“So when can I expect your post evaluating the Sonics’ title chances?”

That was the question asked of me in the middle of February by Kevin Pelton. You might remember Mr. Pelton from such KnickerBlogger guest posts as “Steve Nash For MVP?” and a 6 part “Knicks Roster Analysis” during last summer. Two weeks prior, I named 5 teams I thought could win the championship: the Spurs, Heat, Suns, Mavericks, and Pistons. Despite their record, Seattle didn’t make the cut. So I guess I owe my guest blogger and the rest of Sonic-nation a little explanation.

Admittedly, Seattle has a lot going for it this year. They hold the 4th best record in the league, are second in the NBA on offense, and have more depth than the Suns or Heat. Since they hired the premier mind in the basketball statistical community, you’d think a APBRmetric blogger would take to them like Michael Jackson to a lollipop convention (and that’s the last one of those jokes, ever). However the “APBRSonics” have one big weakness, their defense.

Currently Seattle’s defense is a pitiful 25th, allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions. To put that in context, they rank just above the Lakers, Hornets and Knicks, which is not exactly championship territory. The Sonics have success with shutting down guards, but visiting big men are lighting up the Northwestern sky. Just take a look at the shooting percentage by position:

POS eFG%
PG .453
SG .468
SF .499
PF .513
C .545

It’s certainly obvious that the Sonics have trouble handling taller players. Radmanovic, Fortson, and Evans have unique skills on the offensive end, but none are good defenders. Seattle’s other frontcourt players, Collision and James, are foul prone as both average more than 8.5 infractions per 40 minutes. Seattle’s front office should be commended for having such depth at the 4 & 5, but so far they haven’t been able to put forth a good defensive effort.

Which brings us back to the point at hand: can the Sonics win the championship with their defense? To answer the question, we should take a look at what kinds of teams take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Scanning over the last 20 years, only one champion has had a sub par defense. If we broaden our scope to include runner-ups, 2 more teams emerge.

The 1986 Rockets lost in 6 to the Celtics, but with their 15th ranked defense (out of 23 teams) they were lucky to make it that far. While the Rockets had to beat a superior team in the Lakers that year (.756 win%), no other West team had better than a .600 winning percentage. Having a dominant East and a weak West gave Houston an easier path to the Finals. This year’s Sonics isn’t comparable to those Rockets, because Seattle faces a tougher road to the finals, since they will likely have to beat two top teams (the Spurs and Suns).

One more difference between the 1986 Rockets and the 2005 Sonics is that Houston made a late season change which radically altered their defensive outlook. Point guard Allen Leavell broke his wrist midseason, and Coach Bill Fitch turned to 6’8 Robert Reid, where his obvious size advantage helped solidify the defense. While smaller guards might have been able to drive past Reid, twin towers Olajuwon and Sampson were behind him to deal with such matters. Unlike this Houston team, Seattle is strong in the backcourt and weak in the frontcourt.

It would be 12 years before another mediocre defensive team would make a Finals appearance. The 1998 Jazz, like the 2005 Sonics, had tough division rivals. Five Western teams finished with a winning percentage of .680 or better. Utah did have two advantages the Sonics won’t. First and most importantly, they had home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Secondly Stockton, Malone, and company had the league’s best offense. In fact the team that most resembles this Utah club is not the Sonics, but rather the Suns. Currently Phoenix is neck & neck with San Antonio for the #1 spot in the West, they have the NBA’s #1 offense, and their defense is closer to the median. If the Suns can get home field throughout the playoffs, they can look back at this Jazz team for inspiration.

The most recent team in this micro-study is the 2001 Lakers. The middle of the threepeat dynasty’s defense was a pitiful 19th during the regular season. This seems to be a bit of an outlier, because the year before Los Angeles had the NBA’s best defense, and the year after ranked a respectable 7th. Like the 1986 Rockets, the team was reconstructed as the season wore on. For the playoffs, the Zen Master sat guys like Isiah Rider, Ron Harper, and Horace Grant in favor of better defenders Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Robert Horry.

During the playoffs, the Lakers defense stepped up to the task enabling them to sweep a statistically superior team. In the 2001 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs scored 90 once, and didn’t break 83 in any of the other games. While Duncan had a 40 point outburst in the second game, Los Angeles allowed only one other player to score more than 8 points. In the final two games, they held the Big Fundamental to an average of 12 points. It appears that the Lakers played better in the playoffs, whether by better effort or by personnel changes. Of these three historical teams, the 2001 Lakers team most resembles today’s Sonics. That Seattle has so much depth means they could do the same, based on opponent.

That only 3 teams out of 40 have gone to the Finals doesn’t speak extraordinarily well of the Sonics chances. However, it also means that a flawed team can make it to the ultimate round if they receive a good defensive effort in the playoffs. Seattle’s one hope is that they have matched up well against the best teams in the league. Against my top 5 the Sonics are an impressive 7-4, and consider that they have gone 4-0 with Ray Allen in the lineup against the NBA’s two favorites (Miami & San Antonio). To do that with a statistically inferior team means you’re either lucky, or you’re doing a phenomenal job in matching up against great teams. Although it’s the players that earn the victory on the court, if the Seattle SuperSonics prosper in the playoffs it will be a credit to their coaching staff and scouts.

The CBA Knicks

After his trades last week, many people called Isiah Thomas a few cards short of a full deck. When the dust cleared, the Knicks President found himself a few players short of a full roster. Surprised that the CBA was still in existence, Isiah grabbed two players from the league to fill out the Knicks roster.

Jermaine Jackson spent 4 years at Detroit Mercy, and went undrafted in 1999. His NBA experience is limited to a sparse 84 games over 3 seasons for Detroit, Toronto, and Atlanta. Outside of the NBA, the well traveled Jackson played for the USBL, 4 different CBA teams, and 3 different European leagues. Standing at 6’5, Jackson is big for a point guard. Jermaine was voted to the MCC All-Defensive Team in 1999, and could fill the role of perimeter defender, a position the Knicks have sorely needed since the departures of Frank Williams and Charlie Ward.

In the 2003 Basketball Prospectus, John Hollinger called Jackson a “very traditional point”, who had a high assist ratio and low usage rate. The point guard’s problem is his scoring. His college eFG% of 48% hasn’t carried over into the NBA, where he’s struggled to find his shot. With a career 38% eFG in the big show, the NBA three pointer might be outside his range. In his career Jackson has attempted only 13 treys, and hit only 2 (15%).

Oddly enough, Jackson’s limited CBA numbers don’t show him as a timid shooter. His per/40 minute averages are impressive. Not only does he show a sharp eye from downtown (47.5% 3P%), but he has an ability to get to the line (1.30 PSA). So either: a. the 28 year old decided to be more aggressive in an attempt to get another shot at the NBA, b. his wordly experience has paid off, c. the talent level of the CBA is weak, or d. it’s just a fluke.

Jermaine Jackson's CBA stats this year
PTS/40 FG% 3P% eFG% PSA FTM/FGA
17.8 53.7 47.5 58.8 1.30 .44

Unlike the seasoned Jackson, Jackie Butler is only 19 years old. This year the two played together for the Great Lakes Storm of the CBA. While Jackson spent four years in college, Butler never made it to the NCAA. He was embroiled in a recruiting scandal with Auburn, had trouble meeting the academic eligibility requirements, and bounced around from school to school. Just when it seemed Butler was putting his life together and going to attend Tennessee, he opted for the NBA draft instead. He hired an agent, ending his college career before it ever started. Just like it did for Jermaine Jackson, NBA draft night came and left Butler behind.

The Timberwolves signed the 6’10 260 lb center for the summer league, but he played sparingly. The neophyte lasted until October, but didn’t score in the 16 minutes of preseason he was given. Undeterred, he signed on with the Great Lakes Storm, and thrived immediately. Starting in 40 of 41 games, Butler was among qualifying league leaders in per minute stats namely points (20.8 7th), rebounds (12.4 4th), offensive rebounds (4.2 5th), and blocks (1.7 4th).

Jackie Butler's CBA stats this year
PTS/40 FG% FT% oREB/40 REB/40 PF/40 BLK/40
20.8 51.0 71.5 4.2 12.4 5.5 1.7

Of the two, Butler is more likely to be a CBA success story ala John Starks or Anthony Mason. He’s relied on his natural abilities up to this points, but he’s going to learn that the NBA has a lot of big bodies. Meanwhile Jackson will unspectacularly settle into a 10 minute a game role. To think either of them is going to be part of the Knicks future in 2007 would be optimistic. However it’s the perfect type of low risk/high reward move where a GM can’t lose, but can win if he gets a serviceable player out of the deal.

Steve Nash for MVP? (Part II)

[This is Part II of a two-part column by KnickerBlogger Head West Coast Analyst Kevin Pelton analyzing Steve Nash’s season and MVP chances. Please read Part I if you haven’t already by scrolling down or clicking here. Kevin serves as the Sonics and Storm beat writer for SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com. He formerly wrote the APBRmetric “Page 23” column for Hoopsworld.com.]

I left off Monday by drawing the conclusion that Steve Nash’s 2004-05 season is statistically very similar to John Stockton’s prime years. Based on that, it may be illuminating to look at Stockton’s MVP performance.

The short-shorted one peaked in MVP voting in 1988-89, when he finished seventh. Remarkably, during his entire Hall of Fame career, Stockton received just one first-place MVP vote. In 1989-90, after setting the all-time record for assists per game, Stockton finished ninth in MVP voting, behind Tom Chambers.

Stockton’s notable lack of MVP credit brings us back to one of the initial questions: Just what does a point guard have to do to win MVP? Oddly, at the same time Stockton was getting no MVP respect, Magic Johnson was winning the award in 1987, 1989 and 1990. Since Johnson retired, however, only four point guards – Anfernee Hardaway in 1995-96, Tim Hardaway in 1996-97, Gary Payton in 1997-98 and the aforementioned Kidd in 2001-02 – have even finished top five in MVP voting. And three of those four were high scorers.

Surely, MVP voters often come to different conclusions than the NBA’s statistical analysts. But Stockton also never finished better than sixth in the league in John Hollinger’s PER Rating. Point guards have performed even more dismally by PER, the most popular all-inclusive rating system, than in MVP voting; no point guard has finished in the top five since Johnson.

Do we, as a community of analysts, undervalue point guards and, by extension, assists? It’s a fair question to ask. Of the statistics that are actually available, there is a solid logical base for valuing everything but assists. (The logic behind the weights different analysts use can vary for things like offensive rebounds, but there is logic.) With assists? Even people like Hollinger and Dean Oliver have been forced to resort to thinking along the lines of, “How many actions in an assisted shot are performed by the shooter and how many by the passer?”

Uncertainty and undervalued aren’t the same thing, and Dan Rosenbaum has done some persuasive research that tends to indicate that assists might actually be less valuable than they’re generally credited as, at least for point guards, but I’ve yet to be completely convinced by it. I’d say I operate from the principle that all positions are equally important, and try to rate players according to that ideal. If that means more weight to assists, so be it.

(I should point out that the lack of a point guard rated as a top-flight superstar in the last 13 years doesn’t necessarily mean the position is undervalued overall, but it’s not a good sign either.)

Whatever your take, it follows logically from this discussion that responding to the Nash for MVP advocates by saying, “But his PER is only ninth in the league!” is a wholly inadequate response. PER, like all other ratings based on traditional statistics, is an abstraction of value. It’s a guess, at the end of the day. A good guess, yes, and a very useful one, but hardly proof that Nash isn’t the MVP.

While I’d say I generally favor individual statistics to plus-minus data when there is a discrepancy between the two, in this discussion plus-minus is valuable because of its inherent bias-free nature. It doesn’t care about the value of an assist or whether point guards get the credit they deserve. All plus-minus sees is whether a team is outscoring its opponents or not. The Suns quite clearly are, and they’re doing it more with Nash, who, as of Feb. 15, ranked third in the league in Roland Rating, trailing only Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko (whose knee injury ended any faint MVP dreams). Looking at raw +/- per 48 minutes, unadjusted for team quality, Nash again ranks third, this time trailing Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan.

(The counterpoint here has been that Nash’s backup, Leandro Barbosa, has struggled this season. Apparently tired of the bashing, Barbosa responded with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting (although just two assists) against the L.A. Clippers last Wednesday in a game Nash missed with a strained hamstring. Either way, Barbosa can’t possibly be as bad as he’s been made out to be; at his best, he should rank in the middle of the pack amongst backup point guards.)

Stockton was always subject to something of a “chicken or egg?” debate with fellow legend Karl Malone. Most people answered Malone, which is why he won two MVPs and always dramatically outpaced Stockton in the voting. Nash has something similar with Amar? Stoudemire; how much of Stoudemire’s remarkable improvement this season is to be expected from a 22-year-old, and how much of it is due to his teammates?

Considering no young player has ever really made a comparable improvement to Stoudemire’s leap from a 47.5% field-goal percentage to 57.2% this season, clearly teammates have been a part of it. That’s not just Nash, however; Rosenbaum has pointed out how surrounding Stoudemire with shooters has made it impossible for opposing defenses to double-team him.

The best explanation I’ve heard, this one borrowed from Eric Neel, is that the Suns are like a finely-tuned engine. All of the parts have to be in place and running smoothly for the engine to work. So as much as Nash’s January injury and the Suns’ subsequent losing streak helped his MVP candidacy, the same thing might have happened had any of the Phoenix starters gone down. That’s a pretty strong argument that while the Suns are great as a team, it’s because they have lots of valuable parts, not one most valuable player.

(None of the other starters has missed a game this season, though the Suns would probably be okay without Joe Johnson or Quentin Richardson now that Jim Jackson is behind them. Turns out they might be okay without Nash too, winning two straight without him, including at Dallas, between my writing this column and its posting.)

Two days and nearly 2,000 words later, let us return to the opening question: Is Steve Nash the NBA’s MVP for the 2004-05 season? My answer, as befits a poor columnist, is “I don’t know.” That’s partially because, of course, there are still 26 games and slightly less than a third left in the Suns’ season. More importantly, however, I think persuasive arguments can be made both for and against Nash.

If today was the end of the season and, more improbably, I was an NBA MVP voter (and not indebted by virtue of my paycheck to pick Ray Allen), I’d probably vote Duncan first and Nash second, but I guarantee you this: I’d take a good hard look at Nash’s candidacy. If I leave you with nothing else, I hope I can convince you of this: Nash’s candidacy is not a simple matter, and treating it as a foregone conclusion, whether pro or con, isn’t fair to anyone involved.


I owe a massive debt of gratitude to Basketball-Reference.com, without which this column would have been impossible to research.

Knicks Improvement From An Unlikely Source

Whether or not you cared for Isiah’s trade deadline moves, there is one thing that everyone agreed on. Trading Nazr Mohammed for two undersized forwards would make the Knicks worse down the stretch. It was the equivalent of running up the white flag on the 2005 season. However, a funny thing happened as teams made their way to the Garden. The Knicks have sent three straight opponents home with losses.

While all three of their opponents are still in the playoff hunt, none would be considered great teams. In addition, each team was missing a player due to trade or injury. Indiana was without injured Jamal Tinsley, Philly was without newly acquired Chris Webber, and the Lakers, based on a Jack Haley report, were still waiting for Carlos Boozer to report.

The best player Isiah acquired was Malik Rose, an undersized power forward known for his defense & rebounding. However neither attribute led them to victory in the three games. Other than the Pacer game, the Knicks didn’t hold any of their opponents under the league average shooting percentage nor did they outrebound them. However the Knicks have received a boost on the offensive end, with an effective shooting percentage of 50% or greater in each game. That mark is so good, if they did that on the year the Knicks would rank 5th, just above sharp shooting Sacramento.

OPP     OPP      NYK    OPP      NYK 
TEAM eFG% eFG% oREB% oREB%

PHI 49.4% 56.8% 29.5% 27.8%
IND 44.5% 50.0% 13.9% 30.8%
LAL 51.2% 54.0% 30.4% 21.7%

Instead of getting this resurgence from one of their newcomers, New York’s offense received a shot in the arm from one of their forgotten players: Tim Thomas. Back in November, I wrote an overly exuberant and hasty entry titled “Welcome Back Tim Thomas.” But by January Thomas was still in a funk, only firing at 45.2% (eFG) well below his career mark of 49.5%. During the last three games Thomas has been en fuego, averaging 24.3 points per game. Since January Thomas’ shooting has gone up 2.5% and now stands at 47.7%.

I’ll wait until the offseason before I declare Thomas cured a second time. All year long Thomas has suffered from one malady or another. From the preseason tragedies, including two deaths in the family and a sick mother, to the recent spat of injuries, Thomas has had it rough. Should the Knicks small forward recover his stroke, it would be a bittersweet pill for Knick fans to swallow. While it’s great that Thomas is making himself useful, his revival might mean less minutes for wunderkind and fan favorite Trevor Ariza. With New Yorkers having little to look forward to until the lottery, many will wonder where Tiny Tim was during their 4-18 start to 2005.

It’s certainly possible that the Knicks might show improvement down the stretch. Malik Rose has already made a positive contribution in just a few minutes, and Mike Sweetney unleashed move after move on the helpless Laker frontcourt. (It just wouldn’t be a KnickerBlogger post without a positive line about Sweet-N-Low.) However with only 25 games to go, New York would have to play as good as the Pistons (64%) just to make even. Just because the Knicks playoff hopes has already set sail, it doesn’t mean they can’t improve on a woeful season.


Stay tuned for tomorrow, when Part 2 of Kevin Pelton’s fantastic analysis of Steve Nash’s MVP candidacy will continue.

Steve Nash For MVP? (Part I)

[Today’s column is brought to us from KnickerBlogger Head West Coast Analyst Kevin Pelton, who serves as the Sonics and Storm beat writer for SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com. He formerly wrote the APBRmetric “Page 23” column for Hoopsworld.com.]

When Steve Nash unofficially ascended to the role of NBA MVP candidate, if not favorite, early this season, the response of the statistical community that follows the league was more indifference than the harsh criticism heaped on Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 selection or Jason Kidd’s candidacy the following season.

Still, you could probably find more APBRmetricians who believe the moon landing wasn’t real than those who will be planting “Nash for MVP” signs in their front yards. About a month ago, my gracious host posted a poll at the APBRmetrics message board querying posters on their first-half MVPs. 20 people voted, and nary a one selected Nash.

Personally, I voted for Tim Duncan, with Kevin Garnett second. Over the last month, however, Nash for MVP has been knawing at me a little bit. Were we all too quick to judge because Nash’s PER isn’t up to snuff, or because we’re tired of the overly simplistic arguments about how Team X was bad before adding Player Y and is now outstanding? If Nash isn’t a serious, serious MVP candidate this year, can any point guard ever be?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how good Nash’s season really is in terms of assists. Nash’s 11.5 assists per game are the best in the NBA since Mark Jackson averaged 11.4 in the 1996-97 season, but he won’t even get the Suns record for assists per game without a remarkable run. (It’s owned by Kevin Johnson, who averaged 12.2 assists in 1988-89, setting up a pair of players who averaged 20 points per game, Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson. KJ himself added 20 ppg as well.)

To level the playing field, I’m going to borrow from baseball analysts. In baseball, two things have to be corrected for: Park effects and league context. In basketball, pace factor replaces park effects. The first step, then, is calculating assists per possession. Nash is averaging assists on 16.2% of the possessions he’s played this season. Johnson, by comparison, had assists on just 13.6% of his possessions in 1988-89.

In 2004-05, the average NBA player gets an assist on 4.5% of his possessions; in 1988-89, that mark was 4.9%. So if we divide Johnson’s rate by the ’89 average and multiply it by the ’05 average, his 2004-05 assist rate is 12.9%. That’s a relatively meaningless stat, so what I’ve done is translate it to assists per game, assuming 96 possessions per game (two for each team every minute) and 32 minutes per game. By this standard, Nash averages 10.4 assists per game. (His average goes down because he plays more minutes and for a team playing at the league’s fastest pace.) Johnson’s average takes a much bigger hit, down to 8.2 assists per game.

If you had more free time than I have (and the length of my columns has in the past drawn suggestions I have too much time on my hands as is), you could with the help of Basketball-Reference.com calculate this equivalent assist average for NBA player dating back to 1973-74. (It would be impossible before that because team turnovers were not tracked, meaning no ability to determine possessions.) I didn’t do that, but I picked out the best 50 or so passing seasons of the past three decades and translated them. Here’s the leaderboard from amongst that group:

Player        Year  Team  05APG
----------------------------------
John Stockton 1990 UTA 12.0
John Stockton 1988 UTA 11.5
John Stockton 1991 UTA 10.9
John Stockton 1992 UTA 10.8
John Stockton 1995 UTA 10.6
Steve Nash 2005 PHO 10.4
John Stockton 1994 UTA 10.1
John Stockton 1996 UTA 9.8
Magic Johnson 1991 LAL 9.8
John Stockton 1993 UTA 9.8

I believe the technical term for that list is “select company”. Steve Nash is, at the moment, having the best passing season of the last 30 years put together by a player not named “John Stockton”. When you consider what an efficient scorer Nash is as well, you could drop his line this season into the middle of Stockton’s career, adjust for league and pace, and I doubt anyone would be the wiser.

Using my similarity system, 13 of the top 15 comparable seasons for Nash 04-05 were posted by Stockton, including the top five. It’s worth pointing out that Stockton only topped Nash’s 04-05 PER (23.35) twice during his career.


Check back Wednesday as Part II of this column looks more carefully at Nash’s MVP credentials.

Indiana 79 Knicks 90

Everyone was laughing at of Isiah Thomas and the Knicks for loading up on power forwards. Everyone, except the Indiana Pacers last night.

Kurt Thomas was nearly unstoppable in the first half, finishing it off with two shots in the last 30 seconds, one a buzzer beater from the right wing. Thomas hit 6 of 8, and had 12 points by mid-game. His backup, Jerome Williams, had a dunkfest that would have made Chris Anderson jealous. The “Junk Yard Dog” had three massive jams, and tipped in a Marbury miss for 8 first half points. Williams did it all without a single dribble, hustling off of pick & rolls and missed shots.

Also impressive was newly acquired Malik Rose, who made a big contribution despite only playing 9 minutes. In that time he had 8 rebounds, 4 on the offensive glass. Rose’s effort extended to the defensive end, where he “pulled the chair” from a bullish Jermaine O’Neal. The Pacers high scorer went sprawling across the Garden floor on his backside. On another play, a Rose quick outlet pass led to a Knicks fast break that ended up with a three point play. Later in the game the other new guy, Maurice Taylor, had his first two points as a Knicks, when his jumper swirled around the rim and dropped through the net.

The Pacers came into the Garden winners of their last 5, and 8 of their last 10. With Jamal Tinlsey out Indiana couldn’t muster enough offense to beat New York. Jermaine O’Neal’s tried to pick up the slack, but his 24 points went in vein. Other than Reggie Miller no other Pacer presented an offensive challenge. Despite the loss, Indiana still holds the last playoff spot in the East.

Other notes:
Back in November I said:

Ariza is real quick & has a good nose for the ball. My personal feeling is Wilkens should try to trap and press more, especially when Ariza is in the game. This way he might get an honest defensive effort from Marbury and Crawford.

The Knicks turned to the press for a single play, but it was the weakest press I think I’ve ever seen. Stephon Marbury, Jerome Williams, and Tim Thomas played more of a full court escort than actually attempting to steal the ball.

Jamal Crawford was awful at point guard with Marbury on the bench. Not once but twice number 11 threw the ball behind his head for a turnover. Within a few minutes, Penny Hardaway took over running the offense.

Although I mentioned the Knicks forwards propelling them to victory, I didn’t use Mike Sweetney’s name once. That’s because Sweetney is for all intents & purposes the Knicks starting center. The starting lineup showed Kurt Thomas picture as the center, and the Knick announcers spent a few minutes talking about how statistically the year that Thomas played the 5 was his best season. Nonetheless, after the opening tip off Sweetney was covering the Pacer center Scot Pollard.

Big Mike got himself in foul trouble early & often, forcing Thomas into the center position. The Knicks center rotation seems to be Sweetney, Thomas, Williams, then probably Rose. After that Herb Williams would have to decide between Maurice Taylor, Bruno Sundov, or donning a uniform himself.

The Knicks went really small in the second quarter. At one point the lineup was from biggest to smallest, Jerome Williams, Tim Thomas, Trevor Ariza, Penny Hardaway, and Stephon Marbury.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier on Jamal Crawford who received a pass with one foot out of bounds “The court is 50 feet wide, but not wide enough for Crawford that time.”

Breaking Down the Knicks Deadline Deals? A Little More

[Today’s column was written by David Crockett, who has been taking note of the wild trade action, creating a new frontier on the NBA landscape. (You must be this old to get that joke.) David is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com]

At the trade deadline the Knicks consummated two separate deals. If you?ve not had an opportunity to read the Knickerblogger?s excellent breakdown of the deals please do so. He does an especially good job of debunking the knee-jerk media tendency to ignore the importance of draft picks in deadline deals.

At the risk of putting words into his virtual mouth, he basically argues that the Knicks are in the seventh layer of salary cap hell until 2007 irrespective of what they do primarily because of Houston?s contract (KB: that’s exactly what I was arguing). Consequently, he argues, the amount by which the Knicks exceed the cap threshold is irrelevant as a strategic matter, at least it is until Houston comes off the cap in summer ?07. If the Knicks wish to rebuild with young players and/or draft picks other teams will assuredly demand a premium; either the Knick?s young players or cap relief.

Given this, the real wisdom in taking on a given contract lies in its implications for financial flexibility at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season (i.e., when Houston comes off the books). Prior to that Marbury?s and Houston?s pacts will keep the team hopelessly above the cap. (A nice salary breakdown per season can be found here.) Of course the other piece to the puzzle is the roster construction.

So let?s take an even closer look at the two deadline deals from both a financial and a roster construction perspective.

Deal 1
? The Knicks Receive: Malik Rose, PF, 2005 first round draft choice (SA via Pho), and 2006 first round draft choice
? The Spurs Receive: Nazr Mohammed, C, Jamison Brewer, G

Financially, the Knicks have replaced Mohammed?s short, reasonable deal with Rose?s considerably longer, less cap-friendly deal. Rose enters the final year of his deal, which pays him $7.1 million, just as the Knicks get out from under Houston?s mega-deal. By then I expect Rose?s current 15.5 PER to have shrunk considerably, right along with his market value. I think it?s reasonable to anticipate that, short of a buyout, Rose is in NY for the duration of his deal. Clearly, this is the bitter pill Thomas was willing to swallow for the two first round picks.

What might those picks turn into? Obviously, there?s no way to characterize future picks as anything other than a gamble. Yet there is no risk-free way to acquire talent prior to its prime. One way we might consider the value of the 2005 draft (New York?s own lottery pick paired with the pick coming from San Antonio through Phoenix) is by look at the past few drafts. I was not at all sold on the wisdom of this deal until I went back and looked at who was drafted in the spots where New York?s and Phoenix?s picks would land based on record (i.e., 6th and 29th overall as of this writing).

A glance back at 6th and the next-to-last players drafted in round 1 from 2000-2004 might make Isiah?s decision to pull the trigger on this deal easier to understand, even at the price of Rose?s contract. (Recall that the first round only had 28 picks total until 2003.)

2004 ? Josh Childress, Atlanta; David Harrison, Indiana (Luol Deng #7, Chicago)
2003 ? Chris Kaman, Clippers; Josh Howard, Dallas
2002 ? Dejuan Wagner, Cleveland; Chris Jeffries, Lakers (Nene #7, Wilcox #8, Stoudamire #9)
2001 ? Shane Battier, Mem; Jamal Tinsley, Atlanta (Tony Parker #28)
2000 ? DeMarr Johnson, Atlanta; Erick Barkley, Portland (Mark Madsen #29)

So really, the question is how wise was it to swap Mohammed?s contract for two additional (slightly more expensive) years of Rose and a two-in-five shot at Kaman/Howard or Battier/Tinsley? Framed this way the deal looks like a pretty reasonable gamble. Consider also that this is purely a deadline deal; no way does San Antonio consummates this deal during the off-season. San Antonio doesn?t need Phoenix?s 2005 or its own 2006 pick, but they could demand a much greater premium for them on draft night than Nazr Mohammed and Jamison Brewer. They could easily trade for future picks or draft some European teenager and keep his rights.

Even though the picks will be towards the end of the round the cap makes it prohibitive to have two lottery picks in consecutive seasons anyway. Also, the Knicks may be able to package the pair to target a specific player. Isiah?s thinking here is shrewd because he?s taking most of the bitter medicine now while the team is well over the cap anyway, with an eye toward 2007-2008 when he?ll have maturing young talent and money coming off the cap.

Deal 2
? The Knicks Receive: Maurice Taylor, PF
? The Rockets Receive: Moochie Norris, G, Vin Baker, F, and 2006 second round draft choice.

Much like the Knickerblogger I think had Isiah stopped with the previous deal I?d be pretty darned happy with things. Unfortunately, just like last season Zeke has a knack for making one deal too many; one that will eventually cost him something to undo. My impression is that I?m a bit more leery about the impact of this deal than is the Knickerblogger. Two things about it really bother me well beyond their curious nature.

First, what need does Mo Taylor address? Surely, the role of overpaid, undersized power forward has now been amply filled by Rose for the foreseeable future. Even anticipating an off-season move involving one or more of the Knick forwards, the Knicks are well-stocked at the position. Taylor is a worse rebounder than Tim Thomas, who at least shoots a high % from 3 point range. Taylor doesn?t defend; his 19 oPER is Moochie Norris bad. Worst, Taylor is expensive at over $9million per, meaning he?s not likely to be more valuable nor converted into anything more valuable than what NY gave up to get him.

Second, Taylor further skews an already unbalanced roster into a dangerously guard-light roster. The team now has no third guard and no true third small forward, but has 5 capable power forwards. This is not just an aesthetics problem. The Knicks simply cannot afford for Hardaway or Crawford to be injured again this season. They would have to sign a guard off the street. Moving both Norris and Brewer without getting at least an emergency guard in return is just silly; worse yet, it may be expensive. New York is virtually guaranteed to enter the off-season, if not before, desperate for a third guard. As a consequence Thomas will almost assuredly pay a premium unless he drafts one. There?s no way the Knicks can go into next season carrying only two guards, and every GM in the league knows this. Had the Knicks thrown in Sundov and cash for Reece Gaines this deal would have still been superfluous but at least not innately harmful. As it stands this deal makes zero sense on any dimension ? financial, performance, or roster balance.