Heading Into Conseco

Just to be lazy and combine the last two columns into a new one, here are the rankings & odds for the Knick’s game tonight:

Ind
#8 Offense
#3 Defense
#2 Overall

Knicks
#22 Offense
#15 Defense
#19 Overall

The Pacers currently hold the best record in the league, and they’re doing it primarily with defense. Their defense ranks #3, tied with the Nets, and right behind the Spurs and Pistons. Despite being one of the slowest teams in the league (they only average 86 possessions a game, only Portland and Utah are slower), they are among one of the top teams in turnovers per game. Meaning their turnovers per game are better than they appear. That’s not their only defensive strength. They also are among one of the best teams in opponent eFG% (sometimes called aFG%), including the third best team in defending the three (32%).

Unlike Detroit, who only has an average offense to go with their excellent defense, the Pacers rank 8th in offense. They are getting very efficient production from Reggie Miller (55.1% eFG%), and Jamal Tinsley (52% eFG%), who would be among the league’s top 15 if they qualified. Meanwhile they are getting almost 40 PPG from their defensive minded players Artest & O’Neal.

The Knicks odds of winning tonight’s game on the road is a low 28.4%. However, the last time they played, the Knicks won at home 97-90. It was supposedly a win for Isaiah, who is apparently bitter over his removal from his old team. Five Knicks scored double digits that night, including Marbury, Van Horn, Thomas, Hardaway, and Doleac. Tonight they won’t have Van Horn & Doleac, but instead Thomas and Mohammed. The Pacers have clinched the top spot in the East, but they’re not going to give the Knicks a freebee. Brown (& Bird) aren’t going to give their team a vacation before the playoffs, so dropping a home game to a 7th or 8th seed isn’t in their plans. To add to the drama, some of the Pacers still hold grudges from the last game & accused the Knicks of celebrating like they won a championship.

Disappointed

Disappointed a few people
When friendship reared its ugly head
Disappointed a few people
Well, isn’t that what friends are for?
What are friends for?

— “Disappointed”
P.I.L.

There’s nothing like a loss to bring out the worst in fans. Lurking around the message boards, you’ll see some posts titled: Knicks are the WORST defensive team in the League, New York Quitters, and FIRE LENNY WILKENS. Ouch!

The Knicks have been a lottery team the past two seasons, but this year we’ve all but locked down a playoff spot. No we’re probably not a threat to take the East, and we’re nowhere near a championship level team. Most likely a first round exit is in order. However isn’t this better than Knick fans expected at the beginning of the year? Expectations were much lower when Scott Layden was at the helm.

Isaiah Thomas has done a respectable job with the mess he inherited. I won’t pretend that I liked every move, or that he is maximizing the team’s strengths. I’m happy that he’s brought in at least one top tier player in Marbury. I don’t mean “top tier” as in McGrady, Duncan, Garnett, or Shaq, but it’s unmistakable that Marbury is one of the best PGs in the league. The Knicks haven’t had anything close to that since #33 roamed the Garden floor.

It’s impossible to expect anyone to turn a 37 win team into a 50 win team midseason. Those are unrealistic expectations. I’ll be happy with a playoff appearance after a long absence. I’ll be happy that we have a 27 year old PG to build our team around. I’ll be happy that we’ll go into the offseason with a GM that couldn’t be worse than the last. If Dolan wants to win now, and won’t allow the team to rebuild, then he better win now. This year a 7th seed will make most Knick fans happy, but next year we’ll all expect more.

Vinsanity 40, Starbury 38 (but the Knicks win)

Vince Carter might have outscored Stephon Marbury 40-38 last night, but it was Marbury with the last laugh as the Knicks won 108-101. I tried to watch the game last night, but was suffering from food poisoning (slightly worse than the bad taste left in my mouth from the Memphis game). In between bouts of running to the bathroom and a general overall sense of nausea and pain, I saw Marbury light it in the second half.

I’d love to wax poetic about Stephon Marbury, but I’m sure you could open up any of the New York newspapers and read about Starbury’s efforts last night.

Other than Stephon Marbury’s outburst there were a few notables in last night’s game. First is DerMarr Johnson’s 40 minute 15 point game. It was his first 40+ minute game since March 13, 2002. That year he had 4 games where he played that many minutes. The first month and a half of that year, he didn’t get much play, but eventually he would log major minutes, and start 46 games that year. Of course he would have that ill fated car accident in the off-season, which ended his Hawks career.

So far Dermarr’s time as a Knick has been unspectacular. He’s only had 6 games with more than 10 minutes, but we should see more of him with 4 of those coming in the last 4 games. Dermarr’s time yesterday was out of necessity, with Houston only playing the first 8 minutes due to injury, coupled with Toronto’s ability to go big at times. At one point the announcers noted that Vince Carter was the shortest player on the court at 6’6″. If you’re Lenny Wilkens, you’re not exactly going to put Moochie Norris on the court as the SG at that point.

Shooting 5-14 isn’t that impressive, but when you hit 3 from beyond the arc, it becomes a more respectable 46% adjusted FG%. He hit his only 2 free throws in the fourth quarter to help seal the deal against the Raptors. His 6’9″ frame also helped him to snag 7 rebounds. It’s hard to judge a player that has seen as little time as DerMarr has, but his Achilles heal seems to be his erratic shooting. Right now Wilkens’ has little other choice to play Johnson, but if the youngster wants to earn more minutes, he should concentrate on his shooting.

Also appearing last night was Michael Sweetney. The Knicks’ first round pick made his presence felt in the second half. In his 20 minutes, he grabbed 9 rebounds, and scored 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting. He left the game after committing an ill advised foul to stop the clock late in the game. If you call this a rookie mistake, you’d have a hard time explaining why Kurt Thomas did the same thing a few seconds later.

Of course there was little room for Sweetney in the first half, because Othella Harrington was logging his minutes. Other than miss 3 shots, Harrington only managed to commit a personal foul in his seven minutes of play, which is right about his average. I just don’t see why he gets any time at all. At best he should be the third option, when Thomas & Sweetney are in foul trouble. It’s more beneficial for the Knicks’ present and future to give Sweetney 27 minutes instead of 20.

The Dean Oliver Interview

Baseball is in the midst of a revolution of sorts. No it’s not about steroids or home run records, but rather the wave of statistical analysis that is hitting the league like a Pedro Martinez high and tight fastball. The grandfather of this uprising could be Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers GM. More than half a century ago, he knew there were flaws in measuring a player’s value with stats like BA, RBI, and even fielding percentage. Even though the baseball world ignored these simple findings, other people did not. A small group of people asked: “what are the best tools we have to evaluate baseball players?”

The fathers of the revolution are guys like Bill James, Pete Thorn, and John Palmer, who have given birth to the modern day soldiers. Current GM’s like Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Paul Depodesta, and Theo Epstein value statistical analysis over observational appraisal. Columnists like Rob Neyer are part of the mainstream and have forced the old regime to pick up new terms like OPS to adapt. Voros McCracken, a lawyer turned baseball consultant, turned a world of baseball thinkers on their head with his theory that (with few exceptions) pitchers have little effect on a batted ball in play. The movement has hit the streets with a new generation of writers from all walks of life preaching the new credo.

What does this have to do with Dean Oliver? His book is part of a parallel movement in basketball. Dean’s goal with his book is to better understand basketball through statistics. Where current statistics don’t give enough information, Dean creates his own. Whether you’re a casual fan or a failled GM looking for a way to improve your way of thinking, Dean Oliver’s book should be of interest to you.

“Basketball On Paper” tries to answer the tough questions. Is Team A really good defensively or does their slow tempo give that illusion? Read the book. Which team was the best offensive team of all time? Read the book. Can my team benefit from playing a risky strategy or should they tone it down? Read the book. How valuable is Iverson with his low FG%? Read the book.

The fires of same revolt are slowly starting to kindle in basketball. No there are no Billy Beane’s in the front offices of the NBA, yet. Nor is Bill Walton scrambling to learn what PER means. Jon Hollinger’s “Basketball Prospectus”, columns like Kevin Pelton’s Page 23, discussion groups like the APBR, and Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper” will change the way people think about basketball, like their sabermetric cousins are currently doing in baseball.

And now, on to the interview:

“Basketball on Paper”:

KB: Since writing your book “Basketball on Paper,” what have you been working on since & what can we expect from you in the future?

I’ve actually been working on marketing the book and convincing NBA teams of the value of this kind of work — any of the type of statistical work that is logical and reasonable to help a team. I have been talking to a number of teams, the league office, and to media. I’ve done a couple of limited studies relating to work I’ve done for years for the Seattle Sonics. I’ve written a couple things and I am outlining another book on statistical approaches to basketball strategy.

KB: What were some of the responses to your book?

I did a radio show down in Tampa and Doc Rivers came up to me after hearing it and really wanted to talk to me and get a copy of the book. That was nice. I sent the book on to Bill James, who in an email to me said it was an excellent book. He is planning an endorsement. I know that some readers get concerned by seeing formulas or numbers of any sort, which is a bit of a shame since they really are there to support stories and lessons of how the game works and how good talent is.

KB: What is missing or what is next in the literature on basketball statistics?

I think what is missing is the same large audience that baseball stats have. There isn’t a lot of money in a lot of the basketball writing at this point. And it’s a difference in the games. Baseball is slow enough that fans can really talk about what’s going on, pull in numbers. Basketball numbers are tremendous, they’re plentiful, and they’re insightful, but the time to use them or to make adjustments based on them is just not there. So fans look for the excitement and coaches make a lot of decisions based on gut feel. I’ve introduced some rules of thumb for hoops that can be applied on the fly, but it’s going to take a little while to catch on.

What is next in line for research is really a translation system for players from one league to the NBA. College stats have the best history, but high school and international leagues have significance now. We’re just catching up on this and it is not an easy problem. I’ve figured a few things out, but I have too many rules like “The Pitino Rule” that are just annoying and not very general. (Basically, Pitino’s system causes some of his players to be overvalued by stats.)

KB: When I read your book, “Basketball on Paper” I couldn’t help but think of it as the “Win Shares” of basketball, because of :

  • It’s ability to try and understand defense, where traditional methods are lacking
  • The clarity in which advanced statistical ideas are presented
  • The author’s humor

Do you see yourself making a book similar to “The New Bill James’ Historical Abstract”, either by making a recount of basketball by historical periods, or by ranking players by position?

I would very likely do such a book in combination with people like John Grasso, Bijan Bayne, Harvey Pollack, and my contacts in the NBA. The statistical library to evaluate the older players is incomplete, so video and news stories would be very important to make some accurate representations. These guys could definitely help. And I wouldn’t want to do what Elliott Kalb did with his book recently either, which is subjectively rank guys without a lot of link to objective evidence. You mention the recount of basketball by historical periods and I have done a lot of that. Total Basketball does some work along these lines, but doesn’t really talk about why Wilt scored 50 ppg in 1962, for instance, which is important. I mention those things — pace, less judiciousness in shot selection, lack of double-teams — in Basketball on Paper and would like to assemble more of that in a book like this.

Is this something that is right around the corner? Probably not. The group of interested basketball historians is growing, but it isn’t large enough to pay for the massive research involved. I hate having to say it that way, but basketball writers do need to make a living.

Stats:

KB: On ESPN’s MLB main stat page, they have a “sabermetric” stat OPS on the main page, and a sabermetric page with such stats as isolated power and runs created. On ESPN’s NBA page, the closest they have to advanced metrics is points per shot and adjusted field goal percentage. How long do you think it will take before the major sports web sites will post stats like your off. Rtg., stop%, or Hollinger’s PER?

We’re getting there. The WNBA will put out possession stats and points per possession stats this year. The WNBA is also quite receptive to some of the defensive work we did with them a couple years ago and we’re hoping to do that again this year. Issuing monthly reports on what individuals forced the most misses would be nice small pieces of information that help that league and intrigue the bigger brother, the NBA.

The NBA does now have something it calls “efficiency”, which is just a sum of the good things minus the bad things, something I’ve heard referred to as “plus/minus” or is almost Tendex or Bob Bellotti’s Points Created. Going to the more advanced individual numbers is going to take a while. Putting team numbers out there first is huge. Then, in a couple years, we can start talking about other stuff. What we don’t want is another NFL-like passer rating stat that everyone jokes about as the lead stat.

KB: How would you define who is the best rebounder in the league? Would you simply look at REB/48min, or are there other considerations (incl. FG% and pace)?

Primarily, rebounders can be evaluated by the percentage of available rebounds they get. With 10 guys on the court, 10% would be average. I think Rodman was up around 20%. This accounts for pace and FG%. What it doesn’t account for is whether it really makes the team a good rebounding team, which is a modifying factor. A guy who gets 15% of available rebounds on a bad rebounding team is not as useful as one who gets 15% on a good rebounding team (because he is competing against his own teammates for boards). But that is relatively small in terms of importance.

KB: Is there a way to translate a player’s college statistics into his success at the professional level?

As I said above, this is one of the most important projects on the front burner. I’m getting better at it by studying the cases that just don’t work the first time and figuring out why.

KB: What has surprised you about the NBA season this year so far?

In terms of wins and losses, there aren’t a lot of surprises. I’m a little surprised at how successful the Nuggets are. I thought they’d be a lot better, but not this much better. I have been surprised by the coaching turnover. Doc Rivers was out quick, though the losing streak made it less surprising. Byron Scott’s firing and the discord between Ainge and Jim O’Brien — those really surprised me. I also was surprised at how cheaply Portland got Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

The Knicks:

KB: What do you think of the job Isaiah Thomas has done with the Knicks this year?

He wasn’t shy. Being decisive is usually a good thing, but his history in charge generally concerns me. So, picking up Marbury is a nice thing. Marbury is a very good piece to have. I just don’t know if the baggage of the other players, plus the losses were worth it if he’s trying to build a championship team. It’s more important that Isiah know how to follow up the moves he has made than just standing on what he’s got. So he gets a big Incomplete at this point.

KB: If you had to, where would you rank Stephon Marbury among today’s point guards?

Jason Kidd is solidly above him. Otherwise, he is in a class of points who are quite good (Nash, Parker, Billups, Cassell, Payton, and I’m sure I’m forgetting someone). Marbury is the best on the offensive side, but his defense lacks. Intangibly, he’s worn out his welcome a few times now and that matters.

KB: In your opinion, what player (current or former) is Nazr Mohammed most similar to? In the best case scenario what player could he aspire to become?

Curious that you ask that. Curious that the Knicks really valued him. One of my techniques for looking for players is to look at successful players in the league and see what guys are modestly similar to them who may not be getting much time. Mohammed came out modestly similar to a couple prominent big men in a study I did for the Sonics. I think Garnett or Duncan was one. But I have sooo many numbers that suggest he just isn’t going to end up good that I discarded him as a legit possibility. I did all that right before the trade, so I found it very coincidental. Best case: he might be Jamaal Magloire. He just can’t consistently score inside.

KB: Is Kurt Thomas worth $30 over 4 years, or could the Knicks have gotten similar production out of a cheaper and younger player?

Kurt Thomas is serviceable. He’s not a bad player. But he’s just not someone I see as a significant component of a championship team. It’s a risk to go after a younger player, but I would have taken that risk.

One final question:
KB: What do you like best about the Knicks?

Weeellllll, I do tend to root for Lenny Wilkens. He may be old-school and not care about the kind of work that I do, but he’s always seemed like a decent guy.

Catch Me If I Fall

20,000 miles to an oasis
20,000 years will i burn
20,000 chances i wasted
Waiting for the moment to turn

— “Texarkana”
R.E.M.

I don’t think I can say anything about last night’s loss that won’t be said in any of the New York newspapers. I’ll keep it short and say they had plenty of chances to win, and the game should not have gone into overtime. Kenny Thomas hit a lucky three point shot to tie the game. If the fact that it banked in hard off the glass doesn’t convince you, then consider his three point stats.

Year	Team	G	Min 	3PM	3PA	3P%	PPG
 1999	HOU	72	25.0 	0.4	1.7	26.2	8.3
 2000	HOU	74	24.6 	0.3	1.2	27.2	7.1
 2001	HOU	72	34.5 	0	0.2	0	14.1
 2002	HOU	20	29.3 	0	0	0	9.8
 2002	PHI	46	30.3 	0	0	0	10.2
 2003	PHI	57	35.0 	0	0.1	0	12.3
 Career		341	29.5 	0.2	0.7	24.4	10.3

That’s right, he’s a career 24% shooter from beyond the arc, and hasn’t attempted more than 0.2/G in more than 4 years. Obviously someone figured out he wasn’t effective from that far & made him stop shooting treys a few years ago.

Watching the game (at least the first 47:59.6 minutes of it) I kept thinking about two things. I was alternately saying to myself “Wow they look pretty deep” and “Calm down, they look good because they are playing Philly without their two best players.”

The Knicks are a deeper team now than they were in the beginning of the year. Back in October, the only depth we had was PF (McDyess, Thomas, Harrington, Spoon, Lampe, Van Horn and Sweetney). You could argue that we had 3 PGs, but I think you’re giving Eisley too much credit. We’re certainly deeper at the bigger spots. Nazr Mohammed and Vin Baker are our centers, and don’t forget Dekembe Mutombo. Kurt Thomas also can play the 5, as had Sweetney versus albeit a very small Celtics lineup. At PF we have Thomas, Sweetney, and now little used Othella Harrington. Vin Baker can play there as well, as can Tim Thomas for small stretches.

Small forward is adequately covered with Thomas, Hardaway, and Anderson. Even if Marbury didn’t play the mega-minutes that he routinely does, we would be deep at PG with backups Frank Williams, Mochie Norris, and Penny Hardaway. With Allan Houston back, shooting guard is covered along with Anderson and DeMarr Johnson.

Isaiah Thomas has done a commendable job putting together a team, as opposed to the collection of players he inherited. The Knicks still have their weaknesses, but at least Lenny Wilkens has options on who to play instead of trying to figure out how he’s going to fit 7 power forwards in the game.

Welcome to the NBA, Michael Sweetney

There is a wait so long
You’ll never wait so long
Here comes your man

— “Here Comes Your Man”
Pixies

The official stats say Michael Sweetney has played 25 games so far this year. I’m here to tell you they’re off by 24. #50 for the Knicks, has played his first NBA game. Before you call Dr. Phil and ask him to examine my noggin, let me explain.

In a previous column, I said this about Sweetney:

The Knicks rookie PF looks skilled, but lost at times especially on defense. I expect that if the Knicks are patient enough to give him playing time, this befuddled play will disappear…

I also wrote about Sweetney on Raptorblog.com :

Sweetney is undersized vertically, but a bit wide in the midsection with a long wing span. He’s a bit timid, and gets lost on the defensive end. He’s every bit the wide-eyed rookie, but with Wilkens slowly giving him minutes he’s looking more and more comfortable on the court. Due to his lack of minutes, there isn’t much to say about him other than he can rebound, and he makes a great looking inside shot every few weeks or so.

Previously, Sweetney never looked comfortable on the court. If you watched him the whole game, you’d see him make mental mistakes. He looked uncomfortable on defense, always switching a little bit late, and sometimes looking around for his guy. On offense, he seemed to never get into the swing of things. His main asset seemed to be getting defensive rebounds.

Last night we saw a different Michael Sweetney. Sometimes during a game I’ll take notes, because it’s hard to remember all the subtleties that occur. To recap Sweetney’s night, I didn’t have to pick up my pen. The images were burnt into my memory. Maybe not all of them, but enough anyway.

Early on he received a pass in the post on the right blocks. He spun to his right, gave a head fake, and hit an easy layup over a fooled defender. A few plays after that Marbury was double teamed off of Sweetney’s pick, and kicked the ball out to Sweetney for an easy 12 footer. It’s the first time that I can remember Sweetney hitting an inside and an outside shot in the same game.

The rookie would show his quickness, with a steal near midcourt. With no one between him and the basket, only a Celtic flagrant foul would prevent him from scoring. Later in the game, he out rebounded Paul Pierce on the offensive glass for an easy lay in.

Sweetney just loooked comfortable out there. If you had never seen a Knicks game before you wouldn’t have been able to pick out who the rookie was. Even his mistakes weren’t entirely his fault. One was a bad cross court pass while being double teamed. It wasn’t all Sweetney’s fault, since the the Knicks didn’t get open to give him any other target. On another fast break, Sweetney received the ball from Shandon Anderson on the wing, and passed it back quickly, but it was Anderson that couldn’t handle the pass. In the second half, Sweetney was rejected attempting a dunk by a trio of Celtics. However, he calmly got the rebound under their rim, and went up again, this time banking the layup off the backboard. At that point, he looked like a veteran that had seen it all.

I’m sorry if you came here to read about some esoteric stat. They’ll be no Dean Oliver’s Off. Rtg. No John Hollinger’s PER. No “Joe’s” linear weight performance. On a night, where the Knicks lost on a missed last second shot, I’ll be happy to write about their first round draft pick’s fabulous performance.

International Relations

In the spirit of international friendship between our two nations and because our two favorite teams will be facing each other Friday night, Scott from RaptorBlog.com and I will be swapping blogs for a day. You can catch my blog on the “new” Knicks there.


Cuz this life is too short
To live it just for you
But when you feel so powerless
What are you gonna do?
So say what you want

— “Powerless”
Nelly Furtado

Since I’m guest blogging for Mike, I figured I’d drop some Canadian content on y’all with the opening lyrics. Also, they’re an apt summary of my current state as a Raptors fan. Toronto’s recent injuries and pathetic performance have me feeling powerless and all I can do is bitch about it.

Knicks fans have undoubtedly been watching the Raptors’ recent struggles with great interest due to the effect they have on your playoff position. Toronto has lost 10 of their last 11 games with six of those losses occurring while Vince Carter and Jalen Rose were sidelined. Jalen is on the IL recovering from his broken hand but Vince is back in uniform. Even though he’s still suffering from his ankle injury from two weeks ago, he’s still the key to any hopes we have of making the post-season.

In his current condition, Carter does not have the explosiveness to beat your defenders off the dribble nor does he have the mobility to defend your quick guards. It won’t surprise me if Allan Houston gets the open looks he needs on Friday to rediscover his shooting stroke. Raptors’ coach Kevin O’Neill’s best bet would be to put Morris Peterson on H20, since Mo Pete is our best perimeter defender right now.

Down low, Chris Bosh will probably be unable to stop Nazr Mohammed and Kurt Thomas from dunking and rebounding at will. Bosh is woefully undersized at center and his bum ankle negates any athletic advantage he might have. I’m not particularly hopeful for a repeat performance of his 18-point, eight-rebound, four-block performance against your team in January. In his current emaciated, crippled condition, he’s as well-suited to play center as Al Sharpton is to become your next president.

At this point, you’re probably wondering if the Raptors have any hope whatsoever of preventing an old-fashioned New York beatdown at the Air Canada Centre. If Toronto has a secret weapon, it’s Donyell Marshall. Jalen Rose was the biggest name in November’s trade with Chicago, but Marshall has proven to be the true stud in this deal. He’s averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds as a Raptor while shooting 42 percent from three-point range. Donyell is our “stealth bomber”. Several times a game, Vince will drive and draw a double-team before dishing out to Marshall for a wide-open trey. The Thomas boys would be wise to stick to Donyell like glue rather than worry about Carter taking it to the hole. These days, his drives are mostly decoys.

I’m not even going to bother discussing Friday’s point guard matchup. Marbury vs. Palacio is more lopsided than a dance-off between Usher and William Hung. On Wednesday night, Starbury outscored Milt 36-0. I just threw up in my mouth while writing that last sentence.

Once your current group gets used to playing with each other, I think the Knicks could really make some noise in the post-season. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to root for your team even after the Raptors are inevitably stomped in the first round like a narc at a biker rally. I could never support a team run by a cold-hearted snake like Isiah Thomas. Oh, you’re cheering him now. But one day, you’ll see what a complete bastard, what a psychotic megalomaniac he is. And when that day comes, I’ll laugh and have a sandwich. Isiah has failed at everything he’s done since he retired from his playing career. It will be particularly sweet to see him crucified once and for all by the ruthless vipers in the New York media. Peter Vescey is sharpening his knives as I write this, waiting for the right moment to strike the killing blow…

Whoa, sorry about that. I got a little carried away with my Zeke-hate there. Anyway, good luck on Friday. But don’t count on seeing too many “Welcome back, Lenny” signs in the stands. The only reason we’re glad to see him again is that he’s coaching our opponents this time.

Email Scott

OR