Step 1. Conclusion – Step 2: Look At The Facts

Bad writing is when an author writes an article with a biased conclusion before looking at any of the facts. The worst misuse of statistics is cherry picking ones that support your point, while ignoring any facts that reject your hypothesis.

Enter ESPN.com columnist Frank Hughes, and his article “These moves aren’t so smooth.” Now I’m not such a Knick fan that I would let my fandom get in the way of an objective and intelligent argument. However luckily for me, Hughes’ article was neither of these. Hughes sets the tone with the first line:

“With all due respect to my esteemed colleague and compadre Chad Ford: What the heck is Isiah thinking?”

The first time I read this I said to myself “Great!” I like to hear opposing opinions. Sometimes it’s good to have a devil’s advocate, because it keeps you in check. If you can’t defend your ideas and theories, then maybe they aren’t as valid as you think. Even better, sometimes you’ll learn something that’s contrary to your current beliefs, and change the way you think. Unfortunately the article had little chance of swaying any rational person. Read on:

“If, in fact, Isiah signs Erick Dampier to go with a sign-and-trade deal for Jamal Crawford that essentially eliminates any future flexibility he may have had, well, in my mind that is figuratively putting the cement shoes — why has Nike not made a pair of those yet? — on the Knicks and throwing them in the East River on a frigid January day.”

Organized crime references to describe a New York sports team? Nothing says bad writing like a tired, drawn out metaphor. Memo to Mr. Hughes: the Knicks have been in salary cap hell for years now. Even without Crawford & Dampier’s contracts, they will be over the cap until at least the summer of 2007. This is his only valid point in the entire article. Being over the cap gives you less flexibility than being under the cap. However being over the cap & being willing to take on more contracts doesn’t make you inflexible. Consider this: if the Knicks are so inflexible, then how come they only have 3 players remaining from the pre-Isiah era? And Zeke hasn’t been with the team for a whole year yet! That sounds pretty darn flexible to me.

Looking at the Knicks roster, they still have some valuable trading chips. Sweetney is valuable for his contract as much as his promising ability. I’d imagine a few teams are interested in Kurt Thomas and Nazr Mohammed. If the Knicks don’t trade them this year, next summer they have a ton of expiring contracts to deal in Penny Hardaway ($15.8M), Tim Thomas ($14M), Nazr Mohammed ($5.5M), and Moochie Norris ($4.2M with a team option – an option that no sane team would be dumb enough to activate). That’s almost an entire salary cap in expiring contracts, enough to make any money strapped GM start drooling. The year after, they have about $35M in expiring contracts in Allan Houston, Shandon Anderson, & Jerome Williams (team option).

So what is Hughes “proof” of Isiah’s poorly thought out plan:

“Yes, I agree, some of the Knicks’ pieces certainly look good, to go with Stephon Marbury and Allan Houston. But now more than ever I am a big believer in chemistry, and when you really get right down to it, the collection of players Isiah has assembled has really accomplished very little in their respective careers, and they have had plenty of time to do it.”

Did you catch that? Chemistry = career accomplishments. What type of chemistry I’m not exactly sure about. Is it locker room chemistry? On the court chemistry? Molecular chemistry? He just doesn’t specify the type. Of course what does he use to measure career accomplishments?

Number of playoff games played.

That’s right it’s the old ring argument (Player A is better than Player B, because he’s won more championships). This kind of thinking is just not well thought out, because winning a playoff game or championship is a team effort, not an individual one. Last year, the following players didn’t play in the playoffs: Vince Carter, Tracey McGrady, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Gilbert Arenas, LeBron James, Carlos Boozer, and Allen Iverson. I didn’t even bother to include any players from the West. Players that did have playoff experience were such superstars as: Dana Barros, Vin Baker, DerMarr Johnson, Shammond Williams, Daniel Santiago, and Wang ZhiZhi. I don’t know about you, but if I were making a team, I’d overlook playoff experience, and go with the first group.

Let’s see he continues with this line of thought, and if you think I’m paraphrasing to make my point, read the article & be the judge for yourself. (Bolding is not in the original article, but added by me.)

  1. “[Marbury]’s been in the league now for eight seasons. Ten. [Editor’s note: I don’t know why this sentence “Ten.” is there or what it means, but I left it in so you get the exact feel of the article.] You know how many playoff games he has been in in that span? Eighteen. And he’s never been out of the first round…
  2. Tim Thomas has been in the league nine years, playing a grand total of 33 playoff games
  3. Kurt Thomas, signed at sizable dollars through 2008-09, has 48 career playoff games in nine years with career postseason averages of 6.5 points and 5.8 rebounds
  4. “Since he left Orlando in 1999, Penny Hardaway has played in a grand total of 18 playoffs games. By comparison, his sophomore season in Orlando, he played in 21 postseason games…
  5. Nazr Mohammed … has played seven playoff games and has never advanced past the first round. He has career averages of 6.7 points and 5.3 rebounds…
  6. Allan Houston is the biggest conundrum because he clearly is talented. He also clearly is frustrating, going into long spells of quietude during a season and seemingly disappearing at important junctures…

What’s interesting is how he changes the facts he uses from one person to the next when the stats don’t support his point of view. To bash Tim Thomas & Marbury, he shows how few playoff games they’ve played. However, unfortunately for Frank, counting playoff appearances doesn’t necessarily work with his third choice: Kurt Thomas. Kurt’s seen enough playoff action with the Knicks, including going to the Finals in ’99. So he drags up Kurt’s poor playoff statistics. Of course he doesn’t mention that those numbers are heavily weighted when Kurt was a backup (only 22 minutes per game, not the 31+ we’ve been accustom to over the last 3 years.) In his playoff experiences as a starter, Kurt’s averaged 13.6PPG & 11.4REB, which is conveniently ignored. Also ignored are Marbury’s playoff numbers: 19.4PPG, 6.7AST, and 1.6STL.

For Penny Hardaway, not only does he eliminate his early playoff success with the Magic, but uses it against him. In essence splitting Penny’s career in two. What gives him the right to do that? Did Penny’s “chemistry” change after he left Orlando? BTW since Hughes doesn’t mention it, Penny’s career playoff numbers since he left Orlando – 19 games (not the 18 he falsely reported), 17.1PPG, 5.4AST, and 1.7 STL.

For each of the first five guys, he’s mentioned the number of playoff games they’ve played in over their career and when it suits him, their playoff statistics. But eventually he has to mention Allan Houston. H20 has played in 63 playoff games, averaging 40 minutes, 19.3 PPG, and a 48.7% eFG%. If Hughes wants to be an impartial and forthcoming writer he can mention these numbers, and say that Houston is the only player on the Knicks with playoff experience. Surely admitting that the Knicks have one playoff tested starter won’t blow his whole argument out of the water. So does Frank take the high road?

“Allan Houston is the biggest conundrum because he clearly is talented. He also clearly is frustrating, going into long spells of quietude during a season and seemingly disappearing at important junctures.”

I have to give Frank some credit, if you’re going to write bullshit, you might as well use big words like conundrum, quietude, and junctures.

I won’t even bother to go over the rest of the article. It’s more of the same – choose a player & pick only the numbers that make your claim look good. The flaws are obvious in this piece, beginning to end. If Hughes want to criticize Isiah’s moves, then there are many logical arguments that would make sense. This is a lesson to all aspiring writers out there. If you are having trouble writing an article because the facts don’t support your point, then maybe your initial hypothesis was wrong in the first place.

The Dawning Of A New Era

One day remains until teams can officially start signing free agents, and needless to say I’m a bit excited. Normally the draft is best time for a team to improve itself. Every year, there are usually a couple of good free agents that can improve a team, but not many. Sometimes a few good players get traded, normally due to contract restraints. Top players usually get locked up to long term contracts by their teams. For obvious reasons few are traded. It’s hard to trade in the NBA where it often feels like teams are enslaved by the salary cap. If you want to get a franchise player, your best chance is to have a top 3 pick & a lot of luck.

This year has been another story. Arguably the best 5 NBA players are (in my particular order): Shaq, Duncan, Garnett, McGrady, and Kobe. Two of these players are already slated to change teams, and a third (Kobe) is available as well.

It’s not the drinking water that is creating this GM’s Gone Wild effect. It’s just the culmination of two lucky events. The only way a team trades a top notch player is if the unhappy player is an upcoming free agent and demands a trade. The format circumstances that landed Houston T-Mac’s isn’t completely unheard of; it seems only yesterday that Phoenix traded for an unhappy Charles Barkley.

However the Lakers’ breakup seems more rare. NBA dynasties don’t get broken up with the players still at their high level of play. David Robinson retired from the Spurs and Duncan is still minding the paint in San Antonio. When the Bulls dynasty broke up, the main cog Jordan retired (twice). For the second dynasty, Pippen was traded, but was more pumpkin than carriage. Hakeem stayed with the Rockets until the age of 38, while Drexler retired in a Houston uniform.

Going back to an earlier generation, Isiah, Laimbeer, and Dumars all finished their careers with their championship team. So did Magic, Kareem, and Worthy. The same with the Celtics’ Bird, McHale, and Parish (OK Parish didn’t, but he was 40 when he left). Dr.J stayed in Philly as well. That gives us a good 25 years of NBA history where no dynasty has broken up like the current Laker one.

These three players changing teams alone will make for the most interesting offseason since the ABA/NBA merger. However throw in the crop of players available this year either because of free agency or trade (and a little controversy), and it seems we’re in for one of the best offseason rides.

Knicks Roster Analysis – Power Forwards

After some excellent insights from both Bob Chaikin and Dave, we’re on to the Knicks’ power forwards. If you haven’t read my point guard analysis, that’s probably worth reading before this post so that you understand what I’m doing here.

Kurt Thomas

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 33.8 13.9 9.1 1.1 .542 15.6 0.03 89.9 90.8 .502 5.9
02-03 31.8 14.0 7.9 2.0 .511 14.5 0.23 89.4 89.8 .484 4.5
03-04 31.9 11.1 8.3 1.9 .503 15.0 0.19 87.8 89.5 .457 3.0 $3.446 $5.885

Last Thursday, before the draft, I wrote that a deal of Thomas for Jerome James and the 12th pick would be good for both the Sonics and the Knicks. You’ll have to excuse me for that one; I was apparently delusional because of writing too much about the draft. Thomas’ game is showing some steady signs of decay, both in terms of traditional statistics and more advanced metrics. Last year, his offensive game cratered, as he was very inefficient without using many possessions. His rebounding has been consistent, but neither that nor his defense is good enough to keep him valuable unless he’s scoring better than he did last year.

The real reason a Thomas trade wouldn’t have been good for the Sonics (or most anyone else) is the extension he signed during last season. Thomas is now signed up for three years after this one, presumably with standard 10%-12.5% raises. That means by 2007-08, Thomas will be pulling in $8.09 million. He’ll also be 35 then, and, given the current trend, it’s tough to see Thomas being a particularly valuable player. The raises in contracts can often make them a lot worse than they look. You look at the salary numbers I report above, and Thomas looks overpaid, but not drastically so. The problem is that his salary and production will likely be headed in different directions in the years to come.

There was a school of thought that Thomas’ numbers would improve with him returned to power forward instead of playing out of position at center, as he did almost exclusively during 2002-03. That was pretty clearly not the case on offense, which is backed up by 82games.com’s by-position data. Thomas defended power forwards better — especially when you take into account that power forwards in general have higher PERs than centers — but I doubt the difference is big enough to overcome the greater positional scarcity in the middle. Thomas is simply more valuable as a center.

What can Thomas do to get back on track? The biggest thing would be getting to the line more. Thomas is a good foul shooter for a big man, hitting 83.5% last year, but he doesn’t get to show off the skill very often. When Thomas was at his most efficient, 2001-02, his FTM/FGA ratio was 0.23; the last two years, it’s dipped to 0.13.

From a Knicks perspective, I think Thomas would be best utilized as a combo four/five, coming off the bench behind the starters at both positions. He’s productive enough to keep around, but if the Knicks get an offer that doesn’t return them an equally bad contract (read: Jerry Stackhouse), they have to seriously consider it, especially if they can use him in a multi-player deal to upgrade either small forward or center.

Mike Sweetney

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
03-04 11.8 4.3 3.7 0.3 .544 18.3 0.02 88.1 89.3 .563 1.7 $3.266 $1.979

It was about a year ago that I fell in love with Sweetney. He had the best college stats of any player in the 2003 Draft, and in my newfound infatuation with these numbers, I was desperately hoping he’d be left on the board when my Seattle SuperSonics picked 12th. Unfortunately, even a blind squirrel finds acorns now and again, and Scott Layden scooped Sweetney up three picks ahead of the Sonics. It might just have been the best move of Layden’s time in New York.

Sweetney spent the first half of the season buried, but finally found some playing time after Lenny Wilkens took over the New York helm and acquitted himself quite nicely. That 54.4% true shooting percentage is outstanding for a rookie, and Sweetney was a fabulous rebounder, pulling down nearly one in every five available rebounds. He was also one of the few Knicks not to embarrass themselves during the playoffs.

One of my few concerns about Sweetney was whether he could translate his ability to get to the free-throw line to the NBA, but that wasn’t really a problem. Entering this season, he has breakout written all over him (not literally; that would be strange).

Want some incredibly exciting news, Knicks fans? Here are Sweetney’s best age-21 comparables. Number one? Zach Randolph. Number two? Carlos Boozer. If I’m running the Knicks, I do whatever I can to ensure that Sweetney is playing at least 30 minutes per game next season, and let the results speak for themselves. Most Improved Player isn’t a bad guess, and I’ll pick Sweetney so long as a path is cleared for him to start.

Vin Baker

 Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 31.1 14.1 6.4 1.3 .517 12.1 0.05 89.2 91.8 .436 1.3
02-03 18.1 5.2 3.8 0.6 .531 11.9 0.02 87.6 90.8 .413 0.3
03-04 24.3 9.8 5.2 1.2 .530 12.2 0.11 88.9 90.1 .472 2.0 $3.131 UFA

Before I say anything about Baker, I want to emphasize that I am as far from possible as objective about Baker. He is one of my least favorite players in NBA history because of his time in Seattle, and as much as I may try to divorce myself from that, it still factors into my thinking.

To demonstrate that, I’ll start by saying I find it a validation of my WARP ratings that they reflect Baker’s uselessness prior to last year more accurately than do my linear-weights ratings. The 2003-04 rating reflects an interesting mix of Baker’s numbers in Boston and in New York. With the Celtics, he was rated at a .494 winning percentage and 2.0 WARP; in New York, those dipped to .393 and 0.0.

A lot of credit for Baker’s great start to the season went to his new svelte physique. Well, amazing as Baker’s transformation was — he looked different facially, he was so skinny — I don’t think it was the real reason he was improved. Baker’s fitness was never really an issue in Seattle after the lockout season; every year we heard how he was in better shape and was going to turn it around, but he never dead. I think, instead, that the noticeable uptick in play stems from the fact that Baker was, presumably, sober. By the time he got to New York, one has to imagine (hope?) he was still sober, but he also hadn’t played for some time and didn’t have a training camp to work his way back into the swing of things.

After his short stint with the Knicks, Baker is a free agent again. There is clearly interest out there in him; big guys are in such short supply, especially in the Eastern Conference, that somebody will give him a chance. I can’t see investing too much money in him, because of the history with alcohol. Even if it weren’t for that, Baker will turn 33 in November, and age alone will take its toll. Thomas seems interested enough by Baker that a return is a possibility, but I don’t see the Knicks gaining much by that.

Othella Harrington

 Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 20.3 7.7 4.5 0.5 .567 12.9 0.01 89.7 92.0 .437 1.2
02-03 25.0 7.7 6.4 0.8 .563 15.1 0.04 88.8 92.0 .440 1.6
03-04 15.6 4.6 3.2 0.5 .546 11.7 0.02 87.0 91.3 .357 -0.8 $1.156 $3.150

Before last Thursday’s Draft, some friends and I were trying to make sense of Al Jefferson’s ridiculous high school stats, including better than 42 points per game (besides the fact that high school stats are only one step above meaningless because of the inconsistent level of competition), and one mentioned that Harrington averaged similar stats in the same league. Well, apparently that’s not quite true — he only averaged something like 29 points and 25 rebounds per game — but I had not realized that Harrington was an incredible prospect who was MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game in 1992. Maybe because I was 10 then. I also didn’t know he averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman and won Big East Rookie of the Year before his numbers trailed off, presumably because of Allen Iverson’s arrival on the scene after his sophomore season.

In the NBA, Harrington has found his niche as a high-efficiency, medium to low volume scorer who doesn’t offer a ton on defense and the boards. Harrington’s true shooting percentages are great, but they overrate him, because he’s assisted on a high percentage of his baskets (66% last season) and rarely picks up assists of his own. Harrington wasn’t as efficient last season and also posted the worst rebounding season of his career in terms of rebounds per minute. As a result, he went from an acceptable rotation player to a guy who didn’t deserve to see major minutes.

Harrington’s contract is one of the few on the Knicks that isn’t a problem; he’s signed for just one more year at slightly more than $3.15 million, which is more than he’d pull on the open market but not horrible. He might be included in some sort of deal, but otherwise he’ll play some spot minutes off the bench up front.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com. Check back Thursday for his analysis of the Knicks’ centers.

Knicks Roster Analysis – Shooting Guards

I’m disappointed I have to bump down David’s excellent piece to post this. If you haven’t already read Part Two of his off-season preview, I suggest you scroll down and do so now. If you haven’t read my point guard analysis, that’s probably also worth reading before this post so that you understand what I’m doing here.

I’d like to take a second to discuss one thing David mentioned:

“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.”

Is this more common than you might think? I think so. Gary Payton never admitted as much, but watching him go from The Glove to a defensive liability, I think conserving his energy to play 40 minutes a game was a big part of the explanation. Frankly, it’s not a bad trade-off. Guys like Marbury and Payton are so far above the level of their backups (this was especially true in Seattle from 1999-2001) that the extra productivity just isn’t worth taking them off the court (or hurting their offense). Dean Oliver, as I understand it, actually tends to think teams ought to slack off more than they do. But that’s neither here nor there.

Allan Houston

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 37.8 20.4 3.3 2.5 .540 5.0 0.24 92.2 91.3 .498 5.9
02-03 37.9 22.5 2.8 2.7 .563 4.4 0.31 93.5 90.9 .546 9.5
03-04 36.0 18.5 2.4 2.0 .539 3.9 0.15 90.8 90.1 .484 3.1 $3.843 $17.53

Hollinger is fond of saying that Houston and former teammate Latrell Sprewell are the NBA’s most overrated players, but I’m not buying it. Overpaid yes, overrated no. Maybe Hollinger hasn’t spent as much time in his life reading message boards as I have, but there’s plenty of invective to go around for Houston, as if he was supposed to say “no, thanks” to Scott Layden’s offer. This is not a case where a player got a big contract and stopped working; other than last year’s injury, Houston is who he’s always been — I generally rate 2002-03 as the best season of his career — and that’s simply not all that good.

Houston has been a very good offensive player for a long time, and even last year, when he was way down, presumably due to chondromalacia in his left knee, he still rated well above average on the offensive end of the court. Still, you have to be a better offensive player than Houston to be particularly valuable without contributing much on defense or on the glass. Houston’s defensive statistics are actually pretty decent, but his reputation is as a sieve, and his knee problems surely won’t help that.

I have some experience with chondromalacia, having watched Sue Bird fight it for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm all of last season, and it bothered her tremendously. After having surgery, she has been a completely different player this season. Houston has supposedly ruled against surgery, but even a summer’s worth of rest should do wonders for him.

I’ve got to say, I was very impressed by Houston’s reaction to being exposed by the Knicks in yesterday’s Expansion Draft (needless to say, neither he nor any other Knicks were taken).

“I thought Isiah handled it in a classy way,” Houston’s agent, Bill Strickland, told the Post. “We were made aware of it and what his thinking is. Allan was fine and understanding why. He called ahead of time, explained the situation, showed a great deal of respect to Allan, who had a chance to chat with him directly.”

Contrast that with the Celtics’ Chucky Atkins, who has earned absolutely no right to complain about being exposed yet still said, “If they aren?t going to protect me, then I don?t want to be there,” he said. “If you?re going to leave me unprotected, that?s a slap in the face to me.” *Pause for laughter*

Anfernee Hardaway

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 30.8 12.0 4.4 4.1 .472 8.0 1.48 89.0 89.8 .489 4.6
02-03 30.7 10.6 4.4 4.1 .499 8.2 1.41 88.7 89.8 .487 3.2
03-04 27.6 9.2 3.8 2.3 .472 7.9 0.58 87.6 89.4 .456 2.5 $3.179 $14.63

Has any team in NBA history ever spent $30 million on a position before? That’s a rhetorical question, but I imagine the team to come closest was the 2000-01 Portland Trail Blazers with Shawn Kemp and Rasheed Wallace at power forward. Neither they nor the Knicks at the two got very good return on their investment.

It’s somewhat sad to think about what might have been with Hardaway’s career had he not suffered so many knee injuries. He was a superstar at 23 on a team that went to the NBA Finals, then Shaquille O’Neal left and it’s been one long comedown ever since for Hardaway.

As recently as the last couple of years, Hardaway still had some value, and he had a pretty good run as the Suns’ starter at the two when they went to the playoffs a season ago. By last year, he wasn’t even at that level anymore. Hardaway has contracted a bit of Ron Mercer disease — shooting a bunch of non-three jumpers. I did a quick calculation and found the percentage of shooting possessions (FGA + .44*FTA) players used on two-point shots. Obviously, big men typically use more; amongst shooting guards, Hardaway ranked seventh at 81%. It shouldn’t be a surprise that most of those guys aren’t very efficient (though Marquis Daniels and Rip Hamilton did manage to buck the trend).

Hardaway’s been a fine ballhandler since moving off the point, but for some reason his assist numbers tanked last season. That’s the biggest reason his offensive rating (and, thus, winning percentage) went down. Hardaway will probably rebound a little next season, but on the other hand, he’ll be 33 this summer, and that’s not exactly an age where guys improve much.

It makes me feel old to think that Hardaway probably only has a few more NBA seasons left in him. It still seems like yesterday he and Shaq were making Blue Chips and the Magic was playing Hardaway at the two to let him learn the ropes with Scott Skiles still at the point. And now Skiles is on his second coaching job. Time flies, doesn’t it?

I mentioned earlier the possibility of a buyout with Hardaway; now, to explain why it isn’t going to happen. The Knicks will hang on to Hardaway in the hopes that his ending contract can be dealt for something in 2005-06. Really, that’s not a bad idea; Hardaway is still above replacement level. It would be nice to see Williams get his minutes, however.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com. Check back Friday for his analysis of the Knicks’ small forwards.

Knicks Roster Analysis – Point Guards

Hi, I’m Kevin Pelton. At the risk of going all Lionel Hutz on you, you may remember me from such columns as “Page 23” at Hoopsworld.com and such contests as KnickerBlogger’s 2004 Bloggers Bracket. Over the last couple of months, his KBness and I have shared some e-mails and AIM conversations, and I was flattered when he asked me to do a little guest blogging during his vacation. After giving him some crap about vacationing on the best day of the NBA year, I gladly agreed and offered to give an outsider’s take on the Knicks. I’m basically thinking of this as my chance to do one chapter’s worth of a Pro Basketball Prospectus-style annual.

As KB said in introducing the guest bloggers, I’m a Sonics fan, but I’ve followed the Knicks more closely than the average NBA team the last couple of years. I guess it’s the contrarian in me that makes me feel a certain kinship with a group of guys roundly criticized as underpaid. I championed the Knicks as a playoff team in my preview this year, repeatedly insisting they were better than the Celtics. Lo and behold, I nailed the C’s record and was one game off on the Knicks. Just forget the fact that both teams remade their rosters during the season.

Before we start examining the players in detail, some technical notes about the statistics I’ll be using in the statistical summary:
TS% – true shooting percentage, the best measure of offensive efficiency (PTS/(2*FGA + .88*FTA))
Reb% – percentage of estimated available rebounds grabbed
Pass – 50 * ((AST/MIN)^2)*(AST/TO)

The other measures are all derived from my possession-based rating system, which creates an imaginary team composed of four average players and the player in question. Off and Def are this team’s offense and defense ratings, Win% its winning percentage, and WARP the wins the player is worth over a replacement-level player.

Value is derived from a slightly adjusted WARP formula and uses the Marginal $/Marginal Win concept I’ve adapted to basketball from the late Doug Pappas. I only have this for last season. Salary is the player’s 2004-05 salary (from Hoopshype.com).

Without further ado. ?

Stephon Marbury

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 38.9 20.4 3.2 8.1 .519 4.7 5.12 93.1 91.1 .547 9.7
02-03 40.0 22.3 3.2 8.1 .520 4.6 5.06 93.4 89.9 .592 13.0
03-04 40.2 20.2 3.2 8.9 .519 4.6 7.05 93.0 89.2 .601 13.6 $11.48 $14.63

I spent the summer of 2002 “covering” the Suns for News@Hoopsworld, and the process made me a Marbury fan. That summer, Marbury was feeling the full wrath of the comparison between him and the player he was traded for, Jason Kidd. Marbury was fairly blamed for a foolish DUI, but the blame for the teams’ performance was unjustified, as it usually is. Kidd is a better player, but he’s also been the best point guard in the NBA over the last three years. It wasn’t Marbury’s decision to effectively trade Clifford Robinson for Bo Outlaw, just as Kidd didn’t draft Richard Jefferson or magically heal Kerry Kittles.

Statistically, Marbury is one of the league’s most devastating offensive forces. It’s my belief that players who are good at more than one thing don’t get as much credit for those skills as do one-dimensional players, and Marbury might be exhibit A in that argument. Last year, Marbury posted an identical assist/turnover ratio to Kidd’s and handed out only slightly less assists per minute, but anyone suggesting that they were in the same league in terms of passing would be laughed off the ‘net.

With the Knicks, Marbury drifted slightly more to the true point guard side of things, sacrificing a point per game for an assist per game, a trade-off I imagine Lenny Wilkens was happy to see him make. It’s not inconceivable that Marbury could lead the NBA in assists next season.

The concern is that Marbury gives it all back at the defensive end of the court. Hey, look, here’s a quote that says just that!

“Marbury’s one of the top 10 players on offense,” Wayne Winston, half the brains behind WINVAL, told the Washington Times. “Everybody thinks this guy is a great player. But when he’s on defense, he gives it all back.”

Indeed, per 82games.com, the Knicks were 6.7 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Marbury in the game, 5.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense.

But is that right? Plus-minus numbers, particularly the adjusted kind WINVAL uses, are valuable, but they’re not the complete story on defense. John Hollinger reported in last year’s Prospectus that the Suns ranked fourth in defending starting point guards, and 82games.com also reports that Marbury held opposing point guards in check.

Marbury’s other big weakness is that sometimes he tries to do too much. The playoffs were the quintessential example of that; the image of Marbury forcing it time and time again in desperation against the Nets will be hard to forget (and not just because I picked the Knicks to pull the upset). Marbury put up 23 shots a game over the last three games of that series. He’s been at his best when paired with a strong power forward along the lines of Kevin Garnett and Amar? Stoudemire — and the Knicks might just have someone like that on their roster.

I think the defense requires a slight downgrade to the numbers I get for Marbury, but he’s still certainly amongst the top five point guards in the NBA and likely amongst its top 20 players. At $14 million-plus next year and for many years to come, he’s somewhat overpaid, but he gives the Knicks a star player they haven’t had since Patrick Ewing, and the price paid for him in the trade with Phoenix was worth it.

Moochie Norris

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 27.4 8.1 3.0 4.9 .471 6.3 4.14 89.7 91.1 .463 2.9
02-03 16.8 4.4 1.9 2.4 .470 6.7 2.32 88.4 89.7 .468 2.0
03-04 12.8 3.5 1.0 1.8 .471 4.5 1.93 87.7 88.4 .454 0.9 $2.528 $3.850

Since I’m only going back three years, Norris’ last good year doesn’t show up. The last three years, Norris has barely been adequate for a backup point guard, and last year he was even worse than that after seeing his passing and rebounding numbers tank. If there’s good news, it’s that Norris did pick up his performance after joining the Knicks in a trade for Clarence Weatherspoon, pushing his field-goal percentage from a dreadful 31.0% to 40.8%.

Most point guards come out better offensively than defensively by my system, which makes sense. With scoring and passing, most of their contributions come on the offensive end of the court. But Norris hasn’t been an efficient scorer in the last three years and has only been a good passer one of those years.

As a price for unloading Weatherspoon’s larger contract, Norris isn’t that bad, but the Knicks shouldn’t feel particularly compelled to play him, and if he’s still in the rotation next fall, that’s not a good sign.

Frank Williams

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
02-03 8.0 1.3 0.9 1.6 .393 6.3 4.15 86.1 90.3 .372 -0.1
03-04 12.8 3.9 0.9 2.2 .478 4.3 2.76 88.1 89.5 .432 0.5 $2.216 $0.957

Williams has just recently been discussed here, so I’m not sure entirely how much I have to add for the discussion. Unlike Dave, I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Williams in college. I recall thinking of him as an underachiever (I also abhorred Illinois teammate Brian Cook), and scoffing when people got excited about his summer-league play before his rookie seasons.

After a couple of NBA seasons, however, I have to agree with Dave that the Knicks need to keep Williams and give him more action. Offensively, Williams and Norris were similar players last season, and neither was very good. The first place there’s a difference between the two of them is that while Norris will be 31 this summer and is on the downside of his NBA career, while Williams turned 24 this season and has plenty of room to grow.

The second difference is defense. I hadn’t really investigated Williams’ defense very much before this, but there’s little question statistically that it’s fantastic. Williams’ on-court/off-court comparison is the reverse of Marbury’s – 5.7 points per 100 possessions better on defense (and also 1.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense). Williams’ individual defense also looks great; he limited opposing point guards and shooting guards both to a microscopic 10.1 PER.

Sadly, I’m going to copy Hollinger again by using my similarity scores to assess the future prospects of the Knicks’ youngsters. Williams’ closest age-24 comparable is Jeff McInnis, at the time playing limited minutes as a backup in Washington. It would take a couple of years, but McInnis eventually developed into an adequate starter. The next four names on the list — Morlon Wiley, Anthony Goldwire, Dan Dickau, and someone named Lowes Moore — aren’t as encouraging, but next after that is Scott Skiles and Sam Cassell also lurks in the top ten. So there’s some breakout potential there.

KnickerBlogger correctly points out that there won’t be a ton of minutes for Williams next season if Allan Houston is back, but what about the possibility of just cutting bait on Anfernee Hardaway? Hardaway isn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not a part of the Knicks’ future and Williams could be. I think Williams is plenty thick enough to play 20-25 minutes behind Marbury and Houston as a third guard in a three-guard rotation and that would really help the Knicks’ perimeter defense.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com. Check back Wednesday for his analysis of the Knicks’ shooting guards.

Playoff Odds 04/05/04

Curious at how the seeds to the playoffs might turn out, I got a little ambitious. It all started from something I learned a while back. That is you can calculate the probability of a team winning a game if you know: the home team’s record at home, the road’s team record away, and the league’s home win %. I used this little formula in a previous column to talk about the Knicks’ chances to win their 5 next games.

I decided to see how far I could take this. So I inserted all the home/road records of every team in the league into a spreadsheet. Then I put in the remaining schedule for the entire league. I determined probability of the winner of each game using this formula. Based on these odds & using Excel’s random number generator, I played out the rest of the season 1000 times.

The East:

Team	Ewins	EW%	Seed1	Seed2	Seed3	Seed4	Seed5	Seed6	Seed7	Seed8	Miss


IND 59.9 .730 1.00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
DET 54 .658 .00 .00 1.00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
NJN 48.5 .591 .00 1.00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
MIL 42 .512 .00 .00 .00 .77 .19 .04 .00 .00 .00
MIA 40.9 .499 .00 .00 .00 .17 .58 .23 .02 .00 .00
NOR 40.1 .489 .00 .00 .00 .05 .22 .62 .09 .01 .00
NYK 38.3 .467 .00 .00 .00 .00 .01 .09 .66 .24 .00
BOS 37.5 .457 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .02 .22 .70 .05
CLE 34.8 .424 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .01 .03 .96
PHI 34.1 .416 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .01 .99
TOR 32.2 .393 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
ATL 27.3 .333 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
WAS 25.6 .312 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
CHI 23.8 .290 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
ORL 20.3 .247 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
[Ewins = Expected # of wins, EW% = Expected winning percentage]In the East, the top 3 seeds are already set in stone. Indiana, New Jersey and Detroit will be the top 3. New Jersey clinches the #2 spot, due to winning the weak Atlantic. Milwaukee has a 77% chance of taking the 4th seed (a.k.a. the last home field spot for the first round), followed by Miami (17%), and New Orleans (5%). More good news for Bucks’ fans, they won’t likely have worse than a 5th seed (4%). Miami can fall as far as the 7th seed, but even that is a small (2%) chance.

Speaking of that 7th seed (we know Penny Hardaway isn’t anymore), the Knicks appear to be the favorites here, with a 66% probability of facing the Nets in the first round. After the events of this weekend, that should prove to be a most interesting matchup. Boston might win the 7th seed, and the Hornets have a 9% chance of falling that far as well. If either Cleveland (4%) or Philly (1%) makes the playoffs, it’ll be at the expense of the Celtics.

The West:

TEAM	Ewins	EW%	Seed1	Seed2	Seed3	Seed4	Seed5	Seed6	Seed7	Seed8	Miss


SAC 56.73 .692 .55 .02 .31 .10 .02 .00 .00 .00 .00
LAL 56.23 .686 .25 .18 .45 .10 .02 .00 .00 .00 .00
MIN 55.69 .679 .12 .41 .11 .36 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
SAS 55.53 .677 .07 .39 .13 .41 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00
MEM 52.55 .641 .00 .00 .00 .03 .77 .20 .00 .00 .00
DAL 51.41 .627 .00 .00 .00 .00 .20 .80 .00 .00 .00
HOU 44.77 .546 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .90 .07 .03
UTA 42.6 .520 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .03 .43 .54
POR 42.43 .517 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .04 .32 .64
DEN 42.09 .513 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .03 .18 .79
GSW 37.09 .452 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
SEA 36.93 .450 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
LAC 28.94 .353 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
PHO 27.83 .339 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 .00 1.00
The West isn’t as simple. Four teams are vying for the #1 seed. Just looking at the expected wins column, and there is little to separate them (barely more than one win). The Kings are the favorites, but at 55% are hardly locks for the top spot. If you add in the Lakers’ 25%, there is an 80% chance that the Pacific will have the top seed.

Minnesota (12%) and the Spurs (7%) can still land the top spot. However since there is an 80% chance that the Pacific gets the #1 seed, then that means there is the same probability that these two teams will have the #2 seed. The Timberwolves (41%) have a slight edge over the Spurs (39%) here. There is the tiniest chance (2%) that the Lakers or Kings will slip to the 5th spot, and in that scenario, the Grizzlies would grab the last home field spot (#4).

There are 6 teams that can avoid the lottery. Actually Dallas and Memphis have guaranteed them no worse than the 6th spot. The Rockets only have a 3% probability of missing the playoffs, and will likely get the 7th seed. That leaves Utah (46%), Portland (36%), and the Nuggets (21%) to fight for the final spot (although technically any of them can be as high as #7). It’d be nice to see the Nuggets win that 8th seed, and hopefully critics won’t blame only him for not being able to get out of the first round, like they do to Kevin Garnett.

Catch Me If I Fall

20,000 miles to an oasis
20,000 years will i burn
20,000 chances i wasted
Waiting for the moment to turn

— “Texarkana”
R.E.M.

I don’t think I can say anything about last night’s loss that won’t be said in any of the New York newspapers. I’ll keep it short and say they had plenty of chances to win, and the game should not have gone into overtime. Kenny Thomas hit a lucky three point shot to tie the game. If the fact that it banked in hard off the glass doesn’t convince you, then consider his three point stats.

Year	Team	G	Min 	3PM	3PA	3P%	PPG
 1999	HOU	72	25.0 	0.4	1.7	26.2	8.3
 2000	HOU	74	24.6 	0.3	1.2	27.2	7.1
 2001	HOU	72	34.5 	0	0.2	0	14.1
 2002	HOU	20	29.3 	0	0	0	9.8
 2002	PHI	46	30.3 	0	0	0	10.2
 2003	PHI	57	35.0 	0	0.1	0	12.3
 Career		341	29.5 	0.2	0.7	24.4	10.3

That’s right, he’s a career 24% shooter from beyond the arc, and hasn’t attempted more than 0.2/G in more than 4 years. Obviously someone figured out he wasn’t effective from that far & made him stop shooting treys a few years ago.

Watching the game (at least the first 47:59.6 minutes of it) I kept thinking about two things. I was alternately saying to myself “Wow they look pretty deep” and “Calm down, they look good because they are playing Philly without their two best players.”

The Knicks are a deeper team now than they were in the beginning of the year. Back in October, the only depth we had was PF (McDyess, Thomas, Harrington, Spoon, Lampe, Van Horn and Sweetney). You could argue that we had 3 PGs, but I think you’re giving Eisley too much credit. We’re certainly deeper at the bigger spots. Nazr Mohammed and Vin Baker are our centers, and don’t forget Dekembe Mutombo. Kurt Thomas also can play the 5, as had Sweetney versus albeit a very small Celtics lineup. At PF we have Thomas, Sweetney, and now little used Othella Harrington. Vin Baker can play there as well, as can Tim Thomas for small stretches.

Small forward is adequately covered with Thomas, Hardaway, and Anderson. Even if Marbury didn’t play the mega-minutes that he routinely does, we would be deep at PG with backups Frank Williams, Mochie Norris, and Penny Hardaway. With Allan Houston back, shooting guard is covered along with Anderson and DeMarr Johnson.

Isaiah Thomas has done a commendable job putting together a team, as opposed to the collection of players he inherited. The Knicks still have their weaknesses, but at least Lenny Wilkens has options on who to play instead of trying to figure out how he’s going to fit 7 power forwards in the game.