NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - To some extent, NBA advanced metrics tell us what we already know. LeBron James is nearly unstoppable. Brook Lopez has made the leap from serviceable big man to All-Star. And teammate Deron Williams is playing nothing like a two-time Olympian.
But there's a lot more to the numbers than the who and the what. They're about how James consistently finds ways to dominate and why Lopez has thrived and Williams has struggled.
STATS LLC's SportVU tracking cameras, which record every on-court movement in three dimensions, aren't here to simply tell us that the Heat have the league's most lethal weapon. They're here to tell us how that weapon takes over almost every time it takes the court.
As the league takes a breather and prepares for its 62nd annual All-Star game this weekend, now is as good a time as any to take a look back.
The Heat are not one of the 15 NBA teams that subscribe to the system, but with half the league on board, SportVU has tracked James for 10 games as of Feb. 14. It's a small sample to go off - just 20 percent of Miami's games - but James has scored 1.14 points every time he drives to the basket, tied for the most in the league. As a team, the Heat average 1.64 points when the reigning MVP takes the ball toward the hole - the fourth-best individual-to-team success rate in the NBA.
A drive is defined in the SportVU universe as any time a touch starts with the ball at least 20 feet from the basket and ends within 10 feet, and Miami is set up well to succeed when James gets into the lane - be it a dump-off to Chris Bosh on the baseline or a jump-pass to Ray Allen or Mario Chalmers on the wing for a 3.
With James leading the way, the Heat are tied for fourth in the league as a team on points per drive at 1.30. James and Dwyane Wade's paint penetration isn't just leading to points, but easy shots as well. Miami shoots a league-best 61.2 percent on those drives, while Brooklyn is second-to-last at 44.5 percent.
The Nets, in many ways, are having a successful debut in New York's most populated borough, sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference at the break. The face of the franchise, though, has done little to live up to his end of the bargain. Deron Williams has now played 117 games with the Nets since leaving the pick-and-roll comforts of Jerry Sloan's system in Utah, and he's yet to return to the form that landed him on the past two Olympic gold-medal squads with James.
A look at Williams' lack of productivity on drives gives a good indication why he's struggling - and perhaps this week's revelation that he's been dealing with ankle issues only confirms it for a guard whose game is built on getting in the paint. Williams has averaged 0.39 points per drive in 12 SportVU games, which puts him 150th in the league - ahead of only John Lucas III and Mario Chalmers among point guards. As a team, the Nets average 1.04 points when Williams heads to the hole, a quarter-point less than the Spurs get on Tony Parker's drives and nearly a half-point less than the Lakers get from Steve Nash's.
Williams' drives aren't just leading to missed shots. He's also turned it over an eye-popping 17 percent of the time - worse than any floor general but Chalmers, someone who's often a point in name only. That's more than twice the amount of three point guards on SportVU-subscribing teams - Parker (8 percent), Brandon Jennings (6) and Russell Westbrook (5) - give it away.
Oddly enough, Lopez hasn't suffered from Williams' season to forget. He's the fourth-most efficient player in the league (PER) behind James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, and he's actually ahead of James and Paul - and sixth in the NBA - in points per touch (0.434).
In fact, analytics may wind up being a hot topic at the next Lopez family reunion. Brook's twin brother Robin has found a home as the Hornets' starting center and is making the most of nearly every opportunity in the post. He's 83rd in the league in scoring, but 13th in points per touch - just behind Kobe Bryant and James Harden.
Harden has had a fantastic first season in Houston, developing into a true star while emerging from the shadows of Durant and Westbrook, and no one would argue that the Rockets got the best player in one of the biggest preseason blockbusters the league has seen in years.
But the player who's essentially filling his shoes is doing even more than the Thunder could have expected. Kevin Martin is the only player in the league averaging more than a half-point per touch (0.510), and considering Oklahoma City is a SportVU subscriber, his 36 games with the cameras watching are a significant sample size. He's had four of the top 17 individual PPT performances and an incredible 13 of the top 100.
Harden's name only appears twice on that list.
Swinging back to point guards, while the ideal scenario when heading into the lane is an easy layup or kick-out 3, getting to the line isn't far behind. This is an area where some young floor generals have thrived, with Sacramento's Isaiah Thomas (22 percent), Portland's Damian Lillard (21) and Cleveland's Kyrie Irving (21) the top regular lead guards at drawing contact on their drives.
Irving has become an All-Star in just his second season with the Cavaliers, slicing into the lane and finishing at the rim with regularity while also turning into a nearly 43 percent 3-point shooter. The most surprising part of his game, though, is where he's initiating some of Cleveland's offense. Irving leads the league by a wide margin in point per touch from the elbow (0.69), a category defined as any touch that begins within a 5-foot radius of the corner of the free-throw line.
He's sixth in team points per touch from the elbow (1.27), and is the only point guard among the top 19 players in that category.
One area where Irving could stand to improve a bit is assists per pass, where he's 65th overall and 23rd among point guards. That's a stat very dependent on having teammates who can finish, of course, and Cleveland's near the bottom of the league in true shooting percentage - which takes into account field goals, 3-pointers and free throws.
Perhaps it's not so surprising, then, that the league's leader in assists per pass is on a veteran team that's third in the league in true shooting percentage - even though he isn't a point guard. That would be Manu Ginobili (0.17), who has been slowed by a variety of injuries at age 35 but seems to be evolving as his career hits its latter stages.
His team seems to be adjusting just fine to the minute-management whims of a coach who's clearly eyeing a deep postseason run. Gregg Popovich's club has the NBA's best record at the break, which will make San Antonio awfully difficult to knock off in the playoffs should it maintain that. The Spurs have a plus-13.4 scoring margin at home, easily the best in the league.
In an era of the NBA that's blossoming on a daily basis with new ways to analyze what our eyes have seen for decades, can the decidedly old-school Spurs keep it up?
It should be fun to find out.