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I Have Grave Concerns About Marco Belinelli: Part 3

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: Liberty Ballers’ Randy Cohen, AKA blindloyalty76, has introduced a 3 part series in which he takes a deep dive analysis into how Marco Belinelli will affect the Sixers down the final stretch of the season. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. There is also a companion Q&A here, in which Randy addresses counterarguments. The following piece is the third and final installment.

In Part 1 I explained why the Belinelli signing seemed so necessary. In Part 2 I expressed concern that Belli is just not a good player and consequently will not offer as much help as many expect. I then wrote a Q&A in which I responded to counter-arguments folks had made. Now in Part 3 I delve into the question of whether Belli’s limited quality can be more than overcome by the way in which he fills the team’s urgent need for bench shooting and creation.

Suppose Justin Anderson were healthy and we knew he was definitely playing better basketball than Marco Belinelli. Of course we don’t know this; despite Anderson having a vastly superior adjusted plus-minus based on ESPN’s RPM measure -- -1.4 vs. Marco’s -2.9 -- it’s possible their relative skills are being mismeasured. But suppose we did know that Anderson was better. We would still have the issue that what everyone says the bench unit needs is a shooter/creator, perhaps a JJ Redick type. And Marco is that type, while Anderson and the others we have, assuming neither Bayless nor Fultz returns to form, are not.

If there are two equal-quality players, say Marco and TLC, and one fills the need better, then, sure, go ahead and play the better fit. But I do want to warn against some common errors that would be very easy for us as fans to make in this situation, and that could lead to us taking minutes from a better-quality, worse-fit player, perhaps Justin or TJ or Ersan, in favor of a player who despite his superior fit, ends up contributing less.

  1. It’s common to overrate offense and underrate defense. Yes, the TJ-TLC-JA-Booker-Amir offense was clogged and frustrating to observe. But, first, we don’t normally play a lot of minutes with no starters on the floor, generally Brett mixes it up. Second, that lineup is solid defensively. And, third, they play a slower pace, eating up the minutes while the starters rest. Maybe that lineup gets outscored 9-8 over an ugly five-minute stint. But that sure beats being excitingly outscored 14-12 in the same five minutes with Belli and Richaun on the floor instead of TLC and Amir.
  2. It’s common to think fit is more predictable than it is. When Cleveland added Crowder and Wade they thought those guys would fit great. That didn’t happen, so now they’ve added some new guys -- who they also expected to fit great. After two games everyone said the new guys were the perfect fit and the GM was a fit genius -- Executive of the Year! Could be. But, suddenly, that looks less certain. Remember all that stuff about how Jordan Clarkson energized the team. Awesome, he’s bringing energy! But as Kevin’s terrific piece earlier today notes, Cleveland lost to us last night in great part because of the Sixers exploiting Clarkson’s defensive cluelessness. When people were talking about his fit, not many people mentioned that giving up baskets over and over on the exact same offensive play is going to cost you games, fit or no fit. I’ll almost always take quality over fit because sometimes the things you think won’t fit, do, and vice versa. Remember when it seemed like 100% of commenters here thought Dario and Ben wouldn’t fit? (Editor’s note: guilty!) Go search the comments for the phrase “Dario needs to lead the second unit”; you’ll see a dozen offseason posts a day saying this as if it were gospel truth! Now Dario is playing like an All-Star as a starter after 5 poor games coming off the bench, and everyone thinks he only fits as a starter! This stuff is not easy, people! Next time you read someone talking about which players would and wouldn’t fit, ask yourself: what if any evidence does the writer have for his opinion? Why is he so confident? What opinions has he expressed about fit in the past, and what percentage of those turned out to be true? And finally: even if he’s right about fit, is it clear that the fit benefits are large enough to overcome the cost of playing someone who is lower in quality.
  3. And it’s common to fail to recognize that there are many ways to have effective five-man units on the floor by mixing and matching players. Folks often act as if there’s a “second unit” of five guys that play together while the starters rest. That essentially never happens in the playoffs, where teams go 8 or 9 deep in most big games, and it’s rare even in the regular season. What happens instead is, the coach devises different groupings to ensure we always have a primary initiator on the floor, we always have sufficient floor-spreading out there, we always have rim protection and competent perimeter D.

Before the buyouts, the Sixers had three players who have shown the ability to shoot from distance, in volume, with accuracy -- JJ, Cov, and Dario. They just added a fourth, Ersan Ilyasova -- yay! And there’s Marco. Leaving out Bayless and of course Fultz, they have two other players who have shown a willingness to shoot threes in volume but whose accuracy is questionable -- Justin at 35% so far this year and TLC at 34%, so neither has been terrible from deep but neither has a career history that makes us confident we can count on them. And then there’s TJ and his gaudy near-50% from three, but on minimal volume. Over 48 minutes we’d like more floor spreading than that group provides. But, again, it’s not about putting out a non-shooting five-man unit. Because of his age JJ is likely to play 4-6 minutes fewer per game than the other starters in the playoffs. So there may be several minutes a game where we have Dario and Cov together on the floor, but JJ needs to rest. Is it obvious that a TJ-Justin-Cov-Dario-Joel group is doomed because of lack of shooting, but that same unit with Belli in Justin’s place is OK? I just don’t see it -- my view is the latter unit scores a little more, but defends a lot worse. Both lineups will be good but I suspect the one with Anderson will be better.

There are plenty of Justin Anderson skeptics out there, and they have a good case for their jaundiced view. If JA had hit just a couple fewer threes this year he’d be at 32% not 35%, at which point his numbers would seem a lot less impressive overall! Plus he’s still hurt.

So let’s turn instead to the new no-longer-a-kid in town, the Power Forward Prince Who Was Promised, the 2000 Year Old Man, Ersan Ilyasova. Here in Philly we know Ersan and his game. Opinions on him differ, as opinions will. But there can’t be many people left who think he stinks. His RPM is +0.93, which ranks 21st among all PFs and 14th among PFs who play at least 25 minutes a night. The on-off stats suggest he is almost the dictionary definition of an average starter at PF. Presumably skeptics would say he’s a low-end starter/elite backup in quality; that’s fine, the gap between average starter and elite backup is a lot smaller than is often realized -- average starter is around +1, elite backup around 0; a few threes made or missed can move a player from one to the other. Fundamentally it looks from the on-off stats like Ersan’s play this season has been better than what Dario has delivered for the year as a whole, but worse than what Dario has done over the past three months since he found his footing. Did I mention that I am extremely psyched that we have added Ersan Ilyasova?!

Now, I would argue that Ersan Ilyasova is, as a consequence, vastly better than Marco Belinelli. There is almost a four-point gap between there RPMs; it’s in the neighborhood of the quality gap between Joel and Amir or that between Ben and TJ. Absolutely gigantic.

And so while I don’t deny that “fit” matters, I would argue that in an important game we should almost never give a minute to Marco that we could give to Ersan. Of course we could concoct a situation that would belie this, with Ben and JJ fouled out or something. But realistically, if Ersan joins us and everyone is healthy, I don’t think Marco should play more than a few minutes in an important game.

Now, I know most readers will not be convinced. What many are thinking is, “but we need shooting and creation and perimeter defense off the bench.” And all I’m saying is, show me the situation where we’d be better off with a -3 defender like Marco than a slightly-positive defender like Ersan when the latter is also better offensively.

Let’s look at the playoff rotation. A good playoff group consists of a starting and backup center, a starting and backup PG, and four wings, three of whom start and one of whom folks designate “sixth man.” All five starters and the 6 play around 36 minutes when it matters, the backups then get 12. Of course there are special situations, matchups, injuries etc., but those are the basics. We have:

C Joel/Amir

PG Ben/TJ

Wing Cov JJ Dario Ersan

Is this ideal? It very much is not; we’d prefer to have a wing player who is as good as Dario or Ersan but who plays SF/SG defensively. The easy solution is to give 24 minutes to Marco Belinelli. Easy, but totally wrong, because Marco is terrible! What can we do instead? Actually, there are many choices. Let’s exclude all the ones involving Justin Anderson or Markelle or anyone not on the list above. How can we get 240 minutes out of this seemingly-too-big group without terrible position mismatches? I have two tricks up my sleeve.

1) More TJ! If we play TJ 24 minutes, 12 of which have Ben on the floor as well, we have solved half the problem. And this isn’t some crazy idea, we do it now, and we know it works. TJ is currently averaging over 24 minutes a game, with Ben at almost 36.

2) Play Dario some minutes at SF. This really isn’t preferable, as Dario has trouble with the quickness of some SFs. But the big-quick thing goes both ways; it isn’t easy for a little guy to mark Dario either. And this plan has the crucial benefit of keeping a Eurro-League-quality player like Marco from destroying our beautiful team! I’m sure you guys can improve this, but off the top of my head:

24 minutes: The Starters Joel Dario Cov JJ Ben

12 minutes: Holding The Fort While Joel Rests Amir Ersan Ben JJ TJ

12 minutes: Going Big Joel Ersan Dario Cov TJ

Note that we always have solid primary initiation on the floor, we have three ace shooters out there for 36 of the 48 minutes and two for the other 12. We always have three good defenders playing. Arguably we should switch Cov and JJ in the second and third lineups; I went back and forth on that. AND note that in this scheme WE NEVER PUT ANY -3 PLAYERS ON THE FLOOR!! JJ probably won’t actually play the full 36 but I’m trying to keep the exposition simple here. If he needs another 4 minutes of rest -- he’s averaging over 31 minutes a night -- I would probably give the minutes to Justin Anderson or, failing that, TJ. But if you want to tell me that those are the 6 minutes Marco really should play because Justin is worse than Marco and TJ lacks the conditioning to play 28 a night, well, I don’t agree but I will accept that compromise!

Presumably if you think I’m crazy it’s because you want the third lineup to replace Ersan with Belli, so that we have:

Joel Dario Cov Marco TJ instead of

Joel Ersan Dario Cov TJ

I grant the former looks more like a typical lineup; everyone plays the position listed on his ESPN page. Woo hoo, maybe we’ll get a special prize for neatness! But I say to hell with that, let’s play people who are actually good at NBA basketball!

Now, clearly Brett Brown and the Sixer brass believe that the lack of outside shooting when the team goes into its bench is so damaging that it’s worth the heavy defensive cost of putting Belinelli out there. Most fans share that view. But color me skeptical. The whole point of on-off stats like RPM is that they include the benefit to your teammates of floor-spreading and such. And those benefits are real and important, they are a big part of why Belinelli is a solid offensive player. But defense counts too, and if we give up 2 extra points because Belli is playing and score just one extra, that isn’t going to help us win.

I hope I’m wrong about Marco. Maybe Brett will be the coach who helps him be an effective defender. But as Brown himself recently noted, two of Belinelli’s last three coaches were Brett’s dear friends and colleagues -- and neither of them managed the feat! Obviously the fact that sharp basketball minds like Pop and Brown want Marco around and playing is strong evidence I am underrating him somehow. If folks in comments can help me see what I am missing, I’ll be much obliged!