Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Calipari's Platoons

Even by the standards of Kentucky, this season's roster is an embarrassment of riches. When Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and the Harrison Twins decided to come back to school, John Calipari suddenly had more high-school All-Americans than rotation spots. In order to get everyone playing time, he split his team into two five-man platoons, alternating most of the first half before giving way to a free-flowing rotation in the second.

Kentucky essentially plays like an AAU All-Star team, coming into almost every game with an overwhelming talent advantage on their opponent. Their second unit, which features three of the top high school recruits in the country and two sophomores getting NBA looks, has the talent to hang with every other first unit in the country. No matter what happens, they are going to be able to maintain a contact with the other team in the first half.

On the call of the Providence-Kentucky game on ESPN, Fran Fraschilla compared playing Kentucky to a heavyweight title fight. The first few rounds, the champ is feeling out his opponent and trying to find his weaknesses. Eventually, as the fight drags on, he begins to wear on his challenger, finding the weak spots and moving in for the kill. That's what Calipari does with his players - he is constantly shuffling line-ups, trying to find the right mix in a particular game.

There's a reason that he has gone 21-3 in the NCAA Tournament since taking over Kentucky and it's not just the amount of talent that has been on his teams. Calipari is a really good in-game strategist, capable of rapidly reacting to what's happening in the court and re-arranging his line-up at the drop of a hat in order to exploit a weakness in the opponent. If doesn't matter if you have the best players if you don't put them in a position to succeed. 

The perfect example of this is the Wichita State game in last year's second round. Cleanthony Early was the big star for Wichita State, as he was able to use his ball-handling and shooting ability as a stretch 4 to light up Kentucky's young big men from the three-point line, where they weren't comfortable guarding him. To make up for his lack of size on defense, Wichita packed the paint and dared Kentucky to beat them from the outside.

Wichita was up 5 with 4 minutes left when Calipari made a switch on defense, putting James Young on Early and moving Julius Randle to the least threatening perimeter player on the floor for Wichita State. The move completely bottled up their offense, as Early didn't have a speed advantage over Young and wasn't able to consistently create shots over him in the post. That was one of the keys to Kentucky's late charge to win the game. 

Of course, the game still came down to Aaron Harrison's shot going in and Fred Van Vleet's shot going out, but a lot has to go right just to get to that point, especially when you are an 8 seed playing a 1. Cal is able to systematically shift the odds in his team's favor over the course of the game - he's not afraid to try unconventional things and he's not going to leave wins on the table when there are still moves he can make with his rotation.

That's what happened in their win over Providence, which was a game at half-time. Cal sicced Willie Cauley-Stein on LaDontae Henton, who came into the game averaging almost 25+ a game. Henton had 3 points on 1-8 shooting against Kentucky, as he had no idea what to do against an agile 7'1+ monster who could move his feet on thee perimeter. Not many C's can guard the other team's SF and not many coaches would re-arrange their D for their C to do that. 

Kentucky has so many different line-ups that can kill you this season. They can go super-sized with their starters (6'6, 6'6, 6'9, 7'0, 7'0) or they can play 4-out with the freshmen and one of the Harrisons. Almost all of their players can slide between multiple positions on offense and defense, so Calipari has almost infinite flexibility. From there, it's just probe-probe-probe until he finds the weak spot in the other team's rotation and goes for the kill.

The key for a system like this to work is to get the players to buy-in to playing for the team and not for their own individual statistics. What makes Calipari's approach so genius is there's no way you can use per-game stats to evaluate any of Kentucky's players as individuals. The top 9 scorers on their team average between 5 and 11 points and no one plays more than 22 minutes. As a result, there's a built in excuse for any underwhelming individual stats. 

The only way to judge the pro potential of Kentucky's players is to look at their per-minute numbers and their role on the team. Karl Towns is averaging 8 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks a game. Per-40 minutes, though, he is averaging 17 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocks a game. He can't control the number of minutes that Calipari plays him - all he can do is play well in the minutes that he is on the floor. In those minutes, he has dominated.

Per-minute stats are really the only "advanced" stat you need to evaluate a college player and they really aren't all that advanced. The point is that you want to measure production by rate and not by volume - that's what all the advanced stats are trying to get at when they look at players. That's obvious if you think about it, but the bias for per-game stats still subtly drives the conversation about college players in a lot of different ways.

Far too often in draft coverage, people look at individual statistics outside of the context in which they are created. Guys get credit for playing a role in a system rather than for their individual ability. What goes for Towns goes for everyone else in the country - you should be using per-minute statistics and looking at the role a player has on his college team when looking at every prospect, not just the guys in a 10-man rotation. 

There a thousand different examples of that. On one end of the spectrum, there are guys like Thomas Robinson, who put up outstanding numbers as a cog in Kansas two-post system but hasn't been able to replicate them in the pros. On the other, there are guys like Zach LaVine, who played behind multiple future NBA players at UCLA and had only a small role on his college team, but whose per-40 minute stats indicated he could be a player. 

Everything is contextual at the college level. The reason Calipari has gotten his guys to buy in is that they know they will be judged on their individual game, not the role they had on their college team. As a result, they can sacrifice their individual stats for the good of their team without being penalized for it by pro scouts and the media. As long as that's the case, why not come to Kentucky, win most of your games and play for a national title?

If you go anywhere else in the country, you have to be a star to be get noticed by NBA scouts. If you play at Kentucky, you can be a role player and people will still talk about you. That's a very appealing message that Calipari can give to recruits. When you go to Kentucky and you win games, there isn't as much pressure to prove yourself as there is at a lot of other places - you have already been validated by the ultimate status signal.

Marquis Teague went in the first round after averaging 10 points and 5 assists a game on 41% shooting as a freshman. He was very well-regarded coming out of high school, but I don't think there's any other school where he could have put up those types of numbers and been taken in the first round. As it turns out, the per-game stats weren't lying about Teague, but there was $2 million more in his pocket then there would be otherwise.

The most impressive part about Calipari's track record of getting guys to the NBA isn't guys like John Wall, Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins. Anyone could have gotten those guys into the league. The accomplishment is getting guys like Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb shots in the NBA. None of them look like they are going to make it, but they will still be eating off being ex-NBA players for the rest of their career as pros.

There's a reason that Cal keeps bringing in the top recruiting class every season and it isn't that he's the most charming guy in the world. He has a long track record of getting his players into the NBA and that's all you can ask for as a high-school player - a chance to get to the next level. Kentucky wins or they lose and they keep churning out NBA players. So many guys are going to want to play there, he might have to keep the platoon system.

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