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Who is Gilbert Arenas' ideal backcourt mate?

UPDATE: I put my entire collection of data in a Google document for all to see here.  Please check it out if you have questions about those not listed. 

A couple weeks ago, we talked about trying to find a way to classify Gilbert Arenas on a "pure point guard" basis.  I contrasted a point guard's assist percentage with the percentage of points he scored off assists to come up with a chart to measure the starting point guards in the league.  Gilbert's four-year average in both of those categories from 2003/04 to 2006/07 placed him moderately below-average relative to point guards in assist percentage and slightly above-average in percentage of points assisted.  That put him closer to "finishers" like Steve Blake and Derek Fisher than "pure points" like Chris Paul and Steve Nash

So, now that we've established that Arenas is a below-average passer and above-average scorer off the pass relative to most point guards, it's time to figure out how to best complement his diverse skills.  The findings from the last post indicate that an ideal backcourt mate for Arenas needs to be a good perimeter shooter, an above-average passer for his position and an excellent perimeter defender.  Beyond that, it would be nice if the player didn't create too many plays for himself and (assuming Arenas' recovery allows him to drive the lane like before) shot mostly jumpers in order to improve the floor balance. 

To measure shooting ability, I took every shooting guard in the league this year and tracked their effective field goal percentage on jumpers (via 82games).  The average eFG% on jumpers for sampled shooting guards was 46.6 percent. To measure passing, I used assist percentage (via BR).  The average AST% of those sampled was 14.7%.To track defense, I decided to use two categories: two-year adjusted plus/minus and on/off defensive efficiency, otherwise known as the difference between a team's defensive efficiency with the player on the court versus him off the court (both are via Basketball Value).  Those who were positive in both were placed in a special category.  I realize the latter is a very incomplete way of measuring defense, so I'll explain times where the numbers jive with subjective opinions.  

The results?  There aren't many shooting guards who fit well, but there are some and they are attainable.

Narrowing down the criteria

It's fair to ask why I picked the three necessary qualities for a wing mate next to Gilbert Arenas.  Here, I'll try to explain each one.

Defense: I think this is the most self-explanatory of the three.  It's clear Gilbert Arenas is not a good defender.  Whether that is a question of desire, concentration, quickness or a combination of all three, a backcourt mate next to Arenas needs to be able to check top wing players competently.  The fact that Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are also poor defenders makes this need even more paramount.  The Wizards, during the Eddie Jordan era, played awful team defense, so even though adding one wing defender won't solve all the team's problems, it will help to turn a major weakness into at least less of a weakness.

Shooting: Even when the Wizards' offense was clicking, they were not a particularly great shooting team.  Their eFG% rankings from 2005-2007, Arenas' last healthy stretch: 21st, 20th, 18th.  The Wizards compensated by getting to the free throw line, limiting turnovers and pounding the offensive glass, but their perimeter shooting was always a weakness.  Last season, with everyone injured, the Wizards were second-worst in eFG% in the league and also finished second-to-last in three-point percentage.  Clearly, the offense needs shooters to become more diverse.  

In addition, Arenas himself draws so much attention that you want to surround him with shooting to make teams pay for ganging up on him.  Arenas will drive and dish when he has the opportunity, but the best shooter the Wizards have surrounded him with is DeShawn Stevenson, and he's never been an elite perimeter guy.  Having a spot-up shooter will make the offense and Arenas better.

Passing: This is the most contentious of the three essential traits, but the data collected in the last post on Arenas indicates its importance.  Arenas is, first and foremost, a scorer.  It's what he does best.  Very few players in the league were able to be as efficient as Arenas (using TS% and the like, not FG%) while using as many possessions as him during his peak.  He's not a point guard and he's not a shooting guard.  He's a scoring guard who can pass, but who can also score.  Take a look at how his AST% and %assisted stacks up with several elite shooting guards in this league.

Arenas: 25.65 AST%, 39% assisted

Kobe Bryant: 23.8 AST%, 37% assisted

Joe Johnson: 26.4 AST%, 39% assisted

Brandon Roy: 25.1 AST%, 33% assisted

All three of those guys are among the elite scoring guards in the league.  Arenas played a lot like them when he was healthy, and did so very effectively.  There's no reason to change Arenas' game too much where he's the only one really initiating offense.

Since Arenas' scoring is a big strength, it pays to find a shooting guard who can create opportunities for him.  An offense where Arenas is the creator and everyone else is a finisher is not a good use of the team's strengths.  Frankly, it would look a lot like Cleveland's LeBron offense right now.  It would also put way too much pressure on Arenas and would undermine efforts to make him a better defensive player and more of a team-oriented guy, whatever the latter means.  Arenas should be controlling the ball most of the time, but he often does best with others who can create for him as well, like Larry Hughes circa 2005 or Antonio Daniels of late 2006 and 2007.

Now, it's true that the Wizards have another potential facilitator in Caron Butler.  In 2007/08, with Arenas sidelined, Butler posted a career-high assist percentage (21.9) that was close to Kobe Bryant levels.  But anecdotally, Butler really struggled this year as a facilitator and does not seem to be as good a passer than the number indicates.  His turnover percentage went up this year as his assists went down, and he has never been particularly adept at passing off pick-and-roll situations.  I'd like to see Arenas play off Butler more, and he can, but I wonder how well it's going to work when Butler has never been that type of player with Arenas healthy.  Butler's finishing skills, which are excellent, haven't really been on full display since Arenas got hurt.  If the potential shooting guard could also facilitate, it would create more open looks for Butler AND Arenas, which both need.

So, passing is important.  Elite isn't a necessity, but above-average is.

Secondary criteria: I'd rather have a jump-shooter than a slasher since the Wizards already have enough guys who operate best inside of 18 feet (Butler, Jamison, Haywood, Songaila, Young, Blatche, etc).  Being a spot-up shooter is also important, though if the guy can shoot, it doesn't matter to me all that much whether it's spotting up or off the dribble.  The usage should be somewhere in the middle; not too much like Joe Johnson, but not too little like Quinton Ross or Dominic McGuire.  Basically, someone who is capable of making plays, but won't try to make them too much.

Our current roster

Now that we know the criteria, let's see how our current shooting guards stack up:

DeShawn Stevenson: We can effectively toss out last season's version of DeShawn Stevenson, as he was struggling with injuries that really affected his performance.  If you must know, Stevenson was 63rd out of 67 surveyed players with a dreadful 37.6% eFG% on jump shots.  His two-year adjusted plus/minus of -1.13 ranked him 71st out of 113 surveyed players (remember, that's two-year APM, so it includes 2007/08 when he was healthy).  The one area that Stevenson was slightly above-average was passing, as his 16.3 assist percentage ranked him 25th out of 67.  However, that's mostly a case of diminshing returns -- with so many players out, someone had to pick up some assists, and Stevenson played a lot more lead guard than in the past.  

That last sentence is a perfect segue back to an analysis of Stevenson's 2006/07 season.  Many of you have claimed that the 2006/07 version of Stevenson was actually a pretty good fit next to Gilbert.  A closer look reveals that, at least according to my criteria, that's not really true.  To his credit, Stevenson did get it done to some degree in the perimeter shooting department, nailing 47.4% of his open jumpers, just above the 46.7 average for SGs this season.  Otherwise, though, he was below average.  His assist percentage that year was 14.3, slightly below the 14.7 average.  Defensively, we don't have access to his APM, but the Wizards actually allowed 2.5 fewer points/100 possessions with him off the court.

This isn't to say Stevenson was a complete misfit.  He shot decently, passed okay and played passable defense.  But with so many scores close to the average, it's fair to ask whether Stevenson's numbers were actually inflated playing next to Arenas.  This is particularly true in the shooting department.  Stevenson's eFG% on jumpers in years prior to coming to DC aren't pretty (39.9% in 05/06, 41.5% in 04/05, 39.6 percent in 03/04 and 37.6 percent in 02/03).  It's possible Stevenson's shot has just improved, and to his credit, his eFG% on jumpers in 07/08 with Arenas sidelined jumped to 48.1%, but the fact remains that Stevenson came to DC as a poor jump-shooter and became passable because of Arenas and Eddie Jordan's offense.  Similarly, three of his four highest assist percentages came in his three years in DC.  Arenas and the Princeton offense have a lot to do with that. 

Ultimately, Stevenson fits okay, but not particularly great. 

Nick Young: Stevenson does fit better than Young, however.  Young was below average in each of the three necessary categories last season.  He passed poorly (51st), shot poorly (45th) and has a poor two-year APM (-3.97, though it should be noted that Young actually improved the defense by 6.49 points/100 possessions last season.  Go figure).  He also doesn't really spot up much (only 38 percent of his hoops were assisted this year, good for 61st).  This shouldn't be all that surprising for most of you, as Nick's game doesn't seem to translate well to playing alongside Arenas.

There may be some hope for Young, though, and it comes later in this post.  Otherwise, Nick's probably best as a sixth man, not a starter.

Dominic McGuire: McGuire certainly has the game to play next to Arenas, but the numbers don't show it.  Despite improvements on his shot, he still posted the third-worst eFG% on jumpers of the 67 players surveyed.  He also had a below-average assist percentage and has a dreadful two-year APM (-8.07, though that includes his awful first year).  He seems like a better defender than the numbers credit him for being, and his jumper has improved from where it once was, but McGuire certainly doesn't look like a long-term fit because he can't stretch the floor and struggles guarding quicker shooting guards.    

Larry Hughes in 2005: Long seen as the gold standard of the right SG next to Arenas, Hughes did two things well: pass and defend.  His assist percentage in 04/05 was 21.9, well above average, and the Wizards were 3.3 points better defensively with Hughes on the court.  Unfortunately, Hughes couldn't shoot at all, dropping just 37.8 percent (eFG%) of his perimeter shots.  That's barely better than DeShawn's percentage this year.  The perfect SG would have many of Hughes' characteristics, though.  Hughes could handle and pass well enough to allow Arenas to purely focus on scoring, and he at least defended well enough in 2005 to limit Arenas' defensive responsibilities.  The guy we'd want is a Hughes-like player who shot a little better and used a few less possessions (a 26.6% usage rate is too high).

Ultimately, the Wizards lack the proper fits for Arenas.  That means shooting guard is a position that is necessary to upgrade, or at least to find a better fit next to Arenas.

Around the league

Using our three key criteria, I looked at every shooting guard in the league and tried to find the ones that were above average in as many of the categories as possible last season.  The results showed how tricky it is to find the right fit next to Arenas.  Only four players were above-average in all three categories, and only 15 others were even above-average in two of the three. 

(Italics indicates the category in which they were below average).

Rank Player eFG% on Js AST% Defense
1 J.R. Smith 53 17.3 +3.11 APM, +3.25 def on/off
2 Kirk Hinrich 51.7 22.7 +1.1 APM, +6.38 def on/off
3 Delonte West 50.3 16.6 +0.31 APM, +6.91 def on/off
4 Anthony Parker 46.9 15.7 +1.61 APM, 1.36 def on/off
5 Rip Hamilton 44.8
+0.27 APM, +0.63 def on/off
6 Dwayne Wade
44.2 40.3 +11.17 APM, +2.72 def on/off
7 Kyle Weaver
48.1 13.1 +2.07 APM, +2.84 def on/off
8 Ray Allen 56 12.6 +5.36 APM, +1.08 def on/off
9 Shane Battier 52.9 10
+4.24 APM, +2.05 def on/off 
10 Rudy Fernandez 52 6.2 +6.83 APM, +2.44 def on/off
11 Jason Terry 51.9 17.6 +3.46 APM, -1.15 def on/off
12 Vince Carter 47.2 23.7 +4.11 APM, -6.11 def on/off
13 OJ Mayo 49.5 15.5 +1.21 APM, -10.54 def on/off
14 Mike Miller 52.3 21.6 -0.14 APM, -2.5 def on/off
15 Jarrett Jack 48.4 18.6 -0.94 APM, -0.55 def on/off
16 Leandro Barbosa 47.9 14.9 -3.04 APM, -0.59 def on/off
17 Keyon Dooling 49.2 21.3 -3.32 APM, -3.59 def on/off
18 Fred Jones 48 19.1 -3.59 APM, -3.24 def on/off
19 Ben Gordon 51.7 15.9 -4.95 APM, -4.4 def on/off

Going deeper

The table shows four players who fit all three categories (Smith, Hinrich, West and Parker, in that order of best to worst fit), two who fit all but the eFG% designation (Hamilton and Wade, both of whom are there because they don't shoot many threes), four who fit all but the assist percentage (Weaver, Rook's fave from last summer, Allen, Battier and Fernandez), three with above-average two-year APMs but negative defensive on/off numbers from this past year only (Terry, Carter and Mayo) and six with negative APMs coupled with negative on/off numbers (Miller, Jack, Barbosa, Dooling, Jones and Gordon). 

First, the four perfect fits.

Delonte West is my personal favorite here.  His assist percentage this year was way lower than in past years because of the presence of Mo Williams, so he's fully capable of initiating offense for others.  His turnover rate as a primary ball-handler in the past was pretty high, but as a secondary ball-handler this year, it dropped to just 12 percent.  He's an excellent catch-and-shoot player and a really good defender against shooting guards as well.  Alas, he's probably not going anywhere.

Kirk Hinrich looks very good here too, confirming those who have argued here that he is a good fit.  One concern here is that Hinrich's role this year was very different than in the past.  He was a misfit next to Derrick Rose, though part of that is because Rose does not score off the pass like Arenas does.  Like West, Hinrich is fully capable of being more of a passer than his assist percentage indicates, as it took a major drop this year due to the presence of Rose.  Hinrich also is a much better perimeter shooter than advertised, rising back above 50 percent after dropping all the way to 45.1 percent in 07/08.  He defends shooting guards decently, though I'd say his defense is a bit overrated.  My concern is that he isn't all that adept spotting up (only 54% of his shots were assisted, below the 58% average).  Otherwise, though, he looks pretty good, and considering how much Chicago seems to be giving him away, the Wizards should be doing more to try to get him, bad contract and all (though don't surrender too many assets).

It's pretty odd to me to find J.R. Smith atop this list.  Two numbers jump out at me as surprising.  First, I was surprised to see J.R. Smith's defensive numbers seem so strong, particularly when the only reason he comes off the bench is because of his supposed poor defense compared to Dahntay Jones.  I think this is a case where the defensive numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.  He's a capable defender, as he showed in the LA series guarding Kobe Bryant, but he's not as good as the numbers indicate.  The other surprise is his unbelievably high percentage of jumpers made when you consider his bad shot selection.  Even more shocking to me is that Smith was even better (57.1% eFG%) in 07/08.  Combine that with his underrated playmaking and Smith goes atop the list.  I worry, though, about Smith's high usage rate (24.2%), as it shows he may not be able to fade into the background enough.  Then again, he faded alright with Chauncey Billups okay, so maybe it would work.  I do think this is a case where the numbers prop up Smith higher than he deserves.  Nevertheless, Smith's game is very similar to Nick Young's, so there's hope that Young can change his game slightly and still fit in okay next to Arenas.

Anthony Parker is slightly above-average in every category, and he was actually also the only player to be slightly above-average in % assisted AND % of shots as jumpers as well.  But he's old and barely creeps above the average in all the categories.  He doesn't really stand out anywhere, which is a concern of mine.  If all things were equal, I'd sign him this offseason, but we don't have the money.

As for the others, we can rule out Wade, Battier and Mayo because they aren't coming.  Gordon is out for his pitiful defense, while Jones and Dooling don't do much for me.  We talked about Terry already in this thread, and you know what you get from Allen and Battier.  They aren't worth discussing. 

Of the rest, the guys I like most are Miller, Carter, Jack, Hamilton and Fernandez.  Mike Miller is an absolutely perfect fit offensively.  He shoots extremely well and is a great passer for his position.  He was kind of a misfit in Minnesota working the inside-out style, but in a more perimeter-oriented attack like ours, I think he'd fit better.  He shoots better off penetration than on kickouts from post players.  The one major concern is his defense, which is far worse than the numbers indicate.  Fernandez's lack of passing skills hurt him, and I don't think his defense is quite as good as the numbers indicate, but he also comes pretty cheaply and can definitely shoot the ball.  Jack would be a good guy to get to replace Crittenton as a backup PG that could also play a bit with Arenas.  His perimeter shooting surprised me a bit -- I expected to see him much lower -- and he's a better defender than the numbers indicate.  Carter also fits really well offensively, but he doesn't come cheaply and he's not a great defensive player.  As for Hamilton, I think the eFG% drop is deceiving, since he is an excellent mid-range shooter, but I also worry about his price and age.  Still, I'd be happy with all four of those guys. 

Subjectively, here's how I'd revise the group.  I'm going to take out Wade and Mayo because they are completely unattainable.

  1. West
  2. Hinrich
  3. Miller
  4. Battier
  5. Smith
  6. Fernandez
  7. Carter
  8. Parker
  9. Hamilton
  10. Jack
  11. Allen
  12. Weaver
  13. Terry
  14. Barbosa
  15. Dooling
  16. Jones
  17. Gordon

Remember, that's in order of best fit to worst fit, not best player to worst player.

Who's not here? 

Manu Ginobili: Ginobili was way above-average in assist percentage (9th) and slightly below-average in shooting (42nd).  Surprisingly, he had a pretty major negative defensive on/off differential (-3.27).  Subjectively, he's okay, but too old and frail.  I love his game, and I would have been all over a Manu trade a year ago, but I worry about him breaking down now.  I also don't see him being the defender we need.

Josh Howard: I've said before that Howard fit perfectly defensively, but not offensively.  His defensive numbers (+5.28 APM, +3.04 on/off defensively) are outstanding, and I actually think he's even better than that on defense.  His offensive numbers, however, indicate a poor fit.  He doesn't pass at all (54th among surveyed in AST%), doesn't shoot well because he isn't a great three-point shooter (51st in eFG%) and doesn't spot up much.  He also uses a ton of possessions (career 23.1 usage rate).  It all points to a player that is either getting touches in isolation to score or is completely uninvolved offensively.  That's a bit of a concern to me.  The defense, however, is so enticing that it may be worth sacrificing a poor offensive fit. 

Joe Johnson: My personal favorite before this exercise, he ends up showing below-average in perimeter shooting (44th) and defense (-5.06 defensive on/off).  The real problem with Johnson is that he controls the ball so much -- 26.6% usage rate combined with getting assisted on only 39 percent of his hoops this year.  A lot of that has to do with how the Hawks drastically overuse him, and I do hold out hope that he becomes more like the player he was in Phoenix (secondary, able to fade in the background, better defender) if he's traded here.  However, it's now been four years in Atlanta, so those high-usage habits won't go away easily. 

Jason Richardson: Poor passing, poor defense.  That'll do it.

Michael Redd: Redd actually fared really badly according to the numbers.  He was below-average in shooting, his supposed biggest strength (40th, just below-average), though that may be because he was hurt.  He's a below-average passer as well (35th at 13.2 AST%) and we all know about his defensive problems.  Add that in to his high cost and that's a stay-away. 

Raja Bell: Bell only drops here because his two-year APM is -0.68.  Otherwise, he shoots well and plays good defense, though he doesn't pass.

Jamal Crawford: Crawford's below-average in shooting (44.6 percent, good for 49th) and defense.  He does pass well, which is a plus, but he also won't be able to guard SGs and shoots too much.  Pass.

(Anyone else you want me to add, I'll let you know in the comments).

What about the rookies

Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, James Harden.  How do all three fit? 

Evans and Curry seem pretty easy to peg.  Both are above-average passers, with Curry having the major leg up there because he also doesn't turn it over much.  Evans can't shoot, but has tons of defensive potential.  Curry is an unbelievable shooter, but a Curry/Arenas backcourt would really struggle defensively.  Of the two, I prefer Curry, but both work better than what we have.

Harden's the interesting one.  We've head so much about how he fits in well with Arenas, but does he really?  I don't have a very good read on his defense, so others will have to fill me in on that.  He's a good enough passer (29.2% assist percentage) to pair with Arenas, and it's clear he did a pretty good job creating for others at Arizona State, if not always for himself.  It's the shooting that concerns me.  Here's a snipped from Draft Express' situational statistics article.

Harden's biggest shortcoming ended up being in the perimeter shooting department. He was terrific on the very few catch and shoot opportunities he received with his feet set (2.4 Pos/G), but really struggled when being contested (.85 PPP) or shooting off the dribble (.73 PPP). In fact, the 27% he shot from the field off the dribble is the lowest of any of the nineteen players in our sample.

His three-point percentage this year was 35.6%; not terrible, but not elite either.  It's certainly possible he hasn't had a chance to show his catch-and-shoot ability because of the role he played at Arizona State, but it's clear Harden will need to develop as a shooter to fit in well offensively with Gilbert.  Combine that with his mixed signals on defense and I'm not sure Harden fits as well as it seems.  He fits better than anyone on the roster, though.

Summing it all up

The bad news is that nobody on the Wizards roster is a great match for Gilbert Arenas.  The good news is that many of the guys that are (Hinrich, Miller, Carter, Hamilton, maybe Fernandez and Jack) are out there on the trade market.  All three top shooting guards in the draft also fit better than anyone on the roster.

Finding the right fit next to Arenas is essential for Arenas and the team.  It won't bring the Wizards a title, but it'll get them closer.  Sacrificing assets to do so is imperitive, as long as too many assets aren't sacrificed. 

I'd rather overpay to find the perfect fit than give up less to get a less-than-ideal guy.  There are still enough assets left over to fix our other holes.