Knicks 2009 Season Preview Part III

Part I here.
Part II here.

SMALL FORWARD:

If guard is the Knicks’ most plentiful position, then small forward is their least. Let’s take a look at these two players:

Name TS% EFG% PTS/36 PER
A 0.51 0.48 16.2 15.0
B 0.48 0.45 11.9 10.7

From these stats Player A is obviously superior. And that’s who the Knicks thought they were getting when they traded for Quentin Richardson. Player B is the player they actually got. (A is Richardson’s averages pre-New York, B is his averages in a Knick uniform). Despite a clear decline in play, Richardson will be the Knicks defacto starter at small forward, a position he’s had for the last 3 years. It’s painfully obvious that Richardson’s career has taken a downturn due to injuries. SI.com has a list of his injuries over the last two seasons: head, right ankle, flu, right knee tendon, back surgery, sprained right elbow, back spasms, and hamstring strain. We can only hope that Q-Rich takes his flu shot this year.

Richardson has a couple of positives. He has a familiarity with D’Antoni due to playing under him in 2005, and he exerts energy on the defensive end. How effective those two make him are another story. Quentin can hit the three (career 35.2% 3P%) and rebound (6.4 REB/36), but he has been a substandard scorer. Last year he was woefully inefficient (TS%: 44.4%, eFG%: 42.1%) and averaged a pitiful 8.1 points per game off of 8.5 shot attempts. The team would be better off playing him 20 minutes off the bench instead of the 28.3 minutes per game he averaged last year. Without a major turnaround in scoring efficiency, he’s bench material.

Unfortunately Richardson will more likely get the lion’s share of the minutes at small forward, because the Knicks don’t have many other options. The main reserve is 21 year old Wilson Chandler. A late first round pick, Chandler is an athletic 6-8 swingman. As billed by the “Ill Will” tatooes on his arms, Chandler is a good defender. He can contribute in a variety of ways: blocks, steals, rebounds, three point shots, and points. On the negative side of the ledger, Chandler is an inefficient scorer (TS: 48.0%, eFG% 45.7%) who isn’t shy about taking a shot.

There are lots of players similar to Chandler, under 21 year old forwards with poor shooting percentages, with varying results. For every Donyell Marshall, Trevor Ariza, and Al Harrington there seems to be a Lamond Murray, Sylvester Gray, or Yi Jianlian to match (for Net fans change that last name to Samaki Walker). At this point it’s unclear which path Chandler is on.

Wilson Chandler may be too young for a starting role, but if the Knicks went out to a nightclub, Danilo Gallinari would be waiting outside for someone to pass him Wilson Chandler’s driver’s license. [Warning from the KnickerBlogger.Net legal dept. – using someone else’s id to enter a nightclub is illegal, immoral, and more likely to have your night end in a White Castle than someone else’s bed.] Gallinari won’t be of legal American drinking age until next August. Additionally he’ll be adjusting to an entirely different country, game, and diet. (Sorry Gallo – you won’t have freshly made hand cut pasta on the road.)

Lamentably, there isn’t much to say about Gallinari’s game that wouldn’t be conjecture. He hurt his back in summer league and is just starting to practice with the team. Since D’Antoni said he didn’t want Gallinari to play in the D-League, it’s probable that Danilo will sit on the end of the bench for most of the year. Gallinari’s future will be at power forward, but considering he hasn’t grown into his body yet, his injury, and the Knicks lack of depth at the three, small forward is probably where he’ll get the bulk of his minutes. When Richardson eventually misses a big chunk of time, don’t be surprised to see Gallinari’s name get called in the second quarter of games.

All in all the Knicks don’t have a lot of options at small forward. Going into the season two of their three potential SFs are battling injuries: Chandler and Gallinari. Additionally Jared Jeffries (who isn’t listed here because D’Antoni plays him in the frontcourt) who could play SF is also injured. Patrick Ewing Jr., who at the time of this writing has a chance of making the roster, has played only 24 preseason minutes. Even if Junior makes the team, it’s possible he’ll start the season in the D-League. D’Antoni will use a three guard rotation at times, but if Richardson and Chandler both get hurt at the same time he’ll have some interesting decisions to make.

Knicks Add to Front Office Staff

According to the NY Times:

John Gabriel, a former N.B.A. executive of the year with the Orlando Magic, has joined the Knicks’ revamped front office and will assume a major role in rebuilding the roster after seven straight losing seasons.

Donnie Walsh, the team president, appointed Gabriel as the director of pro scouting and free agency, a newly created position. Gabriel’s primary duty will be evaluating current N.B.A. players, with an eye toward future trades and free-agent signings.

Gabriel is well versed in the art of rebuilding. He was the Magic’s general manager from 1996 to 2004, a period in which the franchise lost Shaquille O’Neal to free agency and traded Penny Hardaway, but restocked by obtaining Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady.

Gabriel was named executive of the year in 1999-2000 after orchestrating 37 transactions that netted nine first-round draft picks and created the salary-cap space to sign Hill and McGrady.

After being fired in March 2004, Gabriel joined the front office of the Portland Trail Blazers, who have undergone a transformation that the Knicks surely hope to emulate. Once saddled with a bloated payroll and a roster of bad actors, the Blazers are now one of the most promising young teams in the league.

Also joining the Knicks’ front office is Misho Ostarcevic, who will be the director of player personnel. Ostarcevic was Walsh’s international scout with the Pacers.

Gabriel and Ostarcevic were hired earlier this month, although the team did not announce the moves. Walsh was not available for comment Wednesday.

You can see John Gabriel’s transactions as the Orlando GM at Hoopshype. Looking at his record, he seems to be average. His first two drafts were busts (Brian Evans 27th and Johnny Taylor 17th). But he grabbed arguably the best player in the 2000 draft (Mike Miller) and found Zaza Pachulia in the 2nd round in 2002. The trio of firsts in 1998 didn’t fare well (Michael Doleac, Keon Clark, and Matt Harpring) but there wasn’t much else in that draft (Rasho Nesterovic and Al Harrington would have been better choices as were Rashard Lewis & Cuttino Mobley however the latter two were taken in the second round).

Gabriel was keen enough to trade for Ben Wallace, but Wallace was shipped to Detroit in the Grant Hill trade. Hard to argue with that without putting on your hindsight glasses. Gabriel best move was grabbing Tracy McGrady from the Raptors for a first round pick. Looking through his transactions it seems Gabriel weakness was finding a stable center. He drafted Michael Doleac, Curtis Borchardt, Keon Clark, and Steven Hunter in the first round, but none were good enough to become starters. The Magic used veteran defensive minded journeymen bigs like Bo Outlaw, John Amaechi, and Horace Grant in the post-Shaq era.

After leaving Orlando, Gabriel did work with the Portland Trailblazers. This is a good sign not only because Portland has done a good job in building a strong roster, but their GM Kevin Pritchard is said to be statistical minded. It’s hard to gauge whether or not Gabriel has an understanding of statistical analysis. He did trade for Ben Wallace, but that may have been luck (considering he traded Wallace a year later). Gabriel did also acquire Hill and McGrady, two players who score highly by statistical measures, although both were known superstars at the time.

Daring to Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also worry about…

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

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

NBA’s Fried Liver Attack

I have to admit I have a soft spot in my heart for strategy games. I love card games like Hearts, Spades, or 31. I enjoy Risk so much that I currently have a board hanging in my work office. And I’ve played my fair share of chess over the years. When playing games I really enjoy non-traditional strategies. An easy Risk strategy is to isolate yourself in Australia and let the other players weaken themselves. But it’s one I rarely play, because it’s so predictable and boring. I prefer Hearts over any card game, since the greatest reward of shooting the moon (collecting all the points) is antithetical to the basic premise of the game (collecting no points).

My favorite non-traditional strategy in chess is the Fried Liver Attack. For those understand the rules of chess, I would suggest going to this link and forward through to move 6. In the Fried Liver Attack, white sacrifices his knight very early in the match to get the black king out in the open. It goes against everything that is taught in chess: control the middle in the opening, don’t lose material (pieces) early, and get your pieces out early. By standard thinking, white looks to have a disadvantage after their 6th move. They’re down a piece, black has full control of the middle, and they have more pieces out from the back row to attack. Nonetheless white goes on to trounce black due to one key strategy, they have exposed black’s king. Follow the link again, and play the rest of the game out. Notice that white forces black to move his king at every turn except for one. White wins by taking one advantage to the extreme.

In the NBA, there are traditional strategies as well. For instance good defense is the cornerstone of winning teams, is reliant on having a big strong center and requires keeping players close to the hoop to rebound the opposing team’s misses. On defense, players should stay between their man and the hoop in lieu of risking being out of position for a missed steal attempt and an easy bucket. On offense, teams should establish the low post game to open up the perimeter.

And then there is the 2007 Golden State Warriors.

Don Nelson built a team that defies traditional strategy. The Warriors frequently play without a traditional big center and eschews a low post scorer. The center position is manned by either a slender 6’11” Andris Biedrins or Al Harrington a 6’9″ power forward. Golden State seems to attempt the fast break on every play, and they often go for the steal.

Despite all these flaws, the Warriors have made it to the second round of the playoffs because they do one thing exceptionally well: they spread the floor. While most teams will have one or two players that can shoot from the outside, the Warriors always have at least 4 and sometimes 5 players that can connect from downtown with accuracy. Don Nelson takes full advantage of this by using pick & roll or isolation plays on the outside to create mismatches & force double teams, which results in one of their shooters being open.

By using one singular advantage to an extreme, the Warriors have opened up multiple avenues that wouldn’t be available to them. For instance normally an undersized team wouldn’t be able to score from inside, but time and time again the Warriors have penetrated the lane and scored from the paint. Spreading the floor on offense means the defense is spread as well. This means not only is it harder to defend from a blown assignment, but it’s harder for help defenders to get over to assist. And defenders are always under the threat that by leaving their man will result in a high percentage three point shot.

Additionally the Warriors ability to score aids their defense. An excellent transition team, Golden State can keep opposing teams off the glass with the threat of the fastbreak. If the opposition sends too many players to rebound and fails to capture their miss, the result is usually a quick score. Although undersized, the Warriors use their quickness in conjunction with zones and double teams to smother larger players on the inside. Unlike the sharpshooting Warriors, their opponents usually has one or two players that can’t connect from outside. With less ground to cover and fewer players to worry about on the perimeter, Golden State can avert the low post threat.

Unfortunately this style of play has its weaknesses. As I mentioned previously, the fastbreak keeps teams from committing too many players to the offensive glass. Nonetheless teams usually have a size advantage against Golden State and can use fewer players to recover their misses. Additionally not having a low post threat gives less stability to the Warriors’ offense. This was apparent in the end of Game 4, when a series of bad decisions down the stretch cost them the game.

Like the Fried Liver Attack in chess, Don Nelson’s offense forces the opposition to play the game their way. After watching a few games against the Mavericks, I’m hooked. I’ve either stayed up late, or taped every game of the Utah series. With the Warriors down 3-1, and heading back to Utah where the Jazz have a strong home field advantage, I’m sad that Golden State’s season may come to an end. It’s a non-traditional approach that has been a joy to watch.

Small Ball, Smaller Ball

The hot basketball story of the playoffs is how the Golden State Warriors used a ?small ball? strategy to upset the host Dallas Mavericks in game one of their opening round playoff match-up. Golden State?s head coach, Don Nelson, sought to maul Dallas with the superior quickness of a smaller, more versatile line-up that could switch defensive assignments at will, effectively sticking Dirk Nowitzki with a body wherever he turned.

The Warriors started a point guard, three shooting guards, and a combo forward at ?center.? Their tallest starter was 6?9?. Small, right? Sure, except Dallas wasn?t much bigger. They came out with two point guards, two small forwards, and a power forward as their ?center.? It?s not like the Warriors were mites among giants. They were undersized at exactly one position: Al Harrington giving up three inches to Nowitzki. This wasn?t a case of just the Warriors going small?the entire game was small.

Between DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier, Dallas employed professional centers for only 18 minutes of game time. The Warriors used their own professional center, Andris Biedrens for 8 minutes. Nelson is said to have done this because he wanted to exploit match-ups, but it?s a more curious move than publicly imagined when you considering the facts. If anything, center was the one position that Dallas this season had trouble defending, allowing opposing pivot men a healthy 16.9 PER against them. No other position fared better than average against Dallas. If you looked at the numbers and wanted to attack Dallas, you would have thought to start Biedrins?not to mention the fact that the giant Lithuanian had a monster game against them when Golden St. interrupted their winning streak.

Therefore, what makes the Warrior?s strategy of replacing Biedrens with a guard is that it goes away from what’s already been successful. Yet, it worked. Now it’s up to Dallas to adjust. One wonders if Dallas goes with a big line-up in game two if they’ll actually be solving their match-up problems. They might be forcing Nelson’s hand into putting Biedrens back into the line-up. Considering the facts, this might not lead to the outcome Dallas desires.

Wallace Signing Shakes Up Central

At their highest level of success the Pistons relied on their defense to carry them, and at the centerpiece of that stalwart defense was center Ben Wallace. Unfortunately for Detroit, Ben Wallace recently agreed to a 4 year deal with divisional rival Chicago. The move struck a serious blow to the Pistons as 4 time defensive players of the year don’t come along that easily. The team attempted to minimize the damage by signing center Nazr Mohammed. The ex-Spur, ex-Knick, ex-Hawk, ex-Sixer will try to replace the rebounding void left by Ben, and add a scoring punch that Wallace never had. However Nazr’s not nearly the defender that Ben is, nor does his scoring make up the difference. Like their name implies, Detroit’s success relied on each Piston firing at an above average level, and without their defensive keystone they aren’t likely to sustain their high level of play.

Last year the Chicago Bulls finished 6th in the NBA on defense so Wallace doesn’t address a big need for them. However it doesn’t mean that the signing won’t make them better. One way Big Ben can help the Bulls is to make them the best defensive team in the league. There were 6 teams within 1 point per 100 possessions defensively of the Bulls (from the #3 Nets to the #8 Clippers). So while the Bulls were above average, there were a lot of teams that were comparable defensively. The difference between the #1 Spurs and #6 Bulls is the same difference between the #6 Bulls and the #17 Warriors. Using the pythagorean formula for expected wins, the Bulls would go from a 43 win team to a 54 win team by becoming an elite defensive team like the Spurs.

Wallace’s addition also allows the Bulls to move their other centers for more scoring punch. Both Tyson Chandler and the newly drafted Tyrus Thomas have the same strengths and weaknesses as Big Ben: strong at defense and rebounding, weak on offense. It doesn’t make sense for the Bulls to keep all 3, and with the dearth of centers around the league they should be able to move one of them with ease. Rumors are already circulating the mill about the Bulls moving Thomas to Minnesota for Garnett, and Chandler being swapped for the usual suspects (PJ Brown, Al Harrington, etc.) If the Bulls can nab a strong post player or an unhappy superstar they might become favorites in a strong Central division.

On the other hand, the biggest winners in the Ben Wallace sweepstakes could be the Cleveland Cavaliers. During the regular season the Cavs finished second in their division behind the Pistons, and Cleveland’s postseason was ended in the second round of the playoffs by Detroit. LeBron James is already playing MVP caliber ball, and if Ilgauskas and Hughes stay healthy for the year (and maybe with a little off-season tweaking) dismantling the Pistons could be just the thing they need to reach the Conference Finals.