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Players Most Likely to Regress to the Mean

Hyosub Shin/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Every season a few players surprise the general public by either overperforming or underperforming, which usually causes that same general public to exclaim they knew it was going to happen despite, in most cases, having no record of believing so. The more difficult process is determining whether that one season was an outlier or a sign of things to come, in other words, will the player regress to the mean.

Regressing to the mean isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In statistics, regression it just means returning to the average after an outlier. For example, someone goes on a hot streak at a casino, then loses all the money. Or a hitter goes yard on a pitcher after recording eight consecutive outs. 

Basketball, and more specifically the NBA, is one of the most difficult areas to test for regression to the mean due to the other variables in place (injuries, age curve, a new coach using the player differently, problems with families causing a distraction on the court, etc.).

For the purpose of this post, I’ll try to avoid players that may or may not have had breakout years at the beginning of their careers. I won’t consider Anthony Davis as a regression candidate, even though repeating what he did last season would be impressive. Similarly, Andre Drummond won’t be included because it’s impossible to tell whether his efficiency will return to the level it was two seasons ago.

Instead, I’ll look at which experienced players will regress to the mean, for better or worse.

Zach Randolph

Zach Randolph’s counting stats have remained relatively consistent over the past three seasons; he hasn’t fluctuated by more than two points, he’s rebounded within one rebound of his average in each season, and he’s been within 0.3 steals each year. However, one major difference in his last campaign was his efficiency.

After shooting almost 50 percent in his first two seasons with the Grizzlies, he dipped to just over 46 percent in his next three seasons, which seemed to correlate to him advancing in age. But last season his field goal percentage shot back up to 48.7 percent, and his true shooting percentage was as high as it had been in four seasons.

Some of this can be explained by how much he had been used. After five seasons of being the most used Grizzlies’ big man – according to basketball-reference.com’s usage percentage – Marc Gasol passed Randolph last season. Randolph was still used on more than 24 percent of the Grizzlies’ possessions while on the court, but he was playing second fiddle to Gasol, which probably caused a few more open looks or easy putbacks on offensive rebounds.

But Randolph will be 34 this season and history says he’ll be unable to repeat that performance. In fact, only three players have ever averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds and maintained Randolph’s true shooting percentage from last season at age 34.

Randolph may be able to buck the trend as his game is one that relies little upon on athleticism, but history indicates we’ve probably seen the best of Randolph’s years.

Joakim Noah

I’ll start this with a caveat that Joakim Noah has looked terrible so far in the preseason, but then again, it’s preseason.

Noah’s encore performance of his top-4 MVP season of 2013-2014 was less than stellar. His ability to stay with quicker guards on the perimeter was still very good, and his rim protection numbers weren’t terrible, but it was Noah’s offense that suffered last season. 

He’s never been known as a knockdown shooter, but his field goal percentage last season was 44.5 percent, more than five percentage points lower than his career average to that point, and it came in a season where his usage percentage was as low as it had been in seven seasons. Specifically, Noah struggled to make the easiest shots in the game.

According to basketball-reference.com, Noah had finished 58.3 percent of his attempts within three feet throughout his career before last season, but that number dropped to 51.5 percent last season. Among players who attempted at least 100 shots at the rim last season, Noah finished with the 9th worst percentage, and other than Lou Amundson, was the only big man in the bottom 10.

Noah probably isn’t as good as his 2014 season would suggest, but he isn’t as bad as he played last season, either. At least some of the poor performance could be contributed to the minutes Noah played with Pau Gasol last season. Neither of those two can shoot well enough from the outside to stretch the floor leaving little room for Noah to work inside the arc. Defensively, Pau is too stiff to guard smaller players on the perimeter, leaving that responsibility to Noah. While he’s more than capable of doing so, this left Noah out of position to try to protect the rim.

Pairing Noah with Nikola Mirotic could provide Noah – and the Bulls in general – more space to operate on the offensive end of the floor with Mirotic’s ability to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll and hopefully improved three-point shooting ability.

Finishing fourth in MVP voting might not be a realistic goal for the now 30-year old center, but an improvement over last year’s disaster is certainly realistic.

Rodney Stuckey 

Rodney Stuckey played for what might have been the most unwatchable team in the league last season. After Paul George’s injury that forced him to miss all but six games, Roy Hibbert’s horrific post up opportunities and without Lance Stephenson’s ability to make mistakes in the most interesting ways possible, there was nothing left on the Pacers to watch.

 Apparently other teams felt the same way and didn’t bother to prepare for the Pacers as they allowed Rodney Stuckey to average 12.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season on a true shooting percentage of 52.8 percent.

His numbers weren’t outstanding, but there was one statistic that stood out last season. After seven seasons, Stuckey amassed a 28.6 percentage from the three-point line on over 600 attempts—in other words, a large enough sample size to conclude that he wasn’t a good outside shooter. However, last season that number jumped to 39 percent on 141 attempts.

It’s not often that a player like Stuckey begins playing with a high usage player like Paul George and sees his efficiency decline, but with an extreme outlier statistic like Stuckey had last season, it seems likely to happen this season.

Kevin Love

The Cavaliers didn’t get the player they expected last season when they acquired Kevin Love before last season. He isn’t going to stop anyone from scoring at the rim; his pick-and-roll defense could use some work, and his new haircut is questionable, to say the least.

Like Noah, Love probably isn’t as good as his 2014 season would suggest but is better than he played last season. Despite seeing most of his numbers drop last season, he is still one of the better defensive rebounders in the league and can create offense due to the combination of his passing and scoring abilities.

Love’s shot distribution is one that coach David Blatt could use to his advantage in almost any lineup. 62.5 percent of Love’s shots come either within three feet or behind the three-point line, and Love is efficient at both. He shot 61.1 percent at the rim last season – and showed even more ability the previous season at 66.9 percent while maintaining a 36.7 percent rate behind the three-point line. With another season learning Blatt’s offense and less responsibility on the defensive end with Timofey Mozgov and  Anderson Varejao (however many games he plays), Love could be in for one of the most successful seasons of his career.

DeMarre Carroll

DeMarre Carroll is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. In last year’s playoffs, we witnessed his ability to defend and help carry an offense as he averaged 14.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists on a true shooting percentage of 59.7 percent while taking the toughest task on defense. The combination of his improved regular season play and his increased production in the playoffs earned him a 4-year $60 million contract to play with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the rest of the Raptors as one of the best signings of the summer.

One of the biggest improvements over the past few seasons for Carroll was his three-point shooting. After shooting 28.4 percent from long range in his first four seasons in the league, that number increased to 36.2 percent in 2013-2014 and 39.5 percent last season on significantly more attempts. The Hawks’ developmental staff and Carroll worked hard to become one of the better three-point shooters in the league last season, but he may not have those same opportunities in Toronto.

Carroll attempted 0.5 threes per game last season when the defender was “very tight” (0-2 feet) or “tight” (2-4 feet) and shot 3.7 threes per game when he was “open” (4-6 feet) or “wide open” (more than 6 feet), per NBA.com. While his percentages remained largely the same, players generally shoot better the farther away the defender gets, and a larger sample size would likely show this. Last season, the Raptors’ offense was an isolation-heavy team that relies less on ball movement, thus getting fewer open shots for their players.

Carroll will still be an upgrade over anything the Raptors had on the wing last season, but expecting him to shoot almost 40 percent on threes while averaging over four per game may be foolish.

DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan isn’t my favorite player to watch in the league, and that’s probably putting it lightly. DeRozan hijacks the offense in a way that hurts a team’s efficiency and has done so while regressing on the defensive end.

When DeRozan was off the floor last season, the Raptors scored 1.131 points per possession last season (a number higher than the league-leading Clippers at 1.124) on a true shooting percentage of 55.4 percent. They had 35.8 percent of their attempts come from the midrange during with DeRozan on the bench, 34 percent were from three and 27.6 percent were within three feet. 

With DeRozan on the floor, the team scored 1.093 points per possession (which would have finished around 5th or 6th last season), and the true shooting percentage dropped slightly to 54.4 percent. The significant difference was the type of shots the team took with DeRozan. 42.9 percent of the shots when DeRozan was on the floor were midrange shots, and only 26.7 were from three-point range (all numbers from nbawowy.com). 

But DeRozan did miss a chunk of last season due to a groin injury. It affected how he played, as his percentage around the rim dropped from 71.2 percent two seasons ago to 64.4 percent last season. His midrange percentages dropped and the number of midrange attempts increased, which significantly hurt his efficiency. 

Although I don’t expect Carroll to have quite the same impact on the Raptors that he had on the Hawks, he will help the spacing on the offensive end that will hopefully allow DeRozan the room he needs to get closer to the rim. DeRozan also won’t have to take the tougher defensive assignments this season with the addition of Carroll, and having a more in shape Kyle Lowry should help DeRozan have a better season.

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