Reviewing the 2010 Basketball Prospectus

I’ve been writing about the NBA for over 5 few years now, and I don’t think my disdain for writers using the same old cliches in lieu of true analysis has been hidden. This is especially true for articles on the Knicks, a team I’ve covered closely in that time span. A few years ago the best place for top notch basketball analysis was the Basketball Prospectus, the brainchild of John Hollinger. But after signing with ESPN, Hollinger moved his team and player analysis to ESPN’s Insider. Although I’m far from a luddite and Hollinger’s eye was just as sharp, it just wasn’t the same at it’s new location. Perhaps it’s heresy for a blogger to say, but there’s something to be said for reading things outside of a web page.

Well this year the Basketball Prospectus is back, written by Bradford Doolittle, Kevin Pelton, and the rest of the BP crew. Not only is this year’s addition similar to its predecessors in that they cover every team and player, but there are plenty of additions. SCHOENE, their similarity system, not only comes up with comparable players based on historical data but extends this data to the team level as well. Additionally the player stat section is enhanced with lots of new metrics. Each player has their own skill rating in key areas (rebounding, passing, hands, etc.), salary data is included, and per minute stats are replaced by percentage based stats.

But more importantly is that the analysis is spot on, and from my perspective they nailed the Knicks. They correctly identified Wilson Chandler as “an exceptional athlete” who needs to “draw more fouls going forward”, and astutely pointed out that the hiring of D’Antoni was “not just bringing in a proven winner, [but] a style, a brand.” There’s tons of great information about the whole league, including articles on fantasy advice, trends, the economy and microfracture surgery.

The 2009-10 Basketball Prospectus is available from their web site, in either PDF or paper format.

Knicks 2010 Season Preview Part 3

[Part 1 is here.]
[Part 2 is here.]

David Lee – Power Forward/Center

What the Stats Say
Amid all the hubbub about David Lee “playing out of position at center” and the Knicks “needing to find a true big man so that Lee can move back to his natural position,” one simple fact has largely been lost: David Lee is better at playing center than he is at playing power forward. Don’t believe it? Check out this dichotomy (courtesy of 82games.com)

David Lee 48-Minute Production by Position (2008-2009)

POS FGA eFG% FTA iFG Reb Ast T/O Blk PF Pts PER*
PF 13.7 0.491 4.1 67% 10.3 2.6 2.6 0.3 6.0 16.0 11.5
C 16.3 0.552 5.7 68% 16.6 3.0 2.5 0.3 4.3 22.4 22.0

Too small a sample size? Lee’s 2007-08 numbers, mostly compiled at the 4, tell a less extreme version of the same story:

David Lee 48-Minute Production by Position (2007-2008)

POS FGA eFG% FTA iFG Reb Ast T/O Blk PF Pts PER*
PF 12.3 0.543 4.7 74% 14.0 1.8 2.1 0.6 4.0 17.3 18.7
C 13.6 0.570 5.2 73% 16.7 2.2 1.6 0.5 4.8 19.6 23.4

Pretty overwhelming, no? Combine the two seasons and Lee has a solid starter’s PER at the 4 and approximately Patrick Ewing’s career PER at the 5. But when you think about Dave’s game, it all kind of makes sense. Emergent 15-footer notwithstanding, Lee scores and rebounds way more efficiently when closer to the basket. He draws more fouls (and gives fewer fouls) against centers than against quicker, more explosive power forwards. And everybody’s offense improves when there’s no Zach Randolph or Eddy Curry on the floor.

Given that Lee defends the five better than the four also (says so here), the idea that the Knicks can compete while playing a skinny young stretch 4 and a 6’9″ center may not be so crazy after all. (You know what, forget that I said that. It is crazy. Maybe not “We are completely confident that we can move Jared Jeffries’ contract “crazy, but certainly “Sure, Starks is 2 for 16, but I’ve got a good feeling about this next shot” crazy.)

What My Gut Says
It’s hard to be critical of a guy like Lee, who has been efficient, hard-working, and likable since day one. There’s no doubt that Dave is capable of being a key player on a championship team and, bless his heart, he actually seems to hope that team will be (a very different version of) the Knicks. His defensive shortcomings have been well-documented and his offense largely comes from put-backs and fastbreaks, but he’s excellent at what he does and there’s no reason to believe that he’s in line for a step back this year.

Al Harrington – Forward/Sneaker Salesman

What the Stats Say
That players generally perform better against bad teams than against good teams is essentially a truism. It is the rare player who is able to elevate his game to such an extent that he puts up his best numbers against the league’s elite. For the most part, players show a weak but consistent inverse relationship between opponent quality and statistical achievement.

And then there’s Al Harrington, whose shooting splits look like this:

Player Opp Gm Min Fga Fg% 3pA 3p% Fta Ft% Pts
Harrington Good 22 764 16.7 .398 6.2 .316 4.4 78% 18.6
Harrington Average 27 983 17.6 .432 7.0 .349 3.9 82% 20.9
Harrington Poor 19 632 15.8 .525 6.2 .436 4.4 79% 22.8

That all rounds out to a .457 eFG% against good teams (which, were it his full-season mark, would have been good for 161st out of 181 eligible NBA players), .501 against average teams (102nd of 181), and a staggering .611 against “poor” teams (3rd of 181, trailing dunk-and-layup-only centers Erick Dampier and Joel Przybilla).

The disparity in Harrington’s splits is by far the most extreme of any Knick, and likely tell the story of a player who feasts on open looks against undisciplined defenses but struggles to adjust his game when met with legitimate defensive resistance.

What My Gut Says
To watch Harrington in small doses is to wonder why he isn’t a superstar; to watch him every night is to wonder whether he could ever get serious minutes on a winner. His size, athleticism, shooting, and ball-handling ability provide him with an extremely rare skill set, but his streakiness, frequently poor shot selection, and puzzling inability (unwillingness?) to rebound suggest that he is less Dirk Nowitzki than (a poor man’s) Charlie Villanueva. He certainly fits the system, he seems to genuinely love being a Knick, and, on a bad team, he provides enough matchup headaches to be a net positive. But his long-term desire to remain in orange and blue will prove futile unless accompanied by a willingness to play for far below his perceived market value – he’s not an efficient enough scorer to be the second option on a contender, nor is he good enough at anything else to be an effective role player.

Jordan Hill – Forward/Center

What the Stats Say
According to kenpom.com, Hill was the 14th best offensive rebounder in Division I last year, which, if it translates, will be a major addition to a Knicks team that ranked 27th of 30 NBA teams in offensive rebounding rate last year. But, as is often the case with bootlegged copies of foreign movies and the entire musical career of David Hasselhoff, the problem may lie in the translation. To quote John Hollinger’s pre-draft player evaluations:

The other big surprise down here is Jordan Hill, who could go as high as No. 4 but rates 26th in the Draft Rater. Hill had solid rebounding and scoring numbers, but his percentages weren’t off the charts, and his poor assist and turnover numbers were a red flag. Although one might think that ballhandling categories wouldn’t matter for a power forward, apparently they do — pure point rating (a measure of how a player passes and handles the ball) is a pretty strong success indicator for frontcourt players, and only four prospects rated worse than Hill.

Time will tell.

What My Gut Says
Hill’s summer league performance doesn’t have anybody jumping out of their shoes. He disappeared for long stretches and, even at his best, didn’t do anything to suggest that he has anything approximating star potential. But, as has been said before, if you’re 6’10” and athletic, you’ll get your fair share of opportunities. Hill should get some burn this year, but his true worth will be determined down the road, after free agency clears up the frontcourt logjam and the Knicks’ intended investment in two high-priced free agents places an added premium on the value of young, inexpensive talent.

The Expected

Sometimes a commenter makes an point that inspires an article. I could have written this in the comments section, but I think it deserves an post of it’s own. Yesterday BigBlueAL wrote:

Look I have praised David Lee alot this season because he has improved his offense alot in terms of hitting that baseline jumper a bit more consistantly and being able to drive more often w/o getting his shot sent into the stands. But his numbers to me are a huge reflection of this system and Randolph being traded. Defensively he is still horrible and is not going to be anywhere near worth what his salary will most likely reach if you are trying to put together a championship caliber team.

Again I like David Lee and dont like ripping him, but please he is not a starting PF on a championship team. He is what his and Nate’s role should be, 20-25 minute players who bring energy off the bench. Those players are very important on good teams, but they are easier to find than go-to, superstar type players which is clearly what the Knicks are lacking and have lacked since Houston/Spree were together.

Unlike baseball where I have vast knowledge of sabermetrics and such in basketball I dont look at stats beyond the basics as much as I should, although being an ESPN Insider I do like reading John Hollinger and becoming more aware of more analytical basketball stats.

I have a theory on why David Lee is underrated from a visual perspective. Two of the things he does well are “expected”: rebounding and finishing around the hoop. Every time the other team misses a shot you expect your team to get the rebound. So when David Lee comes flying in to secure the rebound, it’s expected that the he does it. It’s not an act that is remembered or noted because it’s counted upon. Compare this to when Jamal Crawford sinks an impossible shot. Those memories usually stick in someone’s mind because of the rareness of the act. Yet most people don’t remember when Crawford misses a shot, since missing a shot is commonplace and an expected result.

But watching last night’s game against the Thunder, down the stretch Lee’s defensive rebounding was excellent. If you were concentrating on him, it was amazing watching his positioning and tenacity. There were a few rebounds that I don’t think any other Knick (or most big men in the league) would have secured. I honestly don’t think the Knicks would have been in yesterday’s game at the end if it weren’t for Lee’s rebounding.

The same goes for his inside scoring. Fill in the blank in the following sentence: Chris Duhon drives the lane and is double teamed, so he passes to an open David Lee who…

{Have your answer?}

Depending on your imagination you might say:
* dunks the ball.
* makes a reverse left handed layup.
* draws the foul for 2 shots.
* makes the buckets and draws the foul.

Now fill in the blank on this sentence: Chris Duhon drives the lane and is double teamed, so he passes to an open Jared Jeffries who…

{Have your answer?}

This time your answer will probably differ from Lee and you might say:
* fumbles the pass.
* blows the layup.
* scores with a nice finger roll (Jeffrightened style!).

Depending on the player you would have a different result. Yet Lee doesn’t seem to get credit for being able to catch a pass in traffic and score around the hoop. It’s because it seems to be such an easy act that it’s expected that he does so. Yet few players in the league can be as successful Lee, when performing this action. Now if you think I’m using a strawman argument with Jeffries, then replace Lee with Chandler or Curry. Chandler is more likely to take a turnaround jumper instead of going inside and isn’t very likely to draw a foul. Meanwhile Curry is more apt to either fumble the ball or commit an offensive charging foul.

David Lee’s rebounding and efficient inside scoring (without turning the ball over) is valuable because there aren’t a lot of players in the league that do those things at such a high level. That makes him a valuable starter level player, even with his defensive shortcomings. Hence why the Knicks have entertained so many offers for Lee from other teams. Of course everything depends on context, he would need to be paired with a strong defensive center. But as for Lee not being a good starter on a championship team, don’t you think the Spurs would love to have him on their team right now? Currently their PFs are Matt Bonner, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto (who pushes Duncan to PF).

However, the more relevant point I’m trying to make is that it’s hard to catch these things with the naked eye. As Michael Lewis wrote in Moneyball:

One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks. It might be that a reporter, seeing every game that the team plays, could sense that difference over the course of the year if no records were kept, but I doubt it. Certainly the average fan, seeing perhaps a tenth of the team’s games, could never gauge two performances that accurately-in fact if you see both 15 games a year, there is a 40% chance that the .275 hitter will have more hits than the .300 hitter in the games that you see. The difference between a good hitter and an average hitter is simply not visible-it is a matter of record.

Similarly observers might not be able to differentiate between a player has a TS% of 60 and one that has a TS% of 55. And the value of player who averages 11.7 reb/36 might not be noticeable. But it’s undeniable that these stats correlate to winning, more than the naked eye would believe. To make an analogy to baseball David Lee might be the .280 hitting shortstop with a handful of few home runs, but has a strong .OBP, hits a lot of doubles, and doesn’t make a lot of errors (but maybe doesn’t have a lot of range or a great arm). For decades things like OBP, SLG, etc. were not valued by generations of baseball fans. And much like baseball, unless you’re looking at the advanced stats, you might not be able to see the value David Lee gives a team.

Roster Spots

Recently there’s been some discussion in the comment section at KnickerBlogger about the Knicks roster needs. Coach D’Antoni is known to keep the rotation short, but a 7 man team seems to be small even for him. The problem seems to be the lack of quality at the end of the Knicks’ bench.

Malik Rose saw time early on, but D’Antoni probably got tired of seeing Rose end up with the ball under the hoop and unable to finish. (I sure was!) Roberson made a name for himself in the summer league, but played his way out of the rotation. Jared Jeffries, who was supposed to perform a cocoon act reborn as a D’Antoni center, has been more caterpillar than butterfly. Additionally the Knicks have Eddy Curry who is suffering from a knee injury, Danilo Gallinari who is suffering from a back injury, and Jerome James who is suffering from sucking. James actually saw some live court time in the Knicks blowout of the Kings, but even against Shaq, James and his valuable 6 fouls stayed rooted to the bench.

Obviously most of these guys are not good enough (or healthy enough) to help the team this year. With the retirement of Mobley and the possible buyout of Marbury, the Knicks may have two roster spots open. But the question remains what kind of player(s) do the Knicks need?

The most glaring need is guard, or more specifically point guard. Duhon takes the lion’s share of the duties, with Robinson giving him a breather for a few minutes a night. This works out when the pair are healthy, but recently Robinson’s injury exposed the lack of depth. The Knicks third (and last) guard on the roster, Roberson, was unable to run the point. Roberson is more of a undersized scorer, and D’Antoni was so reluctant to use him that the he prefered the Knicks to have 5 forwards on the court instead of Roberson guiding the offense.

New York needs a point guard, not to make the rotation but rather to provide insurance in case either Duhon or Robinson get hurt again. Even if an injury forces this guard into action, they would only see 5-10 minutes to give the starter some breathing time. The Knicks don’t even need to swing a deal to acquire a player of this type. Jared Jordan was just signed to a NBDL team, and former Knick Frank Williams is already one of that league’s better point guards.

As for the second roster spot, interior defense is an issue, but this is a hard need to fill. Players that can block shots, rebound, run the floor, and don’t embarrass themselves on offense are much more difficult to find. To borrow from David Berri, there’s a short supply of tall people. The Knicks wouldn’t be able to grab a player like this off the developmental league or waiver wire. They might be able to find a player that does two of these, but that player isn’t likely to break the rotation. A player like Joakim Noah might be a good fit, but the Knicks are low on resources to make a trade like that.

Instead the Knicks should concentrate on another weakness: small forward. Wilson Chandler has supplanted Quentin Richardson from the starting lineup, and has performed admirably for a 21 year old. However Chandler shows his age often. He settles for the jump shot too often, isn’t great at finishing around the hoop and doesn’t pass well. I can’t think of another player that hits the backboard on the corner three as often as Wilson. Although he’s the Knicks best shot blocker in the rotation, he’s not freakishly athletic like Prince or Marion.

On one hand I’m reluctant to suggest the Knicks grab another SF, since that may cut into Chandler’s time. And on a rebuilding team, giving minutes to your young small forward is a good thing. However in a Hermian world where teams play to win the game, getting a SF that can rebound, defend the paint, and score inside would help the team greatly. Of course the Knicks gave away just that type of player (Balkman) and it’s likely the Knicks will grab Ewing Jr. in an attempt to fill that role.

John Hollinger usually notes that when a team suffers from an injured player, it’s not the drop-off from the starter to the first reserve that hurts the team the most. But rather the team suffers because they have to dig deeper into the bench to replace the minutes that the reserve player used to fill. The Knicks started off the season with a decent rotation, but as injuries and trades have robbed them of quality players, the end of the bench has come back to haunt them. Even if players like James, Marbury, and Rose aren’t playing much, they’re taking up roster spots of players that could be contributing. By robbing the team of players that might prove useful even in spot minutes, these players are hurting the team just as much as if they were playing badly on the court.

Balkman Traded for Nothing?

According to ESPN:

The Denver Nuggets have traded Taurean Green, Bobby Jones and a 2010 second-round draft pick to the Knicks for Renaldo Balkman and cash considerations, an NBA front-office source tells ESPN.com’s John Hollinger.

Green and Jones are likely to be cut because they have non-guaranteed deals, the source told Hollinger. Their acquisitions would increase the Knicks’ roster to 17 players.

Interesting that Hollinger broke the story for ESPN, although he does cover the Knicks for the NY Sun. As for the Knicks, assuming that they’re going to cut Green and Jones, this is a bad trade. Balkman has value as a defender, rebounder, and transition player. If the only thing New York ends up with is the draft pick it’s a total loss. They’re not likely to get an NBA caliber with that 2nd round pick.

Until this is official I’m hoping that one of two things are true about this trade: either the draft pick is a conditional first or they are going to cut someone else and keep Green. He had nice numbers in 8 games in the NBDL and is only 21 years old. At least it would mean they got something out of the deal.

Computers vs. Scouts, Updated

Erich Doerr and John Hollinger have each published new analyses, looking at the 2008 draft from a purely statistical standpoint.  Doerr’s piece at DraftExpress nicely summarizes some of his previous work, for a new audience.  He’s extremely cautious. The article is not, strictly speaking, a ranking system. Doerr uses his ratings to give essentially a thumbs up/thumbs down (or at least a caution) for each of the high-profile players. 

Of note: Don’t get too excited about any of the guards… don’t sleep on Mareese Speights. 

Hollinger, unlike Doerr, thinks he has it nailed.  He’s also totally revamped his method since last year. He’s now done – he says – a regression analysis, rather than an ad-hoc mix-and-match method. He’s devised two different systems, one for bigs and one for other players. Today he writes about the Big Men (Insider is free this week). For bigs,

    “The formula considers 16 variables: height, age, schedule strength, team strength, and the usual individual stats (assist ratio, turnover ratio, usage rate, pure point rating, defensive rebound rate, FTA/FGA, 3A/FGA, PER, blocks per minute, steals per minute, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage). Note that two variables — offensive rebound rate and free-throw percentage — didn’t make the cut as they were found to be almost completely irrelevant in determining pro success for big men. Also, testing showed that looking at multiple seasons improved accuracy quite a bit. As a result, all of a player’s seasons count on his record.”

Of note: Michael Beasley rates as the best big-man prospect since he started calculating in 2002. (Personally, I think there’s a good chance anyone taking Rose at #1 feels silly in a few years)… Mama Lopez will be disappointed…. Mareese Speights looks good here, too…. and Anthony Randolph — wow. I think this might be a little harsh, since he’s so young and so skinny he has a lot of room for improvement, but this is as damning a projection as you can find.

And here’s the smackdown: Hollinger’s numbers suggest that Joey Dorsey will struggle to have an NBA career at all. Doerr thinks Dorsey looks like a big-time player.