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.

Vinsanity 40, Starbury 38 (but the Knicks win)

Vince Carter might have outscored Stephon Marbury 40-38 last night, but it was Marbury with the last laugh as the Knicks won 108-101. I tried to watch the game last night, but was suffering from food poisoning (slightly worse than the bad taste left in my mouth from the Memphis game). In between bouts of running to the bathroom and a general overall sense of nausea and pain, I saw Marbury light it in the second half.

I’d love to wax poetic about Stephon Marbury, but I’m sure you could open up any of the New York newspapers and read about Starbury’s efforts last night.

Other than Stephon Marbury’s outburst there were a few notables in last night’s game. First is DerMarr Johnson’s 40 minute 15 point game. It was his first 40+ minute game since March 13, 2002. That year he had 4 games where he played that many minutes. The first month and a half of that year, he didn’t get much play, but eventually he would log major minutes, and start 46 games that year. Of course he would have that ill fated car accident in the off-season, which ended his Hawks career.

So far Dermarr’s time as a Knick has been unspectacular. He’s only had 6 games with more than 10 minutes, but we should see more of him with 4 of those coming in the last 4 games. Dermarr’s time yesterday was out of necessity, with Houston only playing the first 8 minutes due to injury, coupled with Toronto’s ability to go big at times. At one point the announcers noted that Vince Carter was the shortest player on the court at 6’6″. If you’re Lenny Wilkens, you’re not exactly going to put Moochie Norris on the court as the SG at that point.

Shooting 5-14 isn’t that impressive, but when you hit 3 from beyond the arc, it becomes a more respectable 46% adjusted FG%. He hit his only 2 free throws in the fourth quarter to help seal the deal against the Raptors. His 6’9″ frame also helped him to snag 7 rebounds. It’s hard to judge a player that has seen as little time as DerMarr has, but his Achilles heal seems to be his erratic shooting. Right now Wilkens’ has little other choice to play Johnson, but if the youngster wants to earn more minutes, he should concentrate on his shooting.

Also appearing last night was Michael Sweetney. The Knicks’ first round pick made his presence felt in the second half. In his 20 minutes, he grabbed 9 rebounds, and scored 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting. He left the game after committing an ill advised foul to stop the clock late in the game. If you call this a rookie mistake, you’d have a hard time explaining why Kurt Thomas did the same thing a few seconds later.

Of course there was little room for Sweetney in the first half, because Othella Harrington was logging his minutes. Other than miss 3 shots, Harrington only managed to commit a personal foul in his seven minutes of play, which is right about his average. I just don’t see why he gets any time at all. At best he should be the third option, when Thomas & Sweetney are in foul trouble. It’s more beneficial for the Knicks’ present and future to give Sweetney 27 minutes instead of 20.

Ugh

When do you turn the game off & do something else? I found out my limit is something close to when my team is losing 40 to 16 in the second quarter. Maybe it wasn’t the score, but more likely watching Shandon Anderson turn the ball over twice in a row that was the final straw. One was a pass in transition that he didn’t grab cleanly near the sidelines, the second was to dribble the ball off his foot near the baseline. Both times the ball went out of bounds, and back to Memphis.

I didn’t actually turn the game off, but instead I turned my attention to my fantasy baseball team. I hope those PECOTA ratings are somewhat reliable, since I based two risky trades offers on them.

If you came here for some kind of statistical analysis and feel short changed by this column, I suggest you go over to Page 23, and read an interesting column on Offensive Effeciency. One thing that I thought about while reading it, is that this kind of thinking must be relatively new, since points per shot has 4 different names.

The Knicks play the Raptors on Friday at home. I hope they play well enough to take the bad taste away from my mouth.

Grizzlies Get Defensive

Man I was mean but I?m changing my scene
And I?m doing the best that I can.
I admit it?s getting better
A little better all the time

— “Getting Better”
The Beatles

Tonight’s opponent is the Memphis Grizzlies. A team that finished 28-54 (.341) last year. Dallas finished in first place in their division last year. This year is a different story. Memphis at 44-26 is tied with Dallas in the standings for the 5th seed. This can only further solidify Jerry West’s genius as a GM. In case you didn’t know, West was the GM of the Lakers from 1982 to 2000. Not only did he help to shape the Lakers in the 80s, but he was the one to bring Shaq & Kobe to the Los Angeles.

So how did Memphis improve so much? My best guess is they turned it up on the defensive end. Last year Memphis’ points per 100 possessions were 97.6 for, and 100.7 against. This year the offense is a little worse at 96.4, but the defense is an impressive 93.9! That’s an almost 7 point turn around. The biggest difference in the team stats department is lowering the opposing team’s eFG% (effective FG%, aka adjusted FG%, aka accounting for treys in FG%) in jump shots. (As opposed to dunks, tips & close – you really have to look at the graphs on 82games.com). Last year they allowed .434 eFG% from jump shots, and this year it’s down to .401.

The largest changes roster-wise is the addition of Posey & Wells, a full season from Mike Miller, and 20 minutes a game from Bo Outlaw. Other than Outlaw, I’m really not familiar enough with the players to comment on their defensive prowess. With Outlaw, you can just look at his stats and tell he’s a defensive specialist. Why else would someone that scores 6 points in 25 minutes stay in the league for 12 years? Funny thing is I can recall Outlaw playing for teams like the Suns and the Magic, because he’s one guy that always gets your attention on the court. He’s a freakishly athletic player, with seemingly little basketball skills on the offensive side. Kind of like Dennis Rodman minus the circus show.

I can’t believe that Bo Outlaw is a good enough defender to account for all of this difference. The assumption doesn’t have to be that Posey, Wells & Miller are great defensive players, but rather they’re probably better than the guys that they replaced, namely Gooden, Giricek, and Person. Of course there could be other factors as well, such as coaching, defensive schemes, improvement in the players that were there, voodoo dolls, etc.

The Knicks’ prospects against a good defensive team is not promising. They are 15-28 against teams that rank among top 19 teams in points against, and 18-10 against the bottom 10 teams. They are also 6-15 against the best 10 teams in def eFG%. In other words they struggle against good defensive teams & eat up the bad ones. Now before Knicks’ fan can go into despair these are stats for the entire year, and the team has changed much since then. Also remember that the Knicks are home tonight, which evens things out considerably.

Knicks 96 Hawks 84

I love MSG Rewind. Monday nights I rent a court with a couple of guys I’ve been playing with for a few years. The gym runs 7 to 10. Tonight the Knicks game started at 8:30, so usually I would have to choose between the two. Luckily MSG Rewind comes on at midnight, so I can still watch the game instead of trying to rush home and catch the 4th quarter without prior knowledge of what happened earlier in the game. Unfortunately last night’s game wasn’t a very noteworthy game. Actually I came away with more questions that answers. I guess it’s appropriate, since I started off this week with an interview.

How good is Penny Hardaway? In the first half, he botched a couple of easy passes. One on a fast break. I was surprised to see this, since he does play PG some of the time, but I don’t recall him handling the point tonight. Penny seems to be able to knock down shots when open, and can create a jump shot when needed. The bad passes really bothered me, but I’m not going to judge him on one game, so this will be a question I’ll be looking to answer with more statistical and observational evidence.

Why does Nazr Mohammed play inconsistently? Some nights he looks like a world beater. Tonight he scored impressively from at least three different methods: getting good passes while cutting to the hoop, crashing the offensive glass, and using his post up game. Other nights he’s almost non-existent. So what is it that causes this? Is it the foul trouble? Is it the defensive ability of his opponent? Is it when he faces an offensive player that saps his energy on the defensive end? Another question to table for a future study.

Can’t the Knicks stay healthy? The team is just too thin without Houston & T.Thomas. Sure Houston is on the wrong side of 30, but until this year, he never missed more than 6 games in a season. Tim Thomas is on the good side of 30 and has never missed more than 10 games in a season. So how are they both hurt at the same time? Deke I can understand, and Frank Williams is suffering through a personal tragedy (who we probably won’t see again this year). I’m not going to turn this into a study, so I guess this is more of a rhetorical question.

Who is the real Dermarr Johnson? He’s an intriguing player. A young prospect for the Hawks until he was in a car accident. Is the future Dermarr the guy that can hit the trey, and dunked on his former team, or is it the one that threw up an airball and shot less than 40% his first two years? We probably won’t know until next year, and I can wait until then for an answer.

Do I like Lenny Wilkens’ coaching style? I won’t even get into the phantom time out debacle of this weekend. Wilkens is fearless with who he plays. He’ll give everyone playing time, which is good during a season because you want to know what you have. However I’m not crazy about some of his choices. Why is Moochie getting more play than Frank Williams (even before F-dub went on the IL)? Why is Othella Harrington getting any non-garbage time? For now I’ll give him the thumbs up, especially after living through Van Gundy who had a tight leash in these matters.

The Dean Oliver Interview

Baseball is in the midst of a revolution of sorts. No it’s not about steroids or home run records, but rather the wave of statistical analysis that is hitting the league like a Pedro Martinez high and tight fastball. The grandfather of this uprising could be Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers GM. More than half a century ago, he knew there were flaws in measuring a player’s value with stats like BA, RBI, and even fielding percentage. Even though the baseball world ignored these simple findings, other people did not. A small group of people asked: “what are the best tools we have to evaluate baseball players?”

The fathers of the revolution are guys like Bill James, Pete Thorn, and John Palmer, who have given birth to the modern day soldiers. Current GM’s like Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Paul Depodesta, and Theo Epstein value statistical analysis over observational appraisal. Columnists like Rob Neyer are part of the mainstream and have forced the old regime to pick up new terms like OPS to adapt. Voros McCracken, a lawyer turned baseball consultant, turned a world of baseball thinkers on their head with his theory that (with few exceptions) pitchers have little effect on a batted ball in play. The movement has hit the streets with a new generation of writers from all walks of life preaching the new credo.

What does this have to do with Dean Oliver? His book is part of a parallel movement in basketball. Dean’s goal with his book is to better understand basketball through statistics. Where current statistics don’t give enough information, Dean creates his own. Whether you’re a casual fan or a failled GM looking for a way to improve your way of thinking, Dean Oliver’s book should be of interest to you.

“Basketball On Paper” tries to answer the tough questions. Is Team A really good defensively or does their slow tempo give that illusion? Read the book. Which team was the best offensive team of all time? Read the book. Can my team benefit from playing a risky strategy or should they tone it down? Read the book. How valuable is Iverson with his low FG%? Read the book.

The fires of same revolt are slowly starting to kindle in basketball. No there are no Billy Beane’s in the front offices of the NBA, yet. Nor is Bill Walton scrambling to learn what PER means. Jon Hollinger’s “Basketball Prospectus”, columns like Kevin Pelton’s Page 23, discussion groups like the APBR, and Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper” will change the way people think about basketball, like their sabermetric cousins are currently doing in baseball.

And now, on to the interview:

“Basketball on Paper”:

KB: Since writing your book “Basketball on Paper,” what have you been working on since & what can we expect from you in the future?

I’ve actually been working on marketing the book and convincing NBA teams of the value of this kind of work — any of the type of statistical work that is logical and reasonable to help a team. I have been talking to a number of teams, the league office, and to media. I’ve done a couple of limited studies relating to work I’ve done for years for the Seattle Sonics. I’ve written a couple things and I am outlining another book on statistical approaches to basketball strategy.

KB: What were some of the responses to your book?

I did a radio show down in Tampa and Doc Rivers came up to me after hearing it and really wanted to talk to me and get a copy of the book. That was nice. I sent the book on to Bill James, who in an email to me said it was an excellent book. He is planning an endorsement. I know that some readers get concerned by seeing formulas or numbers of any sort, which is a bit of a shame since they really are there to support stories and lessons of how the game works and how good talent is.

KB: What is missing or what is next in the literature on basketball statistics?

I think what is missing is the same large audience that baseball stats have. There isn’t a lot of money in a lot of the basketball writing at this point. And it’s a difference in the games. Baseball is slow enough that fans can really talk about what’s going on, pull in numbers. Basketball numbers are tremendous, they’re plentiful, and they’re insightful, but the time to use them or to make adjustments based on them is just not there. So fans look for the excitement and coaches make a lot of decisions based on gut feel. I’ve introduced some rules of thumb for hoops that can be applied on the fly, but it’s going to take a little while to catch on.

What is next in line for research is really a translation system for players from one league to the NBA. College stats have the best history, but high school and international leagues have significance now. We’re just catching up on this and it is not an easy problem. I’ve figured a few things out, but I have too many rules like “The Pitino Rule” that are just annoying and not very general. (Basically, Pitino’s system causes some of his players to be overvalued by stats.)

KB: When I read your book, “Basketball on Paper” I couldn’t help but think of it as the “Win Shares” of basketball, because of :

  • It’s ability to try and understand defense, where traditional methods are lacking
  • The clarity in which advanced statistical ideas are presented
  • The author’s humor

Do you see yourself making a book similar to “The New Bill James’ Historical Abstract”, either by making a recount of basketball by historical periods, or by ranking players by position?

I would very likely do such a book in combination with people like John Grasso, Bijan Bayne, Harvey Pollack, and my contacts in the NBA. The statistical library to evaluate the older players is incomplete, so video and news stories would be very important to make some accurate representations. These guys could definitely help. And I wouldn’t want to do what Elliott Kalb did with his book recently either, which is subjectively rank guys without a lot of link to objective evidence. You mention the recount of basketball by historical periods and I have done a lot of that. Total Basketball does some work along these lines, but doesn’t really talk about why Wilt scored 50 ppg in 1962, for instance, which is important. I mention those things — pace, less judiciousness in shot selection, lack of double-teams — in Basketball on Paper and would like to assemble more of that in a book like this.

Is this something that is right around the corner? Probably not. The group of interested basketball historians is growing, but it isn’t large enough to pay for the massive research involved. I hate having to say it that way, but basketball writers do need to make a living.

Stats:

KB: On ESPN’s MLB main stat page, they have a “sabermetric” stat OPS on the main page, and a sabermetric page with such stats as isolated power and runs created. On ESPN’s NBA page, the closest they have to advanced metrics is points per shot and adjusted field goal percentage. How long do you think it will take before the major sports web sites will post stats like your off. Rtg., stop%, or Hollinger’s PER?

We’re getting there. The WNBA will put out possession stats and points per possession stats this year. The WNBA is also quite receptive to some of the defensive work we did with them a couple years ago and we’re hoping to do that again this year. Issuing monthly reports on what individuals forced the most misses would be nice small pieces of information that help that league and intrigue the bigger brother, the NBA.

The NBA does now have something it calls “efficiency”, which is just a sum of the good things minus the bad things, something I’ve heard referred to as “plus/minus” or is almost Tendex or Bob Bellotti’s Points Created. Going to the more advanced individual numbers is going to take a while. Putting team numbers out there first is huge. Then, in a couple years, we can start talking about other stuff. What we don’t want is another NFL-like passer rating stat that everyone jokes about as the lead stat.

KB: How would you define who is the best rebounder in the league? Would you simply look at REB/48min, or are there other considerations (incl. FG% and pace)?

Primarily, rebounders can be evaluated by the percentage of available rebounds they get. With 10 guys on the court, 10% would be average. I think Rodman was up around 20%. This accounts for pace and FG%. What it doesn’t account for is whether it really makes the team a good rebounding team, which is a modifying factor. A guy who gets 15% of available rebounds on a bad rebounding team is not as useful as one who gets 15% on a good rebounding team (because he is competing against his own teammates for boards). But that is relatively small in terms of importance.

KB: Is there a way to translate a player’s college statistics into his success at the professional level?

As I said above, this is one of the most important projects on the front burner. I’m getting better at it by studying the cases that just don’t work the first time and figuring out why.

KB: What has surprised you about the NBA season this year so far?

In terms of wins and losses, there aren’t a lot of surprises. I’m a little surprised at how successful the Nuggets are. I thought they’d be a lot better, but not this much better. I have been surprised by the coaching turnover. Doc Rivers was out quick, though the losing streak made it less surprising. Byron Scott’s firing and the discord between Ainge and Jim O’Brien — those really surprised me. I also was surprised at how cheaply Portland got Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

The Knicks:

KB: What do you think of the job Isaiah Thomas has done with the Knicks this year?

He wasn’t shy. Being decisive is usually a good thing, but his history in charge generally concerns me. So, picking up Marbury is a nice thing. Marbury is a very good piece to have. I just don’t know if the baggage of the other players, plus the losses were worth it if he’s trying to build a championship team. It’s more important that Isiah know how to follow up the moves he has made than just standing on what he’s got. So he gets a big Incomplete at this point.

KB: If you had to, where would you rank Stephon Marbury among today’s point guards?

Jason Kidd is solidly above him. Otherwise, he is in a class of points who are quite good (Nash, Parker, Billups, Cassell, Payton, and I’m sure I’m forgetting someone). Marbury is the best on the offensive side, but his defense lacks. Intangibly, he’s worn out his welcome a few times now and that matters.

KB: In your opinion, what player (current or former) is Nazr Mohammed most similar to? In the best case scenario what player could he aspire to become?

Curious that you ask that. Curious that the Knicks really valued him. One of my techniques for looking for players is to look at successful players in the league and see what guys are modestly similar to them who may not be getting much time. Mohammed came out modestly similar to a couple prominent big men in a study I did for the Sonics. I think Garnett or Duncan was one. But I have sooo many numbers that suggest he just isn’t going to end up good that I discarded him as a legit possibility. I did all that right before the trade, so I found it very coincidental. Best case: he might be Jamaal Magloire. He just can’t consistently score inside.

KB: Is Kurt Thomas worth $30 over 4 years, or could the Knicks have gotten similar production out of a cheaper and younger player?

Kurt Thomas is serviceable. He’s not a bad player. But he’s just not someone I see as a significant component of a championship team. It’s a risk to go after a younger player, but I would have taken that risk.

One final question:
KB: What do you like best about the Knicks?

Weeellllll, I do tend to root for Lenny Wilkens. He may be old-school and not care about the kind of work that I do, but he’s always seemed like a decent guy.