There was an article last week from the ESPN affiliated advanced analytics site fivethirtyeight.com from respected stats guru Neil Payne talking about how the Spurs bench was ‘off the charts’ good.
Payne’s analysis, based on the advanced metric ‘Box Plus/Minus’ (BPM) stats indicate that the Spurs bench isn’t just the best bench in the NBA. Payne’s numbers show that the Spurs bench, by themselves, would be a playoff team. In fact, his numbers show that they wouldn’t just sneak into the postseason as a #8 seed. Rather, Payne’s take is that the San Antonio Spurs bench – by themselves – would be capable of winning “64 or 65’ games.
Here’s the direct quote from the article: “The Warriors’ bench, for instance, ranks third with an aggregate BPM of -1.6. But the Spurs’ non-starters have an eye-popping cumulative BPM of +11.5. If we convert that number into its Elo-rating equivalent,2 the Spurs’ bench would come in at 1760 — enough talent to net between 64 and 65 wins over an 82-game season.”
Quotes like that are why the stat gurus and the advanced metric maestros are not coaches or GM’s – they’re consultants, who’s advice (and stats) can be ignored. Yes, the Spurs bench has played very well this year – the best bench in the league. And yes, Greg Popovich trusts his bench more than any other coach in the league trusts their second unit; a mix of capable veterans and upside youngsters.
But San Antonio is on pace to have the second best record in the NBA because they’ve got elite starters. We’re talking about two first ballot Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. We’re also talking about two perennial All Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. Throw in a great role player – Danny Green – and you can clearly identify the elite level talent in Coach Pop’s starting five.
Payne’s numbers say that a starting lineup with Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili in the backcourt, David West and Boris Diaw manning the low post and Jonathan Simmons or Kyle Anderson at the wing would be almost as effective as their current group of starters. His numbers also say that the likes of Boban Marjanovic, Ray McCallum, Rasual Butler and Matt Bonner would be capable of filling the minutes that their normal reserves play. Both arguments are flat out silly and shouldn't be considered before placing our NBA picks.
First, Ginobili, West and Diaw can’t play major minutes on a nightly basis at this stage of their career; aging vets who can’t and won’t stand up to 35 minutes a night over 82 games. Second, the Spurs bench has been feasting against other -- weaker – second units. If they were matched up against opposing starters, I’d expect those advanced metric stats to look a whole lot weaker in a hurry. And third, based on advanced metric numbers that I do trust (my own), the Spurs bench has put up these huge numbers in large part because they’ve faced a bottom five strength of schedule, feasting on the weak. It’s not hard for San Antonio’s bench to look elite when they’ve been beating up on hapless bottom feeders repeatedly throughout the first half of the campaign.
Advanced metric numbers can be a very useful tool both for bettors looking for an edge and for bettors looking to better understand how the betting markets work. But advanced metric stats (and conclusions) like this are nothing more than ‘Click Bait’, looking for an eye catching headline, not meaningful analysis that can help you beat the NBA odds.