New York 101 Cleveland 98

How unlikely was yesterday’s game? The Knicks didn’t falter in the 4th quarter (unlikely event #1). Crawford had the ball for the last shot & drove to the hoop (unlikely event #2). When the defense colapsed, instead of taking the shot, Crawford passed the ball (unlikely event #3) to Eddy Curry who caught it (unlikely event #4). Curry finished with a dunk, was fouled, & hit the free throw. The Knicks had a chance to seal it up, but Steve Francis missed both free throws (unlikely event #5), and the Knicks still held on to win (unlikely event #6).

I was absolutely thrilled when Crawford hit a cutting Curry with the ball. Too often Crawford forces up a jumper. Too often there is a guy wide open on the floor that the guards don’t see, and I end up screaming “pass the ball.” The Knicks’ offensive scheme isn’t so bad, it’s that they don’t have the guards to implement it. Take a fast break from Tuesday’s game. The Knicks had a clear 3 on 1. Marbury in the middle, Francis on the left wing. Marbury passes the ball to Francis, and the defender steps towards Stevie. Now anyone who has played basketball knows at this point if you’re on the wing, you pass the ball back to the middle for an easy basket. At worst you pass fake and go up with your left. What does Francis do? Drive baseline under the basket for a reverse attempt with his right. There isn’t a point guard in the league that would have done what Francis did, and that’s a problem with the Knicks’ lineup. They have all these shoot first guards who aren’t used to passing.

However there is one guard that is surprising me with his passing skill. I wrote this about Nate Robinson this summer:

The Knicks coaching staff has asked Nate Robinson to become more of a point guard and get his teammates involved with the offense. Unfortunately the message is not getting through, as Robinson has taken 2.6 shots for every assist he?s dished out. All too often Nate has sped off to the hoop with a cadre of defenders abandoning their duties to prevent the diminutive guard from scoring. With a host of teammates open on plays like these Robinson still refuses to pass the ball. Additionally Nate has issues with his shot selection, as his summer 42% eFG would attest to. Mark Aguirre has regularly benched Nate, including removing him early in the first quarter of the Kings game after the guard forced up a shot.

Robinson?s fearlessness allows him to get to the hoop on offense, grab rebounds on both ends of the court, and talk smack during the course of the game. Nonetheless he needs to increase his court vision because he?s not going to continue to make a living if the entire league knows he can?t pass when driving to the rim.

Well Nate has certainly gotten the message. While his assists/minute doesn’t back it up, probably due to the ball-sharing offense New York runs, Nate seems to understand the importance of passing the ball. He still has the best pass I’ve seen from a Knick guard this year, a stop on the dime in the paint dish to Lee. His increased awareness means teams can’t double or triple team him as he goes to the hoop, because Nate might just hit the open guy cutting to the hoop. And although he hasn’t seen a big increase in his assists, Nate’s shooting has gone from 46% last year to 53% this year (eFG%). Robinson isn’t about to turn into the next Muggsy Bogues, but by keeping defenses honest he’s giving himself a cushion when shooting.

Cheap Shot Theater

I’ll certainly admit that the life of the sports columnist can be pretty difficult. It’s hard to think of interesting things to write about constantly, but really, far too often, you’ll see columnists churn out basically what I call “cheap shot columns,” where they just play to their audience’s pre-conceived notions, and tear down players and general managers and coaches/managers because they know it’ll be easy and most of their audience will be receptive to their views.

Occasionally, I figure I’ll point some out when I see them.

Today, Adrian Wojnarowski had one such column over at Yahoo! Sports. Read it for yourself here.

Wojnarowski opens with the delightfully brilliant assertion that Stephon Marbury is a “loser.” One of the biggest losers in basketball history, according to Wojnarowski. He goes on to make the brilliant insight that Stephon Marbury is not as good of a player as Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter.

Do not get me wrong. As everyone here knows, Marbury has looked like a shade of his former self. But that’s not what Wojnarowski is complaining about. No, he is saying things like…

So now, Marbury is feigning confusion over Thomas’ pass-first directives, the way he did under the deposed Larry Brown. Somehow, he doesn’t understand his coach’s orders unless it includes 20 shots a night for him.

Next to the whole “he’s a loser” canard, that was Wojnarowski’s biggest cheap shot.

I understand he wants to grab attention, but how much harder would it have been to just rip Marbury for good, logical reasons? The guy’s having a terrible year. If you want to write a column saying so, then that’s fine by me. So, if you have that already, why make up stuff?

There’s your Cheap Shot Theater for today.

CTN Power Rankings – 11/25/06

http://www.courtsidetimes.net/?p=579

Team Name: Golden State (8-6)
OTTER Rank: 8
Preseason Ranking: 19
Improvement from Last Week: +7
2007 Ranking: 6
2007 ModCol: 0.602

Sure they lost to the Suns, and then back to back games against the Nuggets. But they are only 1 of 2 teams to beat the Jazz. Was that really Matt Barnes with back to back 20+ point eruptions?

New York 101 Boston 77

Just 6 days after an embarrassing defeat at home, the New York Knicks got revenge on the road. Last night in Boston, the Knicks beat the Celtics 101-77 avenging their 122-118 loss at home last Saturday. The road to victory came in the second half as the Knicks went into a 2-3 zone defense which stymied their opponents. Unlike the first game, the zone kept the Celtics on the perimeter. Ryan Gomes who had 6 offensive rebounds and 10 of his 22 points from the free throw line in the first matchup, failed to record an offensive rebound and didn’t make it to the charity strip once. Last week Telfair and Pierce hit 26 free throws combined, but only managed 4 last night. Not only did the Knicks defense disrupt the Celtics inside game, but they prevented Boston from connecting from downtown. New York presented a team effort in the zone, constantly running at shooters and switching in unison. Despite having deadly outside shooters like Wally Szczerbiak and Paul Pierce, Boston only managed 4 of 21 from three point land (19%). On the night the Celtics only shot 40.8% (eFG%) as a team.

Meanwhile on the other end of the court, Isiah Thomas’ “quick” offense looked as good as it’s ever been. Eddy Curry provided the inside muscle, and had his best game of the 2007 season. Curry shot 8 of 12 for 21 points, and seemingly toyed with the Celtics in the paint. Eddy also pulled down 10 boards, his third best total of the year. Steve Francis continually broke down the Celtics’ defense. While he only made 3 of his 8 attempts, Francis hit all 15 of his free throws to lead New York with 22 points. Meanwhile Richardson got off the schneid with 17 points, and David Lee almost recorded his first career triple double (11 pts, 13 rebs, 8 ast).

This win comes after the Knicks allowed the Timberwolves a 17 point first quarter lead, and right behind a home & road matchup against the Bulls.

The Eddy Curry Study, Pt. II

It’s only been 12 games, but it looks like Knicknation has turned on Eddy Curry. Posts on various message boards show New Yorkers’ disdain for their “center of the future.” At UltimateKnicks, a post was titled “I’m done with Curry….” and it was met with no resistance. One Knicks4Life poster started a thread two weeks ago called “The Eddy Curry Watch” and went from the opinion “Got to admit, he looked pretty good out there” to “I’m done defending Curry” in two weeks. Even on RealGM, where the hardcore optimists take up residence, posts are proclaiming “Curry has got to go.

However there are still a few people that are still optimistic on Curry’s future.

“We’re not asking Eddy to dominate the league at 23 years of age. That’s a tall task for anyone. I don’t remember too many 23-year-olds coming in and dominating, regardless of how long they’ve been in the league. Twenty-three is still 23.”

You might expect that quote to come from a body-painted rabid Knick fan on a message board, but instead those words come from Knicks President & Coach Isiah Thomas. That quote comes from the New York Daily News along with this tidbit:

Still, [Isiah] has made a Ewing-esque guarantee about Curry’s future, and yesterday named some other top-tier big men in arguing that the sixth-year pro will take as long as they did to develop. Those names included Yao, Jermaine O’Neal – whom Thomas acquired and coached in Indiana – and one guy whose number hangs from the Garden rafters.

“I saw Patrick Ewing in the gym (Saturday) night,” Thomas said. “I remember Patrick at 23. Do you remember what the Knicks’ record was when Patrick was 23? … I’m just saying, it takes awhile.”

While I don’t expect Isiah to badmouth one of his own players, I don’t think Thomas should expect Knick fans to swallow his words hook, line & sinker. Let’s look at the facts and discuss whether Eddy Curry is similar to Jermaine O’Neal, Yao Ming, and Patrick Ewing? Curry turns 24 in a couple of weeks, which means last year he was 23 for a majority of last season. So let’s look at our 4 players at the age of 23:

OFFENSIVE STATS
Ewing  20.0 pts, 22.5 pts/40, 47.4% efg, 52.6% ts%
O'Neal 19.0 pts, 20.2 pts/40, 48.0% efg, 52.1% ts%
Y.Ming 17.5 pts, 21.3 pts/40, 52.2% efg, 58.6% ts%
CURRY  13.6 pts, 21.0 pts/40, 53.8% efg, 58.3% ts%

Curry’s scoring and shooting percentages are right up there with the other three, only his points per game lags behind. Since that’s a function of his minutes, let’s look at some of his other stats to see why he’s not getting the playing time the other 3 received. We’ll use the stats per 40 minutes to even things out, since the minutes per game are radically different between the 4.

OTHER STATS (per 40 minutes)
Ewing  10.2 REB, 2.3 BLK, 3.9 TO, 4.3 PF
O'Neal 11.2 REB, 2.5 BLK, 2.6 TO, 4.0 PF
Y.Ming 10.9 REB, 2.3 BLK, 3.0 TO, 4.1 PF
Curry   9.2 REB, 1.2 BLK, 3.8 TO, 5.1 PF

It’s clear from the fouls that Eddy can’t get more minutes, however it’s not just the fouls that keeps Curry on the bench. He lags behind all 3 in rebounding, blocked shots, and fouls. Only Ewing’s high turnover rate keeps Eddy from running the table. Curry’s blocked shot rate is especially damning. The Knicks current center’s blocks shots at half the rate of the others. This confirms eye witness testimony of Eddy’s poor defense. From these numbers, it’s obvious that Curry is poor in areas vital to the center position, which is the primary reason he doesn’t receive more minutes.

Curry’s backers say that his poor defense, high foul rate, & lack of rebounding are a factor of his age. Unfortunately this statement is in direct contradiction of the evidence above. Ewing, Yao, and Jermaine O’Neal were all good rebounders, had their fouls under control, and were dominant in the paint even at the tender age of 23.

Thanks to basketball-reference.com, we have another way to judge a player’s potential. Similarity scores look at a player’s stats, then finds other players that had similar numbers. For example if you wanted to know if Chris Paul is likely to be good, one way would be to look at the players that were most similar to him. Good news for Hornet fans, as Paul’s most similar are Stephon Marbury, Mike Bibby, Isiah Thomas, and Gilbert Arenas. Meanwhile Garnett’s comparables at age 23 predicted a Hall of Fame career: Bird, Duncan, Webber, and Ewing. And how do our four players match up?

Most Similar at Age 23
Ewing: Jermaine O'Neal, Keith Van Horn, Pau Gasol, Derrick Coleman, Tim Duncan
O'Neal: Patrick Ewing, Pau Gasol, Derrick Coleman, Bryant Reeves, Shawn Kemp
Y.Ming: Ralph Sampson, Rik Smits, Pau Gasol, Jermaine O'Neal, Georghe Muresan
Curry: Jeff Ruland, Mitch Kupchak, Sharone Wright, Jamaal Magloire, Leon Douglas

At 23 years old Ewing, O’Neal, and Ming compared to All Stars and/or players that were very good early in their career. On the other hand, Curry’s most comparables leave a lot to be desired. The one thing they have in common is they were all washed up by the age of 28.

For those that aren’t into statistical methods, there are still other ways to judge a player’s value.

Awards by the age of 23
Ewing: All Star, Rookie of the Year, All Rookie Team
O'Neal: All Star, Most Improved Player, All NBA Team (3rd)
Y.Ming: All Star, Rookie of the Year, All Rookie Team
Curry: None

Just as the statistics predicted, Patrick Ewing, Jermaine O’Neal, and Yao Ming were acknowledged by their peers for their fine play. All three became All Stars before the age of 24, and all three were given some other award. And again Curry is the odd man out, lacking in any kind of hardware.

So what do all these facts tell us? First that Curry’s age isn’t an excuse for his lack of development. Just using the players Isiah chose, we’re able to show that 23 year olds can play at a high level. Ewing went to a four year college, Yao Ming came form another country, and Jermaine O’Neal skipped college. Despite coming to the NBA from different routes, all three made their mark by the age of 23. Second Curry’s lack of college experience isn’t an excuse either. Just like Curry, O’Neal came to the NBA out of high school. Before age 23, Jermaine O’Neal played in only 5076 minutes compared to Curry’s 6683. Despite Curry having a season’s worth of minutes over O’Neal, Jermaine was the one to become an All Star. But O’Neal isn’t the only player to accomplish this. Dwight Howard is only 21, and is poised to become one of the East’s best centers. Toronto’s Chris Bosh appeared in his first All Star game at age 21. While Isiah Thomas might be throwing out names like Ewing, Yao, and Jermaine to make Curry sound like a promising young player, it’s clear no matter how you look at it that Eddy Curry will not become a “league-leading center.”

Early Results Suggest Improvement

Although the season is still young, perhaps enough games have passed (11 of 82, or 13.4%) for us to get a handle on some of the emerging trends for the Knicks? ongoing 06-07 campaign, and in particular to see how things compare to last season?s trainwreck. Some have suspected (or outright accused) Larry Brown of deliberately veering the 05-06 Titaknicks headlong into disaster, and so it bears investigating how the undoubtedly earnest bailing efforts of captain Isiah are proceeding thus far, with essentially the same cast and crew as the last go-around.

The Quick
Preseason proclamations from Thomas indicated that the Knicks would resort to a more up-tempo style this season, under the hood of a seemingly complicated hybrid offense dubbed ?The Quick.? At least as regards overall pace, such claims have thus far been more shtick than quick. The Knicks? pace factor is indeed slightly higher?91.8 possessions per game this season, versus 90.8 last season. However, this slight uptick in pace is more readily attributable to faster league-wide play than anything the Knicks are doing in particular. (Remember, pace is a function of both how fast you play and how fast your opponent plays.) Both last season and so far this season, New York is playing at almost exactly the league average pace (90.6 poss/g in 05-06, 91.8 poss/g in 06-07). A drop in offensive rebounding prowess (see below) may also be contributing to the Knicks? slightly faster pace thus far.

The Knicks are playing quicker on the level of individual possessions as well, taking 42% of their shots within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, compared to 35% under Larry Brown?s more deliberate offensive attack. It?s difficult to judge this increase relative to league-wide trends, however, as 82games.com does not provide stats for league-wide shot clock usage.

Offensive efficiency
Last season the Knicks ranked 25th in offensive efficiency, posting a paltry 103.7 points per 100 possessions. At times it seemed as if every possession was a mortal struggle to score (even the ones not involving Malik Rose). Subjectively, the Knicks? offense seems more free-flowing this season (though too often dominated by one-on-one play), and the numbers back up this impression, as the Knicks currently stand at 107.1 points per 100 possessions, good for 13th in the league.

A closer look at the four factors shows that last season, NY was excellent at offensive rebounding (4th in oreb%) and getting to the line (1st in FT/FGA), but that these considerable strengths were completely overshadowed by below average shooting (22nd in eFG%) and unspeakably awful ballhandling (30th in TO per 100 possessions at 19.5, a full 1.4 more TO/100poss than 29th placed Boston). This season, without Brown?s constant harping about playing the right way, New York is no longer great at offensive rebounding (16th) or getting to the charity stripe (11th), and has only slightly improved its shooting (48.8 eFG%, good for 14th in the league, vs. 48.1 eFG% last season). Nonetheless, the offense has been significantly better due primarily to significantly better ball handling?so far, the Knicks have shaved off 2.3 TO per 100 possessions from their 19.5 mark last season, making them an average ballhandling club rather than a rock-bottom one.

Defensive efficiency
Brown?s regime was supposed to have marked an infusion of defensive-minded play, but the Knicks struggled on D, giving up 111.3 points per 100 possessions (26th overall). They were below average at all of the defensive 4 factors except for their merely average defensive rebounding prowess. Isiah?s Knicks are actually stingier defenders thus far than Larry?s Knicks, surrendering 107.9 points per 100 possessions (22nd). The improvement in D appears to be driven entirely by opponent eFG%, where the Knicks currently give up 48.6% (15th) rather than 51.1% (22nd); the numbers for the remaining 3 defensive factors are comparable to last season?s, with average defensive rebounding and below-average performance in terms of forcing turnovers and keeping opponents off of the free throw line.

On balance, this year?s Knicks are thus far an impressive 3.4 points per 100 possessions better on both ends of the court than last year?s squad, making their net efficiency (-0.8 points per 100 possessions) resemble that of a .500 team. Perhaps a team performing within the vicinity of .500 ball is nothing to get excited about, but it’s nonetheless a steep improvement over a team contending for the #1 lottery pick (like last year?s team, which posted a hair-raising net efficiency of -7.6 points per 100 possessions).

So although all is not roses in MSG?s hallowed boobird halls just yet, the early results point to a team that might be mildly, rather than wildly, disappointing over the course of the full season. Of course, there is still ample room for the team to breathtakingly overshoot or undershoot these tentatively drawn out early trends.

Miami’s Offense Dwindling

Coming into today’s game the Miami Heat were ranked 29th in offense in the NBA. Early in the season, you expect to see anomalies in the numbers, even when it concerns the defending champs. Judging from tonight’s results, this may not be an anomaly.

The Miami Heat managed to score only 76 points against the New York Knicks who came into the game ranked 21st on defense. New York had an 11 point lead early in the third, when Dwayne Wade was forced out of the game after picking up his 4th foul. Employee #3 came back into the game 4 minutes later, and the Knicks were up by 18 at that point. However even with their primary scorer back in the game, Miami’s offense went cold. The Heat shot 6 of 17, turned the ball over 4 times, and were outscored 23-12 in the 9 minutes before Wade exited with his 5th foul.

With O’Neal out, the main load of the offense falls on Wade. But an NBA offense needs more than one scorer, and Miami is having a hard time finding a second fiddle. Until tonight Antoine Walker was filling that role, but he’s been inconsistent his entire career. For example against the Knicks, ‘Toine shot 1 for 9 and only contributed 3 points to Miami’s total. After Walker, Miami’s offense has relied on Udonis Haslem, Gary Payton, and Alonzo Mourning. Haslem isn’t a natural scorer (read: can’t hit a jumper), while Payton and Mourning’s best decades are behind them. The Heat will hope to get some lift from Jason Williams, but White Chocolate appeared to have lost a step tonight. It could be that he’s hasn’t fully recovered from his injury, that he hasn’t been able to get into game shape, or that point guards lose their effectiveness after the age of 30 (Williams turns 32 tonight). I vote for all of the above.

It goes without saying that the Shaq-less Heat will have trouble scoring for the next 4-6 weeks. However it may be the case that even with Shaq, Miami might not be able to light up the scoreboard. Consider that Shaq was in the lineup for 4 Heat games, and the Heat only managed a offensive efficiency (points/100possessions) above the league average once. The Heat had Shaq in the lineup for their mortifying loss on opening day, where they only managed 66 points against the Bulls. O’Neal was also there when the Heat eked out 72 points against the Rockets.

While it’s a given that Miami’s offense will improve with O’Neal back on the court, at what level they’ll be is another story. The Heat have decided to “stand Pat” this offseason, and O’Neal’s injury has exposed a chink in Miami’s armor. If the over-30 crew of Walker, Williams, Posey, Payton, and Mourning start to show signs of their age, even O’Neal’s return might not be enough to resurrect the Heat’s offense.

Efficiency of Miami’s games (100*pts/possessions).

2006/10/31
CHI: 117.1
MIA:  73.4

2006/11/03
NJN: 92.5
MIA: 99.7

2006/11/05
MIA: 112.9
PHI: 120.6

2006/11/07
SEA: 96.3
MIA: 98.6

2006/11/10
MIA: 116.6
NJN: 106.8

2006/11/12
HOU: 109.2
MIA:  86.0

2006/11/14
DEN: 113.5
MIA: 111.2

2006/11/17
NYK: 115.1
MIA:  84.5