Top 5 Title Contenders

The NBA is just past the midway point, so I’d like to present my top 5 title contending teams.

5. Detroit Pistons – Now that they’re back to full strength, and their coach has stopped eyeing the Knick coaching vacancy like a teenage boy and his first Playboy, Detroit is back as a serious title contender. Staying atop of the Central is critical for their playoff chances. Just one game behind, King James and his sovereignty won’t make it easy for them. There are a group of intelligent people that think last year’s post-Rasheed Detroit was one of the best defensive teams in history. If the Pistons are running on all cylinders, they may get a chance to prove it in June.

4. Dallas Mavericks – For years the basketball team playing in the “Big D” was missing just that. This year is a different story. Dallas is ranked 6th both on offense and defense. The last time a Maverick team was that good on defense, it was anchored by Aguirre, Blackman, and Harper. Just like the modern day Mavs, that team also had a seven foot German on the roster: “Groovy” Uwe Blab. The Mavericks have learned that a fantastic offense without a defense can’t win it all. Now they’ll find out if a very good offensive and defensive team can take the crown.

3. Phoenix Suns – The Suns no longer have the best record in the league, and they can blame it on their defense. They’ve just broken a streak of 7 straight games in which their opponent scored 100 or more points. Fortunately, Phoenix’s offense is so good that they won 5 of those 7. When I wrote about them in December, they had the 6th overall defense and the best offense in the league. Today they still lead the league in scoring, but their defense has fallen to 17th. To win it all this year, the Suns need to improve on defense, either by adding personnel or by getting a better effort from the current roster. If not they can look at either the 2002 or the 2004 Mavericks to see their fate.

2. Miami Heat – No one else has an easier road to the Finals than the Heat. The West has 5 teams with a winning percentage greater than .675. The Heat is the only Eastern team that meets this criteria. Just imagine what their record would be if Shaq weren’t saving his best for the playoffs! If the playoffs started today, Miami would play Philly, then the winner of Washington/Cleveland, and at best the Pistons – all on their home court.

1. San Antonio Spurs – 1st in defense, 4th on offense. No other team in the league is in the top 5 in both categories. The Spurs have the best record in the league, and are the cream of the crop in the NBA. San Antonio must be thrilled of L.A.’s demise, seeing that Diesel’s Lakers ended their season in 3 of the last 4 years. Getting home court advantage throughout the playoffs would be a big advantage for the Spurs who are 23-1 at the SBC. Eventually the mainstream media might catch on that for the past two seasons they have been watching the best defensive team of all time.

2004: A Good Year

The New York Knicks entered the first day of January 2004 with 14 wins and 19 losses on the 2003-2004 season. While they would lose 4 straight games to start the year, it would turn out to be a good year for the 32nd street crew. The Knicks went 25-24 the rest of the way and made the playoffs for the first time in 3 years. Against the New Jersey Nets in the playoffs, New York received a whooping the size of Tim Thomas’ lower back bruise. Still the Knicks improvement was celebrated by their fans, and the summer of 2004 would bring a ray of hope for New York.

Isiah Thomas signed Jamal Crawford to sow up two gaping holes. Crawford would provide insurance for Allan Houston’s knee, while his ball handling skills would make him able to play point guard when required. Jerome Williams was a minor addition, while Trevor Ariza and Mike Sweetney showed promise in the summer league. Based on their good second half and the additions they made in the offseason, the Knicks were favorites to win the newly diluted Atlantic division.

Facing a seemingly tough schedule, the usually optimistic Isiah Thomas hoped his team would go 10-10 in their first 20 games of the 2004-2005 season. After a 34 point debacle in Boston, the Knicks were off to a bleak 0-2 start. However, they rebounded from their early ineptitude, and met their president’s expectations of 10-10. In December, New York won 6 and lost 3, and entered 2005 with a 16-13 record.

Considering the two years before, 2004 was a success for the Knicks. After two lottery seasons, they had seemed to turn the corner. They made the playoffs in the summer. By the winter, the Knicks were 3 games up in the win column, their best record in 4 years. No one else in their division was over .500. From January to December of 2004, the Knicks were 41-37. It seemed that 2005 would be even better than 2004 for boys in orange and blue.

It’s hard to believe that was only one month ago. Since the ball last dropped in Times Square, the Knicks have lost 14 of their last 16. In one 8 day stretch, the Knicks lost 4 games; two back-to-back to the baby-Bulls, and one each to the single digit win Hornets and division rival Raptors. Three days after, their coach had resigned. Right now, they are tied for last in the weakest division in the NBA.

So far in 2005, the Knicks’ have been bitten by the injury bug. Mike Sweetney was incapacitated for 4 games, which is the exact number of games that Penny Hardaway has played in. When Trevor Ariza twisted his ankle, he suffered his first injury as a pro. Both shooting guards have missed a combined 12 games. Allan Houston’s future is uncertain, and the expensive guard has refused any talk of retirement. Being strapped by Houston’s contract is bad enough, but not being able to get any production for their money is the deepest cut.

For 2005 the question becomes: is the Knicks 2-14 record the exception or the rule? Even if the Sixers remain two games under .500, New York would have to go 21-14 the rest of the way to retake the Atlantic. Tough, but not impossible. Right now the onus is on the players and coaches to steer the ship from crash landing in April. If not, this summer it’ll be up to Isiah to give New Yorkers back the hope that they had only a year ago.

Dirk, The Daring Defender? Odds & Ends

[If you haven’t read yesterday’s column, you’re not visiting often enough. Click here, read it, then hit back on your browser. Then remember to come here more often. :-) ]

Yesterday, I busted out a table with defensive PF stats. It was to see if Dirk Nowitzki statistically was a serious choice for an All Defensive Team spot. One thing I didn’t consider was that there are four spots between all the forwards. So Dirk would be competing against small forwards as well as power forwards. Adding a few entries to my list:

Name...........	DRank	eFG	 PER 	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Tim Duncan..... 1 .431 15.1 -6.7 .403 14.4
Rasheed Wallace 3 .449 14.6 -5.8 .442 16.1
Elton Brand.... 9 .467 15.3 -4.5 .453 14.3
Dwight Howard.. 13 .440 15.1 1.2 .455 17
Tyson Chandler. 2 .447 14.7 -0.8 .463 18.7
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 .477 15.3 -4.6 .499 16.3
SFs
Andrei Kirilenko 30 .496 16.7 -12.1 .371 11.6
Tayshaun Prince 3 .474 14.4 -3.4 .472 13.4
Bruce Bowen.... 1 .500 13.1 -6.0 .500 13.3
Manu Ginobili.. 1 .396 9.8 -7.3 .385 10.2

Andrei Kirilenko’s numbers are just sick. Due to his injury they represent a small sample size, but he’s light years ahead of the non-Duncan field. Whether or not his time missed will cost him some votes remain to be seen. Bowen’s statistics, while still above average, are meager for his excellent reputation. Looking at Ginobili’s numbers reveals a “Hedo Turkoglu Effect.”

For those that aren’t familiar with the works of Kevin Pelton, the HTE describes what happens statistically when a team uses a defensive stopper that can play multiple positions. Bowen defends the stronger offensive player, whether he is at SF or SG. Therefore Ginobili defends the weaker one. Hence the defensive numbers gets blurred between the two. I can guarantee that Manu’s excellent defensive stats are largely the work of Bowen (and Duncan).


A poster by the name of Sterling commented in Cuban’s blog, (not this Cuban blog)

“For instance? Why are the Timberwolves a .500 team? Well the rank right their with the Mavs as far as field goal percentage, 3 point field goal percentage, and rebounding…But, has anyone notice that they rank 28 out of 30 in Free throw attempts….I think they are putting up to many jump shots…

Now imagine the argument and debate…Maybe somebody will find after reviewing several games that the lack of free throws has more to do with certain player(s) (two particularly) getting touches, than anything else?”

Instead of wondering if Sterling uses the same spell checker as myself, I thought I’d tackle his question. At the time of his writing, the T-Wolves had a .558 winning percentage. By points per 100 possession, Minnesota is ranked 5th offensively, but are an awful 19th on defense. The Mavericks are ranked 7th & 6th respectively, so it’s clear that the difference between the two is the T-Wolves lack of defense. Looking at the four factors, Minnesota is average in defensive shooting percentage, but next to last in forcing turnovers. If I were reviewing games individually, I’d start by looking at eFG & turnovers of Minnesota’s opponents.

Dirk, The Daring Defender?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, on his webpage blogmaverick.com, advocates 2 Mavericks for the All Defensive team: Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. The first nominee is a curious one that will raise a few eyebrows. Over the last few years, Dirk’s defense has been thought as mediocre at best. Last year the Mavericks were awful defensively; ranked 26th in defensive efficiency. Mark gives no evidence for Dirk’s change, but offers the following:

This year, Dirk has become better than just a good defender. Dirk has become a very good defender, on his way to being one of the best defensive PFs in the league. If that comment makes you laugh, you arent watching enough games and paying attention to Dirk on the defensive end.

Go down the list of PFs in the NBA….. After Garnett and Duncan, who is a better defender?

Hmmm… Mark Cuban says that if I don’t think Nowitzki is a great defender, I haven’t watched enough Mavs games. While he may be right, I can counter by saying that Mark hasn’t seen every game the Bulls, Pistons, Clippers, etc. have played. So how can he say Dirk is better than the PFs on those teams? With this kind of logic, everyone can claim their team has the best defenders in the league. Instead, we need a more objective way of looking at defense.

This year the Mavericks are ranked 6th defensively, so maybe Dirk’s improved defense has made Dallas a defensive minded team? Since 59% of the time Dirk is the Dallas PF, looking at how opposing PFs fare against the Mavs might give us insight into Nowitzki’s defense. So far this year, opposing PFs have had a 15.3 PER and effective shooting percentage (eFG%) of .477. Both of those numbers are about average, so it really doesn’t prove that Dirk has anchored the Mavs D.

Thanks to 82games.com, we can measure three more ways in which Dirk affects his team defensively. The first is defensive +/-, which has its drawbacks depending on the strength of the team & the bench. Basically they’re comparing the points scored per 100 possessions when the player is on versus off the court. The way 82games.com records this stat, lower numbers are better. Defensively Dallas has been -4.6 points worse when Dirk is on the bench (which means they’re 4.6 points better with Dirk on the floor). The last two stats are oPER & oeFG%, which represent the opposing PFs stats when Nowitzki is on the court. In this respect, power forwards have shot .499 and have an overall PER of 16.3. Again neither are impressive enough to write home about.

If you’re like me & you’re scoring at home, putting all that above into a spreadsheet looks like this:

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3

On their own these numbers are meaningless. What if PERs for power forwards are generally higher? What if PFs generally have better defensive +/-? To find out how good defensively Dirk is, we can put him next to the best defensive PF in the league: Tim Duncan.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 0.431 15.1 -6.7 0.403 14.4

Now we have the beginnings of a mini-study. Armed with some statistics, I agree with the one-time Dairy Queen server. We should go down the list of the PFs in the league, and see who is a better defender. Spending hours of my free time that I could have otherwise spent interacting with other human beings, I went through 82games.com for all the stats of the following PFs.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	 PER 	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 .477 15.3 -4.6 .499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 .431 15.1 -6.7 .403 14.4
Kevin Garnett.. 19 .502 17.0 -2.0 .498 16.8
Rasheed Wallace 3 .449 14.6 -5.8 .442 16.1
Elton Brand.... 9 .467 15.3 -4.5 .453 14.3
Shawn Marion... 17 .479 17.4 1.2 .508 20.6
Pau Gasol...... 5 .470 17.0 0.4 .467 17.1
Carlos Boozer.. 30 .473 16.8 2.5 .465 17.3
Dwight Howard.. 13 .440 15.1 1.2 .455 17
Chris Bosh..... 20 .470 16.7 -6.2 .477 17.6
Tyson Chandler. 2 .447 14.7 -0.8 .463 18.7
Kurt Thomas.... 27 .520 19.0 5.9 .511 19.7

Ahhhh I love the smell of spreadsheets in the morning. Looking at this list, it’s obvious that Duncan is the best of the group. Why do I say that? He has the best +/-, the best oeFG, and the second best oPER. Since that seems like a good way to see who is statistically the best, let’s rank the stat of each player against the others.

Name...........	R1	R2	R3	R4	R5	OVR
Tim Duncan..... 1 3 1 1 2 1
Rasheed Wallace 4 1 3 2 3 2
Elton Brand.... 5 5 5 3 1 3
Dwight Howard.. 2 3 9 4 6 4
Tyson Chandler. 3 2 7 5 10 5
Dirk Nowitzki.. 9 5 4 10 4 6
Chris Bosh..... 6 7 2 8 9 6
Pau Gasol...... 6 9 8 7 7 8
Kevin Garnett.. 11 9 6 9 5 9
Carlos Boozer.. 8 8 11 6 8 10
Shawn Marion... 10 11 9 11 12 11
Kurt Thomas.... 12 12 12 12 11 12

R1 is team PF eFG% ranked. R5 is oPER ranked. Tim Duncan is the best in team PF eFG%, and Elton Brand is the best in oPER. The last column OVR is how they rank overall in all the stats.

Other than Garnett’s low ranking, the list isn’t very surprising. If someone told me the 5 best defensive PFs in the league were Duncan, Rasheed, Brand, Howard, & Chandler, I’d believe it. Given a ballot for All Defensive Team, I would choose the top two on my list. Duncan is a no-brainer, but IMHO ‘Sheed, who has never won any defensive honors, is highly underrated in his defensive ability. During last year’s Finals, Sonics analyst Kevin Pelton said of Wallace:

What is clearly most impressive about the Pistons post-Wallace trade is their defense. Detroit was a very good, if overrated team, prior to adding Wallace. With him in the fold, they’ve been nothing short of magnificent.

Nowitzki’s 6th overall ranking shows that he’s upgraded his game under his own basket. He doesn’t fare well in both opposing shooting percentage categories, but he does well in all the others. Despite the evidence that’s he’s an above average defender, I’d still be hesitant voting for him in any kind of all-defensive team.

AlamoBlogger Part II

[You should read Part I, which is just below this one. For those that are too lazy to scroll down, but not too lazy to click on a hyperlink, you can read Part I here.]

Part I ended with my theory that coaches who win year after year are biased against for their consistency. The same could be said for Tim Duncan. This year there has been a lot of MVP talk surrounding Shaq, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James. and Steve Nash. Let’s just run down Duncan’s qualifications:

1. 2nd overall in PER.
2. His team has the best winning percentage in the NBA.
3. He hasn’t missed any games this year.
4. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league, earning First Team All Defensive every year except his rookie (where he was Second Team).
5. His team is the #1 defensive team in the league.

I can’t say any player in the league is this qualified. With the exception of Nash, all the above players are in the same class offensively as Duncan. However the other contenders fall short either defensively, being injured, or in team accomplishments. San Antonio is the only team in the league that ranks in the top 6 on offense and defense.

Duncan suffers from not being the top story. Shaq made a big splash by changing teams, hence he got a lot of media coverage. Nowtizki has upped his game despite losing ballhandler Steve Nash, while the Canadian imrpvoed his standing by not playing for 3 & a half games. That wonderboy LeBron is among the league’s best in his second season is newsworthy. Each of Duncan’s competitors are flashy players as well. What would you rather see on your favorite sports show: a no look pass from James, a monster Dunk from Shaq, or Duncan hit another turnaround off the glass?

Last weekend the Spurs went into Phoenix and beat the Suns in OT. Then they visited Sacramento, and blew out the Kings by 30. Think about that for a second. San Antonio beat two 70% win teams – on the road – in back to back games. [Ed’s note: And they beat the Kings again last night.] If the season ended today, I’d be hard pressed understanding why anyone would vote for any coach other than Popovich, and any MVP candidate other than Duncan.

AlamoBlogger Part I

There are few things you can rely on year after year in the sports world. The Yankees are going to spend more money on their team than anyone else. The Arizona Cardinals are going to loose more games than they win. Boxing is going to find yet another way to embarrass itself. And the Spurs will be playing excellent defense.

According to my stat page, the Spurs are allowing 93.9 points per 100 possessions this year. That ranks them first in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Only the offensively challenged Bulls and the defending champion Pistons are within 4 points of San Antonio. They’re so far ahead of the pack, the difference between them and the 3rd ranked Pistons is the same difference between the Pistons and #11 Sixers. Thanks to www.basketball-reference.com, we can see what the Spurs have done defensively over the last few years:

Year	DE	Rank
2004 91.6 1
2003 96.6 3
2002 96.5 1
2001 94.9 1
2000 95.7 2
1999 92.1 1
1998 96.2 2
DE is Defensive Efficiency

That’s just sick. This year will make it 8 years in a row the Spurs have been among the league’s top 3 defensive teams. Among all those Spurs teams, there have been only 3 constant factors: Gregg Popovich, Malik Rose, and Tim Duncan. While Rose is a fine player in his own right, I believe the lions’ share of the credit should go to the other two.

It’s surprising to me that Popovich has won only one coach of the year award. His team has won two championships and he’s never finished less than 3rd overall defensively. Popovich’s detractors will point to the talent on the team and say that anyone could have coached that team. However few coaches can stay with a single team that long without wearing out their welcome. Even fewer would be able to keep winning after loosing one of the franchise’s most popular and talented players. Yet the Spurs are 91-35 since the Admiral retired, and opponents are still scared to enter the SBC Center.

Unlike player awards, coaching awards are given to coaches who tend to exceed their expectations. In the 8 years since Phil Jackson won it in 1996, only 2 coaches have won the award and led their team to the Finals. Last year’s winner, Hubie Brown, is a perfect example. A year after winning 28 games, Memphis finished 6th in the West. A low playoff seed would be an average year for many teams (and a failure for a few), but Coach Brown was largely credited with the team’s success. A 22 win turnaround will catch a lot of attention, but I wonder what perennial winners like Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman, or Greg Popovich could have done to be voted best? Unfortunately in this case, their past greatness counts against them.

[Tune in Friday morning for Part II.]

Suns 133 Knicks 118

63.5%

That’s what the Suns shot yesterday (eFG%). Just look at their big 6 (really a big 3 + a 3 large):

Name.........	Min	Pts 	eFG%	 TS%

S. Marion.... 42 20? 47% 1.01
Q. Richardson 39 25? 74% 1.47
A. Stoudemire 40 29? 54% 1.25
J. Johnson... 40 24? 66% 1.35
S. Nash...... 35 9? 43% 1.03
J. Jackson... 24 17? 106% 2.13

The league average for effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is 48%, and for True Shooting Percentage (TS%) is 1.05. The league leaders at these stats are 65% and 1.39 respectively. The TS% aren’t very high, but the eFG% are through the roof. Can’t anyone defend on this team?


How long with the Trevor Ariza experiment last? Desmond had 22 points on Sunday, Q-Rich and Jackson combined for 42 last night. Clearly, he not ready to defend one-on-one. However one of the best ways for him to learn is to match up night in and night out against NBA talent and take a beating. The 19 year old rookie is an amazing physical specimen, pulling down 8 offensive boards against the Suns. So it’s up to the coaching staff to get him to work on his footwork and technique. If Herb is playing Trevor for future dividends, then I’m thrilled to see him in the starting lineup.

UPDATE: Of course what is highlighted in my Yahoo Fantasy News this morning? Trevor Ariza: Big Game for Ariza.