Indicting Keyon Dooling

We pointed this out a few days ago when it was first posted, but Basketball-Reference.com recently published its APBRmetric All-Stars article, which selects players based solely on specific advanced metrics. For the most part, the results were fairly unsurprising, with many familiar faces. However, the often-interesting adjusted plus/minus statistic yielded a mildly funky result, naming Keyon Dooling the most valuable guard in the Eastern Conference.

First things first: adjusted plus/minus is hardly infallible. The intent is just, and the methodology seems logical -- just like we can boil everything in baseball down to a run-value, why not rate players in term of point values? However, it typically fails for the same reason as many other advanced metrics: it's incredibly susceptible to noisy data in the short-term. In general, two-years worth of plus/minus data starts to smooth things out -- we have half a season's worth on Keyon Dooling as a Buck.

I would expect that nobody really believes Keyon Dooling is the most valuable guard in the Eastern Conference (or, for that matter, that Earl Watson is the most valuable guard in the entire NBA). But it got me thinking: how good, or perhaps bad, has Dooling actually been this year? Even in half-season hindsight, it's a worthwhile question for two reasons. For one, Brandon Jennings' injury forced Dooling into the starting lineup, making his production that much more important for a large chunk of the schedule. In addition, Luke Ridnour's excellent season last year, and his subsequent run to free-agency, gave many Bucks fans concern over the backup point-guard position.

So, has the decision to let Ridnour walk and sign Dooling in his place worked out, or has it come back to bite them?

In his first year with Milwaukee, Luke Ridnour was never an atrociously horrible point guard. There were concerns (often voiced by my roommates) that he was at best a placeholder, and at worst an obstacle toward the development of Ramon Sessions. Sessions had plenty of promise, even without any three-point shooting ability to speak of. He ran the pick-and-roll quite well but struggled as a spot-up shooter (see: his year with Minnesota), while Ridnour shot the ball reasonably well. Sessions was shipped out after his second season, opening the door for the arrival of Brandon Jennings.

Jennings, as we all nostalgically remember, took the league by storm and brought such extraordinary production to the point guard position that the backup was hardly even part of the picture. As that production fell off, though (sigh...), Ridnour emerged as an excellent foil to the rookie. He was controlled, he hit his shots when they came to him, and his calm demeanor probably served a useful role alongside Jennings' fiery confidence.

At a more concrete level, Ridnour had an absolutely career year. He shot a career-best .478 from the field, well above his .428 career FG%. He made almost two shots more per-36 minutes than his career average and raised his per-36 scoring average by five points from the previous year. He also set a career-high in assist rate and a career-low in turnover rate. According to Basketball-Reference, Ridnour led the 2009-2010 Milwaukee Bucks in Win Shares per-48, and his 4.0 OWS was best on the team by a wide margin.

Seems like a guy you'd want to keep around, right? Well, kind of. There's a danger in paying guys for career years (or great three-month periods, for that matter), especially when a long-term contract is involved. Even though Ridnour had a great year, it was so much better than his previous performances that few people were really comfortable saying, "this is the new Luke." Assuming there was a "master plan" in place for John Hammond and company that involved filling out the rest of the roster, adding Luke Ridnour at $4 million a year would have put Milwaukee above the luxury tax level, not likely an option.

Of course, that decision has now brought a bit of buyer's remorse. According to Tom Haberstroh, writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, Ridnour's 4/16 contract appeared (tentatively) to be quite a deal, saying,

It's hard to imagine Ridnour posting another 5.3-win season but this objective method makes David Kahn look like a genius.

In Minnesota, Ridnour has been able to replicate part of his success from last year. In 44 games with the Timberwolves, his shooting has remained significantly above his career average, although his per-36 scoring has dipped. For what it's worth, his defensive rating has also jumped 7 points from last year. As a result, his WS/48 have dropped to .110. Respectable, certainly, but not on the same level as last season. It remains to be seen if the duration of his contract will provide Minnesota the kind of value they appeared to have landed when it was first inked.

But what of Ridnour's successor, Keyon Dooling? Dooling's 2 years contract is worth just over 4 million, representing a much smaller investment than what Ridnour would have demanded. Even then, it was hardly a good deal by objective standards. In Dooling's previous two seasons with the New Jersey Nets, he produced .085 and .035 WS/48, respectively, with the former largely a result of a surprisingly good 3.7 DWS. Dooling played hurt for much of last season, and John Hollinger attributes his poor performance at least partly to that hindrance. Characterized as a tough, physical defender with good size for a PG, his ability tanked last year, with his 0.3 DWS the lowest in six seasons, even after adjusting for having played fewer games. Perhaps, then, the Bucks were buying low on Dooling, hoping that his poor production was more a result of injury than having lost a step.

Unfortunately, Dooling has failed to bring to the table the same skills that made Ridnour so valuable. Never a good shooter, Dooling's current .456 eFG% is his lowest since 2007, which doesn't exactly complement Jennings inefficient performance. When Jennings was out with his foot injury, Dooling did seem to improve in the starting lineup, improving his shooting and per-36 assist numbers significantly. His defense has even partially recovered, producing 1.5 DWS through 53 games with Milwaukee. Basketball-Reference marks him at .087 WS/48 so far this year.

Those numbers don't match what Ridnour accomplished last year, or even what Luke has continued to do in Minnesota. While the price tag isn't as high, the backup point guard position has gone from a strength to a relative weakness. I will grant Dooling this: the team-wide offensive malaise that has plagued Milwaukee all year does absolutely nothing to help his (or Jennings') cause, considering that even the sharpest plays and cleanest passes are worth nothing if the ball doesn't find the basket afterward.

There is far more wrong with the Milwaukee Bucks these days than a struggling backup point guard, but this closer look suggests that those pangs of remorse over losing Luke Ridnour are not, in fact, the early hallmarks of insanity. Luke Ridnour played a tremendous role in Milwaukee's run to the playoffs last year, and the drop-off without him has been starkly apparent. But with another four years on his contract, Ridnour is by no means a lock to stay productive. Milwaukee's front office exercised a reasonable level of restraint by letting him walk. The organization simply wanted to avoid rewarding a small amount of valuable service with a generous contract that would hurt the team in the long run. Rather, they wanted to avoid doing it with Ridnour. Apparently it wasn't an unbreakable rule.

I'm looking at you, Salmons.

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