I Was a Witness… to a Palace Coup

I believe that it is extremely rare to be able to truthfully claim that a single player, for all practical purposes, won or lost a game. Thursday night was one of those rare occasions. Lebron was scintillating in game five by any measure, but when compared to his teammates his performance was truly unbelievable. Listen to these lines. No, really. Read them out loud and just let them marinate for a moment. Pavlovic 2-10 in 42 minutes, Gooden 3-10 in 28, Hughes 2-3 in 29:15, and Gibson 2-7 in 30:25. There were lengthy stretches of the 4th quarter and the overtimes where there were literally no other Cavs on the floor worth guarding, yet Lebron was still scoring. The Lebrons, with the exception of Ilgauskas and Varajao (whose FG defense on Wallace has been pretty doggone good, though he did foul Wallace late in the game), really ought to donate half their game checks–the offensive half–to charity, lest they face indictments for embezzlement.

I wonder two things about Detroit.

1. Why aren’t the Pistons running at every opportunity?

Detroit actually out-rebounded Cleveland in the game 45-39 but managed to take two fewer shots. They have chosen to play 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust against Cleveland. Why? I’m not suggesting that the Pistons should turn into Phoenix, but one of the “secrets” of Detroit’s success is their ability to vary pace; to play fast or slow based on the opponent or the circumstances of a given game. In game 5 Detroit never–it appeared to me–looked to get Cleveland in transition. They fell in love with the post-up game for reasons I have a difficult time understanding.

2. Will someone throw Flip Saunders under the proverbial bus again this year?

If someone does I have to say I see some justification. I don’t think you can run traps at a hot player every single time but I think at end-of-game situations you have to get the ball out of his hands early. Virtually every time Detroit did that in the 2nd half the ball eventually found its way to Pavlovic and he did something dreadful with it. Of course, having said that, it’s hard to believe that Flip designed a defense to allow Lebron to run to the front of the rim and dunk it or lay it in. (Though that pseudo-matchup zone thing Detroit ran where Lebron sliced through for two dunks and a layup comes pretty close.)

Knicks 2007 Report Card (A to Z): Renaldo Balkman

With the Knicks 2007 season in the books, we will evaluate one player every Monday.

KnickerBlogger: Renaldo Balkman’s arrival in New York wasn’t without it’s controversy. Press and fans alike roasted Isiah Thomas over the pick, who added fuel to the fire with comparisons to Dennis Rodman. But slowly, the Staten Island native began to win Knick fans over. Balkman’s first breakout game was Nov 15th against the Wizards, in which he had 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks. After that game, a KB commenter said “Balkman probably won?t score this well very often, but his defense and rebounding are pretty dependable. If he does learn to be even an average scorer, he?ll be a special player for years to come.” Although Balkman’s minutes fluctuated throughout the season, he brought his high energy game on the floor each time.

Renaldo Balkman is an athletic player that can fill up every area of a boxscore. Per 40 minutes he averages approximately 2 blocks, steals, turnovers, and assists. He’s a strong rebounder on both ends of the floor, his 11.1 reb/40 was second on the Knicks only to the marvelous David Lee (13.9 reb/40). When grabbing a rebound, Balkman is able to bring it up the floor quickly giving the Knicks an opportunity to score in transition. Defensively Balkman looks well not only by traditional methods (steals and blocks), but by modern methods and to the naked eye. The Knicks were an astounding 9.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Balkman on the floor. Like Tayshaun Prince, Balkman’s freakishly long reach and leaping ability allows him to make up for mistakes, both his own and his teammates. However Balkman doesn’t have Prince’s one-on-one shut down ability.

Unfortunately Balkman does have his weaknesses, and they are all on the offensive end. The Knicks’ forward has no ability to score in the half court set with the ball. Balkman can’t hit a jump shot from any range, nor does he seem to be able to beat his man off the dribble, nor does he have any post game, nor can he hit a free throw. Even Jared Jeffries has his “Jeffrightened” post move. Balkman’s offense relies on other players. He moves exceptionally well without the ball, is always looking to get an offensive rebound, and can finish strongly around the hoop.

Balkman finished third on the team in PER and second in WP/48 combined with his strong +/- showed that he had a successful year. Considering it was a rookie campaign from a late round pick, it’s hard to be too harsh on Balkman.

KnickerBlogger’s Grade: A-

2008 Outlook: Balkman needs to work on his half court game. If he doesn’t develop a jump shot, some kind of driving ability, or a post up game, he’ll be stuck as a 7th/8th man. If I were Balkman, I would either ask Quentin Richardson for some low post tips, or head to Bruce Bowen’s corner for a few hours every day.


Dave Crockett: Ditto Mike’s comments with one addition. Balkman’s natural inclination is to grab a defensive board and push the ball. New York should do much more of that. What I’d like to see from him this summer is work on a mid-range jump shot. I think a three point shot may be a bit down the road for him. Bruce Bowen was in the league a lot of years before he developed that shot.

Brian Cronin: I have to differ with Mike slightly on the grading, if only because I am a bit less willing to give Balkman a “mulligan” for being picked so late in the first round.

I will gladly give Isiah Thomas an A- for the pick, as it has turned out to be a great pick (and might I please point out that I backed up Zeke right from the start, saying that I had faith in his pick), but while Balkman’s rate stats are quite good, the room for improvement in his shot and his free throws are just so glaring, I don’t see myself looking at the guy as a “nearly complete” player, which I think an A- would indicate. So I am going with a B.

Check this stat out…

Even though he missed the last, what, month and a half, of last season, Jamal Crawford still ended up ranked third in the league over the past four seasons (thanks, Jon!) in “game-winning” field goal attempts , defined by 82games by as shot attempts in the last 24 seconds that can tie a game or put a team ahead (the shooting team is tied or behind by one or two points) (Hollinger printed the list in his latest Insider Column)!!!

I know it SEEMED like he was always taking possible game-winning shots, but I was still taken aback to see that he attempted possible game-winning shots THIRTY-FOUR times the last four years, including a whopping FIFTEEN this past season alone!

Only Kobe and Vince Carter took more attempts (although the also oft-injured Joe Johnson was right behind Crawford with 33).

Crawford, by the by, made 9 of the 34 shots, good for 26% (higher than Kobe’s 10 for 43, for what it’s worth).

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On a separate note, the NBA really, really needs to re-seed. They’re the only major sport that does not re-seed (that can, as MLB cannot re-seed, as they only have two rounds before the World Series), and their reasons just aren’t good enough to outweigh the drawbacks.

Reconstructing the Draft

In the last post I argued that the NBA draft is not broken, despite recent complaints about the manner in which it gives bad teams incentive to tank and the manner in which it does not always distribute talent evenly according to record. In fact, in the lottery system there must a tradeoff whereby these opposing flaws are balanced against eachother. Most would agree that it is not acceptable to let tanking run rampant by assigning draft order strictly by record, or to disregard team needs by assigning draft order completely randomly. The trick is to find the best happy medium by considering the severity of each flaw and weighting the system accordingly.

I do believe that the current balance of power between tanking and equitable distribution of talent enforced by the draft lottery is a pretty good one. The system does a good job of reducing the competitive advantage to be had by tanking while simultaneously distributing talent more or less according to need.

Still, that doesn?t mean that the system is perfect, and there has been no shortage of interesting discussion regarding various ways in which the draft ordering process could be improved. (My favorite move so far, suggested independently by John Hollinger and our own Mike K, is to determine draft order by team records around the All-Star game, rather than at the end of the season, in order to discourage tanking.)

Without further ado, allow me to throw my hat into the ring. My plan has 3 independent considerations. It all adds up to a somewhat complex plan that departs from the lottery process entirely, so something like this will not be implemented by the NBA any time soon. However, any one of the three components suggested here could be individually incorporated into the current lottery system, and I think they all make good sense.

I will use the term ?draft score? to refer to some number assigned to each team that determines draft pick ordering. A higher draft score amounts to a higher draft pick. One can think of the current system as assigning draft score purely as a function of team winning percentage, with some weighted randomization introduced by the lottery process. I follow the basic convention of computing draft score by team winning percentage, but suggest 3 modifications.

1. Take conference into account

One of the much-bemoaned consequences of the 2007 lottery is that it seems to have exacerbated the imbalance of power between the Eastern and Western conferences. The West has already been significantly better than the East for years now, and now they are adding not one, but two players who are unanimously held to be franchise talents. It seems as if, before you know it, the East?s top 3 playoff teams will be on a par with the West?s bottom 3. (Actually, sadly enough, it is arguably only the presence of the Pistons that definitively falsifies that statement this year.)

What is going on here? One contributing factor is that, because of the competitive imbalance that already exists, records across conferences are not directly comparable. A .500 record in the West indicates much better team quality than does a .500 record in the East, for example.

Draft seedings should take this disparity into account by adjusting each team?s draft score according to the average quality of its opponents. One method by which this might be accomplished would be to make draft score a function of RPI rather than overall winning percentage. In brief, RPI is a function of a team?s own record, the record of the team?s opponents, and the record of the team?s opponents? opponents. RPI was originally developed so that NCAA teams could more readily be compared, but it can serve our purposes here as well.

Observe the rankings for the NBA?s 10 worst teams by win % and RPI for the 2007 NBA season (t-N indicates that a team was tied for rank N):

win % RPI rank change
Memphis
Boston
Milwaukee
Seattle
Atlanta
Minnesota (t-6)
Portland (t-6)
New York (t-7)
Charlotte (t-7)
Sacramento (t-7)
Boston
Memphis
Milwaukee
Atlanta
Charlotte
New York
Seattle
Portland (t-8)
Philadelphia (t-8)
Indiana
+1
-1
0
+1
+2
+1
-3
-2
+3
+3

The effect of ranking by RPI is to shift a number of Eastern conference teams ahead in the line, while also knocking back teams in the Western conference like Seattle and Portland. (But, also note that God-awful Memphis still manages to stay near the top of the heap.)

I have to admit I am not intimately familiar with how RPI works, and it may be that there are superior formulations that control for quality of competition. Nonetheless, whatever the measure turns out to be, something along these lines should be implemented so that teams? rankings are not obscured by how good (or bad) their opponents are. The current system is biased towards perpetuating the pre-existing competitive imbalance between conferences.

2. Take within-season consistency of play into account

Creating a draft score by team record (adjusted for opponent quality) is good and dandy, but there are still some lingering issues. One is the specter of tanking. Another is the anomalous case where a team?s record takes a nose-dive due to injuries to key players in midseason.

For both tanking and freak injuries, we might want to deduct points from a team?s draft score because the team record is artificially driven down by foul play or mere circumstance, rather than purely reflecting the team?s overall quality. (Presumably we want to distribute talent in order to compensate for talent-deprived rosters rather than to compensate for bad luck.) And in both cases, the tell-tale sign that should manifest is that at some point in the season, the team in question begins to lose at a higher clip than it did during the rest of the season.

The basic idea, then, would be to counterbalance the draft score credit given for overall poor play with a draft score penalty for periods of time in which the team played significantly worse than their season average. There are a number of ways the spirit of such a provision might be implemented. For instance, we might split the season into 10 equal segments (throwing out the last 2 games) and calculate a team?s RPI in each segment. (Using RPI or a similar measure should control for variation in the quality of opposition faced in each segment.) For each 8 game segment in which the team?s RPI is below its season RPI, deduct points from the team?s overall draft score by an amount proportional to the difference between season RPI and segment RPI.

A provision like this would directly work against tanking. When a team tanks, there is a period of time in which it plays significantly worse than its usual pace. The effect of tanking on a team?s overall record would result in a gain of some extra draft score points. However, the sudden dip in quality of play would result in a loss of draft score points. Ultimately, the tanking game simply wouldn?t pay.

Likewise, teams would not benefit just because of bad luck with regard to injuries. For instance, the Knicks played at a .500 pace for much of the season, but fell off sharply at the end due to injuries to key players like Lee and Crawford. Thus, the draft ranking that they ultimately received was out of whack with the type of team they were for most of the season, before mere circumstance intervened. Had they actually been able to use it, the 9th pick in the draft arguably would have been a slightly unfair reward for the Knicks. Deducting points from the Knicks? draft score by an amount proportionate to the degree to which that injury plagued late season swoon was below season-long standards would have resulted in a more equitable draft positioning.

One legitimate worry about this idea is that it might discourage teams from improving as the season goes on, because (using the specific implementation described above) such improvement would raise the team?s season RPI and thus increase the penalty incurred for those portions of the season with RPI lower than season RPI. An easy solution would be to give teams bonus draft score points for improving over the course of the season. Alternatively, depending on how the idea is specifically implemented, the concern mentioned here might not be salient enough to give sufficient incentive against improvement in the first place.

3. Take between-season consistency of play into account

This idea suggests that draft considerations should not be given solely on the basis of one season?s outcome. Some teams are bad for a long, long time, and for whatever reason find it difficult to crawl back to respectability. Other teams are new additions to the non-playoff club, fresh off of some period of years of relative success in the league and now on the inevitable downward trend, e.g. due to losing players to retirement or free agency. Still other teams have been good and still are good, but are just coming off one unusually bad season because of key injuries or other unfortunate circumstances. (I?m looking at you, 1996-97 Spurs.)

Should each of these types of teams be given equal draft standing? My intuition says no. For the sake of parity and for the sake of the quality of life of all those long-suffering fans, I would say that a .300 team that has been bad for years should get better draft prospects than a .300 team that has fallen from the grace of a recent playoff run (all else being equal). And both of those teams should get better draft prospects than an elite team that just stumbles to .300 for one season due to unfortunate circumstances.

The basic way to implement this consideration is as follows. Calculate a team?s draft score for the most recent season. Then add draft scores from some set number of previous seasons, weighting draft scores from each previous season less heavily the more distant in time they are. The cumulative draft score for each team is what determines draft ordering. For instance, a team?s cumulative draft score for the 2007 season might be something like DraftScore(2007) + (0.4 * DraftScore(2006)) + (0.2 * DraftScore(2005)).

One obvious rejoinder to this idea is that some teams are just disasters and don?t deserve the extra help; they?ve been this bad for this long simply because of horrendous management. The latter day Clippers and current day Hawks come to mind. But these especially poorly run teams teams would not be differentially benefited so long as the number of previous seasons used in the calculation of draft score were kept reasonably low, e.g. 3 years. Even teams that are run well inevitably suffer periods of 2 or 3 years of pain before beginning to recover when times get tough. The main idea is to give these teams that are ?between eras,? so to speak, a little more consideration than teams that have just completed an era, or teams that are still in the middle of one.

Is the NBA Draft Broken?

With the dust of the 2007 NBA lottery beginning to settle, two lines of complaint are fresh in the media and fans? collective consciousness:

1. Something is wrong with the draft because it encourages tanking.
2. Something is wrong with the draft because the top picks do not always go to the worst teams.

The implicit irony in the whole situation is that these flaws are not independent. At one end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (2) by assigning draft order strictly by record. But this system maximizes worries about (1) because it gives every non-playoff team every incentive to do their very worst.

At the other end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (1) by assigning draft order completely randomly, say by pulling all 30 team names out of a hat one by one. But this system maximizes worries about (2) because it completely disregards the notion that talent should be distributed according to need.

It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a draft system to eliminate all worries about both (1) and (2); rather, some compromise between the opposing injustices must be struck based on the relative ?moral? weight we assign them. In this case, we can?t both have the absolute greatest taste and the absolute least filling, but we can at least try to find the best balance.

So we must ask, then, which is the graver sin: to encourage teams to tank, or to risk giving the riches to the already rich (or, at least, the lower middle class)? In my mind, it?s no contest. It is worse to fail to give the best talents to the teams that most need them.

Think about it. Because playoff seedings give most teams a reason to remain competitive throughout most of the season, tanking only takes hold for the bottom third of the NBA universe, the part that wasn?t good to begin with. Furthermore, tanking is a tricky game because you can?t be too obvious about it, which in turn limits the extent to which you can actually tank in an effective fashion. The most effective tanking strategy would be for a team to play its five worst players for all 48 minutes of every game, but of course public pressure against deliberately losing prevents teams from deploying anything nearing such a fail-safe tanking method. For the same reason, any outright directives to coaches or players to, you know, not try so hard are taboo– in the not unlikely event that such explicit directives are leaked to the media, you?re sitting on a PR disaster for the ages. Likewise, funny business about who plays how many minutes can only be brought into play in the latter stages of the season without raising too many eyebrows.

So, in reality, what tanking comes down to is this: a handful of the NBA?s worst teams may decline to play a handful of their better players for a handful of games (or fourth quarters) in the last third or quarter of the season. Sure, in principle it violates sportsmanlike ethics, but in practice it doesn?t seem too outrageously bad, does it? Fans of said tanking team only have to sit through play over the final stages of the season that, on average, is marginally worse than the poor play they had already been sitting through all season. As compensation, in the short term they get to see their team?s youth play and in the long term their team gets marginally better prospects for a better talent in the draft. In the grand scheme of things, this may not be ethically ideal, but it does not strike me as a huge quandary either. It is maybe on a par with a poor-salaried cubicle worker striking back at the system by stealing office supplies every now and then– a regrettable attitude that is antithetical to the ideals of the profession, but which nonetheless entails relatively benign consequences.

On the other hand, failing to give the neediest teams the best new talent is, in the NBA world, a crime of the highest order. In basketball, one singular talent can be the difference maker for a franchise for over a decade, as Knicks fans know all too well. A team?s legacy and place in basketball history, as well as an entire basketball era in the lives of thousands of current and yet-to-be fans, may depend on the team securing that singular talent. These are the things that make basketball, as a sporting institution, go ?round. And in a just world we?d like for those wellsprings of basketball life to go to the teams and fans that have longest been deprived of them.

So, if we must strike a compromise between a system that encourages tanking and a system that encourages equitable distribution of talent, it should certainly hedge considerably toward equitable distribution of talent.

But, strangely enough, I?m not so sure that the current system really is broken. The implicit social constraints on just how much a team can tank limits just how many wins a team can shave from its record, and the way the lottery system works ultimately limits the impact of those shaved wins on draft standing. In an ESPN Insider article written back in March, John Hollinger figured that a tanking team is liable to drop at most 5 games due to its (socially constrained) tanking efforts, which on average boosts a team?s chances at the top pick by only 6 percentage points. That is the best case tanking scenario; most are not even that dramatic in terms of wins sacrificed or percentage points gained.

Likewise, the current system does a reasonably good job of allowing for equitable distribution of talent. There is a fairly considerable amount of volatility at the top, but only true bottom feeders are really in contention. (Although the 3 worst teams all dropped out of the top 3 slots this year in an already infamous upset, it is hard to argue that the teams that managed to move up are substantially less needing or deserving of those top picks.) And, because only the top 3 picks are up for lottery grabs, it is ensured that a lottery team will select no lower than 3 spots below its ranking according to record, which is an effective way to limit the volatility of the lottery process and ensure equitable distribution of drafting opportunities across the map.

On the whole, the system seems reasonably well balanced, given the inherent compromises that must be made. An argument can be made that the system should be tweaked to either further discourage tanking or to assign draft order more systematically according to record, but I get the feeling that calls for such tweaks are overreactions to extraordinary circumstances. Where have these complaints been the last 10 years? So much attention has been called both to tanking and to the worst teams losing the best picks simply because there is so much talent at the very top of this draft class, and thus so much at stake. This is a historically unusual situation that, because of its potential to alter the NBA landscape for the next 10 years, makes the injustices on both sides of the current lottery compromise seem more pronounced, more unjust, and more in need of change. But to shift the compromise and change one injustice for the better is to change the other for the worse, and it?s not clear that, on the whole, the system isn?t already settled on a reasonable balance.

On Cloud Nine

The lottery has passed, and it really could not have gone much better for the Knicks fans than what transpired Tuesday night.

The order?

1. Portland
2. Seattle
3. Atlanta
4. Memphis
5. Boston
6. Milwaukee
7. Minnesota
8. Charlotte
9. Chicago
10. Sacramento
11. Atlanta
12. Philadelphia
13. New Orleans
14. L.A. Clippers

Not only do the Bulls stay put at #9, but the Celtics dramatically fell to FIFTH in the draft, the worst POSSIBLE scenario for Boston, which, actually, as much as I didn’t want Oden or Durant in the Knicks’ division, I still felt kinda bad for the Celtics. I mean, FIFTH?!? That’s rough.

Not as rough as Memphis, which really didn’t even tank this season, and yet fell all the way to FOURTH.

Atlanta made out like a bandit, sneaking up one spot to avoid giving their pick to Phoenix, but also seeing Indiana FAIL to move up, thereby giving Atlanta’ Indiana’s pick. That is huge for Atlanta. However, as someone (Hollinger?) joked, they will probably use both picks on 6’9″ swing men.

Good night for Knicks fans, even if most of the “joy” comes from sour grapes.