily.  Across college basketball, 100 would be average.  To get back to a top-20 level of efficiency, MSU would need to be around 110--although the higher minutes and usage rates of the team's stars pull up the average.  I went with 105 as a reasonable measure of where the majority of MSU's contributors need to be for the team to perform consistently on offense.

Players in the upper, right-hand quadrant are your stars--guys who can take on a more assertive role in the offense and still turn possessions into points efficiently.  MSU had four such performers last season.  Players in the upper, left-hand quadrant are efficient role players--Chris Allen and Delvon Roe last season.  Players in the lower, right-hand quadrant are, to put it as uncharitably as possible, ball hogs; they use up a lot of possessions without many points to show for it.  Players in the lower, left-hand quadrant are guys who are limited and know it.

All in all, last year's team split up the offensive duties the way you want a team to.  The guys who took the most assertive roles on offense were the guys able to create offense efficiently.  Everybody else stuck to more limited roles, with one player outside and one player inside performing their specific roles very efficiently.  And, keep in mind, the 2010 MSU squad only ranked 28th in the country in offensive efficiency over the course of the full season.  To become a legitimate national contender this season, MSU needed to improve on last season's performance level, not just maintain it.

Needless to say, that hasn't happened:


Let's move into bulletpoint mode (while trying not repeat too much of what I said in last week's statistical review):

  • Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green, and Durrell Summers all remain in the "star" quadrant, but Lucas' efficiency is down as he awaits his past level of explosiveness to return coming off the Achilles' injury and Green's efficiency has suffered some as he's taken on an even larger role in the offense.  Relative to last year's baseline, Summers has been adequate.
  • No one has stepped up to replace Raymar Morgan as the fourth playmaker.  Korie Lucious and (in more limited minutes) Adreian Payne have tried, but neither has performed efficiently.
  • I included them for purposes of analytical completeness, but you really have to mentally remove Mike Kebler and Austin Thornton from the scatterplot.  Both have dramatically increased their offensive efficiency, but those increases have been entirely the result of scoring outbursts against lower-tier opponents.
  • Garrick Sherman is the one MSU player who has clearly met and surpassed expectations this season.  He's posted the third-highest offensive rating among non-walk-ons.  Unfortunately, his scoring opportunities have been limited to finishes off of set plays and very occasional low-post scoring moves.
  • Keith Appling's profile looks pretty good here, with a usage rate approaching 20 percent and a relatively efficient offensive rating.  But his numbers have been highly correlated with opponent quality, scoring frequently against lower-tier opponents and struggling against highly-ranked foes.
  • Surprisingly, Delvon Roe's usage rate hasn't gone up.  But his efficiency has nevertheless gone down.
  • In limited minutes, Derrick Nix has been both nonassertive and nonefficient.

As much as I spent a lot of time this past offseason talking about how the team returned 9 of its 11 top players and was adding two potential immediate freshman contributors, we're 12 games into the season and they're aren't really 11 legitimate offensive contributors available.  Only 7 of the 11 guys listed above have usage rates above even 15 percent.

Long term, I'm not that worried about the Big Three.  Lucas will get back to 100% at some point (although how soon that happens is becoming more of an open question).  Green will find the sweet spot in terms of what he can do efficiently on offense given his vast array of basketball skills but somewhat limited physical abilities.  While there's certainly room for improvement, Summers has, for the most part, done what he's been expected to do.

The major long-term issue the team faces--and the cause for short-term panicking--is who steps up to support the Big Three in an efficient manner.  Sherman should see more touches as the season goes along, but I'm not sure he can consistently score (or find the open man) with his back to the basket.  Same deal for Roe.  Payne and Nix are even less likely to become legitimate offensive threats for more than one or two possessions at a time.

The best hopes for a fourth offensive playmaker are Lucious--who's done it in flashes but still can't perform consistently from one game to the next--and Appling--who still looks like he has a ways to go against longer, more athletic opponents.  And there's a limit to how much you want the team relying on perimeter scoring--as evidenced last night, when the team could hardly get a 3-pointer to drop most of the night.

Talking about a team's lack of "offensive identity" may sound clichéed, but it fits the bill pretty darn well in this case.

If anyone can figure out how to build a coherent offensive attack out of the roster available to him, it's Tom Izzo.  But, as Joe Rexrode pointed out (in the course of providing a somewhat more upbeat assessment of things), not every highly-touted Izzo team that's dug an early-season hole has been able to climb back out of it (see: 2004, 2006).  Izzo and the players have over a full week now to try to figure things out going into Big Ten play.  In the mean time, the rest of us, in my view, don't have much option: Commence panicking.