Statistical Analysis. Humor. Knicks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In Praise of Variance, or, A Response to Bill Reiter

When I woke up this morning, I, like almost every college student I know, immediately checked my Twitter. After a few minutes I stumbled across a retweet of Bill Reiter’s column on Fox Sports, (which you can read here) wherein it was revealed that he has a, shall we say, “less than favorable” opinion of the Knicks’ postseason chances. Now, anyone picking the Knicks as a favorite against the Heat at this point would be out of their minds (which perhaps explains why I havn’t seen a single person make that claim,) but what Bill was specifically arguing against was the logic that, if a team were to spring an upset, the most likely culprit would be the Knicks. And, to be frank, I didn’t particularly agree with his reasoning, which led me to tweet the following.

 

A bit brash, perhaps. Call it the curse of being a college student, with a dollop of senioritis thrown in for good measure. Twitter can be an interesting place to have disagreements, and bruised feelings occasionally prevail. (I remember quite well how upset some writers got about disagreements over the labor negotiations last year.) However, Bill (to his credit) was nice enough to respond in a jovial manner, and because Columbia doesn’t have class on Fridays, and I didn’t feel like watching the Celtics occupy my school’s gym, writing a short response seemed like the best use of a cloudy afternoon on the Upper West Side.

Celtics at Columbia

Celtics at Columbia

There was the normal amount of narrative thrown into Bill’s article- cue references to the team being built for “New York and its bright, bright lights, not the playoffs” and consisting of “all flash and fashion.” Putting aside the fact that in narrative-world I could argue that being built for success under the lights would help, not hurt, a team when the pressure increased in the playoffs, the simple fact remains that, given the Heat’s dominance, it would take something truly astonishing to knock them off. (NB: I have always and will continue to consider NBA team nicknames plural nouns, even when they lack an s.) Anyone evaluating the possibility for an upset needs to ask themselves: can you imagine the Pacers doing something truly “astonishing?”

Trust me, I wish the Knicks’ defense was as good as that of the Pacers, and I’m terrified of playing Raymond Felton major minutes against a Miami team that potent on the perimeter. But the exact element that Reiter seems to appreciate about the Pacers- their consistency- dooms them to losing against the Heat in a fairly predictable manner. They simply don’t have the potential for the offensive explosion that would be required to top the Heat’s own formidable defense.

Thinking about March Madness can help illustrate this point. In a single-elimination tournament, the best way for a team to spring an upset is to experience the fortunate statistical anomaly of a hot streak from three. (A real upset, not an “upset” that results from seeding errors on the part of the selection committee.) In a seven game series, the chance that a team will experience shooting hot enough to overcome a superior team four times is obviously small, which is why I’m not suggesting that you put your money on the Knicks as Eastern Conference champs. But that doesn’t change the basic formula that, injuries aside, the most probable way for an inferior team to defeat a superior opponent is to ride their three point shooting. And everyone agrees that both the Knicks and the Pacers are inferior to the Heat this season. Simply put, I see no scenario under which the Heat are upset by a team that isn’t shooting above at least 38% from three.

And there are a number of factors that seem to demonstrate that Reiter’s argument that close-outs and playoff D will negatively impact three point percentage should worry the Pacers as much as, if not more than, the Knicks. (Regardless of whether or not one thinks that is a solid argument.) First, Bill calls the Knicks 27-23 record while shooting less than 40% from three “pedestrian;” I wonder why he feels that distinguishes them from the Pacers own 29-25 record when they shot less than 40% from three. (Yes, the Knicks actually won a slightly higher percentage of their games while shooting under 40% from 3, at 54.1% as compared to 53.7% for the Pacers.) Second, his belief that relying on plus 40% shooting from three should be incredible hard to maintain- “that 40-percent mark is a rate only eight teams have shot over the course of season”- should also worry the Pacers, as, exactly like the Knicks, the Pacers only beat the Heat this season when they shot over 40% from 3. Even their loss- by 14pts- had them at a robust 37%. The Knicks sole loss to the Heat was by only 6pts in a game in which they shot 27% from 3 (on 29 attempts!) Additionally, what I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle is that the point differentials in the Miami wins were so large that the Knicks could have shot a worse % from 3 and still won handily. On December 6th the Knicks won by 20 shooting right at 40%. On April 2nd the Knicks won by 12 shooting 51.9% from 3. On November 2nd the Knicks won by 20 shooting 52.8%.

Furthermore, unlike what Bill’s column seems to imply, it’s unlikely that the Knicks absolutely must shoot the three abnormally well during each series for the mere opportunity to face the Heat. Bill is right when he says “This season, the Knicks are 6-0 against the Heat, Spurs and Thunder when they shoot better than 40-percent on threes and 0-2 when they do not.” Luckily for the Knicks, they won’t face any of those three teams until the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals. The Knicks first face the Boston Celtics, a team that they beat- twice- shooting only 28.6% from 3. In their third win against the C’s they shot over 50%, while in a loss they shot 43%. Based on that record, I feel fairly comfortable saying that a merely average 3P% will put the Knicks into the second round. There they will likely face the Pacers, a team that they lost to twice while shooting under 20% from 3, and beat twice while shooting 28% and 35% from three. Now, the Pacers defense deserves credit for harassing the Knicks’ shooting, but a season series split with those percentages isn’t likely to worry the Knicks. Again, merely average shooting would be capable of putting the Knicks in a dogfight to advance to the conference finals, while anything better would absolutely propel them past the Pacers. And so it seems that, rather than twelve games of hot shooting to advance to the finals, all it would take is four such performances against the Heat.

A Miami apologist would likely argue that the Knicks season record against the Heat might be deceptive- the early games could be far removed from the Heat’s current form, while the April game saw the Heat’s stars resting. That’s fine- I’m not claiming the Knicks will beat the Heat. Miami has the best player in the world, their roster is impeccably constructed, and they should be nigh impossible to bother on their road to a second championship. But what I will assert is that there is nothing we have seen from this season that suggests that the Pacers have a better chance than the Knicks at dethroning the champs, particularly with regard to each team’s 3pt shooting- and while the Knicks broke some records in that category this season, to view them as a one-dimensional team neglects the possible contributions of the New and Improved J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony Power Forward, and whoever is healthy out of Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin.

I think the best argument for the Pacers is completely understated within Bill’s article- the Pacers defense is certainly superior to that of the Knicks. But even if you insist on evaluating each team through a one-dimensional prism, with the Knicks as the three point shooters and the Pacers as the rough and tumble defenders, I’d still rather have the team whose dimension affords them significant latitude for producing statistically abnormal results. As Bill said, “the playoffs have a way of making offense harder to come by and stars a more selective category.” Nowhere would this be more true than watching the Pacers struggle to put up points against the Heat in the ECF (should they get there.) The Pacers would consistently hold the Heat below their season average, and consistently fail to match that lowered total. I’d like to thank Bill again for being good-natured about our disagreement, and I look forward to watching the games unfold. But the fact is, the Knicks stand the only chance of upsetting the Heat because of the noise their shooting can produce in the numbers (to say the least of MSG.)

10 comments on “In Praise of Variance, or, A Response to Bill Reiter

  1. Z-man

    I think it’s crazy at this point to look ahead to a Knicks-Miami series. As optimistic as I am, my whole Knicks fan soul is focused on winning our first playoff series in a freakin’ millenium against the most hated rival of all, those snaggletoothed, struttin’, trash-talkin, cheap-shot takin, a billion banners havin’ green MFers. I don’t even want to think about the Heat until we have stomped those arrogant assholes into split-pea soup. All of the chips are on the table right now, and everything after that is survivable. Losing to the Celts would absolutely put me in deep, eternal fan agony. I, for one, ain’t looking ahead. ALL THINGS GREEN MUST BE DESTROYED!!

  2. thenamestsam

    Very well written response, and I agree 100%. I’m also with Z-man, that from a Knicks fan perspective it seems pretty presumptuous to look ahead to the ECF when we’ve won a single playoff game in the last however many freaking years. The Celtics and the Pacers are both tough, hard-nosed, physical, excellent defensive teams. It’s going to be a battle to get through these rounds.

  3. d-mar

    The fans might be looking ahead, but I don’t think a single Knicks player is. The advantage, if there is one, of playing Boston is that the Knicks know their reputation and won’t take them lightly. If we were playing Atlanta or Milwaukee, for instance, there’s a chance we could get blindsided in game 1.

    The Knicks will be fired up for this matchup.

  4. ruruland

    I don’t know why any fan would look beyond the Celtics. Beating them is going to be the most enjoyable thing for the franchise in more than a decade, I would imagine.

  5. jon abbey

    ruruland:
    I don’t know why any fan would look beyond the Celtics. Beating them is going to be the most enjoyable thing for the franchise in more than a decade, I would imagine.

    1) yes.
    2) I’ll believe it when I see it, especially given the events of the past week, but yes.

  6. Hubert Davis

    When a guy writes shit like this:

    “And they’ll use that burn as fuel to take care of the Knicks in that likely second-round playoff series so they can have a shot at revenge against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals”

    he shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    It’s bad when you can’t tell the author from the yahoos in the comments.

  7. Brian Cronin

    The fans might be looking ahead, but I don’t think a single Knicks player is. The advantage, if there is one, of playing Boston is that the Knicks know their reputation and won’t take them lightly. If we were playing Atlanta or Milwaukee, for instance, there’s a chance we could get blindsided in game 1.

    The Knicks will be fired up for this matchup.

    Excellent point. Although, all the same, I’d still rather them play those two teams. ;)

  8. ruruland

    Hubert Davis:
    When a guy writes shit like this:

    “And they’ll use that burn as fuel to take care of the Knicks in that likely second-round playoff series so they can have a shot at revenge against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals”

    he shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    It’s bad when you can’t tell the author from the yahoos in the comments.

    Exactly, Reiter is exactly the kind of sports writer that isn’t going to be around in another decade.

    You don’t need to pay someone 60k + to be a nationally syndicated troll when you can get copious volumes of such copy for free, indefinitely.

  9. ruruland

    Kmart quote on Melo/KG “It won’t happen man,’cause he ain’t gotta do all that bangin’ and all that with KG no more, Cause I’m here”

  10. Frank O.

    ruruland:
    Kmart quote on Melo/KG “It won’t happen man,’cause he ain’t gotta do all that bangin’ and all that with KG no more, Cause I’m here”

    God damn, love that guy.
    Kmart is a huge bonus for us.
    I also think if we get into the second round, Amare may have some impact.

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