Dirk, The Daring Defender?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, on his webpage blogmaverick.com, advocates 2 Mavericks for the All Defensive team: Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. The first nominee is a curious one that will raise a few eyebrows. Over the last few years, Dirk’s defense has been thought as mediocre at best. Last year the Mavericks were awful defensively; ranked 26th in defensive efficiency. Mark gives no evidence for Dirk’s change, but offers the following:

This year, Dirk has become better than just a good defender. Dirk has become a very good defender, on his way to being one of the best defensive PFs in the league. If that comment makes you laugh, you arent watching enough games and paying attention to Dirk on the defensive end.

Go down the list of PFs in the NBA….. After Garnett and Duncan, who is a better defender?

Hmmm… Mark Cuban says that if I don’t think Nowitzki is a great defender, I haven’t watched enough Mavs games. While he may be right, I can counter by saying that Mark hasn’t seen every game the Bulls, Pistons, Clippers, etc. have played. So how can he say Dirk is better than the PFs on those teams? With this kind of logic, everyone can claim their team has the best defenders in the league. Instead, we need a more objective way of looking at defense.

This year the Mavericks are ranked 6th defensively, so maybe Dirk’s improved defense has made Dallas a defensive minded team? Since 59% of the time Dirk is the Dallas PF, looking at how opposing PFs fare against the Mavs might give us insight into Nowitzki’s defense. So far this year, opposing PFs have had a 15.3 PER and effective shooting percentage (eFG%) of .477. Both of those numbers are about average, so it really doesn’t prove that Dirk has anchored the Mavs D.

Thanks to 82games.com, we can measure three more ways in which Dirk affects his team defensively. The first is defensive +/-, which has its drawbacks depending on the strength of the team & the bench. Basically they’re comparing the points scored per 100 possessions when the player is on versus off the court. The way 82games.com records this stat, lower numbers are better. Defensively Dallas has been -4.6 points worse when Dirk is on the bench (which means they’re 4.6 points better with Dirk on the floor). The last two stats are oPER & oeFG%, which represent the opposing PFs stats when Nowitzki is on the court. In this respect, power forwards have shot .499 and have an overall PER of 16.3. Again neither are impressive enough to write home about.

If you’re like me & you’re scoring at home, putting all that above into a spreadsheet looks like this:

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3

On their own these numbers are meaningless. What if PERs for power forwards are generally higher? What if PFs generally have better defensive +/-? To find out how good defensively Dirk is, we can put him next to the best defensive PF in the league: Tim Duncan.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 0.431 15.1 -6.7 0.403 14.4

Now we have the beginnings of a mini-study. Armed with some statistics, I agree with the one-time Dairy Queen server. We should go down the list of the PFs in the league, and see who is a better defender. Spending hours of my free time that I could have otherwise spent interacting with other human beings, I went through 82games.com for all the stats of the following PFs.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	 PER 	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 .477 15.3 -4.6 .499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 .431 15.1 -6.7 .403 14.4
Kevin Garnett.. 19 .502 17.0 -2.0 .498 16.8
Rasheed Wallace 3 .449 14.6 -5.8 .442 16.1
Elton Brand.... 9 .467 15.3 -4.5 .453 14.3
Shawn Marion... 17 .479 17.4 1.2 .508 20.6
Pau Gasol...... 5 .470 17.0 0.4 .467 17.1
Carlos Boozer.. 30 .473 16.8 2.5 .465 17.3
Dwight Howard.. 13 .440 15.1 1.2 .455 17
Chris Bosh..... 20 .470 16.7 -6.2 .477 17.6
Tyson Chandler. 2 .447 14.7 -0.8 .463 18.7
Kurt Thomas.... 27 .520 19.0 5.9 .511 19.7

Ahhhh I love the smell of spreadsheets in the morning. Looking at this list, it’s obvious that Duncan is the best of the group. Why do I say that? He has the best +/-, the best oeFG, and the second best oPER. Since that seems like a good way to see who is statistically the best, let’s rank the stat of each player against the others.

Name...........	R1	R2	R3	R4	R5	OVR
Tim Duncan..... 1 3 1 1 2 1
Rasheed Wallace 4 1 3 2 3 2
Elton Brand.... 5 5 5 3 1 3
Dwight Howard.. 2 3 9 4 6 4
Tyson Chandler. 3 2 7 5 10 5
Dirk Nowitzki.. 9 5 4 10 4 6
Chris Bosh..... 6 7 2 8 9 6
Pau Gasol...... 6 9 8 7 7 8
Kevin Garnett.. 11 9 6 9 5 9
Carlos Boozer.. 8 8 11 6 8 10
Shawn Marion... 10 11 9 11 12 11
Kurt Thomas.... 12 12 12 12 11 12

R1 is team PF eFG% ranked. R5 is oPER ranked. Tim Duncan is the best in team PF eFG%, and Elton Brand is the best in oPER. The last column OVR is how they rank overall in all the stats.

Other than Garnett’s low ranking, the list isn’t very surprising. If someone told me the 5 best defensive PFs in the league were Duncan, Rasheed, Brand, Howard, & Chandler, I’d believe it. Given a ballot for All Defensive Team, I would choose the top two on my list. Duncan is a no-brainer, but IMHO ‘Sheed, who has never won any defensive honors, is highly underrated in his defensive ability. During last year’s Finals, Sonics analyst Kevin Pelton said of Wallace:

What is clearly most impressive about the Pistons post-Wallace trade is their defense. Detroit was a very good, if overrated team, prior to adding Wallace. With him in the fold, they’ve been nothing short of magnificent.

Nowitzki’s 6th overall ranking shows that he’s upgraded his game under his own basket. He doesn’t fare well in both opposing shooting percentage categories, but he does well in all the others. Despite the evidence that’s he’s an above average defender, I’d still be hesitant voting for him in any kind of all-defensive team.

AlamoBlogger Part II

[You should read Part I, which is just below this one. For those that are too lazy to scroll down, but not too lazy to click on a hyperlink, you can read Part I here.]

Part I ended with my theory that coaches who win year after year are biased against for their consistency. The same could be said for Tim Duncan. This year there has been a lot of MVP talk surrounding Shaq, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James. and Steve Nash. Let’s just run down Duncan’s qualifications:

1. 2nd overall in PER.
2. His team has the best winning percentage in the NBA.
3. He hasn’t missed any games this year.
4. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league, earning First Team All Defensive every year except his rookie (where he was Second Team).
5. His team is the #1 defensive team in the league.

I can’t say any player in the league is this qualified. With the exception of Nash, all the above players are in the same class offensively as Duncan. However the other contenders fall short either defensively, being injured, or in team accomplishments. San Antonio is the only team in the league that ranks in the top 6 on offense and defense.

Duncan suffers from not being the top story. Shaq made a big splash by changing teams, hence he got a lot of media coverage. Nowtizki has upped his game despite losing ballhandler Steve Nash, while the Canadian imrpvoed his standing by not playing for 3 & a half games. That wonderboy LeBron is among the league’s best in his second season is newsworthy. Each of Duncan’s competitors are flashy players as well. What would you rather see on your favorite sports show: a no look pass from James, a monster Dunk from Shaq, or Duncan hit another turnaround off the glass?

Last weekend the Spurs went into Phoenix and beat the Suns in OT. Then they visited Sacramento, and blew out the Kings by 30. Think about that for a second. San Antonio beat two 70% win teams – on the road – in back to back games. [Ed’s note: And they beat the Kings again last night.] If the season ended today, I’d be hard pressed understanding why anyone would vote for any coach other than Popovich, and any MVP candidate other than Duncan.

AlamoBlogger Part I

There are few things you can rely on year after year in the sports world. The Yankees are going to spend more money on their team than anyone else. The Arizona Cardinals are going to loose more games than they win. Boxing is going to find yet another way to embarrass itself. And the Spurs will be playing excellent defense.

According to my stat page, the Spurs are allowing 93.9 points per 100 possessions this year. That ranks them first in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Only the offensively challenged Bulls and the defending champion Pistons are within 4 points of San Antonio. They’re so far ahead of the pack, the difference between them and the 3rd ranked Pistons is the same difference between the Pistons and #11 Sixers. Thanks to www.basketball-reference.com, we can see what the Spurs have done defensively over the last few years:

Year	DE	Rank
2004 91.6 1
2003 96.6 3
2002 96.5 1
2001 94.9 1
2000 95.7 2
1999 92.1 1
1998 96.2 2
DE is Defensive Efficiency

That’s just sick. This year will make it 8 years in a row the Spurs have been among the league’s top 3 defensive teams. Among all those Spurs teams, there have been only 3 constant factors: Gregg Popovich, Malik Rose, and Tim Duncan. While Rose is a fine player in his own right, I believe the lions’ share of the credit should go to the other two.

It’s surprising to me that Popovich has won only one coach of the year award. His team has won two championships and he’s never finished less than 3rd overall defensively. Popovich’s detractors will point to the talent on the team and say that anyone could have coached that team. However few coaches can stay with a single team that long without wearing out their welcome. Even fewer would be able to keep winning after loosing one of the franchise’s most popular and talented players. Yet the Spurs are 91-35 since the Admiral retired, and opponents are still scared to enter the SBC Center.

Unlike player awards, coaching awards are given to coaches who tend to exceed their expectations. In the 8 years since Phil Jackson won it in 1996, only 2 coaches have won the award and led their team to the Finals. Last year’s winner, Hubie Brown, is a perfect example. A year after winning 28 games, Memphis finished 6th in the West. A low playoff seed would be an average year for many teams (and a failure for a few), but Coach Brown was largely credited with the team’s success. A 22 win turnaround will catch a lot of attention, but I wonder what perennial winners like Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman, or Greg Popovich could have done to be voted best? Unfortunately in this case, their past greatness counts against them.

[Tune in Friday morning for Part II.]

Suns 133 Knicks 118


That’s what the Suns shot yesterday (eFG%). Just look at their big 6 (really a big 3 + a 3 large):

Name.........	Min	Pts 	eFG%	 TS%

S. Marion.... 42 20? 47% 1.01
Q. Richardson 39 25? 74% 1.47
A. Stoudemire 40 29? 54% 1.25
J. Johnson... 40 24? 66% 1.35
S. Nash...... 35 9? 43% 1.03
J. Jackson... 24 17? 106% 2.13

The league average for effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is 48%, and for True Shooting Percentage (TS%) is 1.05. The league leaders at these stats are 65% and 1.39 respectively. The TS% aren’t very high, but the eFG% are through the roof. Can’t anyone defend on this team?

How long with the Trevor Ariza experiment last? Desmond had 22 points on Sunday, Q-Rich and Jackson combined for 42 last night. Clearly, he not ready to defend one-on-one. However one of the best ways for him to learn is to match up night in and night out against NBA talent and take a beating. The 19 year old rookie is an amazing physical specimen, pulling down 8 offensive boards against the Suns. So it’s up to the coaching staff to get him to work on his footwork and technique. If Herb is playing Trevor for future dividends, then I’m thrilled to see him in the starting lineup.

UPDATE: Of course what is highlighted in my Yahoo Fantasy News this morning? Trevor Ariza: Big Game for Ariza.

Land Of The Rising Suns

Last month, I did a little write up of the Phoenix Suns. With the Suns heading into New York on Tuesday, it’s seems like as good a time as any to revisit that column, and see how my analysis has stood up over time.

The Suns main weakness is their bench. The Suns 5 starters are averaging 37 minutes a game, because they don’t have good options coming off the bench. If one of their starters hits the IR, the team will loose a good amount of production.

True. Phoenix lost all 4 games that Nash missed due to injury. The Suns just don’t have the bench to pick up the slack. Any team that has to replace their All Star starter (22.6 PER) with a below average player is liable to drop a few. Now some people have gone too far saying this is proof that Nash should be the league’s MVP. Hogwash. Nash’s backup, Barbosa, is sporting a minor-league PER of 9.5. Name me one team that can keep winning after replacing an NBA All Star with the Brazilian League Rookie of the Year for 2002?

I’m not saying that Nash isn’t a great player, or shouldn’t be considered for the MVP. He’s an excellent player, one of the best on his team, and maybe the best PG in the game right now. However arguing that 4 games in January is proof of anything really doesn’t hold water outside of a sports “debate” show.

Phoenix still has a few chips to cash in. Although they owe a future first to San Antonio (protected), they also own the Bulls first round pick (protected top 3). The way the Bulls are playing it would be a waste to trade that pick for only a bench player or two.

False. Chicago’s New Year resolution of “not sucking” has worked. The Baby Bulls are 11-2 since the ball dropped. That pick looked liked like a great bonus for a team that could go to the Finals, but now is a mid-rounder at best. With an average offense, Chicago’s suffocating defense should keep their front office from playing ping pong in June. Unfortunately for the Suns, the pick that could have netted them another stud will now be better served if they cashed it in for better odds at winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Luckily for Arizonians, the Suns also have a pair of European prospects with the teenage Maciej Lampe and the rights to Milos Vujanic, who’s still enjoying his European Vacation. Before the trade deadline is over, Bryan Colangelo might have to make that tough decision to sacrifice some of that youth for a better bench for a championship run, because the Suns are in a good position to win one this year.

True. The Suns recently traded Lampe, along with Jacobson & Vroman to the Hornets for vagabond Jimmy Jackson. Jackson will provide the media with the veteran presence they need to write about, and he’ll provide the Suns with deadly outside shooting. Consider that he hasn’t shot less than 40% from beyond the arc in 3 years, and Phoenix attempts the most treys in the NBA, and it’s a match made in heaven.

For an NBA elite team that has dropped 6 of their last 7, Phoenix is still in a good position. Despite a slip in the standings, the Suns post season prospects are better off today than they were when I wrote about them for numerous reasons. The first is they acquired a legitimate 6th man in Jackson, who will fit in their Wild West shooting gang. Secondly, they still have tradeable assets to patch up their weak bench. Lots of teams might be interested in the Bulls pick, even though it’s lost a lot of it’s value since December. Jackson’s arrival means that the Joe Johnson rumors will pick up steam heading into the deadline. It’s possible that some team will take a shot at getting Milos Vujanic to stop listening to David Bowie, and come play in the NBA.

Finally, the Jackson deal shows that management is willing to part with their youth to win it all. Lots of teams play it conservative, trying not to ruin “team chemistry”, or don’t have anything left to use as bait. Right now the Suns are still holding all of the chips.

Two Points For Herb

What will new coach Herb Williams bring to the Knicks? Here are two points that I’m most interested in.

1. Overall team improvement.

Improving on the Knicks win/loss record is the highest priority right now, but I’m going to concentrate on the team’s offensive & defensive rating (also known as points per possession). Why? Studies show that a team’s pythagorean record (simply a record based on their points scored & allowed) predicts how a team will do the next year better than their actual record. But more importantly I’m interested in what kind of coach Herb Williams is. We don’t know if he’s an offensive or defensive minded coach. Watching how the Knicks perform on both ends of the court will give insight into his style of coaching. Also I’m interested in the Knicks’ defense which has been awful all season. Can the current group improve with better coaching, or will Isiah need do get some better defenders in the offseason?

.......	RANK	pts/poss
Offense 17th 101.0
Defense 24th 104.3

2. Youth Movement

With the Garden Front Office considering (gasp) “rebuilding”, the Knicks will need younger cheaper talent. Fortunately New York already has some future holdings on their roster, but those players will never mature unless they are thrown into the fray.

Whether it’s his bullying of Dikemebe Mutombo for a rebound on Friday, or his blocking of Keith Van Horn and going into the camera row to retrieve the ball on Sunday, Mike Sweetney shows flashes of brilliance every night. Despite his skill, Sweets was only getting 16 minutes a night under the old regime. His Player Efficiency Rating, (18.6 third on the team), is fueled by efficient low post scoring, and tenatious rebounding. I’m concentrating on Sweetney’s minutes under Herb, because it’s undeniable that giving him playing time is beneficial to the team in the short and long term.

One word captures Trevor Ariza’s future: intriguing. I wrote about him in November, and my opinion of him hasn’t changed since:

Actually Ariza’s skills make him a Jekyl & Hyde player. He’s calm & confident in transition, or when the focus is not on him in the half court. One play in the first quarter exemplifies Ariza’s strengths. He stole the ball near midcourt, and beat out everyone to the ball and laid it in leaving everyone else trailing behind him on the play. It looked like Ariza was jogging while everyone else was running at full speed. Clearly, he was in his element.

On the other hand, Ariza looks lost in the half court game. His first jumper rebounded high over the backboard, causing him to loose faith in his shot. By my count, he passed up 3 open jump shots in the first half. The other end of the court didn’t offer any solace for Ariza, where his one-on-one defense was lacking.

Many people think that “Air Riza” is a good defender because his athletic ability and instincts get him 2.2 steals per 40 minutes (first on the Knicks). However, he has lapses when it comes to one-on-one defense. Even Desmond Mason blew past him a few times on Sunday. For the time being it looks like the Knicks won’t be able to rely on him day in and day out. There are times when his flashy rebounding, getting to the free throw line, and propensity to steal will make him look like a future All Star. But there will be other nights when his matador defense and lousy shooting (41% eFG) will make Herb Williams wish he was still an assistant coach.

Some coaches tend to rely on veterans because they’re too impatient to live with a rookie’s mistakes. Herb Williams has shown that he’s not that kind of skipper, by making Ariza his starting SF Sunday. The Knicks coach will come under fire the days that Ariza doesn’t produce, especially with fan favorite Jerome Williams on the bench. How many minutes Ariza gets will show how committed Herb is to developing his young players.

Sweetney 16.3 18.6 54%
Ariza... 15.8 12.4 41%

Coaching Change Not Always The Cure

This morning the Knicks, who dropped 9 of their last 10, announced that their coach Lenny Wilkens (1332-1155, 54%) would step down. For the time being, New York will replace the winningest coach in history with the coach having the highest win percentage. Herb Williams (1-0, 100%) may give Knick fans some hope that he can turn the season around, but do midseason coaching changes work?

I looked back over the last 5 seasons and checked every team that made a midseason coaching change:

YEAR	TEAM	W	L	Net W%	Team W%
2000 PHO 13 7 0% 65%
2004 NJN 22 20 10% 57%
2001 SEA 6 9 17% 54%
2000 DET 28 30 10% 51%
2004 NYK 15 24 16% 48%
2002 PHO 25 26 -14% 44%
2004 BOS 22 24 -9% 44%
2001 BOS 12 22 15% 44%
2003 ATL 11 16 3% 43%
2004 PHI 21 31 0% 40%
2002 NYK 10 9 -21% 37%
2000 WAS 14 30 8% 35%
2004 PHO 8 13 -4% 35%
2003 VAN 0 8 38% 34%
2003 LAC 19 39 1% 33%
2002 DEN 9 17 -2% 33%
2004 CHI 4 10 -1% 28%
2000 VAN 4 18 12% 27%
2002 GSW 8 15 -13% 26%
2004 ORL 1 10 19% 26%
2002 CHI 4 21 15% 26%
2000 GSW 6 21 1% 23%
2003 CLE 8 34 3% 21%
2000 LAC 11 34 -14% 18%

The wins and losses are the team’s record under the first coach. The next column (Net W%) is the gain the team made under the new coach. So if you look at the first team, the 2000 Suns played exactly the same after Danny Ainge decided being a family guy was more important than being a coach. The last column (Team W%) is the team’s winning percentage at the end of the year.

Based on the other teams that have made coaching changes, the statistical probability for a Knick turnaround is lukewarm. Overall those teams were 281-488 before the coaching change and 448-748 under new management. For those that aren’t scoring at home, that’s 37% with the first coach, and a nearly identical 38% with the replacement. Although 14 of 24 teams improved by changing skippers mid-sail, their average record was a disappointing 30-52. Looking at the teams which most resemble the Knicks (winning percentage from 39% to 49%) isn’t optimistic either. Those teams averaged 38 wins on the season. A bit lower than the expectations New Yorkers had in October.

Intuitively the teams that improved most were the worst: the 0-8 Grizzlies, the 1-10 Magic, the 4-21 Bulls, and the 4-18 Grizzlies. But not all the top gainers were lovable losers. The 2001 Sonics were 6-9 when they gave Paul Westphal a Tony LaRussa-esque quick hook. Westphal’s early removal was due to a personality clash with Gary Payton, and under the defensive minded McMillan Seattle would finish with a record of 44-38. Another squad giving inspiration to the 2005 Knicks are the 2004 Knicks. Don Chaney was on line ready to buy New York a second straight lottery ticket, when he was replaced with Lenny Wilkens. Wilkens went 23-19, and gave the Knicks their first playoff appearance in 2 years.

No one can say how the rest of the season plays out for Herb’s Knicks. There is no question that New York’s downfall has been their defense. For New York to get back to their winning ways, there are two questions that must be answered. The first question is: has the Knicks inability to play defense the players’ or the coach’s fault? Secondly if better coaching can make New York better at protecting their basket, does Herb Williams have the ability to get this type of effort out of his players? One thing is for certain, a coaching change alone isn’t the panacea that will instantly fix a team’s woes.