With free agency commencing, the Knicks will have to make a major decision regarding their two restricted free agents, David Lee and Nate Robinson. New York has 8 players on their roster that could play the PF or C position: Curry, Milicic, Hill, Wilcox, Hunter, Sene, Gallinari, Jeffries, and Harrington. So on one hand the Knicks have the depth to let David Lee go. However at a second glance, it’s clear that the team would be hard pressed to replace Lee’s production. Although Hill and Gallinari might develop into NBA starters, none of the above are starting material on a good playoff team. Additionally the Knicks rebounding would suffer significantly, since that group is collectively bad on the glass (save perhaps Hill).
In the backcourt they face a different dilemma. If Robinson departs without a replacement, Toney Douglas would be the only backup for Duhon at the point. At shooting guard, the team would primarily rely on Chandler and Hughes, with Douglas and Joe Crawford as reserves. If last year was any indication, the Knicks can’t afford to be this thin at guard.
At this time the popular opinion is that the Knicks would prefer to keep Lee and might let Robinson leave. Considering the current roster construction, it’s hard to envision that scenario because they have more depth behind Lee than Nate. With this being just the start of free agency, the personnel may differ greatly between now and opening day. Not only do other teams covet Robinson and Lee, giving the team the option to shake up their roster with a sign & trade, but there have been rumors about a few Knicks being desired around the league. The Wizards may wish to reunite with Hughes and Jeffries, Wilson Chandler has been coveted by other teams, and with Yao Ming out for the season the Rockets are in hot pursuit of Eddy Curry. OK that last one I made up, but nonetheless there will be many opportunities that could provide New York with the ability to shuffle their roster.
Not only does the team have to consider this upcoming season, but the one after. The Knicks are poised for making a big splash in free agency next summer, so long term salaries are an issue. New York also needs to think about what talent will be remaining in 2010. Currently they only have 4 players on contract for that season in Curry, Jeffries, Gallinari, and Chandler, with their 2 draft picks this year (Hill and Douglas) likely to join them. While getting rid of both Robinson and Lee would free up their purses, it may leave the cupboard bare for an incoming acquisition. The Knicks will need to balance between making the team attractive for a mega-star and having enough money to bring one in.
Baron Davis has reportedly agreed to a 5-year, $65 million deal with the Clippers. No offers or signings are official before July 9th, when the the league announces the final salary cap figures. Apparently it takes eight days for a team of chipmunks to work the slide rules over on Park Avenue.
Assuming a cap number in the realm of $58,130,000 – what I saw on real GM – just four teams have significant cap room. WIthout Davis, Golden State has the most — about $24 million. However, they also need to save up to re-sign Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins. They can go over the cap to sign them, but own Chris Cohan has said he wants to avoid the luxury tax. Meanwhile, Memphis has about $15 million to spend, as do the Clippers – if they renounce rights to Corey Maggette, as expected. Philadelphia has about $12 million in space, assuming they keep Andre Iguodala. It’s even worse, actually, for the free agents – Memphis is supposedly in money-saving mode and is not expected to break open the bank for anyone. Seattle has about $8 million to offer, while every other team is limited to the mid-level (about $6 million) or else seeking a “sign-and-trade” if they want to get in on the action.
Disclaimer: I occasionally saw Billy Knight at a Starbucks near my office, but now that he’s been fired I have no inside line. Therefore the information here is second-hand guesswork.
Arenas is reportedly weighing “max” offers from both Washington and Golden State. Call it a toss-up. Arenas has said he wants to stay in DC, but prior to his coming East no one thought he would ever leave his home state of California. Meanwhile, the Maloof brothers reportedly said they would give up their entire roster to get Arenas to Sacramento. Unless David Stern says he’ll let the Wiz play 15 vs. 5, I don’t think it’s worth it. Seriously, though – if Arenas is set on leaving, you have to think the Wizards would consider a deal involving Kevin Martin, a bad contract and a 1st round pick.
Elton Brand – Unrestricted
Brand says he wants to stay and form a dream team with Davis. He also has Hollywood roots, as a successful film producer (like the Wernor Herzog-helmed “Rescue Dawn.”)
Corey Maggette – Unrestricted
Expect the Clippers to renounce Maggette, in order to re-sign Brand. Then, unless Philadelphia or Golden States wants to pay him, it looks like Maggette will be taking the mid-level. The smart money is on Orlando, where he lives in the offseason and which is reported to be ready to make an offer.
DeSagana Diop – Unrestricted
Reports are that Dallas will bring him home, offering the full mid-level.
Josh Smith – Restricted
Philadelphia is reportedly set to make an offer starting at $11 million a year. The Hawks have vowed to match, but Sekou Smith, the astute beat writer for the Hawks, is pessimistic.
Emeka Okafor – Restricted
Last year Okafor turned down an offer in the $12 million range, and no one has enough cap room to offer that much, so it’s likely he stays in Charlotte. But there are reports of discord – Michael Jordan is fuming. If the two sides don’t calm down, Charlotte might look for a place to trade their big man.
Monta Ellis – Restricted
Ellis might have been in play if Baron Davis had stayed put. As things stand, there’s no way the Warriors let him leave. They’ll match any offer.
Ben Gordon – Restricted
There’s no clear front-runner. Actually, Gordon had such a bad year that his value may have dropped to the point where the Bulls can afford to keep him.
Other restricted free agents like Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala and Josh Childress, are assumed to be re-signing, since their teams are likely to match any offer.
Sign and Trade
The sign-and-trade route is more complicated. It requires a team willing to let its star walk, another team willing to make an offer and a star who actually wants to go to the new team. For example, Miami reportedly loves Brand, and Pat Riley did sign him to an offer sheet a few years back. He’s only in L.A. because the Clippers matched it. Shawn Marion probably isn’t enough, but if Riley offered Michael Beasley and salaries to match – wouldn’t the Clips at least consider it?
Another team that hasn’t been mentioned – but maybe should – is Detroit. Joe Dumars says he’s willing to swap any of his starting five, and says he wants to make a big splash. Houston – with risk-taking, stat-loving GM Daryl Morey – could also be a dark horse. Tracy McGrady is an injury risk, and the team actually has a better record without Yao Ming the past two years. Either might be tradeable in the right deal.
Unlike the East, picking the winner of the West is a daunting task. There is much less variance between the top 7 teams in the West than the East. If given a thousand chances, I can see #7 Dallas winning the West at least 10 times. I don’t think #7 Philadelphia could win the East once if you gave them a million chances.
That being said the Lakers seem to be the clear favorite. The move to add Gasol reminds me a little bit of Detroit acquiring Rasheed Wallace in 2004. Both teams grabbed a big man midseason to accentuate their style of play. For the Pistons it was a tough suffocating defense, and for the Lakers it’s a diverse offense. In 2004 NBA analysts didn’t realize how much Rasheed helped galvanize their defense until after the playoffs. Most people didn’t expect Detroit to get past Indiana, much less take the Lakers in 5. It’s possible that Los Angeles is much better than the season stats show them to be. And if this is true, the Lakers would be head and shoulders above the rest of the West. The Lakers not only enjoy the #1 seed, but the best expected win% (.726).
That being said, the road won’t be easy for Los Angeles. Even though they have the West’s best chance, the Lakers will face some stiff competition to get to the Finals. They’ll meet either Utah or Houston in round 2. Not only were these teams within 3 games of taking the West, but each comes with their own brand of scary. Houston has been strong defensively since losing Yao Ming, and finished the season with the league’s second best defense (103.0 pts/100). On the other hand Utah has the league’s second best offense (115.4 pts/100). So no matter which team they face the Lakers will have their hands full.
In the other part of the bracket, any of the 4 teams involved in the middle seeds could advance to the Conference Finals. Personally I’d like to see the Hornets emerge, because it makes a nice story on so many levels. I liked Tyson Chandler ever since his days in Chicago. (I always thought he was the better of their center pair – and can’t tell you how many times I was laughed off RealGM’s Knicks board for stating it publicly. Probably a part of the reason I started this blog… but I digress.) I think a Hornets/Suns second round would be ideal. There’s a nice group of contrasts in that matchup: Paul vs. Nash, young vs. old, upstart vs. established.
If I had to chose any one team, I would take the Lakers. If I had to take the top 2 seeds (Lakers & Hornets) vs. the field I’d take the field. Such is life in the NBA’s West.
At about 4:30 Wednesday two tickets to the Knicks game fell on my lap. Unfortunately due to personal circumstances it wasn’t a good day for me to go. So I tried to unload the tickets. I sent an email to a few writers on my site, but no one was able to go. I sent a second email to a few commenters, again with no luck. I tried to call up a few friends, but to no avail. In essence I couldn’t give the tickets away. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
So I had two options: let the tickets go to waste or go with my daughter to her first game. I really didn’t want her first Knick team to be this one that wins one out of every four games. You really have to be careful not to scar your children. One wrong move and she could end up a Nets or Celtics fan. But in the end I figured that a 8 month old wouldn’t remember the event anyway.
I got to my seat about 25 minutes before game time, and my daughter seemed more interested in the flashing lights than the on court action. Considering the state of the franchise, that’s probably a good thing. The Rockets took the floor to practice first and immediately began with two layup lines. They had two different variations or this excersize. The first a traditional layup line, where the player receives the ball from about the free throw line extended and drives towards the hoop. The second is where a player receives a pass only a few feet from the hoop. The latter operates at a faster pace than the first, as players arrive at the basket nearly one on top of the other. It’s nearly Harlem Globetrotteresque in its speed.
As Houston is warming up, the Knicks enter to applause. David Lee leads the charge and is the first on the court. The Knicks start a layup line of their own, but disperse it quickly for an informal shoot around. In fact it seemed as if the Rockets and Knicks both started their shoot around at the same time, despite Houston begining their warmups a few minutes earlier.
During the shoot around, you can see a stark contrast between the two sides. On the Rockets side, nearly every player is on the perimeter working on their shot, or some sort of move to potentially gain separation from a defender. It seems that on their side of the court, there’s always a ball in the air. On the Knicks end there are only 3 or 4 players that seem interested in practicing while the rest of the team socializes. Zach Randolph is one of the more notable socializers, chatting it up with anyone who’ll lend him an ear. He goes from one side to another, and spends nearly the entire time talking. Meanwhile, David Lee asks a few different players for tips as he practices his jumper from a few different locations on the floor. In lieu of shooting, Malik Rose plays defender and tries to pass some of his knowledge on to some of the other Knicks.
Oddest of all is the behavior of Renaldo Balkman. One of the stars of the summer league, Balkman has been buried on the bench for most of the year on a Knick team struggling to find production at the swingman spot. There’s a lot of questions surrounding his lack of use. Rumors have spread that either Balkman is physically unable to play or has earned his way into Isiah’s doghouse. Balkman barely breaks a jog when doing layups, and spends most of the pregame doing promotional work with some youngsters. It appears that he’s physically unable to play, until he explodes to the hoop for a two handed slam. Balkman then heads to the bench with the rest of the team.
At the introductions, most of the Garden is fashionably empty. Since Yao Ming brings an influx of Rocket supporters, Houston players get a few cheers as they are announced. At least they do until the Knick faithfuls catch wind of what’s occurring. By the third Rocket, Knick fans attempt to drown out the cheers with a chorus of boos.
The first Knick to be announced is Isiah Thomas, whose name is met with a boisterous derision from the crowd. As the players are announced I decide this is a good opportunity to teach my daughter the all important skill of clapping. However I find it hard to cheer for the Knick starters. Quentin Richardson? Zach Randolph? I wrestle with my conscience and decide teaching her to clap is more important than my dislike of Isiah’s choice of starters. We cheer each player on in unison. Last is Stephon Marbury who receives just about the same reaction from the crowd as Yao Ming. A loud mix of cheers and boos.
Unfortunately the action is good, but my daughter is still interested in the bright lights around the arena. As the game wears on, she grows restless. Every parent of a young child knows this is their nice way of saying “I want to go to sleep now.” I give her credit for lasting until halftime. Luckily I live close enough to the garden to know I won’t miss much of the action, and I catch most of the rest of the game from home.
The next day I receive a call from my wife. “Wait until you come home and see what your daughter is doing.” When I got home, my daughter showed me her new skill: clapping.
Statistically Stephon Marbury still remains above average offensively, but he’s not nearly as productive as he used to be. The Knicks PG still is effective with his incursions to the basket, and at the latter stages of his career he’s become a better shooter. However to the eye Marbury doesn’t appear to be comfortable in Isiah’s offense. Gone are his pick & roll plays and his domination of the ball. Marbury has problems making entry passes to the low post, which is a problem considering that’s where the Knicks will look to score.
On the other hand Jamal Crawford’s familiarity with Curry allows him not only to get him the ball in the right spot, but to execute alley-oops. Statistically, Crawford hurts the Knicks with his poor shooting, and his turnover rate was just below Steve Francis’. On average Crawford missed 9 of the 15 shots he attempted per game, a staggering amount. Both Marbury and Crawford are subpar three point shooters, but neither is shy about taking one. Neither player is a spot up shooter, like in the Houston/Tucker mold. Both are more comfortable in creating their own shot than being the recipient. They don’t move well without the ball. And neither is a good rebounder.
The Knicks best scoring guard is 5’8, rebounds like he’s 6’8, and acts like he’s 4’8. Robinson won MVP of the Vegas Summer League, and played considerably well during the preseason. Compared to the starters, he shoots more efficiently, turns the ball over less, and actually rebounds. On the other hand, his immaturity and lack of height will limit his minutes. Robinson will be the Knicks third guard. Coming off the bench, he’ll bring a scoring punch either through his drives to the basket, his efficient shooting, or his new found joy of setting up his teammates. This preseason Robinson averaged almost an assist per 40 minutes above his career average.
Fighting for the remaining minutes of the Knick backcourt will be Mardy Collins and Fred Jones. While Collins is more of a one to Jones’ two, Mardy is a complete liability anytime he has to deliver the ball to the hoop. Collins’ shooting percentages are laughably bad (3p% .277, FT% .585, eFG .410, TS% .445). Meanwhile Jones is able to hit a jumpshot, but he’s not very efficient. Only his free throws average is above the league rate. Jones has had only one season where his 3p% was above the league average. To his credit he does get to the line fairly often, giving him a decent TS% (.526).
At the other end of the court Jones and Collins are the Knicks best defensive options. Last year Collins used his 6-6 frame and solid defensive footing to harass opposing guards. He’s big enough that he can guard small forwards as well. Collins is also blessed with something that most strong defenders possess: a mean streak. Remember his defensive play started the Denver brawl. Jones is an athletic player, a former slam dunk champion, who has stuck around in the league by his defense.
Nate Robinson is hindered by his size from being a great defender, but he’s a ball hawk who has good anticipation in the passing lanes. He’s also the Knicks best defender against Yao Ming. Unlike most sub-6′ guards, Nate is strong enough from being bullied in the post. Unfortunately he’s poor in fighting through screens, and I think the next time he goes over one will be his first. Meanwhile Marbury put more effort into his defense last year, but he lacks the lateral speed to keep up with quicker guards. Jamal Crawford bulked up this summer, but he’s still by far the Knicks worst defender on the perimeter.
Isiah has 2 serious options at the small forward spot. When Quentin Richardson played, he was the most well rounded offensive weapon the Knicks had. Although Richardson had no holes in his game, he really didn’t excel at anything. His eFG was above the league average while his TS% was slightly below. Never a slasher, Richardson’s primary way to the free throw line was working in the post. However, he was kept off the blocks by Curry, and you would expect the same to happen this year especially with the addition of Randolph. Hence Richardson takes on the role of spot up shooter in the Knicks offense, and does an adequate job at it. Defensively he’s solid but unspectacular.
The other option Isiah has is Renaldo Balkman. Unlike Richardson, Balkman’s talents aren’t evenly distributed. In the half court he is unable to hit a jump shot, which allow defenses to leave him open on the perimeter. Nevertheless he still is able to generate offense. Balkman is excellent in transition whether it’s grabbing a rebound & starting the break or filling the wing and finishing it. In the half court set, Balkman moves well without the ball and uses his explosive leaping ability to around the basket to rebound and score. Furthermore, he’s the Knicks best defender, using his gangly frame and quickness to block shots and harass players. The only New Yorker that played 1000 minutes and averaged more than 1.0 blk/40 was Balkman.
The Knicks would be served well using the aforementioned players, but the same can’t be said of Jared Jeffries. Brought in for his defense, Jeffries scores at a lilliputian rate. He makes Balkman look like Kobe Bryant in the half court. In fact only 3 players in the league played more than 1000 minutes and scored less points per minute than Jeffries: Lorenzen Wright, DeSagana Diop, and Jason Collins. It’s not a good sign for a small forward to be compared to 3 defensive centers in terms of offensive productivity. Jeffries has one positive attribute: his offensive rebounding. But Balkman is a tiny bit better, and Renaldo scores at twice the rate.
The unknown factor at small forward is Wilson Chandler. Like Balkman, Chandler was a relative unknown but physically talented small forward. Unlike Balkman, Chandler has a jumpshot which even extends to the arc. In DePaul, Chandler shot well (eFG: 49.5%, TS: 52%), and he was even more impressive in summer league (eFG: 58.5%, TS: 56.2%). But predicting rookie performance in the NBA is a crapshoot, and a handful of preseason games aren’t enough to make any valid predictions. How much he’ll be able to contribute is unknown, but he seems to face a steep battle to earn minutes. In any case, it’s likely that Chandler will perform like most rookies, occasionally lost and a little turnover prone. Given Isiah’s clairvoyance with respect to the draft, it’s likely that Chandler be more productive than the average 23rd round pick.
In Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver devoted an entire chapter to comparing the individual rating systems of several NBA analysts. He argued something that I, and most people who do informed analysis, subscribe to: Any system of statistical analysis cannot only be internally consistent, but must also pass the “laugh test.” A statistical model can be built elegantly and beautifully and pass many confidence intervals within its own logical parameters, but if it’s results are absurd, then there’s obviously a need to return to the proverbial drawing board. Oliver thought of the “laugh test” as a litmus. It’s a very broad, absolutely basic determinant of whether a statistic is logical or not. If your rating system projects the best players with the best numbers, then it’s probably onto something. On the other hand, if your rating system argues that Jerome James is a better center than vintage Shaquille O’Neal, then you better recheck your assumptions.
While no single computation can perfectly encompass the entire contribution of a basketball player, John Hollinger developed a system to sum up a player’s boxscore contribution and express them in one number. Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a sophisticated equation that goes so far as to adjust for the yearly value of possession and the pace a team plays. In Hollinger’s analogy, PER serves as a way of considering players from different positions, allowing an “apples to oranges” comparison. But while PER is a handy little number, what it doesn’t do is convert statistical efficiency into actual wins. That’s where Dave Berri’s Wages of Win (WoW) steps in. WoW takes the same boxscore statistics that PER uses and converts it to a formula that measures how many wins a player produces. This metric can evaluate a player’s total contribution over the course of a season and break it down per minute. Like PER, WoW serves as a way to summarize a player’s contribution in one number.
Now, let’s ask PER who were the most productive basketball players on the planet this past season. PER picks these as its starting five:
1. Dwyane Wade SG 29.2
2. Dirk Nowitzki PF 27.9
3. Yao Ming C 26.7
4. Tim Duncan C 26.4
5. Kobe Bryant SG 26.3
Nothing to laugh at here. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing team. Wade is the best player, slightly ahead of Dirk, who is just a bit ahead of Ming, Duncan, and Bryant, who are in a dead heat for third best. If you were starting a basketball team and were given first pick at any player in the NBA you couldn’t go wrong by picking any of these five players. They’re the best of the best. Granted, PER isn’t intended to be the final word on basketball performance, but it is a good starting point for figuring out relative worth. Would you trade your 15 PER performer for a 29 PER man? Almost certainly. Of course you’d take into account team composition, need, age, defense, contract terms, but all else being equal, you’d be doing your team a service by having the greater PER over the lesser. And if the PER was almost twice greater, like say Dwyane Wade over Jamal Crawford, well, then there’s really no thinking involved. Of course you’d rather have Wade. It’s a no-brainer. In fact, by this measure, you’d rather have Wade than any single player on the Knicks current roster.
Now, WoW gets to pick its own top five. Note that in order to compare WoW to PER we’re using Wins Produced per 48 Minutes (WP/48), since these are both rate stats:
1. David Lee PF .403
2. Jason Kidd PG .403
3. Marcus Camby C .371
4. Shawn Marion F .370
5. Carlos Boozer PF .351
Look at that again. David Lee led the NBA in wins produced rate. Um…really. So according to this sophisticated, statistical model, the most productive professional basketball player on the planet is David Lee. The best. On. The. Planet. Let me say that being a die-hard Knicks fan, I will be the first to argue that Lee is an All-Star caliber forward. He’s cool, he’s great. He’s an out-of-the-box rebounding, ambidextrous-finishing, no-look passing, efficiency machine. He’s awesome! It’s just that, you know, he really doesn’t create much offense. He’s more of a great glue guy than a centerpiece. And that’s why he’s not exactly a superstar.
Now, I really love the guy. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade our man for the world. Oh, wait. Yes. Yes, I would. I’d trade David Lee in a heartbeat. For Tim Duncan. Or Yao Ming. Or Dwyane Wade. Or Kobe Bryant. Or Dirk Nowitzki. Or Lebron James. Or Amare Stoudemire. Or…OK, you get the point. I’d trade him for at least a dozen players who aren’t just All-Stars, they’re legitimate championship-level franchise cornerstones. Yet, right there in plain black and white, Wages of Win’s assumptions fail Oliver’s “laugh test.” WoW argues that Lee is the best player in the entire league, and that’s ridiculous.
WoW makes a very big deal about bucking conventional wisdom. And sure enough, statistical analysts are the ones who’re supposed to be bucking said conventional wisdom. At the Wages of Wins Journal, Berri argues that “perceptions of performance in basketball do not match the player’s actual impact on wins” because “less than 15% of wins in the NBA are explained by payroll.” However payroll isn’t a good measuring stick of perception due to the complexities of a closed system like NBA free agency. There are a host of factors on why a player may be overpaid from the talent available to the desperation of the team involved. In other words conventional wisdom thinks Rashard Lewis is overpaid at $126M, too.
So although conventional wisdom has a tendency to be wrong in some areas, figuring out sport superstars is not one of its weaknesses. There usually is a consensus on the league’s best players from both statistical analysis and conventional wisdom. The cream of the crop in the NFL are Peyton Manning, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Larry Johnson whether you go by the numbers or eyes. In MLB it would be Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, and Johan Santana. At the top of the ladder of player evaluation, conventional wisdom is pretty much dead on.
According to WoW, David Lee (.403) is a far more productive player than Kobe Bryant (.242). Since teams with more productive players win more games than other teams, then Lee is better for your basketball team than Bryant. But why stop there? The Knicks could trade Renaldo Balkman (.272) straight up for Dwyane Wade (.255) and lose productivity. That’s right. WoW is arguing that if a Lee for Kobe, and a Balkman for Wade trade went through, then the Knicks would be a worse team for it. They’re arguing that Bryant and Wade, at the cost of our two young, talented forwards will hurt the Knicks’ productivity. You’ve got to be kidding me.
As the Knicks GM, would I pull the trigger on a Lee for Bryant deal? Is there even a debate? Who wouldn’t? Oh, right, WoW wouldn’t. WoW doesn’t even think it’s close. We can all disagree on which player is the very best (or the most productive), but WoW’s results are “laughable.” Dave Berri has criticized PER in the past, but before people can begin to take WoW as seriously as a tool for evaluating player performance as PER, it’s obviously going to have to address what caused this terrible absurdity in its rating process.