The No-Dunk Zone

Nodunkzone_medium

Midterms came and went, and I'm still standing. More or less. But now it's time to go back to the basics. What are the basics, you ask? Well, I'm afraid I'm a simple guy: to me, it's cheerleaders and dunks. Considering cheerleaders aren't meant for PTR, my options are obviously limited.

Fortunately, a week ago I came across a spectacular post in Roto Evil. I urge you to follow this link, read the post, bookmark the site and find happiness. Basically it contains the dunk stats for the regular season of 2008-09, clasified in more ways that you can shake a Shaq at. Evil E's comments are entertaining, and the information itself is eye-opening. Just do yourselves a favor and bookmark Roto Evil, okay?

This shout-out aside, when I read it from the viewpoint of a Spurs fan I thought it mirrored the consensus of the regulars in this blog. Or at least the consensus I like to think we've reached: the Spurs are as ancient and they are experienced, and they desperately need an injection of athleticism. Every Spurs fan knows that we hardly ever make a dunk, and we all see the wrinkles in Finley's weathered mug - but just how abominable is the situation? Is it really important and indicative of a dire reality? Or is it just a meaningless aspect of this game?

We'll break down the data, after the jump.

The first table in Evil E's post is a long list detailing the numbers of dunks made by each NBA player this season. There're a lot of gems to be found there, like the resurgence of used-to-be-Superman Shaquille O'Neal. The guy can't keep his mouth shut, but he can still throw it down. Regardless, I'll just focus on the information I thought would be useful for us Spurs fans.

Cleveland_cavaliers_v_san_antonio_spurs_qxl_dy-vcrel_medium
We hardly knew ye

Dunks Per Player:

Rank Player # of Dunks
1 Dwight Howard 202
...
125 Tim Duncan 24
125 Robin Lopez 24
...
133 Pops Mensah-Bonsu 21
149 Drew Gooden 17
157 Rasheed Wallace 16
195 George Hill 10

Right at the top is current-Superman Dwight "I let people jump over me" Howard. He had an astounding 202 dunks in 79 games, or 2.56 dunks per game. That's exactly they kind of stat you'd expect from a dominant center of incredible physical fortitude, who is both the star of his team and completely devoid of a jumper or true post up skills. (A staggering 84% of his shots were dunks, tip-ins and layups. In fact, his Hotspots chart is high comedy.) Dwight is in fact exhibit A that atheticism is one of the primary tools in this league, and it can patch up many deficiencies.

The first Spur in the list is none other than Timmy Duncan, then man, the legend, the wizard. Unfortunately, he's 124 spots below, and shares the 125th rank with Robin López, both having made 24 slamma jammas. López, mind you, is just the 5th dunker on his team, the Suns. Granted, they are the second best dunking team in the league, but when a role player who could be Varejao's less-annoying twin and who has been posterized more often than Greg Ostertag matches your de-facto star center, I believe we can all agree that merits a blink or two. Furthermore, Evil E points out that Duncan saw a big decline this year, going from 43 to 24. In my opinion, that was probably caused by a combination of two factors: the obvious one, Tim's age, and what Tim Varner pointed out a few months ago regarding the changes in Duncan's game during the regular season, meant to protect his body for the playoffs. The silver lining I find is that Duncan's game never relied so much in his athleticism as it did on his basketball skills, so the drop-off from 24 dunks to no dunks whatsoever should be negligible.

Still... 24 dunks?

Ranked 149th and 195th are Spurs players Drew "Buh-bye San Antonio" Gooden and George "The Hope" Hill, with 17 and 10 dunks respectively (only 7 of those 17 were made while Drew dressed in white, black and silver, though). And that's it - those are the three Spurs in the top 200 dunkers of this league. (Honorable mention to Malik Hairston, who had 8 dunks in just a few games. Oh, Malik...) By the way, please note that Gooden is unlikely to continue with the Spurs next year. To add insult to injury, I included Pops' stats, and Evil E twists the knife mentioning that Pops threw down those 21 jams in just 283 total minutes. Rasheed, who many believe could be our big off-season pickup, is listed on the 157th spot - how big of an inside presence can you have when you're stationed at the 3-point line?

I'm sure all of you have noticed the absence of our bigs in that list. Don't worry, though - they're the stars of the next one.

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Photoshopped?

Tallest Players Without a Dunk:

Rank Player Height Minutes Played
1 Steve Novak 6-10 1,161
2 Fabricio Oberto 6-10 677
3 Kurt Thomas 6-9 1,404

Now you can tell yourselves: "At least we don't start Steve Novak!" However, as Evil E points out, Novak is at least an efficient outside threat, making 42% of his triples in the season. What's Kurt's and Oberto's excuse? We can make a case for Kurt, because for a stretch in December/Janury he was our second best player and carried the load while Tim was struggling with his tendonosis. His long 2-point Js, when accurate, stretch the floor, and he has a knack for snaring offensive rebounds. On the other hand, Oberto's jumper is flatter than a pancake, his rebounding rate has gone down, and he was never able to get in rhythm this season because of his heart problems. I'm sorry, Fab-o - I love you, I really do, but right now you're not helping the Spurs in any shape or form. These days seem long gone.

Surprisingly enough, Bonner didn't make it to this list: out starting "center" had four dunks this season. I wanted to include one of them to this post, but apparently they didn't make it to any highlight reels in YouTube. Instead I'll just embed a video of his 2008 counterpart walking right in front of the refs. What a boner!


Going to the 3-point line? How odd

I'm aware that I'm not giving you any new information here. We all know how unathletic we are, and those of us able to watch them regularly are often surprised by the rare dunk, but I for one was surprised by the cold numbers. Dunk stats, actually, might be particularly effective in matching the impressions lefts in us after so many games watched: a dunk is often a spectacular play that lingers, that you remember even months later. We all believe Hill might be part of the answer to the "How are the Spurs going to inject some youth and athleticism to their team?" query, but what do they numbers say? The next table puts his achievements in perspective:

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You can take my daughter to her prom any time, George

Most Dunks by Players Under 6-foot-4:

Rank Player # of Dunks Height
1 Russell Westbrook 59 6-3
9 George Hill 10 6-2

That's right, Hill is only 6-2. He simply compensates with his 7-3 wingspan, I guess. George was able to throw 10 slams in just 1,270 minutes, and he did it despite playing nothing but "Spurs basketball". Those dunks were a product and a mark of his youth and his energy, just as Pop's and Malik's were. They put smiles on our faces even though we knew they had little chance of earning a spot in the roster, not because we enjoy dunks -which we do- but because they represented a palpable hope for the future.

So remember: George Hill is, for his height, one of the best dunkers in the league. Let's move on to the next table.

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Gramps can ball too!
(Ismael Roldán's the artist)

Most Dunks by Players Over 30:

Rank Player # of Dunks Age
1 Shaquille O'Neal 180 36
10 Tim Duncan 24 32

It's not Timmy's fault. There are only 9 players of his approximate age who have outdunked him this year. He was never knowns for his hops, and as age catches up to him he will have to adjust further. Shaquille, on the other hand, is both an absolute physical marvel and completely dependent on his ability to dunk. His productivity and this stat will be closely tied in the following years. Duncan, however, can outgrow it.

Again, this begs the question: is Shaquille in any way better than Tim because he can still dunk? Of course not, in any way, shape or form. Tim is a force on the defensive end, and Spurs fan know that it's there that championships are usually won. Besides, anyone who saw him play that fifth game in the playoffs against the Mavericks knows that he can still get his points. However, could it be meaningful if you take the team as a whole? Let's take a look now at the best and worst dunking teams in the league.

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That one won't count, 'Melo

Most Dunks by a Team:

Rank Team Key Players # of Dunks
1 Nuggets Nene (142), K-Mart (108), Melo (64), Birdman (64), Kleiza (45), Balkman (33), D. Jones (29), JR Smith (28), Others (7) 520
2 Suns Shaq (180), Amare (109), J-Rich (59), Amundson (37), R. Lopez (24), G. Hill (23), Barnes (20), Others (18) 470
3 76ers Iguodala (152), Dalembert (84), Speights (81), Young (68), Lou Williams (20), Brand (16), Ratliff (15), Others (17) 453
4 Lakers Gasol (120), Bynum (100), Ariza (66), Kobe (59), Odom (36), Powell (16), Farmar (9), S. Brown (7), Others (25) 438
5 Blazers Aldridge (107), Oden (99), Przybilla (61), Outlaw (57), Batum (39), Roy (28), Fernandez (26), Bayless (9), Others (9) 435
...
26 Pistons Maxiell (88), Prince (47), Amir (32), K. Brown (25), Sheed (16), McDyess (10), Stuckey (5), Herrmann (4), Others (7) 234
27 Rockets Yao (76), Landry (65), Wafer (25), Artest (11), Scola (7), T-Mac (2), B. Barry (2), Battier (2), Others (4) 194
28 Timberwolves Carney (39), Love (37), Jefferson (37), M. Miller (18), Foye (15), C. Smith (10), Gomes (7), S. Williams (5), C. Brewer (4), Others (12) 184
29 Pacers Hibbert (35), Murphy (25), Granger (20), Daniels (17), S. Graham (15), B. Rush (15), Foster (14), Nesterovic (13), Baston (6), Others (7) 167
30 Spurs Duncan (24), G. Hill (10), Hairston (8), Gooden (7), Finley (6), Bonner (4), Udoka (4), Ginobili (3), Others (7) 73

Honestly, I found this table inconclusive. There seem to be better teams in average in the top five than in the bottom five, but honestly, the inclusion of the Suns (a fundamentally flawed team) in the second spot indicates that this is a statistic that is easily influenced by the proclivities of your top players. Any teams that includes Amarè, Shaq, Howard or Iguodala will suddenly skyrocket in this list, regardless of overall quality or team philosophy. However, the difference between the Spurs and the second worst team, the Pacers, is mind-blowing. 94 dunks! Evil E does the math, and tells us it translates to just .89 dunks per game. That's right - we average less than a dunk per game. 32 individual players had more total dunks this past season, and it's 9 dunks fewer than we had in the 2007-08 season.

I made a half-hearted attempt to look for the reasons, with the hypothesis that the likely explanations were either our height or our age. The average height for the top 5 teams and for the bottom 5 is in both cases 6-7, at least considering the entire roster, so for the moment I decided to focus on our age. (I considered the entire rosters, though, so a better comparison could've been made by averaging the heights of each team's bigs.) Lo and behold, the average age of the top 5 teams is 26,6 years, whereas the bottom 5 average 27,9 years. The Spurs has by far the oldest roster of the teams listed, reaching 29,9 years if you consider two youngsters that didn't play a single minute in the entire season: Ian Mahinmi and Marcus Williams. Our starters as chosen by yours truly (Tim, Tony, Manu, Kurt and Finley) go all the way up to 32,4 years.

Guys, we're old. OLD.

Young teams that hope to compete for a title usually try to sign veteran players to lead them to a championship. Wouldn't it make sense for veteran teams with experience to spare to look for youngters to carry them through the regular season? 82 games put a major toll on an athlete's body, and yet we're forcing our plus-30-year-old stars to toil every night because our second unit is both unathletic and underskilled. It affects the way we play, too - let's look at 82games.com's stats for shot selection.

Popoffthepaint_medium
"I'm not going to take it any more!"

Shot Selection:

Shot Att. eFG% Ast Pts
Jump 71% .477 65% 54.2
Close 26% .592 44% 24.6
Dunk 1% .948 70% 1.8
Tips 1% .563 0% 1.2

I wonder what percentage of that 26% represents Tony's layups and Timmy's short hooks? This is what bothers me the most about Evil E's post: we are and have been fod a long time now a team that depends completely on its outside shooters. The old saying goes: you live by the three, you die by the three. As far as clichés go, this one holds some truth, and we all saw the consequences of depending on streaky shooters like Bonner and Finley last month. I wrote a post in my blog just the other day about a dunk tutorial the great Red Auerbach had on "Roundball", the set of national TV spots he did during the 70s. There Red said, regarding dunks:

"There you saw the highest percentage shot in basketball - if you're careful."

Exactly. Dunks are not just flashy crowd-pleasers - they're also efficient shots that are nearly impossible to block without fouling, and even then it's a gamble. (I know Reggie Miller probably wishes he had dunked the ball that one time.) Going strong to the basket usually results in free throws, especially during the playoffs when points are hard to come by. That's one of Ginobili's greatest strengths - when the shots aren't falling, he cradles the balls and goes in. That's what Timmy does. That's what none of our other bigs can do.

Maybe I'm making a big deal out of nothing, I don't know. Or maybe Yawn (who had 3 dunks in 2007/08, in just 23 minutes) will actually play next season and render these stats meaningless. Right now, though, I'm worried about my favorite team. As I said above, athleticism is one of the most important tools in the NBA, and we're blatantly ignoring it. I think it's time to change, Pop, and look for new blood and fresh legs in the offseason instead of battered veterans and limited role players. I agree with those of you saying that Ariza might be our answer at the SF spot, especially after watching him play against the Rockets. But I guess that's material for another post.

Right now, lay back and enjoy a short stroll down memory lane:


You can't take the sky from meeee

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