Friday, February 10, 2012

In Defense of Luol Deng, All-Star

On Twitter, John Hollinger's been having some fun ridiculing Deng's All-Star selection. I'm not sure why he feels like Rondo is such a snub--dude's missed more games than Deng, and his PER isn't as good as Jennings'--but Hollinger isn't alone in feeling Deng's not deserving. The equally brilliant Zach Lowe made a point of sniffing at Deng's credentials earlier in the week.

A lot of this comes down to the nebulous criteria for picking All-Stars. From an individual statistical level, even the most diehard Deng partisan (and I am not quite that, but close) would have to admit that when it comes to either conventional stats or advanced metrics, Deng seems to fall short. But one criteria bandied about--that players should come from winning teams--is relevant, and when it comes to measuring that, the metrics that we have suggest Deng might be more deserving than some people believe.

The most familiar one is Adjusted Plus/Minus. Obviously, LeBron James (having one of the best seasons of his career) leads all Eastern forwards, but where does Deng fit in after him? Actually, he fits in ahead of LeBron, in first place among all forwards.

We see it in the Top Units with regards to Adjusted +/- as well. There is only one team with two units in the Top 10 of the league, and that team is Chicago. But strangely there is only one common denominator in those two lineups, and it's not Derrick Rose: It's Luol Deng.

Perhaps that could be waved aside due to the relatively small sample of minutes for most of the top units. Indeed, looking at all of the top units, only three have played more than 100 minutes together. But the highest one among those three (with a +/- of 21.08 in 188 minutes) is Rose-Brewer-Deng-Boozer-Noah.

But let's make this a little more concrete and examine how the Bulls did in their recent seven-game stretch without Deng. Yes, they went 4-3 (compared to 18-3 with him), but what I found even more interesting was that their point differential over that stretch was a measly +1.43. Considering the Bulls' overall point differential is a league-leading 9.68, that's a pretty stunning difference. And while it's true they've played a ridiculously easy schedule thus far (with their opponents' winning percentage only .451), it's not like their strength-of-schedule during the Deng-less stretch was particularly tough. I calculated it at .489, which would rank 21st in the league. Seven games is obviously an absurdly small sample size, but I can't help but find it significant, particularly in light of the fact the Bulls have simply been murdering (admittedly shitty) teams since Deng's return.

A lot of stat geeks have grown accustomed to rolling their eyes whenever they hear someone like Thibodeau say "Lu affects winning," which is basically Thibs' mantra whenever he's asked about Deng. Affecting winning? That's too vague, just horseshit "coach-speak." Show us concrete statistical production! Preferably directly correlated to Dean Oliver's Four Factors!

I don't mean to dismiss such demands because a) Dean Oliver is a genius and b) a lot of coach speak is plain horseshit. (Cough! Vinny! Cough! Del Negro! Cough!) But it might also be the case that Thibodeau and some other coaches in the league do understand which players are among the elite when it comes to helping their teams win games. And we do have some statistical tools to test whether they're right, if we choose to apply them.


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