Suns 133 Knicks 118

63.5%

That’s what the Suns shot yesterday (eFG%). Just look at their big 6 (really a big 3 + a 3 large):

Name.........	Min	Pts 	eFG%	 TS%

S. Marion.... 42 20? 47% 1.01
Q. Richardson 39 25? 74% 1.47
A. Stoudemire 40 29? 54% 1.25
J. Johnson... 40 24? 66% 1.35
S. Nash...... 35 9? 43% 1.03
J. Jackson... 24 17? 106% 2.13

The league average for effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is 48%, and for True Shooting Percentage (TS%) is 1.05. The league leaders at these stats are 65% and 1.39 respectively. The TS% aren’t very high, but the eFG% are through the roof. Can’t anyone defend on this team?


How long with the Trevor Ariza experiment last? Desmond had 22 points on Sunday, Q-Rich and Jackson combined for 42 last night. Clearly, he not ready to defend one-on-one. However one of the best ways for him to learn is to match up night in and night out against NBA talent and take a beating. The 19 year old rookie is an amazing physical specimen, pulling down 8 offensive boards against the Suns. So it’s up to the coaching staff to get him to work on his footwork and technique. If Herb is playing Trevor for future dividends, then I’m thrilled to see him in the starting lineup.

UPDATE: Of course what is highlighted in my Yahoo Fantasy News this morning? Trevor Ariza: Big Game for Ariza.

Land Of The Rising Suns

Last month, I did a little write up of the Phoenix Suns. With the Suns heading into New York on Tuesday, it’s seems like as good a time as any to revisit that column, and see how my analysis has stood up over time.

The Suns main weakness is their bench. The Suns 5 starters are averaging 37 minutes a game, because they don’t have good options coming off the bench. If one of their starters hits the IR, the team will loose a good amount of production.

True. Phoenix lost all 4 games that Nash missed due to injury. The Suns just don’t have the bench to pick up the slack. Any team that has to replace their All Star starter (22.6 PER) with a below average player is liable to drop a few. Now some people have gone too far saying this is proof that Nash should be the league’s MVP. Hogwash. Nash’s backup, Barbosa, is sporting a minor-league PER of 9.5. Name me one team that can keep winning after replacing an NBA All Star with the Brazilian League Rookie of the Year for 2002?

I’m not saying that Nash isn’t a great player, or shouldn’t be considered for the MVP. He’s an excellent player, one of the best on his team, and maybe the best PG in the game right now. However arguing that 4 games in January is proof of anything really doesn’t hold water outside of a sports “debate” show.

Phoenix still has a few chips to cash in. Although they owe a future first to San Antonio (protected), they also own the Bulls first round pick (protected top 3). The way the Bulls are playing it would be a waste to trade that pick for only a bench player or two.

False. Chicago’s New Year resolution of “not sucking” has worked. The Baby Bulls are 11-2 since the ball dropped. That pick looked liked like a great bonus for a team that could go to the Finals, but now is a mid-rounder at best. With an average offense, Chicago’s suffocating defense should keep their front office from playing ping pong in June. Unfortunately for the Suns, the pick that could have netted them another stud will now be better served if they cashed it in for better odds at winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Luckily for Arizonians, the Suns also have a pair of European prospects with the teenage Maciej Lampe and the rights to Milos Vujanic, who’s still enjoying his European Vacation. Before the trade deadline is over, Bryan Colangelo might have to make that tough decision to sacrifice some of that youth for a better bench for a championship run, because the Suns are in a good position to win one this year.

True. The Suns recently traded Lampe, along with Jacobson & Vroman to the Hornets for vagabond Jimmy Jackson. Jackson will provide the media with the veteran presence they need to write about, and he’ll provide the Suns with deadly outside shooting. Consider that he hasn’t shot less than 40% from beyond the arc in 3 years, and Phoenix attempts the most treys in the NBA, and it’s a match made in heaven.

For an NBA elite team that has dropped 6 of their last 7, Phoenix is still in a good position. Despite a slip in the standings, the Suns post season prospects are better off today than they were when I wrote about them for numerous reasons. The first is they acquired a legitimate 6th man in Jackson, who will fit in their Wild West shooting gang. Secondly, they still have tradeable assets to patch up their weak bench. Lots of teams might be interested in the Bulls pick, even though it’s lost a lot of it’s value since December. Jackson’s arrival means that the Joe Johnson rumors will pick up steam heading into the deadline. It’s possible that some team will take a shot at getting Milos Vujanic to stop listening to David Bowie, and come play in the NBA.

Finally, the Jackson deal shows that management is willing to part with their youth to win it all. Lots of teams play it conservative, trying not to ruin “team chemistry”, or don’t have anything left to use as bait. Right now the Suns are still holding all of the chips.

Two Points For Herb

What will new coach Herb Williams bring to the Knicks? Here are two points that I’m most interested in.

1. Overall team improvement.

Improving on the Knicks win/loss record is the highest priority right now, but I’m going to concentrate on the team’s offensive & defensive rating (also known as points per possession). Why? Studies show that a team’s pythagorean record (simply a record based on their points scored & allowed) predicts how a team will do the next year better than their actual record. But more importantly I’m interested in what kind of coach Herb Williams is. We don’t know if he’s an offensive or defensive minded coach. Watching how the Knicks perform on both ends of the court will give insight into his style of coaching. Also I’m interested in the Knicks’ defense which has been awful all season. Can the current group improve with better coaching, or will Isiah need do get some better defenders in the offseason?

.......	RANK	pts/poss
Offense 17th 101.0
Defense 24th 104.3

2. Youth Movement

With the Garden Front Office considering (gasp) “rebuilding”, the Knicks will need younger cheaper talent. Fortunately New York already has some future holdings on their roster, but those players will never mature unless they are thrown into the fray.

Whether it’s his bullying of Dikemebe Mutombo for a rebound on Friday, or his blocking of Keith Van Horn and going into the camera row to retrieve the ball on Sunday, Mike Sweetney shows flashes of brilliance every night. Despite his skill, Sweets was only getting 16 minutes a night under the old regime. His Player Efficiency Rating, (18.6 third on the team), is fueled by efficient low post scoring, and tenatious rebounding. I’m concentrating on Sweetney’s minutes under Herb, because it’s undeniable that giving him playing time is beneficial to the team in the short and long term.

One word captures Trevor Ariza’s future: intriguing. I wrote about him in November, and my opinion of him hasn’t changed since:

Actually Ariza’s skills make him a Jekyl & Hyde player. He’s calm & confident in transition, or when the focus is not on him in the half court. One play in the first quarter exemplifies Ariza’s strengths. He stole the ball near midcourt, and beat out everyone to the ball and laid it in leaving everyone else trailing behind him on the play. It looked like Ariza was jogging while everyone else was running at full speed. Clearly, he was in his element.

On the other hand, Ariza looks lost in the half court game. His first jumper rebounded high over the backboard, causing him to loose faith in his shot. By my count, he passed up 3 open jump shots in the first half. The other end of the court didn’t offer any solace for Ariza, where his one-on-one defense was lacking.

Many people think that “Air Riza” is a good defender because his athletic ability and instincts get him 2.2 steals per 40 minutes (first on the Knicks). However, he has lapses when it comes to one-on-one defense. Even Desmond Mason blew past him a few times on Sunday. For the time being it looks like the Knicks won’t be able to rely on him day in and day out. There are times when his flashy rebounding, getting to the free throw line, and propensity to steal will make him look like a future All Star. But there will be other nights when his matador defense and lousy shooting (41% eFG) will make Herb Williams wish he was still an assistant coach.

Some coaches tend to rely on veterans because they’re too impatient to live with a rookie’s mistakes. Herb Williams has shown that he’s not that kind of skipper, by making Ariza his starting SF Sunday. The Knicks coach will come under fire the days that Ariza doesn’t produce, especially with fan favorite Jerome Williams on the bench. How many minutes Ariza gets will show how committed Herb is to developing his young players.

NAME....	MIN	PER	eFG
Sweetney 16.3 18.6 54%
Ariza... 15.8 12.4 41%

Coaching Change Not Always The Cure

This morning the Knicks, who dropped 9 of their last 10, announced that their coach Lenny Wilkens (1332-1155, 54%) would step down. For the time being, New York will replace the winningest coach in history with the coach having the highest win percentage. Herb Williams (1-0, 100%) may give Knick fans some hope that he can turn the season around, but do midseason coaching changes work?

I looked back over the last 5 seasons and checked every team that made a midseason coaching change:

YEAR	TEAM	W	L	Net W%	Team W%
2000 PHO 13 7 0% 65%
2004 NJN 22 20 10% 57%
2001 SEA 6 9 17% 54%
2000 DET 28 30 10% 51%
2004 NYK 15 24 16% 48%
2002 PHO 25 26 -14% 44%
2004 BOS 22 24 -9% 44%
2001 BOS 12 22 15% 44%
2003 ATL 11 16 3% 43%
2004 PHI 21 31 0% 40%
2002 NYK 10 9 -21% 37%
2000 WAS 14 30 8% 35%
2004 PHO 8 13 -4% 35%
2003 VAN 0 8 38% 34%
2003 LAC 19 39 1% 33%
2002 DEN 9 17 -2% 33%
2004 CHI 4 10 -1% 28%
2000 VAN 4 18 12% 27%
2002 GSW 8 15 -13% 26%
2004 ORL 1 10 19% 26%
2002 CHI 4 21 15% 26%
2000 GSW 6 21 1% 23%
2003 CLE 8 34 3% 21%
2000 LAC 11 34 -14% 18%

The wins and losses are the team’s record under the first coach. The next column (Net W%) is the gain the team made under the new coach. So if you look at the first team, the 2000 Suns played exactly the same after Danny Ainge decided being a family guy was more important than being a coach. The last column (Team W%) is the team’s winning percentage at the end of the year.

Based on the other teams that have made coaching changes, the statistical probability for a Knick turnaround is lukewarm. Overall those teams were 281-488 before the coaching change and 448-748 under new management. For those that aren’t scoring at home, that’s 37% with the first coach, and a nearly identical 38% with the replacement. Although 14 of 24 teams improved by changing skippers mid-sail, their average record was a disappointing 30-52. Looking at the teams which most resemble the Knicks (winning percentage from 39% to 49%) isn’t optimistic either. Those teams averaged 38 wins on the season. A bit lower than the expectations New Yorkers had in October.

Intuitively the teams that improved most were the worst: the 0-8 Grizzlies, the 1-10 Magic, the 4-21 Bulls, and the 4-18 Grizzlies. But not all the top gainers were lovable losers. The 2001 Sonics were 6-9 when they gave Paul Westphal a Tony LaRussa-esque quick hook. Westphal’s early removal was due to a personality clash with Gary Payton, and under the defensive minded McMillan Seattle would finish with a record of 44-38. Another squad giving inspiration to the 2005 Knicks are the 2004 Knicks. Don Chaney was on line ready to buy New York a second straight lottery ticket, when he was replaced with Lenny Wilkens. Wilkens went 23-19, and gave the Knicks their first playoff appearance in 2 years.

No one can say how the rest of the season plays out for Herb’s Knicks. There is no question that New York’s downfall has been their defense. For New York to get back to their winning ways, there are two questions that must be answered. The first question is: has the Knicks inability to play defense the players’ or the coach’s fault? Secondly if better coaching can make New York better at protecting their basket, does Herb Williams have the ability to get this type of effort out of his players? One thing is for certain, a coaching change alone isn’t the panacea that will instantly fix a team’s woes.

Marbury is the Problem

[Today’s column comes to us from KnickerBlogger Point Guard Specialist David Crockett, Ph.D. David is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com. This article was originally written earlier this week, but was bumped by the Editor In Chief in an effort to improve international relations. It has been published in it’s original form.]

The past two games against the Chicago Bulls should not be cause to overreaction here in Knick Nation. No one really has any good reason to expect this team to be a vast improvement over last year’s edition, even when healthy. It may be a tad more exciting than last season’s edition, but it will not jell into a good basketball team. This is life in the NBA’s salary cap purgatory, a place the Knicks seem to have taken up permanent residence in the penthouse apartment. On the bright side, at least some cap relief is on the way. This summer the contracts of Vin Baker, Penny Hardaway, and Tim Thomas enter their final seasons. If I am not mistaken so does Moochie Norris’s contract, either through option or buyout. My hope is that Isiah Thomas thinks very seriously about preserving roster spots for young developing players, not merely dealing those contracts for someone else’s mistake.

Having said that, let me also offer Isiah Thomas another piece of sage advice. This offseason trade Stephon Marbury while you still can. In every sense Thomas has tied his own fate, and that of the franchise to Marbury’s considerable offensive talent. In many respects Marbury has lived up to what could have been reasonably expected based on past performance. Offensively, if one considers shooting prowess, ability to create scoring opportunities for others, and propensity for turnovers Marbury may well indeed be the league’s best point guard. He is certainly among the best. He is 4th in overall PER 2nd in eFG%, 2nd in assist ratio, and tied for best turnover ratio among players at his position according to the Knickerblogger’s stat page.

Player.............	PER	eFG%	Ast-r	TO-r
Dwyane Wade (Mia).. 24.10 49.6 23.4 12.5
Steve Nash (Pho)... 22.49 57.0 41.1 11.8
Allen Iverson (Phi) 22.47 44.6 19.1 10.3
Stephon Marbury(NY) 21.98 50.7 29.6 10.3

These are indeed impressive accomplishments that are far too often dismissed by sports pundits who appear contractually obligated to promote Jason Kidd as the archetypal point guard at the expense of all others. Then, as the syllogism goes, sense Marbury is a different kind of point guard than Kidd he must be inferior to Kidd.

My own suspicions about Marbury at the time of the trade were that he was a selfish, shoot-first guard, who could not run the screen-roll. Whether Marbury is selfish is one of those debates that will continue to rage between his supporters and detractors around the league. What I think we can conclude however, is that on offense Marbury creates scoring opportunties for other players through his penetration. He takes 36% of his own shots in close. This was second only to the hyper-athletic Wade who takes 38% of his shots in close, even more if one counts dunks and tip-ins. (Iverson takes 30% and Nash 20%.) He also runs the screen-roll well, particularly with Kurt Thomas. This is a more subjective assessment but I certainly have no problem with the way Marbury runs the screen-roll. Another subjective assessment: his offensive game has matured. He’s much less prone to the “heat check” hoisted jump shots that are basically as good as turnovers. Earlier in his career he had the shot selection of Jamal Crawford but appears to have grown out of settling for the long jumper. Virtually, no matter how one slices it Marbury is an elite offensive player – not just for his position but in the league. But, does he make others around him better? I suppose the answer to the question is in the eye of the beholder to some extent. What we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty though is that he creates scoring opportunities for his teammates. He penetrates off the dribble more than any other player in the league (other than Wade). As it concerns creating opportunities he more than fulfills expectations in that part of the job description.

So why move him? In a word: defense. 82games.com lists counterpart’s production as its primary defensive metric. Opponent’s production is a seriously flawed metric for evaluating power forwards and centers, whose responsibility for defensive rotation seemingly overstates their defensive liabilities relative to the backcourt. However it appears to be a reasonable measure of the backcourt’s defensive contributions. In Marbury’s case specifically, since he plays nearly 40 mpg virtually all of the opposing point guard’s production comes against him. Look at opposing PG’s production against the same group of players.

Player.............	PER	eFG%	Close% Ast48	TO48 
Dwyane Wade (Mia)*. 13.9 42.4 26 7.3 2.7
Steve Nash (Pho)... 14.4 47.9 23 8.3 3.6
Allen Iverson (Phi) 12.0 44.1 22 9.6 3.8
Stephon Marbury(NY) 15.9 46.1 27 8.5 3.8

* In Wade’s case, since he has played some SG and SF I used only opposing PG figures on 82games.com

Marbury allows by far the highest opponent’s PER, almost a full point above league average (set at 15). He is second worst to Nash in opponent’s shooting. He is worst in giving up penetration (as measured by % shots in close – a conservative measure), and unlike Dwyane Wade’s Heat the Knicks have no shotblockers protecting his back, or the rim for that matter. It is tempting in one respect to simply offset Marbury’s defensive liabilities against his phenomenal offensive production and live with the difference. But that would miss the point. Marbury’s incredible capacity to penetrate creates scoring opportunities for both he and his teammates. The opposite is true of his defense. Marbury’s defensive indifference, propensity to be beaten off the dribble, unwillingness to fight through screens, and freelancing create easy scoring opportunities for opponents, putting his teammates in a terrible bind. Unlike him, they cannot necessarily shoot their way out of a poor defensive showing. I would suggest that even if the team were blessed with much better interior defenders its defensive efficiency might not improve much, if at all. The guards allow so much penetration that many opponents’ shots are taken in high percentage areas.

At this point in Marbury’s career it seems unlikely that he is going to devote himself more fully to defense for more than a quarter here or there. Thus, even if the Knicks are fortunate enough to escape salary cap hell in the next 2 seasons, how can the team construct a title contender with Marbury as its focal player? I argue that it cannot. The team cannot surround him with enough offensive talent to offset his defensive liabilities with more scoring, a la Dallas of two seasons ago. Nor can the Knicks construct themselves like the San Antonio Spurs of three seasons ago, surrounding Marbury with 2 shot blockers and another perimeter defensive stopper. In order to do either Isiah Thomas would have to be perfect in all of his moves for the next 4-5 seasons. The far more sensible approach would be to attempt to build around another player where the gap between his offensive contributions and defensive liabilities is not nearly so wide.

International Relations Part 2

Scott Carefoot runs RaptorBlog.com, the self-proclaimed “best Raptors fan site – now and forever”. In a tradition that began last season, we wrote guest blogs on each other’s sites before a Knicks-Raptors game. Here, Scott offers a preview of the new-look Raptors before Wednesday’s match in Toronto. KnickerBlogger returns the favor on his site.

“Addition by subtraction.” It’s one of those sports cliches that sound neat at first but nonsensical if you really think about it. The theory is that a team can improve after a negative influence is removed. Bill Simmons calls it “The Ewing Theory” in reference to his friend’s notion that the Knicks in the Patrick Ewing era always seemed to play better when he wasn’t in the lineup.

For years, Simmons has claimed that this theory applies to Vince Carter. Considering that the Raptors went 0-9 last season when Carter wasn’t in the lineup, I figured we could put that theory to bed as far as Vince and the Raptors were concerned. But a funny thing has happened to this team since Vince was traded to New Jersey for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and Alonzo Mourning’s dialysis machine…they’re playing more like a “true team” and winning more games.

In all fairness to Vince, the Raptors had one of the toughest schedules in the league leading up to his departure. Toronto had a 7-14 record after the loss to the Pistons on Dec. 8 when he suffered his final injury in a Raptors uniform. If I remember correctly, he was diagnosed with “sand in his vagina”. Anyway, Toronto lost three of the next four games leading up to the trade, so Vince left as Toronto had an 8-17 record.

The Post-Vince era got off to a rocky start as the Raptors dropped four of their next six games before they returned to Toronto for a four-day rest. Lo and behold, the Raptors opened 2005 by winning six of their next eight games and we now stand two games behind the three-way clusterhump of the Knicks, Celtics and Sixers for the Atlantic division lead.

This resurgence can be partially attributed to an easier schedule, as they played 19 of their first 31 games on the road followed by six of their next eight at home. Considering that they are 3-18 on the road after beating the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Monday, there’s no doubt this is a mitigating factor. But it shouldn’t take Knicks fans long to see how different this team is from the Raptors that lost 108-102 in New York on Nov. 27.

The only two starters that remain from that game’s lineup are Rafer Alston and Chris Bosh. Morris Peterson has replaced Vince Carter at shooting guard, Eric Williams has replaced Jalen Rose at small forward, and Rafael Araujo has replaced Loren Woods at center. This lineup is bigger, plays better defense and defers to Chris Bosh as the first scoring option. The 20-year-old sophomomre power forward has taken a quantum leap in 2005 with double-doubles in all eight games while averaging 20.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, two blocks and shooting 54 percent from the field.

Meanwhile, the Raptors have some pretty decent players coming off the bench. Jalen Rose has played his best basketball in years since he was relegated to an “instant offense” role after the trade. Donyell Marshall still provides rebounding and long bombs from the corners (he made three of them in a row late in the fourth quarter to slay Minnesota on Monday). Matt “The Red Rocket” Bonner has quietly been a rookie revelation, as the 2003 second-round pick has returned from a season in Italy to provide the Raptors with the league’s deadliest shooting touch off the bench. He’s third in the NBA with a .556 field goal percentage and most of those shots have been taken a few feet inside the three-point line.

In summary, I am as thrilled with this 16-23 team as it is humanly possible to be without narcotics. Now that Vince is gone, players like Bosh and Peterson have capitalized on their opportunities to take on leadership roles and there is no doubt that the team chemistry has improved as a result. It’s easy to root for this team, which is more than I can say for the Knicks. That’s not a cheap shot, it’s just that I could never root for a team managed by Isiah Thomas and coached by Lenny Wilkens. I expect this will be the last Lenny appearance in the Air Canada Centre before Isiah puts him in a home.