2008 Season Preview: The Backcourt & Swingmen

The Backcourt
Statistically Stephon Marbury still remains above average offensively, but he’s not nearly as productive as he used to be. The Knicks PG still is effective with his incursions to the basket, and at the latter stages of his career he’s become a better shooter. However to the eye Marbury doesn’t appear to be comfortable in Isiah’s offense. Gone are his pick & roll plays and his domination of the ball. Marbury has problems making entry passes to the low post, which is a problem considering that’s where the Knicks will look to score.

On the other hand Jamal Crawford’s familiarity with Curry allows him not only to get him the ball in the right spot, but to execute alley-oops. Statistically, Crawford hurts the Knicks with his poor shooting, and his turnover rate was just below Steve Francis’. On average Crawford missed 9 of the 15 shots he attempted per game, a staggering amount. Both Marbury and Crawford are subpar three point shooters, but neither is shy about taking one. Neither player is a spot up shooter, like in the Houston/Tucker mold. Both are more comfortable in creating their own shot than being the recipient. They don’t move well without the ball. And neither is a good rebounder.

The Knicks best scoring guard is 5’8, rebounds like he’s 6’8, and acts like he’s 4’8. Robinson won MVP of the Vegas Summer League, and played considerably well during the preseason. Compared to the starters, he shoots more efficiently, turns the ball over less, and actually rebounds. On the other hand, his immaturity and lack of height will limit his minutes. Robinson will be the Knicks third guard. Coming off the bench, he’ll bring a scoring punch either through his drives to the basket, his efficient shooting, or his new found joy of setting up his teammates. This preseason Robinson averaged almost an assist per 40 minutes above his career average.

Fighting for the remaining minutes of the Knick backcourt will be Mardy Collins and Fred Jones. While Collins is more of a one to Jones’ two, Mardy is a complete liability anytime he has to deliver the ball to the hoop. Collins’ shooting percentages are laughably bad (3p% .277, FT% .585, eFG .410, TS% .445). Meanwhile Jones is able to hit a jumpshot, but he’s not very efficient. Only his free throws average is above the league rate. Jones has had only one season where his 3p% was above the league average. To his credit he does get to the line fairly often, giving him a decent TS% (.526).

At the other end of the court Jones and Collins are the Knicks best defensive options. Last year Collins used his 6-6 frame and solid defensive footing to harass opposing guards. He’s big enough that he can guard small forwards as well. Collins is also blessed with something that most strong defenders possess: a mean streak. Remember his defensive play started the Denver brawl. Jones is an athletic player, a former slam dunk champion, who has stuck around in the league by his defense.

Nate Robinson is hindered by his size from being a great defender, but he’s a ball hawk who has good anticipation in the passing lanes. He’s also the Knicks best defender against Yao Ming. Unlike most sub-6′ guards, Nate is strong enough from being bullied in the post. Unfortunately he’s poor in fighting through screens, and I think the next time he goes over one will be his first. Meanwhile Marbury put more effort into his defense last year, but he lacks the lateral speed to keep up with quicker guards. Jamal Crawford bulked up this summer, but he’s still by far the Knicks worst defender on the perimeter.

The Swingmen
Isiah has 2 serious options at the small forward spot. When Quentin Richardson played, he was the most well rounded offensive weapon the Knicks had. Although Richardson had no holes in his game, he really didn’t excel at anything. His eFG was above the league average while his TS% was slightly below. Never a slasher, Richardson’s primary way to the free throw line was working in the post. However, he was kept off the blocks by Curry, and you would expect the same to happen this year especially with the addition of Randolph. Hence Richardson takes on the role of spot up shooter in the Knicks offense, and does an adequate job at it. Defensively he’s solid but unspectacular.

The other option Isiah has is Renaldo Balkman. Unlike Richardson, Balkman’s talents aren’t evenly distributed. In the half court he is unable to hit a jump shot, which allow defenses to leave him open on the perimeter. Nevertheless he still is able to generate offense. Balkman is excellent in transition whether it’s grabbing a rebound & starting the break or filling the wing and finishing it. In the half court set, Balkman moves well without the ball and uses his explosive leaping ability to around the basket to rebound and score. Furthermore, he’s the Knicks best defender, using his gangly frame and quickness to block shots and harass players. The only New Yorker that played 1000 minutes and averaged more than 1.0 blk/40 was Balkman.

The Knicks would be served well using the aforementioned players, but the same can’t be said of Jared Jeffries. Brought in for his defense, Jeffries scores at a lilliputian rate. He makes Balkman look like Kobe Bryant in the half court. In fact only 3 players in the league played more than 1000 minutes and scored less points per minute than Jeffries: Lorenzen Wright, DeSagana Diop, and Jason Collins. It’s not a good sign for a small forward to be compared to 3 defensive centers in terms of offensive productivity. Jeffries has one positive attribute: his offensive rebounding. But Balkman is a tiny bit better, and Renaldo scores at twice the rate.

The unknown factor at small forward is Wilson Chandler. Like Balkman, Chandler was a relative unknown but physically talented small forward. Unlike Balkman, Chandler has a jumpshot which even extends to the arc. In DePaul, Chandler shot well (eFG: 49.5%, TS: 52%), and he was even more impressive in summer league (eFG: 58.5%, TS: 56.2%). But predicting rookie performance in the NBA is a crapshoot, and a handful of preseason games aren’t enough to make any valid predictions. How much he’ll be able to contribute is unknown, but he seems to face a steep battle to earn minutes. In any case, it’s likely that Chandler will perform like most rookies, occasionally lost and a little turnover prone. Given Isiah’s clairvoyance with respect to the draft, it’s likely that Chandler be more productive than the average 23rd round pick.

2008 Season Preview: The Frontcourt

The Frontcourt
This year the New York offense will center around their big men. Last year Eddy Curry shot efficiently, and was a good rebounder on the offensive end. But he struggled to find his teammates when double teamed and turned the ball over too frequently. It’s possible that Curry was overused on offense, and was force fed the ball more than he was comfortable with. This year Zach Randolph should be able to take some of the scoring burden off of Curry. Randolph and Curry’s games overlap in many of the same areas. Both can score in the low post, both are turnover happy, and both have trouble sharing the ball with their teammates. If you want to get more granular in the comparison Randolph isn’t as efficient with his shot, but he’s a better rebounder, passer, and turns the ball over less often.

Despite Randolph’s near All Star level offensive game, it’s unclear whether he will help the offense in 2008. Zach replicates much of Curry’s game, so the law of diminishing returns comes into play. Additionally he’s taking minutes away from the last year’s most effective Knick: David Lee. The second year player was a perfect compliment to his ball-needy teammates, providing excellent rebounding and finishing around the basket. Barring an injury to Randolph or Curry, Lee will be lucky to match his 2007 average of 29.8 min/g. On the other hand, Randolph will also assume some of the minutes the team gave to Channing Frye and Malik Rose, who were horribly unproductive last year. Lee’s injury was devastating to the Knicks not only because they lost his production, but because Frye & Rose had to pick up the slack. This year the Knicks are better protected against injury with their depth.

For all the optimism on the offensive pairing of Zach Randolph with Eddy Curry, there should be an equal amount of pessimism on the defensive end. Say what you want about Channing Frye, but Frye?s blocked shot rate (0.9 BLK/40) is greater than the sum of Randolph (0.2) and Curry (0.6). Knicks on the perimeter that are looking at the front court to erase their mistakes will be sorely disappointed. It’s possible that Curry could become more aggressive in the paint. His block rate nearly halved last year as he attempted to avoid foul trouble. With a second scorer, it?s possible that Isiah isn?t as reliant on Curry to stay on the court.

If you’re looking for a silver lining defensively, Randolph was nearly 1 defensive rebound per 40 minutes better than Frye last year, so that should help the defense slightly. David Lee is an average defender, but certainly not better than that. Compared to Randolph and Curry, Lee has good foot speed, but he has trouble with bigger players. Ultimately New York will give the Milwaukee Bucks (Bogut, Villanueva, and Jianlian) a run for the money when it comes to the NBA’s worst defensive frontcourt trio.

At the end of the Knicks’ bench will be Malik Rose and Randolph Morris. Rose will see time due to his defense. He’s a shrewd and tenacious defender, but he’s physically limited what what he can accomplish. On the other end of the court Rose is an awful shooter who frequently gets stuffed underneath the basket. Undersized for his position, Rose no longer has the lift to score down low. Ironically Rose’s best asset on the offensive end is his ability to pass the ball into the post, something the guards have trouble doing.

Nearly the opposite of Rose is Morris. At 6-10, Morris is able to play either forward or center, and only has 43 minutes of NBA action under his belt. In the summer he was able to face up players on the blocks and shoot from 12 feet. We’re still unsure exactly what his strengths and weaknesses are, but this year we should get the chance to find out. Jerome James will eat up a roster spot and anything with 3 feet of his mouth.

A Layman’s Guide to Advanced NBA Statistics

This guide is intended for those that are interested in modern basketball statistics. In order to make it more accessible, I’ve decided to forgo the formulas and numbers. At times both fans and journalists alike struggle to use stats when it comes to basketball. Often enough, their interpretation is inadequate because they don’t have the right stats to explain what is happening on the court. Even worse is when stats are used improperly to arrive at the wrong conclusion.

Over the past few years basketball statisticians have learned a lot about the game. While most of it is based on the same stats you would see in boxscores, the findings go far beyond traditional stats. Evaluation on the team level is the most reliable aspect of basketball statistical analysis. In other words, we’re very sure what factors lead a team to victory. Although statisticians aren’t exactly sure how player stats equates to wins, there are many ways to better evaluate individuals than the classical stats.

Team Stats

What You Need to Know
When looking at team stats it’s important to understand that some teams play faster than others which skews their per game stats. Faster paced teams will get more chances to score per game, solely because they have more opportunities. It’s similar to two NFL RBs, both with 1000 yards rushing, but one had 300 attempts and the other only 200 attempts. In this case it’s not enough to know the totals, instead you have to account for the difference in the number of opportunities. The same applies for team stats.

So in lieu of viewing how a team performs per game, we calculate how a team does per possession. What’s a possession? A possession ends when a team gives the ball to the other team, usually through a score, a turnover, or a missed shot recovered by the defense. By using points per possession, we’re looking at how many points a team scores when they have the ball on offense. This is called offensive efficiency or offensive rating, and is measured in points per 100 possessions. Basically offensive efficiency answers the question “if this team had the ball 100 times, how many points would it score?” Similarly we can rate defenses by calculating how many points a team allows per possession, called defensive efficiency or defensive rating.

But it doesn’t stop there. We can break down what aspects of the game contributes to those rankings. Offense (or defense) is broken down into 4 crucial factors: shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throws. Shooting is by far the most important factor and is best measured by eFG% which is a better version of FG% (see “Shooting” below). Next come turnovers and rebounding which are about equal to each other, but less valuable than shooting percentage. Like points, turnovers are measured per possession (how many times you cough the ball up when you have it). Rebounding is measured by percentage of missed shots recovered. This is so teams that shoot poorly (have lots of misses to recover) are judged on an even platform with teams that can shoot. Last and least is free throw shooting. This is measured by free throw shots made per shot attempt.

In 50 Words or Less
Throw away points per game for team stats. Instead use offensive efficiency (or defensive efficiency), which is basically how many points a team would score in 100 possessions. Team stats are broken in four factors: shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws. You can find these stats on basketball-reference (search for “Points Per 100 Possessions” and “Four Factors” on the team pages) and my stat site.

Examples Why
In 2006, Portland ranked 18th in points allowed per game, which means they should have been slightly worse than average. However they finished a paltry 21-61 that year. Their defense wasn’t adequately measured by points allowed per game, because they played at the league’s third slowest pace. Ranked by defensive efficiency they were 29th, which would make their 21 win season more understandable. Of course there’s the 1991 Denver Nuggets.

More Please
Dean Oliver (Points Per Possessions): http://www.rawbw.com/~deano/helpscrn/rtgs.html
Dean Oliver (Four Factors): http://www.rawbw.com/~deano/articles/20040601_roboscout.htm
Kevin Pelton: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/factors050127.html
Basketball-Reference: http://www.basketball-reference.com/about/factors.html

Player Stats

What You Need to Know
Without a doubt per minute stats are more important that per game stats. This is because per minute stats makes valid comparisons between players of varying minutes. Using per game stats in the NBA is like using hits/game in MLB. In 2007 Michael Young averaged 1.29 hits/game to David Ortiz’ 1.22, but Young’s batting average was only .315 to Ortiz’ .332. Young had more hits because he had more at bats (639 to 549), not because he was a better contact hitter. Similarly you might find that one basketball player has better per game stats, but if he had more minutes then the comparison is invalid. Only per minute stats will clarify which player is truly better in a category.

The common notation for per-minute stats is using per 40 minute stats. This is because it’s easier to visualize 2.3 blk/40 min instead of 0.0575 blk/min. Measuring basketball stats per 40 minutes is similar to measuring earned runs per 9 IP in baseball (ERA). One thing to note, unlike ERA in baseball, basketball players’ per-minute stats stay the same despite their playing time. So while baseball relievers have lower ERAs than starters, the same is not true in basketball. Additionally this doesn’t mean a player should play 40 minutes, just as using ERA doesn’t mean that a pitcher should pitch a full 9 innings. It’s just a fair way to compare players.

In 50 Words or Less
Throw out a player’s per game stats, and look at per-minute stats instead. Per minute stats are usually measured per 40 minutes. Study, after study, after study shows a player’s per minute production to stay the same despite how many minutes they play. You can find them at basketball-reference for historical data, or my stat page for the current season.

Examples Why
Some examples of players that had good per minute numbers, but poor per game numbers due to a lack of playing time: Ben Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Gerald Wallace, and Michael Redd. Throw in a point guard, and that’s a pretty good team.

More Please
Kevin Pelton’s Stat Primer: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/stats101.html
The Basketball Notebook’s Primer: http://basketballnotebook.blogspot.com/2005/12/basketball-notebook-stats-primer.html

Shooting

Another stat that should be replaced is FG%. Why? Field goal percentage doesn’t account for the scoring bonus in a three point shot, which is a lower percentage shot. Sharp shooter Kyle Korver’s career FG% (as of 2007) is a lowly 41.3%. If FG% rates a good shooter like Korver so poorly, then it’s obviously not a good stat to use. So replace FG% with eFG% (effective field goal percentage), which compensates for the extra point in a three point shot. Korver’s eFG% is a more robust 53.6%.

But eFG% isn’t the only statistic used to measure a shooter. True Shooting Percentage (TS%) accounts not only for three pointers, but free throws made as well. For instance a player that hits a layup, gets fouled, and hits the extra point is more valuable than the guy that just sinks a jumper. To compare players with respect to their total scoring contribution, this is the stat to use.

In 50 Words or Less
Field goal percentage (FG%) should be replaced by eFG% or TS%. Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) compensates properly for three pointers, while true shooting percentage (TS%) compensates for three pointers and free throws.

Examples Why
Well I used Kyle Korver above, but otherwise you can look at any player that takes a large amount of three pointers or gets (and converts) a lot of free throws. Players like Kevin Martin, Jason Kapono, Manu Ginobili, and Shawn Marion come to mind as players who are misrepresented by FG%.

More please
Kevin Pelton’s Stat Primer: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/stats101.html
The Basketball Notebook’s Primer: http://basketballnotebook.blogspot.com/2005/12/basketball-notebook-stats-primer.html

Overall Player Value

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not exactly clear exactly how to calculate a player’s worth. However there are 3 main stats that have attempted to give a single number to represent a player’s total contribution. The first and most prevalent is Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Created by John Hollinger, it attempts to take add up the good things, subtract the bad things, and account for team pace and minutes played. It’s normalized to 15, which means the average player in the league scores a 15 PER. The league’s best players are around 30, while the worst are in the single digits. Following Hollinger is economist Dave Berri (and friends) who came up with Wins Produced and it’s cousin Win Score. Unlike Hollinger who chose his equation, Berri and co. statistically derived what factors went into Wins Produced.

But both stats have their weaknesses. According to Wins Produces, PER tends to overrate players that score a lot of points, but do so inefficiently (poor shooting numbers). Meanwhile PER says that Wins Produced overrate strong rebounders that score infrequently. Additionally since they both rely on box score stats, neither captures actions that occur outside of the stat sheet. For instance Bruce Bowen plays tough defense and forces Kobe Bryant to take a bad shot that Tim Duncan rebounds. The stat sheet will record Duncan’s rebound and Kobe’s missed shot, but Bowen doesn’t get any credit for his defense.

One stat that does capture Bowen’s effort is plus/minus stats. Currently kept by Roland Beech, +/- comes in a few different flavors. Among the most popular are offensive and defensive +/-, which measure how a team does with the player on the court. Also Roland Rating and net +/- attempt to evaluate a player’s value. However plus/minus doesn’t just capture than the individual effort, it captures the value of his teammates as well. When Bowen and Duncan prevent the Lakers from scoring not only do they get credit for the effort, everyone else on the court gets the credit as well.

In 50 Words or Less
Trying to create a player’s total worth using a single number isn’t highly reliable. But if you need to use one, you can try PER, Wins Produced, or +/-. Each has their strengths & weaknesses and are only good to begin a discussion, not end one.

Examples Why
The biggest hole in statstical analysis is defensive stats. Blocks, rebounds, and steals aren’t enough to tell the whole story on what happens on defense. Players who excel in this area of the court usually have strong defensive +/-, like Bruce Bowen (-9.6). However these numbers tend to fluctuate based on the strength of the team. A player that spends a lot of time on the court with strong defensive players will have their defensive +/- inflated.

More please
Kevin Pelton’s Stat Primer: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/stats101.html
What is PER?: http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?id=2850240
Dave Berri’s Site: http://dberri.wordpress.com/2006/05/21/simple-models-of-player-performance/
Roland Rating: http://www.82games.com/rolandratings0405.htm
Adjusted +/-: http://www.82games.com/ilardi1.htm
Online & Downloadable +/- stats: http://basketballvalue.com/index.php

Knicks Waive Jordan, Nichols, and Russell

The Jerome James fanclub has rejoiced!


NEW YORK, October 25, 2007 ? New York Knickerbockers President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Isiah Thomas announced today that guards Jared Jordan, Demetris Nichols and Walker Russell, Jr. have been waived.

Jordan 6-2, 190-pounds, averaged 4.5 minutes in six preseason games, Nichols, 6-8, 215-pounds, averaged 7.8 minutes in five preseason games and Russell, 6-0, 170-pounds, averaged 5.0 minutes in three preseason games.

The preseason roster now stands at 15.

What COULD You Get For Curry?

Okay, yes, I know, I know, Isiah Thomas would never in a gazillion years trade Eddy Curry, as too much of Isiah’s identity in New York is wrapped around acquiring Eddy Curry. The Suns could call and say, “We want to become a post-up team, we’ll give you Shawn Marion for Curry,” and Isiah would likely counter, “Only if you toss in Amare.”

But if you’ve been following the pre-season, you can just tell – the Knicks just plain ol’ look much better when Curry is not on the floor, as was the case once again in tonight’s 103-90 victory over the 76ers. Read More

Wanted: Your Fantasy Sleepers

Folks, I’ve just agreed to join a private fantasy league on short notice that was short a guy. The draft is Friday night and I don’t have much time to assemble a sleeper list. So I’m looking for your help. I’m looking for
* Players that are going to see a big jump in minutes this year due to trades, injuries, etc.
* Youngsters (23 or less) that might just turn the corner.
* Players undervalued by the default Yahoo pre-draft rankings.

I’ve got a couple, but I won’t publish them until after the draft (in case some of my league-mates are KB readers.) Thanks in advance!

2007 Preseason Game 5

Don’t have time for a full write up. Just some quick hits:

  • It was almost another one of those games. Boston started off on a 7-0 run, but I have to give credit to the Knick starters. They held in there & took a first quarter lead. Lee & Robinson also saw time with the first unit (for Curry & Crawford). At that point, that’s just about what a statistician might make the lineup (Marbury, Robinson, Richardson, Lee, Randolph).
  • I actually liked the second quarter team. Nate, Marbury, Jeffries, Lee, Rose. Robinson ran the point, and did a great job. He hit Rose and Jeffries for easy scores, and helped tear up the Celtics defense. On the other side of the court, the defense held up well. If Nate shows that he can run an offense & get other players involved (which he did well in the summer league & the preseason so far) this is a fantastic idea. Bring out your best defensive four, and let Robinson provide the scoring. You could also replace Jeffries or Marbury with Balkman, and Rose with Chandler (who leads the team in blocks this preseason). That would really be one athletic team with the ability to cleanup their misses.
  • The Celtics had no answer for Robinson all night. He scored 20 points on 13 shots in only 27 minutes. Robinson also had 9 rebounds. But the most impressive stat: 4 assists 0 turnovers.
  • There was certainly some animosity tonight. Curry seemed upset early (at Scalabrine?). He seems to be touchy about his shoulder this preseason. Professional sports are like the finale of the Karate Kidd – if you have an injury – be sure to know that’ll be the first place your opponent is going to hit you. Robinson got shoved in the face. Jamal Crawford almost got into a tussle. Keep a mental note of this when the two teams meet in the regular season.
  • David Lee had a nice game. Curry was limited due to foul trouble (17 min), which opened the door for Lee. Early on he lost a rebound to Powe, but he ended up with 14 boards for the evening. One of them was an offensive rebound with :44 seconds left and the Knicks trying to cling to a 4 point lead. Richardson scored 3 points, but had 3 blocks. It’s one of the positives of playing good defense. You can be productive even if your shot isn’t going down. Randolph had 23 points on 15 shots, despite playing most of the game being guarded by Garnett. He also had 5 steals.