Lessons Learned with Patrick Patterson

Patrick Patterson was quietly one of the better free agent pick-ups of last summer. Now, I'm not so sure he still exists. What changed? What did we learn between now and then?

The Oklahoma City Thunder snagged Patrick Patterson on a three year, $16 million deal last summer as a part of their lightning fast, post-Durant rebuild. At the time, it was thought to be an absolute steal to get Patterson for so little money, especially with the 2016 summer spend-a-thon still in recent memory, otherwise known as "the best time to be a free agent in any sport, ever." 

Patterson is one of many current NBA players who are earning their living thanks to the illustrious plus/minus stat, a sometimes deceptive indicator of how much a player is really worth. In the continuous debate on whether or not stats are over-valued in modern sports, plus/minus and stats like it tend to be contentious topics because you can't see them accumulate in real time. When Patterson was playing for the Toronto Raptors, he wasn't the type to fill the box score, but the Raptors were shockingly better with him on the court. Situations like that make it hard to evaluate players, as seen with the misadventures of Jae Crowder in Cleveland, and the underwhelming presence of Patrick Patterson on the Thunder's bench. 

The problem I see with the use of stats is they're often used to prove oneself right and to prove everybody else wrong. "Oh, you think Patterson was overrated as a Raptor? Well, here's a pile of numbers that show how much good stuff happens when he plays." What's even more ridiculous is that the same stats will be used to prove the opposite point in the future. "You really thought Patterson would be good on the Thunder because of a bunch of random stats? Do you even watch basketball?" There's validity to both sides of the argument. Advanced stats can sum up a lot of information that isn't easy to catalog in the human brain, for example, does the offense flow smoothly when player x is on the court? Chances are, you don't know what the average 100 possessions look like when a certain player is on the court, so offensive and defensive ratings prove to be pretty useful in that context. Some stats, though, don't feel like they accurately reflect the game that you're watching. Russell Westbrook can be painfully inefficient sometimes but, man, when you need a shot to go in, he'll knock it down. In that context, I'd argue that you need to pay more attention whether a player is giving the game what it needs at that moment and focus less on how it looks on paper. Sure, it sucks watching somebody shoot 1-for-8 in the first half, but does the percentage really matter if it's a sloppy game all around? 

Here's what I know about Patrick Patterson: He's a solid all-around defender that is good for a couple threes from the corner each game, and according to Cleaning the Glass, he's an excellent offensive rebounder. That's what the team paid for. Nothing more, and nothing less. Except, somehow, it feels like they're getting less. What we've learned about the Toronto Raptors since last summer is that their bench is surprisingly cohesive, and they could afford to have somebody like Patterson stuck in the corner because their ball movement will allow him to get a shot off if they need it. It was an imperfect system that didn't get to thrive because their offense often devolved into desperation hero-ball offense, but seeing what it's evolved into now makes it much clearer how guys like Patterson can thrive without the ball. 

As the Raptors once did, the Thunder have issues of their own to work out on offense. I'm sure their system is more complex than I give it credit for, but I often refer to it as the "give the ball to Westbrook and see what happens" offense for obvious reasons. In all honesty, the pick and roll game between him and Adams is great, and they've found a way to get Paul George a lot of open looks from outside. Other than that, they often fall into the trap of passing the ball once and taking the first shot they get without making the defense have to really work. The most telling issue, as quoted on Reddit from Zach Lowe's podcast a couple months ago, is as follows:

"Guess how many ball screens Westbrook has set for Carmelo Anthony? Zero. You wouldn't stumble into that ONE time? I mean zero times. Carmelo is a good, I mean a great pick and roll player in his career. Westbrook can be an unbelievable screen setter with his speed if he actually does it. It's insane that they can't even stumble into that by mistake even a single time. Russ simply doesn't move when he doesn't have the ball, just put his hands on his knees until the ball gets back to him."

Even Westbrook, with his insane usage rate, is occasionally non-existent within the Thunder offense. 

Players like Patterson are about as good as the offense you can put around them. Sometimes a system can accommodate a Patrick Patterson or a Jae Crowder, somebody who may fit into one scheme like a glove, but are not the type of player who can be simply plugged into any other system after a trade. In theory, Patterson could be just as effective while playing with the Thunder's starters as he was with Toronto, as we know that a Westbrook drive is almost guaranteed to draw multiple defenders and free up three-point shooters. Per Cleaning the Glass, Patterson spends the bulk of his minutes with lineups made up of mostly bench players and the occasional Paul George, so it doesn't surprise me that the Thunder have a hard time getting him involved. The most common lineup including Patterson has him playing next to Ray Felton, Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant, and Paul George, and in 185 possessions, that lineup has a -21.9 differential, not to mention terrible offensive and defensive stats across the board. Oh, and it's their fourth most used lineup. 

Here's another one for you: the lineup of Patterson, Grant, Huestis, George, and Felton is -30.9 in 107 possessions, which is the worst rating of any lineup with over 100 possessions played in all of professional basketball. Of course, you can't blame Patterson, who hardly even touches the ball on offense, but it's hard to ignore that he, Felton, and Grant make for some terrible lineups. 

It's to be expected that a team with so many new players would take some time to figure their offense out. I just found it interesting that some of their players, including Patterson, seemed like the type to fit into any lineup as a stretch big usually can. When free agency 2018 arrives, players like Patterson and Crowder may serve as cautionary tales for judging players too much based on stats instead of their actual, on-court contributions. I wouldn't even be surprised to see an over-correction where many general managers decide to avoid stats altogether and see if they can build on pure hustle and team chemistry. 

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