Mike D’Antoni and the Shadow of Showtime

Introduction: Two Guys Walk into a G-Chat Window

me: zach lowe wrote a better version of everything i wanted to write about d’antoni. like literally every point i was going to make: d’antoni is 1) a great offensive coach who 2) got short-shrifted because of people choosing to look at things without nuance and 3) has had a decent (if not great) defense any time he has had above average defensive personnel and 4) now has dwight frigging howard.

Jim Cavan: I think the whole “Buss wanted Showtime 2” angle would be interesting, vis-a-vis how much theoretical wiggle room it gives D’Antoni

me: hmm

Part the First: What iz a Showtimez?

With apologies to Moses Malone and his twelve-thirteenths-accurate prediction on the outcome of the 1983 postseason, there is not a team in NBA history more identified with its unofficial moniker than the Showtime Lakers that rode to glory in the 1980’s under Pat Riley (who, like Moses, stopped counting at fo’). Because of the inability to separate the team from the nickname and the nickname from the team, it is easy to take just this one word as an adequate and all-encompassing description of a monolithic team that runned* and gunned at lightning speed, outscoring an endless progression of huffing and puffing opponents for a full decade.

*Screw grammar, this phrase should rhyme no matter the tense.

Some facts:

  • Pat Riley took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers 11 games into the 1981-82 season. He remained head coach through the end of the 1989-1990 season. The Lakers finished in first place in both of those seasons and every one in between. Their lowest win total over this stretch was 54 games. Their average win total was exactly 60.00.
  • NBA teams completed 213 full seasons in that 9 year span (i.e., the sum of the number of teams in the NBA for each year in the sample). If you sort these 213 seasons by Pace, Showtime’s entries rank 44, 45, 56, 57, 64, 89, 124, 152, and 199. As you might expect, they got slower as they got older. The mean of those 9 numbers is 92.2 compared to a sample mean of 106.5. On average, the Showtime Lakers played faster than the average 1980’s team, but not by much. Even their fastest season does not fall in the top 2 deciles of the sample (Unsurprisingly, the top 5 teams in the sample are all Nuggets teams, including every single Denver entry from 1981-82 through 1984-85). Speaking only in terms of pace, Showtime was unremarkable.
  • Sort those same 213 seasons by offensive rating, however, and reality begins to conform a bit more with perception. The 1986-87 Lakers scored more efficiently than any other team in the sample (an astonishing 115.6 points per 100) and five other Showtime squads turn up in the top 11. The worst Showtime offense was the first; the 1981-82 Lakers scored 110.2 points per 100, which still claims a spot in the top 25% of the sample and would have finished second in the league last season. Showtime’s ability to produce points was every bit as good as the mythology suggests.
  • How did Showtime produce points? Why, that’s simple: they made ALL OF THEIR SHOTS. Of the 213 seasons completed by NBA teams between 1981-82 and 1989-90, the Showtime Lakers registered the 4 best team field goal percentages, including a 1984-85 campaign when they converted on an absolutely unreal 54.5% (!!!!!!!!!) of their shots from the floor. Of the nine Lakers who played at least 1,000 minutes that season, eight of them shot at least 52%. This is completely and utterly unprecedented and, given the league’s ever-increasing emphasis on the three-pointer, will absolutely never ever ever be replicated. Ever.*
  • It bears mentioning that the Lakers’ FG% and eFG% dominance was the most important, but not only, component of their offensive brilliance — all nine entries for each of the other three four factors (TOV%, FT Rate, OREB%) also land in the top half of the sample. As a result, they finished first in ORtg 6 times, second twice, and fifth once (in 1983-84, when Magic played only 67 games). Altogether it adds up to the greatest stretch of offensive dominance in the modern history of the NBA. And other than the aesthetic beauty of the Magic/Worthy fastbreak, pace had very little to do with it.
  • Stylistic offensive indicators fluctuated wildly over the course of the Showtime Era, revealing a team that was able to adapt to an evolving league. For example, the Lakers’ pace changed as mentioned above, their annual 3-point attempt totals ranged from 94 to 841, and their FT/FGA ratio ranged from .20 to .28.
  • Oh! Defense! Never better than 7th, only once worse than 10th. Remarkably consistent in being good but not great.

*The 3 seasons that didn’t land in the top 10 ranked 16th, 25th, and 54th. The outlier was 1989-90, the year after Kareem retired. In that season, the Lakers decided on the fly to slow things down and become an all-out 3-point shooting team. They made 37% from deep, meaning that despite the (relatively) pedestrian FG%, that squad’s eFG% is still 21st best in the sample. They also reduced their turnover rate to 12.8%, making their 1989-90 ORtg the sixth best in the sample despite a marked drop-off in what had previously been their offensive bread-and-butter. They won 63 games and made the Finals. Ugh…Riley is a genius. Let’s move on.

So, from a strictly statistical perspective, “Showtime” is stylistically elusive but unfailingly efficient. In the unfeeling eyes of data, “Showtime” simply meant playing at an above-average (but unspectacular) pace and making shots at a clip that nobody else could match. I have now taken the most beautiful offense in the history of basketball and reduced it to a few numbers and some descriptors that could also apply to a German widget factory. You’re welcome.

Part the Second: Once You Pop…

[Sets stopwatch to seven seconds. PressessssssssssSTART.]

Mike D’Antoni is an NBA coach (SHOT)

He first coached in Denver but gained prominence in Phoenix in the early part of the last decade (SHOT)

He built an offense around the wizard-like point guard skills of the previously underappreciated Steve Nash (SHOT)

Together, he, Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and a bevy of shooters as nameless as (but far more accurate than) henchmen in a Bond film built the best offense since the Showtime Lakers called it a decade (SHOT)

He left Phoenix (likely under some degree of organizational duress) to coach the New York Knicks who hoped to use the cache of his famously player-friendly system to woo LeBron James to Madison Square Garden (SHOT)

The Knicks struck out in the LeBron sweepstakes and signed D’Antoni’s old finisher Stoudemire as something of a consolation prize (SHOT)

With Stoudemire, journeyman point guard Ray Felton, and a cast of has-beens, never-weres, and theretofore-unknowns, D’Antoni constructed a free-flowing, pick-and-roll heavy offense that made an MVP candidate of Amar’e and turned his no-name supporting cast into the most adored Knicks squad in over a decade (SHOT)

Said supporting cast was traded, practically in its entirety, for Carmelo Anthony, perhaps the NBA player whose offensive philosophy was least compatible with D’Antoni’s (SHOT)

You know that thing that usually happens when there is a stylistic or philosophical clash between an NBA coach and a dynamic, marketable star player with 4 years left on his contract and the hopes of a city on his shoulders? Well, it happened. (WHISTLE)

Many assumed that this would mark the end of D’Antoni’s head coaching career, saddled as he was with a reputation for running an amusing sideshow that would never seem attractive to a team with title hopes. Like, say, the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers…

Part the Third: …You Can’t Stop!

A G-Chat Conversation with a Friend: 31 October, 2012

Julian: they prob should fire brown. i say probably b/c idk who they would hire.

me: d’antoni! lakers should basically say to d’antoni you can be the coach but our condition is we are hiring a defensive coordinator who will be given a lot of autonomy. non-negotiable.

Julian: hah. i think it would fail for the same reasons that it failed in ny

me: knicks defense was good under d’antoni once they got chandler, dwight should have the same effect

Julian: kobe will complain just like melo did about being asked to camp at the 3pt line and watch them run high pnr

me: kobe can break the scoring record at that pace and with those open looks AND save his legs

Julian: yeah well, he won’t see it that way

me: what available coach is better than dantoni?

Julian: idk that there is one, i just don’t see any way kobe accepts dantoni’s scheme

A G-Chat Conversation with a Friend: 9 November, 2012

me: mike brown

Julian: fired? hah.

me: yeah. didn’t buss vote-of-confidence him like yesterday? like i know a vote of confidence is typically a bad sign but not THAT fast.

Julian: yeah that’s incredible. oh, dantoni. the same thing is just going to happen that happened with melo though unless dantoni isn’t going to try it. but why hire him then?

me: you don’t think nash helps get buy-in?

Julian: nah i don’t, kobe is too alpha and has already won in a way that suits him

me: would be so awesome if they hired d’antoni, kobe complained, and they traded kobe. obv 0% chance but it would be like my favorite thing any team did ever.

Julian: do you think jackson comes back? big risk to his legacy

me: i think its pretty no-win for him

Julian: yeah. now at least i can see how correct i was about it being impossible that brown was the major problem.

Part the Fourth: Whither Showtime?

First of all, Mike D’Antoni does not run an offense that bears any special resemblance to Showtime . He has never coached a player with the back-to-the-basket acumen of Kareem (few have) and would have to fundamentally change his system to accommodate one.* His preferred wings, who are instructed first and foremost to get open beyond the arc and shoot quickly off of the catch, could not be more diametrically opposed to James Worthy in offensive style.** And while one could argue that Magic and Nash are the two greatest playmakers and visionaries in the history of their position, their similarities mostly end there (where Magic had size and versatility, Nash moves with the ball like Lionel Messi and has an all-time great jumper). The reason that D’Antoni’s offense is compared to Showtime is, really, quite simple:

1) D’Antoni teams play fast.

2) 80’s offenses played fast.

3) Showtime was the best and most memorable 80’s offense, even if it was not especially fast in the context of its time.

*Gasol, while obviously not Kareem, is a great post scorer, but happens to be an even better pick-and-roll big and passer. Look for him to play a more versatile but less explosive version of the Amar’e role in D’Antoni’s system. That is, when Howard isn’t playing a MORE explosive but LESS versatile version of the Amar’e role. God, this offense could crush the world.

**Worthy was a 24% career three point shooter who attempted roughly 3/4 of his career threes in the four years after Riley left and Worthy’s knees began to rob him of his all-world talent as a finisher. To the extent that Showtime had a three-point-shooting element, it was provided by Byron Scott and Michael Cooper and was mostly marginalized until Riley’s last couple of years.

Sometimes free association lends impressions that differ from analytically-derived conclusions. But sometimes, and maybe this is the big point here, it’s the impression that matters more. What if 7 Seconds or Less takes off in LA? What if Kobe buys in and Gasol and Nash make music and Howard gives Coach Mike that One Thing he never had in Phoenix and Ron Artest and Antawn Jamison go all Quentin Richardson and Boris Diaw on us? What if the Lakers ride a breathtaking floor general and a Hall of Fame wing and the league’s most skilled big and the league’s most physically dominant force and a bunch of Guys You Forgot About to a historically great offense and an NBA title? What if they look beautiful while they do it? And what if, in so doing, they bring about the redemption of a coach who seems to have taken a wrong turn between Innovator and Mastermind that has landed him at Novelty?

Will it be Showtime? Not really. But should we care?

Why Knicks Fans Should Be Glad Chris Paul Will Likely Remain a Hornet in 2010

When reports first started surfacing that Chris Paul had ranked the Knicks as his number one trade destination, I was ecstatic. Immediately, I had visions of a counter-dynasty to the Miami Heat. Dreams of Carmelo Anthony signing the next summer creating our own Big 3. So I thought the Knicks should trade whomever we need to get Paul, for no matter how much I love Gallo’s intensity and the potential of the recently-acquired Anthony Randolph, you absolutely cannot pass on obtaining perhaps the best point guard in the game. Especially when that point guard comes with the likelihood of Anthony, the smoothest scorer outside of Oklahoma City.

Unfortunately the news of a positive sit down between Paul and the Hornets, would seem to have thrown a wrench in my dreams of a New York Big 3. However, the truth is Knicks fans should be glad that the Hornets’ brass appear likely to persuade Paul to stick it out another year in New Orleans. And here’s why.

Chris Paul will not be traded for pennies on the dollar, and any deal would likely include Gallinari among a few other of the New York youngsters. We love Gallo for his shooting, his height, his overwhelming potential, but most of all we love him for his attitude. He has long been described as simply “tougher” than other European players, with a cocksure demeanor on the court that New Yorkers can easily identify with and appreciate. His duel against Carmelo this spring and his desire to defend the other team’s best player, night in and night out, only further endeared him to us. We want to watch him develop, we want him to succeed, and we want him on our team.

As great a sacrifice as it would be to Knicks fans to trade Gallinari (and Randolph, Douglas, and whatever other young prospects the Hornets required to make a deal), the truth is that, at this point in time, we would never have to make that sacrifice, because the Knick’s trade package is widely regarded among national media as perhaps the weakest available to the Hornets of the four teams on Paul’s wish list. (With the Magic, Trailblazers, and Mavericks rounding out the list.) Bill Simmons and John Hollinger both supported the idea of a trade which would send All-Star Brandon Roy to NO, and multiple writers argued that the Magic, with the ability to send Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat, and other supporting players, provide the best option for the Hornets. I believe we can disregard the Blazers’ deal for two reasons. First, Paul’s desire appears to be to play with other stars, and trading away your best player doesn’t satisfy that request. And second, I don’t think Blazers’ management would give up Roy anyway.

However, the Orlando deal should be of very real concern. A day after his original report stating that the Knicks were number one on Paul’s wish list, Chris Broussard reported that the Magic had taken the top spot, because Paul believed they could present a deal more likely to persuade Hornets management. Besides the possibility that the Hornets play well next year (encouraging Paul to stick with the only team he’s ever played for) a trade with Orlando is the greatest threat to the Knicks landing CP3.

Analysis of potential trades in this scenario is difficult because, when comparing trades, the determining factor in whether a deal is plausible is what management/ownership are trying to receive in return, and in the case of the Hornets this isn’t very clear. They’ve stated repeatedly that their preference is to keep Paul, and appear encouraged by this latest meeting. However, it is believed that if they were forced to trade him at this point, it would be largely for financial reasons. The prolonged sale of the team from majority owner Gary Shinn to minority owner Gary Chouest has some believing that Shinn, amidst fears that the sale could collapse, and unable to continue suffering the massive losses the Hornets have been posting, might eventually OK the trade of Paul as a way to cut salary and rid himself of Emeka Okafor’s ($53 million- 4 years) and James Posey’s ($13 million- 2 years) weighty contracts. The Hornets must also be concerned with the impact on attendance if Paul were to ask for a trade; for as Marc Stein wrote:

A case can be made that keeping Paul in hopes of eventually regaining the confidence of the face of the franchise — or merely holding off until the Hornets decide that they’re ready to trade him — might not be as beneficial for the long-term health of the franchise as proactively trying to move Paul and ultimately spare themselves from the daily distraction and potential negative impact at the gate that comes with employing a disgruntled superstar.

It is then easy to understand that, if one of the Hornets’ main concerns is increasing attendance (a statistic in which the Hornets ranked 23rd out of 30 last year, albeit with Paul out most of the season), a trade featuring marquee names such as Vince Carter would be likely to trump a Knicks’ package featuring unproven prospects. This is true even if from a long term basketball perspective Randolph and Gallinari are more attractive than Nelson and Carter.

The one thing the Knicks have going for them is that they could swap the trade chip that is Eddy Curry’s expiring contract for Okafor’s equally ridiculous and longer contract. This is a thought that should seriously worry Knicks fans, for while a team with Chris Paul and Amar’e Stoudemire is almost immediately a very good team, if we have to lose our most exciting young players in the process, we have no possibility of being a championship team. Okafor’s contract makes it next to impossible that the Knicks could obtain that third star which would make them competitive with the elite of the East.

So what does this all mean? While I love the idea of getting Paul, if we have to sacrifice everything to get him, including our young prospects and the ability to acquire Carmelo, I just don’t think it is worth it. The most successful franchises in the leagues don’t make that deal, because they understand that erasing your ability to win a title in the process of becoming very good just isn’t worth it. Furthermore, even if the Hornets did decide to make a deal before the end of next season, the chances are slim to none that the Knicks would be the beneficiaries.

However, if the Knicks, Paul, and the Hornets can all make it through this season, each biding their time until the opportune moment, the dynasty of the New York 3 can still happen. In one year’s time, Gallinari, Randolph, Azubuike, and Douglas should all be worth more than they are now. Darren Collison will begin to outgrow his role as Paul’s backup. And the Hornets will be closer to having their superstar leave without any compensation. In this scenario, Chris Paul to New York will make much more sense. It would be cheaper for the Knicks since they would have more assets, and the Hornets would be getting a bona fide star instead of an aging one (Vince Carter) or a young question mark (Randolph or Gallo this year). Without mortgaging both talent and cap space now, the team could have one or both of those in the future. Which would mean that there would still be the possibility of obtaining the third superstar after Paul. And my notion of the NY3 propelling the Knicks to instant contention would still be alive.

GOTME (Part VI): Centers

The Greatest Center Of the Modern Era: Shaquille O’Neal

Player Best PER Avg 5 Best PER Career PER #1 PER # of top 10 PER
Shaq 30.6 30.1 26.6 5 11
Olajuwon 27.3 25.9 23.6 0 13
Robinson 30.7 29.4 26.2 3 11
Malone 26.8 25.1 22.3 2 7 (9)

I’ve noticed a cycle in the way that we, as a fan culture, appreciate our superstars. We have an uncomplicated love for the emergent star (think Kevin Durant) and a reverence (often dotted with disdain) for the star in his prime (think Kobe). As a star begins his decline, we grow weary of him and rewrite history in a manner that undersells his peak abilities (think Iverson or T-Mac). This stage often lasts beyond a player’s retirement until finally, around the time he becomes Hall-of-Fame eligible, we come to some general consensus about the way we’re going to remember him for the rest of eternity (barring some life altering event).

I mention this because Shaquille O’Neal is the greatest center of the modern era, and because he is firmly entrenched in that unforgiving third stage, and likely will be for the rest of his career. It’s not that anyone thinks Shaq wasn’t great or that anyone wouldn’t kill to have a 26-year-old version of him land on their favorite team. But I do feel like recent discussions of O’Neal’s prime focus more on his sporadic commitment to physical fitness and his in-fighting with Kobe than they do on his utter dominance.

And 15 years from now, when we’re having this same conversation, that dominance is the ONLY thing that will matter to anyone. At his peak, Shaquille O’Neal was most unstoppable force of the last 30 years. He was everything that Dwight Howard is now plus a mean streak, an extra 50 pounds of muscle, and a much more refined offensive game than many people remember. As the statistical revolution has taken shape over the past decade, it has christened Shaq as the only potential challenger (pre-LeBron) to Jordan’s peak numerical supremacy, which is fitting because his ’00-’02 Lakers teams were the only non-Jordan teams of the last two decades that felt unbeatable when you watched them. And, a developing Kobe Bryant aside, it’s not like the supporting casts on those teams were particularly overwhelming.

There’s a good argument to be had in ranking the best centers of the modern era, but that argument has nothing to do with which guy was #1. It’s Shaq, and everyone else can fight for second.

Reserves: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Moses Malone
Hakeem Olajuwon gets my vote for 2nd place here, but its wayyyyyyyyyy closer than people think. Advanced stats actually like David Robinson a bit better, but Hakeem peaked longer and that gives him the edge for me. Everyone thinks of the ’95 conference finals as a referendum on the comparison between he and Robinson, which I suppose isn’t a crazy position to take, but the real difference was in their basic skill sets: Hakeem’s passing and quickness were unparalleled for a big man.

Chuck Klosterman’s latest book included a great essay on Ralph Samson, which argued that Samson was doomed by the perception that he was a guard in a center’s body; the observation, which was meant as a compliment to his awesome versatility, ultimately distracted Samson from the more obvious conclusion that he was 7-freaking-4 and could have had a much easier time relying primarily on his size, while using his other skills to push him from “great” to “transcendent.” What’s amazing is that the Rockets actually had two players who fit the “guard-built-like-a-center” prototype at the same time. Unlike his teammate, The Dream learned to dominate traditionally — developing the best post moves and footwork of his generation — while tapping into his point guard skill set in a way that made him one of the most unique players in NBA history. Hakeem wasn’t the second best player of his generation, but was the best player in the right system in the two best years to be the best player in the right system, and as a result claimed the only two championships left for the masses during the Age of Jordan.

David Robinson gets criticized for not winning a ring until Duncan came along, but those Spurs teams he kept carrying to 55 win seasons were otherwise pretty shallow and still kept putting up big win totals in a conference full of memorable, if flawed, teams (Malone/Stockton Jazz, Hakeem’s Rockets, Barkley/KJ Suns, GP/Kemp Sonics). At his peak, Robinson was the best pre-Shaq center of the era, but Hakeem got it done when it mattered most with an equally mediocre supporting cast. All talk of Duncan-induced tanking aside, the progression from the 59-win ’95-96 spurs (with Robinson healthy) to the 20-win ’96-’97 spurs (with Robinson hurt) was one of the most remarkable injury-inflicted meltdowns in NBA history. In the end, the best thing Robinson ever did for the spurs was get injured (thus allowing them to draft Duncan), which is ironic considering that he topped 80 games in 6 of his first 7 years in the league. Regardless of your opinion on the importance of the stat, his win shares per game may be the single most surprising number (for any player) in the above chart. He’s remembered as a great person, an endlessly interesting figure, and, in my opinion, the third best center of the modern era.

I’ll admit that Moses Malone is hurt in this analysis by the fact that I was a fetus during the last season in which he finished higher than 10th in the MVP voting (blame my dad for not sitting a radio on my mom’s stomach). He lands fourth among post-1980 centers in PER and I don’t have a ton of conclusive visual evidence to overrule the call on the field, but he did win 2 MVP’s and a ring post-1980 and remained a viable starting center until he was roughly 68 years old. I’m open to arguments that he should be nudged ahead of the Admiral, although the disparity between the quality of his teammates and the quality of Robinson’s (pre-Duncan) is enormous.

Honorable Mentions
The fact that Kareem even warrants mention is astonishing considering that his post-1980 career was vastly inferior to what he had done previously. He still probably comes in 5th for the 10 years he put in between 1980 and 1989. Again, astounding.

Robert Parish was the ideal center for his team but even the most die-hard Celtics fan wouldn’t argue that he could have carried a franchise the way Hakeem and Robinson did. Alonzo Mourning was really good but I still blame him for escalating that brawl in the playoffs, he should be grateful I’m even willing to mention his name after that. And, while there’s a place on this site to write about the under appreciated greatness of Patrick Ewing, that place is not here, where I would surely spill so much ink on him that it would distract from the guys who I’ve deservedly placed ahead of him.

Young possibility: Dwight Howard
I’m still deciding whether Dwight Howard is the most overrated or underrated guy in the league. Watching him dominate in spurts without calling more for the ball is endlessly frustrating and advanced stats call even his visually impressive Defense into question. That said, how the hell did that team make the finals last year (and put themselves in position to win as many as 3 of those games)? They had no Jameer, every analytical tool I’ve seen labels Hedo overrated, Skip Alston had never done anything before, and, though I love Rashard Lewis, he was absurdly one-dimensional for the majority of that run. If you eliminate the impossible and only the improbable remains, the improbable must be true: Dwight Howard must be an elite NBA player despite having absolutely zero offensive skill set. It’s good to be 7-1 and run and jump like you’re 6-1, no?

An Open Letter to Donnie Walsh

Dear Mr. Walsh,

My name is Jon Abbey, and I’m a lifelong Knicks fan (“Hi, Jon!”). I won’t say “long-suffering”, because it is only sports, but it hasn’t always been the most pleasurable ride, although there have been bright spots along the way. My first memories are of the teams of the late seventies: Campy Russell, Marvin Webster, Sly Williams, Mike Glenn (such a sweet stroke), Ray Williams and Sugar Ray. If I wasn’t hooked already, the famous Bernard King/Isiah Thomas showdown in a deciding game 5 when I was a senior in high school clinched it. There have been high points since: two Finals trips, nine straight seasons making at least the second round of the playoffs, Anthony Mason’s unique brand of studliness, Nate’s game in Atlanta a few weeks ago, and I’m sure plenty more. But the bottom line, seeing the boys in orange and blue win it all, has yet to happen in my conscious-of-basketball-lifetime, which is getting close to its fourth decade.

But we’re all well aware of this sad history, so why am I repeating it? Because, for the first time in a fandom that stretches back to the Carter presidency, I see a way that we can be a serious title contender, and even more than that, one with a relatively big window to win titles. I’m sure that you are aware of most or all of what I’m about to write, but on the off chance any of it hasn’t occurred to you and could possibly be useful in any way, I feel compelled to at least get it out there.

So, what’s my plan? Obviously any realistic title contender we’d have would begin with LeBron and builds around him. This is the team I would try to construct next season (age as of next October):

PF-LeBron James (25 years, 9 months)
PG-Joe Johnson (29 years, 3 months)
C-David Lee (27 years, 6 months; 6’9″)
SG-Wilson Chandler (23 years, 5 months, 6’8″)
SF-Danilo Gallinari (22 years, 2 months, 6’10”)

My assembled five doesn’t have a natural PG or a conventional center, but I think it’s a great fit for a starting lineup for D’Antoni, who seems quite reluctant to play conventional centers anyway. With so much offense from the starters, the bench players could do other things, a distributing PG, a defensive big man a la Przybilla (I’ve always been a big Brendan Haywood fan, also a FA this summer, although this relies in part on if D’Antoni will ever play him), maybe Jeffries as a defensive stopper swingman, maybe Jordan Hill can develop into an energy backup big.

Also, under this plan, NY wouldn’t undergo the almost total roster turnover that we’ve been thinking they would have to, which should speed up the team cohesion process as well.

Gone: Harrington, Hughes, Nate, Duhon
Arrivals: LeBron, Johnson, a PG, maybe Haywood

Why Joe Johnson and not Wade or Bosh? Wade is more injury prone, and would have a bit of trouble being a second fiddle. As for Bosh, the other four starters can all guard the post and Bosh is a more expensive, possibly slightly better version of Lee. Additionally Johnson should be the least expensive of the lot.

Of course it first depends on landing LeBron, but if we did, Lee and Johnson would be the complementary stars on a title contender for years to come. There could be a few ways to achieve this, but one avenue would be to involve Nike as a third party. Having a LeBron/Johnson duo in metropolis like New York would be a marketing dream for them, which in turn would mean more money for King James.

I’ll leave the specific financial details to other people, but I think this could happen if LeBron wanted it to. Presumably Johnson would be into the Pippen role (he’s not going to be the best guy on a title team, but he could certainly be a #2 to LeBron), and Lee would want to stay in New York for the ride. If LeBron says yes, assuming he’s willing to leave cap room for Johnson and Lee, they shouldn’t be too hard to get in line.

Selling points to LeBron?

1) Instant Title Contender
It doesn’t take much around him, but Joe Johnson would probably be the most talented player LeBron has been teamed with. Add a few role players on the bench, this team could make a run very quickly.

2) New York City
Clearly this is and always has been our main selling point, coupled with the Nets not getting to Brooklyn for at least two seasons. NY is a hoops city (more than football or baseball) when we’re given the chance, and LeBron would instantly be the best player in Knicks history the moment he signed the contract. He’d have a chance to own NY pro hoops history, which could never happen in Chicago or LA or Boston. In Bill Simmons’ ‘Book of Basketball’, the highest Knick in his alltime player rankings is Clyde Frazier at 32. LeBron was already #20 when the rankings were set in early 2009. New York basketball would be LeBron James.

3) The Yankees
In an unprecedented joint move in a clawback for all of the tax breaks and cash they gave for the Stadium, the city of New York gets the Yankees to promise that as long as LeBron plays for the Knicks, any September that he wants, he can be added to the 40 man roster and activated, to sit on the bench with his boys and maybe even occasionally get in a lopsided game. This one is only partly serious, but should at least be investigated by the powers that be before being dismissed. Every little bit helps. :)

4) His Legacy
In addition to being the greatest basketball player in New York City history, under D’Antoni, he would have more freedom to be a kind of player we’ve never seen before. He could be Magic Johnson with Dwight Howard’s athleticism. He could try to average a triple double for a season if he wanted, he could defend the other team’s post players at times (hopefully not too much, this would wear on even him over the course of the year, but as another option to keep him interested), etc, etc. D’Antoni is far from perfect as a coach, but the amount of freedom that he allows his players is pretty unique and why (good) players love playing for him.

So, Donnie, this is your chance to make basketball matter again in the Big Apple. Talk to Nike, talk to Bloomberg, talk to the Yankees, talk to whoever you need to. Make this happen. July 1 is approaching fast.

2009 David Lee Pre-Camp Interview

2009-interview-david-lee

I sat down with David Lee for about 3 minutes and 12 seconds, and he was kind enough to answer my questions.

Mike Kurylo: It’s no secret that you’ve been taking a lot more jumpers as your career has progressed, and it’s been reported that you work a lot on it in the off season. What exactly do you do in the off season to work on it? Are you working on it alone?

David Lee: I work with a lot of our coaches. Our assistant coaches have taken a special interest in continuing to improve my jumper, and I think it’s at the point now that mechanically it’s where it needs to be. Now it’s just the matter of getting used to shooting it in the game with confidence. That’s a big thing, plenty of shooters have that mentality.

Mike Kurylo: Was there a certain aspect of your jumper that you had to correct? Something that you worked on a lot?

David Lee: Yeah, when I got here – mechanically it wasn’t a sound shot. At times my elbow would come out or something like that. At different times I was [mechanically unsound]. But now it’s at the point that it’s just staying on balance and just shooting through the ball.

Mike Kurylo: It seems that you have a much more diverse offensive game these days, but you still have that label of being a blue collar guy. Do you think that [label] is a bit unfair at this point in your career?

David Lee: No it’s not unfair, but I think in this system it’s defined that I’m going to work a lot out of the pick & roll and be asked to finish inside and hit 15 foot jumpshots. Also last year I was at the top of the key a lot making plays for other guys. And that’s something you’re going to see a lot more this year – is me handling the ball more and making more plays. That’s something that I enjoy doing and I think that I can help us and be a lot more diverse on offense this year.

Mike Kurylo: How do you feel going 1-1 against someone? Are you pretty confidant…

David Lee: Well that’s something that in the NBA that just takes a little bit of experience. Some guys come into the NBA used to doing that and I didn’t do a lot of that in college. So I picked that up the last couple of years and I’m happy to have gotten better at it. I feel real comfortable now isolated with my back to the basket or facing up.

Mike Kurylo: One last question, what can you do [to improve your] defense? How can you practice that?

David Lee: Well the biggest thing is to get better. I’m going to do a lot more this year at working on scouting reports. A lot of times I’m guarding guys that are 50 lbs heavier & 5 inches [taller] so really I have to use what I know about them and their [tendencies], and just try to have them play to their weaknesses. Because you’re not going to stop guys like the Dwight Howards of the NBA, you have to keep them from really hurting your team.

Mike Kurylo: Sorry one more question, there’s a lot more front court depth this year especially at center, do you think you’ll be playing a lot more PF this year along those guys?

David Lee: I don’t know about a lot more, but I think I’ll get more time at the PF. Hopefully Darko [Milicic] and Eddy [Curry] can give us a boost there as well as Jordan Hill and I’ll be able to play power forward and get some much needed rest from the 5.

Similarity Scores, Part 1

Kobe Bryant is the next Jordan. Dwight Howard is the next Alonzo Mourning. Mardy Collins is the next Jason Kidd. Comparing two players allow us to communicate lots of information with a few words. If someone says that LeBron James is like Oscar Robertson, you would imagine LeBron being strong, versatile, agile, great, etc. Or perhaps that’s how you might picture the Big O, depending on how old you are.

Comparing two players is also useful when you’re evaluating players. Find a historical player similar to a youngster, and you have a good idea of how he might develop. However identifying similar players can be difficult and subjective. Is LeBron the next Jordan, Magic, or Robertson? In order to take some of the guesswork out of the equation, I’ve created a similarity score using statistics. Since per-game and accumulated stats are dependent on playing time and don’t adequately reflect a player’s skill level, I’ve decided to go with standardized (z-scores) per minute stats. Originally I used just about every stat the NBA officially keeps track of, but the results didn’t pass the smell test. It didn’t make sense for personal fouls to be worth the same as points. Therefore I decided to use weighted stats, and broke them into three categories.

The first and most important category is scoring. No other historically recorded statistic is more integral to a player’s worth. Some players are expected to run the offense and have a high number of assists, while others are on the floor primarily to rebound, but few do both. However just about everyone on the court is expected to score at some point or another. Even players that score infrequently or inefficiently should be more similar to those of the same ilk. Hence I made scoring worth approximately half a player’s comparison score.

Originally I had added many aspects of scoring, but I found that they tended to take away from the main focus: efficiency and volume. Oddly I also saw better results when I limited scoring to just three stats: TS%, eFG%, and PTS/36. Since the first two are compilations of different aspects of scoring, I feel justified leaving things out like free throw percentage or three pointers attempted. And the results seemed to get better when I gave more priority to the percentages, and less to points. This is due to a wider variety in efficiency than volume. Lots of players can average 20pts/36, but few can do it at 60% TS%. Currently TS% and eFG% are both worth twice as much as PTS/36.

I split the rest of the stats into two sections which I call (for lack of better terms) “Small Man” and “Big Man”. “Small Man” is worth about a third and consists of three parts: AST/36, STL/36, TO/36. I found that assists tend to separate contrasting players better, and ranked it equal to the other two combined. “Big Man” is worth about a fifth and is OREB/36, DREB/36, BLK/36 and PF/36. Rebounding combined (but not individually) is more valuable than blocks, and fouls are minuscule, but present.

In the end, I’ve come up with a system that although has subjective elements, should provide objectivity across the board. The similarity scores use the same equation for every player, so there isn’t any bias in that respect. In other words I could try to make Jamal Crawford more similar to Michael Jordan, but that would likely make other players that are more close to him get even closer. In future I may tweak the weights, but essentially the process is the same.

Since I plan on adding these to the report cards, let’s start with the guy I missed, Chris Duhon’s 2009 season compared to others at the age of 26.

z-Sum FLName POS Year Tm G PER TS% eFG% PTS TRB AST STL TOV
0.000 Chris Duhon G 2009 NYK 79 12.2 .570 .515 10.9 3.0 7.0 0.9 2.7
0.044 Vinny Del Negro G 1993 SAS 73 13.9 .563 .514 12.8 3.8 6.9 1.0 2.2
0.052 Brad Davis G 1982 DAL 82 14.5 .569 .524 13.7 3.1 7.0 1.0 2.2
0.096 Steve Henson G 1995 POR 37 12.1 .613 .564 11.3 2.5 8.1 0.9 2.8
0.101 Vern Fleming G 1989 IND 76 15.8 .572 .517 15.3 4.4 7.0 1.1 2.7
0.105 Rex Walters G 1997 PHI 59 13.0 .571 .543 13.9 3.7 3.9 1.0 2.1
0.107 Jacque Vaughn G 2002 ATL 82 13.1 .547 .498 10.5 3.3 6.8 1.3 2.2
0.116 John Crotty G 1996 CLE 58 13.0 .590 .482 10.0 3.2 6.0 1.3 3.0
0.117 Luke Walton F 2007 LAL 60 14.7 .551 .517 12.4 5.5 4.7 1.1 2.1
0.120 Sherman Douglas G 1993 BOS 79 13.5 .518 .504 11.5 3.0 9.5 0.9 3.0
0.121 Phil Ford G 1983 TOT 77 10.4 .525 .480 11.7 2.3 6.5 1.2 3.0

The first thing to notice is the z-sum table, which is the similarity score. The lower the number this is, the more similar the players are. Duhon is most similar to Del Negro and Davis, with a drop off to Henson & the others. So what does something like this tell us about Duhon? Looking over the list we see lots of mediocre players and no All Stars. So the chance that Duhon will develop into something superior to his current form is rare. As for the comparables, in two of the next three years, Del Negro would have his most productive seasons. And much like Duhon, Davis languished as a reserve before catching on in his 26th year. He would become the starter for the Mavericks, and ride out a few bad seasons until the team turned things around in the mid-80s.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

2009 NBA Draft Day

REMINDER: Don’t forget to enter the KnickerBlogger.Net 2009 Draft Contest before the draft starts!

With the draft less than 12 hours away some recent developments have changed how the night might proceed for the Knicks. Most pertinent is Minnesota trading for the #5 pick. There were rumors that New York was looking to acquire this asset from Washington, but with the pick traveling north that option has vanished. More importantly this move might affect who is available when the Knicks turn comes around. Originally it was assumed that Washington would take PF Jordan Hill with this selection. However it’s unlikely that the Timberwolves will take him because they already have two young frontcourt players in Jefferson and Love. They sent PG Foye and GF Miller in the deal, and with a guard heavy draft it’s likely that Minnesota will select two guards. Therefore it’s possible that both players Minnesota takes tonight are ones the Knicks were targeting.

There have been a few other rumors that New York was trying to add a late first round pick, but as of this writing nothing has been made official. With a draft that is more deep than top heavy, the pick could net a rough gem like Austin Daye, Marcus Thornton, or Nick Calathes.

Chad Ford reported that the Knicks are likely to send Quentin Richardson to Memphis in exchange for Darko Milicic in the next few days. This is a smart short term move for the Knicks. For the first time in years, the Knicks will have a shotblocking center, something they sorely lacked in the Isiah Thomas era. Milicic has averaged 2.6 blk/36, but his other numbers have disappointing. Last year Darko’s TS% was a respectable 53.3, but that was about 50 points above his career average so it’s possible that his good shooting was just a career fluke. He’s never averaged more than 24 minutes per game over the course of a season, so it’s unlikely that Milicic will earn a starting spot. However he’ll provide some much needed interior defense to a team that is starving for it. Milicic has only one year left on his deal, so it will not affect the team’s 2010 plans.

In other NBA news, the Hawks have netted ex-Knick Jamal Crawford, while the Cavs are on the verge of grabbing Shaquille O’Neal. The latter deal is quite interesting from a number of perspectives. Cleveland is hoping that adding Shaq will help fuel a Cavalier championship and keep LeBron from leaving via free agency. From Shaq’s perspective he gets to match up against rival Dwight Howard and Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy, who he has feuded with in the press. And should the Cavs beat the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals this year, Shaq will go up against the Lakers and another rival Kobe Bryant.

Finally yours truly appeared on a Hardwood Paroxysm’s podcast last night for about 10 minutes, answering questions about the draft & the upcoming season.

*** BREAKING NEWS (1:30pm): Yahoo reports the Knicks acquired the Lakers’ first round pick (#29). According to the article the Knicks are looking to target a big man with this pick.