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.

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.