2010 Poll: Who Will Win the West?

Los Angeles Lakers (Vegas odds to win title: 5:2)
Unlike the East, the West has one clear favorite. Since trading for Pau Gasol, the Lakers have appeared in two straight Finals winning it all last year. Not content to let it ride, Los Angeles upgraded from Trevor Ariza to Ron Artest. This would be a gamble for most teams considering the Queensbridge native’s history, but Phil Jackson has always been able to keep individual personalities from ruining a team.

San Antonio Spurs (6:1)
In an attempt to keep up with the Lakers, the Spurs bolstered their roster in the off season. San Antonio added Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess which should give them a stronger rotation. But ultimately the Spurs will only go as far as their top 3. Last year the team suffered injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and if they lose either of them (or Tony Parker) they’ll fall short of any title hopes.

Denver Nuggets (8:1)
The conventional wisdom is that teams that finish strong are likely to have a momentum that continues to the next season. This seems logical since many great teams go through phases of success before winning a title. However there’s little evidence to support that claim, and many teams just get lucky in a playoff series. The 2009 Denver Nuggets will probably avoid the fate of the 2007 Warriors or the 2008 Hornets, as they are likely to see the second round in 2010. However I think Vegas is way too kind to their odds, and I would bet against them to make the Western Conference Finals, nevertheless win a championship.

Last year per-minute stud Chris Andersen had a monstrous playoffs, however over the last 3 years each of the Denver bigs (Andersen, Nene, and Martin) has missed nearly the whole year due to injury. And while the other teams in the conference improved this summer Denver merely tread water, losing Kleiza and adding Ty Lawson. Unless they get another playoff boost from a great per-minute shot blocking/rebounder buried on the bench, they’re not likely going to be able to compete against the Lakers for Western supremacy.

The Field (starting at 10:1)
According to Vegas, the Trailblazers rank 6th in the West, however Portland deserves a higher ranking. They had the West’s second highest expected winning percentage last year (68.4%), which correlates well with winning percentage the year after. Portland also had the NBA’s best offense powered by their fantastic rebounding. The Blazers return with their rotation in tact plus Andre Miller. Although not the ideal fit for the team, Miller provides an upgrade over Bayless & Blake. They’re much better than their 12:1 odds would indicate.

Ahead of Portland are Dallas and Utah at 10:1. The Mavericks added Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden, and Tim Thomas. Marion’s production slipped in Miami and Toronto, and Dallas is hoping that their offensive scheme will better fit his talents. Meanwhile the Jazz matched the offer sheet for Paul Millsap, and are hoping that they can collectively stay healthy. Finally the New Orleans Hornets swapped Chandler for Emeka Okafor, which could make them relevant in the West again.

{democracy:36}

Changes in the CBA Could Help the Fans

Back in February the New York Times published an article on agent David Falk and the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. In it, Falk said that the NBA owners will push for serious changes in the next CBA and since they are prepared to lock the players out for two seasons, they will likely get their changes approved. Two weeks ago the player’s union president, Billy Hunter, refuted the claims that the league will win on all fronts, saying the players would negotiate not surrender. As opposed to the overhaul Falk is suggesting, Hunter said the players will only agree to minor changes to the CBA. Some of the changes that Falk is proposing won’t affect the average fan, like the percentage split between players/owners or the age limit. However there are a few changes to the salary cap that could benefit the common follower.

Understanding the ramifications of the NBA’s salary cap can be difficult for the average viewer. The NBA has a soft cap, meaning all teams over the cap are unable to sign new free agents except for the mid-level exception (about $5/$6M per year) and the low level exception (about $1/$2M per year). Using the Bird exception a team over the cap can usually resign their own player. Additionally a team that is over the cap can only swap players whose annual salaries match. Although the rules are simple, their constraints make for strange results. For instance, last year the Blazers sent Zach Randolph to the Knicks for Steve Francis and Channing Frye. Randolph played nearly every game for the Knicks for a year and a half, while Portland instantly cut Francis, and Frye eventually fell out of the rotation. Yet the Blazers received the better end of the deal!

NBA trades aren’t evaluated at the talent level, but at the financial one. There’s a problem with the league when fans can’t analyze a trade without consulting an accountant. It’s hardly something you’d expect from a business in the entertainment field. The issue stems from guaranteed contracts, or more specifically bad contracts. Nearly all NBA contracts are guaranteed, which means that if a team cuts a player, his contract stays on the cap for its entire length. A player can be overpaid when a team misjudges his potential (Eddy Curry, Larry Hughes), the player regresses due to injury (Antonio McDyess, Darius Miles), or bad management (Jared Jeffries, Jerome James). Since NBA contracts can last 6 years, when a team hands an oversized contract to a player the effects last a long time. Once the contract is signed, the only option the team has to get out from its length is to trade for another player with a contract of similar size but shorter length. But from the league’s perspective, the unwanted contract isn’t removed. It is just redistributed to another team. Hence as these bloated contracts float from team to team until their final demise, the overpaid player becomes a burden on the entire league. It’s not a surprise that players with bad contracts are the ones that are frequently mentioned in trade rumors, since teams are always looking to move them.

While it’s easy to lay blame at the feet of the team presidents that hand out such ridiculous contracts, it’s ultimately the fans that end up suffering. One GM with a few bad moves can cripple a team for half a decade. It will take the Knicks two years post Isiah Thomas (on top of the four years with Zeke at the helm) to be able to get out from the salary cap landslide he created. But this isn’t isolated to the Knicks, because bad contracts are commonplace in the NBA. One misguided front office can hurt a team years after they have been removed.

Adding to the problem is the league’s tough stance on guaranteed contracts, which are seemingly written in stone. Darius Miles was given a contract extension by Portland back in 2004 that lasted until 2010. He played his last game for the Blazers back in the 2006 season. The team petitioned the league to remove his contract from their books due to injury, and the league capitulated. However this year Miles has resurfaced to play in a handful of games for Memphis, and the league has applied his salary back to Portland’s cap. Also this year the Knicks received Cuttino Mobley in a trade, who was forced to retire due to a heart condition. New York was denied a disabled player exception from the league, even though Mobley’s “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy had progressed to the point that playing professional basketball could be life-threatening.

The two other major American sports don’t have this problem. Major League Baseball’s lack of a salary cap means teams are able to sign any player regardless of how much the team has already spent. Unfortunately this model would be a disaster for the NBA because the league isn’t as stable and lucrative as baseball’s. However the NFL’s model would be a good fit. Football has a hard cap, which means teams are not allowed to exceed their cap number. And to allow teams to accomplish this goal, most contracts in the NFL are not guaranteed. According to wikipedia:

Because of this treatment, NFL contracts almost always include the right to cut a player before the beginning of a season. If a player is cut, his salary for the remainder of his contract is neither paid nor counted against the salary cap for that team. A highly sought-after player signing a long term contract will usually receive a signing bonus, thus providing him with financial security even if he is cut before the end of his contract.

Which leads us back to the NBA’s next CBA. Falk suggests the owners will push for a hard cap and shorter contracts. And I hope they win, because the soft cap/guaranteed contract is bad for the league and its fans. Imagine if player deals were only guaranteed for the first 3 years. Almost instantly the Knicks could have jettisoned any unwanted players and reshape their team in a single offseason. On his first day Donnie Walsh could have cut Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, Jerome James, Jamal Crawford, and Malik Rose. With the players cut from other teams, Walsh could have had a wider berth of players to chose from when building the 2009 roster. Unfortunately the current cap rules forced Walsh to stick with these undesirable players and allowed him to trade them only for matching salaries (and in Eddy Curry’s case – not at all). It’s easy to see why this would benefit teams and their fans. Bad franchises would be able to fix their mistakes quicker, which means fans wouldn’t have to wait years for the hometown squad to turn things around. And since winning correlates to ticket sales more than anything else, it means the owners would see more money in their pockets.

Switching to a hard cap would probably add one more added benefit to the league: parity. The NFL’s popularity can be partly attributed to the ability of teams to make single season turnarounds. This means that every franchise with competent management (everyone but the Oakland Raiders) has a chance to make the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl. Last year the Dolphins, Falcons, and Cardinals had years that surpassed their fans’ wildest dreams. Over the last three years, the NFC has seen a different winner in 3 out of 4 of their divisions. In that same time span the NBA has had only 1 of their 6 divisions with three different winners (the Southwest). With the current rules, rebuilding in the NBA is a slow and tedious effort. Allowing GMs to cut their players without long term harm means that more players would become free agents each year. This increased player movement would give teams more flexibility to address their needs.

Of course the biggest hurdle in this change would be the players. Overall shorter contracts probably wouldn’t fly with players, since that curbs the earning power of the sports’ best players. And many players would balk at non-guaranteed contracts, since that wouldn’t allow them get that lucrative 5 or 6 year deal for financial security. However by asking for non-guaranteed contracts instead of shorter ones, the league can keep their top earners happy (who would cut LeBron or Kobe?) while making a pitch to the underpaid. For instance if teams weren’t bound by large contracts to undeserving players, there would be more money to sign those who merit it. In other words, some of the younger Knicks might be splitting Stephon Marbury’s $19M per year. And Portland could take the nearly $40M they’re giving to Steve Francis, Raef LaFrentz, and Darius Miles and use that on some of the players that have actually played for the team this year.

Perhaps to even things out for the players, the league would have to make the concession to raise the salary cap. Currently the cap is at $57M, but since it’s a soft cap teams can exceed that number. Using the salary data from hoopshype, it seems that the league paid out an average of $72M this year. Although some players may object to such a concession, there seems to be room for negotiation. And it does redistribute the wealth to players that deserve it more. If there’s resentment in NBA locker rooms over disproportionate salaries, this would go a long way to remedy it. When some players are getting paid more than they are worth, it hurts both the league and the players that deserve more money. And last but not least, the fans.

Iverson for Billups/McDyess

http://www.nba.com/2008/news/11/03/nuggets.pistons.trade.ap/index.html

The Denver Nuggets have agreed to a deal that would send Allen Iverson to the Pistons in exchange for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess, sources have told TNT analyst David Aldridge.

There is one sticking point to the deal, though. McDyess does not want to go to Denver, and a source close to him says “he will not put on a Nuggets uniform” and may opt to retire.

Because of McDyess’s objection, the Nuggets may waive the mandatory physical each player in a trade must take in order for the league to approve any deal. McDyess may be seeking a buyout of the remainder of his contract (two years, $13.6 million).

If True, Walsh Move a Step Forward

Although there has been no official word, a few different sources have reported that the Knicks have hired Donnie Walsh to oversee their franchise. Walsh isn’t the sexy move that Colangelo or West would have been, and his tenure in Indiana isn’t without it’s flaws. However for the Knicks in the Dolan era, playing it safe shows a marked improvement.

Since Dolan took sole possession, many of the the Knicks moves have been risky get rich quick schemes. Some of the hallmark transactions include trading for Glenn Rice, Antonio Mcdyess, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Eddy Curry, and Zach Randolph. If these deals have one thing in common, it’s that each one failed to account for the Knicks long term future. Rice was exchanged in favor of Patrick Ewing’s massively expiring contract. McDyess was gotten in lieu of the #8 pick (Nene). Meanwhile the rest took away the Knicks financial flexibility, not to mention four first round picks and a few young players. But despite surrendering all this, New York finds itself at the bottom of the league hoping to lose games in order to get a better draft pick.

During Walsh’s tenure, the Pacers rarely went for the big move. The early ’90s Pacers were built primarily through the draft. Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Antonio Davis, and Dale Davis were taken in successive years. Meanwhile the early ’00s Pacers were constructed through shrew trades. Walsh paid pennies on the dollar for Jermaine O’Neal (Dale Davis) and Ron Artest (Jalen Rose & Travis Best). These deals are the antithesis of the recent New York acquisitions.

Compared to Walsh, Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas were inexperienced, impatient, and incompetent GMs. Fans were happy at the trade deadline this year when New York didn’t make any deals. Not because the team didn’t need to move players, but because Isiah Thomas didn’t have a chance to further damage the team. With Walsh at the helm, New Yorkers won’t hold their collective breaths anytime the ESPN ticker announces a Knick trade. If Donnie Walsh assumes the helm, he will be the first capable GM in the James Dolan era. And that’s a small step forward for a franchise wrapping up its 8th straight losing season.

2/29 Two Quick Links

NYSUN: Vandeweghe Would Succeed Only if Isiah Isn’t Around

[Vandeweghe’s] record does come with some warts. He served as general manager of the Nuggets from 2001 through 2006, helping to rebuild Denver from a lottery team into a playoff contender. The key deal was, not surprisingly, a trade with the Knicks — he got Marcus Camby and the rights to big man Nene from New York in return for Antonio McDyess. He also made a solid move when he signed point guard Andre Miller to a free-agent deal.
However, the rest of his résumé looks spottier. He gave up three first-round picks in the sign-and-trade deal with New Jersey for Kenyon Martin, and Martin’s seven-year, $91 million contract has been one of the league’s worst values. He also passed on Amare Stoudemire in the 2002 draft … twice. One of them was the Nene choice, and the other was all-time bust Nikoloz Tskitishvili.
That said, if he’s hired by the Knicks his biggest move will be choosing the next coach … or rather, that’s what it should be. If he’s stuck with Isiah, he probably won’t accomplish much.
Nonetheless, it would offer a very slight glimmer of hope that perhaps things might get less awful. He’d presumably have the power to start trading the many misshapen pieces of this roster. And one hopes, at least, he’d have Dolan’s commitment to a genuine rebuilding project as opposed to the slapdash quick fix Isiah tried when he took over.
But it’s puzzling that Dolan can’t realize the huge public relations boost he’d get from cutting the cord with Isiah entirely. The fan base would be rejuvenated, to the point that they’d actually be willing to sit tight and support the team through the inevitable multi-year rebuilding job.

Diminishing Returns and the Value of Offensive and Defensive Rebounds
More Diminishing Returns

In some ways I think this study provides stronger evidence for the impact of diminishing returns on defensive rebounding than my previous post. The charts allow one to easily see the effects of diminishing returns, and by looking at the rebounding of all the players in each lineup, the issues brought up by coaches potentially pairing good rebounders with poor rebounders are largely eliminated.

The specific marginal values found of 0.8 for offensive rebounds and 0.3 for defensive rebounds are also interesting. These match closely with how John Hollinger’s PER weights offensive rebounds relative to defensive rebounds (ORB are weighted by the league DRB%, which is around 0.7, and DRB are weighted by the league ORB%, which is around 0.3). And again, these values suggest that Dave Berri’s Wins Produced greatly overvalues players with high defensive rebounding percentages and undervalues players with low defensive rebounding percentages because the system assumes that each player DRB contributes a full DRB on the team level. Alternative Win Score (or AWS), the variation on Wins Produced suggested by Dan Rosenbaum in his paper, “The Pot Calling the Kettle Black”, weights ORB at 0.7 and DRB at 0.3. While these values are based on an assumption and not backed by evidence (just like Berri’s assumption that both should be weighted at 1 is not backed by any evidence), the evidence from the study I have done here (and Cherokee_ACB’s study) suggests that AWS (and PER) may be a lot closer to the mark on rebounding than Wins Produced.

The (Fourth) Winter of Our Discontent

On December 20th, 2003, a bad New York Knicks team defeated an even worse Atlanta Hawks team, 103-92. The starters for the Knicks in that game were Allan Houston, Antonio McDyess, Keith Van Horn, Dikembe Mutombo and Howard Eisley (do note that 3/5th of the starting five are no longer in the league, and a fourth is so old that he used to babysit Julio Franco). The reserves were Kurt Thomas, Charlie Ward, Frank Williams, Shandon Anderson and Michael Doleac (3/5th of THEM are ALSO out of the league now, with Doleac hanging on by a thread).

Two days later, on December 22nd, 2003 – four years ago today, the Knicks hired Isiah Thomas as their new President and General Manager. Their next game was December 23rd, and appropriately enough, they lost. Read More

The Worst Article Of 2007

Folks it’s about that time of year again, to announce the worst article of 2007. While there were many fine candidates throughout the year there’s one article that was published just 2 days ago that has surpassed all others. I’m proud to say that this work is right up there with previous winners such as Charlie Rosen’s most overrated list, and Frank Hughes 2004 piece. The winner for KnickerBlogger’s worst article of 2007 is brought to us by Lou V. of paperbacknovel titled “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck.. Anymore, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do (Suck).”

I don’t know what the internet comparable version of “don’t judge a book by it’s color”, but maybe it should be “judge an article by it’s title.” It certainly applies to this year’s worst article winner. Notice the improper use of the ellipsis (two dots instead of three), and how the author has to add the final “(Suck)” in parenthesis because he decided to throw in the word “Anymore”. If the author wanted a better title, he could have dropped both words for a simpler title: “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do.” But why go for clarity when you’re aiming for much lower?

While I have to admit I thought at first that this would be an Onion-esque satirical piece, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t. The author, Lou V., starts off by bashing the local media for “getting their [readers’] attentions off real economic and political issues by parading sports and the lottery in front of them.” A reasonable start to an article, as I’ve certainly taken my shots at the mainstream news. Unfortunately he follows it with this monstrocity:

… the Knicks are fine. They remain as they were to start the season — a young, athletic team with guys who can score; they have great chemistry, believe in their coach, and are progressively playing better defense… They’re not a championship team yet, but they’re a good team; a playoff-caliber team.

I guess if you’re going to define “good” as being one of the worst teams in the league, then the 5-11 Knicks are good. By those standards, the 6-10 Clippers are great, the 7-8 Bucks are awesome and the 8-9 Nets are unbeatable. Just about the only thing true in these sentences is that the Knicks are a young athletic team with guys who can score. They do not have good chemistry, and they certainly don’t believe in their coach. Their defense hasn’t progressively improved, in fact it’s been about the same for the last 2 years. No the Knicks aren’t a championship team. No the Knicks aren’t a good team. No the Knicks aren’t a playoff-caliber team. Of course the author throws in this nugget in the same paragraph: “… James Dolan, owner, who has proven to be a stand-up, moral guy …” More on that later.

In his next section Lou V is a bit more sensible. Lou talks about how Isiah was “castigated” by the Renaldo Balkman selection, and states that Larry Brown was viewed favorably due to racism. There’s definitely a valid point to be made with Balkman. Many in the mainstream media criticized Thomas relentlessly for the selection, one that is looking better and better by the day. And yes claiming Larry Brown was liked not because he is one of the better coaches of his generation, flaws and all, because of the color of his skin is one of the more reasonable claims of this column. Read on.

The next section titled “Why Isiah Thomas Doesn’t Suck” is laughable. The author claims that “Isiah has turned the Knicks around in 3 years at the helm as GM.” and “Most GM’s in the NBA would exchange their best three big men for [Curry-Randolph-Lee]in a heartbeat.” I guess you could debate that Isiah has only been around for 3 years, since he is 19 days short of his fourth season. However what’s not debatable is that he’s turned the team around. The Knicks have only bested their ’03 record of 37 wins once in Isiah’s tenure, and are on track for only 25 wins this season.

But it’s the author’s second assertion that has me thinking. How many teams would trade their top 3 big men for the Knicks? Well I think I can safely omit Boston, Orlando, Toronto, San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah, Dallas, and Houston due to their star power at those positions. I might add Miami (Shaq), Chicago (Ben, Thomas, Noah + didn’t want Curry in the first place), Denver (Camby, Nene, K-Mart), Clippers (Brand), Portland (Oden), and Memphis (Gasol). Then there are teams where these three wouldn’t fit in like Golden State (Nellie-ball), and Detroit (‘Sheed/McDyess). Not counting teams that wouldn’t do it for reasons of fiscal irresponsibility, I count 16 teams that wouldn’t trade for our trio tower. Of course I guess a team like the Nets or Lakers might (Bynum?), so Knick fans might want to put in an order for that Kwame Brown or Nenad Krstic jersey they’ve been pining for.

What puts this article at the top of my list is the sidebar containing “Isiah Thomas’s Knicks’ Resume.” Some of the gems:

“Zach Randolph and Fred Jones for Channing Frye? This may go down as one of the great Knick trades ever.”

“Acquired Tim Thomas from Milwaukee and center Nazr Mohammed from Atlanta in a three-team trade…. Mohammed played some good ball in NY, but then helped Isiah rebuild with the trade listed below this one. Tim Thomas played some ball in NY, but then helped Isiah get Eddy Curry from Chicago. This Feb 2004 trade was a fantastic setup trade for the Knicks.”

“Despite the criticisms, Marbury has played a lot of all-star basketball in NY. The final word is still out on this trade as there is still that conditional 1st-round pick hanging out there in 2009 or 2010 that Phoenix gets from NY, but so far, NY got Stephon Marbury for a bunch of crap — including Knick-franchise-of-the-future-according-to-Stu-Laden, Michel Lampe. Penny Hardaway was used by Knicks to help get Stevie Francis, who was used to help get Zach Randolph. Phoenix used this trade to get $7-million under the cap, enabling them to sign free agent Steve Nash, and catapulting them to an elite team. This trade looks good for both teams right now, for different reasons.”

The Knicks best trades of all time: Dave DeBusschere for Bellamy; Riordan and Stallworth for Monroe; Oakley for Camby; and Zach for Frye? Um yeah… The author also credits Isiah for drafting Trevor Ariza and Demitrius Nichols, ignoring the fact that the first was traded and the second’s expulsion from the club was a classic blunder.

Not to be outdone, the author concludes with “Why James Dolan Doesn’t Suck.” He states that “Dolan’s handling of the Anucka Browne Sanders case is prototypical of his high moral fiber.” I guess I couldn’t have said that better myself.