I Had A Dream

Last night I had a dream that I was watching the Knicks on tv (and being affected by the Time Warner blackout, that itself made it a good dream). The starting lineup included Butler at center, Sweetney at power forward, and Trevor Ariza at SF. I don’t think the game resolved in my sleep, but it didn’t really matter. The Knicks were rebuilding in a proper fashion and I could rest knowing that we would be relying on our youth and aiming for free agency in 2007. There would be no ruining the franchise with a get rich quick scheme.

Waking up I had a pleasant morning until reading this in the New York Post:

Expect Knicks president Isiah Thomas to make another run at disgruntled Timberwolves star Wally Szczerbiak this summer…The dilemma is giving up a big man, Kurt Thomas, for a swingman, Szczerbiak. But the Knicks desperately need a reliable 3-point shooting threat to whom Stephon Marbury can dish. If Kurt Thomas or Michael Sweetney go in a deal, the Knicks would shift Tim Thomas to power forward.

Oh well there goes my breakfast. Szczerbiak would be the death of the Knicks, and in turn Isiah Thomas. His contract doesn’t match his performance, as he is owed $55M over the next 5 years (including this season). Between Wally, Stephon, and Jamal, the Knicks would have 3 guards that make $44M dollars, just short of what the cap is now. You shouldn’t tie up your money in three guys like that unless they make the All Star Team regularly, and I don’t see any “East” jerseys being sold with those names on the back.

While the Knicks could use another shooting guard, being that Allan Houston refuses to neither play nor retire, Szczerbiak isn’t the guy. Like Marbury and Crawford and Tim Thomas and Nazr Mohammed and just about every starter Isiah has brought aboard there is no defense in Wally’s World. The Knicks are attempting to become the Suns or Sonics, by winning solely with offense. However they’re doing it with mediocre offensive guys instead of offensive All Stars like Nash, Amare, Marion, Allen, or Lewis.

Trading Sweetney for Szczerbiak would be flat out moronic. That deal would make Knick fans pining for the days when Layden was sending Nene for McDyess. The Knicks don’t need another veteran scorer that can’t defend. They don’t need another $10M+ 5 year contract. They don’t need another one dimensional player. They don’t need another tweener. Mike Sweetney is only 22 years old, and he’s shown that he can play in this league. Sweetney only makes $2M and has another 6 years of getting better. You don’t trade players like that, unless you get a bonafide impact player. And my fellow Knick fans, Wally Szczerbiak isn’t even close.

Three Days

Only three days left in the NBA’s regular season!

* The best race left is in the East, with the 76ers, Nets, and Cleveland fighting for the final two spots. If the three teams were high school seniors, New Jersey would be the guy who decided to straighten himself out so that he could graduate. The Nets have done everything they can to make the big dance, by taking 8 of their last 10, including beating Philly on Sunday.

Meanwhile the Cavs are like the B+ student that suddenly started to run with the wrong crowd. LeBron James went from valedictorian candidate (MVP) to summer school applicant. They have dropped 8 of their last 11, and have decided to work on their ping pong game instead of studying for the finals.

Philly is the average kid that decided to work harder, but got sick and missed a bunch of classes anyway. Getting a tutor (Chris Webber) didn’t help the Sixers as much as they would have hoped. However they’ll make the cut because New Jersey started off bad, and Cleveland is ending bad.

* The only serious battle left in the West is the 5th spot. The Rockets and Kings are tied, but according to Yahoo!’s standings, Houston has the tie breaking edge. I believe that they have the edge in schedule as well. Houston’s last two games are at home against the Clippers and Sonics. Although Sacramento plays the easy to beat Utah, they have to head to Salt Lake to do so, and then the Kings go home to face the top seeded Suns.

Honestly I don’t think there is a huge disparity between the two spots. Thanks to David Stern’s three division alignment, the “winner” gets to face the tougher Mavericks and the “loser” plays the Sonics, despite Dallas’ 50 point lead in win percentage.

* I can’t think of the words “Three Days” without thinking of the Jane’s Addiction song. The song is about weekend filled with drugs & group sex. If you’ve never heard of Jane’s Addiction, just wait for a Coors commercial to come around, and you’ll hear the “Mountain Song.” I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked with Perry Ferrell selling off his songs, especially the one with the lyric “cash in” repeated about 20 times. Additionally Pete Coors next Senate run should be interesting, considering the conservative’s “family values” and anti-gay marriage stance not exactly falling in line with his company’s purchasing Ferrell’s music to sell beer.

* Seven teams have clinched in the West, leaving just Minnesota and Memphis to fight for the final spot. The Timberwolves could have pulled within one game, but lost at home to the Sonics by 15 points yesterday. Just one Grizzlies win or Timberwolves loss in their combined four remaining games clinches the 8th spot for Memphis.

* In the Final playoff battle, Washington kept the hope alive that they could beat out Chicago for the coveted home court advantage in their series. The description from the AP wire read:

With Larry Hughes racing the length of the court and the clocking running down, Charlotte’s Brevin Knight knocked the ball away from behind — and right to Jamison, who put it off the glass and into the basket with 1.3 seconds remaining to give the Washington Wizards a 106-104 comeback victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday.

The Wizards luck is going to end there, as they have to win two on the road, while the Bulls get to work from home for their final pair of games. Ironically both teams face the Knicks, so my team gets a chance to play spoiler. From my perspective it’s Chicago and Washington that get to play spoilers. The Knicks are tied with Golden State and Toronto for the 7th draft spot. If both teams happen to win against New York, it could mean two spots in the draft, depending on how the Raptors & Warriors do.

The Sun Also Rises

Last October I interviewed the author of the Basketball Forecast series John Hollinger. I only knew John from those books, his website (alleyoop.com), his Sports Illustrated columns, and some interaction on the old APBR_metrics site. Wondering if I could coax some more writing out of my favorite hoops author, I asked him if he would be reporting on a more frequent basis. John’s response:

Well, I write two columns a week for the New York Sun, so since you’re in the Big Apple that’s a big fat yes. Otherwise, I’ll be doing a weekly piece for SI.com.
After overcoming my embarrassment of not knowing that Hollinger writes for my hometown paper, I was thrilled to find out that I could read two more high quality and humorous columns a week on hoops. At first I bought the paper solely to scan for Hollinger’s articles, but it didn’t take long before I noticed that the New York Sun had the best sports section in town.

As far as I’m concerned as a basketball blogger, the crew is led by Hollinger. Now that ESPN’s Insider has John locked up on their pay site, at $.25 an issue the Sun is the only place I can afford to read his writing regularly. Yesterday John wrote an excellent piece on how the Knicks should go about rebuilding. Proving that great minds think alike, Hollinger advocated the Knicks should rebuild around Marbury, Sweetney, Ariza, and Crawford (only if he can learn to attack the hoop) while aiming for free agency in 2007.

The Sun’s other NBA columnist is Martin Johnson. Johnson was the first person to mention my site in print, and his local bar is my old college haunt which proves his impeccible taste. When not at the bar, Johnson’s keeps his finger on the pulse of the NBA like Hawkeye Pierce, and can surgically separate hype from substance. Martin’s levelheaded and analytical style allows him to cut through the trends and get to the core of a team’s ability.

The New York Sun’s excellent sport section doesn’t end with its’ basketball coverage. The rest of the writers are a veritable who’s who in sports statistics analysis. I’ve seen articles written by Aaron Schatz from www.FootballOutsiders.com and the soon to be released 2005 Pro Football Forecast. This week the Jets & Giants draft needs were covered by Sean Lahman, famous for his sports databases, who also writes for the Pro Football Forecast. Now that baseball is in full swing, the Sun is featuring articles from a potpourri of writers courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com. Almost daily year round, you can find a piece by Tim Marchman who all-baseball.com called “one of the brightest young baseball writers in the country.” Finally for those who like more than the top 3 American sports, there are regular columns on the more esoteric boxing, horse racing, soccer, and something our ice age ancestors called hockey.

The best part about the New York Sun, is that the sports coverage reads more like a magazine than a newspaper. With that I mean the articles get to the heart of the matter, and are not just scraping the surface of the day’s events. While I don’t want to mention any other writers or papers by name, this is a far cry for what normally passes as sports reporting. If they aren’t publishing the latest Bull Durham-esque trivial player quotes, they’re passing along every possible rumor that comes across their plate. Occasionally it’s sexy to hear GM hearsay and free agent gossip, but its superficial reporting.

Yesterday for example the Sun contained a column from Baseball Prospectus on constructing a batting order. While sounding simplistic on the surface, it referenced a Bill James study, calculated the additional plate appearances the different spots get over the course of the year, and discussed which teams around the league are taking advantage of the second spot in the order. It’s just so much more refreshing than hearing for the 11th straight year how Chris Webber would love to play for the Knicks, or how a manager thinks his team keeps “playing, and that’s the type of team that I need to have.” (That is a true quote from today’s paper, name withheld to protect the guilty). As far as I’m concerned when it comes to sports coverage by the New York print media, it’s crystal clear that the New York Sun rises to the top.

KnickerBlogger Has No Heart

The good news about leaving a comment on my blog is that I may write a whole column on it. The bad news is when I disagree with your premise. The other day I wrote this little tidbit after the Knicks lost to the Nets:

I usually scoff at the notion that the Knicks needed more players with heart (I believe talent trumps all), but this team has me nearly converted.

To which a Knick fan named “Ted” commented with:

Ya “talent trumps all” that’s why the Trail-Blazers won so many titles in the 90s and the Lakers beat the Pistons last year. Regardlessly (sic), talent is not what the Knicks lack; defense and heart are what’s missing. Give me a Riley or Van Gundy team that’s going to work there (sic) asses off and hold the opponent to 80 points over this…crap any day.

One definition of talent is “a person or group of people having such ability”. In my definition of talent, playing defense is certainly included. Tim Thomas is big and athletic, but is not an able defender (or rebounder). You can be talented in one area and unskilled in another. Is Ben Wallace talented? In regards to rebounding and interior defense, absolutely. In regards to dribbling or shooting, absolutely not.

Obviously the Knicks’ defense, which is ranked 27th, is something that both Ted & I agree needs improvement. However Ted also states that the team needs more heart. The human heart typically weighs about 300 grams, but I’m unable to find any web pages that list the size of NBA player’s hearts. While they do list the total height and weight of each player, no web page has it broken down into individual body parts. In theory getting more oxygen to the body’s cells could improve the Knicks athletically, but I’m not sure if such a procedure is feasible. I’m not a doctor, but left ventricular hypertrophy seems to be more of an affliction than a blessing.

Seriously though, I’m not big on building a team around intangibles like heart or leadership or veteran presence. Let’s look at the teams that Ted says lost because they were heartless.

Year
Exp Win%
Opp
oExp Win%
1990
70%
DET
70%
1991
76%
LAL
72%
1992
72%
CHI
80%
1999
69%
SAS
78%
2000
72%
LAL
78%

I chose the 5 best Blazer squads of the 90s, and the opposing team that bounced them out of the playoffs. The only one of these Portland teams that lost to an inferior club were the 1991 Blazers, but it’s not improbable that they would lose a 7 game series. The Lakers were a strong team in their own right and had the best player on the court in Magic Johnson (25.1 PER 4th overall). Of the four other Blazer teams that made the list, two faced the #1 defensive team that year (Pistons & Spurs) and the other two played against vastly superior teams (Bulls & Lakers).

If you ignore the evidence that shows the Blazers were the lesser team and attribute their losses to a lack of heart, then that wouldn’t explain why a few players from these teams won titles in other cities. Did Clyde Drexler suddenly gain “heart” when he played alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and won a championship in Houston, or was it that the Rockets were a more talented team? Did Scottie Pippen lose the “heart” he had while playing with Jordan in Chicago, or were the Blazers just not good enough to win in ’99 & ’00? The Detroit Pistons wouldn’t have dominated like they did last year without Rasheed Wallace, but was the big addition his “heart” or his ability?

Take the same logic and apply it to Ted’s other heartless team, last year’s Lakers. The difference between the 2004 Lakers and the threepeaters was not heart, or leadership, or desire, but rather a decline in play. Shaq from 2001-2003 averaged an astounding 30 PER. That’s so good, the average would be in the top 15 seasons of all time. However in 2004 it dropped to a mere 24, which wouldn’t crack the top 100. Add to O’Neal’s deteriorating production the Lakers’ inability to adequately replace an injured Karl Malone coupled with the Pistons’ off the chart defense, and the reason is clear why Los Angeles lost.

If given the choice between blaming these losses on something measurable like performance or something intangible like heart, I’ll take the former every time. There is just no proof that heart leads to winning nor is there any way to measure it, either on a team or an individual level. Hence why I say “talent trumps all.” If your team needs defense, get someone that can clamp down on his opponent, or can control the paint. If you need offense grab some sharp shooters or post scorers. Getting guys that can do both is even better. Build a team that can score and defend, and don’t worry about where their heart is.

Four Reasons Knicks Fans Loved Sunday’s Game

1. Blackout Averted
Thanks to the schedule maker, Knick fans suffering under Time Warner and MSG’s bickering were able to watch their favorite team on television. The Knicks-Pacers game was nationally broadcasted on ABC, giving New Yorkers who opted to stay home on a pleasant weekend day to perform spring cleaning ample entertainment.

2. Indiana Pacers
Although last week’s game was billed as Miller’s last in New York, yesterday’s game was Reggie’s final against the Knicks. While the two teams are no longer vying for Eastern Conference bragging rights, there is still some life left in the rivalry. Just having Reggie Miller on the court against the Knicks creates a little extra electricity, but don’t forget about Isiah Thomas’ relationship with Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers. I’m sure the Knicks’ president takes a little extra interest when he faces his former club, and the man that ran him out of town.

3. Marbury 19 Assists
I cringe everytime I hear something along the lines of “Stephon Marbury’s teams lose because he’s too greedy.” After watching Marbury play for a year and a half, I just can’t buy that. Even those that track regular statistics should notice that the Knicks’ point guard is fourth in assists per game. While he’s not a “pass first, second, and third? PG in the mold of Steve Nash or John Stockton, Marbury does get his teammates involved. Under Wilkens, the Coney Island native ran the pick & roll perfectly, and he’ll hit the open man when he’s double teamed. Stephon’s deficiency is his horrendous defense, not his avarice. So what better to silence his critics then to dish out 19 on national television?

4. Knicks 113 Pacers 112 (OT)
The game itself was exciting, which is a rare occurrence for Knick fans these days. The Knicks started the fourth quarter expanding a 7 point lead into 12, before the Pacers woke up & put New York 6 points into the deficit column. The game looked lost when Marbury missed the game tying free throw in the final minute, but a defensive stop and an improbable Kurt Thomas three pointer sent the game into OT.

Short at small forward, New York played most of the game with a big lineup. The Knicks had Trevor Ariza, but used him for only 6 minutes. Instead Herb Williams decided to use three of Kurt Thomas, Malik Rose, Mike Sweetney, and Jerome Williams for a majority of the game in a zone defense. What a brilliant idea!

If Marbury?s free throw miss, the Kurt Thomas three pointer, and the big man lineup didn’t make the game intriguing enough, New York inexplicably shot better from three point land (54.5%) than the free throw line (54.2%). Both teams had the same amount of rebounds and free throw attempts. The game was so close that the last possession was literally the difference.

The icing on the cake was Sweetney’s game winner. While he didn’t have a good game early on, Big Mike came through when it counted. Not only did he win the game for the Knicks cleaning up Marbury’s miss in OT, but Sweetney’s and-1 brought New York from 6 to a manageable 3 late in the fourth. Coach Williams did something that he’s never done before: give Mike Sweetney major minutes. The young power forward (masquerading as a center) repaid his coach with a solid performance: 20 points on 8-15 shooting and 9 boards in 37 minutes. While Sweetney might be the forgotten man in Herb’s rotation, snapping a 9 game losing streak is a good way to get a little recognition.

Knicks 98 New Jersey 110

It’s official. No the Knicks aren’t mathematically eliminated, but they’ve given up on the season. I’ve watched the last 2 games, which considering that Time Warner and MSG haven’t settled their little blackout spat is a near miracle. Their play has been nothing short of embarrassing. The Knicks have come out flatter than Pope Urban VIII’s globe.

While the Knicks defense is normally bad, they’ve given up on stopping their opponents. They’ve let the Pacers shoot 53% (eFG) on Tuesday and the Nets 56% on Thursday. When you let Brian Scalabrine run up the court flexing his arms after an easy score, it’s a clear indication that the white flag is flying over 32nd & 7th ave. Right now as individuals and as a team, there is little to no effort on the court. I usually scoff at the notion that the Knicks needed more players with heart (I believe talent trumps all), but this team has me nearly converted.

Even the Knicks best player, Stephon Marbury, is not immune to the apathy. Early against New Jersey, Marbury shot an airball on a three pointer from the top of the arc. Running back he had a smile on his face. The Net announcers attributed the smile to embarrassment. I didn’t buy their theory, and on the Knicks’ next possession, Marbury pridefully took the ball to the hoop. Stephon was called for a charge, turning the ball over. Again the Knicks PG smiled on his way back down the court.

Watching the game as a Knick fan, that infuriated me. I’m not some 80 year old curmudgeon that thinks yesteryear’s athletes were superior in their demeanor. I fully understand that athletes are people, just like me, and I don’t expect them to be perfect human beings. However messing up at your job twice in a row and then laughing about it is only acceptable for comedians.

Even if I’m misreading Marbury’s emotions, at best it shows a lack of passion. Rebuilding is suppose to be about loveable losers, but the three Knicks juveniles (Sweetney, Ariza, and Butler) played a total of 26 minutes yesterday. I can deal with the losing associated with rebuilding, but I can’t deal with watching it happen through aloof veterans.

Knick fans might point out that losing means a better draft pick come summer, and dropping a few games is a victimless crime. I disagree. Before I go into a Herm Edwards-esque rant about winning, there is a victim here: Herb Williams. If the players show no fire on the court, it is a reflection on the coach. Playing worse under Williams than they did under Wilkens could hurt Herb’s chance at retaining the coaching job.

Maybe it’s was foreshadowing that the cable blackout coincided with the Knicks limp to the finish. Even that analogy is too kind, because it appears that New York isn’t even trying to limp anymore. They seem content to lie dead in the road, and let the rest of the NBA trample over them.

No Horns On Luther’s Head

I love watching sports arguing shows. Ok not all of them. It’ll be a long time before I willingly turn on Mike and the Angry Puppy on my television or radio again. Instead I’ll admit that I prefer watching either “PTI” or “Around the Horn.” Now before my loyal readers decide to erase KnickerBlogger.Net from their bookmarks, I don’t watch these shows for the “intelligent sports banter”. Like people of an earlier generation who watched Siskel & Ebert, I tune in for the arguing. While “sports talk” that degrades into “sports yelling” is entertaining, it’s also valueable from a rhetorical standpoint. To be persuasive, how you say something is sometimes more important than the content of your words.

The other day the prevailing (but not unanimous) opinion on “Around the Horn” was that watching MLB’s Opening Day would be more entertaining than the NCAA Final game. Those that were patient enough to sacrifice 0.6% of their team’s baseball season were rewarded with an exciting game. Illinois clawed back from a 13 point halftime deficit to tie the game late in the second half. Unfortunately the Fighting Illini came up short in the last seconds.

I’m sure someday somebody revives Luther Head’s final college minutes in a negative fashion. It might not be tomorrow on the aforementioned sports yell shows, or in a newspaper column. However eventually I have faith that on a message board in cyberspace somebody will imply that Luther Head was the goat. They couldn’t be more wrong.

I freely admit that in Illinois’ final two possessions with the game on the line, Head turned the ball over and missed the tying three pointer. However unlike Chris Webber’s time out folly, the mistakes were something you would see on any normal possession & not caused unduly by stress. The turnover was from a drive & kick, that was literally tipped by UNC’s Raymond Felton. In his final attempt, Luther Head’s missed three pointer was not a rushed shot. His feet were set, shoulders squared, and didn’t hurry the shot. It was well aligned, but a tad long caroming off back of the iron. In each case, only a few inches separated Head from being the hero of the game.

So often in sports, people try to make sense of something by pinning the entire team’s result on a single person. In baseball the pitcher earns the win or loss, despite the fact that he doesn’t control how much his team scores, how his fielders perform, or what the bullpen does with his lead. While pitchers are highly influential on the outcome of a baseball game, they aren’t the sole determining factor. Certainly if Randy Johnson had any offensive help last year, he would have posted better than a 16-14 record with his obscenely low 2.60 ERA.

People get so carried away with crediting an individual for a team effort, that they’ll do the same in other sports as well. Things like W-L records are even more ludicrous in other sports like football. Trent Dilfer was 7-1 in 2000, and that should tell you something about the nonsense of attributing wins & losses to a QB. Even when NBA MVP voters note that the Suns are 2-4 without Nash, it implies that Steve’s individual record is 54-13. Nash may very deserve the MVP award, but not because of his teams’ record without him.

Wherever you cross the misinformed soul that attempts to claim Luther Head lost the game for Illinois, you can remind them that Head led his team in scoring and shot a respectable 50% (eFG%). Point out that James Augstine couldn’t stay out of foul trouble long enough to score a single point. Tell them that Head wasn’t responsible for defending Sean May, who put in 26 points while only missing one shot from the field. Remind them that teammate Ingram was so oblivious in the final minute a pass hit him in the back. Or better yet, tell him basketball is a team game, and the Tar Heels were just the better team on this night.