Corner Stats: is Mike James good for his team?

Corner Stats: is Mike James good for his team?

With the help of some data, let's see if Mike James has been good or bad for Milano.

Welcome back to Corner Stats! Probably this is my first click-bait title, but the question I asked myself for this week’s analysis was the one shown above. Or rather, this is the question that in many – if not all – Olimpia fans have asked themselves at the end of the EuroLeague regular season.

Mike James is a very talented player, I think we can all agree on that. But I understand how different fans do not like some American player’s performances. This is because his playing style is one of the most “selfish” in Europe. Of all the players with at least 10 possessions per game, James is fifth in Usage Percentage with 29%, behind Spanoulis, Mickey, Cole and of course Shved. Especially for those who appreciate a playstyle with a more equal possession distribution, James appears to be the antithesis of their ideal game.

However, we must note that Olimpia’s attack was the third best in the whole EuroLeague, behind only Fenerbahce and CSKA. And this is largely due to the player with the number 2 on his back since two fundamental elements for Milan’s offensive game have missed several games. Nedovic, who is the second main handler of the team, played half of the season, while Gudaitis, who is the perfect center for the PNR and post-up situations, he gives up due to injury at the twenty-first round. As can be seen in the chart below, the distribution of Milan’s possessions is quite emblematic and the second for USG% has missed half of the games.

These two players were among the most important for Olimpia’s offense (and also defense) and their absence forced Pianigiani to ask James to manage even more possessions than Mike’s standards. Also because the alternatives were not enough for the competition:

The second chart shows the individual offensive and defensive ratings of Milan players. In terms of roles, James’s backups were Jerrells and Cinciarini, that are the two with the worst values in offensive ratings. The dotted line shows the average rating of Milan’s players only, that is much higher than the League one (107); even considering this second value, it is clear that the two values averaged by Jerrells and Cinciarini are very low (about 90 points per 100 possessions, among the worst of the whole competition). If for Cinciarini we can say that has played not so much and so his Off Rtg is not very reliable, the same cannot be said of Jerrells. So if these were the alternatives, it is clear that Pianigiani was partly forced to use James in that way (at the end of the regular season Mike was the player with the highest amount of minutes played).

Some may now ask me, “Well, but Micov?”. The Serbian is an important player for Pianigiani’s game too, but he cannot play as second handler. Many in fact mistakenly consider Vlado as the real playmaker, the one who manages the pace and game of Milan. Absolutely not: Micov is an outstanding player in attacking the close-outs and creating space for a conclusion or a drive, but among his best qualities we do not find the ability to create from dribbling or constantly playing PNR like James or Nedovic. Micov’s Assistant Percentage is equal to 14%: in other words, only 14% of his possessions end with a winning pass to a teammate (James, for example, is around 30%). Micov was the second most used by Olimpia’s coach, but for other reasons, different from those regarding James. Above all, however, he held a different role and could not help James effectively and consistently.

In essence, the alternatives to James as the main handler were few and of low quality (obviously taking into account Nedovic’s absence). Pianigiani tried to exploit Mike as 2 together with Jerrells as 1, in the hope of alleviating the second’s defects. The result, however, was the following:

The table above shows the points per minute made and allowed by Olimpia while James and the player of the specific line were on the court. The data is per minute as Overbasket does not provide advanced statistics for player combinations. As can be seen easily, Jerrells turns out to be the worst teammate for James. Worst values both from the offensive and the defensive point of view (we will return soon on this topic).

So let’s go in order:

  • Nedovic is undoubtedly James’ best teammate, but he missed half of the games and in the last part of the season he wasn’t in optimal physical condition;
  • Bertans worked quite well (at least from an offensive point of view), but he has gone to the NBA;
  • Jerrells as we have seen is the worst possible companion;
  • Nunnally is a great alternative to Nedovic, but his numbers are based on a small sample and in any case, after a high-level start, his performance dropped down;
  • Cinciarini and Della Valle did not play enough minutes to be able to evaluate them;

So Jerrells was Mike’s worst companion, but he was also the most available player during the season. In other words, not the ideal situation.

We must, therefore, acknowledge that, given these data, James is indeed the main factor of the third attack on Europe. To call James as an offensive problem (as I have heard/read) seems to me to be quite wrong.

The real problem is obviously from a defensive point of view. Gudaitis aside, none of Olimpia’s players averaged a Defensive Rating lower than the League average (115). The same goes for the other defensive indicator, the Defensive Box Plus Minus.

James’ defense is less free from critique: he has some problems when defenses off the ball and in a PNR situation. In these cases, you can see all the limits of Mike’s defensive abilities, where he gives a lot of advantage to his opponents. Let’s go back to the previous table: in games in which both James and Nedovic were on the court, the points allowed are the fewest among the other teammates (Cinciarini’s value is calculated on a small sample so not reliable). This is because, with Nedovic, Pianigiani had the possibility to “hide” Mike on a less dangerous player, giving to the Serbian the task of defending on players more involved by PNR. This, however, was possible for half the season; for the other games, the teammates were mostly Bertans and Jerrells. It is true, towards the end of the season Nedovic played, but his physical condition was not that of the beginning and this has influenced Milan’s defense (that had not Gudaitis as well).

Considering both sides, we understand how Nedovic is James’s best teammate, while Jerrells is the worst. This is because together they did not fit in offensive phase while in defensive phase they added the same defects, worsening by far Milano’s defense. Unfortunately, however, the Serbian was not always present and so in order to avoid as much as possible the James-Jerrells couple, the only solution was the rotation. However, this led to having Curtis alone on the court: these are the Impact of the two players when only one of them was active.

Clearly, Jerrells’ numbers are not enough to guarantee to James to rest without dropping down Olimpia’s offense. In addition, Jerrells’ Impacts is -8 while is on the court and is +4.4 with him on the bench. For James, it goes from 0 to +3.

These factors led to that James’ usage; everything, however, has turned into a clear negative consequence: high usage. James has been used a lot and this undoubtedly leads to greater tiredness both towards the end of the game and of the season.

This above is the trend of the Offensive Rating during the match of all Olimpia players, kindly offered by As you can see, for James there is a trend similar to that shown for the stars in one of my last articles. A strong start, a drop in the central quarters, and a return to high levels in the game finals. However, the chart shows the trend averaged over the entire season. Let’s consider the last six rounds, that are the most decisive and with the maximum tiredness accumulation.

In this case, there is no longer a return to high values at the end of the game, but the drop continues. This trend is certainly due to the factors just mentioned.

Was James, therefore, a problem for Milan? Absolutely not, especially at the offensive side. On the defensive phase surely he could have been done better, but the factors explained have partly forced Milan to suffer the opponents’ attack in this way. Also regarding the usage, the easiest solutions (James + Jerrells) were also the least productive, so in the end, it has used very few time. In my opinion, Olimpia’s attack was of such high productivity that it is difficult to think of further improvements with a different possessions distribution. On the defensive side, however, the problems were not solved due to lack of alternatives and excessive tiredness, thus turning Milan into one of EuroLeague’s worst defenses.

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