The Siren Song of the NBA: Creationism

Yesterday the Knicks beat the Hawks at home, and I had one thought on my mind during most of the game. Earlier that day I had read Alan Hahn’s live chat where a questioner said the following:

“Is David Lee overrated? Double-doubles are great, but not when they don’t impact games. IMO Nate is more valuable to the Knicks right now in that he has the ability to carry a team on his back when he erupts for 20 pts in a single quarter…”

Now, I like Robinson and have been lobbying for him to get more playing time from his first season. I hope the Knicks will keep him around for a few more years at a reasonable price without hurting their chances for a couple of major free agents. And I don’t want to get into a discussion about who is the most valuable Knick, because it’s tough to answer that question. For instance what does “most valuable” mean? It could mean if you were building a team, which player you would choose first. It could mean which player, if removed, would hurt the team the most.

What I want to talk about it the siren song of the NBA – the creative scorer. As a fan who watches many games, it’s easy to understand the lure of the volume scorer. The average fan focuses on the guy with the ball, and the scorer tends to have the ball in his hands more often than his teammates. Additionally he is able to create the shot by his own ability, independent of his teammates. It’s easy for the fan to see the benefit of the scorer’s efforts, since it connects directly to the main goal of the team: points. Rebounds don’t change the point totals on the scoreboard. When the news covers the game, usually you hear something like “Robinson led the Knicks with 29 points, while Duhon and Hughes chipped in 19 each.” You don’t hear about the other stats unless it’s a phenomenal number (20 rebounds). And the players listed are in point order, even if they score 19 points on 20 shots.

What strengthens the bond between the fan and the scorer is that sometimes the scorer performs in an amazing manner. Watch any NBA game and you’re likely to see a few spectacular shots, most by the high scorer. Hence it’s easy for the average fan to relate to the leading scorer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the most important event on the court. Other things lead to a team’s victory, including defense, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws. But most of these aren’t as sexy as the made basket. When was the last time you saw a spectacular rebound? Has there even been a spectacular free throw? A turnover can excite the crowd, but unless it’s followed by a score the buzz is lost.

Now I’ll agree that the double-double is an overrated stat, but is it that much more overrated than points per game? Or even the ability to create your own shot? This final component seems especially important for the average fan who plays basketball. At the level of the average fan, being able to create your own shot is more important than many other attributes. In other words your neighborhood version of Al Harrington is worth more at the park than the NBA’s version is to his team. In the Hawks game thread, a game that Robinson missed due to injury, “ess-dog” commented “Now this is the kind of game that makes me wonder if Nate’s scoring and penetrating is overrated.”

During Isiah’s tenure New York was stuck with two players that could create their own shot, but do little else. Crawford & Curry seemed to divide Knick fans between creationists who worshiped their ability to make shot attempts, and those that covered their ears to the siren song of YouTube highlights. This year the team has traded one and marginalized the other, and their record is on track to improve by 10 games. It’s no coincidence that this improvement has occurred by replacing the inefficient ex-Bulls’ minutes with the more efficient Robinson and Lee. Additionally the latter pair gives the team more than just field goal attempts. Lee provides rebounding, while Robinson sprinkles the stat line with rebounding, assists, and steals.

As advanced statisticians already know, at the highest levels of basketball shooting is the most important factor with regards to a team’s chances of winning. But it’s not shooting volume that we use to measure it, but rather shooting efficiency. If a team can shoot at a high percentage and prevent their opponent from doing the same, they’re going to win a lot of games. Creating a shot does have value, but it must be taken in the proper context of the ability to make the shot. On the night the Knicks won without their best creative scorer, Golden State got blown out by the Bulls. They were ‘led’ by Stephen Jackson 19 points (on 20 shots), Corey Maggette 14 points (on 16 shots) and Jamal Crawford 11 points (on 15 shots).

Per 36 minute stats comparing last year’s creationists to their 2009 counterparts.

       Player  Season  Age  G  MPG  FGA  ORB TRB AST STL TOV  PF  PTS  TS%
Jamal Crawford 2007-08  27 80 39.9 15.7 0.4  2.3 4.5 0.9 2.2 1.6 18.6 .528
 Nate Robinson 2008-09  24 52 1561 16.9 1.7  5.1 4.7 1.7 2.1 3.4 21.1 .559
       Player  Season  Age  G   MP  FGA  ORB TRB AST STL TOV  PF  PTS  TS% 
    Eddy Curry 2007-08  25 59 1530 12.8 2.6  6.5 0.8 0.3 3.0 3.7 18.4 .578
     David Lee 2008-09  25 60 2134 11.9 3.2 12.1 2.0 0.9 2.0 3.4 16.7 .599

Curry To Go

With the Knicks finally poised for considerable salary cap space in 2010-11, the LeBron James countdown has officially begun. More than a year and a half before it’s possible, New York is already salivating at the chance to welcome James to the fold. But it’s no foregone conclusion that The King will join the Knicks. James says championship contention is his top priority, and we should take his word for it. If that’s the case, the Knicks have a long way to go to before they can secure James. Building a championship level supporting cast will be a difficult journey. And it’s one that must begin with the trade of Eddy Curry.

The Knicks will be expected to lure a second superstar to play sidekick to James. According to current salary commitments, the Knicks will have enough room under the cap to offer two free agents the max if they don’t re-up their current core of young players–Nate Robinson, David Lee–and pick up the team options on Wilson Chandler ($2.1M) and Danilo Gallinari ($3.3M). To keep their youngsters, and still sign two max FA’s, the Knicks must unload Eddy Curry’s contract ($11.2M) without taking on 2010-2011 dollars.

Curry has his flaws, but due mostly (or exclusively, really) to his scoring talents, he’s still an above average center in a league that starts Udonis Haslem, Zaza Pachulia, and Robert Swift at the pivot. Curry’s not playing right now, so a trade is highly unlikely. But we can dream of the day the Knicks’ league-leading pace will artificially inflate his per game numbers. Better yet, we can speculate on how exactly to get rid of him.

Mr. Curry to the Courtesy Phone
For the sake of argument, I’m assuming that teams that would want a player like Curry are in need of: (a) bench/low post scoring; (b) big man depth; (c) are playoff bound in 2008-09; (d) and won’t have cap space in 2010 anyway.

Also, for the sake of argument, I’m assuming that the Knicks are literally willing to give Curry away. If I were Donnie Walsh, I’d trade Curry for a sack of potatoes, as long as the tubers’ contract expired on July 1st, 2010. Of course, the Knicks could get lucky and find a team that’s willing to trade an unprotected first round pick for Curry, but for that to happen, they’d probably have to trade Isiah Thomas to the Clippers first.

None of the following deals are likely, but to prevent the absurd, I’ve omitted possible trades to teams like Chicago and Milwaukee that may need a player with Eddy Curry’s skill set, but don’t want Eddy Curry.

CHARLOTTE Nazr Mohammed & Adam Morrison for Eddy Curry
Off-court, Charlotte would prefer to unload Gerald Wallace’s contract. On-court, they need a center to move Emeka Okafor back to his more natural power forward position. Okafor’s defense can cover for Curry’s lapses, and vice versa. They’d be great platoon partners.

Charlotte won‘t make the playoffs this year, but they are looking to reorganize their team. Various rumors suggest they’re ready to give up on Morrison, and could use Curry’s scoring instead. The salaries match, but Nazr has 2010 money on the books, so the Knicks would only save about $4 million. The Knicks would decline Morrison’s option and renounce his rights.

With Nazr for Curry, they’d have an easier salary to unload in the off-season, and that $4 million in savings can help off-set the salary commitment for their 2009 first round draft pick.

NEW ORLEARNS Mike James & Hilton Armstrong for Eddy Curry
The Hornets are getting absolutely nothing out of James and Armstrong, with the former losing his rotation spot to Devin Brown and the latter doing his best impression of a lamp-post fifteen minutes a game. With front court depth a major issue heading into the post-season, the Hornets could jettison two players who don’t contribute for a third big man who can provide scoring punch when Tyson Chandler or David West take their breathers.

Curry has always been an embarrassingly bad rebounder, so it may come as a surprise that he could actually help the Hornets in that regard. Believe it or not, his career rebound rate is slightly superior to Armstrong’s. And Curry would do it while scoring twice as much. We focus on Curry’s flaws so often, we often forget how many teams play total stiffs just by virtue of them being the tallest guy in the gym.

The Hornets are playoff bound and will need some help to get past the Lakers. Curry doesn’t come cheap, but one wonders if they’d be willing to roll the dice with the man-child, picking him up to provide the front-court depth and second-team scoring they so desperately need.

DENVER Steven Hunter and Chucky Atkins for Eddy Curry
Like the Hornets, the Nuggets can trade two players who have spent most of the year in business suits for a productive big man. Considering they’ve played Renaldo Balkman at the pivot, they could use a center that puts the ball in the basket.

Hunter and Atkins come to the Knicks for blatant salary implications, while Denver gets another scorer. In fact, with Denver’s trade exemptions, they could acquire Curry without giving anything more than a 2nd round draft pick in return. But considering that Denver is reluctant to pay the luxury tax, the Knick could do them the favor of taking back some monetary flotsam in return.

Playing the Field
There are other deals that make less sense. Would Dallas trade Jerry Stackhouse and Antoine Wright for Curry? It would help their bench scoring, but eat up their 2010 salary cap flexibility. Maybe Atlanta could unload two unproductive point guards in Speedy Claxton and Acie Law for Curry. Washington could trade the Knicks two centers who don’t even play: Etan Thomas and Darius Songalia. But stuck in the Eastern Conference basement, and with a pair of intriguing, young bigs, would they bother? Would Sacramento shuffle about salaries, getting Shareef-Abdur Rahim and Mikki Moore off the books for Curry?

Knicks fans are dreaming of bringing James to New York in 2010. But unless the Knicks can unload Curry’s contract before then, it’s unlikely they’ll be in position to assemble the championship-level supporting cast James demands. Considering the cost of Curry, the Knicks will have to get creative to clear him in time for what could be a very special summer.

Heat 115 Knicks 120

[Late in the third quarter, the Knicks are up by about 20. An exchange between announcers Clyde Frazier and Gus Johnson.]
Clyde: I think the crowd is stunned, Gus, by what has happened here tonight…
Gus: I’m stunned. They’re playing so well. It’s almost too easy.
Clyde: Yes, that word surreal… The crowd is like they’re waiting for something bad to happen…
Gus: The Knicks are playing well.

Watching from home, I was stunned from before the start of the game with the opening act of Q-Tip. For years “Take Me Home” by Doug E Fresh was one of the worst parts of any Knick game. As I wrote nearly 2 years ago, New York is the birthplace and capital of rap. We shouldn’t have to settle for a third rate rapper covering a song about rural life. Q-Tip is a New York native who is well respected for his work in A Tribe Called Quest, and is still active with his solo career. Nonetheless Q-Tip’s song was fit for a New York basketball team.

I was still stunned when D’Antoni furiously called a time out with 4:46 left in the game and the Knicks had a 106-92 lead. I just couldn’t imagine any of the last few New York coaches being mad with a 14 point buffer on opening night. Isiah Thomas probably wouldn’t have gotten out of his seat. Herb Williams might have looked around for a fan to tell him what to do. Lenny Wilkens might have been dreaming of 1979.

But the Knicks did play well. Granted they only won by 5 points, but they had a 16 point lead going into the fourth quarter. New York had positive contributions from Crawford (29 points on 19 shots), Lee (16 pts, 11 reb, 5 ast), Randolph (20 pts, 9 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl), and Chandler (17 pts, 9 reb in 23 min). Even though Gallinari didn’t play well, he made an appearance. How stunning is it, that an underage draft pick that missed most of summer league and preseason made his way onto the court in the first half?

It’s great that New York won, but I’m just glad of the difference that mark a change in philosophy. For the first time in years, I feel like the Knicks are a real team. I still don’t expect them to win many games this year. But I feel pride in this team, for the first time in a long time.

Knicks First 2008 Summer League Game

Today the Knicks will play their first summer league game, which will be at 4pm EST. Looking over the team, I’m having a hard time figuring out who the starting 5 will be. New York does have 5 players who are on their roster: Robinson, Gallinari, Chandler, Balkman, and Collins. The obvious choice is to make them the starters.

However, this may not be the best decision. The Knicks will want to give a lot of run to their first round draft pick Danilo Gallinari. Gallo would (at least according to the heights listed by the Knicks) be the tallest man on the court, which would make him the defacto center. Unfortunately it may not be a great idea to put your European teenager at center in his first professional contest. Of the three forwards Wilson Chandler has the best bulk/height ratio (230lbs, 6-8), and Balkman has the most quickness. So you may see Renaldo at SF, Gallo at PF, and Chandler at C.

This smaller lineup does make sense, especially considering that D’Antoni likes to play quick, but what if they face a team with a rather large NBA front court player? Today that question will be answered when they face the Cavs whose summer roster features Robert “Tractor” Traylor. One way to combat a larger player is to run more, but if the pace slows down and Traylor is eating the team up on the inside, the Knicks can use summer league veteran Paul Miller or 7 footer Zhang Songtao. On the other hand if the team wanted to give Gallinari a taste of what he might face at power forward in the NBA, they just might play him at center and force him to defend Traylor.

As for the back court, the team wouldn’t have invited Nate Robinson to Las Vegas and not play him. Last year they specifically asked Robinson to be the point guard, forcing him to share the ball more. If they do that this year, Mardy Collins might not be starting. Collins is an awful shooter and playing him at the 2 would be a disaster.

If they use Collins at the point Nate would slide to the 2, but that seems counterproductive to what the team would like to do during the season. Walsh has publicly stated his like for Jamal Crawford, and it’s been reported that the team would want him to concentrate on being a shooting guard not a point guard. If the Knicks buyout or send Stephon Marbury home, they only have Duhon, Robinson, and Collins as point guards on the roster. Considering the possibility that Collins may be released to sign with the Latvian team of his choice (VEF RIGA might be a good fit) then it definitely doesn’t make sense to have Robinson waste time at the shooting guard.

Hence my choice for starting shooting guard would be the 6-4 22 year old Von Wafer, who has the most recent NBA experience (29 games for Denver and Portland last year and 46 games total over three years). According to his D-League and college stats Wafer is a strong three point shooter, and would be a better fit for D’Antoni’s offense than Collins. Other options might be Antonio Graves, a combo guard for Pitt and France’s Pau-Orthez, and Marcus Hall a long range bomber who connected on 38% of his treys at Colorado last year. Graves was supposedly a good defender in college, and seems to have done well (at least in one game) in France. Hall doesn’t have Wafer’s professional experience or and at 6-2 is a little undersized for an NBA shooting guard.

The main focus of the Knicks summer will be on Gallinari, but where he plays and who he plays with may make for some interesting sub-plots.

Knicks 2008 Summer League Roster

No Player Pos Ht Wt Born AGE College/Country 2007-08 Team Yrs Pro
32 Renaldo Balkman F 6’8 208 7/14/84 23 South Carolina New York (NBA) 2
21 Wilson Chandler F 6’8 230 5/19/87 21 DePaul New York (NBA) 1
25 Mardy Collins G 6’6 220 8/4/84 23 Temple New York (NBA) 2
8 Danilo Gallinari F 6’9 225 8/8/88 19 Italy Armani Jeans (Italy) R
18 Dan Grunfeld G/F 6’5 198 2/7/84 24 Stanford Valencia (Spain) R
7 Antonio Graves G 6’2 190 4/17/85 23 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh (CBA) R
6 Marcus Hall G 6’2 175 8/6/85 22 Colorado Colorado (NCAA) R
36 Delonte Holland F 6’7 220 3/2/82 26 DePaul Cimberio Varese (Italy) R
30 Brandon Hunter F 6’7 266 11/24/80 27 Ohio Angelico Biella (Italy) 3
1 Antione Johnson G 6’1 185 9/21/85 22 Albany Gazi (Turkey) R
40 Paul Miller F/C 6’10 250 11/17/82 25 Wichita State SPEC Polonia (Poland) R
2 Anthony Roberson G 6’2 188 2/14/83 25 Florida Hapoel (Israel) 2
4 Nate Robinson G 5’9 180 5/31/84 24 Washington New York (NBA) 3
5 Von Wafer G 6’4 195 7/21/85 22 Florida State Portland (NBA) 3
55 Zhang Songtao C 6’11 212 10/27/87 20 China Beijing (China-ABA) R

Commissioner McCallum ran a series of pieces about what their writers would do if they were granted for one day the commissioner’s job for each of the sports. The NFL article, written by Peter King, has some intriguing ideas. The first is to keep the current playoff structure even if the league expands, while another talks about making long field goals worth 4 points. King creates a more exciting television broadcast by using microphones on players and officials, and allows for players to wear whatever number they chose for a charitable fee. While I don’t agree with all of King’s proposals, they are all made in attempt to make the game better for the players & fans.

Unfortunately NBA article disappoints greatly. Jack McCallum was given the task, and half of his suggestions are nonsense. One of them is to “police the anthem” (his words, not mine). McCallum would cut off the microphone if a performer?s song lasts more than 2 minutes. While I?m not a flag waving fervent patriot, I find having the national anthem cut in order to speed up a sports event un-patriotic. Additionally Jack wants to curtail the player introductions as well. So a pregame ceremony in Commissioner McCallum?s league would be half a national anthem and straight off to the tip without announcing the starters. Sounds fun!

McCallum also tackles the hard issues of special seating for the player’s wives, and front row seating for the press. I know how important these issues are, because every day I receive at least 10 emails from concerned KncikerBlogger.Net readers on each. Personally it’s tough watching the Knicks from my television without knowing if La Tasha Marbury and Peter Vecsey are comfortable seeing the game in person.

Although most of McCallum’s ideas are useless, he does get it right with two of them. The first is Jack’s idea of cheap admission and affordable concessions for retro nights. The league could call it fan appreciation nights and it would make for great public relations to have them coincide with nationally aired games. McCallum also hits a winner with his NBDL-NBA double headers, another fan friendly idea that would also gain some notoriety for the budding NBA minor league.

However if I were given the commissioner?s job for a day I think I could come up with better ideas than wondering where the press sits and how long the anthem lasts. The first thing I would do is change the playoff format. Let the divisions stay the way they are now in order to give the teams an easier travel schedule during the season. Nonetheless when the playoffs arrive, throw out the divisions and just use the conference standings to seed the playoff teams. This way we can eliminate the fiasco we had last year with the Nuggets getting a home field advantage in the first round and the Spurs facing the Mavs in the second round.

The game itself could use at least one major change as well. More than 2 years ago I said the NBA’s main weakness was:

“The last two minutes take too long… I can?t stand what a basketball game turns into for the last few minutes. To use a simile, a basketball game is like you being the only person driving on the highway until you get within a few blocks of your destination. At that point you hit the worst bumper-to-bumper traffic you?ve ever seen. A basketball game goes smoothly for about 45 minutes, and then grinds to a halt with fouls and time outs.”

My solution? Only one 30-second time out per team allowed in the final two minutes. While NBA coaches would hate the loss of control, anyone who has seen the last few minutes of an exciting NBA game grind to a halt would be thrilled. Let every close ending be like a 2 minute drill in the NFL. The losing team will have to bring the ball up the court rapidly instead of relying on a post time out ball reset. Players will have to think quickly on their feet about end game strategies like whether to foul, or whether to take a 2 or 3 point shot. Keeping the time outs to only 30 seconds will eliminate “we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor” buzz kills right when the action gets thick. Too often the tension mounts at the end of the game only to be lost when a time out is called and you have to sit through a few commercials.

Given enough time (a preseason of testing and waiting a year before implementation), coaches will come up with strategies and get players to practice 2 minute drills just like the NFL does. NBA players will come to understand the nuances of the final minutes, and fans won’t have to wait through 15 minutes of watching the back end of the coach?s clipboard and time out commercials for the final 2 minutes of the game to play out.

The next thing I’d modify is the stat keeping. Over a year ago I wrote a two part series on five stats the NBA should keep. The most important of these are the defensive shooting stats, which would give us a better idea of how valuable players are on the other end of the court. Team and individual possessions would help with equalizing statistics due to pace. Meanwhile ?Charges Taken? and ?Possessions Saved? would help fans track the blue collar workers of the NBA.

Finally I would take a global outlook on the game. Baseball tried to copy soccer?s World Cup with little success, but it doesn’t mean the NBA shouldn’t try an international venture. The lack of interest in Baseball’s World Cup is due to the sport not having a truly international audience. Outside of a select few countries from the Americas and Eastern Asia, baseball isn’t very popular. On the other hand basketball has leagues all around the world, and a look at the number of countries represented by NBA players shows how truly global the game has become.

Since the Olympics have pretty much become the World Cup of Basketball, there is no reason to try and emulate that. Instead the NBA should try to emulate the UEFA Champions League, and attempt to enter the Euroleague basketball tournament. Putting up one of our best clubs against the best Europe has to offer would probably tip the scales back in our direction after the last disastrous showing of team USA.

While it sounds like an expensive proposition, I think the increase of NBA jerseys sold in Europe might help soften the financial blow. If basketball can continue to gain in global popularity, how important would it be for the U.S. to reclaim it’s dominance? Teams that regularly do well on the international stage would gain prestige and wealth. Imagine the Spurs or Mavs reaping the rewards that a Real Madrid or Manchester United does from being one of the top soccer clubs in the world. If the NBA is unable to compete in the Euroleague, then another possibility might be to send the league’s champs for 2 weeks in Europe to face off against the top 2 Euroleague teams. A European vacation seems like a great reward for winning the NBA?s biggest prize, and they should be allowed to bring their families along (the kids should be done with school by mid- June!) Now that?s priceless public relations. Doing this will keep the NBA as the world?s premiere basketball league.