Friday, January 20, 2012

Not-So-Power Forwards

When you think of the old-school NBA Power Forward, you probably think of a dude that's tough, rugged, defense-rebounding type player. The dude that would lay a guy out if he went to the rim, the guy that protected the rim as if his life depended on it. You think of a dude like Charles Oakley or Horace Grant.

But I'm not talking about that dude.

When you think of the new-school NBA Power Forward, you probably think of a dude that cares less about defense and rebounding than he does throwing down hellacious dunks. He wants to run the pick-and-roll and turn himself into a runaway freight train coming down the key towards the rim. Other times he'll step out to keep the defense honest. Regardless, he's a nearly unguardable, all-around offensive force. You think of a dude like Amar'e Stoudemire or Chris Bosh.

But I'm not talking about that dude.

When you think of some of the great NBA Power Forwards, you think of a guy that blends both of those models. They're capable of dominating a game on both ends. If they aren't quarterbacking their team's defense, at the very least they're owning the defensive glass, starting the break with a crisp outlet pass, and maybe even finishing the break on the other end. You think of a dude like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley, or Karl Malone.

But I'm not talking about that dude either.

I'm talking about a brand new wave of NBA Power Forwards. They're playing the position in a way that really hasn't been played before. And the craziest part? They aren't even power forwards.

Thaddeus Young, Danilo Gallinari, and Gerald Wallace all play significant minutes at power forward for the second units of top-10 teams, despite the fact that none of them seem to be natural power forwards. Gallinari and Wallace are almost certainly small forwards, and Young probably doesn't have a true position. Yet according to the positional breakdowns on (stats only through January 18th), Gallinari and Wallace have played close to 20% of the minutes at power forward for their respective teams this year, while Young has played over 50% of Philly's power forward minutes.

These minutes represent some of the biggest reasons why each of these players' respective teams are so successful. So far this season, teams that have gone small with their second unit have been blowing opponents out of the water. Philly, Denver, and Portland are just the tip of the iceberg - teams like Miami (playing LeBron at the 4), Oklahoma City (playing Durant at the 4), and Indiana (playing Danny Granger at the 4) have all had success going small with their second units. And it's not like this is a brand-new development this season - Lamar Odom made a lot of money and was a huge difference-maker for two title teams doing this.

Gallinari has been the one that has seen the biggest individual improvement at power forward. He plays most of his minutes at small forward, but when he moves to the 4 with Denver's second unit (usually with Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, and Arron Afflalo on the perimeter), he becomes a remarkably more productive player.

His foul rate increases dramatically when he plays power forward. At the 3, he attempts just 5.6 free throws per 48 minutes. At the 4, it's nearly 13 per 48 minutes. He gets himself matched up with a bigger, slower player, and most times will blow by them and draw a foul at the rim. He's especially adept at doing this in spot-up situations. As the defender rushes to close out on his three-point shot, he'll blow by them, either creating a foul or an open mid-range shot. As a power forward, his eFG% increases from 49.6% to 56.1%, and he scores nearly eight points more per 48 minutes (22.1 at the 3 compared to 30.3 at the 4), and his PER spikes from 17.9 to 24.6. In every manner of speaking, Gallinari is a better offensive player at power forward.

Wallace, meanwhile, transforms his team defensively when he plays at power forward. For the season, Portland's defense allows just over 100 points per 100 possessions (100.3, to be exact). When Wallace is on the floor at any capacity, that number increases to around 96 points per 100 possessions. But when he's on the floor at power forward (usually in conjunction with Nic Batum at small forward), that number plummets all the way to 92 points per 100 possessions.

One of the biggest reasons for Portland's defensive success when Wallace is on the floor is his uncanny ability to induce missed shots. In the 49 possessions so far this season where Wallace has been the primary defender for a spot-up player, he's holding opponents to just 0.71 points per possession, and limiting them to 23.8% shooting from the floor (just 20% from three). In isolation situations, he allows just 0.58 points per possession, which is good for 6th in the entire league, and has not committed a shooting foul in those scenarios all season.

Thaddeus Young, however, is the player that takes this to another level. In his 352 minutes of play this year (through Tuesday's games), the 76ers have outscored their opponents by 153 points. That's almost 21 points per 48 minutes. From an offensive perspective, when Young is on the bench, Philly scores just 93.8 points per 100 possessions. While he's on the floor? That number balloons to 117.5 points per 100 possessions. And while Philly's entire bench has huge bumps, Young's is still higher. The four players that he generally shares the court with are Jrue Holliday, Lou Williams, Evan Turner, and Spencer Hawes, and none of them record offensive bumps higher than 16.9 points per 100 possessions (compared to the 25.7 for Young). 

This bump is largely because of how deadly Young is in transition. Unfortunately, I can't provide anything by way of video, but Young is breathtaking to watch in the open floor, and effectively unguardable. As soon as Philly secures possession of the ball, either through a defensive rebound or through a turnover, Young will take off down the floor at a speed that no other forward in the league (other than maybe LeBron) can match. If you exclude last-second, half-court heaves (of which Young has two this season), Young is 21-for-27 from the floor in "transition" scenarios (according to Synergy Sports), and scores 1.47 points per possession, which puts him in the same class as players like LeBron and Blake Griffin among the league's most dynamic scorers in transition.

Now, this is not to say that going small at power forward is a solution for every team in every matchup. In the last week, Paul Millsap and the Jazz have demolished both Denver and the Clippers when they tried to go small with their second units. New Orleans would be able to do the same thing with Chris Kaman and Carl Landry if the rest of their team wasn't so dreadful that anything done by the bench is quickly nullified. However, against most teams, especially those with point guards that can push tempo effectively (like, say, Ty Lawson, Ray Felton, and Jrue Holliday), lineups like the ones run by Denver, Portland, and Philadelphia will often run opponents off the floor.

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