The whole point of the Statistical Doppelgänger Machine is to take the eyes out of it. White players don’t have to be compared to Larry Bird, athletic black guys to Michael Jordan, tall Euros to Dirk Nowitzki.
This isn’t to dismiss The Eye Test. Close watching yields lots of good information that might be expressed too subtly in the numbers to pick up at first. And vice versa. The numbers are great at picking up small but meaningful distinctions that can add up into something big.
A hypothetical to illustrate? Why not, it’s the offseason.
Let’s say there are two teams completely identical in every way except for one thing: on Team A, the shooting guard makes exactly half his shots — 410-820. On Team B, the shooting guard has the same number of attempts but hits just 40%. (For the sake of this illustration, all baskets are worth two points.)
The difference between the two players is one made shot a night — 5-10 from Team A’s shooting guard and 4-10 from Team B’s. Everything else equal (and it is because it’s my hypothetical), Team A gets two additional points a night — 164 “extra” points over the full 82 games.
Over the course of an 82-game season, that two points a night is worth about five wins.
All of this is a long way of saying that the names the doppelgänger machine spit out as comps for Bradley Beal surprised me. In my mind’s eye, I had guys like Ray Allen and Mitch Richmond — mid-sized scorers who could shoot.
The doppelgänger machine, which works by comparing a player to every other player since 1977-78, saw something else. The six most similar seasons came from the same two players. I would never have considered these two as being like each other, much less like Beal. But on a per possession basis, the numbers are similar — usage, relative efficiency, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, free throw attempts, three point attempts.
Here are Beal’s statistical doppelgänger’s, according to The Machine:
- Damian Lillard, 2016-17, Portland Trailblazers, age 26 — Beal had a higher usage rate and did a little more scoring. Lillard out-rebounded the bigger Beal. Their assists were nearly identical. It’s freaky how similar these two are. Lillard had a higher PPA (172 to 160) because of some small differences, including turnovers.
- Tracy McGrady, 2006-07, Houston Rockets, 27 — If you claim to see the similarities, you’re lying. But, what Wizards fans saw Beal do this season is largely what Rockets fans saw McGrady do in 2006-07. Beal was more efficient; McGrady did slightly more rebounding and play-making. Their per possession turnovers and fouls were identical.
- Lillard, 2015-16, POR, 25
- Lillard, 2017-18, POR, 27
- McGrady, 2005-06, HOU, 26
- McGrady, 2003-04, Orlando Magic, 24
- Kyrie Irving, 2016-17, Cleveland Cavaliers, 24 — This name fascinates me because it would have taken a long time for me to pick Irving as a comp for Beal. But while Irving shot better and committed fewer turnovers (maybe the presence of that Lebron James guy helped), Beal got to the free throw line more often and had a slender edge in rebounds. Assists, steals, blocks and fouls were the same.
- Kemba Walker, 2016-17, Charlotte Hornets, 26 — What I just wrote about Irving applies almost word for word to Walker.
- Gilbert Arenas, 2006-07, Washington Wizards, 25 — This was Arenas’ best season (167 PPA), an All-NBA offensive terror. Their individual offensive ratings were an identical 112, but Arenas has the advantage there because the league was less efficient back then. Per possession the numbers across the board are close — Arenas had more steals and slightly fewer turnovers; Beal had higher usage and a little more scoring. It’d be interesting to see a prime Arenas in this era with coaches more willing to heap usage upon an elite offensive weapon.
- Isaiah Thomas, 2016-17, Boston Celtics, 27 — What is it with little guards and 2016-17?! This was Thomas’ best season — a 205 PPA and fifth in the MVP voting. His outlandish quickness, strength and shot-making made him such an offensive force that his defense could be forgiven. He posted an individual offensive rating of 123 on 32.3% usage! It’s probably among the 15-20 best offensive seasons in league history. He was a driving force in ousting the Wizards from the playoffs, despite getting a tooth knocked out in game three. He seriously injured his hip a couple weeks later and was never the same again.
Beal’s list of comps goes on like that for a while — very good players having very good seasons, but not necessarily the guys I think most watchers would pick as similar. Going down the list a little further yields names like Mark Aguirre, Kobe Bryant (age 30 and 32), DeMar DeRozan, Carmelo Anthony, Michael Redd, Danny Granger, Vince Carter. And so on.
The first “eh” player was Jerry Stackhouse, but a) that was Stackhouse’s best season (128 PPA), and b) he’s just 19th on the “most similar” list.
A few observations: the overall quality of the players is high. It includes small point guards, combo guards and play-making wings. Everyone on it — even Stackhouse, arguably — could be described as dynamic. And, a lot of the guys could be fairly described as “challenged” defensively.