And So This Is Christmas

But with all respects to John Lennon, war is not over, at least for the Knicks and Bulls. This is a rivalry that heated up in the mid-90s. Heck it went nuclear. Between 1989 and 1996, these two teams ended each others season 6 of 8 times. During this time, New York was Chicago’s toughest adversary.

1989 - Bulls 4-2 - Second Round
1991 - Bulls 3-0 - First Round
1992 - Bulls 4-3 - Second Round
1993 - Bulls 4-2 - Third Round
1994 - Knicks 4-3 - Second Round
1996 - Bulls 4-1 - Second Round

Granted this match-up doesn’t hold the same gravitas as it once was, but it’s no longer the yawn fest it recently has been. Currently Chicago and New York hold the third and fifth positions respectively in the Eastern Conference. Hence there is a jostling to be the best of the second tier teams after Boston, Miami, and Orlando. Winning this battle is important, because it’s the difference between a first round sweep and a fighting chance at the second round.

The teams are similar in some respects. Both feature strong play from the PG and C positions, and both play at a fast tempo. In fact they play at exactly the same pace, 96.6 poss/g, which is good enough for second in the league. However they differ with respect to how they accomplish their goals. Chicago is 19th on offense and 9th on defense, while New York is 6th on offense and 22nd on defense. Chicago has the league’s best defensive rebounding team, an area the Knicks are below average (21st). On the other hand the Bulls turn the ball over too often (25th), which is New York’s only defensive strength (tied for 13th). The pace should be vacillating, but don’t expect the Knicks to walk over the Bulls defense.

Some notes from ESPN’s Stats and Information:

* Christmas Day is the anniversary of Bernard King setting the Knicks franchise record with 60 points against the Nets (1984). But, the Knicks lost the game 120-114. Bernard King’s performance in 1984 still stands as the single-game scoring mark to beat on Christmas Day.

                               Points
12/25/84 Bernard King, NY        60 vs NJ
12/25/61 Wilt Chamberlain, PHI   59 at NY
12/25/66 Rick Barry, SF          50 at CIN
12/25/63 Jerry West, LAL         47 at NY
12/25/02 Tracy McGrady, ORL      46 vs DET

Former New York Knick Dick McGuire, Knicks President Donnie Walsh, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bernard King and Patrick Ewing (R) stand on the floor when the Knicks honor franchise legends at halftime of the game against the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 23, 2009. (UPI Photo/John Angelillo) Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

*The Knicks have already beaten the Bulls once this season. The Knicks went into the United Center and beat the Bulls 120-112 behind a career-high 30 points (off the bench) from Toney Douglas and 20 points and 10 assists from Raymond Felton. New York had 70 points at the half (and led by 18).

*The return of Carlos Boozer has made all the difference to the Bulls, who have finally found a solid low-post scorer. Since Boozer’s first game, he has 128 points in the paint, one of the top marks in the NBA.

Most Points in the Paint Since Dec. 1, 2010
                   Points in Paint
Amar'e Stoudemire, NY    180
Blake Griffin, LAC       172
Zach Randolph, MEM       146
Dwyane Wade, MIA         146
LaMarcus Aldridge, POR   140
Russell Westbrook, OKC   134
Dwight Howard, ORL       130
Luis Scola, HOU          130
Carlos Boozer, CHI       128
Kevin Love, MIN          128
Tony Parker, SA          128

*Joakim Noah had surgery on his right thumb on Dec. 16. He is expected to be out 8-10 weeks, according to media reports. The Bulls will especially miss his rebounding.

*Derrick Rose is averaging 8.4 assists per game this season, ranking eighth in the NBA. Rose is also averaging 24.3 points per game, ranking seventh in the NBA. This feat is unremarkable in terms of NBA history. It has been done many times in the last five years alone. But it would be a milestone in Bulls history. Michael Jordan is the only Bulls player in franchise history to rank in the top 10 in both scoring and assists (1988-89).

*The Knicks have played a very easy schedule thus far. The combined win percentage of their opponents is only .433. Only the Lakers (.403) have played an easier schedule to this point.

New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire adjusts his glasses during the first quarter against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago on November 4, 2010. UPI/Brian Kersey Photo via Newscom

*Many people think that Amar’e Stoudemire is the front-runner for the MVP award this season. Not even Patrick Ewing finished in the top 3 in MVP voting.

Top 3 Finishes by Knicks in MVP Award Voting
                      Finish
1983-84 Bernard King     2
1969-70 Willis Reed      1
1968-69 Willis Reed      2
(award started in 1955-56)

*Amar’e Stoudemire has made 143 field goals this season inside of five feet. Stoudemire had made 145 field goals this season outside of five feet.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 23: Hawks fans dressed as Santa Claus cheer during the round 11 NBL match between the Wollongong Hawks and the Gold Coast Blaze at Wollongong Entertainment Centre on December 23, 2010 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Top 10 Ways the LeBron Special Goes Down

10. LeBron announces his decision 30 seconds into the special, then turns to stunned ESPN studio guy and says back to you.

9. James encourages viewing audience to play a drinking game with him. Every time an ESPN montage shows a dunk – drink!

8. LeBron reveals that we’re all in a sideways universe, and that we should be remembering soon that we are all friends. Except for Ben Linus.

7. James decides he’s going to remain in Cleveland, but instead of the Cavs selects to play for minor league baseball team the Akron Aeros. Says he needs to get out of Jordan’s shaddow & surpass his .202 batting average.

6. James announces he’s going to sign with Chicago. Newly signed free agent Carlos Boozer comes on stage with the contract. LeBron rips it up & throws it Boozer’s face yelling “SEE HOW IT FEELS?”

5. Citing too much pressure, LeBron decides to play in Miami as long as he’s considered the third wheel. Says he prefers to come of the bench and just be a regular NBA rotation player. Asks if anyone knows what kind of donuts Wade & Bosh like?

4. Steven A. Smith and LeBron James re-enact the infamous Piper’s Pit with Jimmy Snuka.

3. After 55 minutes of build-up including videos of James’ history, speculation of the future landscape of the NBA, and that cool touch screen ESPN uses for free agency LeBron says he’s staying in Cleveland. The result is 25,000 people tweet the same exact thing at the same exact time “WTF?”.

2. James announces that Akron is now an independent nation. A coronation ceremony follows, with James being crowned King to Devo performing “Whip-It.”

1. LeBron James says he’ll allow each team to give him one task. The first team that selects a task that he’s physically unable to do will be the team he chooses to sign with. The Cavs owner asks for a 720 slam dunk. LeBron takes the ball jumps in the air & spins twice before jamming it. The Bulls owner requests a blindfolded three point shot. LeBron covers his eyes & sinks it with ease. Miami owner challenges LeBron to score against their two best players, Bosh and Wade. LeBron beats Wade with a crossover and dunks on Bosh. The Knicks owner steps up and says “sign with the Clippers.” LeBron James says “New York it is!”

Three Or So Minutes With Mike Kurylo

Summoning my inner Andy Rooney, here are some things that I’m going to nitpick on.

John Krolik on where LeBron could go:

Say “screw it,” join Amar’e on the Knicks, run some great pick-and-rolls, make a lot of money, possibly become the A-Rod of basketball, win relatively few playoff games.

OK so it’s supposed to be a tongue in cheek remark primarily for humor, but there’s an ounce of truth to every joke. This swipe at D’Antoni’s playoff record riles me up, because under the surface it’s an extension of the cliche [only] defense wins championships. The common wisdom is that D’Antoni doesn’t care about defense, but according to Kevin Pelton, “D’Antoni’s teams have never been the defensive liabilities they were made out to be in the media.” Additionally implying that offensive minded coaches don’t win championships ignores the contrary. There are lots of defensive minded coaches that were unsuccessful in the playoffs: Mike Fratello, P.J. Carlesimo, Doug Collins. Larry Brown coached for 21 years until he finally won an NBA championship.

Every year there are 29 coaches that end the season without a new ring, so the inability to win a championship isn’t strictly a D’Antoni trait. The other LeBron-a-thon coaches have the same issues. Is Byron Scott a playoff risk because he was unable to win a title in New Jersey or couldn’t get out of the second round in New Orleans? Avery Johnson’s playoff record is worse than D’Antoni’s. In only 3 seasons, he managed to have back to back first round exits. One of those teams won an astonishing 67 games during the regular season.

Kelly Dwyer on Chris Duhon:

This is a good acquisition, for the Magic. A very, very good one, I’d say; and that’s coming from someone who has spent a good chunk of this decade ruing Duhon’s very presence and the strange hold he had on a very good (but very flawed) pro basketball coach and the resulting minutes allotment with a team located in the American Midwest. Chris can play, he can pick up plays very quickly, and he gives good effort.

To give Dwyer credit, the majority of his article is about how bad Duhon is. Nevertheless I could be convinced that Orlando signing him as a backup PG is a decent move. A solid move. A safe move. But a “very, very good one?” No way. If Nelson misses a chunk of time this year their fans are going to hate Duhon. If it happens deep in the playoffs, they’re screwed. The PG depth in free agency isn’t much, but compared to Felton & Ridnour, Duhon is awful. And let’s be blunt, Felton & Ridnour aren’t all that great themselves.

Playoff teams usually play it safe, instead of taking risks. Instead of choosing a PG that could win a playoff game, they went with one that they hope won’t lose one. They might not have landed one of the guys above, but maybe they could have gotten a player like Jordan Farmar. Compared to Duhon, Farmar is 4 years younger, a better defender, scores twice as many points with a sizable advantage in efficiency (TS% 53.5% to 50.1%).

[Note: I highly respect the work of Krolik and Dwyer. For instance Krolik’s most recent piece on LeBron James is stunningly beautiful and well thought out. It’s a prime example of what blogs do right, that newspapers get wrong. Newspapers have been focusing on the rumors, speculation, and hoopla. Krolik is quite reasonable and gets to the heart of the matter, in a profound manner. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read Ball Don’t Lie to get Dwyer’s keen opinion on any transaction or event in the league.]

Knicks Sign Amar’e

According to Adrian Wojnarowski, the New York Knicks have signed Amar’e Stoudemire to a 5 year $100M contract. For New York this is the first step in Donnie Walsh’s rebuilding plan which began in the summer of 2008. The Knicks seemed to be an obvious fit for Stoudemire, given Mike D’Antoni’s 4 and a half seasons in Phoenix. Although the Knicks haven’t ruled out a Lee-Amar’e pairing, it’s likely that Stoudemire will replace him as the team’s power forward/center. Last year STAT attempted free throws and blocked shots at more than double the rate, and provided more scoring at a higher efficiency. However he is an inferior rebounder, isn’t as good passing the ball, and comes with a greater price tag (unless Lee is lucky enough to find a taker for a max deal). Much like Lee he isn’t known for his defense.

The other big knock on Stoudemire is his knees, which is thought to be a liability. Amar’e missed almost all of 2006 due to microfracture surgery. But in 3 of the last 4 seasons he has played 79 games or more, and in the other one it wasn’t his knees that caused him to miss time. He suffered from a partially detached retina in 2009. Much like Fred Taylor, the injury label has stuck to Amar’e despite his recent good health. Injuries are rarely brought up with fellow free agent Chris Bosh, even though Bosh has missed more games than Stoudemire over the last 4 years (45 to 32).

Of the free agent power forwards on the market (excluding Dirk, who wasn’t truly available) none match Amar’e’s team’s success. In 7 seasons, Bosh’s Raptors have managed to be above .500 once. The most Boozer’s Jazz teams ever won in a season was 54 games, something that the Sun’s have matched or beaten 5 times. How much of the Suns’ success rested on Stoudemire’s production will be tested as they look to replace him with Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye.

All that is not to say that Stoudemire is undoubtedly the cream of the crop of the big men free agents. Bosh is 2 years younger, and has advantages with regards to rebounding and passing. And it’s arguable that dollar for dollar Amar’e is not an upgrade from David Lee.

But often perception trumps reality. For the Knicks this day isn’t necessarily about this signing, but the next one. And if grabbing Stoudemire, a 5 time All Star, nets New York another big free agent then the extra cost is undoubtedly worth it.

2010 Report Card: David Lee

This year the New York Knicks added a new wrinkle to their offense. A good portion of their half court set consisted of keeping David Lee on the perimeter with the ball, allowing him to orchestrate the offense. I’m not exactly sure why this was done, perhaps D’Antoni wanted to bring the opposing center on the perimeter to open the middle. Or perhaps the Knicks coach wished to experiment during a meaningless season.

In any case the General was up to the task, and notched the highest assist rate of his career (3.5 ast/36). Lee actually has a good touch passing the ball. He’s capable of the cross court pass, and near the top of the key he could hit an open teammate on a diagonal. In 2010 he was basically playing the point guard role in the half court set, selecting where the ball would go. He complemented this move to the exterior with his jump shooting, which seems to be ever improving.

David-Lee-Shooting-Perc

The numbers above are from HoopData, which doesn’t include Lee’s rookie year. Lee’s mid-range game appeared in 2008, and this year he’s added the deeper jump shot. From the chart above, he’s about equally proficient anywhere inside of 23 feet. The ability to hoist it up has allowed Lee to become a more voluminous scorer, as his pts/36 is almost double his rookie year output (11.0 to 19.6 pts/36).

But these positives did not occur without any drawbacks. First is Lee’s offensive rebounding, which dropped for the 3rd straight season to a career low of 2.7 reb/36. Secondly, playing Lee as the center instead of power forward hurt the team’s interior defense. The paint might as well have been in the Delta Quadrant for Knick defenders, because on most nights resistance was futile. Lee had a Zach Randolph-esque rate of blocked shots (Lee: 0.5, Randolph: 0.4 blk/36) which would be more livable from the power forward spot. But from the center position it was a clear detriment to the team.

Nonetheless Lee’s season was overall a success, especially when you consider that he made his first All Star appearance. Granted Lee isn’t an All Star caliber player like LeBron James or Dwight Howard are, but he showed that despite his flaws his strengths make him one of the league’s best big men.

Report Card (5 point scale):
Offense: 5
Defense: 1
Teamwork: 5
Rootability: 4
Performance/Expectations: 4

Final Grade: B+

Similarity Scores:

z-Sum FLName Year Tm PER TS eFG PTS ORB TRB AST STL BLK TOV
.000 David Lee 2010 NYK 22.2 58.4 54.5 19.6 2.7 11.3 3.5 1.0 0.5 2.3
.058 Carlos Boozer 2008 UTA 21.9 58.1 54.7 21.8 2.5 10.7 3.0 1.3 0.5 2.7
.112 Brad Daugherty 1992 CLE 23.0 62.9 57.0 21.3 2.6 10.4 3.6 0.9 1.1 2.5
.180 Jack Sikma 1982 SEA 20.6 55.9 48.0 19.0 2.6 12.3 3.3 1.2 1.3 2.5
.184 Terry Mills 1994 DET 17.7 55.2 52.1 17.9 2.5 8.7 2.3 0.8 0.8 2.0
.195 Brad Miller 2003 IND 19.3 57.9 49.7 15.1 2.9 9.6 3.1 1.0 0.7 1.9
.199 Shareef Abdur-Rahim 2003 ATL 20.0 56.6 48.7 18.8 2.0 7.9 2.8 1.0 0.4 2.4
.206 Mike Gminski 1986 NJN 19.0 59.4 51.7 19.0 2.9 9.5 1.9 0.8 1.0 2.0
.207 Otis Thorpe 1989 HOU 15.4 59.1 54.2 15.7 3.1 9.0 2.3 0.9 0.4 2.6
.215 Craig Smith 2010 LAC 16.9 59.9 57.1 17.1 2.8 8.4 2.5 1.0 0.7 2.6
.218 Charles Oakley 1990 NYK 15.9 58.0 52.4 14.6 4.2 11.9 2.4 1.0 0.3 2.7

After last year’s similarity scores (Jerome Whitehead? Loy Vaught?), I was a bit afraid of what Lee’s future may hold. But this year he seems to be on the right track with that high correspondence with Boozer. The list seems to be an accurate representation of Lee; players who score efficiently and can handle the rock, but with questionable defensive skills. Since his high assist numbers are partly a function of his role D’Antoni’s offense, it’ll be interesting to see how he is used on another team should he bolt via free agency. Will another coach give him the freedom to manage the offense, or will he go back to his role as a pick & roll/pop power forward?