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Er-Sanity!

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

I was so busy with my hundred-part series slagging Marco Belinelli that I haven’t had time to comment more than cursorily on the Sixers’ other buyout signing, Ersan Ilyasova. My sense from reading the pundits and fans is that most people see the two signings as similar; in each case we added a professional veteran who will likely be a solid bench contributor. My view is quite different. As mentioned, I think Marco Belinelli is a below-replacement-level player whose only role with the Sixers should be as a specialist for use when we need a barrage of threes to catch up, or one three in the final minute, or in very late game situations where we have enough timeouts to platoon offense and defense. Perhaps he should average five minutes a game at most.

Whereas Ersan Ilyasova is just a very good basketball player, not an average backup (-1 point per 100 possessions) or even an average player (0 of course) but an average starter (+1). As is my wont, I will focus my analysis on adjusted plus-minus as measured by RPM and perhaps other methods like RAPM, but of course other measures will play a role as well.

Among the 33 power forwards who play at least 25 minutes a game, Ersan ranks 13th in the NBA in RPM at +.92. For comparison Dario is at +0.31. No, I will not be pounding the table for Ersan to start ahead of Dario, as we all know Dario played very poorly for the first month or so of the season, indeed at that time his RPM was around -3. My guess is that Dario’s play since pulling it together has been somewhat better than Ersan’s. Dario, too, is now approximately an average starting PF, which of course is fantastic given that he’s only in his second year.

Really, that’s it in a nutshell: think about how much Dario has done for this team over the last few months, how valuable he’s been. Now consider that we just added another player who is approximately that good, and we did it at no cost. It’s tremendously exciting!

Since we know on-off-type stats like RPM can be noisy over even a full season, we should ask whether Ersan’s strong numbers are just the result of good luck. Checking last year, we see that he was even better, at +1.72, 11th among 25-minute PFs. The year before that he was not good, but four years ago he was around 20th (though with a negative RPM, it was not a good year for power forwards! I also checked RAPM, as I now have access to the past two years of that adjusted plus-minus stat; thanks to commenters The Anonymous Duck and JojoTheProcessEmbiid for the links! Ersan is a little over +1 this year and was a little under +1 last year. I would say that Ersan is almost surely not a +1.7 player but that there’s good reason to think he’s around +1, and even skeptics should still see him as a 0, an average player which is to say, low-end starter/excellent backup. Basically if you put equal weight on the past four years he’s a 0, but if you put more weight on more recent years, as most people would, he’s a +1.

And it’s not just RPM, Ersan looks like a fine player on traditional stats as well. He’s a career 37% three-point shooter, and he does it on volume. This year he’s at 36%. He hits almost half of his two-pointers and 80% of his free throws while getting to the line over 3 times per 36. He’s a strong rebounder and an OK assist man for a PF. People think of him as a poor defender whose only contribution is flops. But in addition to taking huge numbers of charges, Ersan also gets around 1.8 steals plus blocks per 36, which is not star level but is plenty solid. Did i mention he scores 16 points per 36 for his career, around the same this year? In other words, there’s nothing in the traditional stats to make one think RPM must be mistaken.

Ersan’s rep, at least in Philly, is as a guy who doesn’t play much D and is a chucker on offense. He did average around 20 points per 36 with us last season! As far as defense goes, both RPM and traditional stats suggest he’s just fine, uses his size and anticipation, plus of course the willingness to take a charge, to make up for any athletic shortcomings. And while it’s true he shot a ton in Philly, that’s what we needed from him; at other stops he’s dialed back the shooting and still contributed.

I guess the interesting question about Ersan is, why do people think he’s some kind of so-so backup? Two straight years of strong RPM, big-time three-point shooter who also rebounds and is a net positive on D. He plays 25 minutes a game, which is not big-star minutes but is a starter level of play. My guess is that there are two main factors in the underrating of Ersan.

1) He’s peaking late. As with Kyle Lowry, another guy who is far better than many seem to realize, if enough years go by in which you’re not all that good, then when you do attain a higher level people will struggle to believe in you. To be clear, Lowry is vastly better than Ersan, just saying he’s another guy who took a long time to get to his best self.

2) Ersan doesn’t have one true standout skill. I mean, 37% from three is very good, especially from a PF, but it’s not anything to induce gasps. And other than drawing charges, which is not the kind of skill that causes people to make posters of you, there’s no other huge strength. By the way, posters are finite but the internet is infinite, so here’s a video of Ersan taking charges!

and here’s a good NYT piece on how he does it.

Actually I think maybe we make too little of this charge-taking thing. Years ago Bill James wrote a piece suggesting baseball rename “outfield assists.” By calling it an assist, he argued, it sounded like a minor accomplishment. But, he said, if you throw a runner out at the plate from right field, that takes an entire run off the board, plus creates an out in an inning where for sure there are base runners. And of course that’s all over and above all the guys who didn’t score because they were afraid to challenge your arm. All in all an “outfield assist” was, he argued, worth an amount comparable to a home run. And there were players getting 20 more of these a year than others at the same position, in an era where 30 home runs was a ton. He wanted to change the name to “base runner kills.” Didn’t happen.

But, look, Ersan gets like .75 of these per 36 minutes, something like that. If we add those to his steals it’d make him among the top forwards in the league for steals. It’s not a fluke, and it’s not trivial. So, some respect for the charge-drawer! But anyway, as I said, drawing charges is pretty much the epitome of a skill that isn’t going to make people think you’re a star.

Coming back to the big picture: on the other side of the coin, Ersan has no major weaknesses, nothing hugely problematic in his game. If Ersan got 11 rebounds per 36 instead of 8, but was worse at other things so that his overall value was unchanged, people would be a lot more impressed with him. This is a common phenomenon as well; it really helps your reputation if you are among the league leaders in one area, even if that strength comes along with important weaknesses. Thus one place to search for undervalued players is among those who do a lot of things pretty well and very few things terribly, without that one shining attribute. Dario may turn out to be that sort of player, someone who is perpetually underrated (outside of Wawa country!) because he is a plus as a passer, rebounder, and shooter while being OK on D; such a combination is exceptionally valuable but will tend to get less press than being DeAndre Jordan. Alternatively, Dario may improve his shooting from three up to 41% and become a huge star; we’ll see!

Anyway, the upshot is this: Ersan is a really good player, and it’s pretty amazing we were able to add him at no cost; it’s the sort of thing I feel I’ve spent my adult life gnashing my teeth because other teams got to do, and we didn’t. Are there any clouds associated with the addition? Not really, unless you count the fact that Ersan plays the same position as Dario, and so there’s a question of whether we’ll be able to give him as many minutes as his quality of play merits. At the minimum we get to replace Booker’s 15 or so minutes per game with Ersan minutes; since Ersan is an upgrade in terms of both quality and fit (we’ll benefit from Ersan’s floor stretching), that’s a pure win. An additional hidden win is that we can keep Dario around 31 minutes a night come the playoffs without putting in a weak backup; before the pickup it would have probably made sense to push Dario to 36 minutes or so in the playoffs, which might leave him tired in crunch time (the benefits within a game of playing fewer minutes is one of the great understudied questions in hoops; maybe it’s a big deal, maybe not).

But, if we just get those two benefits, that’s good, but a bit of a shame. Ersan has been playing 26 minutes a night all season, and playing them extremely well. There’s a big quality drop-off if we give minutes to Justin Anderson or -- sorry, it must be said -- Belinelli just because we have too much quality at PF and too little at SG/SF. As I expressed in my most recent piece on Marco, the RPM gap between Ersan and Marco is as big as that between Ben and, say, Richaun; if Ben was only playing 15 minutes a night while Richaun played 26 due to “position fit” we would be clamoring for Brett Brown to get creative in his lineups so that Mr. Simmons could see more court time. I’m a logical guy, and so I follow the logic here and say BB needs to get creative with his lineups to get Ersan 25+ minutes a night rather than 15. If Dario is playing 31 minutes, the only way for that to happen is to play a big lineup with Dario, Ersan and a center; i.e. giving Dario around 10 SF minutes. Well, actually there’s another way, which is to play Dario or Ersan at center and take the minutes out of Amir/Richaun. I think that’s worth exploring, and it seems as though BB agrees; against Charlotte the Joel/Richaun/Amir group logged 44 combined minutes (all by Joel and Richaun) so it appears we got 4 minutes of Dario and Ersan as the 4/5. Whether that’ll be enough rim protection against playoff-quality teams remains to be seen, but it’s worth some experimentation to find out. Sadly it wouldn’t solve the big problem, which is giving too many minutes to -3 wings like TLC and belinelli (who’ve been playing high-20s minutes between them lately). Can Ilyasova help with that issue? I think he can! Let’s compare:

Lineup 1:

C Joel

PF Ersan

SF Dario

SG Cov

PG TJ

Lineup 2:

C Joel

PF Dario

SF Cov

SG Marco

PG TJ

The immediate reaction of many is to simply reject Lineup 1: Dario is not a small forward! But I think we should have learned to avoid such thinking. The Lineup of Death did not inaugurate an era where everyone plays small-ball. Rather it told the world that they should think more creatively about how lineups work. People thought Ben and Dario couldn’t play together as both were power forwards. When that was proved wrong, people thought Ben and TJ couldn’t play together, because both are point guards. That was nonsense too!

Offensively, I’d say these lineups are pretty similar. They have the same number of good shooters. 2 has slightly more creation with Marco, but given that you already have two strong creators in TJ and Dario, plus Joel is in there, it’s not like there’s a big problem either way. And of course the bigger Lineup 1 has a major rebounding advantage. If we look at either traditional stats or on-off stats I’d say it’s pretty close.

Defense is the more interesting question. Based on player quality, there’s a huge gap; Lineup 1 features the defensively-solid Ersan, whereas 2 has Marco, who based on everything I can see is among the worst defenders in the NBA. On the flip side, Lineup 1 has Dario guarding the small forward, which is not ideal. I guess a good way to say it is this: suppose we are playing a team like Indiana whose best wing is their SG (Oladipo). Cov will guard him. So now the choice is between Dario marking their SF, Bogdanovic, or Marco doing so. That doesn’t seem like a close call to me, we’d be much better off with Dario there; plus we get the additional advantage of Ersan on Thad Young instead of Dario (Ersan is the better defender right now). My guess is that in this case we are two or three points per 100 possessions better off with Lineup 1.

Now, there may be other teams where the situation is different. In particular if the SF is the offensive star, this lineup may not work, because we’ll want Cov to guard the star, and that would leave Dario on the SG, who probably really is too quick for him. But remember, this is not our starting lineup! This is a group we’d like to use for 6-12 minutes a night , because every minute we can play Ersan instead of Marco is like a minute of adding an All-Star in relative terms. Even among playoff teams, most will have blocks of time where they play an SF Dario can guard halfway-decently.

Maybe there are teams where SF Dario simply won’t work and we have to throw Marco out there and hope for the best. Feel free to show me in comments where you see the clearest cases that we have to limit Ersan to 15 minutes and play Belinelli instead. Even at 15, Ersan is a major addition for us. But it’s my hope that we’ll find ways to get a lot more out of this fine player.

Speaking of Ersan brings a couple more topics to mind.

1) What about his age?

I’m not much of one for conspiracy theories, but I do think it is most likely true that our Ersan was born Arsan Ilyasov in Uzbekistan, and is actually 33 or 34 (officially he turns 31 in May). Liberty Ballers’ alum Jim Adair had a brief write-up of the situation here.

As I say, best I can tell Ersan’s father cleverly exploited the system so that his 18-year old son could play against 15-year-olds in tournaments. If true, it’s kind of horrible, imagine being the 15-year-old Turkish kid trying to guard age-18 monster Ersan! But that’s in the past. For this season, it doesn’t matter at all, Ersan is what he is. A year ago when we were thinking of re-signing him, and people (wrongly) thought he would get something like 4 years at $12-15M/year, I was terrified that we’d be paying big money to a 37-year-old a few years down the line. If we look to bring EI back after this season, this issue will be worth revisiting.

2) Finally there’s the issue of the trade sequence that brought Ersan here, sent him away, and led to his coming back. I may do a separate post with a full analysis that includes the whole Jah-Nik-Trevor part. But if we lay that aside and consider only the transactions that included Ersan, it’s pretty impressive:

A) We traded Jerami Grant for Ersan and a pick that was technically a first but in fact was likely to convey as two seconds. Grant is a decent prospect but one who will be a free agent in a couple months and who we probably would choose not to resign if he were still here. He plays more or less the position Bolden and Richaun play and does so similarly well, so it wouldn’t make sense to pay him free agent money. Meanwhile Ersan played that same position, PF and occasional C, for us, played it far, far better than Grant would have, and came with a pick package we can approximately equate to 2.5 seconds.

B) Early last season it was important that we play reasonably well, both for player development and to satisfy the league. But late in the season it became important that we, uh, not be so good that it killed our draft position. Since unlike some franchises I could name the Sixers have too much integrity to do less than their best with the roster they have, it became wise to trade Ersan. BC sent him to Atlanta for a second and a move-up in the second; let’s call it 1.5 seconds.

C) Then we brought back Ersan for nothing after Atlanta bought him out.

So the upshot is that we upgraded from Grant to Ilyasova, which is a major upgrade, plus got to not have Ersan when that would have slowed the progress of the tank, plus added the equivalent of four second-round picks. That’s a pretty amazing sequence. There’s really no direct link between any of this and the Okafor deal, but for those who want to put that in the mix because we effectively traded a second for Booker and then cut him: fine. Even if you do that we went from Grant to Ilyasova and netted 3 seconds in the deal. I am neither a knee-jerk BC lover nor hater, but I have to say that when it comes to Ersan, he has been extremely shrewd in his dealings.

Overall, it’s great to have Ersan here; I believe his presence significantly increases our chances at winning in the first round of the playoffs.