It's Bayless Time

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With Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw all out of action, we've reached a crossroads for Jerryd Bayless.  

As Dwight Jaynes recently pointed out, Bayless hasn't been particularly happy in Portland this season.  If you're looking for a symbol of his restlessness, you need look no further than his blogspot blog, a declaration of independence from an organization that squashed the idea of hosting his blog on Blazers.com for as-yet-unexplained reasons during his rookie year.  

"I don't need team approval to express myself any more," Bayless seems to be saying.  What's the number one reason people start personal blogs?  They're looking for an avenue to get things off their chest. 

Can you blame Jerryd Bayless for harboring some frustration after watching young point guards like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Jonny Flynn, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Tyreke Evans and Darren Collison receive significant run? After seeing former Blazers Jarrett Jack, Channing Frye and Sergio Rodriguez enjoy success almost as soon as they left Portland?  

Are you wondering which Blazer shakes the most hands before games with coaches and players from other teams around the league? I can tell you unequivocally, without hesitation, that Blazer is Jerryd Bayless.

I'll admit to some Team Bayless fatigue at the start of the season.  There is a limit to the number of times you can repeat the phrase "Give the kid a chance!" before everyone starts drowning you out.  As recently as last month, I was so sick of listening to myself champion Jerryd Bayless's cause that I decided to pretty much stop writing about him all together. 

Today that changes.  Because I finally found someone or something that thinks Bayless deserves more playing time as much as I do.  That someone or something is Synergy Sports. (For a rundown of Synergy Sports read this post from last week.)

While Bayless has played just 10 minutes per game -- compared to 29 minutes for Steve Blake and 27 for Andre Miller -- Synergy's profiles offer little evidence that this is an appropriate distribution of minutes.  In fact, the Synergy profiles offer ample evidence that Jerryd Bayless should be seeing a significant increase in playing time.  Let's break it down.

The New, (Mostly) Improved Bayless

Last year there were three main knocks on Bayless: he couldn't hit a jump shot, he turned the ball over, and he too often played defense with his hands, committing unnecessary fouls. Let's take each criticism in turn.

Bayless is Shooting Lights Out

It's just about time to put the first criticism -- that Bayless can't shoot -- to bed.  Bayless is connecting on a remarkable 52.7% of his field goal attempts, far and away the best of any Blazer guard.

Where's that improvement coming from? One thing is for sure: it's not coming from distance.  Bayless continues to resist shooting the 3 ball, something that he's never done well as a pro.  His 3 point shooting is pretty much atrocious but it barely affects his overall offensive efficiency because he isn't jacking up many threes.

Instead, his offensive efficiency has sky-rocketed from last year because he has shown significant improvement in virtually every other facet of his offensive game.  Check this chart out.

Bayless1_medium 

In the chart, PPP refers to points per possession.  Synergy defines this is terms of the player relative to the plays that individual is primarily responsible for.  This chart shows quite clearly the leap Bayless has taken on offense.  No other Blazer comes close to matching his 63 percentile jump year over year in efficiency.  That kind of improvement just doesn't happen. It's a testament to how much he struggled as a rookie in spot duty and to how we shouldn't let memories of last year cloud our judgment of him this year.

You might be surprised to find out what is propelling this outlandish improvement.  Get this: Bayless currently ranks in the 100% percentile as a mid-range jump-shooter.  Seriously.  From 17 feet out to the three point line, Bayless is by far the best on his team and ranks among the top 5 players in the NBA in shooting percentage.  Simply incredible.  

Bayless is Protecting the Rock

The second knock on Bayless -- that he's sloppy with the basketball -- is looking less and less like a reality this year. Take a look at this comparison between Bayless, Andre Miller and Steve Blake when it comes to what Synergy calls %TO and %FT.  %TO refers to the percentage of possessions where this player is the primary ball handler that end in a turnover. %FT refers to the percentage of possessions where this player is the primary ball handler that end in a trip to the foul line.

Bayless4_medium

As you can see, not only is Bayless far and away the best of the three point guards at getting to the foul line, he's actually better at protecting the ball than either one of his veteran teammates too.  Does it help that Bayless plays against backups and that he has been used off the ball? Sure it does.  But Bayless has shown evidence of maturity as a ball-handler too: he's slashed his turnovers per game from 1.1 last year to .6 this year.  

When Bayless does turn the ball over it can get ugly, like the time he was sprawled out in Madison Square Garden expecting a whistle that never came.  The point isn't that Bayless doesn't commit turnovers. The point is he has committed them far less frequently than last year while also getting to the foul line more frequently. That's a recipe for increased offensive efficiency, something the Blazers have long sought from the point guard position (more on that later).

Bayless Is Too Handsy on Defense

No question about it: the third criticism of Bayless -- that he uses his hands too much on defense and commits needless fouls -- is still accurate.  Kevin Pelton ran the numbers for me.  This chart shows foul rate: how many fouls per possession each of the Blazers' three point guards commits.

Bayless6_medium

As you can see, Bayless is far and away the worst of the three.  This is a flaw.  But is it fatal?  Does it disqualify him from being a good or adequate defender? We'll look at that in a little bit.

Bayless on Offense

Now that we've addressed each of the three major criticisms of Bayless, let's dig a little deeper into his overall performance on offense and defense compared to Andre Miller and Steve Blake.  

If you've browsed Bayless' Per 36 minute numbers (statistics adjusted for playing time) you no doubt are already aware that his points per 36 put him among the team's leaders. In terms of instant offense, he leads every bench player (including Travis Outlaw) by a wide margin.  He out-paces both Andre Miller and Steve Blake.  

This isn't necessarily surprising for someone that hasn't received a lot of playing time and who is instructed to be aggressive with the ball when he is in the game.  

However, we should not write off Bayless' offensive production as simply the meaningless product of garbage time.  Synergy notes that Bayless has enjoyed success in virtually every aspect of offense that it tracks.  Bayless ranks "Good" overall in the Pick and Roll, "Excellent" in dribbling off picks, "Excellent" in isolation and "Very Good" in transition.  With the ball in his hands, regardless of situation, Bayless has been getting it done.

All of those rankings are a function of two basic skills: Bayless can beat his man off the dribble and he can draw fouls.  Those skills are incredibly valuable from an efficiency perspective because they lead to high field goal percentages and free points from the foul line. Combine that with Bayless's new-found ability to protect the basketball and he currently stands as the team's best point guard at offensive efficiency.  And he does so by a wide margin.

Bayless0_medium

If there's room for improvement for Jerryd Bayless on offense it comes from his pass outs on the pick and rolls.  This probably doesn't surprise you.  He rates "Average" and "Below Average" in some pass-out categories whereas he rates "Very Good" and "Excellent" from the same spots when he decides to shoot or drive instead of pass.  Certainly some of this is his fault.  However, as noted last week in the discussion of LaMarcus Aldridge's passing, the Blazers spot-up shooting overall hasn't been great and the guys Bayless is passing to in the second unit -- Rudy Fernandez and Martell Webster -- have been particularly weak.

By comparison, Andre Miller's turnovers in transition (an astonishing 23.8 %TO) and "Below Average" jump shooting are significantly bigger detriments to the team's offensive efficiency.  Steve Blake's "Poor" mid-range shooting, "Poor" ability to run the pick and roll overall and horrible shooting when the shot clock is running out (just 15% from the field with less than 4 seconds on the shot clock) are all significantly bigger detriments to overall offensive efficiency than Bayless's shortcomings as a passer. 

When I wrote a week or so ago that Andre Miller's ability to draw fouls was one of the Blazers' most valuable offensive weapons, it turns out I was half right.  I was right about the weapon but I was partially wrong about the player.  Bayless attempts 10 free throws per 36 minutes, leading the team, while Miller attempts 6 free throws per 36 minutes.  Miller's number is good... Bayless's is great.

Indeed, now that Greg Oden has gone down, Synergy's numbers, overall, state that Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jerryd Bayless have been the team's top 3 most efficient offensive options this season. Roy plays 37 minutes per game, LaMarcus Aldridge plays 34 minutes per game and Bayless... well, he plays 10 minutes per game. How do you like them apples?

Bayless on Defense

To no one's surprise, we can attribute Bayless' relative lack of playing time to his coach's preference for defense-first.  Comparing the individual defensive efficiency numbers for the three point guards, Steve Blake is the clear winner. 

Baylessd_medium

Despite all the talk about Andre Miller as a defensive upgrade over Blake -- including talk from me on that subject -- the numbers through 22 games don't support that assertion.  Miller has been slightly better than Bayless but noticeably worse than Blake.  

Both Blake and Miller enjoy solid success across most categories.  Blake is "Excellent" in pick and rolls, "Good" in isolation, and "Excellent" against spot-up shooters.  Miller is  "Good" in pick and rolls, "Excellent" in isolation, and "Average" against spot-up shooters.  Miller's numbers are pulled down a bit because he is "Below Average" in post-up situations, one of the negative by-products of the team's smaller 3 guard lineup.  

Bayless's numbers show that through 22 games he has a significant flaw in his defense: defending the pick and roll. Interestingly, however, Bayless rated "Very Good" in this category over the entirety of last year, suggesting that his current "Poor" ranking looks worse than it might be if his playing time increased.  Other than this weakness, Bayless posts "Good" or "Above Average" ratings in just about every other defensive situation this season.  He is also holding his man to a slightly lower shooting percentage this season. 

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In conclusion, Synergy's data suggests that, overall, Jerryd Bayless is nearly as good a defensive option as Andre Miller this season, despite his high foul rate.  His data from last year suggests he would probably play better defense than he has played so far this year if his minutes increased.

Summary

Nate McMillan and his coaching staff are weighing their options when it comes to Jerryd Bayless.  They are certainly aware of his strengths on offense, his potential on defense and are likely worried about his propensity for fouling.  

Taking all of the above into account -- the success Blake has shown on defense, Bayless's foul rate -- it's difficult if not impossible to argue that Bayless should be starting or earning the bulk of the point guard playing time.  That's just not realistic at this point.  

However, if you're the coaching staff and you're simply looking for evidence that Bayless's burn should increase, I think there's plenty.  His offensive efficiency, his solid numbers overall on defense, his low turnover rate and his ability to get to the foul line are all big plusses.  Many of these did not exist last year.  Also, offensive struggles over 22 games and significant minutes from both Blake and Miller were not expected and, at some point, should not be tolerated without at least testing the obvious alternative.

If you calculate net points per possession for each of the three point guards,  Bayless does quite well.  To do this, simply subtract the defensive points per possession given away by the player from the offensive points per possession produced by the player.  The result gives you a sense for the individual's contribution each time up and down the court.  Doing this for each of the three point guards shows Bayless on top.

Bayless3_medium 

Is this enough to say that Bayless should be starting or that he's ready for 30 minutes a night?  Probably not.  His success in this stat is likely a function of being better than the backups he is playing against.  However, I think it does add nicely to the overall case that Bayless can handle -- and should be given -- say, 18 to 20 minutes a night while Rudy Fernandez is absent.  Give him two full runs through the rotation, one in the first half and one in the second half.  And, perhaps, experiment more with working Bayless into a three guard lineup to see if he can continue his scorching shooting while playing off the ball alongside Brandon Roy.

To summarize, the advanced stats really like Jerryd Bayless on offense and they like him more than the general consensus might like him on defense too.  Aside from foul rate and some struggles this year while defending the pick and roll, Synergy's reports see no major red flags that might result from increasing his playing time.  In cases where the Blazers are struggling on offense, Synergy's reports provide some very strong arguments that his playing time should be ramped up considerably.  

At the very beginning of this post I noted that the Blazers are at a crossroads with Bayless.  Put simply: in Jerryd Bayless's mind, it's about time that the Blazers trade him or play him.  

On this team, at this time, with these stats, I believe the strongest response to that question is to play him.

-- Ben Golliver | (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com) | Twitter

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