Can a unicorn have doppelgangers?

Can a unicorn have doppelgangers?

Sometimes it’s about more than basketball. Sometimes basketball calls to our attention existential questions like can a unicorn have a doppelgänger?

According to my Statistical Doppelgänger Machine, the answer is kinda but not really.

Porzingis got the “unicorn” designation because he’s 7-3 with perimeter skills, which is rare.

While I’d argue he was getting overrated early in his career — those unicorn skills didn’t translate into efficient, winning basketball — he’s probably underrated at this point in his career.

Like a unicorn, he’s fairly unique in NBA history. His closest non-himself comps are about as similar as the 15-20th most similar for most players.

Also like a unicorn, he’s not seen as often as his teams would like. The last time he played 60 or more games in a season was 2016-17, when he was 21 years old. Next season is his age 27 season. Since then, he’s played in just over half of his team’s regular season games. The past two seasons, he managed 61% of games for the Dallas Mavericks and washington wizards — about a 50-51 game workload.

The bright side: Porzingis’ production has improved. On a per possession basis, last season was the best of his career, according to my PPA metric (average is 100 and higher is better). Here’s his year-by-year PPA progression:

  • 2015-16 — 127
  • 2016-17 — 112
  • 2017-18 — 131
  • 2018-19 — Missed season with knee injury.
  • 2019-20 — 153
  • 2020-21 — 134
  • 2021-22 — 172

Interestingly, his PPA for 2021-22 was 172 in Dallas and 172 in Washington. If he can stay healthy enough to play a reasonably full schedule — something he hasn’t managed the past five seasons — he has a reasonably good chance of being one of the team’s more productive players since the halcyon days of the twenty-teens.

Here’s a look at some of the stats I use when evaluating players (box score stats are per 100 team possessions, unless otherwise noted):

  • Offensive rating (points produced per 100 individual possessions): 117 (+4.7 relative to league average)
  • Usage: 28.7% (average is 20.0%)
  • Points: 34.9
  • Rebounds: 13.9
  • Assists: 4.0
  • Steals: 1.3
  • Blocks: 2.8
  • Turnovers: 2.7
  • Crowds: 4.6
  • Free throw attempts: 9.7
  • fg: 51.0%
  • 2pt%: 53.2%
  • 3pt%: 31.0%
  • FT%: 86.7%

The overall profile is one of an efficient scorer with some passing ability, who pressures the defense despite subpar accuracy from deep. Weirdly, for a 7-3 guy, Porzingis has not been a strong insider scorer. He was efficient on postups in a Wizards uniform, however. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s a small sample size hot streak or if he’s figured something out.

His raw on/off numbers in Washington would suggest a player with a strong positive impact on offense and a strong negative impact on defense. In my look at the data, I think his defensive impact was actually about neutral. Remember, by the time he got to Washington, efficiency was climbing leaguewide. In games that he played in, the Wizards allowed 118.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor and 118.4 when he was off. Both numbers are in the realm of trainwreck.

The defense part of PPA thought he was a little better than average defensively, even with the Wizards. Another interesting area to watch next season.

To the Doppelganger Machine.

For those unfamiliar, my Statistical Doppelgänger Machine works by comparing a player’s performance across 14 different categories that include age, playing time, pace-neutral box score stats and scores from my PPA metric. All that’s rolled up into a single score that (in theory) provides a list of NBA players since 1977-78 with similar production at a similar age.

To repeat: Porzingis is a unique player, according to Doppelgänger Machine. His closest comps have a similarity score that’s about normal for 15th or lower for most players.

  1. Karl Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2021-22, age 26 — Towns may be the best shooting big man in NBA history. He’s been a monster scorer and a defensive liability. His teams have been big losers despite his outstanding offensive production. This was a down season for him — his 153 PPA was the second worst of his career. His peak: 222 at age 23.
  2. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers, 2020-21, age 27 — This was the year after the bubble when Davis could not stay healthy. He was productive when he played (thought well below his usual 200+ PPA level). Here’s the difference between “very good” and “elite” — this 173 PPA comp season for Davis is the second worst of his career. The 172 Porzingis posted last season was the best mark of his career (so far).
  3. Karl Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2020-21, age 25 — This was a down year for Towns — he appeared in just 50 games and produced the worst PPA of his career. His “bounce back” season last year was the second-worst mark of his career.
  4. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets2016-17, age 28 — Forget about the Lopez we’ve seen the past few years with the Milwaukee Bucks. When he was with the Nets, Lopez was a high usage not particularly efficient scorer. After taking a total of 31 threes over his first eight seasons, he abruptly started shooting threes — 386 attempts in 2016-17 at a decent 34.7% clip. He didn’t become a drop-coverage scholar until he got to the Bucks at age 30.
  5. Karl Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2019-20, age 24 — Another injury-filled season for Towns. He was productive in the 35 games he played. Interesting that the Towns comp years for Porzingis are the ones filled with injuries and lower production.
  6. Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans, 2018-19, age 24 — Randle is one of the most overrated players in the league. This comp season was his best — a 148 PPA partly off the bench in his first season away from the Los Angeles Lakers. Like Porzingis, he’s been high usage and below average in efficiency. One key difference: Randle stays healthy.
  7. Joel Embiid, philadelphia 76ers, 2017-18, age 23 — Embiid managed 63 games and was very good (PPA: 173). He’s battled health throughout his entire career. The big man missed his full rookie season due to injury and has never played more than the 68 games he managed last season. And, while he may be a tad overrated, he was a legitimate MVP candidate the past couple seasons.
  8. Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers2008-09, age 25 — At this point, the similarities are getting relatively distant, though their usage, relative efficiency and pace-adjusted scoring are pretty close.
  9. carmelo anthony, Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks, 2010-11, age 26 — Anthony basically forced a trade to New York, and then played pretty well. I always thought he was overrated, and this season was no different. His best year by my reckoning was a 173 PPA in 2013-14 (age 29).
  10. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers, 2019-20, age 25 — This was the year before Embiid became a serious factor in the MVP conversation. One thing to keep in mind before getting too hyped about Embiid appearing in the comp list: the comparison seasons were the two lowest PPA scores of his career.

Although Porzingis is relatively unique in his production, it’s interesting that several of his comps are injury-plagued big men. It’s also interesting that the comp seasons for these players are often outstanding from players having a bad year by their standards.

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Who’s next through the Doppelgänger Machine

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    Daniel Gafford

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