What Was the Most Valuable NBA Position in 2014-15?
There has been a lot of talk around the NBA lately as it pertains to traditional basketball positions. The terms point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center could soon be a thing of the distant past.
There's no denying the NBA's trend toward versatile, positionless players and what is now commonly known as small ball. The Warriors just won an NBA championship on these principles with guys like Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green.
But, for now (and I emphasize "for now"), traditional positions are still the majority. This upcoming season could go a long way in either bucking or supporting that trend -- but that's for another day.
What I'm talking about here is what we know from this past NBA season. I'm talking about what (starting) position was the most valuable, according to the numbers, this past season.
Before I hit you with a table of figures, let's go over what exactly the metrics are telling us.
nERD, as some of you may know, is our in-house metric here at numberFire which measures a player's expected contribution throughout the course of a season, based on their efficiency. This number tells us how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with that player as one of their starters.
In the chart below, I have included each position's average and total nERD.
Win Shares (WS), comparable to nERD, is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player based on past performance in the season. Box Plus-Minus (BPM) is a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above a league-average player when put on a league-average team. Player Efficiency Rating (PER) takes into account a player's positive and negative accomplishments and produces a per-minute rating of a player's overall performance.
Now that you know what all you're looking at, take a look at the chart.
|Position||Avg. nERD||nERD||WS||BPM||Avg. PER|
In terms of efficiency and value, point guard was the third-most valuable position in NBA starting lineups. Among the five positions they ranked third in average nERD, total nERD and Win Shares. However, they placed second in average PER and first in Box Plus-Minus. Point guards often fill up the stat sheet in points, assists and sometimes rebounds, so that's no surprise.
What may come as a surprise is that, according to the above average nERD and his personal nERD (1.6), Ty Lawson was the closest thing to an average starting NBA point guard. Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard were not so average a year ago.
These five floor generals were the top-five in nERD at their position in 2014-15 and four out of their five teams made it to the playoffs, and three of them made it to at least the second round. Curry and Irving went on to face off in the Finals. And don't let the fact that Westbrook didn't play in the playoffs last year fool you -- he is one of the best point guards in the league, and that might be an understatement.
So, point guards come in third when it comes to their overall efficiency and value but we can see that elite point guards do so much for their teams and can be a key ingredient, if not the main ingredient, to a playoff or even championship run.
Two-guards are a different story. Starting shooting guards in the NBA, as a whole, are not very efficient and provide the least amount of value overall to their respective teams. They placed last among the five positions in each of the five categories -- and by a lot.
What's behind the huge discrepancies? For the most part it's just in the job description. Most shooting guards are out there to shoot from the perimeter and act as a secondary facilitator to the point guard. Courtney Lee, the average starter in this group with a nERD of 0.1, is just that. James Harden (and in part Jimmy Butler) is the exception.
Harden was the main facilitator for the Rockets through the entirety of the season, and as a result his BPM of 8.4 nearly reaches the league total. After Harden, come a handful of three and D players and pure shooters. Like I mentioned with point guards, some of these players were key parts to their teams' success. This is even more the case with shooting guards because the elite are just so much better than the majority of the league.
Normally shooting guards don't provide much in terms of assists and rebounds, ergo the gigantic difference in BPM. The role they take on for their team isn't meant to be efficient, so their value suffers.
Earlier this offseason, Bryan Mears talked about how we might be witnessing the end of small forwards. That might be the case with the implementation of small ball concepts and small forwards playing less traditional power forward positions. How that might be affecting the overall efficiency and value of small forwards, however, I don't know.
Small forwards came in fourth among the five positions and placed fourth in all but one category (BPM). With the versatility of small forwards like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Gordon Hayward that's where they make up some ground in terms of BPM. It's only fitting then that Nicolas Batum is the closest thing to an average starting small forward, in terms of nERD.
There is only a decent amount of correlation between elite small forwards and team success. LeBron...well that goes without saying. Kawhi Leonard is now considered by many the best player on the Spurs and Harrison Barnes, with a BPM of just 1.1, was the starting small forward for the league champion Warriors. At least for now, Hayward is an outlier.
Small forwards can do a lot for their teams (See Durant, Kevin). Some are shooters and some are playmakers while others contribute either on defense or on the boards. There are just so many average and inefficient small forwards that it's impossible for some of the best players in the league to even act as a counterbalance.
The power forward position was really solid in 2014-15. The fours placed second in both nERD categories as well as Win Shares. They also earned an average PER just shy of the point guards' 17.7. It doesn't hurt having Anthony Davis as your champion.
To go along with his historic PER (30.8), the Brow finished with the second-best nERD in the league. He was by far the premier power forward in the game. His nERD was nearly 10 points superior to the next best power forward, Pau Gasol, and he was the only starting power forward to accrue a BPM of more than five (7.1).
Along with Davis are the likes of Gasol, Derrick Favors, Blake Griffin, Draymond Green and Kevin Love. Then, even after that, there's guys like Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge and the one and only Dirk Nowitzki. Power forward is a deep position in terms of really good to elite talent and they really prove it in the stat sheet.
Based on nERD (2.7), Kenneth Faried is closest to an average starter. That's pretty impressive in itself, but I'm not stopping there. Six players crack the top 20 in our power rankings while eight of the top 10 saw their teams to the postseason a year ago.
Some people around the NBA writers community are talking about the coming extinction of NBA centers. With the transition to smaller teams and more versatile players I can see why. After looking at the numbers, however, I really can't see why.
Centers ranked first in all but one category (BPM) and blew away the field in terms of total nERD and Win Shares. They were super efficient last year and, on average, they played to the caliber of an Enes Kanter (4.2 nERD). Why?
For one, centers usually shoot a lot closer to the basket and are therefore more efficient with their shot attempts on offense. They also do a lot of rebounding on both ends of the floor. Both are true but not the main justification for the numbers.
NBA centers, at least the elite ones, are the anchors of their teams' defenses. DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan, Rudy Gobert and Marc Gasol owned the top five nERD scores among centers in the 2014-15 season. They also tallied a combined 9.3 blocks per game and 22.2 Defensive Win Shares this past NBA season.
If that's not enough to convince you that centers are still really valuable in the NBA, there's this: according to nERD, four of the top 10 players and eight of the top 20 are centers. And only three centers finished the year with a subzero nERD.
Centers are not a dying breed. They're alive and thriving in today's NBA.