Knicks 92 Portland 91 (or Fun With Numbers)

Yesterday I spoke about the discussion going on in the APBR_analysis group. One of the messages by Dean Oliver said:

My point is that you can break down the games of baseball or basketball to an infinite degree. I think baseball and basketball offenses are broken down pretty well by stats. What’s left over are small variations of strategy or training. Do they matter? Yes, but do we miss a significant amount of value by not measuring them? I don’t think so.

Let me frame it one other way. From a team standpoint the value of the four factors are

1. Shooting % (10)
2. Turnovers (6)
3. Offensive rebounding (5)
4. Getting to the line (3)…

I’m not exactly sure where he got this information & what the numbers in parenthesis mean. To take an educated guess, I’ll say that these numbers mean that a team with an advantage in shooting% (10) is twice as likely to win as a team that has an edge in offensive rebounding (5). Same with turnovers (6) having an edge over getting to the foul line (3). I’d imagine when a team shoots better than their opponents, and gets more turnovers they will win a large percentage of their games, even if they allow their opponents to get to the glass more & send them to the line more often.

Just to have some fun with these numbers, let’s assume they are points assigned to each team for getting an advantage in that category. Let’s see how the Knicks did last night.

Shooting% – 10 points

Portland shot 50% yesterday (34-68), while the Knicks only shot 47% (38-81). However I just measured FG% there, and the original wording was “shooting %.” FG% doesn’t account for the extra bonus you get from hitting three pointers, just like batting average in baseball doesn’t make a distinction between a single and a home run. Last year Doug “Can I buy a vowel?” Mientkiewicz and Hank Blalock both hit .300. However, Blalock hit 29 homers, while Mientkiewicz hit only 11.

Accounting for treys, both teams get a slight bump. Portland’s aFG% is now 52%, and the Knicks 49%. It’s close, but Portland wins 10 points.

Turnovers – 6 points

The Blazers turned the ball over 13 times, the Knicks 11. The Knicks will get the 6 point for this one. One interesting thing about ESPN’s box scores is that you can see how many points the team scored on turnovers. The Knicks scored 18 points off of turnovers, while Portland only had 13.

Offensive Rebounds – 5 points

The Knicks win again here, anyway you look at it. They had more offensive rebounds 12 to 6. You could argue that they had more chances, since they missed more shots. This is true, but they also converted a higher amount of those chances. Portland had 36 boards, 6 on the offensive side. So that means they had 30 defensive rebounds. The Knicks had 12 offensive rebounds, so that means they had 42 (30+12) total chances. The Knicks got 12 of them, which works out to 29%. The Knicks got 28 defensive rebounds (40 total – 12 offensive), and the Blazers got 6 offensive rebounds. That mean Portland got 6 offensive rebounds in 34 total, or 18%.

Getting to the Line – 3 points

It’s well known that the Knicks commit a lot of fouls, and Portland took advantage of this. The Blazers shot from the charity stripe 23 times, and the Knicks only had 16. Advantage to Portland.

Summary

So what do we end up with? Portland 13, Knicks 11. However the Knicks won this game, so what gives? First this information wasn’t meant to be used the way I did. I just took the numbers to mean something out of their original context.

Second, the system I created has flaws. I assigned the entire point value for the winner of each category. For example, “shooting %” was close enough that we shouldn’t have given Portland a full 10 point advantage. Three percentage points in aFG% doesn’t mean much. Maybe I could have given them a 6, instead.

Finally the game was close. The Knicks won by one point. This means if they missed one shot or Portland hit one more the final numbers of my little system would not have changed, but the result of the game would have been very different.

Should We Talk About The Weather?

In case you haven’t already I highly suggest you meandering over to the APBR analysis discussion group. There is a great dialogue going about what stats do and don’t tell us about basketball. To whet your appetite, I’m only going to give you a little piece of the first few exchanges, which nowhere gets into the depth of the discussion.

If you’re already sold, go to this page and read the first thread on the page (#3513). Just promise you’ll come back tomorrow ;-)

If you still need some selling, then I’ll start you off with an excerpt from the post that started it all.

From: “dan_t_rosenbaum”
Date: Thu Mar 25, 2004 10:30 pm
Subject: The Problem with Possessions-Based Linear Weights

…The second approach is what I will call the possessions-based approach. The essence of this approach is to count every contribution to either points scored or a failed possession and to count it only once. This is certainly the approach used to construct John Hollinger’s PER and its lies behind the construction of Dean Oliver’s offensive and defensive ratings. Also, a large fraction of the arguments on this board are about the proper way to do this possessions-based accounting.

So what is wrong with this approach? The problem is that there are numerous contributions to successful or failed possessions for which there are no statistics – a good pick, an ineffective blockout, a good entry pass that leads to a score but not an assist, the presence of a shot blocker that keeps his opponents from driving to the hoop. One could easily argue that the unmeasured contributions to successful or failed possessions are more than the measured contributions, e.g. points, assists, steals, etc…

Now mind you this is only 2 of about 20 paragraphs that were posted. The rest of Dan’s post spans a number of intelligent issues, including the NBA’s efficiency statistic, the difference between basketball and baseball statistics, possession based statistics, and linear weights. The first two to reply were Dean Oliver and Bob Chaikin, who within a half an hour of each other asked Dan the same question. They wanted him to “easily argue that the unmeasured contributions to successful or failed possessions are more than the measured contributions.”

Dan replied with:

…What do we measure on the offenive end?

1. We measure which player touched the ball last on every field goal attempt and we measure the outcome of those field goal attempts.
2. On successful attempts, we sometimes measure the player that touched the ball second to last.
3. We measure personal fouls on a particular player when those personal fouls lead to free throws and we measure the outcome of those free throws.
4. On failed field goal attempts, we measure the player who regains possession of the ball.
5. And finally, when possession turns from one team to the other without a field goal or free throw attempt, we measure who is responsible for that “turnover” of possession.

That is a lot and that is much better than what we measure on the defensive end. But what contributions to scoring or not scoring do we not measure?

1. We do not measure which players successfully navigate the ball to the frontcourt.
2. We do not measure which players initiate an offense with an effective non-assist pass. In fact, we fail to measure all of the non-assist passes that contribute to scoring (or non-scoring), such as all of the passes that lead to shooting fouls.
3. We do not measure which players get themselves open in out of bounds situations.
4. We do not measure screens on the ball or off the ball.
5. We do not measure which players keep the floor spaced leading to fewer turnovers and higher percentage field goal attempts. It is pretty tough to have a successful field goal attempt when you are
double teamed because of poor spacing.
6. We do not measure which players tend to hold onto the ball for an inordinate amount of time leading to forced shots or shot clock violations.
7. We do not measure which players correctly run plays and which ones do not.
8. We do not measure players failing to get open leading to a turnover for the player holding the ball.
9. We do not measure players with good hands grabbing an errant pass that would have been a turnover for the passer.
10. We do not measure the player who keeps a possession alive by tipping an offensive rebound to a teammate or by blocking out an effective defensive rebounder…

A few hours later Dean Oliver volleyed with:

Most of these unmeasured things aren’t that hard to accomplish (or to avoid, if they’re negative). I can go out and set picks. A lot of these 10 unmeasured things are taken as givens. Guys know how to do these things and, if they don’t, they aren’t as important as the measured things. That’s the conventional wisdom. Perhaps not right, but I think there is a significant burden in showing that these unmeasured factors are more important than the measured ones…Depends on how you make that list. It’s ALWAYS easier to make a longer list of unmeasured things than measured things. For baseball, things that affect whether a run is being scored:

1. The signs flashed by the 3rd base coach.
2. Whether the man on first is running on the pitch or not.
3. Whether the man on first saw the signs.
4. How the fielders are positioned (now starting to get measured).
5. Whether the hitter has that black stuff under his eyes or not.
6. Whether the pitcher is in the sun and the hitter is in the shade.
7. How good the hitter is at reading speed of pitches.
8. How fast a hitter gets out of the batter’s box.
9. Whether the hitter is swinging for the fences or for a base hit.

etc.

My point is that you can break down the games of baseball or basketball to an infinite degree. I think baseball and basketball offenses are broken down pretty well by stats. What’s left over are small variations of strategy or training. Do they matter? Yes, but do we miss a significant amount of value by not measuring them? I don’t think so…

DeanO

I really don’t want to go any further, because I’ve paraphrased enough. It’s such a great conversation that continues with some interesting twists that I won’t get into. I recommend going there & reading through the posts, or you won’t know what you’re missing. You know it’s a good post when a few more threads have stemmed from it, including “List of unmeasured stuff to track”, and “The Knowledgeable guys…”

Go check it out!

Pistons 100 Knicks 85

Thank goodness I decided to watch the NCAA games yesterday instead of the Knicks game. This way I saw one of the most exciting games of the year, instead of another disappointing loss. There is one aspect where a blow out loss doesn’t get reflected, the box score. With the Pistons up by 23 to start the 4th quarter, “garbage time” began. The Knicks (bench) would finally outscore the Pistons (bench) 18 to 10, to make the game more respectable. And they still ended up losing by 15.

How bad was last night’s game? First Darko Milicic played 9 minutes. The teenage first round pick who’s played in all of 28 games this season. Second, is that he’s not even listed (at this writing) in ESPN’s box score of the game. I can only guess that the logic of Milicic playing in a game was too much for their computers to handle, like one of those Kirk vs. the computer episodes of Star Trek.

Even without the garbage time, the stats look terrible for the Knickerbockers. The Pistons had large advantages in FG% (46% to 39%), turnovers (8 to 15), and PF (27 to 22). Just to show you how garbage time affects stats, take away Darko’s 0-5, and the Piston’s team FG% rises to 49%. It’s tough to win when you let the opposing team score half of the time.

In our continuing sagas, DerMarr Johnson played major minutes (39), and looked good. I can’t say that entirely first hand, but the stats showed it, and when I caught part of the game on MSG Rewind, the announcers said so. He shot 5/12 which is a decent 42% FG%, but account for his 3 pointers and it becomes a very respectable 50% aFG%.

Othella Harrington also played 14 minutes, and had more fouls (3) than points (2). Yesterday I complained that Sweetney only had 20 minutes, instead of 27, and tonight I got my wish. He had 4 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 fouls. Other than the rebounds, the numbers were a little disappointing.

DerMarr could see a big hit in his playing time when Thomas or Penny comes back, but Sweetney should continue to see playing time this year. It’ll be curious what Lenny does in the playoffs with Sweetney & Othella. Will he trust the rookie, or go with the less talented veteran?

Now That’s A Finish!

In one of my first columns, I wrote about the ending of basketball games. Specifically:

Dr. F made a good point about basketball’s main weakness. The last two minutes
take too long. I agree (and I’m sure my wife does as well). I can’t stand what a
basketball game turns into for the last few minutes. To use a simile, a
basketball game is like you being the only person driving on the highway until
you get within a few blocks of your destination. At that point you hit the worst
bumper-to-bumper traffic you’ve ever seen. A basketball game goes smoothly for
about 45 minutes, and then grinds to a halt with fouls and time outs.

I should have stated more clearly that a basketball game would be more exciting without being able to call a timeout in the last two minutes. Limiting each team to one time out at the end of the game would let the tension build without an emotional detachment from constant interruptions.

To illustrate my point, I point you to the St. Joe’s vs. Oklahoma State game that was on tonight. It was easily the most exciting final 3 minutes of basketball I’ve seen this year. With the game tied the Cowboys blew their last timeout with 2:38 left in the game, and their opponents used their final timeout with 1:31 on the clock.

The pressure increased every second, with both teams’ entire season on the line. The Oklahoma time out came with one of their players fighting for a loose ball & hitting the ground. Instead of letting his opponent grab the ball for a possible possession change, he called for time. The Cowboys would miss their next shot, but so would the Hawks’ Jameer Nelson 30 seconds later. Oklahoma State then missed a three which led to St. Joe’s to call their final timeout. With one foul to give, the Cowboys committed a non-shooting foul shortly after the inbound.

The game continued for the final minute and 24 seconds without a single timeout or foul. It was a hold on to your chair type of ending. In the last minute the lead changed hands 3 times. The only shot that was missed was the final two pointer with time expiring. By the time Oklahoma almost turned the ball over with under 10 seconds left, the tension was nearly unbearable. For a second, I was thrilled with the possibility that St. Joe’s would steal the ball to seal the game (because I need them in my NCAA pool). Instead the ball bounced over to John Lucas who drained a three pointer to put the Cowboys up by 2.

However, with 8 seconds left, the season wasn’t over yet, and in an instance the Hawks were running up the court trying to play for a tie or win. Unfortunately for them, Jameer Nelson couldn’t hit his jumper at the top of the key to tie the game.

In every aspect of entertainment, whether it be music, magic, or acting, it’s what the spectator experiences that is most important. In music, the road manager doesn’t come up on stage to huddle with the musicians near the end to suggest which song to close on. In magic, Rick Franceschini after showing the empty hat never walks off stage before pulling out the rabbit. Even when watching a movie on tv, usually the last 10-15 minutes are shown commercial free. It’s because by stopping at the critical points, you would ruin the momentum leading up to that point.

Players and coaches both benefit from these stoppages. Being able to call time outs gives coaches control over their team, and takes away a lot of the pressure off the players who would have to think quickly in high tension situations. It still doesn’t make it right, especially when it’s at the expense of the most important aspect of sports: the fans.

Vinsanity 40, Starbury 38 (but the Knicks win)

Vince Carter might have outscored Stephon Marbury 40-38 last night, but it was Marbury with the last laugh as the Knicks won 108-101. I tried to watch the game last night, but was suffering from food poisoning (slightly worse than the bad taste left in my mouth from the Memphis game). In between bouts of running to the bathroom and a general overall sense of nausea and pain, I saw Marbury light it in the second half.

I’d love to wax poetic about Stephon Marbury, but I’m sure you could open up any of the New York newspapers and read about Starbury’s efforts last night.

Other than Stephon Marbury’s outburst there were a few notables in last night’s game. First is DerMarr Johnson’s 40 minute 15 point game. It was his first 40+ minute game since March 13, 2002. That year he had 4 games where he played that many minutes. The first month and a half of that year, he didn’t get much play, but eventually he would log major minutes, and start 46 games that year. Of course he would have that ill fated car accident in the off-season, which ended his Hawks career.

So far Dermarr’s time as a Knick has been unspectacular. He’s only had 6 games with more than 10 minutes, but we should see more of him with 4 of those coming in the last 4 games. Dermarr’s time yesterday was out of necessity, with Houston only playing the first 8 minutes due to injury, coupled with Toronto’s ability to go big at times. At one point the announcers noted that Vince Carter was the shortest player on the court at 6’6″. If you’re Lenny Wilkens, you’re not exactly going to put Moochie Norris on the court as the SG at that point.

Shooting 5-14 isn’t that impressive, but when you hit 3 from beyond the arc, it becomes a more respectable 46% adjusted FG%. He hit his only 2 free throws in the fourth quarter to help seal the deal against the Raptors. His 6’9″ frame also helped him to snag 7 rebounds. It’s hard to judge a player that has seen as little time as DerMarr has, but his Achilles heal seems to be his erratic shooting. Right now Wilkens’ has little other choice to play Johnson, but if the youngster wants to earn more minutes, he should concentrate on his shooting.

Also appearing last night was Michael Sweetney. The Knicks’ first round pick made his presence felt in the second half. In his 20 minutes, he grabbed 9 rebounds, and scored 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting. He left the game after committing an ill advised foul to stop the clock late in the game. If you call this a rookie mistake, you’d have a hard time explaining why Kurt Thomas did the same thing a few seconds later.

Of course there was little room for Sweetney in the first half, because Othella Harrington was logging his minutes. Other than miss 3 shots, Harrington only managed to commit a personal foul in his seven minutes of play, which is right about his average. I just don’t see why he gets any time at all. At best he should be the third option, when Thomas & Sweetney are in foul trouble. It’s more beneficial for the Knicks’ present and future to give Sweetney 27 minutes instead of 20.

Ugh

When do you turn the game off & do something else? I found out my limit is something close to when my team is losing 40 to 16 in the second quarter. Maybe it wasn’t the score, but more likely watching Shandon Anderson turn the ball over twice in a row that was the final straw. One was a pass in transition that he didn’t grab cleanly near the sidelines, the second was to dribble the ball off his foot near the baseline. Both times the ball went out of bounds, and back to Memphis.

I didn’t actually turn the game off, but instead I turned my attention to my fantasy baseball team. I hope those PECOTA ratings are somewhat reliable, since I based two risky trades offers on them.

If you came here for some kind of statistical analysis and feel short changed by this column, I suggest you go over to Page 23, and read an interesting column on Offensive Effeciency. One thing that I thought about while reading it, is that this kind of thinking must be relatively new, since points per shot has 4 different names.

The Knicks play the Raptors on Friday at home. I hope they play well enough to take the bad taste away from my mouth.

Grizzlies Get Defensive

Man I was mean but I?m changing my scene
And I?m doing the best that I can.
I admit it?s getting better
A little better all the time

— “Getting Better”
The Beatles

Tonight’s opponent is the Memphis Grizzlies. A team that finished 28-54 (.341) last year. Dallas finished in first place in their division last year. This year is a different story. Memphis at 44-26 is tied with Dallas in the standings for the 5th seed. This can only further solidify Jerry West’s genius as a GM. In case you didn’t know, West was the GM of the Lakers from 1982 to 2000. Not only did he help to shape the Lakers in the 80s, but he was the one to bring Shaq & Kobe to the Los Angeles.

So how did Memphis improve so much? My best guess is they turned it up on the defensive end. Last year Memphis’ points per 100 possessions were 97.6 for, and 100.7 against. This year the offense is a little worse at 96.4, but the defense is an impressive 93.9! That’s an almost 7 point turn around. The biggest difference in the team stats department is lowering the opposing team’s eFG% (effective FG%, aka adjusted FG%, aka accounting for treys in FG%) in jump shots. (As opposed to dunks, tips & close – you really have to look at the graphs on 82games.com). Last year they allowed .434 eFG% from jump shots, and this year it’s down to .401.

The largest changes roster-wise is the addition of Posey & Wells, a full season from Mike Miller, and 20 minutes a game from Bo Outlaw. Other than Outlaw, I’m really not familiar enough with the players to comment on their defensive prowess. With Outlaw, you can just look at his stats and tell he’s a defensive specialist. Why else would someone that scores 6 points in 25 minutes stay in the league for 12 years? Funny thing is I can recall Outlaw playing for teams like the Suns and the Magic, because he’s one guy that always gets your attention on the court. He’s a freakishly athletic player, with seemingly little basketball skills on the offensive side. Kind of like Dennis Rodman minus the circus show.

I can’t believe that Bo Outlaw is a good enough defender to account for all of this difference. The assumption doesn’t have to be that Posey, Wells & Miller are great defensive players, but rather they’re probably better than the guys that they replaced, namely Gooden, Giricek, and Person. Of course there could be other factors as well, such as coaching, defensive schemes, improvement in the players that were there, voodoo dolls, etc.

The Knicks’ prospects against a good defensive team is not promising. They are 15-28 against teams that rank among top 19 teams in points against, and 18-10 against the bottom 10 teams. They are also 6-15 against the best 10 teams in def eFG%. In other words they struggle against good defensive teams & eat up the bad ones. Now before Knicks’ fan can go into despair these are stats for the entire year, and the team has changed much since then. Also remember that the Knicks are home tonight, which evens things out considerably.