In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original NFL Every Play Counts at Fanhouse.com.
Five minutes into breaking down the TiVoed broadcast of Sunday's Phoenix Suns win at Detroit, I was ready to send Amar'e Stoudemire on the first flight out. Stoudemire's play in the opening moments of the game was inactive to the point of negligence. On the first Pistons possession, Stoudemire was alone under the basket with both of Detroit's big men (Kwame Brown and Rasheed Wallace) when a shot went up. He chose to block out...neither. Wallace missed a tip, but Brown corralled the rebound and scored as Stoudemire stood idly by.
This effort--or lack thereof--made some sense in the context of the Suns' reported decision to trade Stoudemire prior to next Thursday's trade deadline. It's not every day that 26-year-old big men with an "All-NBA First Team selection" on their resumé come available on the market, and it has been widely suggested that the Phoenix front office has been dissatisfied with Stoudemire's effort during a season that has been an unqualified disaster to date. Given that Stoudemire is likely to be the biggest name dealt by the deadline, and the questions surrounding his drop-off in production this season, he seemed like an ideal candidate for an Every Play Counts assessment. Surely the teams considering a deal for Stoudemire--a group that, depending on which insider you read, might include half of the NBA--are doing something similar on their own to evaluate what kind of player they would be getting.
A funny thing happened as I continued to watch the replay of the game. The Stoudemire I saw looked suspiciously similar to the one I'd seen watching the Suns countless times before over the last four seasons. I'm not sure why he started the game so slowly, but Stoudemire's effort level was not a noticeable problem the rest of the way. To the extent that we can draw conclusions from one game, and that is dangerous at best, I don't believe Stoudemire has quit on the team or anything of that nature.
The biggest question I wanted to answer by watching the tape was how Stoudemire's game has been affected by the presence of Shaquille O'Neal. I decided to chart Phoenix's play calls, breaking them down by which big men were in the game: both O'Neal and Stoudemire, just Stoudemire or just O'Neal. Using the term "play call" implies a little more order than always exists. For example, I considered anything created out of early offense or in transition to be a category all its own. Some possessions include multiple actions, like if the Suns dumped the ball to O'Neal in the post, he kicked it back out to Steve Nash and Nash ran a pick-and-roll with Stoudemire. Here's what I found, expressed in percentage terms:
Play Both Amar'e Shaq
Early 26.3% 43.3% 16.7%
P&R Side 35.1% 16.7% 20.8%
Post-Up 17.5% 10.0% 29.2%
P&R High 10.5% 10.0% 12.5%
Isolation 5.3% 6.7% 12.5%
Curl 3.5% 6.7% 0.0%
2nd Chance 0.0% 6.7% 4.2%
Other 1.8% 0.0% 4.2%
Now, the danger here is that these sample sizes are perilously small, especially for the players by themselves (I charted just 24 actions for O'Neal without Stoudemire), and this was a single game with its own strategic considerations. For example, many of the side pick-and-rolls and post-ups in this game were actually run for shooting guard Jason Richardson instead of a big man, as Phoenix sought to take advantage of the mismatch with Allen Iverson defending Richardson in the post.
That said, a couple of sensible patterns emerge. With O'Neal in the game, particularly without Stoudemire, the Suns do in fact tend to play a somewhat slower style and spend more time playing out of the post. At the same time, while watching I found O'Neal's effect on Stoudemire to be exaggerated. Stoudemire was involved in plays about as often when playing alongside O'Neal as when paired with Louis Amundson. One thing I noticed that seems counterintuitive at first is that Stoudemire was almost never a finisher in transition, when O'Neal was on the bench. This makes sense to the extent that Stoudemire has greater rebounding responsibility in these situations and can't release to start upcourt.
Here's the funny thing about the notion that O'Neal is cramping Stoudemire's style: When you look for it in the numbers, it simply can't be found. 82games.com tracks production by player pairs, and these numbers show Stoudemire to be nearly equally as effective with and without O'Neal. Alongside O'Neal, Stoudemire averages 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per 40 minutes and shoots 53.9 percent from the field. When O'Neal is on the bench, the corresponding numbers are 23.6 points and 9.0 rebounds on 53.7 percent shooting.
If O'Neal isn't the problem, then why are Stoudemire's offensive numbers down? I think the explanation can be found in my playcall chart. Notice something missing? Where are all the high pick-and-rolls? The high pick-and-roll, run from the top of the key, used to be the foundation of the Suns' half-court offense. In this game, at least, it was an afterthought, primarily run out of "horns" sets with O'Neal and Stoudemire at either end of the free-throw line, giving Nash his choice of a screener.
During the 2005-06 season, one of my first Every Play Counts columns looked at the Phoenix pick-and-roll. In that game, coincidentally also against the Pistons, Phoenix ran 27 high pick-and-rolls and 32 side pick-and-rolls (set at the elbow, the free-throw line extended to where it would intersect with the three-point line). In this game, the count was 12 high pick-and-rolls to 30 side pick-and-rolls. For whatever reason, Terry Porter and his coaching staff have largely taken away one of the most effective weapons for both Nash (who did have a season-high 21 assists in the win over Detroit) and Stoudemire. It's a useful reminder that the change in philosophy from Mike D'Antoni to Porter has involved much more than whether to push the tempo or not.
That's a great deal of conversation about the offensive end, but what about defense? Stoudemire has seen his defensive-rebound and block rates decrease, two factors which can be tied to effort fairly easily. Even at his best, Stoudemire is a defensive liability. His poor defense against the pick-and-roll stood out in this game. I can understand Stoudemire's desire to stay with Wallace and keep him off the three-point line, but his attempts to hedge and cut off the ballhandler before getting back to Wallace were half-hearted at best much of the time.
While I was generally reassured by what I saw, there is no question that whoever ends up trading for Stoudemire will be taking a gamble. Jack McCallum's book :07 Seconds or Less paints a picture of a player who frustrated the Suns because his earnest nature was not matched by his ability to follow through and focus on his rehabilitation at the time from microfracture knee surgery. Stoudemire will bring baggage with him, but also the talent that has put him on the All-NBA First or Second Team each of his last three healthy seasons.
The change in the perception of Stoudemire's game this season simply doesn't match the gap in performance when the adjustment to the Suns' offense is taken into account. Bill James wrote frequently about teams having a tendency to blame their problems on their best player, and I suspect this might be in play here. Stoudemire's shortcomings defensively and his personality may have been perfectly tolerable when Phoenix was competing for a championship, but they make him an easy scapegoat now that things are falling apart.
Trading for Stoudemire is a risk, but it is one that I would be willing to take.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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