The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference stages a research paper competition each year, and those papers usually contain results and ideas that are far more interesting than anything uttered on stage during the conference’s panels. Here are five trends that emerged in this year’s eight finalists:It’s all about big data sets: Camera-tracked data isn’t new to the pro sports scene; PITCHf/x data has been around for a decade. But only recently have we started to see it, along with other relatively large data sets, take over the research competition at Sloan. Four of the eight paper finalists used camera-tracked data, two more used sizable play-by-play databases, and another used a massive collection of geotagged in-game mobile-device requests from MLB stadiums. Simply put, research that doesn’t have to grapple with the demands of bigger data sets is becoming less common among Sloan paper finalists.The rise of machine learning: With the increased prominence of such large data sets, it was inevitable that state-of-the-art machine-learning techniques would begin to make their mark at Sloan. For instance, one of this year’s most interesting finalists used a “random forest” framework to predict the outcome of a tennis point after any shot based on the speed, trajectory and location of the ball, the context of the shot and priors for a player’s style derived from cluster analysis. (What this means to you is that if it works, the algorithm will be able to ferret out not only the most crucial points in a match, but also the most crucial shots.) Another paper used supervised learning to develop custom player-by-player strategies for pick-and-roll defense in the NBA — a clever way to translate statistical knowledge about a player into actionable tactics. In many ways, an amount of data so staggering can only be coherently processed using these kinds of advanced statistical techniques, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them used more in future research.A focus on classifying player types: As part of its model, that tennis paper developed what it called “style priors” for each player based on the types of shots he tends to play. Another paper, about complementary players in basketball, estimated the effect of an individual player’s skill set on the behavior of his teammates. The emphasis on underlying tendencies and similar player types to provide context and inform prediction isn’t unprecedented — PECOTA was doing a version of that 13 years ago — but it is now being used with far more granular data, to improve prediction in a wider variety of sports (particularly dynamic ones such as tennis and basketball).The Hot Hand, Part 1,000,000: Few topics have generated more research in psychology and statistics than the hot-hand fallacy. It has surfaced again with a Sloan paper finalist. The seminal work on the subject declared the hot hand nothing more than a trick of the mind, but there’s been a recent trend toward debunking the hot-hand debunkers. Here, that trend continues — using baseball data, the authors find that recent changes in player performance can be predictive and that opposing teams mostly react to them in an appropriate manner. But I’m guessing this won’t be the final word in the hot-hand wars.Fewer finalists from the “Big Four” and more from the business of sport: Compared to Sloan conferences past, this year’s crop of finalists featured easily the fewest papers focused on the North American “Big Four” sports of baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Football1010 NO. OF FINALIST PAPERS Hockey1010 Tennis0001 Business0012 Gambling0010 Using the Internet Archive, I tracked the breakdown of finalists by sport going back to 2013; that year, seven of the eight finalists researched a Big Four sport. This year, the number is down to four. Also of note is the emergence of finalists concerned with the business of running a sports franchise. Zero finalists focused on the subject in 2013 and 2014, but that changed last year with the inclusion of a paper about dynamic ticket pricing. Now we’re up to two finalists focused on topics like brand engagement and sponsorship revenue. Soccer1111 TOPIC2013201420152016 Baseball1312 Basketball4422
San Francisco-12.9% Sam Houston State+27.5% Stony Brook+9.7% Sacred Heart-13.1% SeasonBearkats’ assist boostVisitors’ boostTotal boost Nicholls State-11.3% Montana State-11.5% 2010-11+31.3%+25.6%+29.1% Lehigh+10.5% UNC-Asheville+14.8% Michigan State+9.5% Hawaii-10.3% Army-13.1% In January, the Sam Houston State University Bearkats traveled to Hammond, La., where they beat Southeastern Louisiana University, with 29 field goals, nine of them assisted. Two months later, the Bearkats hosted a rematch back in Huntsville, Texas, this time scoring 28 field goals, with an astounding 26 of them assisted.Basketball fans know that lots of variables determine whether a shot is deemed assisted: the quality of the pass, how much time and how many dribbles separate the pass from the shot, and, most essentially, whether the shot goes in. But another factor can be just as important in assist decisions: where the pass was made. Not where as in where on the court, but where meaning at which venue.Like errors in baseball and tackles in football, assists are subjective, and the decider’s philosophy matters. Sometimes the effect is extreme: On some courts, assist counts rise or fall dramatically, as if players suddenly learned or forgot the art of the pass. And nowhere in men’s college basketball is the effect more extreme than at Sam Houston State’s Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum.In more than 800 team-seasons at the NCAA Division I level over the last three years, the scorers who were most generous in awarding assists were those at Sam Houston State.“Our philosophy has always been, if the pass creates the basket, it’s an assist,” said Jason Barfield, a spokesman for Sam Houston State’s athletic department.Sam Houston State’s twitchy assist-scoring trigger finger is well known around the Southland Conference, Barfield said. “We’ve always kind of been known as being too liberal on assists,” he said. “People laugh about it in our league.”At the conference tournament last month, where the Bearkats lost in the final, other teams’ officials laughed as they flipped through their media guides to check which of their single-game assist records were set when playing at Sam Houston State, Barfield said. That’s a permanent record of the school’s equal-opportunity assist generosity.Spokesmen for other teams in the conference didn’t criticize the Bearkats’ assist-counting, acknowledging that it’s a tricky stat to measure. “The assist is about the most subjective part of basketball,” said Shane M. Meling, spokesman for University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.The more room for interpretation in stat collecting, the more interpretations will differ. The evidence is in assist numbers. ESPN Stats & Information supplied box-score stats for the last three seasons of Division I men’s college basketball for pairs of teams that played home games against each other in the same season. I compared the two teams’ combined assist percentage — percentage of field goals assigned an assist — in each pair of games.1The simplest way to compare teams is to examine their home assist rates, where assist rate is percentage of made field goals that are credited with assists (assists divided by field goals made). But that doesn’t account for different styles of play: Some teams set up more of their shots with passes, while other teams have players who generate their own shots.One step toward controlling for the team’s style of play is to subtract its road assist rate from its home assist rate. But teams in college hoops don’t all play balanced home and away schedules. So the difference in their home and away assist rate may reflect differences in opponents’ defensive schemes.So I isolated my comparison to the most similar pairs of games I could find: those between the same two teams. And since most of these were home and away games, I didn’t include pairs with neutral games, in case those had different properties than away games. These pairs of games are nearly always, at the college level, between teams from the same conference.I isolated the analysis to teams that had at least five pairs of home and away games in each of the last three seasons: 279 teams in all. Then I calculated the average of each team’s assist percentage and of its combined assist percentage, and compared those figures for home and away games.One weakness of this method is that a team that plays mostly against teams with home scorers who are, say, especially generous with assists might look stingy because of the tough comparison. However, it’s unlikely this affected the results because the outliers were spread out over many different conferences. Another possibility is that some teams play a different style at home than on the road, even against the same opponents.Some schools are especially fertile ground for assists. Over the last three years, scorers at five schools have consistently awarded assists on a far higher percentage of made field goals than scorers judging the same matchups at a different venue: Sam Houston State, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Lehigh University, Stony Brook University and Michigan State University.2This is based on averaging overall assist percentage — for both teams in our home-road pairs — in each game and subtracting the away percentage from the home percentage. All five schools ranked in the top 15 percent of schools in our sample by this measure in each of the last three seasons. Scorers at eight schools are stingy about awarding assists: the U.S. Military Academy (Army), Sacred Heart University, the University of San Francisco, Alcorn State University, Montana State University, Nicholls State University, Northern Illinois University and the University of Hawaii.3All eight schools ranked in the bottom 15 percent of schools by this measure in each of the last three seasons.If there were no consistency from season to season, we’d expect roughly one school to rank in the top 15 percent, and another in the bottom 15 percent each season. There were 279 schools for which we had stats in each of the three seasons, for at least five pairs of games in each season. So about 42 schools ranked in the top 15 percent in 2011-12. By chance alone we’d expect 15 percent of these, or about six, to rank in the top 15 percent again in 2012-13. And again by chance we’d expect 15 percent of those, or roughly one, to rank in the top 15 percent in 2013-14. That there are instead five and eight schools, respectively, in the top and bottom 15 percent in each season suggests a meaningful finding. Team4Average over last three seasons, of average effect on total assist rate of playing at home against teams also faced on the road. Teams shown ranked in bottom or top 15 percent in each of the three seasons.Assist effect 2011-12+32.0%+16.7%+24.7% I also tested whether any schools were tilting the scales for their own players. None gave an unusually high boost to the home team’s assist percentage in each of the three seasons.5This is based on calculating a team’s net assist percentage — its assist percentage minus its opponent’s — for both the home and road game in each matchup, then subtracting the road net assist percentage from the home percentage. I averaged that over all the pairs of games in each sample for the teams studied, then searched for teams that ranked in the top 15 percent in each season. This stat, by the way, had almost no correlation (R=0.015) with our measure of a team’s assist generosity — suggesting whether teams were more likely to give assists overall wasn’t related to whether they were more generous to their own players than to opponents. Scorers at Eastern Kentucky University, though, appear to hand fewer assists to home players. (It was the only school to rank high in this category in all three seasons, so it could just be a statistical fluke.)6As mentioned in an earlier footnote, we’d expect about one school each to rank in the top and bottom 15 percent of each of our measures.The NCAA Basketball Statisticians’ Manual defines the assist, but leaves plenty of leeway for the scorer to exercise judgment: “An assist should be more than a routine pass that just happens to be followed by a field goal. It should be a conscious effort to find the open player or to help a player work free. There should not be a limit on the number of dribbles by the receiver. It is not even necessary that the assist be given on the last pass.”“At times, statisticians have to use their judgment and knowledge on how to score a certain play,” said NCAA spokesman Ketrell Marshall. “Similar to how an official scorer in baseball has to judge a hit or error, the same applies in basketball where one statistician might give an assist on a particular play while another statistician would not.”Some athletic departments whose men’s basketball scorers came up as outliers in the research cited the subjectivity of assists as an explanation for their stats.“While the NCAA Statisticians’ Manual provides several examples of what is and isn’t an assist, and those rules are followed, to quote Justice Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it,” said Daniel Snowden, athletic department associate director for media and public relations at the University of Mississippi, which is one of the leaders in my measure of awarding assists in the last two seasons. He added, “It does not surprise me we are at the top of the conference.”Snowden said he and the Rebels’ official scorer are “very proactive” about awarding stats other than points, such as assists and blocks. “I don’t believe any team deliberately underreports assists, or blocks for that matter, but I have noticed that some teams are less liberal in awarding assists. When I have mentioned this in the past, the response is usually the scorer forgot to add it. Rarely, if ever, have I had someone not agree that a play wasn’t an assist or a block. Basketball is an extremely fast-paced sport to stat on a computer, and sometimes things are simply missed.”“We try and be objective for both teams and maybe I’m a little more liberal than some places,” said Mike Gore, who does most scoring for home basketball games at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, which was one of the top venues for assist rates. “I’ve been doing this 28 years and every place is subjective,” he added.Schools on either end of the assist spectrum think other scorers are too generous or too stingy with assists. “It’s an extra keystroke, so sometimes people are being lazy when they don’t give the assist,” Barfield said. “When you go on the road, you’ll see obvious assists that aren’t marked for one reason or another.”He’s baffled by road box scores in which the Bearkats are credited with five assists on more than 20 field goals.7They had two road games with six or fewer assists and 19 or more field goals in 2012-13. “That’s almost an impossibility,” Barfield said. “Our guards are very involved in ball movement. Very few of our shots are where the guard just dribbles it up and takes a shot. Probably once a year we’ll play a game where we get the box score back and see something like that.”Dave Guffey, a spokesman for the University of Montana, which awards a relatively low assist rate at home, said, “I think there are at least two teams in our conference that over-count assists.”Some spokespeople cited factors other than their scoring tendencies — such as statistical flukes, or playing styles differing at home and away. One of the venues we found to be suppressing assist rates is Sacred Heart University’s William H. Pitt Center.“My guess is it’s more of an anomaly than anything else,” said Chris O’Connor, associate athletic director for external affairs at Sacred Heart. He said several different people have scored games over the last three years, reducing the likelihood of a rampant anti-assist philosophy. He also pointed out that the analysis, restricted to games between teams that played in each others’ arenas in the same season, excluded some home dates where visitors got lots of assists: Long Island University’s Jason Brickman had 12 at Sacred Heart this year, but the Blackbirds played LIU only once so the game didn’t count toward this assist analysis.8Brickman also had 12 or more assists in two home games against Sacred Heart over the last two seasons — plus 13 this season in a visit to Sam Houston State.Told that his players’ assist percentage relative to opponents’ was much higher at home than on the road, Kevin Lorincz, director of athletic communications at Rutgers University, said, “I would be really surprised if our home stats weren’t markedly better, given that we shared the ball and played much better at home.”9Rutgers wasn’t included in the list of outliers because it had fewer than five pairs of home-away games in 2011-12 and 2013-14. Lorincz added, in an email, that opponents wouldn’t be shy if they thought their players were getting shortchanged in visits to Piscataway, N.J.: “You develop relationships with your fellow [sports information directors] and being the team that ‘loads up its box scores’ would be an uncomfortable and short-lived exercise.”In special cases, though, teams might do just that. “In my experience that typically happens when there’s a direct benefit in a particular stat — for instance when a team or player is near the top of conference, national or all-time school leaders,” Lorincz said. “We had a center a few years back that was a tremendous shot-blocker. We didn’t give him any blocks he didn’t deserve, but we certainly didn’t miss any either.”Lorincz added, “I’m not denying that home stat crews can be somewhat optimistic at times.”In their home game last month against Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston State players got the benefit of optimistic scoring. Many of their 26 assists were clear-cut, catch-and-shoot situations.10I watched a video cut of the Bearkats’ assists using Synergy Sports Technology. Four passes credited as assists, though, ended with a Bearkat catching the ball near the three-point line. In each case, the player then took several seconds and dribbled through the defense before scoring from near or in the paint — once on a reverse layup. On a fifth occasion, Kaheem Ransom caught a pass from James Thomas behind the three-point line, waited two seconds for a pick to be set, then took a few dribbles before shooting from elsewhere in three-point territory, 4.5 seconds after receiving the pass. Thomas got credit for an assist.“Whether the guy takes one step after or four steps on a break, if the pass was good enough to set up a basket, it’s an assist,” Barfield said.Barfield gave examples of types of passes that his scorers see as assists but others might not. For instance, he believes an outlet pass setting up a streaking guard for a score should count no matter where the guard catches it, or how many dribbles he takes afterwards. “That [basket] doesn’t happen if you don’t pass the ball down the floor,” Barfield said. “I would give an assist there, where on the road you might not see an assist there.”He also thinks centers don’t get enough credit for kicking the ball out for a three after collecting an offensive rebound. “For whatever reason, that’s a play where the center does not get an assist, or the forward who gets a rebound will not get an assist there,” Barfield said. “I can’t explain why.”Barfield points out that Sam Houston’s scorer, Paul Ridings, applies his philosophy consistently, lifting opponents’ assist rates, too. “It’s not just our numbers” that are relatively high, Barfield said.And he’s right. In a typical Division I game not played on a neutral floor, the home team’s assist rate is 5 percentage points higher than the road team’s — perhaps a reflection of both a slight lean toward home players by the scorer and home teams simply playing better. But teams that played both home and away games against Sam Houston State in the same season over the last three years averaged assist rates that were 20 percentage points higher in Huntsville than when they hosted the Bearkats.11I took a closer look at Sam Houston State’s stats because of the Bearkats’ status as outliers among assists outliers. Using data from Sports Reference over the last four seasons, I pooled the Bearkats’ Division I games into two groups: those that were part of home-away pairs against the same opponent in the same season, and those that weren’t.For the first group, I ran three regressions using the dummy variable of home or away games: one with the games’ total assist rate, one with the Bearkats’ assist rate and one with their opponents’. All yielded highly significant results (p<10^-4). The first indicated that teams’ combined assist rates rise by 26 percentage points at Sam Houston State. The second indicated that the Bearkats’ assist rate rises by 35 percentage points at home. And the third showed opponents’ assist rate rises by 20 percentage points when visiting Sam Houston State.The second group was all Bearkats games that didn’t fit neatly into home-away pairs — many of these were against nonconference opponents or Southland teams that played the Bearkats just once before the conference tournament. I didn’t include these sorts of games in most analyses because other factors such as team matchups could come into play. Nonetheless, as a check, I ran similar regressions. Since I didn’t have paired games to compare, I checked three variables:total assist rate for these games minus the average of the total assist rate in all other games played by the Bearkats and their opponent in that game;the Bearkats’ assist rate in that game, minus the average of their assist rate in the rest of their games, and the assist rate yielded by their opponents in the rest of their games;their opponents’ assist rate in that game, minus the average of that team’s assist rate in the rest of their games, and the assist rate yielded by the Bearkats in the rest of their games.For each I ran a regression, with a dummy variable for home, away and neutral-site Sam Houston State games. The analyses found, with a high degree of significance (p<10^-7), that Sam Houston State’s assist rate was 33 percentage points higher at home than on the road and 27 points higher at home than on neutral courts; that the Bearkats’ opponents’ assist rates climbed by 24 and 27 percentage points when playing at Sam Houston State relative to their home court or a neutral court, respectively; and that the total assist rate was 28 and 27 points higher at Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum than on the road or on a neutral court.The story from the two sets of games was consistent, suggesting that the effect isn’t isolated to Sam Houston State’s conference opponents. Subjectivity isn’t the only downside of the assist stat. It gives equal credit to passes of varying value: Some do much of the work for shooters, while others leave the shooter to make, say, a long jump shot.12A charting project by 82games.com found that in the NBA, passes that would likely have counted as assists boosted shooting percentage on close shots by more than three times the boost for three-point shots. The passer also gets credit only if his teammate hits the shot — if he misses, or is fouled and hits free throws, there’s no assist.“I believe if the shooter goes to the line and makes both free throws, then the passer should be awarded the assist because his pass led directly to points on the board,” said Lance Fleming, a spokesman for Abilene Christian University’s athletic department. “Help get that written in the rulebook.”A generous assist-scorer will only get a college player so far, since most professional scouts go by video, rather than relying solely on box scores. A working paper by University of Maryland Baltimore County economists found that in relatively weak conferences such as Southland, college assist stats have no statistically significant effect on NBA draft position.A big assist number could get a player past the first screen, though. And leagues outside the U.S. have to rely more on stats than on in-person scouting. Mike Laninga, director of athletic communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he could imagine scouts saying, “Obviously if you had eight assists per game rather than five assists per game, whoa, that’s something we need to look at.”Some players and coaches notice which places are the best and worst for their stats. At Montana, where assists are hard to come by, “Our players have grumbled in the past, but not in recent years,” Guffey said.Visiting players know when they’re going to Sam Houston, “they’re going to get some assists they wouldn’t normally get,” Barfield said. Opposing coaches have commented that “point guards like to come and play against us.”Laninga said this wouldn’t fly at UIC, where assist rates are relatively high.13UIC ranked just below the top 15 percent in our sample in 2011-12 and 2012-13. “Our coaching staff told them, you don’t even get a stat sheet after the game. If a starter ever asked for stats, there would be hell to pay,” he said.The only people who complain about college stats, in his experience, are players’ parents. Alcorn State-11.8% 2012-13+37.2%+13.8%+25.8% 2013-14+36.5%+28.1%+32.0% Northern Illinois-11.3%
You’re reading Back of the Envelope, an experiment that aims to bring shorter, quicker content to FiveThirtyEight. All postseason, FiveThirtyEight’s MLB projections have had a lot of doubts about the Cleveland Indians — our forecast didn’t even think they would make it out of the division series. In the video above, Neil Paine explores the chances that Cleveland’s expectation-defying streak will continue in the World Series against the mighty Cubs. Share on Facebook
Just about any way you slice it, the 2017-18 campaign was a trying one for Carmelo Anthony.Although Melo’s sole season with the Oklahoma City Thunder saw him reach the postseason for the first time in five years, he never achieved the same sort of individual success that teammates Russell Westbrook and Paul George did, posting career lows in scoring, usage, true shooting percentage,1He logged the worst true shooting percentage in the NBA among the 33 players who took 15 shots or more per game in at least 50 games last season. assists and win shares per 48 minutes. His playoff showing was a letdown at both ends of the floor, so much so that he rode the bench for long chunks of time during the last two games of Oklahoma City’s season. And once the Thunder made their first-round exit, Anthony bristled at the idea of accepting a bench role next season, saying, “That’s out of the question.”“I think the player that they wanted me to be and needed me to be was for the sake of this season,” Anthony told reporters after his exit interview with the club. “As far as being effective as that type of player, I don’t think I can be effective as that type of player.”Anthony will reportedly sign with the Houston Rockets for the veteran’s minimum once he’s officially been traded to Atlanta (and then released). So with his career at a crossroads, his comments raise the questions: Can he still be effective at this point? If he can, what would that role look like?Considering the film, his numbers and the potential fit with his new teammates, Houston figures to be Anthony’s last, best hope for a situation in which he can be a productive scorer again.Much of that hope will be predicated on Anthony’s ability to play off of James Harden and Chris Paul in a more effective way than he did with Westbrook. In that regard, Anthony’s life may get easier this season. While Anthony certainly underperformed last year — and likely could have shown more willingness to accept a secondary spot-up role sooner in OKC — the fit with Westbrook wasn’t always ideal, either. One big reason for that: Westbrook, despite being a triple-double machine, isn’t always the most accurate passer.Westbrook drives to the basket more than any NBA player, using his blistering speed and leaping ability to get around and over defenders. (When he opts to make jump passes, he uses both skills at the same time.) But that often leaves him off balance as he tries to hit a shooter who’s already spotting up and in position for an open look. And it sometimes results in a pass being thrown at a shooter’s ankles, or up above his head, forcing a teammate like Anthony to take a split second to reposition himself or extend further than he should have to in order to get off a jumper.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/OffTargetPasses.mp400:0000:0003:29Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.On passes from Westbrook, Anthony hit just 34 percent of catch-and-shoot threes, down from the 36 percent that an average player would have been expected to make from those spots (based on defender distance, according to data from Second Spectrum).2It may be worth noting that Anthony also shot worse than expected from deep during the previous season off passes from Derrick Rose. Taken together, Anthony’s struggles with Westbrook and Rose may suggest that he isn’t as accurate a shooter when catching passes from highly acrobatic point guards who throw so many jump passes. By contrast, Anthony shot 41 percent on catch-and-shoot threes when fed by George, up from the 36 percent an average player would have been expected to make.“As a scorer, you want the ball in rhythm, where you can catch it and go right up and not have to alter your stance or your shot,” Anthony told reporters in March. “Any small thing — the pass could be off a little bit — [could be] a big difference between making a shot and missing a shot.”Westbrook commits more bad-pass turnovers (4.1 per 100 passes) than any NBA player, according to Second Spectrum. Then again, Harden (3.5) ranks No. 2 in the same metric, raising the obvious question of whether things would be any better for Anthony with the Rockets. But Harden and Paul — neither of whom is wildly athletic or reliant on speed — throw much different types of passes, and both are known for hitting teammates in the hands when they spot up.That pinpoint accuracy, paired with the abundance of open shots that Houston players get in the team’s wide-open offense, is the potential upside for Anthony with the Rockets. Still, there’s the issue of whether Anthony is willing to play off of the ball again. While the Rockets isolate even more than Oklahoma City does, Houston’s offense will be at its best when Harden and Paul are running the show, even if Anthony continues to view himself as a top-end scorer. Another potential problem: Anthony and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye when they worked together in New York several years ago.Anthony’s defiant season-ending presser wasn’t very different from the one in which the Thunder introduced him, where he laughed off the suggestion that he could potentially come off the bench to stagger OKC’s scoring threats. And as obvious as it to NBA observers that Anthony isn’t anywhere close to a No. 1 option anymore, it’s not too surprising that he doesn’t see that for himself. He connected on 44 percent of his 2-point jumpers when tightly guarded last season (meaning a defender was standing within 2 feet of him), slightly better than the 42 percent he drilled four seasons ago, per NBA Advanced Stats. Translation: He can still hit tough shots.But in a way, even one of Anthony’s best attributes is somewhat problematic in nature. While teams will always be in search of players who can knock down an undesirable shot — especially in the playoffs — today’s NBA, with all the spacing it provides, prioritizes the notion of reducing such attempts. (This is particularly true in Houston, which led the NBA in wide-open 3-point tries last season.) So, ideally, a player will bring more to the table than simply making tough jumpers.And from that standpoint, it’s hard to see how Anthony would give the Rockets an upgrade over what they just lost in free agency, with Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute both departing. Those wings were among the most skilled in the league on defense, and they were key cogs in the club’s ability to switch nearly every pick-and-roll action if it chose to.Plugging Anthony into the Rockets’ defense figures to mitigate a great deal of that advantage. In fact, Utah — in an effort to punish the Thunder for playing Anthony such heavy minutes — ran pick-and-rolls over and over during the teams’ first-round series, seeking to force Anthony into switches onto ball-handlers. The Jazz found success with that approach, scoring 1.22 points per direct screen when getting Anthony to switch onto a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Second Spectrum. For context, Kevin Durant — who led the league in efficiency when handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations — averaged 1.15 points per direct screen set for him during the season.3Among offensive players who faced a minimum of 150 switches in direct pick-and-roll situations.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/MeloSwitches.mp400:0000:0001:26Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.With all that in mind, the Rockets’ defense — which helped lift the team into true championship contention last year — looks set to take a step back this season with Anthony in the fold. Houston can only hope to make up for it on offense, where it has a chance to unlock some of what made Anthony lethal at times with the Nuggets and the Knicks, in an earlier phase of his career.But one thing seems almost certain at this point for the Brooklyn-born Melo: If the 34-year-old can’t make it work in Houston, with a pair of passers as otherworldly as Paul and Harden, he probably can’t make it work anywhere.
Members of OSU softball team. Credit: Courtesy of OSUAfter a week off, the Ohio State softball team (9-4) is set to head west to Tempe, Arizona, for the Louisville Slugger Invitational hosted by Arizona State. The Buckeyes are slated to face four opponents, three of which are ranked in the USA Today Top 25 poll. OSU’s first matchup is scheduled to begin Friday at 1 p.m. against James Madison (17-1).At this juncture in the season, the Buckeyes have faced only one ranked team, a loss to then-No. 3 LSU, so the weekend looks primed to be stuffed with a string of intense contests.“This spring trip will probably be the toughest stretch of (nine) games we will play this year before postseason play,” said OSU coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly, looking ahead to both this weekend and next week’s five-game trip to San Diego.Sizing up the opponentsJames Madison is the Buckeyes’ highest-ranked opponent this weekend, moving from its preseason ranking of No. 19 to No. 10 after its successful start. The Dukes are 4-1 against other ranked teams, including a 3-2 win over No. 3 Auburn in February.James Madison poses a threat from the mound because of the forceful duo of sophomore Megan Good and senior Jailyn Ford. Both pitchers have an ERA below 1.00, and Good has struck out 70 batters in her 13 appearances.Schoenly is cognizant of the Dukes’ powerhouse pitching staff, which will help prepare OSU’s batters for the subsequent energetic efforts from the mound.“We will be facing some of the toughest pitchers in the country over the next (nine) games, and it will be great to see who rises to the challenge,” she said.Seven Dukes are hitting above .350, five of whom have started all 18 games. Senior Erica Field is off to another stellar season after breaking four program single-season and three career records last season. The catcher’s career batting average of .359 rivals OSU senior catcher Cammi Prantl’s .342, which is the top mark among Buckeye starters.Georgetown (5-11) is OSU’s only unranked opponent in Arizona. As such, Schoenly said the Buckeyes are hoping to take advantage at the plate in Game 2 on Friday after likely having to grind out hits against James Madison’s pitching staff.The Buckeye offense will face a struggling Hoya pitching staff, which has a combined ERA of 6.83. Georgetown’s three pitchers have also walked more than twice the number of batters they have struck out.Senior Samantha Giovanniello leads the Hoyas with five home runs and 19 RBIs, which is just two short of her 2015 total.The Buckeyes’ own offensive weakness continues to be stranding runners, something that could make a difference in a tight game.“The few games we have lost, we had many baserunners during the game,” Schoenly said. “We just needed a timely hit here and there.”OSU is scheduled to play its only game Saturday against No. 23 Nebraska, which is currently ranked second in the Big Ten, while the Buckeyes sit at fourth in the conference.Cornhusker infielder M.J. Knighten leads the Big Ten in batting with 11 home runs and a .473 batting average. The junior was named Big Ten Player of the Week last month after a strong showing in Iowa. Also delivering at the plate for Nebraska (12-4) is senior outfielder Kiki Stokes with a .435 batting average, and senior infielder Alicia Armstrong with 15 RBIs.Nebraska sits in the middle of the conference in pitching and is led by junior right-hander Cassidy McClure with 33 strikeouts. The right-hander and the three other pitchers for the Huskers have a combined ERA of 3.11.The Scarlet and Gray finish their outing in Arizona with a matchup against Arizona State (18-5). The No. 19 Sun Devils have eight batters hitting over .350, half of whom have RBI totals in the double digits. Freshman first baseman Ulufa Leilua has a .903 slugging percentage, while senior infielder Nikki Girard has seven doubles and three homers.OSU’s defense has been effective in getting out of tough situations with big hitters like Leilua at the plate, something Schoenly mentioned as a key to the Buckeyes’ success this weekend.“We are looking for our pitchers to continue limiting teams to a few runs a game,” Schoenly said. “The key for our defense will be to limit the opponents’ big innings and for us to have timely hitting.”Schoenly also praised sophomore third baseman Ashley Goodwin’s constant awareness of the field to stop opponents’ offenses from scoring.Finishing strongAfter her leading performance in South Carolina, Prantl was named Big Ten Player of the Week and Louisville Slugger/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Player of the Week.The senior hit .786 over five games, including a 4-for-4, three-RBI showing against Furman.“I am extremely honored and humbled to be receiving this national award,” Prantl said in a press release. “This would not be possible without the support of my teammates and the coaching staff. Driving in runs is impossible without my teammates being on base.”Prantl has 47 doubles in her career, only 11 away from the Buckeyes’ all-time record. She had 16 doubles during both her sophomore and junior seasons, so Prantl has a reasonable chance to set a new program mark.Up nextThe Buckeyes are scheduled to face San Diego State in a single game on March 16 before facing four opponents at the San Diego State Tournament from March 17 to 20. OSU’s matchup against the Aztecs is slated to begin at 9 p.m.