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The AD connundrum

Looking at Antonio Daniels' individual numbers, it doesn't seem like he's all that essential in the team's success, at least compared to guys like Butler, Jamison, and Haywood.  His Roland Rating is a mediocre -1.4, his net plus/minus is a pedestrian +0.6, and he's only averaging 10.3 points and 6.1 assists/40 minutes (by comparison, Gilbert Arenas is averaging 6.2 assists/40 in his games this year).  Not to mention that his backup, Roger Mason, is having a pretty solid year individually, averaging 13.9 points/40 on 36 percent from the three-point line.

Yet, as Dan Steinberg points out, AD may be the single biggest barometer to the Wizards' success this year.  With him in the lineup instead of Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards are 14-7.  When he and Gilbert are both out, they're 3-5, including Tuesday's loss to the Knicks.  What gives?

The accepted answer seems to involve the words "pure point guard," "intangibles," "grit," and "team player," or whatever synonyms you'd like to use.  The problem I have with those is that one would think those types of players make their greatest impact in the plus/minus column (see this guy), and AD doesn't do that.  Not to say that those concepts don't apply here, but the reasons have to go far deeper than them.

I have my theories, backed up by some fiddling with numbers, which I'll post later.  For now, here's where you guys speculate and discuss your theories.  I'll be back shortly with my analysis.

Update [2008-1-17 20:28:44 by Pradamaster]: More below the jump.

Before we start, a quick trajectory of AD's Wizards career:

Summer of 05: After two banner years in Seattle, AD gets no better than the mid-level exception for five years in D.C. This was a banner offseason for Ernie Grunfeld, mostly for the Kwame-Butler trade, but also for this move. Per minute, AD was one of the top point guards in basketball with the Sonics, and Ernie got him for just the mid-level. As we'll soon see, however, it wasn't all roses for AD in DC.

2005/06 season: Daniels struggles mightily to fit in next to Gilbert Arenas, and eventually falls out of the rotation. But once Chucky Atkins is waived, AD jumps back in and becomes the sixth man on a Wizards team that finishes strong and gives Cleveland all they can handle in the playoffs. Still, AD doesn't fit in as intended. His assist rate dropped well below his marks in Seattle, and his scoring and PER dropped as well. Mostly, he was used as a shooting guard alongside Gilbert Arenas, and that didn't suit him well. We'll come back to this in a second.

Last year: AD's rates returned to normal, but his minutes didn't, plummeting to 22 a game after 29 the year before. His point production fell as well, but his PER was back up to the league average, and he sported a 57% true shooting percentage thanks mostly to his forays into the lane. When Gilbert got hurt, though, AD prospered as the pure point guard in an undermanned lineup, and though the Wizards got swept in four in the playoffs, it certainly wasn't his fault.

That brings us to this year. Normally, one's individual per-minute production rises with more minutes, but that hasn't been the case with AD. He's playing a career-high 31.3 minutes per game, yet his scoring rate is way down, even though his efficiency numbers (PER, assist rate, TR%) are slightly up. As indicated above, his plus/minus numbers are rather ordinary, yet the team is floundering without him.

I'm guessing you guys can predict the general direction I'm headed, but to get more specific, let's break down AD's plus/minus numbers. This player pair data is incredibly interesting. Check out Daniels' plus/minus numbers when he's in the game with other players on the team.

Basically, Daniels makes all the starters better, but none of the reserves (except Mason). More accurately, Daniels plays well with all the starters and awfully with the reserves. Finally, at least in the small sample size this year, he plays badly with Arenas, which is logically consistent, if not empirically consistent with data from the last two years.

There are plenty of reasons why the data spills out that way. Like DarrellWalkerFan mentioned, AD can get into the paint, unlike many of the other Wizards starters right now. He knows how and when to pass the ball to scorers, particularly those who shoot mostly in rhythm, like Stevenson and Jamison. He's far more successful on a system team than an isolation one, and without Gilbert, we're running the Princeton much more than ever before (though one could argue that's precisely because of Daniels' presence). With Butler's emergence, Daniels doesn't even have to be a high-usage player, which fits his strengths, since he's never had a usage rate over 19 in his career. All these things make a lot of sense.

But if that's the case, why doesn't AD play well with reserves? The answer is because he can't score, and reserves are less able, by and large, to play off the ball than starters, which increases AD's usage and decreases his efficiency. As for Arenas, as documented, Daniels has struggled fitting in, due to Arenas' usage and playmaking ability, which is on par to AD's, despite what any detractor suggests. AD therefore has a very specific skill set that fits in perfectly with the starting five, but not so well with Gilbert Arenas.

This is nothing new, but with Gilbert out, it's become magnified. Roger Mason is a shooting guard masquerading as a point guard, so when he plays with the starters, he steals some of their shots and does so at a low efficiency, which makes the offense worse. Since AD doesn't really shoot much, he doesn't steal those shots. That explains why the Wizards are so much better with AD in there than with Mason.

Down the road, the difficulty will be finding a role for AD with Gilbert back in the fold. It's been a problem ever since AD came aboard, which is why I wouldn't have minded if AD was traded last offseason. Now that he's here, and we've seen his skills for an extended period, we have to find a way to maximize his skills alongside Gilbert. Gilbert is a phenomenally efficient player with the ball in his hands a lot, but as mentioned above, as far as his playmaking ability for others, he's on the same level as AD. We don't have any real data on Gilbert as a shooting guard, so it's hard to simply suggest that "playing Gilbert at the 2" is the solution. At the same time, AD at the 2 isn't a solution either, and based on the way he's played this year, AD doing nothing hurts a lot. It might be time to see whether the two can play together with AD the point guard and Gil the primary shooter. Eddie needs to bastardize the Princeton, which doesn't offer too much for shooting guards, to create shots for Gilbert while allowing for AD to do all the things he's doing right now.