Beyond the Box Score: the Hornets and the Vasquez Effect

The Hornets are struggling right now, and it would be easy to assign blame to specific players’ deficiencies.  Truthfully, however, the Hornets are designed to fail without Eric Gordon.  The key to a good offense is having a player or players who can beat their men on a consistent basis.  Oklahoma City’s offense is designed around Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant’s abilities to create.  Likewise, San Antonio is built around Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan,  and Miami around LeBron and DWade, etc.  The Hornets, right now, are devoid of a player who can both create for himself and finish.  Greivis Vasquez can finish, but struggles to create for himself and others.  Austin Rivers can create his own shot, but makes rookie mistakes and is just starting to finish his opportunities.  Brian Roberts is much more effective creating for himself than for others, but is inconsistent and cannot get to the rim effectively.  Roger Mason has never been and will never be a creator.  Ryan Anderson is more adept at working off of other people.   Eric Gordon is the lone Hornets player who has proven he can consistently beat his man and score, but he has yet to step onto the court this season.

Winston Churchill said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”   NBA statistics are not lies, but they are often half-truths: any statistic, when evaluated by itself, does not tell the entire story.  Almost every basic statistic (points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game) is influenced by opportunity.  Typically, players’ statistics rise with more time on the court.

Greivis Vasquez  is currently averaging 12.5 points per game and 8.9 assists per game in 33.2 minutes per game.  These statistics are nothing to sneeze at, as Vasquez is tied for 3rd in the league in assists per game, and his point average indicates that he is capable of scoring.  Conversely, his true shooting percentage and turnover rates are below average, meaning he is not creating efficient offense and is also making more mistakes than most NBA players.  The numbers, when evaluated in isolation, lead fans to believe that Vasquez is performing at an above-average level.  What I see, however, is a player being asked to do more than what he is capable of, and the effects are well-represented in the Hornets’ winning percentage.

This article is not meant to criticize Vasquez, whom I believe to be a very capable NBA backup.  Rather, it is meant to describe, in detail, how the box score statistics misrepresent his effect on the offense.  Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts’ statistics are hardly impressive, and this represents how they have been performing (relative to starters at their positions).  Vasquez’s statistics, conversely, make him appear to be a starting level point guard, and as stated earlier, I believe they misrepresent his abilities.

Today’s NBA teams typically rely on guards and forwards to create offense.  Very few centers initiate their offenses.  The role of a point guard is to direct the offense, and to do so effectively, this player must have three abilities: penetration, recognition, and completion.

Step 1: Penetration
The first step, and also the most important, because without it, recognition is irrelevant, and completion is not possible.  Vasquez’s inability to penetrate is his greatest offensive weakness.  He operates almost exclusively out of the pick and roll.  Typically, a big man (Lopez, Davis, Anderson, Smith) will come and screen Vasquez’s man in hopes of giving him a couple of feet of separation from his defender.  The role of the opposing big man is often to “hedge,” which means using his body as an obstacle to prevent Vasquez from being able to dribble towards the basket.  This allows his guard (the man defending Vasquez) to catch up to Vasquez before he gets to an area on the court where he becomes a threat.  Once the defending guard can catch up, the big man must get back to his man, who is often sprinting to the basket or opening up for a jump shot.

Scenario 1: Vasquez beats the opposing big man, turns the corner, and gets into the lane.  This forces the defense to start rotating, leaving a teammate open.  If the defense does not rotate, Vasquez should have the opportunity to score.

Scenario 2: Both the opposing big man and the opposing guard run to Vasquez, leaving the man setting the screen (again, Davis, Lopez, Smith, Anderson) open.  Vasquez can then pass to that player (hopefully in a spot where the player is a threat to score).  Vasquez could also “split” the defense, meaning dribble between the two players and beat both of them.  Another option is to swing the ball to a teammate, who can then create for himself or find the big man who originally set the screen.

Scenario 3: The opposing big man hedges properly, and the guard defending Vasquez catches up to him, while the opposing big man gets back to his man before Vasquez can pass to him.  The play has essentially failed, and the Hornets now have to find another way to score.

Scenario 4:  The opposing big man (in this case, probably someone very slow) does not pop out to Vasquez, and the guard assigned to Vasquez is slowed by the screen.  Should no one else pick up Vasquez, he is probably open for a shot, or can try to get into the paint.

Scenario 5: The opposing big man hedges and stays with Vasquez, and the guard sticks with the Hornet big man setting the screen.  This, in theory, creates two mismatches: the opposing guard is defending someone likely to be much bigger, and the opposing big man is defending a guard (Vasquez), who should be much quicker.

Vasquez is very slow, and therefore requires a very good screen to gain the necessary separation for an open, straight line to the rim.  If he does, he is often successful, because he sees the floor well, can pass well, and has a nice touch on shots near the rim.  More often than not, however, he is unable to gain proper separation, which means that he is not exerting pressure on the opposing team’s defense.  If Vasquez cannot exert this pressure, the Hornets are much less likely to get an open shot, because no other defender has to leave his man to help stop Vasquez; therefore, the player taking the shot is probably closely guarded, and the shot becomes more difficult.

Step 2: Recognition
Vasquez excels at this step.  After penetration, the defense is likely to shift and leave something open, whether it be an open 3, mid-range shot, floater, dunk, etc.  Often, a guard who gets to the basket will draw a shot-blocker, and even if the shot misses, someone is open to grab the offensive rebound.  The key here is the recognition of what the defense is giving up when it shifts to stop the ball.

Step 3: Completion
Now that the player has pressured the defense and has recognized where the opening is, he must take advantage of it.  If he is left open, he must be able to make the shot.  Vasquez can do this, and he is very good at finishing with a floater over bigger defenders.  He can also pass well to his teammates.  When the defense sags (sits back) on him, he is capable of finishing a mid-range shot.

When watching Vasquez, it is clear that his problems initiating offense start at step 1 (penetration).  Vasquez could also try to beat his man in isolation, but he has also been unable to do so because of his lack of foot speed.  Unfortunately, it will be hard for Vasquez to increase his quickness, and therefore, it will be hard for Vasquez to improve to the level of a quality starting point guard.  So how can the Hornets fix this problem?

Unfortunately, the Hornets do not have a quick fix.. Rivers has shown the ability to complete step 1, but still has much to learn in regards to recognition and completion.  Gordon can score himself, but is more of a scorer than a passer.  Roberts is very small and struggles to get to the rim effectively.  Ideally, I would like to see Vasquez play off of the ball, where someone else could penetrate and get Vasquez open shots.  Vasquez could then hit his shot, or if the defender closed out on Vasquez too quickly, he could fake the shot, which could allow him to get by his man more effectively than he has been able to as a primary ball-handler.


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