Michael Sweetney: Big Mike’s Numbers and the Analysts Who Love Them

The foundation of the statistical analysis revolution in sports is the fact that subjective impressions are not sufficient measures of a player performance. Objective measurements, usually in the form of statistics, are needed to properly determine value. Using too much subjective impression will either overvalue or undervalue a player. By the basis of their objectivity, statistical analysts (statheads) are supposed to be immune to the rank subjective posturing that afflicts most general managers and sports writers. That statheads are impartial observers is itself a hypothesis, which like all scientific hypotheses must be tested against the evidence. For that end, let us consider the stathead commentary on our favorite misused Knick of the past three years, Michael Sweetney, a.k.a. Big Mike.

Just the very fact that I appropriately used the word “favorite” to describe Sweetney is telling in as much as it is accurate. First, take a great player like Lebron James. His talent is so obvious and properly reflected by the scorecard statistics that there is little in the way of evaluation a more advanced statistical analysis provides. On the other hand, Sweetney is widely viewed as a toad: short, fat, and slow. Therefore, statheads like you or me love Big Mike because it gives us a chance to prove our hypothesis: “Subjective impression is insufficient to gauge player worth, so we need objective measurements.” Big Mike validates our scientific enterprise because we “know” he’s a productive player, even if nobody else can see past his limitations.

In a sense too, we statheads are rooting for an underdog, seeing in Sweetney his inner prince .

Accordingly, statheads are willing to look past Sweetney’s warts: he is a poor open court player, draws too many fouls, and does not rotate well on defense. These are all real concerns in the current ecology of the NBA which favors quick perimeter players. But staheads still stare at his steadfastly efficient production as a scorer and rebounder and insist he has value.

Last season, while we were ruing the Knicks’ poor usage of Sweetney, not much was being said of the undervaluing of their best player, Stephon Marbury. That statheads would ignore Marbury’s Top-3 point guard PER (just a hair behind the league MVP Steve Nash) to complain that he “dominates the ball too much” is a curious case of selective judgement. Compare the two: Sweetney is a statistical monster, who upsets aesthetically, and Marbury is a statistical monster, who upset aesthetically. But statheads have been much more vocal in support of Sweetney than for Marbury.

The reason for this asymmetrical commentary is strictly subjective “liking” of a player (which admittedly was the motivation for why I wrote my first piece on Marbury). This author was outright flabbergasted at the subjective criticism levied against Stephon Marbury by statheads in the face of his outstanding statistical performance. As statheads we laugh at labeling a productive player like Sweetney as useless for being lumbering and oafish. However, we then turn around and bemoaned Marbury’s inability to improve teammate performance, even if we should know better. By our own advanced metric standards of Plus/Minus, Marbury made the Knicks 12 points better per 48 minutes, easily ranking him as a league leader in that category.

By our own standards, the criticism of Marbury’s cancerous effect on team play is completely unjustified.

An update on Sweetney’s performance demonstrates another limitation on statistics: They are for the most part reactive. They tell us what happened in the past, but even our informed opinions on the future are still educated guesses. Statheads expected Sweetney’s performance to steadily improve, thrusting him into the Top-10 Power Forward plateau. Unfortunately, much to our chagrin, he has regressed, now posting a PER as slightly below league average.

This PER depression is largely due to a dramatic plummet in TS%. Sweetney was a monster low-post scorer last season, but his Field-Goal percentage has sunk inversely to his weight. Sweetney’s foul rate was expected to decrease as he got older and saw more regular minutes, but that hasn’t happened either. One promising indicator is his turnover rate declined with increase usage, though that is tempered greatly by his lowered shooting efficiency. In all, we should take Sweetney’s unique player card and file it into our database in order to improve our models and hypothesis. The regression is especially alarming because Sweetney is short for a frontcourt player and those performers have historically had shorter (no pun intended) careers with quicker peaks. At this stage it might only be wishful thinking, and not statistical indication, to believe he will ever move into an elite tier of power forwards.

Statistical analysis does greatly improve the evaluation of player performance, but like any other science it must maintain its discipline to be both credible and effective. For that matter, we cannot only point fingers at the subjective media for filling their columns with mindless ruminations: we must also be vigilant in policing ourselves. There should be no rooting in the press-box, nor in the regression model.

Of course, we can in our own time take off our stat thinking hats too and place Sweetney’s framed player card atop our mantle, remembering fondly how on those horrifically bad Knicks teams sometimes the only entertainment was his periodic hip checking of seven footers out of the lane.

Isiah’s Latest Trade Is A No-Brainer

In terms of talent this trade is a no-brainer. Penny Hardaway is 6 years and 2 knees removed from his last good season. Meanwhile Trevor Ariza is a liability in the half court set, and unless you’re Ben Wallace it doesn’t normally work to play 4 on 5. Steve Francis can put the ball in the hoop, and is just a shade under 20 points per game for his career. He’s an excellent rebounder for a guard, and can dish the ball as well. In other words Francis is a nice addition to your fantasy team. But in the real world, Stevie Franchise joining the Knicks is a fantasy only for the rest of the league.

There’s more to consider about the Knicks’ latest trade than just talent. Francis comes with a franchise sized contract that tops out at $17M before expiring in 2009. Adding Francis’ contract to Marbury’s, Richardson’s, Crawford’s, and Jerome James’ means New York will be over the cap until 2009. Grabbing another long term deal in Francis shows the Knicks are committed to never being under the cap. If that doesn’t signal the end of the Knicks rebuilding plans, then there’s always the sobering reality that they traded a player who has yet to have his first legal beer for a 29 year old former All Star. With the deal boiling down to Ariza & a piece of paper with Penny Hardaway’s signature on it for Francis, it’s hard to argue that the Knicks are trying to get younger anymore.

Meanwhile it’s clear that Francis isn’t a complimentary player for this Knicks team. Just about the last player New York needs is another low percentage-turnover prone-needs the ball in his hands-player. Throw in that a Francis-Marbury backcourt means that every night one opposing guard will have an unobstructed view to the hoop, and it means that the Knicks defensive woes will just get worse. As for demeanor, Francis pouted his way through the first half of this season for a bad Orlando team under strict disciplinarian Bob Hill. I would have paid to see the look on Steve’s face when he was told he was sent to the only team in the league having the combination of a worse record and stricter coach. [KnickerBlogger ASCII artist rendition of that face :-\ ]

Ardent Isiah supporters point to how much more talented Francis is, and how easy it will be to move Taylor & Rose with their expiring contracts over the summer. But I have to ask, what kind of players will Isiah get by dangling those players in front of the league’s GMs? Don?t you think if Steve Francis was worth more than an expiring contract and a raw twenty year old, the Magic would have taken that deal instead? Using the expiring contract technique the Knicks have only been able to grab players who have one foot out the door in their current city. Marbury, Crawford, Curry, Rose, Taylor, James, Richardson, and Francis all come from teams desperate to get rid of them. The Knicks haven’t been able to get players that fit their needs. Instead New York can only acquire the league’s undesirables.

So while Francis is better than both players the Knicks shipped away for him, he’s doesn’t he add to the team’s trading flexibility. Nor does he become more valuable after another year in his third team. Nor does he fit into any rebuilding plans. Francis doesn’t even address the team most important on the court needs.

Yup sounds like a no-brainer to me.

Hollinger’s Knicks

[In today’s article, we take you back in the KnickerBlogger.Net Time Machine? to February 8th 2006. In this much darker time in Knick history, the hometown blue had been in the middle of a 10 game losing streak. It’s a stark contrast to the 1 game win streak the team is currently riding.

In this date in history, Michael Zannettis sent me this intelligent discourse on the Knicks of his era. Unfortunately I was out of town on business (that thing that allows me to collect money to pay for this thing), and the KnickerBlogger publishing group was on a team building exercise in the mountains of Nepal.

Mr. Zannettis is head of the KnickerBlogger.Net Biology department, ensuring that all employees of KB.N Industries do actually bleed orange & blue. So without further ado…]

mort (nyc): Okay, smart guy. Imagine this: Larry Brown gets fired and John Hollinger is named head coach of the Knicks. Oh, and Stephon Marbury just broke his leg. Who are your starting 5?

John Hollinger: (3:12 PM ET) Wouldn’t be MY dream job, that’s for sure. The obvious move in the frontcourt would be start Frye and Curry, bring Lee off the pine and forget the others. I’d have to play Crawford at point and if Q’s back felt OK would probably play he and Ariza at the wings, with heavy sprinklings of Jalen off the pine. Nate Robinson and Qyntel Woods could sop up whatever minutes are left over and take over for Q when the back acts up.

In the wake of the Davis-Rose trade a lot has been spoken of the luxury tax consequences of assuming Rose?s salary, but I share the sentiment of many Knicks fans in saying I could care less how much money James Dolan loses. Moreover, since their salary cap was already a hopeless situation going into next year, adding Rose does nothing to hurt the remote possibility that they might be under the cap in the summer of 2007. At that time the cages should be cleaned of such albatrosses as Allan Houston, Shandon Anderson, Jerome Williams, and Maurice Taylor. Three players who do not actually play on the team, and the fourth who shouldn?t.

Since the Knicks gave away their draft pick and they are nearly mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture, their record this year has no significance. However, that being said, it would still be nice to see the Knicks win some games. After all, we do like rooting for them.

So the question remains, what is the best rotation for the Knicks in terms of winning games this season (and next)? The conventional wisdom seems to state, at least according to Larry Brown?s resume, that playing rookies is an untenable option, since they are undeveloped and unproductive. Therefore Brown has been riding the more ostensibly reliable veterans?.um?wait. Only the problem is this logic does not apply to the 2006 Knicks. The rookies Brown has on the team are not named Darko or Delfino and are now already superior players to the ones in his rotation. Since Larry Brown did not follow Hollinger?s plan, his latest starting five was: 1, Jamal Crawford; 2, Quentin Richardson; 3, Jalen Rose; 4, Maurice Taylor; 5, Eddy Curry.

This latest game was a microcosm of the entire season. When Curry ran into early foul trouble, he was replaced with resident worst free-agent signing of the year champion, Jerome James. If Brown wanted to bring in more front-line support he called on Malik Rose?s number 13, which is actually higher than his PER 8.9. The ineffectual trio of Taylor, Rose, and James played 51 minutes, while David Lee played less than 1, Frye played only 19 and Curry 23.

Let?s first examine the difference in production between David Lee & Channing Frye versus Maurice Taylor & Malik Rose, assuming that any rational observer can agree that James should not be beating out Herb Williams for the back-up center spot, much less the promising Jackie Butler.

Taylor scores more than Lee, but does so at a less efficient rate with more turnovers and less rebounds. Moreover, Lee has an Assist Ratio twice as high. In fact, if Lee keeps up his 14.0 rate, it would qualify as top-ten among NBA power forwards. All that being said, Taylor is still a superior player to Malik Rose, who has the same rebounding problems, but with an altogether new level of offensive incompetence. He shoots a woeful TS % 42.5, which is almost as bad as Darko last year, who couldn?t get off the end of Brown?s bench despite his implicit connections to Eastern European mobsters. And while Rose is a far worse player than Taylor, Frye is a far superior player to Lee. In fact, Frye?s rookie PER of 19.9 ranks 30th in the league. With such strong production, he is qualified to be a starter on every team in this league with the possible exception of Brown?s old team the Pistons.

Last year, Michael Sweetney?s lack of playing time caused temper fits from Knick fans fluent in statistical evaluation of performance. This year Lee and Frye are d?j? vu all over again. Once again, the Knicks simply do not seem to understand what they have on their hands. The fact that Frye and Lee are rookies is simply irrelevant on a team that currently has the league?s worst record. They are already better than aging veterans who have no roles in the Knicks? future.

Using Curry and Frye as starters with Lee off the bench, the Knicks can employ a rotation in structure congruent with Brown?s last team, the Detroit Pistons, who start Rasheed and Ben Wallace, then bring in Antonio McDyess off the bench to play power forward, moving the remaining player to center. Since both Frye and Curry can play center, Lee can be used in this way at power forward, a more natural position for him than the awkward small forward, where his inaccurate jump shot was a liability. Lee shoots an astronomically high percentage from the floor, albeit in his limited minutes, and one would think putting him into the post will deter too much regression to the mean, as he can employ more of his around the basket moves and less 15-foot line drives off the side of the backboard.

Finally, if this rotation leaves any stray minutes, they should go to Butler. In a rebuilding team filled with talented and promising rookies, there is no place for Taylor and Rose.

Marbury?s absence gives this author a modicum of pleasure to see how important he was to the ?competitiveness? of the Knicks. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. His continued inactiveness presents considerable problems for the Knicks? rotation.

While Crawford is a no-brainer at the point, Hollinger prefers Trevor Ariza over Qyntel Woods even though the latter is experiencing a resurgence in his second chance opportunity. Woods 15.3 PER is very respectable and superior to Ariza?s 10.7 PER. Nonetheless, Ariza was a burgeoning perimeter stopper before he was lost in Brown?s doghouse. That Trevor does not get along better with the coach is unfortunate for the young player?s development.

Conversely, Brown is certainly giving QRich ample opportunity to prove himself now that he is back in the Knicks? rotation. Nonetheless with QRich collecting bricks like he’s starting a construction company, it would seem he would be a more prudent benching. Perhaps much of his struggles should be attributed to rust and injury, but no matter the reason he?s still stinking up the joint. It?s admirable that he?s playing with heart, but a healthy Ariza should be getting his minutes. Using Woods and J. Rose, who both have average PERs and alternating Ariza for defensive assignments seems a more prudent course than currently relying on QRich.

In only two games with the Knicks, it is clear that J. Rose should be the primary ball-handler whenever he is on the court. This should alleviate Crawford?s bad shot tendency and Robinson?s turnover rampage, both which are wrecking havoc to the Knicks? offense. Therefore if Marbury ever returns, there is optimism that Knicks will no longer have to employ either Robinson or Crawford at the point. Considering that Robinson is not yet a competent rotation player, using him in a more limited role will improve the Knicks? competitiveness. In Hollinger?s scenario he would only receive sparse minutes when Crawford is sent to the bench, for a more reasonable ten minutes of energy off the bench.

All three swing spots, sans Marbury, are average at best, or rather, at worst. There is not one among them that even posts a 16 PER, but neither are they below 14 PER. Having no open sores in your starting line-up is more than can be said for many other teams around the league. Once Marbury returns, the Knicks can go eight players deep ? Marbury, J. Rose, Woods, Crawford, Lee, Curry, Frye, and Butler ? who post average PER or better. Conceivably, by eliminating Robinson and Richardson from the rotation, if the Knicks employed this line-up for a full-season without starting the season 19 games under .500, it would be more than reasonable to expect competition for a playoff berth. But just as importantly it would allow their rookies to receive the playing time they need to develop.

The Official 2006 Knicks Trade Thread

Folks, I’m away on business putting in double digit hour days that is time and culturally unfriendly to watching American sports. I’m upset that the Knicks actually win a game while I’m gone, because who knows when they’ll win again. This when I usually make a joke whether or not the Hawks are coming up on the schedule, but they’ve beaten New York 2 out of 3 tries this year.

In any case, with the trade deadline coming up, I’m opening this thread so you guys can chat about any rumored deals, trades you might make, or the trade deadline of seasons past.

The Knicks Could Take A Lesson From Sci-Fi

“We’ve made too many compromises already. Too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!”
Jean-Luc Piccard

I’m not angry or upset at the Knicks latest deal. But I’m not jumping for joy when I think about it. I’m left indifferent to Isiah’s new deal, kinda like Jerramy Stevens’ hands to a well-thrown football. It’s no secret that New York could use a small forward to end the Keith Van Horn curse. Since they sent the high-socked spiked-haired one packing, Van Horn’s successors at small forward have all been disasters. Tim Thomas suddenly turned into tiny-Tim, Jerome Williams fell victim to a rule not even named after him, Trevor Ariza is playing like a 20 year old, Quentin Richardson is playing like a 25 year old with a 40 year old’s back, and Penny Hardaway is playing with himself (since he’s not on the team he has to practice by himself – you perverts!).

It’s certainly possible that Jalen Rose can end this curse. Rose is a multi-skilled offensive player, who can handle the ball from the 3 spot and provide a little bit of scoring. New Yorkers might remember when Jalen Rose torched the Knicks for 20 second half points in a 2005 Raptor victory. The Knicks have had problems finding a backup ball handler, a problem only exacerbated by the injury to Marbury. Although the Knicks still need a backup point guard, Rose’s ability to play point-forward will help the team in that respect. He could be the small forward they’ve been looking for all season, and his ability to run the offense might take the pressure off of Crawford & Robinson. The extra year on the deal doesn’t hurt anyone except James Dolan’s accountant, and if there is anyone who can turn a mid-late first into gold it’s Isiah Thomas.

On the other hand, Rose might go the way of the last 5 small forwards who donned the blue & orange. Even in his Pacer heyday, Jalen was a good but not great offensive player. While Rose is a skilled passer for a swingman, he still coughs it up a decent amount, and the last thing the Knicks need is more turnovers. Or maybe the last thing the Knicks need is another porous defender. If that wasn’t enough, Rose is a bit of a head case, ranking about a 5 on the 10 point Artest scale. Rose has complained about playing time, and only have to look at the Knicks bench to see how far those with a skewed sense of entitlement get with Coach Brown. When Marbury comes back and demands the ball in his hands, will an unhappy Rose do a Johnny Cash impersonation and show up dressed in black? Or maybe Larry Brown will get fed up when Jalen allows one too many opponents a closer look at the rim. As for the draft pick, maybe Isiah’s luck runs out? Or maybe he gets another Robinson or Lee: that is a nice role player, but no one that will change the franchise.

So while we wait for the Jalen Rose experience to play out, the question that keeps popping in my mind is “is this how it’s going to be for the next few years?” Are the Knicks going to cash in expiring deals for longer contracts of the league’s unwanted mediocre players? I have the bad feeling that next year I’m going to be writing another blog about the Maurice Taylor/Theo Ratliff trade. The year after, Malik Rose for Wally Szczerbiak.

And my feelings are warranted. The Knicks sent Camby for McDyess, and McDyess for Marbury. They sent Keith Van Horn for Tim Thomas, and Thomas for Curry. Othella Harrington for Jamal Crawford. Kurt Thomas for Quentin Richardson. At the time of each deal, it would have been hard to argue that the Knicks didn’t get the better player. However taken as a whole the deals have extended New York’s stay in salary cap hell. The aftermath has left fans in some kind of rooting purgatory, where we concede any hopes of being seriously competitive both now and in the near future. The Knicks are stuck in a vicious cycle of absorbing salary to get better, but not being able to get better because of those long term contracts. Since the last Finals team fell apart, New York has been a skipping record, waiting for someone to move the needle. Watching the Knick franchise is like watching one of their games. When the Knicks are down by 18 in the 3rd & claw their way back to a single point deficit I don’t say to myself “that’s great they’re coming back!” Instead I ponder “why are they always losing & playing from behind?” And that’s exactly how I feel about the direction this team is in.

I know rebuilding takes time, but then again I’m not sure if this is rebuilding. Isiah didn’t inherit an ideal situation, but he’s only addressed the issue of youth. The Knicks are still capped out. The Knicks are still on the red side of the ledger when it comes to draft picks. And the Knicks still don’t seem to understand that it’s important to get players that can defend. The Jalen Rose trade is a good example of this, of the 4 things the Knicks sorely need to move forward as a franchise, the only long term benefit is the draft pick. If New York is serious about rebuilding eventually somebody, whether it be Dolan, Isiah, or whoever is the GM, is going to have to draw a line in the sand and say this salary cap nonsense ends here.

Unhappy With The Rose Trade?

Reports on the Jalen Rose trade that you won’t read in any paper (because they aren’t true).

Isiah Thomas was so impressed with the Raptors performance against his team, that he had to acquire one of their players. With Toronto beating New York, 104-90, the Knicks decided to grab one of their opponents. “They were just awesome,” the Knicks president declared. “I figure I had to have one of them.” When told the Raptors were 17-30, Thomas shot back “Hey! then it makes sense to trade one of our players for one of theirs, since we’re only 14-31.”


Knicks acquire Rose, by accident. Thomas laughs with that impish grin he’s so famous for. “I really didn’t mean to acquire a player,” he begins to tell the story. “Well I’ve had some problems with my wife, the players in the room will understand (Thomas nods & winks at Clyde). So anyway I figure Valentine’s day is just around the corner. I’m looking through my little black address book to make things right with the little lady, and I thought I dialed ‘Terry’s flowers.’ Then I ask the guy how much roses are, and he tells me something like $31M over 2 years. I figure that seems about right – I was never any good at accounting and hey – it’s a payment plan. I like paying for things over time. I’ve got another fourteen months left on the CBA, but that’s neither here nor there.

“Since I like getting involved personally in everything, I ask if I can pick them. The guy on the other line said Rose and a pick for who? Then it took me a minute to figure out that I dialed the next number in my address book by accident – ‘Toronto Raptors.’ Well folks, you ever been in one of those embarrassing situations where you can’t back down gracefully.” Thomas smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

Knicks Trade For Rose

LINK: http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=2317958

The New York Knicks have acquired Toronto Raptors guard/forward Jalen Rose and a first-round pick in exchange for power forward Antonio Davis, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith reports.

Davis was a likely target to be traded because of his expiring contract.

The Knicks have lost nine of their last 10 games.

No word on whether or not that first is protected (but since Isiah is no longer the Raps GM, I’m guessing not.) What’s with the Raptors getting mid-30s Knick power forwards?

Thanks to RaptorHQ.com for the link.