It is a Sisyphean task to defend the Warriors team or individual defense, and knowing the success of Sisyphus, I will avoid defending the defense. But as my timeline burned with the acerbic destruction of David Lee, it was clear to me that there were some lemmings clinging to the "brilliant" insights of another "fascinating" Grantland expose. I may come across as a Warriors homer in this, but given there are so few who have come to David Lee's defense (pun intended boo yah!), I felt obliged to make the effort.
Kirk Goldsberry's scathing presentation set the internet aflame, leading various tweeters eviscerating David Lee for his below average defense. Lee was the focal point example in Goldsberry's illustration of "spacial analyses" and "visual analytics". Warriors fans are under no illusions that Lee is even an average defender in the NBA, however, we are perhaps more understanding than casual fans of the fact that Lee must remain on the floor for the Warriors to be successful, despite the fact that he is ill suited to guard PFs, let alone Cs. Given the injury to Andrew Bogut, the team's best defensive player, the Warriors have often used a short rotation with Lee logging heavy minutes against more physically imposing players. For example, often Lee is tasked with playing out of position at Center. This happens frequently in key crunch time minutes during the 4th quarter when Coach Jackson has elected to play a Landry/Lee frontcourt that is severly undersized. One can hardly blame Jackson for sitting rookie Festus Ezeli and mercurial Latvian Andris Biedrins during these tense times. I will not seek to diminish the actual work done by Goldsberry, because obviously the value of looking at interior defensive performance from all angles is a welcome development, but instead I'd like to focus on a couple of things that I found particularly irksome in the presentation and its delivery.
First, is the comparison of David Lee, a Power Forward that frequently is required by his undersized team to play the Center position, to a physically very different human being, Larry Sanders, a Center that does not have great success at the Power Forward position. Look, every fan knows Lee's defense is not good, but to compare him to Sanders seems a bit nefarious if it for anything other than displaying both sides of the defensive spectrum. Sanders is a rim protector and David Lee is not. Goldsberry seeks to isolate individual defensive performance in a team game, with modest results. Goldsberry's visual evidence makes apparent that Sanders is the better defender, a point few would have questioned in the first place. But a more questionable point is made in comparing Lee to Larry Sanders at all. Sanders is a 6'11 235 lbs Center with a standing reach and wingspan that (at combine measurement) each were more than 5 inches greater than the 6'9 240 lbs David Lee. His length makes his presence unquestionably imposing at the rim. And yet despite Sanders racking up an impressive number of blocks per game (3.6), he struggles to pass the ball without turning it over, logging 1 assist and and 1.2 turnovers per game on average. Lee of course, is one of the best passing big men in the game, although his "basic" stats of 3.8 assists and 2.7 turnovers per game on average. What goes missing in that stat is Lee's ability to bring the ball across mid-court, initiate offense, and make passes ahead of the assist (ie the hockey assist). I get that the comparison is done in part to show someone "getting it done" on the defensive end vs. someone who isn't but the analysis doesn't stop there, which would actually be a very logical stopping point.
Second in my criticism of Goldsberry's popular presentation, is the amazing lack of professionalism he displayed in making the comparison, presumably done for comparisons sake, into a parody of Lee's abilities on the basketball court. As an academic with little basketball experience to lean on, he reverted to a time tested approach to making your point well received - make fun of someone whom everyone agrees does the thing for which you are making fun of him. We all perfected this in grade school; find "that guy", the one everyone is teasing for the thing he always does, and join in to gain a little bit of acceptance from the group. In addition to emasculating Lee with clown music during his video breakdown of Lee's defensive lapses, Goldsberry also calls into question whether David Lee should be considered an All-Star at all. This is where a word of caution should be presented to the mathematicians and statisticians who think they have figured out the "hidden" game of basketball. Anyone watching the Warriors with regularity this season knows that David Lee was an all star, especially in the early part of the season. Its not just his offensive performance, but his chemistry with team mates, his ability to lead the team during tough stretches, and to ultimately be a player that the team looked to in the 4th quarter. He was elected by the coaches for seemingly these reasons. Perhaps, Goldsberry's ire is directed towards them as well, which is fine. Perhaps old school doesn't know best, but in this instance I think that the NBA coaching veterans selecting players for the All-Star team know more about what an All-Star is in the NBA than Goldsberry does. Basketball, a game created and played by humans, actually has a very human element to it. All-Stars are not simply video game characters that perform at superior levels of statistical performance, but leaders in the locker room and on the floor leading their teams to victory. Lee has gone from a bottom of the first round pick with a hope and prayer of a NBA career, to an integral part of a winning basketball team, paid extremely well for his services and consequently under the microscope as a result.
What is very telling about the paper and the presentation is that the focus is on uncovering who the best and worst interior defenders (a useful tool, if not only for illuminating the success of Andre Bargnani at defending the interior), not on using the same data for player development and team defense improvement - a missed opportunity. For instance, one way the same paper could have been presented was to highlight players with superior defensive performance with an objective of developing and identifying best practices for improved individual and team defense. Instead, it reads more as a "this guy is better than this guy and this why" sort of tool. Which is too bad. It could probably be more. Moreover, its clear that Goldsberry's approach of making a mockery of Lee for laughs, instead of focusing on the strengths of Sanders or the value of the research for team development sake. This is not someone simply trying to state their case based on the validity of their research and work, but one who devalues his own credibility by making the analysis personal. Goldsberry will likely be remembered for coining the nickname "Golden Gate" as much as for the whole of his presentation. Whether it was his intent, or not, it is poor form from someone attempting to attain credibility in NBA circles. The name is catchy, and I'm sure it will make the rounds to players of opposing teams, who will seize on this trash talk gold mine. I can hear Blake Griffin telling Lee that he'll stop flopping when he stops Golden Gating. Or something.
Finally, I'd like to close with a couple of statistics that I uncovered in comparing David Lee and Larry Sanders. According to basketballreference.com, David Lee has a 16.1 Defensive Win Share compared to Larry Sanders 5.8. Win share is not a superior measure to the interior defense measurements Goldsberry posits, but its a relevant data point. David also leads in PER, DRB%, and TRB%. Please don't think I am presenting any of this as proof that David Lee is a better defender because that would be crazy talk. But the numbers tell you a story that is much more nuanced than the shot chart and youtube video that Goldsberry presented. Not to mention that Lee outperforms in TS% and OWS. I respect Larry Sanders work and wouldn't mind him on my team (playing along side Lee, in fact), but David Lee is an All-Star player and his contributions on the court shouldn't be marginalized by his short comings.