Disappointed a few people
When friendship reared its ugly head
Disappointed a few people
Well, isn’t that what friends are for?
What are friends for?

— “Disappointed”

There’s nothing like a loss to bring out the worst in fans. Lurking around the message boards, you’ll see some posts titled: Knicks are the WORST defensive team in the League, New York Quitters, and FIRE LENNY WILKENS. Ouch!

The Knicks have been a lottery team the past two seasons, but this year we’ve all but locked down a playoff spot. No we’re probably not a threat to take the East, and we’re nowhere near a championship level team. Most likely a first round exit is in order. However isn’t this better than Knick fans expected at the beginning of the year? Expectations were much lower when Scott Layden was at the helm.

Isaiah Thomas has done a respectable job with the mess he inherited. I won’t pretend that I liked every move, or that he is maximizing the team’s strengths. I’m happy that he’s brought in at least one top tier player in Marbury. I don’t mean “top tier” as in McGrady, Duncan, Garnett, or Shaq, but it’s unmistakable that Marbury is one of the best PGs in the league. The Knicks haven’t had anything close to that since #33 roamed the Garden floor.

It’s impossible to expect anyone to turn a 37 win team into a 50 win team midseason. Those are unrealistic expectations. I’ll be happy with a playoff appearance after a long absence. I’ll be happy that we have a 27 year old PG to build our team around. I’ll be happy that we’ll go into the offseason with a GM that couldn’t be worse than the last. If Dolan wants to win now, and won’t allow the team to rebuild, then he better win now. This year a 7th seed will make most Knick fans happy, but next year we’ll all expect more.

Nets 108 Knicks 83

“If the Nets are injured and not playing well, whoever faces them is definitely going to have a good chance of beating them… But they’re going to play hard. They’re defending Eastern Conference champs for the last two years. So they’re not just going to give up.”

Penny Hardaway was right with one part of his quote. The Nets played hard last night and didn’t just give up, trouncing the Knicks 108-83. For the most part the Nets dominated the entire game. The closest the Knicks got after the beginning was a 6 point deficit in the third. It was the type of game where points came fast and furious in spurts. As soon as the Knicks were that close, they were back down by 13 only a few moments later.

New Jersey exposed New York’s weakness, interior defense. I tried to keep a play-by-play account using Dean Oliver’s method from his book, Basketball on Paper. I got through a little more than a page, before deciding to give it a rest. The Nets first play of the game was to post up Rodney Rogers. The play didn’t net any points, but I’m sure that was coach Frank’s game plan. According to my score sheet, they went into the post 4 times in the first 6 minutes.

Not that you needed a score sheet to know that. You probably wouldn’t have to watch the whole game, since I’m sure the dunk Jefferson had with 6:00 gone in the first quarter on Kurt Thomas will be shown coast to coast. That dunk gave the Nets a 18-9 lead, and forced Lenny Wilkens to call a time out.

Right after the timeout, my score sheet shows Tim Thomas missing a shot near the foul line. What would happen next would prompt me to drop my pen and forgo keeping track of the game. Jefferson got the ball to Collins in the post. The Nets center missed the easy shot, but quickly got his rebound. He did this two more times, until the Knicks were able to get the ball away from him. He didn’t end up with any points on the scoreboard, but he had made another point: the Nets owned the paint. I dropped my pen part in anger because Collins was able to get his missed shots back so easily & part because it happened so fast it was hard to keep up with.

The Knicks’ aren’t going to be able to compete if they don’t protect the basket. If Dekembe Mutombo were healthy, I’m sure he would have seen action early in this one. None of the Knick’s other big men are great defenders, not Nazr, not Baker, not Sweetney, not Harrington, and not Thomas. Kurt Thomas is a good man-to-man defender, but as Jefferson found out tonight, he’s not a great help-defender. The Knicks will have to address this flaw in the offseason.

If you’re the optimistic type, you’ll be happy to know there was plenty of garbage time. Coach Wilkens gave playing time to Sweetney, DerMarr Johnson, and even Frank Williams. Frank Williams is back on the active roster because Allan Houston went on the IL. Unfortunately non of the Knicks’ young players did anything special. Hopefully we’ll see more of Williams, and I’m not hoping for more garbage time either. He can’t be any worse than Moochie Norris.

What’s The Chance?

My good ol’ friend Dr. F., that I mentioned in a previous post, loves football. When his team is playing, he will always watch until the very end, which at times I find questionable. When it’s a close game, and the weather outside is not conducive to a game of catch, I don’t mind as much. But if his team is down by 3 touchdowns with :30 left, he’s glued to the tv, waiting until the game is official. He’s confided in me that his mind is trying to figure out how his team can win the game. It goes something like “if the quarterback fumbles the snap, and the defense recovers. We can get a quick score on a missed tackle, then get the onside kick…” I guess when you grow up and witness a tragic sporting event, it scars you for life.

At these times, when the last seconds of a meaningless (and already lost) game bore me to tears, I wish I had some logical argument to say, “with your team losing by X points with Y time left, there is Z% chance of winning.” Having this kind of knowledge would be great when watching any sporting event. For example, if the Knicks are up by 12 to start the fourth at home, wouldn’t it be great to say that they have a 94% chance of winning the game? To do something like that you would probably have to look at all the games played where the home team was winning by 12 points in the fourth quarter, and see what percentage of teams won the game. In fact maybe you could do that for every single game & map out the winning chance for any score & time?

Well someone did, and I can stay in line with my theme this week of “talking about the APBR_analysis group”. In their files section there is a chart called “game_state_matrix.pdf” (uploaded by Dean Oliver – who else?). Actually, it’s not one charts, but two. The top chart is when the home team is winning, and the bottom one for the road team. Along the left side is the lead, and along the top is the time left in the game. If you remember your coordinates properly the first number at (Q1, 0) is .57. That means at the end of the first quarter (Q1) if the home team is leading by 0 points, the chance of winning the game is 57%.

What’s interesting to me is the road team’s chances. If the road team is winning by 1 at the end of a half, they’ll only win 45% of the time. Let’s say right before the half, the road team is winning by one. By holding for the last shot, and hitting a 3 pointer, their chance of winning goes up to 56% (Q2, 4). We know that the home team wins 64% of the time. Having a one or two point lead at the half doesn’t give the road team good odds to win (not more than 50%). But by the third quarter the road team has the advantage. Having as little as a 5 point lead going into the final 12 minutes gives them a 68% chance of winning.

There are more interesting applications of this. Let’s say we’re the coach of a team, and we’re up by 1 point with a minute left. Does it make sense to try for a 3 pointer with an X% shooter or a 2 pointer with a Y% shooter? Two more points will increase your chances of winning from 64% to 82% at home and 64% to 79% on the road. However a 4 point lead will increase your chance all the way up to 97%/96% (home/road). That’s a 15% increase of winning, so if you have a good three point shooter that you can get open, it’s a good idea for that player to try and knock down that shot.

Now I’ll have to find if someone has created one of these charts for football. This way I can increase my chances of getting in a game of catch between the 1pm & 4pm football games with Dr. F.

Knicks 92 Portland 91 (or Fun With Numbers)

Yesterday I spoke about the discussion going on in the APBR_analysis group. One of the messages by Dean Oliver said:

My point is that you can break down the games of baseball or basketball to an infinite degree. I think baseball and basketball offenses are broken down pretty well by stats. What’s left over are small variations of strategy or training. Do they matter? Yes, but do we miss a significant amount of value by not measuring them? I don’t think so.

Let me frame it one other way. From a team standpoint the value of the four factors are

1. Shooting % (10)
2. Turnovers (6)
3. Offensive rebounding (5)
4. Getting to the line (3)…

I’m not exactly sure where he got this information & what the numbers in parenthesis mean. To take an educated guess, I’ll say that these numbers mean that a team with an advantage in shooting% (10) is twice as likely to win as a team that has an edge in offensive rebounding (5). Same with turnovers (6) having an edge over getting to the foul line (3). I’d imagine when a team shoots better than their opponents, and gets more turnovers they will win a large percentage of their games, even if they allow their opponents to get to the glass more & send them to the line more often.

Just to have some fun with these numbers, let’s assume they are points assigned to each team for getting an advantage in that category. Let’s see how the Knicks did last night.

Shooting% – 10 points

Portland shot 50% yesterday (34-68), while the Knicks only shot 47% (38-81). However I just measured FG% there, and the original wording was “shooting %.” FG% doesn’t account for the extra bonus you get from hitting three pointers, just like batting average in baseball doesn’t make a distinction between a single and a home run. Last year Doug “Can I buy a vowel?” Mientkiewicz and Hank Blalock both hit .300. However, Blalock hit 29 homers, while Mientkiewicz hit only 11.

Accounting for treys, both teams get a slight bump. Portland’s aFG% is now 52%, and the Knicks 49%. It’s close, but Portland wins 10 points.

Turnovers – 6 points

The Blazers turned the ball over 13 times, the Knicks 11. The Knicks will get the 6 point for this one. One interesting thing about ESPN’s box scores is that you can see how many points the team scored on turnovers. The Knicks scored 18 points off of turnovers, while Portland only had 13.

Offensive Rebounds – 5 points

The Knicks win again here, anyway you look at it. They had more offensive rebounds 12 to 6. You could argue that they had more chances, since they missed more shots. This is true, but they also converted a higher amount of those chances. Portland had 36 boards, 6 on the offensive side. So that means they had 30 defensive rebounds. The Knicks had 12 offensive rebounds, so that means they had 42 (30+12) total chances. The Knicks got 12 of them, which works out to 29%. The Knicks got 28 defensive rebounds (40 total – 12 offensive), and the Blazers got 6 offensive rebounds. That mean Portland got 6 offensive rebounds in 34 total, or 18%.

Getting to the Line – 3 points

It’s well known that the Knicks commit a lot of fouls, and Portland took advantage of this. The Blazers shot from the charity stripe 23 times, and the Knicks only had 16. Advantage to Portland.


So what do we end up with? Portland 13, Knicks 11. However the Knicks won this game, so what gives? First this information wasn’t meant to be used the way I did. I just took the numbers to mean something out of their original context.

Second, the system I created has flaws. I assigned the entire point value for the winner of each category. For example, “shooting %” was close enough that we shouldn’t have given Portland a full 10 point advantage. Three percentage points in aFG% doesn’t mean much. Maybe I could have given them a 6, instead.

Finally the game was close. The Knicks won by one point. This means if they missed one shot or Portland hit one more the final numbers of my little system would not have changed, but the result of the game would have been very different.

Should We Talk About The Weather?

In case you haven’t already I highly suggest you meandering over to the APBR analysis discussion group. There is a great dialogue going about what stats do and don’t tell us about basketball. To whet your appetite, I’m only going to give you a little piece of the first few exchanges, which nowhere gets into the depth of the discussion.

If you’re already sold, go to this page and read the first thread on the page (#3513). Just promise you’ll come back tomorrow ;-)

If you still need some selling, then I’ll start you off with an excerpt from the post that started it all.

From: “dan_t_rosenbaum”
Date: Thu Mar 25, 2004 10:30 pm
Subject: The Problem with Possessions-Based Linear Weights

…The second approach is what I will call the possessions-based approach. The essence of this approach is to count every contribution to either points scored or a failed possession and to count it only once. This is certainly the approach used to construct John Hollinger’s PER and its lies behind the construction of Dean Oliver’s offensive and defensive ratings. Also, a large fraction of the arguments on this board are about the proper way to do this possessions-based accounting.

So what is wrong with this approach? The problem is that there are numerous contributions to successful or failed possessions for which there are no statistics – a good pick, an ineffective blockout, a good entry pass that leads to a score but not an assist, the presence of a shot blocker that keeps his opponents from driving to the hoop. One could easily argue that the unmeasured contributions to successful or failed possessions are more than the measured contributions, e.g. points, assists, steals, etc…

Now mind you this is only 2 of about 20 paragraphs that were posted. The rest of Dan’s post spans a number of intelligent issues, including the NBA’s efficiency statistic, the difference between basketball and baseball statistics, possession based statistics, and linear weights. The first two to reply were Dean Oliver and Bob Chaikin, who within a half an hour of each other asked Dan the same question. They wanted him to “easily argue that the unmeasured contributions to successful or failed possessions are more than the measured contributions.”

Dan replied with:

…What do we measure on the offenive end?

1. We measure which player touched the ball last on every field goal attempt and we measure the outcome of those field goal attempts.
2. On successful attempts, we sometimes measure the player that touched the ball second to last.
3. We measure personal fouls on a particular player when those personal fouls lead to free throws and we measure the outcome of those free throws.
4. On failed field goal attempts, we measure the player who regains possession of the ball.
5. And finally, when possession turns from one team to the other without a field goal or free throw attempt, we measure who is responsible for that “turnover” of possession.

That is a lot and that is much better than what we measure on the defensive end. But what contributions to scoring or not scoring do we not measure?

1. We do not measure which players successfully navigate the ball to the frontcourt.
2. We do not measure which players initiate an offense with an effective non-assist pass. In fact, we fail to measure all of the non-assist passes that contribute to scoring (or non-scoring), such as all of the passes that lead to shooting fouls.
3. We do not measure which players get themselves open in out of bounds situations.
4. We do not measure screens on the ball or off the ball.
5. We do not measure which players keep the floor spaced leading to fewer turnovers and higher percentage field goal attempts. It is pretty tough to have a successful field goal attempt when you are
double teamed because of poor spacing.
6. We do not measure which players tend to hold onto the ball for an inordinate amount of time leading to forced shots or shot clock violations.
7. We do not measure which players correctly run plays and which ones do not.
8. We do not measure players failing to get open leading to a turnover for the player holding the ball.
9. We do not measure players with good hands grabbing an errant pass that would have been a turnover for the passer.
10. We do not measure the player who keeps a possession alive by tipping an offensive rebound to a teammate or by blocking out an effective defensive rebounder…

A few hours later Dean Oliver volleyed with:

Most of these unmeasured things aren’t that hard to accomplish (or to avoid, if they’re negative). I can go out and set picks. A lot of these 10 unmeasured things are taken as givens. Guys know how to do these things and, if they don’t, they aren’t as important as the measured things. That’s the conventional wisdom. Perhaps not right, but I think there is a significant burden in showing that these unmeasured factors are more important than the measured ones…Depends on how you make that list. It’s ALWAYS easier to make a longer list of unmeasured things than measured things. For baseball, things that affect whether a run is being scored:

1. The signs flashed by the 3rd base coach.
2. Whether the man on first is running on the pitch or not.
3. Whether the man on first saw the signs.
4. How the fielders are positioned (now starting to get measured).
5. Whether the hitter has that black stuff under his eyes or not.
6. Whether the pitcher is in the sun and the hitter is in the shade.
7. How good the hitter is at reading speed of pitches.
8. How fast a hitter gets out of the batter’s box.
9. Whether the hitter is swinging for the fences or for a base hit.


My point is that you can break down the games of baseball or basketball to an infinite degree. I think baseball and basketball offenses are broken down pretty well by stats. What’s left over are small variations of strategy or training. Do they matter? Yes, but do we miss a significant amount of value by not measuring them? I don’t think so…


I really don’t want to go any further, because I’ve paraphrased enough. It’s such a great conversation that continues with some interesting twists that I won’t get into. I recommend going there & reading through the posts, or you won’t know what you’re missing. You know it’s a good post when a few more threads have stemmed from it, including “List of unmeasured stuff to track”, and “The Knowledgeable guys…”

Go check it out!

Pistons 100 Knicks 85

Thank goodness I decided to watch the NCAA games yesterday instead of the Knicks game. This way I saw one of the most exciting games of the year, instead of another disappointing loss. There is one aspect where a blow out loss doesn’t get reflected, the box score. With the Pistons up by 23 to start the 4th quarter, “garbage time” began. The Knicks (bench) would finally outscore the Pistons (bench) 18 to 10, to make the game more respectable. And they still ended up losing by 15.

How bad was last night’s game? First Darko Milicic played 9 minutes. The teenage first round pick who’s played in all of 28 games this season. Second, is that he’s not even listed (at this writing) in ESPN’s box score of the game. I can only guess that the logic of Milicic playing in a game was too much for their computers to handle, like one of those Kirk vs. the computer episodes of Star Trek.

Even without the garbage time, the stats look terrible for the Knickerbockers. The Pistons had large advantages in FG% (46% to 39%), turnovers (8 to 15), and PF (27 to 22). Just to show you how garbage time affects stats, take away Darko’s 0-5, and the Piston’s team FG% rises to 49%. It’s tough to win when you let the opposing team score half of the time.

In our continuing sagas, DerMarr Johnson played major minutes (39), and looked good. I can’t say that entirely first hand, but the stats showed it, and when I caught part of the game on MSG Rewind, the announcers said so. He shot 5/12 which is a decent 42% FG%, but account for his 3 pointers and it becomes a very respectable 50% aFG%.

Othella Harrington also played 14 minutes, and had more fouls (3) than points (2). Yesterday I complained that Sweetney only had 20 minutes, instead of 27, and tonight I got my wish. He had 4 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 fouls. Other than the rebounds, the numbers were a little disappointing.

DerMarr could see a big hit in his playing time when Thomas or Penny comes back, but Sweetney should continue to see playing time this year. It’ll be curious what Lenny does in the playoffs with Sweetney & Othella. Will he trust the rookie, or go with the less talented veteran?

Now That’s A Finish!

In one of my first columns, I wrote about the ending of basketball games. Specifically:

Dr. F made a good point about basketball’s main weakness. The last two minutes
take too long. I agree (and I’m sure my wife does as well). I can’t stand what a
basketball game turns into for the last few minutes. To use a simile, a
basketball game is like you being the only person driving on the highway until
you get within a few blocks of your destination. At that point you hit the worst
bumper-to-bumper traffic you’ve ever seen. A basketball game goes smoothly for
about 45 minutes, and then grinds to a halt with fouls and time outs.

I should have stated more clearly that a basketball game would be more exciting without being able to call a timeout in the last two minutes. Limiting each team to one time out at the end of the game would let the tension build without an emotional detachment from constant interruptions.

To illustrate my point, I point you to the St. Joe’s vs. Oklahoma State game that was on tonight. It was easily the most exciting final 3 minutes of basketball I’ve seen this year. With the game tied the Cowboys blew their last timeout with 2:38 left in the game, and their opponents used their final timeout with 1:31 on the clock.

The pressure increased every second, with both teams’ entire season on the line. The Oklahoma time out came with one of their players fighting for a loose ball & hitting the ground. Instead of letting his opponent grab the ball for a possible possession change, he called for time. The Cowboys would miss their next shot, but so would the Hawks’ Jameer Nelson 30 seconds later. Oklahoma State then missed a three which led to St. Joe’s to call their final timeout. With one foul to give, the Cowboys committed a non-shooting foul shortly after the inbound.

The game continued for the final minute and 24 seconds without a single timeout or foul. It was a hold on to your chair type of ending. In the last minute the lead changed hands 3 times. The only shot that was missed was the final two pointer with time expiring. By the time Oklahoma almost turned the ball over with under 10 seconds left, the tension was nearly unbearable. For a second, I was thrilled with the possibility that St. Joe’s would steal the ball to seal the game (because I need them in my NCAA pool). Instead the ball bounced over to John Lucas who drained a three pointer to put the Cowboys up by 2.

However, with 8 seconds left, the season wasn’t over yet, and in an instance the Hawks were running up the court trying to play for a tie or win. Unfortunately for them, Jameer Nelson couldn’t hit his jumper at the top of the key to tie the game.

In every aspect of entertainment, whether it be music, magic, or acting, it’s what the spectator experiences that is most important. In music, the road manager doesn’t come up on stage to huddle with the musicians near the end to suggest which song to close on. In magic, Rick Franceschini after showing the empty hat never walks off stage before pulling out the rabbit. Even when watching a movie on tv, usually the last 10-15 minutes are shown commercial free. It’s because by stopping at the critical points, you would ruin the momentum leading up to that point.

Players and coaches both benefit from these stoppages. Being able to call time outs gives coaches control over their team, and takes away a lot of the pressure off the players who would have to think quickly in high tension situations. It still doesn’t make it right, especially when it’s at the expense of the most important aspect of sports: the fans.