I Don’t Mind Losing

The West is over. The Phoenix Suns, or their fans, are out of excuses. Apparently, the Suns didn’t have enough rest between their Friday night OT win to end round 2 against the Mavericks and game 1 the following Sunday against the Spurs. In the second game, Phoenix was still smarting from the loss of Joe Johnson when they lost by 3 against Emperor Popovich and Darth Defense. Yesterday the Spurs won by 10, and I’m sure Joe Johnson was still rusty. Or it was playing on the road. Or just a couple of shots here or there.

One of the quotes from game 3 from Steve Nash is “we haven’t found a way to stop them yet.” My question would be have they really been looking? I know the Suns aren’t the best defensive team in the league, but they’ve really stuck with “Plan A.” Their bench outside of their 6 man rotation (McCarty, Outlaw, Voskuhl, Shirley, and Barbosa) has seen 16 minutes the entire series. That includes 13 minutes from Barbosa in game 1. It’s hard to find new ways to stop the same team that’s beat you three straight without changing the personnel. In other words Phoenix hasn’t really tried anything else.

But I digress on that topic, and would rather talk about the battle in the East. The title of this entry refers to my Blog Bracket’s Eastern pick. I chose the Heat to win in 5, but I wouldn’t mind being wrong. In fact I wouldn’t mind if the Pistons won the series, and I have 3 reasons.

1. Defensive Shift
If the Pistons could find a way to win this series, it might usher in a new era of NBA defense. And before I’m deafened from the rolling eyeballs of my readers I’d like to say this defensive era will be different from the last. The Chuck Daly Pistons created a style of play that would be distilled into it’s pure form with the Knicks and the Heat. However this new defensive era would not be of might, but rather of skill and athleticism.

There is no one from those 90s teams that is represented on today’s Pistons or Spurs. There’s no Laimbeer or Aguirre. No Ewing or Oakley. No Alonzo or P.J. The new century has brought about a new way of preventing scoring. The Pistons trio of Ben, ‘Sheed, and Tayshaun is more likely to hit your shot than your torso. Bruce Bowen couldn’t even make it with the Heat in 1997. If a Pistons-Spurs finals were to emerge, the league would have to stand up & take notice. You might see more Tayshaun Princes and less Tim Thomases.

2. Alonzo Mourning.
Ok so you’re thinking that since I’m a Knick fan, I don’t like Alonzo Mourning due to the rivalry. And you’d be damn right. But in case you root for another team and that dislike means nothing to you, I’ll give you something else to think about.

First is the New Jersey Nets. Imagine how exciting the East would have been with Kidd, Jefferson, Carter and Mourning roaming East Rutherford. Alonzo’s defense would have made the Nets a contender. New Jersey went into the playoffs winning 10 of their last 10, and that’s with Jason Collins’ sorry ass in the starting lineup (sorry the Knicks fan is coming out again). I’m well aware that Mourning was involved in the deal, but that brings me to my next point.

The second reason is the Toronto Raptors. I know every player out there wants to win a championship, but I hate players that do it only by riding on the coattails of others. That Gary Payton didn’t find it palatable to go to L.A. until Karl Malone convinced him that he’d get a ring with Shaq & Kobe makes me think it was less of a charitable act and more an ego-centric one (Kevin Pelton’s reply in the comment section in 5,4,3…)

Which brings me back to Mourning. If he wanted to do an unselfish act, he could have suited up & been a mentor to budding big men Bosh & Araujo. Alonzo could have helped be a difference in Toronto’s season, and maybe help them make the playoffs. Instead he never played a game in purple, and pouted until Toronto released him so he could fly south back to Miami where ‘Zo could earn his first ring by playing 20 minutes a night.

3. An Intriguing East in 2006.
Let me ask you a question, which storyline would be better for next year? The Heat make themselves the kings of the East by beating the defending champions Detroit Pistons. So Detroit becomes a fluke champion, having won the title against a flawed and injured Lakers team. Every other team in the East becomes an afterthought.

OR

The Pistons move on to the Finals for the second straight year, and Shaq goes home for the second straight summer wondering how the biggest man in sports lost to a team effort. So the Big Guy comes back next year with three chips on his shoulder to settle. The first with Kobe & the Laker management for rejecting him. The second against the Pistons for stopping him twice in a row. The last against the rest of the league for choosing the diminutive Nash as MVP instead.

If the Heat win this year, it’d make them as instant favorites next year. However if Detroit pulls off the improbable, who would you pick as the 2006 East favorites? Detroit? Miami? Indiana? New Jersey? New York? (Sorry had to throw that last one in there.)

I have nothing against Shaq. Or Dwayne Wade, who seems to be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s elite. It’d just be a more interesting league if Detroit went on to the Finals.

Brrr?. Is There a Draft in Here? (Episode II: The Frontcourt)

[If you missed Episode I click here.

David Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

I the previous Episode I identified the backcourt as the team’s highest priority heading into the off-season. Whether through the draft, a sign-and-trade, or with the mid-level salary slot the Knicks must find a way to improve their perimeter defense as well as shave Marbury’s and Crawford’s minutes. To that end, let’s take a look at the frontcourt. First up: the big guys.

The Knicks ended the season with perhaps the highest percentage of power forwards on any roster in the league. Consider that the team started essentially two power forwards, Kurt Thomas and Mike Sweetney. Herb Williams also played Jerome Williams at both forward positions regularly. Isiah then traded for Malik Rose and Mo Taylor, placing Tim Thomas a mere heartbeat away from 4th string power forward.

The team’s ostensible center, Mike Sweetney, put together a solid (at best) campaign, especially considering that he played out of position. It was the kind of season that probably didn’t change many minds among his supporters or detractors. On offense, his PER (from 82games) at center was a very nice 18.8. As always, he shot a solid efg (53.5%), rebounded well (13.5 per 48), and got to the free throw line (7.9 per 48). However he struggled on the defensive end, giving up an opponent’s PER of 17.7. Though he managed to outshoot and out-rebound opposing centers per 48 minutes he also slightly out-fouled them (7 per 48), which meant that much of his potential offensive productivity went unrealized as he sat on the bench. That he struggled with fouls and offered essentially no shot-blocking against opposing centers is not necessarily surprising. He played virtually every game at a significant height disadvantage. Even conceding this, I still maintain that “Sweets,” as he is commonly known, would do well to lay off the sugary treats and slim down. He may be a bit young to remember that once upon a one time “The Thing that Ate” Ollie Miller was more than a punch line for a would-be sports writer.

Miller was an even better version of Sweetney, a rising young player with promise, fresh off the toughest Finals series the Jordan-led Bulls ever played. But basketball is an unforgiving profession on tendons and joints, even for the most finely tuned bodies. So ultimately Miller’s inability to keep off the extra 35-40 pounds made him less effective on the floor, kept him on the injured list with an endless assortment of ankle and knee ailments, and eventually forced him from the league. His problems were exacerbated – if not caused outright – by his obesity; and I won’t even get into the John “Hot Plate” Williams cautionary tale. (Note: “Hot Plate” is mentioned in this Washington Times column by Tom Knott on the end of the Bullets/Wizards futility. I defy you to read the article and NOT laugh out loud. It’s hysterical.)

Interestingly, backup center Mo Taylor is this season’s biggest defensive surprise. Ignoring for the moment that his acquisition is Isiah’s least defensible roster move to date, Taylor was a genuine surprise. After expecting to see Marburyesque indifference I recall watching games this season and being genuinely stunned at Taylor’s defensive effort. The numbers appear to bare it out. On offense Taylor was pretty much what I’d come to expect: an accomplished (though streaky) scorer and a turnover machine. His PER of only 13.1 at center was a tad lower than I’d expected but not altogether shocking. I would expect that with a full training camp we’d see Taylor move into the 14-15 range. The big stunner was on defense where Taylor held opposing centers to a fantastic 14.3 PER. Obviously the Knicks would love to see this kind of defensive production off the bench. Even should Taylor regress a bit on defense an opponent’s PER just around league average would be tremendous production from the backup center over a full season.

At power forward, Kurt Thomas is limited in what he can contribute on offense as a spot-up jump shooter and rebounder. Though his PER at power forward is below league average (14.4) he remains a decent shooter from field (46% efg), and superb in the 15-20 foot area off the screen-roll. He also still rebounds quite well (13.7 per 48). On defense he’s pretty awful, allowing opposing power forwards a 19.1 PER. Among the backup forwards perhaps the biggest surprise is Malik Rose. His defense, which is his calling card, was generally quite good (13.7 opponents PER). His aw-fense was awful. His PER of 9.7 is the unsightly fate of undersized power forwards with limited perimeter skills; they rarely age gracefully. But, such is the price of the additional first round pick. He better be good, whoever he is because watching Rose jack up shots has been painful. I knew that it seemed like he shot the ball an awful lot to me but when I went to 82games.com I was dumbfounded. For all the talk of his selfless professionalism no one mentioned that this guy is a bona fide ball hog. Rose took almost 13 shots per 48 minutes at power forward, hitting at an abysmal 40% efg. Sweetney and Thomas both took just under 15 and JYD took only 10.3 shots per 48. These players all shot over 50% efg.

Wherever it comes from the Knicks most certainly need better overall play from the frontcourt. I compared Sweetney’s and Thomas’ PER and opponent’s PER with center/power forward tandems from the league’s five most efficient defensives. (I also included the same comparison for backcourt players – just for kicks and giggles.)

Name Pos. PER Opp. PER
Sweetney, M (NY) C 18.8 17.7
Thomas, K (NY) PF 14.4 19.1
NBA Top 5 Teams in Defensive Efficiency
Duncan, T. (SA) C 28.6 13.8
Muhammed, N. (SA) PF 6.8 15.8
Nesterovic, R. (SA) C 13.1 13.2
Curry, E. (Chi) C 17.4 13.3
Davis, A. (Chi) PF 13.1 14.6
Chandler, T (Chi) C 19.1 12.8
Wallace, B. (Det) C 18.7 15.8
Wallace, R. (Det) PF 17.7 15.3
Ming, Y. (Hou) C 24.9 14.6
Howard, J. (Hou) PF 13.9 16.9
Wright, L. (Mem) C 15.4 16
Gasol, P. (Mem) PF 25.7 17

Name (Team) Pos. PER Opp. PER
Marbury, S. (NY) PG 23.3 16.4
Crawford, J. (NY) SG 16.8 18.2
NBA Top 5 Teams in Defensive Efficiency
Parker, T. (SA) PG 19.6 13
Ginobili, M. (SA) SG 22.7 10.8
Duhon, C. (Chi) PG 10.8 15.2
Hinrich, K. (Chi) SG 17.6 13.8
Billups, C. (Det) PG 20.4 12.9
Hamilton, R. (Det) SG 17.5 13.8
Sura, R. (Hou) PG 16.1 17.3
Wesley, D. (Hou) SG 12.4 15.7
Williams, J. (Mem) PG 16.7 16.2
Battier, S. (Mem) SG 18.3 14.1

* Non-starter

Although this comparison hardly qualifies as scientific it aptly illustrates how far the Knicks are behind the best defensive teams. Nonetheless, there is hope that at least Sweetney can lower his opponent’s PER into the 15.5-16.5 range next season. Entering his third season he should begin to catch an occasional break from the zebras on the “nickel-dime” type fouls that put him on the bench with regularity. Hopefully, his summer will be spent working on his conditioning so he will be less prone to such fouls. More importantly, the Knicks must make the commitment to put him at his natural power forward spot and keep him there. This of course means the team must acquire or develop a center.

Should the Knicks look to the draft to address the frontcourt presumably they’ll be in the market for a player who can log many if not most of his minutes at center, preferably providing some shot blocking. Given the paucity of quality true centers available in the draft in the table I combine centers with power forwards who play both positions. I leave out high school and international players as well as true power forwards that would have a difficult time helping the team immediately (e.g., Sean May, Ike Diogu, Wayne Simien).

Centers/Power Forwards

Name/College Availability? Comment
Andrew Bogut, Utah Top five Bogut is a consensus top 5 pick. He is a good ? not great ? athlete who can control a game with his skill and passing, particularly for a team who could play him in the high post. I hope he likes Atlanta.
Chris Taft, Pittsburgh Anywhere from #8 to #15, based on workouts/interviews The size and willingness to use it are all what you?re looking for in a big 6?10? pf/c, yet he has never dominated. People keep waiting for the light to come on. The interviews may be as important to this kid as any in the draft, including the high schoolers. It?s unlikely he falls far out of the top 10, if at all. If the Knicks remain at #8 this will likely be the guy slotted to them.
Charlie Villanueva, UConn Anywhere from #8 to #20 There is much to like about Villanueva. He runs the floor well. He shoots a high percentage. He rebounds and blocks shots. Unfortunately, he also likes to play like a small forward at times even though he is 6?11?. Does he want to play center?
Channing Frye, Arizona Anywhere from #15 to late first round Disclaimer: I?m an Arizona grad. Channing Frye may be the Shane Battier/Josh Howard of this draft. He doesn?t have superstar potential but he also doesn?t have a lot of holes in his game. He should be a very good pro PF/C for a lot of years. It would be highway robbery if the Knicks pick him up at the end of the first round. More likely they?d have to move into the 16-20 area.
Randolph Morris, Kentucky Anywhere from #15 to mid-second round I know the league is starved for big players but if this kid doesn?t pull out and go back to Kentucky for at least one more season something is dreadfully wrong with the NBA. I can understand over-estimating the potential of high schoolers but this kid staying on the floor at Kentucky and he was basically the only center in the entire SEC.
Jared Homan, Iowa State Second round If you?re looking for a backup center that ONLY rebounds and blocks shots in the second round he?s your guy.

Adding to the depth at this position are some talented international players: Johan Petro from France, Fran Vasquez from Spain, and Tiago Splitter from Brazil, as well as two schoolboy 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Andray Blatche. Although no David Robinsons or Tim Duncans populate this draft, some pretty serviceable centers are available. Most – after Bogut – will likely go off the board in the 8-20 range. If the Knicks remain at #8 in the draft lottery they could conceivably move down and still get a pretty decent player.

Small Forward

Name/College Availability? Comment
Marvin Williams, UNCC Top 3-4 pick Honestly, I didn?t see him play enough to do anything but parrot what everyone else is saying. ?This kid is the greatest thing since snowshoes. He?s much better than Cats. I?d go see him again and again.? They must know what they?re talking about, right?
Danny Granger, New Mexico Late lottery to end of first round I doubt Granger lasts until the end of the first. I think he?s the best ?true? small forward available but that tends to be the deepest pro position. His points per shot each year at New Mexico: 1.29, 1.41, 1.55, 1.62. His rebounds: 7.1, 7.9, 9, 8.9. He hurt himself with an awful game in the NCAA though.
Joey Graham, Oklahoma State Mid-to-late first round The athletic comparisons to Corey Maggette I have yet to see. Like Maggette he?s going to have to move his game outside to play his pro position. Coming out of OSU, he?s not surprisingly a good defender.
Ryan Gomes, Providence Late first/Early second Gomes re-made himself from a post-up only player into a ?power? 3, with a lot more skill than Graham. He dramatically improved his ball-handling and his perimeter shot.
Linas Kleiza, Missouri Second round/undrafted Kleiza is quality rebounder with a decent offensive repertoire. He probably lacks the quickness to defend SF?s in the NBA. He may go to Europe.

Looking at New York’s roster today, small forward does not appear to be a position of need. Of course, things change in the off-season. The Orlando Sentinel is reporting that Penny Hardaway is pushing for a buyout in order to re-sign with the Magic. Tim Thomas is also entering the final year of his deal. So those two contracts may indeed be moved this off-season. If they are, Trevor Ariza may be the incumbent at small forward unless Allan Houston can come back. Consequently, the Knicks cannot afford to ignore the swingmen in the upcoming draft. I’ve included swing players, who play in the backcourt, as well as ‘tweener types that play up front but handle the ball.

Of the small forwards I see the Knicks as most interested in a swingman than a power-three. Should the Knicks wind up in the top 3 certainly Williams would have to be one of the names they’d consider, along with Bogut and Paul. Should the Knicks remain at #8, irrespective of who is on the board the team should strongly consider Granger. He’s a do it all swing player. He could play in the backcourt, with Ariza at the small forward, and all of a sudden the Knicks could be looking at cutting off much of the penetration that plagues the defense.

Sun’s Deep Hole Due To Lack Of Depth

I watched the game just like everyone else, and yes I would agree that the Suns lost because they couldn’t stop anyone in the final minutes. However that’s just scratching the surface of their problem. I’ve been told time and time again that comparing bench scoring is overrated because it’s usually the starters that do most of the damage. Nonetheless it’s hard to ignore that the Spurs’ reserves have outscored their counterparts 50-21 in this series. The reason the Suns are down 2-0 is their lack of depth.

There are 3 reasons that the teams in the NBA don’t consist of just the best 5 guys. The first is that human beings fatigue. While being a computer technician makes it possible for me to work for a few hours straight with little stoppage, having a profession where I’d have to do something active (like running, jumping or even standing) might make me want to take five every so often. In the first two games of the series the Spurs reserves have given the starters 142 minutes of rest. In contrast, Phoenix’s starting 5 has only been able to recuperate for 76, or nearly half the time. While I don’t have any equations or charts that show what the break-even fatigue point for minutes played, I think it’s safe to say that the Suns have been hurt by not finding enough down-time for their starters. Whether or not it’s cost them a game (or two) is an exercise I leave to the reader.

The second reason NBA rosters expand to 12 is so that the teams can mix and match depending on their opponent. For example, Phoenix is bad at defensive rebounding (ranked 29th out of 30). Now they’re playing the Spurs who have a good offensive rebounder in Nazr Mohammed. When Mohammed is on the court, wouldn’t it be a good idea to put some guys in that could minimize Nazr’s ability to give his team a few extra possessions in which to score? Unfortunately the Suns don’t have those extra guys, and Nazr’s given his team 9 extra chances in two games.

While Phoenix doesn’t have anyone to bring in to address their defensive rebounding woes, this is just one example of a multitude. There’s no big guard on the bench that can come in and shut down Parker or Ginobili. If Mike D’Antoni needs a stop late in the game (yesterday’s for example) there’s no fresh body he can bring off the bench that can man up & force a bad shot. The Suns are locked into one style of play, run up the court to score and pray their opponent misses. So far the Spurs have been able to match them in scoring, and Phoenix has no recourse. In other words the Suns only have a Plan A.

The final reason no team puts out only 5 guys is injuries. The Suns predicament without Johnson reminds me of Superman the Movie. Lois Lane falls out of a helicopter, and Superman makes his first appearance flying up to save her mid-air. The Man of Steal says “I’ve got you”, to which Lois panic-stricken replied “You’ve got me, but who’s got you?!” The Suns did have a (barely adequate replacement) for Johnson with Jackson, but who’s got Jackson? The Suns 2 guards go 2 deep. Sure Q-Rich can switch over to the 2, but then who’s got Q-Rich?

This might be a different series if Joe Johnson didn’t have that facial against the Mavs, but it’s hard to feel bad for Phoenix in this circumstance. Johnson is at best their 5th best player, at a position where it’s not exactly hard in finding talent. Back in December I wrote:

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… 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.
Although they acquired two players Jackson and the usedless Walter McCarty, they didn’t address the bench enough. For the most part they are wasting 4 spots with McCarty, Bo Outlaw, Jake Voskuhl, and Paul Shirley. You could easily throw Barbosa into that list as well. Bench players are relatively easy to find, as the Knicks have a team full of them (drum-roll). Phoenix had the choice to improve their bench, at the cost of a few draft picks or maybe some salary. By opting not to, they might have cost themselves a championship this year.

NBA Playoffs: Episode 3

Watching game 1 of the third round on Sunday, I couldn’t help to think of how these two teams couldn’t be any more different. The Spurs defense has been ranked #1 for two years now, and over the last two years have held a Vader-like stranglehold on opposing teams. In fact their defense hasn’t been worse than 3rd since 1997. While many people would attribute the defensive shift with the arrival of Tim Duncan, 1998 also coincided with Gregg Popovich’s first full season as head coach. The two have been the only constants over that 7 year period. While there is no argument that Duncan is a top defender, that kind of team accomplishment doesn’t occur without proper tutelage. To NBA offenses, these two have been like Sith Masters. Emperor Popovich and Darth Defense.

The Spurs, in their black road uniforms, play a game that is less visually pleasing to the common fan. In their home white, the Suns give a new hope to those that would rather see scoring at a frantic pace. Steve Nash has arrived and is delivering passes with more accuracy than Luke Skywalker aiming for womprats in his T-16. Should the Suns win a championship this year, the league could be filled with clones running the ball up the court trying to score at a frenzy.

At a glance, Sunday’s game appeared to be everything the Suns could have hoped for. They played at a fast pace (98 possessions) and scored at an efficient rate (52.3% eFG). Phoenix wasn’t overwhelmed on the offensive boards (13 apiece), didn’t give the ball away (12 turnovers to the Spurs’ 11), and they held the edge at the line (24FTM to 21FTM). Last year this was a game the Spurs most certainly would have lost. The difference is the improved San Antonio offense (ranked 8th) shot a blistering 57.5%.

Tony Parker awoke from his three game carbonite freeze to lead the team with 29 points, while Duncan, Barry, and Ginobili combined for an additional 69. Barry’s inclusion in this group was especially damaging to the Suns, as he hit 5 of 8 from downtown and had 13 points in the fourth quarter. He’ll be important to San Antonio, because Bowen’s usefulness is minimized due to the Suns getting most of their scoring from positions he’s ill-suited to guard. In game 7 against the Sonics, Bowen chased Ray Allen around for 41 minutes while Barry only saw 22 minutes of floor time. However, on Sunday they reversed their roles with Barry earning 34 minutes and Bowen only on the court for 27.

With the Spurs out gunning the Suns, Phoenix residents might have “a bad feeling” about this series. The Suns’ weakness has been their defense and bench depth, both of which San Antonio exploited more than that ill-designed ventilation shaft in the Death Star. Things weren’t all bad for Phoenix, as they kept the tempo up and shot well. Joe Johnson’s eventual return will return Jackson back to the bench, to improve their depth. And although Marion’s jump shot looks like it comes from a galaxy far far away, he should be able to contribute more than 3 points in the future matches. If the Spurs win game 2, at least that’ll free up some time to get to the movies before the Finals start.

Round 2: NBA Blogger’s Bracket

With 2 rounds in the books, let’s take a look at the KnickerBlogger NBA bracket standings.

Rank Name Round1 ER2T1 ER2T2 WR2T1 WR2T2 Round2 Total
1 Kevin Broom 41 7 7 5 5 24 65
2 Kevin 37 5 7 5 7 24 61
3.5 Mr.BB 36 7 5 5 7 24 60
3.5 Ron Hitley 36 5 7 7 5 24 60
5.5 Roland 44 5 5 0 5 15 59
5.5 KnickerBlogger 35 5 7 5 7 24 59
7 Kelly Dwyer 41 7 5 0 5 17 58
8 Matt Bernhardt 34 7 7 0 5 19 53
9 Aaron Schatz 37 5 5 0 5 15 52
10 Justin Kubatko 34 5 7 0 5 17 51
11 Larry Fleisher 34 5 5 5 0 15 49
12 Brian Bassett 31 5 0 7 5 17 48
13 Martin Johnson 32 5 5 0 5 15 47
14 Kurt 29 5 5 0 5 15 44
15 Jeff 29 5 0 0 7 12 41

At the top are the two Kevins, followed by a tie between our international contributor and Ron from Hornets247.com. In fifth place is statmaster Roland Beech. Beech drops out of first place from the first round, and will keep on falling. Roland has the elimanted Dallas Mavericks has his champion. The New York Sun’s participant, Martin Johnson, also has the Mavs to win the West, but he selected the Pistons to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Speaking of what is predicted in the next two rounds, here’s the remaining picks & scores of all the contestants.

Name URL ECC WCC CHAMP Champ Score TOTAL
Kevin Broom www.RealGM.com MIA in 7 SAS in 6 SAS in 7 92-86 65
Kevin www.supersonics.com MIA in 7 SAS in 7 SAS in 6 91-84 61
Mr.BB www.basketblogger.com MIA in 4 SAS in 6 MIA in 5 94-89 60
Ron Hitley www.hornets247.com MIA in 6 SAS in 6 MIA in 7 91-84 60
Roland 82games.com DET in 6 DAL in 6 DAL in 6 115-98 59
KnickerBlogger www.knickerblogger.net MIA in 5 SAS in 6 SAS in 6 94-85 59
Kelly Dwyer sportsillustrated.cnn.com/ DET in 6 SAS in 7 SAS in 6 92-83 58
Matt Bernhardt bulls.blogspot.com DET in 5 SAS in 5 SAS in 6 90-82 53
Aaron Schatz www.footballoutsiders.com MIA in 7 SAS in 7 MIA in 7 89-84 52
Justin Kubatko www.basketball-reference.com MIA in 7 SAS in 6 MIA in 7 91-86 51
Larry Fleisher knicks.mostvaluablenetwork.com DET in 7 PHO in 7 DET in 6 103-99 49
Brian Bassett www.thejetsblog.com MIA in 6 SAS in 6 MIA in 7 105-98 48
Martin Johnson www.nysun.com DET in 7 DAL in 6 DET in 7 85-79 47
Kurt www.forumblueandgold.com DET in 6 SAS in 7 SAS in 7 86-74 44
Jeff www.CelticsBlog.com MIA in 6 SAS in 6 SAS in 6 97-86 41

Brrr?. Is There a Draft in Here?

[While KnickerBlogger has been ignoring his blog by shmoozing it up with close friends visiting from out of town, KnickerBlogger’s Head College Expert David Crockett has been busy thinking about the Knicks future. In an attempt to become the Mel Kiper Jr. of the NBA, “Dr. C.” has gone over the Knicks’ needs for the June draft.

David Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

On May 24th the 2005 Draft Lottery will take place in the NBA studios. At that time the Knicks will know where they will draft in what is shaping up as a reasonably talented draft, depending on which early entrants hire agents and stay in the draft. Of course the playoffs will determine where the team?s second first round pick, obtained from the Spurs (via Phoenix), will be chosen. I knew it was time to think about a draft column when I got an email from a buddy of mine, a bona fide Jayhawk backer and Duke hater, comprised of three short sentences:

I hope you?re sitting down when you read this?
I just heard that Shavlik Randolph is going league.
I am incapable of rational thought right now.
So even though much is still to be determined between now and June I thought I?d fire up my Mel Kiper wig and dig into the NBA draft a bit.

First, We Need a Guard
So what do our beloved Knickerbockers need heading into the 2005-2006 season? Well, in a sharp departure from many of the pundits I believe the Knicks? first priority is in the backcourt rather than at center.

Stephon Marbury had one of the finest offensive seasons by a New York Knick in recent memory in 2004-2005. Though he is not the league?s best point guard, a claim for which he was waaaay overcriticized, ?Starbury? demonstrated the kind of skill and maturity ? e.g., moving off the ball to facilitate Crawford?s development ? few thought possible. According to Knickerblogger’s stat page Marbury?s assist ratio (27.3 assists per 100 possessions) ranked him a somewhat pedestrian 14th in the league among those playing at least 25 minutes per game. However, he was one of only five players on that list who also had a turnover ratio under 10. 82games.com lists Marbury?s PER as a lofty 23.3 and Knickerblogger reports it as a tad below 23; both numbers are clearly in the high-rent district. Marbury?s efg was over 50% and he went to the line frequently, making 35 free-throws per 100 shots from the floor.

Of course, offense was not the problem at the world?s most famous arena this season. Offensively, the Knicks? 103 points per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency) was middle of the pack (16th) ? a far cry from Phoenix?s 111.8 but better than that posted by these playoff teams: Pacers, Nets, Bulls, Pistons, Sixers, and Grizzlies. Unfortunately, in an all too familiar refrain the Knicks sucked eggs defensively this season; just like last season. However unlike last season when the available statistical evidence failed to provide undisputable proof that the backcourt was the primary problem, this season?s stats are much more sympathetic to this point of view. Marbury and Crawford were, simply put, terrible. According to 82games, in 2003-2004 Marbury held opposing point guards to a surprisingly respectable 14.5 PER. (Average PER is set at 15.) This season he allowed an opponents? PER of 16.5. Marbury gave up more penetration (26% in-close FGAs vs. 21% in 2003-2004) and more free throw attempts per 48 minutes (4.7 vs. 3.6). His opponents shot 48.6% efg and had over 8 assists per 48. These incidental numbers strongly suggest that Marbury?s shoddy defense requires him to post phenomenal offensive numbers just to remain a net positive and that his offense comes at the price of major stress on the frontcourt to cover for his deficiencies.

Certainly, a large part of Marbury?s inconsistency and ineffectiveness on defense comes from his indifference. However, we are also starting to see the ill-effects of 8 consecutive seasons of 38+ minutes per game (mpg) on his body. He has fatigued at the ends of the last two seasons and his knee became a problem as this season wore on. Is it any wonder? He just completed his ninth season averaging 40 minutes per game and a career high in total minutes, 2nd only to Lebron James. Only in Marbury?s rookie season did he average fewer than 38 mpg. It would simply be foolish for the Knicks to continue to play Marbury 38-40 minutes per night without expecting his body to break down even more rapidly and eventually impact his offense. Marbury can be more effective playing fewer minutes. Jason Kidd has had seven sub-38 mpg seasons, including each season in New Jersey. Steve Nash has yet to average 38 mpg in any season. This season he averaged 34 (not even among the top 50), managing the league?s most efficient offense without a ?true? backup point guard no less. If these two guys are playing around 34-35 mpg Marbury should be playing no more.

At the shooting guard position Jamal Crawford looked every bit the ?instant offense? third guard he really is this season. At times he was indefensible but as his minutes increased to 38+ his warts became more visible. According to 82games.com, in his minutes at shooting guard Crawford shot almost 50% and had a more than respectable 16.8 PER. However his 18.2 opponents? PER made everyone he guarded look practically like Peja Stojakovic. Crawford, like his backcourt mate, gave up tons of penetration to opposing guards (26% in-close FG%), and ever the gentlemen, regularly ushered them to the free throw line (5.3 FTA per 48). Whatever additional pressure Marbury put on the frontcourt to mask his defensive shortcomings Crawford matched, only without the consistent offensive production. The Knicks don?t want to be forced to play Crawford more than 20-25 mpg, much less the 38+ he played this season.

The Knicks desperately need backcourt help. On a per 48 minute basis the opposing backcourt is taking more than half its shots from in close and taking 10 trips to the free throw line. The key to defensive improvement is cutting down on the penetration from opposing guards. A shot-blocking center that can erase penetration is a luxury; one most teams must live without. Such players are in woefully short supply and the Knicks would not be wise to pin their hopes on acquiring a ready made center in the draft or the free agent market.

The wiser course of action is to look to the draft for backcourt help. The value appears to be at point guard, with high-quality collegiate point guards available into the 2nd round. The shooting guard position looks weak by comparison. Which point guards and shooting guards should the Knicks consider with their three picks? I?ve listed a few players the Knicks might consider just to whet the appetite. More will come after the Chicago pre-draft camp and workouts. (Note: comments on college players only.)

Point Guards

Name/College Availability? Comment
Chris Paul, Wake Forest Early first round, 2nd (New Orleans) to 6th (Milwaukee), depending on team needs and workouts Paul was perhaps the most efficient offensive perimeter player in the nation this season. He absolutely lived at the free throw line; amazing for a sub-six footer. On the other hand, Paul doesn?t defend. The Knicks don?t need anymore of that.
Deron Williams, Illinois Early first round 4th (Utah) to late lottery 16th (Toronto) depending on workouts I really like Williams even though he doesn?t fit Isiah?s ?athleticism? mantra. He?s a high IQ, instinctive player. He?s a bit like Andre Miller without the post-up game but a much better jump shooter. He?s best-suited to run a half-court screen-roll or a passing and cutting offense but he can get up and down too.
Raymond Felton, North Carolina Early first round 4th (Utah) to mid-lottery 12th (LA Clippers) No college player is better than Felton at pushing the ball at the defense. He?s smart, fearless, he defends, and his jump shot is developing. He?s tailor-made for an uptempo team that asks its point guard to penetrate-and-kick. He strikes me as a comparable, though better prospect than T.J. Ford because of his strength.
Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech. Mid-lottery 8th (Knicks) to end of round 1 30th (Knicks) depending on workouts Declared but hasn?t hired an agent. Opinions are all over the place on him. His detractors generally point to his turnovers. I love Jack?s all around game, particularly his on ball defense, and his athleticism. If he goes to Chicago and plays well he could solidify his status in the mid-to-late lottery.
Nate Robinson, Washington Early 2nd round Robinson is an exceptional on-ball defender and may be the best pound-for-pound athlete in the draft. Unfortunately, he also may have hurt his draft status more than any other player with a disappointing NCAA tournament.
John Gilchrist, Maryland Early to mid 2nd round He has everything you could ask for from a physical standpoint. His basketball IQ just isn?t there yet. He should have gone back to school.
Luther Head, Illinois Early-to-mid 2nd round Luther is a combo guard who will find his way onto a team as an excellent passer, defensive stopper, and a guy who will take a big shot.
Aaron Miles, Kansas Late 2nd round/free agent Miles has all the intangibles ? basketball IQ, pure point guard skills, feel for the game, leadership, toughness, unselfishness ? but lacks size and anything resembling a jump shot. He?s small and light. He has to find the right situation, or as I heard someone put it recently, ?Hit the Chris Duhon lottery.?

Of the point guards listed I think Williams, Felton, and Jack have the most to contribute to the Knicks immediately. Each could run the second unit. Each pushes the ball and thinks pass-first, but can score if needed. Most importantly, each will play their first NBA summer league game as a better on-ball defender than Marbury or Crawford is right now.

Shooting Guards

Name/College Availability? Comment
Antoine Wright, Texas A&M Late lottery #10 (Lakers) to #30 (Knicks) Played his entire career on really awful teams but put up good numbers. He?s a willing defender and a potentially dynamite scorer. He has an NBA ready body.
Kennedy Winston, Alabama Late lottery #10 (Lakers) to #30 (Knicks) There is a lot to like. Winston has a great body and a great stroke, but can be lazy defensively and is turnover prone.
Francisco Garcia, Louisville Late first round #20 (Denver) to #30 (Knicks) Garcia is the Deron Williams of shooting guards. His basketball skills and IQ are his biggest assets. He?ll need to go to a team that values those things and is willing to live with his athletic deficiencies.
Salim Stoudamire, Arizona Early 2nd round More Steve Kerr (pure shooter) than Eddie House (scorer). Unlike House or Kerr though, Stoudamire?s defense will allow him to stay on the floor. Also, he can run the point for a few minutes a night.
Tiras Wade, LA-Lafayette Mid-late 2nd round Big-time scorer with nice size from a small conference.
Alex Acker, Pepperdine Late 2nd round/free agent Alex is another combo guard. An athletic 6?5? with some legitimate point guard skills he could conceivably work his way into round 1.

Overall, I?m not so sure this is the draft the Knicks will find an heir apparent to Houston at shooting guard, particularly once Wright and Winston are off the board. I?m assuming Isiah isn?t silly enough to consider a schoolboy shooting guard (Gerald Green or Martell Webster), particularly since defense rather than scoring is the problem in the backcourt. The Knicks may be best off continuing to develop Ariza as a swing man rotating him with Crawford and Penny.

Coming Soon: We Need a Center Too

Under Pressure

“Down 2-0, the pressure is on the Sonics to win game 3 in Seattle.”
“The Sonics eked out a victory, but the pressure is still on them to tie the series up.”
“With the Spurs heading back to San Antonio at 2-2, the pressure is back on them to win and maintain home field advantage.”

Can someone name a situation in the playoffs where there is no pressure on both teams? I can’t imagine a single scenario where there is stress on one team but not the other. Even before the opening tip, there is stress on both teams to win game 1, not just the home team. If the low seed steals one of the first two games, there is “pressure” on the other team to reclaim the home field advantage. But there is “pressure” is on the low seed to keep that advantage, especially against what was a better team in the regular season.

It’s obvious that any team that is facing a single game elimination is under “pressure”. When a team is down 3 games to 2, there is “pressure” on them to win in order to keep their season alive. However they’re not the only ones carrying the load as a team up 3-2 suffers from the burden of not allowing a pivotal game 7. The same can be said of being up 3-1, since you don’t want to let the other team “back in the series.” One game from a sweep there has to be pressure on that team to earn that distinction. And of course no one wants to end there season losing 4 straight, so there is pressure on them as well.

1-0. 2-0. 2-1. 2-2. 3-2. 0-1. 3-1. Quite simply in the playoffs, for every game played there is “pressure” on both teams to win.