Kevin’s Off-season Plan

I’ll be the third person to officially lay out on an off-season plan of attack for the Knicks. Presumably, you’ve already read Dave’s take, and Chad Ford recently put together his “summer blueprint”. I don’t have Insider, so I haven’t read all of that one, but if the free part I linked is any indication, it’s as insipid as Ford’s “blueprints” traditionally are.

I can’t copy Ford’s stuff and don’t care nearly enough to re-type it, but, to summarize, Ford complains that Isiah Thomas has locked the Knicks into long-term mediocrity with his moves and left them with no chance in the free-agent market. That’s true, of course, but no more so than it was true when Thomas took over the team. With Houston’s mammoth deal and a few others on the books, the Knicks weren’t getting under the cap in the foreseeable future anyway, so all Thomas really did was spend more of Cablevision’s money. Raise your hand if you care about Cablevision’s bottom line. I didn’t think so.

If there is an argument to be made, it would center on Thomas dealing youngsters like Milos Vujanic and Maciej Lampe, as well as some picks, but it would be a relatively weak one. Vujanic and Lampe can’t hold a candle to Stephon Marbury and Mike Sweetney at their respective positions, and the Knicks’ picks wouldn’t have had a huge impact either. New York can get players of similar ability, if not potential, in free agency.

Brendan at the These Days blog (which I found thanks to its link to KnickerBlogger) has a slightly different Knicks rant that I can get behind:

I understand that to rebuild the Knicks is a 5 year job, minimum. As a fan, I’d much rather watch that than any more of this high-paid dreck. Isaiah Thomas, for the most part, deserves credit for the way he’s been able to make trades with the mess Scott Layden left him- but he’s still executing an interest-annihilating and utterly dreadful strategy handed down from on high. The result is, even when I read something really interesting like Kevin Pelton on Knick power forwards which teaches me something that I didn’t know, like how good Mike Sweetney was, all I can think is ‘dang, now I’ll be really annoyed when he’s tossed in on some deal for a guy like…Malik Rose’. And so it goes, at the Garden.

In a broader context, are the Knicks in a good position? Of course not. But that’s not Thomas’ fault; he inherited a mess, and if he has to sweep some junk into a corner so the house at least looks presentable enough for guests, well, I don’t think that’s a huge mistake.

Assuming that Thomas doesn’t dump Sweetney for a journeyman — and please, if that is going to happen, let Sweetney come to Seattle for Jerome James! — I actually think there is a way the Knicks can make some slight modifications to remain competitive in the East without sacrificing their youth.

I outlined some of what I’d look at in my position-by-position analyses, but let’s start with this. Entering the summer, my ideal Knicks rotation would look like this:

PG Marbury	  Williams
SG Houston Williams
SF T. Thomas Johnson/Ariza
PF Sweetney K. Thomas
C Mohammed K. Thomas

Houston is now the only starter on the wrong side of 30, Thomas the only backup that old. It’s a decent start. Giving minutes that went to Dikembe Mutombo and Othella Harrington to Sweetney should alone be worth a couple of wins. Trying to put a round number to that, by the win-based system I’ve introduced, giving Sweetney Harrington and Mutombo’s minutes and replacing Sweetney’s minutes with a replacement-level player improves the Knicks by one win, right on the top. Amazingly, replacing Shandon Anderson with Dermarr Johnson projects as worth about a win and a half over the course of the season. A healthy Allan Houston (fingers crossed) adds another win or two, as compared to Anderson and Anfernee Hardaway. So, barring major injury, it’s not unreasonable to think the Knicks might improve next season.

Even though Ford points out the Knicks won’t be luring Kobe Bryant or Rasheed Wallace to New York any time soon, that hardly means they’re finished in free agency. The name most bandied about at the moment is Chicago’s Jamal Crawford, but, even though Crawford’s a Seattle native, I’m not a big fan, certainly not for the Knicks. Crawford’s a low-efficiency, high-possessions tweener who isn’t very good on defense; barring a Houston injury, he does nothing for the Knicks, really. I’d rather give those minutes to Frank Williams, who at least brings some complementary skills relative \to what the Knicks already have.

Unfortunately, with their mid-level exception, the Knicks will have a hard time picking up someone who’s better than their two weakest starters (Thomas and Mohammed). The best they can probably hope to do is upgrade their reserve core, making a logical target for me a backup small forward who can also play some shooting guard and step in if Houston gets hurt.

Looking around, you’ve got guys who will likely have any offer matched by their current team (Darius Miles, who’s an interesting prospect after putting up off-the-charts numbers in Portland) or don’t fit the Knicks’ needs (Rodney White).

The best fit I could come up with was Toronto’s Morris Peterson. Peterson isn’t really young, as he’ll turn 27 over the summer, but he’s in the prime of his career, he’s a good outside shooter (which my vision of the Knicks wouldn’t really have on the bench) and a quality defender who shut down opposing small forwards last year.

Peterson is a restricted free agent himself, but the Raptors aren’t in great financial shape and might have to choose between signing a point guard and re-signing Peterson. He could be had for a pretty reasonable deal — maybe three years, $10-$12 million? — and would be a huge upgrade on Anderson playing a similar role.

Lo and behold, this might not be a completely implausible thought; Newsday mentioned Peterson in a recent free-agent roundup.

Now that we’re through free agency, we’ll have to look at the trade market. The first move I’d make is with the Sonics. The Knicks have been linked to James for two years now, and a deal that would make sense for both sides is Dikembe Mutombo and Cezary Trybanski (for cap purposes) for James. Mutombo is probably the more valuable player, but not really wanted in New York from what I read about him while researching my centers breakdown. The Knicks basically take a chance that James can make good on his promise, and it’s not really a risk for either side since both players’ contracts end next year and neither is penciled in as a key player next year.

After making those moves, I go fishing for a bigger deal with the Thomases and/or Mohammed as the lures, trying to upgrade either small forward or center. I’m not sure I could find any takers or make anything make sense, but it’s worth a look. Kurt Thomas wouldn’t really be a big loss; we could fill in his minutes with James (or Mutombo) and possibly a low-level-type free agent power forward (Vin Baker? Michael Doleac? There’s not a whole lot else out there).

Beyond that, I look at some buyouts (Hardaway, Norris, Anderson) and sign some cheap, underrated guys: Richie Frahm, Jaime Lloreda, Zendon Hamilton, keep Andre Barrett around as my third point guard. Good times.

Depending on who, if anyone, I can trade for, I project this team to win somewhere between 40-45 wins. Unless the bottom really falls out, it’s a playoff squad, with the potential to get as high as around the fourth or fifth seed (depending on how Miami fares). At the same time, it’s a reasonably young squad. These aren’t the Baby Bulls or anything, but virtually all the contributors are young enough that they’ll still be productive in two-three years. Again, depending on the trade, I haven’t done any further damage to the salary-cap situation, so the long-term sacrifice is minimal. And if Sweetney turns out to be as good as I think he might be ? well, maybe life isn’t so bleak at the Garden after all.

With KnickerBlogger’s return on the horizon, just a couple of days away, that wraps it up for me unless the Knicks do something exciting over the weekend, and, presumably, for all of us guest bloggers. I hope the readers out there have enjoyed this as much as I have — it really was a fun exercise looking in detail at a team I’d followed only casually beforehand, and I’ll be rooting for the Knicks the rest of this summer and into the season. I mentioned to KB recently that I wished I had a team blog, and he retorted he wished he worked for a team, so I suppose the grass is simply greener on the other side. It was certainly nice to spend a couple of weeks on this side of the fence, and I’d like to wrap up by thanking KB for the opportunity.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Thomas Sounding the Right Notes… So Far

The NBA offseason is slowly taking shape and the potential for mega deals involving a number of the league’s mega stars has tantalized journalists and fans alike. Admit it. You love the drama. You love the pointless diatribes about “lack of respect” and the sights and sounds of grown men acting like complete and utter fools… And that was just ESPN’s broadcast team at the draft! So you know it’s going to be a long summer.

Yet amidst the growing sound and fury Isiah Thomas’s voice has thus far been one of reason and sanity, almost conservative by comparison to last year’s whirlwind. With his lone pick in the second round (#43) he made a very nice choice, selecting Trevor Ariza out of UCLA. If you read part two of my offseason preview then you have seen his name. Ariza is something of a poor man’s Andre Igoudala, that is, a hyper-athletic wing who plays defense and contributes something in every statistical category. However, his streaky shooting may limit him to being a valuable role player. What I like about the pick is that Ariza will likely match Anderson’s current production in two seasons, if not sooner, with a much higher ceiling at a much more palatable salary. Selecting Ariza (instead of the equally athletic Missouri SG Ricky Paulding for instance) is particularly interesting because it may suggest that Thomas is laying the groundwork for an Anderson buyout.

Thomas’s made further remarks on draft night about the team’s pursuit of the top free agents:

I don’t think it will necessarily be a lot of the bigger names in the market, but there are pieces floating around that we think if we can acquire, they will make our team better.

Part of this is clearly intended to keep the expectations of the fans and the media this offseason from getting completely out of hand. However Thomas may actually be shooting straight on this one… kind of. I think he is hoping to benefit from the residuals of the proposed big deals but realizes that he has few commodities to deal himself, other than expriring contracts. For instance, should the Francis-McGrady deal go through Thomas may have interest in either Mobley or Cato, players the Magic are reported to be considering moving subsequent to any trade. The Knicks and Bulls restricted free agent guard Jamal Crawford are known to share a mutual interest, and Chicago’s selection of UConn guard Ben Gordon has certainly thrown Crawford’s status in limbo. Crawford is potentially a nice fit in New York but I suspect that Denver, where he’d have a pretty good chance at starting, will be his ultimate destination should he sign elsewhere. Today’s fishwra… err… New York Post is reporting again that the Knicks have an interest in reacquiring Michael Doleac. He did a very nice job of rebounding, blocking shots, and shooting off the screen roll last season.

The names Trevor Ariza, Jamal Crawford, and Michael Doleac may not instill fear into the hearts of opposing NBA defenses. They nonetheless inspire cautious optimism for this Knicks fan. These names say to me that perhaps at the end of year one in the Era of Zeke he has learned a most valuable lesson about front office life: a crucial part of building a good team is managing the back end of the rotation and the back end of the bench. The market virtually always allows you to get decent production at reasonable prices from players 8-12 via the draft and salary exceptions.

It’s one thing to overpay for your best player(s) but there’s rarely a reason to overpay for players 8-12. Sometimes market dynamics are such that a team simply must pay a premium to retain its best player, even if his numbers say he’s not worth it. The costs associated with acquiring and integrating a new “best” player (in terms of lost productivity/time, learning curve, permanent changes in matchups, etc.) may be too great. But, he said with index finger extended upward as if to signify an exclamation point, a team should never overpay players 8-12. Those roster spots should be filled by the likes of Trevor Ariza and Michael Doleac.

Well folks, that’s it for me. The Knicker Blogger will be back soon and I am off on a working vacation beginning Thursday through most of July. I’ll be off-line during most of that time. So I look forward to checking back in at the start of August to the fine, in-depth coverage of our beloved Knicks we have come to expect from Mike.

Peace,
dave

Knicks Off-Season Preview (Part 2 of 2)

What the Knicks Should Do Now

I?m back to offer a ?quick and dirty? assessment of the Knicks? primary needs with the help of a few stats compiled at 82games.com. I also offer a few modest suggestions for how to address them. (By the way if you didn?t catch part 1 of my off-season preview go check it out.)

Defense. Overall the team?s aggregate defensive numbers depict a mediocre but not awful unit. However those mediocre aggregate numbers mask a disturbing trend. The Knicks yielded points per game (93.5, ranked 13th) that belied their respectable eFG defense (46.2%, ranked 8th). To put this in perspective consider that New York?s eFG defense was only slightly behind Indiana?s (46%), identical to New Jersey?s (46.2), and slightly better than Miami?s (46.4), Memphis?s (46.5), or Philly?s (46.7). However, New York gave up 93.5 ppg and 104 points per 100 possessions (ranked 12th), more than all the aforementioned teams. How, you ask? The Knicks were more generous than the United Way, sending opponents to the free throw line 26.8 times per game. This ranks them 3rd from the bottom. Only the Bulls and Jazz were more charitable.

The most straightforward explanation for why the Knicks fouled so often in 2003-04 is that very few of them can adequately defend their counterpart. In fact, in the backcourt Marbury was no better than adequate and Houston was only a bit better. The two starters managed to hold opposing guards to slightly below average shooting and below average PERs at their respective positions. (NBA eFG averages for PGs and SGs were 46.1% and 46.9%; PERs were 15.1 and 15.2) Houston actually played admirably well defensively, considering his age and knees, holding opposing SGs to 13.9 PER, well below the PER average at his position. Marbury?s individual defensive numbers did improve when he came to New York, though at least some of that may be attributed to the fact that Eastern Conference point guards were not as good as those in the West. The average eFGs and PERs for Western conference PGs were 47% and 16. The Eastern conference PG averages were 45.1% and 14.2. Interestingly, Marbury in Phoenix yielded defensive numbers that were practically identical to the average Western conference PG’s output. In New York he basically gave up the average Eastern conference PG’s output. So, while I was pleasantly suprised to learn that Marbury?s defense doesn?t appear to be turning scrubs into all-stars I think it’s safe to say that he could be a lot better if he wanted to be. In a pre-playoff article posted at NJ.com by the Newark Star-Ledger’s Dave D?Alessandro (whose link appears to have expired) Marbury talked unselfconsciously about taking his rest on defense to keep himself fresh throughout the game. On the other hand Frank Williams played spectacular defense, holding his counterparts to a PER of about 10.1 and 40% eFG per 48 minutes.

Unfortunately, the frontcourt?s defensive numbers were not encouraging apart from Penny Hardaway and Michael Sweetney, who both held their counterparts to below average PER and below 45% eFG. Kurt Thomas’s and Nazr Mohammed’s defense on opposing power forwards and centers was far from inspiring. But Tim Thomas’s 51% eFG defense (emphasis not in original) and above average PER on small forwards were worse than Keith Van Horn’s in New York. In fact they were downright Peja-like. Of course looking solely at a counterpart?s offensive production to measure defensive impact doesn?t tell the entire story, especially for frontcourt players who must rotate and cover for other players often sacrificing position to their counterpart. For instance, Ben Wallace looks like a mediocre defensive center when measured this way, but of course we all know better. Nonetheless, individual defense measures yield interesting insight into the Knicks because they expose the starters? overall poor individual defensive ability. Only two of the five starters appear even adequate by these measures. This inability to defend one on one in all likelihood explains why the team gives up almost 27 free throw attempts per game.

Offense. The Knick offensive numbers tell a similar story of overall mediocrity masking frightening underlying trends. The Knicks scored just under 92 ppg, right at about the league median (half the teams scored more than the Knicks, half scored less). The Knicks managed to be a decent shooting team, ranked 13th in eFG at 47.4% (but only 3.4% behind league leader Sacramento). This is despite the roster changes and despite playing long stretches without leading scorer Allan Houston. The Knicks outshot the Nets, Pacers, Pistons, and Heat on the season. The team?s top three offensive players, Marbury, Houston, and Tim Thomas, all shot well above 45% eFG and had at least an average PER at their primary position. The Knicks were also a solid rebounding team, one of only 11 who grabbed greater than one full rebound more than its opponents. Yet the Knicks ranked only 21st in points per 100 possessions with 102. How does a decent shooting and good rebounding team end up toward the bottom in scoring? Simple: the Knicks lost 17% of their offensive possessions to turnovers and they took only 21 free throw attempts per game. The turnover rate tied for 3rd worst with bunch of other teams. The Knicks made far more bad passes (-120) and committed more offensive fouls (-39) than did their opponents. Unfortunately the Knicks? turnovers were debilitating because they did nothing in sufficient quantity, like rebound or generate steals, to offset them. The free throw woes have been well documented; only Toronto took fewer free throws per game. The turnovers and inability to get to the free throw line more than offset shooting and rebounding that were modest strengths.

What are the Knicks most glaring needs? On defense the team simply cannot continue to send opponents to the free throw line. No matter what acquisitions Isiah Thomas makes this off-season it is self-evident that the team needs both defensive upgrades and perhaps more importantly a recommitment to playing defense, particularly from its top players. On offense the team needs better offensive efficiency more than a dominant post player per se. Although a dominant big man would be a welcome sight in orange and blue offensive efficiency begins with taking care of the ball. A big man?s impact is seriously diminished when the team loses almost 20% of its offensive possessions to turnovers. Just ask the Rockets, who are rumored to have grown weary of Stevie Franchise and his turnover prone ways.

So what should the Knicks do now? Again, my hope is to address this question at the strategic level rather than suggest a host of roster moves, keeping in mind that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

First, I strongly urge the front office to pursue only players that bring better defense, versatility, or ball handling/passing to the team – not just more prolific scorers. On defense the team needs substantially better individual defense, especially in the frontcourt. On offense the team?s turnover problems stem from a serious absence of ball skills among the starters other than Marbury. None of the other four starters are particularly skilled ball handlers or passers. The Knicks, with limited salary cap flexibility into the foreseeable future, will find themselves best able to acquire these skills by leveraging its few valuable assets for draft picks and young, reasonably priced veterans who can help lay the foundation for a winning organization. Fortunately the Knicks can add such players through the draft, salary exemptions, and by moving expiring contracts, waiting to add a star player as the final piece of the puzzle. This is the most realistic, if not altogether preferable, means of building a serious contender in the post-Jordan salary cap era. Detroit was the first to win a title this way but Indiana and Memphis have been building themselves similarly all along, now hoping to find the player who can elevate them the way Rasheed Wallace elevated the Pistons. For the Knicks, Isiah Thomas must perform due diligence and investigate the availability of the top talent but I?m certain he realizes that the team?s immediate future is more likely to be filled with the likes of Antonio McDyess, Shane Battier, and Trevor Ariza than Rasheed Wallace and Shaquille O?Neal. Though neither McDyess nor Battier would be a sexy acquisition both bring skills this team needs. They play at both ends of the floor, pass well, and don?t turn the ball over. The market for McDyess is almost certain to be limited to some part of the mid-level exception and Battier is the kind of player who could be targeted in a three way deal involving an expiring contract. Both players could potentially start or come off the bench and neither would likely prohibit the Knicks financially from making another acquisition. I am not endorsing these players per se, though I do like them, except to suggest that there will be numerous players available who bring the skills the Knicks need who are not necessarily stars.

Second, to the fans I would caution that failing to acquire a superstar does not equal a failed off-season. Many of us fans are infatuated with the idea of acquiring one (or more) of the premier (i.e., Shaq or Rasheed Wallace) or high second tier (i.e., Erick Dampier or Marcus Camby) post players expected to hit the market this summer. However it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks can land premier or high second tier big men with only salary exemptions to offer, and less to package in a sign-and-trade. Even should the Knicks somehow miraculously land one of the second tier big men for the mid-level salary slot, consider that his impact on the team could be lessened (if not swamped) absent improvements in New York?s two biggest problem areas: turnovers and fouls. So, for instance, although Dampier is a clear and welcome upgrade in every respect to Nazr Mohammed his ability to avoid foul trouble would be sorely tested by the team?s mediocre perimeter defense, and that could seriously diminish his impact. The point is that the Knicks must address turnovers, defense, and free throws in order to improve. They cannot upgrade in other areas and leave these unaddressed. As I look at any transactions Isiah makes this off-season that is how I will assess them, including the second round pick in the upcoming draft.

Third, the Knicks must find ways to drop deadweight from the roster before training camp. Shandon Anderson should be bought out and released, as was the plan at one time last season. It should be made clear that he is not in the picture. No hard feelings. Buying him out would be best for everyone involved. I feel similarly about Moochie Norris. In his entry Kevin suggests buying out Penny Hardaway. Financially, this move would be a no-brainer if both sides could reach an agreement. From a basketball standpoint however I wouldn?t be upset if Penny makes it onto the opening day roster. He and Marbury are really the only two offensive players on the team that can score, pass, and handle the ball. Although Penny?s physical skills have eroded he played surprisingly good defense at small forward last season, and he still ?thinks? the game at a high level. Apart from that, since he plays most of his minutes at small forward now he?s not really taking minutes away from any of the youngsters. Only Tim Thomas and Shandon Anderson played significant minutes at that position last season. If the Knicks could keep Penny to 15 minutes per game he would be valuable.

In all, this promises to be an exciting off-season but I hope the excitement is generated by prudent moves that continue to shape the identity of the franchise and lay the groundwork for a future NBA champion.

David Crockett, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com

KnickerBlogger 2004 NBA Playoff Brackets Contest

Well folks, way back in April I searched the world for some of the greatest basketball minds & asked them to predict what would happen in the NBA playoffs. I included myself among this group of super-geniuses, to see how the average man would fare against the smartest of the smart. In an attempt to make it seem that I’m giving you the reader extra content, I will republish the original bracket here. To take a page from Microsoft, I’ll make it look slightly different, so it seems new, despite having the same content. I’ve taken the liberty of bolding all the incorrect picks.

BLOG:	John	Kevin	Ron	Michael	 Scott	Tim	Matt	Me
:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-: EAST FIRST ROUND :-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:
E1v8 IND IND IND IND IND IND IND IND
E2v7 NJ NY NJ NJ NJ NJ NJ NJ
E3v6 DET DET DET DET DET DET DET DET
E4v5 MIA MIA NO MIA MIA NO NO MIA
:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-: WEST FIRST ROUND :-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:
W1v8 MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN
W2v7 LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL
W3v6 SAS SAS SAS SAS MEM MEM SAS SAS
W4v5 DAL DAL SAC DAL DAL SAC SAC SAC
:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-: SECOND ROUND :-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:
E2-1 IND IND IND IND IND IND IND IND
E2-2 DET DET DET DET DET DET DET DET
W2-1 MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN MIN SAC MIN
W2-2 SAS LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL SAS SAS
:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-: FINALS :-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:
EAST DET DET IND IND DET DET DET IND
WEST SAS LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL SAS MIN
CHAMP SAS LAL LAL LAL LAL LAL SAS IND
:-:-:-:-: TIEBREAKER SCORE OF THE LAST GAME :-:-:-:-:
Score 82-78 89-80 87-81 110-95 93-86 90-75 90-82 91-84

Not a single person picked the correct team to win it all. I was the only one to pick an East team, but unfortunately for my fortune telling business I choose the wrong one. So how did everyone do?

In last place is Matt, from Bulls Blog, with 10 points. Believe me when I say that he is a better blogger than prognosticator. Tied for 6th place with 11 points is John Hollinger and myself. I’m proud that I scored the same as the guy that’s written for CNN/SI, and has written a couple of books. John is so well respected that I spelt his name wrong in the original bracket. Sorry John, don’t take it out on my Knicks in your next Basketball Prospectus (did I mention I already pre-ordered it :-).

For first place there is a 5 way tie. In the “I should have won column”, Kevin Pelton claims his blood sugar was low when he picked the Knicks over the Nets, and Ron Hitley would have been blacklisted by his fans for not picking his home town Hornets to go at least one round. That should be a lesson when gambling. Eat your breakfast, and don’t bet on your favorite team.

Thank goodness I came up with the tiebreaker, or these guys would have to fight it out to the death to decide the winner. The person who was closest to the score of the last game of the Finals, will win.

PARTICIPANT:	Kevin	Ron	Michael	 Scott	Tim	
WINNER (100): 89 87 110 93 90
LOSER (87): 80 81 95 86 75
# FROM WINNER 11 13 10 7 10
# FROM LOSER 7 6 8 1 12
TOTALPOINTS 18 19 18 8 22
That would make the winner, Scott Carefoot. Although I never met him, it seems as Scott has it all: great writing ability, a forum on his web page, his picture next to every post… all he needs is a huge Johnson.

1. Scott		12 points + tiebreaker
2t Kevin 12
2t Michael 12
2t Ron 12
2t Tim 12
6. John 11
6t Me 11
8. Matt 10

Congrats Scott & better luck next year for everyone else!

“Finals Experience”

I haven’t been able to write much recently, and I missed game 3 due to an important family matter. This brings the number of bloggers I know that are going through family tragedies to 2. Luckily there has been some good writing out there recently, especially if you’re a stathead like me. Page23’s Kevin Pelton put out a column about how the Pistons are winning instead of the Lakers losing the series (though we’re still waiting for the second installment of the Future of NBA Statistics). Newcomers to my links section, under the bleachers, are putting out some great stuff about both basketball & baseball. A few days ago they wrote:

Another sports debate that gets me worked up is the one over experience, as in “will the Pistons’ lack of Finals experience hurt them?” It seems like the sort of thing that you can only cite after a team wins or loses — “well, the Pistons lost because they didn’t have enough Finals seasoning.”

These guys hit the nail right on the head with this one. How can something exist if it isn’t a good characteristic of future performance? I can say that adding Shaq to a team gives it a good chance to win a championship because he was clearly the best player on a championship team. Horace Grant played in 6 different Finals. They should both have “Finals experience,” but I would say adding Shaq to a team gives them a better chance of winning it all than Grant.

Two years ago, I’m sure somebody out there attributed the Lakers victory over the Nets to the Lakers’ “Finals experience”, and the Nets lack thereof. However the Lakers simply had the better team. Last year the Nets were the ones with the “Finals experience” advantage, since the Spurs hadn’t been to the Finals in 4 years. Of the Spurs top 3 scorers, only Duncan had been to the Finals before, whereas New Jersey’s top 5 scorers all had “Finals experience.” In this series the Spurs won in 6 games. The most recent lopsided “Finals experience” mismatch is the 1991 Finals. The Bulls hadn’t been in any of the previous Finals, while their opponents, the Lakers, had been in 7 of the last 9 Finals. In this case, having experience meant nothing, as the Bulls won in 5 games.

I can understand this kind of thought process. You perceive that a team that recently has been to the Finals has some kind of advantage over a team that hasn’t been to the Finals, because these teams win more often than not. However is the “Finals experience” the cause for this?

You can look at “playoff experience” the same way. If you look at the history of the playoffs, and took all the matchups where one team made the playoffs the year before, while the other didn’t, I’m sure the team with the previous playoff experience has a high winning percentage. Again is this because of the “playoff experience” factor? No. Most likely teams don’t miss the playoffs one year, then are good enough to win their first round matchup the next year. Turnaround isn’t that quick in the NBA, unless you can get a top notch guy. Even that isn’t a guarantee, as proved by Michael Jordan’s first year. In fact it took Jordan’s Bulls 4 years to get out of the first round. The important factor was not “playoff experience,” but rather being a good team.

The same can be said about “Finals experience.” When you have a team that has the ability to win it all, they should be able to compete at a high level for a few years, and might win a few championships. The “Finals experience” doesn’t make a team win, but rather it’s the other way around. A team wins multiple Finals because the team is great at winning to begin with.

Kurt Thomas, ’03 Knicks Rebounding Leader

I don’t know what I can say about Rasheed Wallace’s “foul” against Shaq late in game 2 that someone else hasn’t already said. So, instead I’ll talk about the Knicks. I think it’s been long enough.

According to Knicks Clicks (and the NY Daily News), Kurt Thomas may be traded. I’ve like Kurt since his early days as a Knick. Back then, I had a running argument/joke with a friend. I was the Kurt Thomas supporter, saying he should get more minutes, while he said Thomas’ fouled too often, and should head to the bench. I’m glad to have won that argument, since Kurt turned out some good production as the Knick starting PF/C the past few years. Let’s take a quick look at Kurt’s fouls over the years:

Year	Min/G	PF/G	PF/48
1998 23.6 3.2 6.5
1999 24.6 3.5 6.8
2000 27.6 3.7 6.4
2001 33.8 4.2 6.0
2002 31.8 4.2 6.3
2003 31.9 3.7 5.6

His fouls per game increased, but only because his minutes did as well. Kurt’s first three years he was committing 6.6 PF/48mins. In his last three, Kurt lowered his average to 6.0 PF/48. It’s not the biggest improvement, but to give you an idea, last year 6.6 PF/48 would rank you 12th in the league (Doleac), where 6.0 would put you about 23rd (Dalembert).

In the Daily News article, Kurt was quoted as saying:

I believe I led the team in blocked shots or was second (he was second to Dikembe Mutombo, 123-80). I think I led the team in rebounding (he did at 8.30 per game), so I think my numbers speak for themselves.

No disrespect Kurt, but that’s damning with faint praise. The Knicks’ these days aren’t known for their blocking or rebounding. Last year they were 19th in offensive rebounding% (28%), and 16th in blocked shots per game. Kurt Thomas got the most minutes per game last year at the PF/C positions, so shouldn’t he lead the team in those stats by default? That the 56 year old Dikembe Mutombo got more blocks than Kurt with 8 less minutes per game isn’t exactly a feather in Thomas’ hat. Neither is out producing Vin Baker (18Min/G), Othella Harrington (16 Min), or Michael Sweetney (12Min) by playing double their minutes.

In his defense, the Knicks were slightly better with Kurt on the court than they were with him off the court. His +/- was the 4th best on the team last season, and the team was +2 points (per 100poss) with him on the court instead of off. Of course this stat has many different interpretations. It’s possible that his replacements were bad, or the first team that Kurt normally plays were better than the second team that his replacements played with. Kurt has a reputation as a good man-to-man defender, but his opponents positional stats were a bit high for my taste. When he played, the opposing PF or C (depending on where Kurt played) had a PER of about 17/18. That’s a bit above average, and to give you an example, Kurt’s PER was somewhere around 14.

So here I am at a crossroads. Thomas was a favorite of mine since coming to the Knicks after his leg injuries, and he was a long shot to stay as the starter for this long. But now, his value to the team is questionable. He just doesn’t seem to fit their team mold anymore. Thomas worked well with Ewing and Camby along side him, since they provided the shot blocking and interior defense. If Isaiah can use Thomas to upgrade the team (the rumor this week is Shareef Abdur-Rahim) I would be happy with the deal.

Karl Malone vs Kevin Garnett… Part 2

My column last Tuesday must have been a hit, because I received a stream of emails larger than any other column before. Yes I beat my personal record of 1 email, and received 2 whole emails on the topic. Technically this will be the third posting in this series, since the one last Tuesday was an email response to my column on May 20th.

…my only point was that since both were all-D 1st team they are by definition comparable (of equal value, etc – the very best for a specific season). often we get people posting to the APBR groups who are young and have seen the players of today but not those of yesteryear (not that malone was great all that long ago). not knowing who you were/are, i had to wonder if you saw malone play. my point was that anyone who had seen karl malone play alot during that time would have come away thinking he was a helluva defender…

my personal belief is that he was a great defender for a long time but himself did not get the recognition from the sports media and public as one of the best because a) he was also a great offensive player, and often people think the two do not go hand in hand, and b) he played in utah, not the mecca of pro hoops, and the jazz were not center stage until 96-97 and 97-98, having lost in the finals both times to the bulls….

bob chaikin

I have to agree with Bob in that I haven’t seen Malone play alot. Being a Knicks fan, and living on the East coast didn’t give me many opportunities to see Malone’s defensive abilities. Maybe I’ve saw him play once or twice a year. Bob is right in a way, that since Utah is a West coast team without appearing in the Finals until late in his career I can’t judge Malone’s defensive game. When Malone did appear on the main stage (for us right coasters), he was a bit older & played against an offensively challenged player in Dennis Rodman. By that time in his career, Rodman’s sole abilities were rebounding & defense. Defending against an offensively challenged player is hardly a way to show your defensive skills.

Bob claims that Malone doesn’t get the respect he deserves because of his offensive skills. So is being a good offensive player is a detriment to winning defensive acclaim? Here are the All-NBA Teams for two recent years.

2002-03
FIRST TEAM

Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
Ben Wallace, Detroit
Doug Christie, Sacramento
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

SECOND TEAM
Ron Artest, Indiana
Bruce Bowen, San Antonio
Shaquille O’Neal, L.A. Lakers
Jason Kidd, New Jersey
Eric Snow, Philadelphia

2001-02
FIRST TEAM

Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
Ben Wallace, Detroit
Gary Payton, Seattle
Jason Kidd, New Jersey

SECOND TEAM
Bruce Bowen, San Antonio
Clifford Robinson, Detroit
Dikembe Mutombo, Philadelphia
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
Doug Christie, Sacamento

The awardees seem to be primarily in one of two groups: either great offensive players (Duncan, Garnett, Kobe, Shaq, etc.) or horrible offensive players (Wallace, Mutombo, Bowen, etc.). There is a third group with offensively mediocre players (Artest, Christie), but I don’t see how being a great offensive player hurts your chances of getting acclaim for your defensive play.

Bob wasn’t the only one to have an opinion on the Garnett vs Malone defensive matchup:

…I think Garnett’s defensive ability is something that might be deserving of a whole column/blog entry. He’s got all the All-Defense nods, but there are also those that think his rep vastly overstates his actual ability (Kobe Bryant falls into this category to an even larger degree).

I recall a few years ago, the Sonics coaching staff said at a season ticket-holder Q&A that Garnett could be beaten if you went at him — in other words, he’s an excellent team defender, but not as good one-on-one. Dean Oliver said something similar when I asked him about Garnett recently (we were watching Game 7 of Kings-Wolves).

His opponent performance by postition (http://www.82games.com/03MIN12C.HTM) is pretty good, but not in the stratosphere of Tim Duncan (http://www.82games.com/03SAS15C.HTM). Does his team defense make up for that?

Kevin Pelton

I’m sorry to say I can’t answer any of those questions. Right now I think it’s safe to say that nobody can give a definitive answer as to how good a player’s man-to-man defense or help defense is. I think in time we might be able to extrapolate +/- data in such a way that we can verify how good each player’s defense is. Maybe there will be a more advanced way in the future to figure these things out.

One question that we can start debating about is whether being able to play good defense against your man (man-to-man) is greater or less than being able to play good help defense (team defense). I would imagine doing the former wouldn’t show up anywhere on the box scores other than maybe a drop at the opposing player’s points scored (or eFG%, TO/48, etc.) at the same position. For example if Garnett is a good man to man defender, it’s possible that all the PF who’ve played against him will score less than their yearly average. Of course there are many ways this data could be corrupted as well. [For example a team may have a great shot blocker or play a slow tempo game (with few possessions).]

Without evidence to the contrary, I would say that being a good team defender is more important than being a good man to man guy. Being able to stop your opponent is a good thing, but let’s say you’re a SG, and your opposing team’s best scorers are the SF & C. You aren’t able to help your teammates as much. But if you’re a good help defender, you should be able to help your team whoever their scorer is, whether you’re Garnett helping out with a block, or Jason Kidd doubling down to getting a quick steal.