Editor’s Note: Today’s article comes courtesy of Tom Sunnergren of hoop76.com. Follow him there and on twitter @tsunnergren. In this post, he discusses Thad Young, who as a rookie in 2007 – 2008 posted the NBA’s 17th highest 2-year APM. Of course, as rookies only play one of the two seasons, and there is nothing else to compare it to, it is normally wise to ignore rookie APM. In Young’s case though, he kept on trucking, never finishing lower than 67th, while finishing as high as seventh, over the next five data sets. What sets Young apart is that he has always proved above average on offense and defense; the combination of solid performance at both ends allows him to rate higher than most would expect. While Young has surely never been a top-10 NBA player, his persistent run of strong APM finishes undoubtedly means he should be more appreciated than his #NBARank of 89.
The most persistent, and difficult to dismiss, criticism of adjusted plus-minus is that in small sample sizes, the data can be relatively meaningless. But sometimes data, in its sheer volume, can simply overwhelm these doubts. For some players, over the course of many seasons, the APM numbers accrete, brick by brick, into something like an overwhelming argument. They demand that we reckon with them.
All of which brings us to a certain Philadelphia 76er, and a fact APM has given us no choice but to confront: That Thaddeus Young is really fucking great at basketball.
For the purpose of smoothing out the statistical noise inherent in adjusted plus-minus, player figures are typically grouped into two year sets. For the last six of these sets, beginning in 2012-13, Thaddeus Young has placed 11th, 38th, 54th, 67th, 7th, and 17th in the NBA in APM—the latter figure made especially impressive by the fact he spent the 2006-07 season, a full half of that sample, playing basketball at Georgia Tech. This does not track with the conventional wisdom. The group of people who think Thaddeus Young was the 11th best player in basketball over the course of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons is a very small one, and mostly limited to members of his immediate family and guys he went to high school with.
What’s interesting though is that, despite how underrated the forward is, we don’t have to stray too far from the box score to understand why Young is such a productive and valuable player. His greatness hides in plain sight.
While his career highs in the counting stats are pedestrian (he topped out at 15.3 points in 2008-09, 7.5 rebounds in 2012-13, and 1.7 assists this season), it’s when you pull back and look at his broader body of work that you’re struck by the particular genius of Young’s game: he doesn’t have a single area of weakness.
While there isn’t a discrete boxscore statistic in which Young dominates, he’s about an average rebounder for his position—and a notch above that if you consider him a small forward—an efficient scorer and an able if not terribly active passer (his 2.3 assists per 48 minutes are 0.4 under the mark of an average power forward), who manages to get steals and avoid fouls at rates much better than his positional average. (The foul avoidance is especially impressive given his defensive prowess; more on that in a moment). This quiet greatness is reflected in the advanced metrics that are derived from box score stats. Young placed 33rd in the NBA in 2012-13 with 7.4 win shares, 34th the season prior, and, by measure of wins produced, ranked 46th in the association last year with 8.1; one place in the standings behind Tony Parker.
Point being, adjusted plus-minus isn’t the only metric whose cold heart Young sends a flutter. What allows him to make that leap in APM, however, is what he does when the boxscore isn’t looking, in the relative statistical vacuum of man defense.
Thanks to his uber-athleticism, Thaddeus Young is the best pick-and-roll defender on the 76ers by an enormous margin. (This comes despite the amount of time he, at a generously listed 6’8” 230 pounds, spends banging with much bigger-bodied 4s.) According to mySynergySports, Young allowed the roll man on pick-and-rolls only a 28.8 field goal percentage in 2012-13. While tremendous, this wasn’t entirely out of line with his career norms. P&R roll men shot 39 percent against him in 2011-12 and 44.4 percent in 2010-11.
And let’s not miss the forest for the trees: Young is dominant in other aspects of D as well. According to mySynergySports, opponents have shot 40.6, 40.2, and 41.9 percent against him in the three seasons preceding 2013-14. This year—on a 76ers team that’s allowing opponents a league-high 109.8 points per game—Young’s men have a field goal percentage of just 38.3 percent.
All this sets the Sixers up for an interesting dilemma. As the team tries to trade its veteran core, which includes Young, they may find there is a significant split between their valuation of the Georgia Tech product and that of the rest of the league. Adjusted plus-minus is much higher on him than any other metric, and Aaron Barzilai, one of APM’s chief architects, works in the 76ers front office and, by all indications, has the ear of general manager Sam Hinkie.
If the Hinkie and the Sixers think Thaddeus Young is maybe one of the 40 best players in basketball, they will likely have luck finding a trade partner. If they think he’s No. 11, the front office might be forced to adjust its view of Young’s plusses and minuses before its rebuild can begin in earnest.