Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
If you’ve followed Orlando’s season to this point, it’s been impossible to miss the coverage of Jameer Nelson’s slump. Certainly his poor play has been noticeable on the court, but even more striking has been the differences in reaction he inspires. Some observers look at Jameer and see a solid player mired in the valley of statistical inevitability — he’s just missing shots. Other observers watch him and swear there’s something off, that he needs to attack more and look for his own shot. He’s the basketball version of that rock teachers in movies keep on their desks. You know the one that Feeney types from Boy Meets World-esque shows always have: it’s black on one side and white on the other, so two people can be adamant about seeing different colors until we ALL LEARN A LESSON ABOUT PERSPECTIVE. Or something.
This isn’t really a new phenomenon with Nelson. Magic fans have long been divided about him; one subset of fans see him as a frustrating potential engine of the team, a guy who simply needs to focus to regain his All-Star form, while another set of fans has seen him as just better than average, a solid starter but by no means somebody to carry the team. It’s unclear who is right, or whether anybody is. Is there a good Jameer or a bad Jameer? Exactly how much can we expect?
For starters, I looked a few of the numbers from Hoopdata (I would prefer to say I “crunched” some numbers, but Hoopdata pretty much just lays ‘em all out for you). I looked at his 2008-2009 pre-injury numbers and his current season numbers, using these two as his respective peak and valley. Take these with the usual sample size disclaimer, since even the ’08-’09 season was cut short for Nelson by his labrum injury. The first time I looked at the stats, it seemed like Nelson was more or less doing the same things during his best and worst times, that he was just missing shots, per Rob Mahoney’s argument. A closer look, however, reveals some telling things about the aggression of Nelson’s play.
The first thing to notice is that, in ’08-’09, Nelson simply took more shots. In every zone, except from 3-9 feet, Nelson was simply shooting more. He wasn’t gunning, really — in fact, he did not average more than one shot a game from areas where his effective field goal percentage was less than 50 percent — but it’s clear he was looking for his own shot more. The conventional wisdom attributes the higher shooting numbers to his accepting a role as a scorer. When Jameer tries to be too much of a playmaker, the thinking goes, he loses the edge Orlando needs him to provide. This is perhaps borne out in the numbers, as 2012 Jameer has a higher assist rate and higher turnover rate, which suggest he is trying to engage his teammates more. Of course, it is perhaps preferable to have an assist rate of 26 percent and a turnover rate of 9 percent, as opposed to 34 percent and 17 percent, so it seems that even in traditional point guard stats, Jameer is more desirable in attack mode. Finally, other stats will tell us that Jameer’s usage rate was simply higher in his All-Star season than it is now.
The stats, then, seem to paint the picture of the rare player who is much more efficient when dedicated to getting his own shots. I would argue that this makes a lot of sense in Orlando, where the shots available to a player like Jameer are not mostly created by isolations or set plays designed specifically for him. Rather, aggression in Orlando is more about persistently exploiting the team’s spacing concepts than it is about consistently beating one’s man off the dribble or creating individually. Jameer’s performance last night against Portland is a good example.
Nelson finished the game last night 7-of-9 from the field, and he didn’t miss his first shot until the second half — with the exception of, I believe, one mid-range elbow jumper on a semi-broken play, the shots Jameer was getting were very much within the flow of the offense. He was cutting baseline and rubbing off of Dwight in the post for lay-ups, he was taking open threes. Crucially, he was also making the right skip passes and reversals for the rest of Orlando’s shooters to get open. It was so effective that it looked elementary and unstoppable, which is precisely how Van Gundy has designed this offense. As much as it pains me NOT to be a contrarian, it does seem that Jameer becomes a better playmaker when he’s not trying to force plays as a “playmaker.”
Now, I like Jameer and trust him more than most. I am inclined to believe, because he is a tough veteran who has made a career of maximizing his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses, that his play will round into form. However, I perhaps underestimated the extent to which the trouble with his play is mental. I’m much more accustomed to attributing slumps to statistical regression than I am assigning intangibles to players; these are grown professional men we’re dealing with, and I assume the dips in their performance are usually more about variance than they are “heart” or “drive.” And while aggression is not quite so ethereal a concept as more high-falutin’ character words, I’m not always comfortable highlighting a player’s mentality as the reason for his shortcomings. In the case of Jameer, though, all signs point to a player with every reason and ability to consistently succeed. When he’s on, he’s getting easy shots, steering a balanced offense and providing a consistent threat to be accounted for. Both stats and scouting suggest that the key to his effectiveness is his willingness to impose himself, and when he has done that, the Magic have been fantastic.
Of course, this is perhaps the most frustrating conclusion to draw, because all we can do is hope Jameer internalizes the evidence. All of the evidence in the world can point to why an aggressive Jameer succeeds, but no evidence available to us can explain the key to sustaining it.
Danny Nowell is a contributing writer for Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.