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How They Drew Up 5 Graphs: Elfrid Payton

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The crossover event of the season

Phoenix Suns v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Welcome to the first-ever How They Drew Up 5 Graphs. This crossover series has it all: video clips that will pull out your hair; beautifully designed scatter plots that put Kirk Goldsberry into an existential fugue state; blog-boi slander only the likes of cis-white-males who play rec-league volleyball and take yoga can write; and insight that anyone can do if they want to allocate their free time unproductively.

To kick off the probably one-off series, given how long it took me to put everything together, I’ve decided to do a deep dive on Elfrid Payton. The now six-year pro out of Louisiana-Lafayette was a signing this offseason that most fans did not like, but sadly understood given that Scott Perry has an obsession with trying to rehabilitate his failed lottery picks. The signing did actually become helpful due to the unfortunate regression of Dennis Smith Jr. (get better, man). But instead of being a backup point guard playing less than 20 minutes per game, Payton has become the starting point guard on a team who continues to play veterans with very-little-to-no upside in another lost season.

I highly doubt that the front office will trade Payton by the trade deadline — Feb. 6, mark your calendars — but I wanted to write something that presents the argument that he should either be traded, or at the very least have his minutes reduced to 20 per game or less. The Knicks aren’t competing for the playoffs, so why should Payton be a priority, right? Let’s get into the evidence.

Restricted area scoring?

Something all of us have heard at some point in following basketball is the importance of breaking down a defense and getting into the restricted area. How many times did Knicks fans have this discussion during the Derrick Rose season? It is certainly a valuable and important NBA skill to have; I don’t question it whatsoever. With that said, the value of getting into the teeth of the defense only generates positive impact on the court if the player is doing, at minimum, one of three things:

  1. Shooting efficiently at the rim
  2. Getting to the foul line
  3. Generating passes and assists due to a collapsed defense

While Payton does do a pretty good job at number three, he’s absolutely awful at the first two, especially in the half-court.

The scatter plot above shows a collection of guards who lead the NBA in restricted area shot frequency in relationship to getting to the free throw line. As you can see, Payton’s frequency is just below 40% and his free throw rate is in some pretty bad company. To make matters worse, Payton is in the 14th percentile in restricted area shooting efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. So not only does he primarily shoot his field goal attempts near the rim, he doesn’t score efficiently nor does he get to the line. Outside of passing, he is a non-threat once he gets into the paint.

Payton is certainly better at finishing in transition and does a good job in getting the Knicks in transition. Unfortunately, the Knicks are 16th in transition frequency at 14.8 percent, so it’s not like they utilize it much. Keep in mind that most possessions are in the half-court anyways, and Payton’s finishing has much left to be desired.

3-point shooting... or lack thereof

Payton is an awful low-volume 3-point shooter. That’s not up for debate, like at all. According to Cleaning the Glass, Payton is in the seventh percentile in 3-point frequency and second percentile in 3-point percentage. Not great, Bob!

The issue is compounded by the fact that Payton does have a rather flat shot on his jumper.

There is a clip in the next section that truly demonstrates that straight-line jump shot. If Payton is a zero-threat from deep, that means that defenders can sag off him completely, making it more difficult to get into the paint to manipulate the defense. And since he’s also not a threat to score in the paint either, well, we have a truly flawed point guard. As you can tell by the graph, it’s not like Ntilikina is efficient from three either, but at the very least Ntilikina is shooting 50% from the corner, compared to Payton’s 22.2%.

Gets assists but holds the ball for too long?

We all know that Payton is a good passer. That cannot be questioned. But what can be called into question is how long he holds the ball for.

More than 30% of Payton’s shot attempts happen when his touches are six seconds or longer. When you consider that Payton brings the ball up and it takes roughly four to six seconds to bring the ball up the court, he is taking a good amount of this shot sample without actually passing the ball.

Just check out the shot clock in these clips. Payton is taking shots without even getting the offense organized. Given that he has an awful shooting percentage from effectively everywhere on the court, Payton really should not be doing this. In transition, absolutely attack the unset defense. But in the half-court, though? Why? It’s one thing to play fast and attack the rim when you have a clear open driving lane, or if the high pick-and-roll is working well. It’s a whole other animal when you’re just crashing into defenders when you’re not good at generating shooting fouls.

Payton’s defense

Payton’s defense may actually be the most overrated part of his game. Sure, when he “tries,” he’s a pesky defender; however, if you’re not always trying on defense, doesn’t that make you an inherently poor defender?

We know that the catch-all stats aren’t great at measuring defense, especially in single seasons. Multi-year versions of adjusted plus-minus metrics, on the other hand, are better at measuring the impact a player has on the court. Keep in mind that “better” doesn’t necessarily mean “good,” but it does paint a more accurate picture.

My go-to defensive adjusted plus-minus stat is either three-year or five-year RAPM, because I already know the biases and flaws of the metric. It doesn’t take into account any box score priors — defensive box score stats are not good at capturing impact outside of opponent turnovers generated and defended field goal percentage differential at the rim — or reward players for being tall. It also still has collinearity issues (multiple factors affecting the same entity), so you need to be aware of lineup combinations. For example, there was a point in the 2017–18 season where Jarrett Jack had a better DRAPM than he-who-shall-not-be-named. Because Jack effectively only played with that bum that season, the numbers got screwy. That’s why you must watch the film on defense in conjunction with these metrics. They did eventually correct, for those interested.

Let’s get back on target. Payton’s three-year Defensive RAPM isn’t good.

I picked three-year over five-year because I wanted to capture Payton’s more recent defensive impact. His five-year DRAPM is better than his three-year, suggesting that he has played worse on defense recently compared to earlier in his career. But the five-year figure is still not good: -1.45, ranked 759th out of 919 players.

For those curious: luck-adjusted is a method where you use a player’s average shooting percentage from the zone versus what they actually shot that game. This is a good and bad thing. The good part is that “well, that player was just on fire that game and nothing could be done about it.” The bad part is that “well, that player was on fire that game because we did nothing about it.” Without watching the film, we don’t know if the defender was the cause of the good shooting or a casualty of the good shooting. No matter how you cut it for Payton, he’s a bad defender.

Payton does not contest shots, loses his man regularly, and either dies on screens or just doesn’t want to even get around them. It blows my mind that Mike Miller is quick to call timeouts for things he does not approve of, yet Payton regularly isn’t punished for his lazy, non-contesting closeouts. His defense is actually what drives me the most crazy, because it’s not like he isn’t a capable defender. I don’t truly know if it’s Payton not trying, not having the best defensive awareness, or a combination of both. I personally lean more towards not trying, and that’s the worst of the options.

Do teammates shoot better with Payton on the floor?

This last section doesn’t have a clip. I apologize for this. Its purpose is actually a preview of a future article I’m working on about playing the young players more. We know Payton is a good passer, but are teammates shooting better when Payton is on the court? The table below, from PBP Stats, compares how players shoot when playing with Ntilikina versus Payton.

Mitchell Robinson’s effective field goal percentage is nearly 80% and his percentage is 11.4% better with Ntilikina on the floor! Julius Randle, Damyean Dotson, Reggie Bullock, and Wayne Ellington all shoot better with Ntilikina on the court too. And non-long-term players like Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis shoot better with Payton on the court. Yes, the RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox numbers favor Payton, but not by much, and those two have been somewhat inconsistent with their perimeter shooting. How many wide-open missed shots has Knox had on Ntilikina passes?

When you surround shooters, cutters, and off-ball players around Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson, good things happen. There need to be more lineups constructed something like Ntilikina, Barrett, Dotson, Randle and Robinson, or Ntilikina, Barrett, Bullock, Knox and Robinson. If a foundational player in Mitchell Robinson is shooting worse with Payton on the court, why is he playing so many minutes with him? Enough is enough.

Final thoughts

Despite all this data, Cleaning the Glass has Payton’s on/off differential at +7.0, which is in the 85th percentile. Payton may be a flawed player, but he is still having an overall positive impact on the team. There is nothing inherently wrong with playing Payton or keeping him around long-term, per se. It shouldn’t be at the expense of the young players, though (Ntilikina is still a +1.9 when he plays, for what it’s worth). Payton does add value by getting out in transition and generating assists, but that value right now is not translating to wins, especially given his recent minutes increase.

If the Knicks still want to start the veterans to set the tone, fine. I’m someone who does not care whether or not a player starts or comes off the bench. But use these players like Payton, Gibson, Morris, and Bullock as de facto starters and allow the younger players to play together and get the majority of the minutes. Even with that said, I still believe that Payton is a better bench point guard than a starting one, especially on this Knicks team. He needs the ball in his hands, and it makes more sense to have him come off the bench when guys like Randle and Barrett are off the floor. Those guys need the reps with the ball.

Ideally, the Knicks trade Payton by the trade deadline so they can focus the remainder on the season on Ntilikina, Robinson, et al. From there, they can see what Lamar Peters has and have Kadeem Allen as the emergency third point guard. Since that’s unrealistic given who’s in the front office, just please decrease his minutes and role.

Notes: if you want to interact with the data, here you go. I strongly suggest going onto a laptop/desktop to interact with these graphs.

Also, all stats were collected before the games against the Sixers and Cavaliers. Some of the numbers may have altered slightly.