2008 Dog Days of Summer – The Rise of the East?

So it appears the dog days of the offseason are upon us. While there’s a possibility of some roster movement before the Knicks preseason starts, it’s likely that on most days there will be no changes. So until there’s serious NBA news, each week I’d like to come up with a topic for everyone to discuss. This week I’ll stick with the NBA, but as the summer moves on, I promise nothing.

The rise of the East?

It seems that since Jordan’s second retirement, the NBA has been dominated by the West. For years the NBA’s biggest matchups involved the Lakers, Spurs, Kings, Mavs, or Suns depending on the year. Although the two conferences have split the last 6 championships, it’s generally thought that the West has more teams of championship caliber. For instance if the West’s 6th best team by record, the Utah Jazz, won the title it would be more plausible than the East’s 6th best team (Toronto).

Eventually imbalances like this even out. For most of the 80s & early 90s, the NFL was dominated by the NFC as the AFC would go 14 years without winning a Super Bowl. But since then an NFC team has been crowned champion only 3 times in an 11 year span. So it’s not a question of if the East will catch up, it’s a question of when.

This NBA offseason seems to have benefited the East. Lost in the Baron Davis/Elton Brand/Clippers story was that the Sixers were the big winners. Between Dalembert, Iguodala, and Brand Philadelphia might have one of the league’s best defenses. If Brand is healthy, the Sixers go from a middle of the road team to an Eastern powerhouse. The Chicago Bulls were a 49 win team two seasons ago and ended up with the #1 overall pick this year. Derrick Rose should give them production at the point guard position where Kirk Hinrich regressed heavily. Similarly the Miami Heat added the #2 pick, and Michael Beasley combined with a full season from All Stars Dwayne Wade and Shawn Marion could make them a strong rebound candidate in 2009. Meanwhile there are a few Eastern teams led by young stars that could take a step forward next year, like Orlando, Cleveland, and Toronto.

Last year the league’s two best teams were in the East. The Celtics won 66 games and the Pistons won 59. Although Boston has already lost a key role player (Posey), Detroit’s roster remains largely unchanged. If one or two of the other Eastern teams can break the 55 win barrier, then it’s likely that the gap between conferences may no longer exist.

Growing Ref Scandal

The Tim Donaghy story goes on: drip, drip, drip. I’m a skeptic by nature, an anti-conspiracy theorist. It’s easy to believe that a ref with a gambling problem decided to shade the games he worked; it’s hard to believe he was part of a complex conspiracy – given how hard it is to keep a secret — and even harder to think that the NBA office would be so stupid as to try to cover up said conspiracy. Disgraced ref Donaghy has made some wild allegations, but without corroborating evidence, his credibility is low.  And yet there’s a story out today that’s making me think twice.  

According to Fox News, court documents show that Donaghy made 134 phone calls to fellow ref Steve Foster between October 2006 and April 2007, a period in which he was betting on games. According to the report, most of the calls were short and came before or after games that have been called into question.  Now, that’s a lot of calls — almost daily, on average. The only person Donaghy called more often was the guy who placed bets for him. 

Fox reported that Foster says he knows of no investigation. The NBA put out a lame statement: “The government has said that they have found no evidence of criminal conduct aside from that of Mr. Donaghy. Once again, the only criminal conduct is that of Mr. Donaghy.”

More details here and here

Jon Abbey is looking more and more like his gravatar, by the second.’

Daring to Dream

It’s a big day on the NBA calendar: the official salary cap for the 2008-2009 season was announced ($58,680,000) and it’s the first day free agents can officially sign contracts. The biggest news is Elton Brand spurning the Clippers and his friend Baron Davis, apparently agreeing to a 5-year, $82 million contract with Philadelphia. The Warriors are reportedly signing Corey Maggette to a 5-year, $50 million deal. Most important — at least to Knicks fans — Brand’s move may create an opening to move Zach Randolph.

Randolph won’t be anyone’s first choice. But if you want to take a glass half-full attitude, the Clippers and Warriors have significant cap room, fantasies of competing for the playoffs, a hole at power forward and — very possibly — no one to take their money in free agency. Assuming the Davis and Maggette reports are accurate, the Clippers have $14 million in cap space left, while the Warriors have about $17 million. As far as unrestricted free agents — forget it. The best one left is James Posey, then it’s guys like Ricky Davis and Brent Barry. The plum prizes are restricted, meaning their teams can match any offer. Still, when big offers start flying, it’s no surprise when someone flinches. Here are five guys who could wreck our Randolph plans — in order of likelihood that they’ll sign with Clippers or Warriors.

Emeka Okafor — There’s been almost no news from Charlotte, but Okafor was uninterested in an offer starting at $12-13 million a year, and 10 days ago Michael Jordan was grumbling to the papers. Given Okafor’s injury history and the signs of bad blood, I won’t be surprised to see him walk if the Warriors (or Clippers) make an offer starting around $13 million. Still, as of now, the Warriors reported top choice is…

Josh Smith — Smith is a thrill to watch, Atlanta’s star gate attraction and still just 22 years old. He’s also clashed with his coaches and has plenty of holes in his game. The Hawks keep saying they’ll match any offer, but the owners are notoriously cheap. It would be a public relations disaster not to match… but if the Warriors make a huge offer, the Hawks might throw in the towel. Channeling my inner Sam Smith, the Hawks could also look at trade options. Utah or Miami might take Smith for Carlos Boozer or Shawn Marion; that would give the Hawks a short-term upgrade and massive cap room next summer. The Hawks also need money to pay…

Josh Childress — No star power, but stat-heads know him as an extremely efficient offensive player, a good rebounder for a guard and a solid defender. I doubt the Hawks will let Smith AND Childress walk, but if they pony up for Smith, I don’t think they’ll pay more than the mid-level ($5.58 million) for their 6th man. On the other hand, I don’t know if the Clips or Warriors will make him an offer.

Andre Iguodala — Iggy is far less likely to move than these others. With Brand in town, the 76ers think they can make a title run with their current lineup, and they may be right. Still, if offers for Iguodala hit the $14 million range, the Sixers might look at trade options, for a more traditional shooter/scorer. Michael Redd and Tracy McGrady spring to mind. More likely to happen in February, if at all.

Luol Deng — Since the Bulls wouldn’t trade him for Kobe, they’ll be matching offers. That’s going to dog this guy for the rest of his career.

Also worry about…

Ben Gordon — Now here’s a restricted free agent with a good chance of moving. Yeah, he’s a two-guard, but it matters to our Randolph hopes because the Bulls might decide to move Hinrich instead, in a reported trade for Al Harrington. With Harrington out of the picture, the Warriors would have to take on Zach’s full salary — making it an even longer shot.

Andris Biedrins — It’s assumed the Warriors will sign him to an extension, but if you hear they’re having second thoughts, it means they’re trying to save money for a run at one of the other guys.

Addition By Subtraction?

Here in Georgia, we’ve struggled with drought for several years. Last fall, folks with lakefront lots on Lake Lanier saw their boats sitting on mud flats, and Atlanta was down to its last 60 days of water.  Governor Sonny Perdue decided to organize a prayer circle and pray for rain. (He also sued Florida and Alabama). A few hours after the group prayer on the steps of the state Capitol, the clouds burst and Lo! there was rain. What does this have to do with basketball? Well, the Knicks have gone through a long drought….

But I promised to talk about “addition by subtraction.” Posters offered: 1) trading Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd; 2)  trading Marbury for Steve Nash; 3) trading Zach Randolph for Steve Francis & Channing Frye; 4) trading Isaiah Rider for Sean Rooks & change; 5) trading Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue; 6) Firing John McLeod (!) and  7) trading Allen Iverson for Andre Miller.  

It’s clear that to most people, “addition by subtraction” means “trading a star player.” But usually, a player “subtracted” means others “added.” After all, Channing Frye’s mother doesn’t refer to “the Zach Randolph trade.” In some of these examples, one team did get a lot better – but the key was clearly the addition (MVP Nash, 2nd-place MVP Kidd) — NOT the subtraction.  Other examples are more complicated. The Blazers got substantially better after dumping Randolph, as did the 76ers after buying out Webber. The Sixers also improved after trading their superstar for a supposed role player. Are these examples of better chemistry? 

The year he was cut, despite a high usage rate of 23.4, Webber had a TS% of 40.9 and was one of the worst defenders in the league. Not surprisingly, his replacements were better. Randolph’s minutes were largely taken by LaMarcus Aldridge; some of his shots went to Brandon Roy. Both players are more efficient shooters than Randolph, and better defenders. Portland also got back the services of Joel Przybilla, who missed 2006-2007 due to injury. While Randolph is an excellent rebounder, Przybilla is even better – a rebound rate almost 20 percent higher. He’s also a good defender. Meanwhile, as Ted Nelson noted, even before the trade some people considered Andre Miller an equal or better player to Allen Iverson.

Which brings us to Stephon Marbury. Some suggest that the Knicks would help themselves most with a buyout, rather than letting Marbury sit on the bench or trading him. In theory, Marbury offers terrible “intangibles,” and cutting him would improve team chemistry, leading others to play better. 

Paraphrasing Dave Berri, in sportswriter-speak “intangibles” are everything but scoring, measured by points-per-game.  The Knickerblogger reader knows better.  “Intangible” just means we can’t measure it. About the only statistic for which we don’t have a pretty reliable measure, is off-the-ball defense. With that in mind – Stephon Marbury doesn’t have bad “intangibles.” He’s just a mediocre player: a slowing 31-year-old: average on offense, abominable on defense and offering little else. Four statistical ranking systems all tell the same story: a steady decline over the past three years, from a starting point either slightly above or slightly below average. 

PER: 16.52, 15.36, 13.84  (15 is average)

WP/48: .092, .070, .050  (.100 is average) 

Roland Rating: +1.5, 0.0, -4.6

Adjusted Plus/minus:  7.57, 2.88, TBD

The Knicks will defend better with Chris Duhon on the floor, and they might play better overall. But that’s not saying the team would play better with Marbury in Boston, or sitting home. Back in Georgia, Sonny Perdue thanked the powers that be for sending rain. Do you prefer a simple explanation, or the intangibles? 

p.s. The Timberwolves improved 14 games the year after trading Isiah Rider. They had several similar players take his minutes; they also gave an extra 800 minutes to Kevin Garnett and replaced Spud Webb with the rookie Marbury. The Spurs didn’t really improve post-Rodman until Tim Duncan arrived. 

2008 Playoffs: Game Ones

OK so the Spurs and Suns go double OT, the Jazz beat the hottest team in the West, and the Sixers steal game 1 from Detroit. I really only caught the Houston/Utah game on tv, and it seemed that the Rockets dug themselves a big hole and spent their energy trying to catch up. My feeling of the game was that Utah dominated the glass, but the boxscore shows Houston to have won the aggregate offensive rebound war: 18 to 13. However the Jazz shot better than 50%, while Houston didn’t crack 40%, so when you look at rebounding percentage it was actually pretty even (HOU: 39%, UTA: 36%). This is a series where the #2 offense meets the #2 defense, and in each game you expect something to break.

Looking at the boxscore for Pistons loss, it seems that Philadelphia shot slightly better, but all the four factors were pretty close. Detroit had one extra rebound, one less turnover, and one less free throw made. For those that are hoping Philly/Detroit will be this year’s Golden State/Dallas it would have been better if the Sixers won more handily. In a 7 game series, the underdog needs to do better than just break even.

As for the Spurs/Suns well this should be a good series throughout. Half of me wants the Suns to lose because I think the Shaq trade was a poor decision. Half of me wants the Spurs to lose so I get a more exciting round 2 series between Phoenix & New Orleans.