A Few Reasons 2006 Will Be Better for the Knicks

[Today’s article comes from David Crockett. Dr. Crockett is the lead researcher of optimism at KnickerBlogger.Net industries.]

As poorly as the Knicks have played in spots they really aren?t quite as bad as they look.

In all seriousness, this team should be a bit better than its current 8-21 record (as of January 4th) based on its Pythagorean formula, which projects wins and losses based the two most direct determinants of winning (i.e., how much you score and how much you give up). If I?ve calculated it correctly the Knicks should have between 13 or 14 wins rather than their current 8. [KB’s Note: There are different ways to calculate expected win% using points for/against. David has chosen: g*pf^2.37/(pf^2.37+pa^2.37), while the stat page uses (G*(PTS^14/(PTS^14 + oPTS^14)) which has the Knicks at 10 expected wins.] The difference between actual and projected wins is often referred to as ?luck,? or perhaps more precisely the difference is in little things less directly related to winning than scoring or defense. Often, whether those little things go in your favor can be pretty random. (A good example from football is recovering fumbled balls. Jumping on a lose football is pretty much a 50-50 proposition but it can have a huge impact on winning or losing a game. Over time it evens out but it at a given moment it can really hurt or really help.)

Of course ?coulda, shoulda, woulda? is the sad lullaby of losers. Still, it is hard to deny that in addition to a number of completely self-inflicted wounds the Knicks have also been genuinely unlucky in the early part of the season. They?ve played a ton of road games against a killer schedule.

What can the Knicks build on in the New Year?

The Schedule Gets Kinder. Through November and December the Knicks spent a lot of time on the road. In those two months the team had only four sets of consecutive home dates. One negative impact of playing so much on the road is lost practice time spent traveling. January will mark the first month where the Knicks will play the majority of their games at home. They will have four sets of consecutive home dates in January alone. Apart from the crowd noise, the home cooking, and all that jazz, Larry Brown will have the opportunity to practice and teach which should pay some dividends in the spring.

Of course the cynic in me responds that with all the time the fans at MSG spend booing them the road may not be so bad for the Knicks. Certainly, the Knicks will be dogs in most of their home dates going forward. Still, for a young team trying to find itself home is probably the best place to be.

The Four Factors (Offense). Any longtime reader of Knickerblogger.net knows that KB?s stat page allows the reader to sort teams by Dean Oliver?s four factors most closely associated with winning (i.e., shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throws). Offensively, in two of those areas (rebounding and getting to the free throw line) the Knicks are among the best in the league. Conversely, the Knicks are the highest turnover team in the NBA and in the bottom five in eFG%.

As I alluded to in September (see Question #2) the question of style/tempo would be an interesting one for Larry Brown. Fortunately, he has allowed the Knicks to play the seventh quickest pace in the league at 92.6 possessions per game (Phoenix is 1st at 95.6). Given the makeup of the roster I believe this is the right call. Unfortunately, at this point the Knicks aren?t any more efficient now (103.2) than they were last season (103). But, one could change the framing of that statement and argue that the current Knicks have managed to match the offensive output of last year?s version despite only intermittent production from an out-of-shape and hobbled Curry, an unstable rotation filled with rookie starters, and perhaps most importantly with a knack for getting to the free throw line. So going forward one reason to suspect that the offensive efficiency will improve is that Curry is getting closer to game shape. One reason to suspect that the Knicks will cut down on turnovers is that the rotation is beginning to stabilize. Also, adding David Lee to the starting lineup, even out of position at small forward, brings better ball handling and passing to the frontcourt than Quentin Richardson or Trevor Ariza.

The Four Factors (Defense). Interestingly, the Knicks are also good in two of the four areas on defense. First, the positive. This Knick team forces turnovers. At just over 17 per game the Knicks are 6th in forcing turnovers in the league. It?s easy to overlook this aspect of their game since they give all those back plus some. Also, they currently rank 12th in defensive rebounding (where only 1.1 offensive rebounds allowed per game separates them from #5 San Antonio). The Knicks do a very good job of limiting their opponent?s second shots. Now, the not so good. The Knicks are among the worst in the league at eFG defense, allowing over 50% eFG. Thus, not surprisingly the Knicks are among the most charitable teams in the league sending opponents to the FT line almost 29 times per 100 FGAs.

How can the Knicks improve on defense? Well, for starters they could stop turning the ball over on offense so doggone much. Cutting down on easy baskets won?t turn them into the 2004 Pistons but it could, even with no other improvements, move them out of the bottom quarter of bad eFG defense teams. A quick look at 82games.com appears to confirm this. The Knicks allow by far the largest percentage of opponent?s shots early in the clock (37% of opponent shots come at 0-10 seconds) and yield the highest eFG (55%) on those attempts. This is most likely the accumulated impact of turnovers and poor transition defense.

Let?s hope for all our sakes that the Knicks have resolved in the New Year to be smarter with the ball, to get back on D, and keep getting to the line. If so, 2006 may be a happy year indeed.

In Defense of Marbury: Usage Rate and the Ball-Hog

This article was written by KnickerBlogger reader Michael Zannettis, who originally sent this to me in a different form. I’ve taken the liberty to edit the work to make it more befitting this space. Any grammatical or spelling mistakes are therefore mine. Additionally I sat on this article for well over a week, so I’ve attempted to update the stats where applicable. At the time the Knicks were doing much worse on offense and much better on defense, so it may suffer from it’s late publication. While it may not be best presented after Marbury’s 35 point outburst against Detroit, I feel that the piece should be heard, and believe that it still stands on its own.

Again any issues that arise from these changes are the fault of the editor, so save Michael from the voodoo doll pins that many of you are currently using to punish yours truly.


It is with great concern for the current competitiveness and future viability of our beloved Knickerbocker franchise that I have become distressed with the treatment of the Knicks? best player, Stephon Marbury. I was certainly a supporter of one of the great coaches of all-time, Larry Brown, being hired to lead this franchise back to the NBA playoffs, but his initial returns on player development are frustrating.

Most obviously, Mr. Brown?s poor treatment of his only star performer, Stephon Marbury, has collapsed a once-decent New York offense. I will not forget that the defense has made a turn around from 27th to 16th without the addition of even one frontline defensive player. Due credit will be meted out in time, but even Mr. Brown?s championship Detroit Pistons had an average offense to complement their superior defense.

Let the numbers decide the offense?s stature. Last year’s team was an average offense, ranking 17th (105.9pts/100 poss). This year, the team’s production has plummeted to 24th (100.7pts/100 poss), a decrease of 5.2pts/100 poss. Last year, the entire scoring load of the Knicks’ offense fell to its guards, Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford, both of whom were the only Knicks to average 15 points or more per game.

In the more advanced metrics, Marbury fared well while Crawford looked worse. The former led the team with a .690 player win percentage and a 21.9 PER, while the latter was an inefficient, if volumous, scorer with poor defense, whose win share was a replacement-level .344 with an average 15.4 PER. It was Crawford’s low shooting percentage, often forcing ill-advised shots, which killed his contributions to the offense. He didn’t help his cause by being a spectator on the defensive end either.

Marbury was criticized for his high Usage Rate (24.7%) but considering the teammates he was expected to pass to, it’s a wonder that he didn’t shoot the ball even more often. The only other Knick regular with Offensive Efficiency ratings at the league average or better were Jerome Williams and Mike Sweetney. Williams was a rebounding specialist whose 13.2% Usage Rate belied the fact that the only time he scored was off a tip-in or offensive rebound. Meanwhile the underrated and underutilized Mike Sweetney was a low-post scorer with a prodigious free throw rate, who neither was a pick & roll partner nor a particularly explosive finisher around the basket that would complement Mr. Marbury?s talents.

No other teammate, besides the underused Sweetney, approached offensive competence.

If the criticism of Marbury was that Sweetney should have received more touches in the low block, then I would certainly be in agreement. This was not the case. Rather, it was the Knicks’ coaching staff themselves who limited Big Mike’s production by playing him only 19.6 minutes per game, and all that behind inferior talent.

Sweetney even played less when Malik Rose joined the team through a mid-season trade with San Antonio. Rose was clearly finished as an offensive player, and shared Sweetney’s biggest weakness: being short. If Mike Sweetney was losing playing time for being an undersized 6?8? power forward with limited open court athleticism, then what exactly was Malik Rose, an undersized 6?7? power forward who could no longer hit a jump shot doing playing over 20 minutes a game?

Who then was Marbury expected to share the ball with? Because of his incompetent teammates, on any given possession the best option for the Knicks was Stephon taking the shot.

Examining the Usage Rate comparables of the 2004-05 season makes the ball-hog criticism even more inane. Marbury ranked 30th in the league in Usage Rate. For those of us keeping score at home, there are only 32 teams in the league, and since Usage Rate cannot exceed 100% by a team, the more one player’s ratio increases the more another’s must decrease (although if they are playing as substitutes one might not affect another’s directly). An obvious example would be Chris Webber?s high usage rate falling precipitously when he was traded to the Philadelphia 76er?s midseason. Allen Iverson led the league in Usage Rate, and promptly cut Webber?s dramatically, before it stabilized to a 17% decrease from his Sacramento rate.

As Dean Oliver explains in Basketball on Paper, a high usage scorer could be an asset to a team even if he is below average efficiency, because it permits his teammates to take fewer but higher quality shots. This improves the team?s overall efficiency. Ideally, of course, a team would like several high usage/high efficiency scorers. The Chicago Bull dynasty had this with the ultimate example of Michael Jordan and his Top-50 Player of all Time teammate Scottie Pippen. By the time they were done using the ball, the remainder of their teammates had only to use a small high quality percentage, which improved the team?s overall efficiency even more.

Compared to Stephon Marbury?s much maligned 24.7% Usage Rate, Scottie Pippen’s usage during the Bulls? championship seasons is comparable: 1990-91, 23.2%; ?92, 25.8%; ?93, 25.4%; ?96, 24.4%; ?97, 24.1%; ?98, 21.4%. And what about the one year Pippen had to lead the Bulls completely without Jordan? His Usage Rate in ?94 was 27.4%. Obviously, he should have passed the ball more. What a hog!

This additive function of Usage Rates would make it extremely difficult for any two teammates to be near the league leaders in Usage Rate, unless it was a classic pairing like Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles during their championship run, or the aforementioned Jordan-Pippen combination. For the 2004 season, there were only four teams that had a pair of teammates who played with each other all season and both had a higher usage rate than Marbury’s 24.57%, 30th: Indiana Pacers (Jermaine O’Neal 32.32%, 3rd; Jamaal Tinsley 26.12%, 17th; Stephen Jackson, 25.03%, 29th); Miami Heat (Dwyane Wade, 29.03%, 5th; Shaquille O’Neal, 27.45%, 10th); Washington Wizards (Gilbert Arenas, 25.95%, 18th; Larry Hughes, 25.30%, 24th); Minnesota Timberwolves (Kevin Garnett, 25.88%, 19th; Sam Cassell, 25.86%, 20th). In other words, as the best player on the Knicks’ team Marbury only used the ball as much as the 24th most heavily used first-rate player. Including the 76ers and Warriors by projecting full season stats and therefore including Iverson/Webber and Davis/Richardson, only moves Stephon up to 22nd, still a below average rate for a team?s best player.

If Marbury’s reputation labels him a ball-hog, the statistical evidence does not support the hypothesis. Instead, he resembles a talented offensive player who creates his own shots and creates high quality efficiency. Teams need more of this, not less. Considering the Knicks general incompetence at the offensive end, it was a wonder that Stephon Marbury is not asked to increase his Usage Rate.

Nominee: Worst NBA Article of 2005

(Thanks to TrueHoop for the link. While Henry & I might disagree on Stephon Marbury’s worth, his site is easily one of the best places on the web to keep up with everything going on in the NBA.)

In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t really written much this summer. It’s not that I needed some rest from a long NBA season. Nor is there something going on with my life that requires I take an extended break from one of my favorite pastimes. It’s just that there’s really nothing to write about. OK so maybe there are a few things going on in the league, but I have no interest in speculating where Shareef Abdur-Rahim lands or what Michael Jordan’s friends do on a golf course. While I’m not a professional writer, I take pride with what goes on my site, and try to put up the best material with the limited time my free time affords.

On the other hand, not being a paid writer may have its advantages. For example, I don’t have a boss (editor, manager, CEO or whatever) suggesting that I write about a certain topic. Nor am I obligated to write when the creative juices aren’t flowing in order to feed my family (which is a tad bit smaller than the Sprewell clan). I can only imagine that one of those two scenarios is what led Charley Rosen to write this piece on the most overrated players in history, instead of it being of his own volition.

Rosen starts his piece of with: “The numbers are misleading, and so is the hype. The truth is that too many ‘good’ players are wrongly celebrated as being all-time greats. To set the record straight, here’s an alphabetical list of the most overrated NBA players ever.” The only thing that would make me cringe more than that first sentence, would be to hear that they’re turning Diff’rent Strokes into a movie. It’s not as much that Rosen brushes away any statistical analysis, but rather that he puts it on the same level as “hype”. Real statistical analysis starts by asking a question and using the information available to answer it. Hype is emotional excitement that occurs after the fact, and is the antithesis of numerical analysis. Even the terms “overrated” and “underrated” lack any kind of validity. Whether someone is overrated or underrated relies heavily on the individual’s opinion. For example, if you thought that Shaq was going to be twice as good as Wilt Chamberlain, then he was overrated. Ironically, the same player can be underrated by some and overrated by others (Steve Nash comes to mind).

Some of the players that made Rosen’s list of most overrated of all time are Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing. Throw in Bird & Laettner, and you have the entire front court of the original Dream Team. Charles Barkley, who starts off the list, is called a “a chronic underachiever” by Rosen. Yes, the same Barkley who, despite being at least an inch shorter than his listed 6’6 and gave up nearly half a foot to his competition, made the All Star Team 11 times at power forward. Meanwhile, according to Charley, Karl Malone will only make the Hall of Fame because of two reasons “John Stockton and longevity.” Going by that logic, had the Jazz taken Terry Catledge with the 13th pick instead, maybe he would have been a two time MVP and the #2 man on the all time points scored list.

Of David Robinson, Rosen says “This guy was a cream puff. He could come from the weak-side to block shots, but he couldn’t guard his own man. He could rebound, but rarely in a crowd. He could score, but only on foul-line jumpers, or only if a defender bought a head fake after he drove his left hand into the middle. He couldn’t pass or handle. He couldn’t stand his ground in the paint.” The “cream puff” was All-Defensive 8 times, and ranks 6th all time in blocked shots. Since Robinson’s rookie year, only 12 other players have had more rebounds per minute. He won the Defensive Player of the Year, led the league in free throws 3 straight years, and won an MVP, all before Tim Duncan arrived.

However it’s Rosen’s inclusion of Ewing that really got my goat. If you thought that coming out of Georgetown that Ewing was going to be the next Kareem, then yeah he was overrated. But look at what Rosen has to say about him: “Had he played out of the spotlight in someplace like Orlando or Salt Lake City, Ewing would be remembered as a jump-shooting center who worked hard. Period.”

My friends, Sam Perkins was a jump-shooting center who worked hard. While it’s true that Ewing could bury the jumper, he was more than just an overachieving outside threat. Ewing frequently scored from the paint, something that his 50.5 eFG% and 1.11 PSA will atest to.

Rosen continues: “In truth, he couldn’t handle, pass, move laterally, and do anything worthwhile when an important game was on the line. Moreover, his dim apprehension of what the game was all about precluded any thoughts of being unselfish. Except for the early days of the Mets and the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York sports fans rarely hitch their devotion to a loser like Ewing.”

While I won’t lie and say that Ewing was a fantastic passer and never turned the ball over, the author is clearly cherry picking abilities here. Notice he used the same attributes of not being able to dribble or pass for both Robinson and Ewing. That’s because most centers aren’t known for their ability to run the point. In fact, Patrick’s per 48 minute points (29.3 to 29.2), turnovers (4.2 to 4.0), free throws made (6.4 to 5.9), offensive rebounds (3.3 to 4.4), eFG%( 50.4 to 51.2), and PSA (1.11 to 1.11) are comparable to another contemporary left off the list, Hakeem Olajuwon. Rosen uses a technique he must have learned at the Daily Oklahoman writing school, lowering himself to insulting Ewing by describing him as selfish, dim, and a loser.

Ewing never won any MVP awards, nor did he ever win a championship. However he was the centerpiece on two of the top 5 defensive teams of all times (according to Dean Oliver). During his prime, Ewing had 10 straight seasons where he missed 5 or less games and over that decade, the second highest minute getters on his teams each year were: Gerald Wilkins, Johnny Newman, (an aging) Kiki Vandeweghe, John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Allan Houston (for one year). If #33 was a loser, it was more because of his colleagues than himself. In fact Ewing might have had that championship ring, if not for one of his teammates missing 16 shots one June night. If Patrick was selfish he might have blasted Starks for the game 7 Finals loss. He might have whined about the Knicks never giving him a decent second option on offense. He might have forced his team to trade him, as so many athletes looking at their own best interests do. Instead he stayed for 15 seasons, only asking to leave after the Garden crowd not so politely asked him first.

No matter how you feel about Ewing, you have to admit that my assessment of the man was a bit more fair. So why did Rosen feel the need to do such a hack job on him, and a dozen NBA greats? Maybe it’s the summer heat, or the pressure of paying that air-conditioner burdened electric bill. Charley’s article comes almost a year after Frank Hughes’ stinker of 2004, which makes me glad that I take a little time off in the summer.

Gnate and Nate?

My writing this week hasn’t been shedding Isiah Thomas’ latest move in a positive light. However one day after the draft would be a foolish time to continue to rain on the Knicks. Just one day after the draft Channing Frye is a future All Star, Nate Robinson is the backup PG that is better than half the starters in the league, and David Lee is going walk right in & fill Kurt Thomas’ shoes.

In fact despite railing on the deal just a few days ago, I was pretty excited when I heard that the Kurt Thomas trade was finalized because New York got Nate Robinson. No I haven’t changed my mind on the deal, because I think Richardson is an average player who doesn’t address the Knicks main needs. However if the deal had to go through, getting “Gnate” made it palatable. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the small guys. Years ago when Earl Boykins was a Net and Cavalier castoff I advocated from the top of my barstool that the Knicks should pick him up.

There are just so many reasons to like the diminutive player. I didn’t get to watch much of the NCAA tournament this year, but I saw at least one Washington game. Nate is one of those guys that you can’t help but keep your eyes on, because he will make something exciting happen. Although the Knicks do lack flash, I think Robinson can contribute as a solid player as well. Before going mainstream, the APBRmetric-minded Kevin Pelton gave him a nice write up over at draftcity.com. Meanwhile I can entertain thoughts in my head that Robinson will consider playing nickelback/kick returner for my beloved New York Jets.

Getting back to the Knicks I’m not sure whether they’ve solved their defensive problem. The reviews of Frye is that he’s a polished offensive player, but on defense the word “soft” has been thrown around. While he is a shot blocker, that talent doesn’t always translate from college to the pros. Knicks fans know that we’re not getting Tim Duncan or Tyson Chandler, but the answer to the question on exactly how much Frye can help solidify their D will have to wait. Obviously David Lee isn’t the defensive answer unless the Knicks trade Mike Sweetney (doh!) or Malik Rose (hooray!).

Even without getting another player, there is something Isiah and the Knicks can do to improve their defense: hire a defensive-minded coach. While I don’t believe that a coach can turn an awful defensive team into a stellar one, a good coach might be able to get the Knicks going in the right direction. Larry Brown would be a no-brainer, but there are two other possibilities that I wouldn’t mind New York considering. I know P.J. Carlesimo isn’t the popular choice in town, but he took the last ranked Warriors and turned them into an above average 12th in just two years. The Sprewell incident and sitting on the bench next to Emperor Popovich should make him a more experienced coach.

Nate McMillan’s contract should run out any second now. While the Sonics weren’t a defensive juggernaut, McMillan’s team made the most of what they had, had might have give the Spurs a run for their money had they not have a series of unfortunate injuries. Nate would give the Knicks their first legitimate coach since Jeff Van Gundy, and if he were able to bring over uber-consultant Dean Oliver it would be the icing on the cake. I?d still prefer a known commodity over guys like Herb Williams or Bill Laimbeer. With the draft out of the way, getting a coach should be the #1 priority on the Knicks list.

This Is Not a Stats Primer

Recently I’ve noticed an influx of new readers to my little corner of the blogosphere. To my new audience I say “Hi mom & dad, sorry for changing your browser start-up page.” Since the basketball stat community is new on the scene, a lot of the numbers I use here are still unknown to the general public. Unless you’ve been here for a while, or you’re already an insider on the APBRmetric scene, you might not be comfortable with all the terms on KB.Net.

This is where you expect me to do a whole big write-up on the stats I use with definitions, equations & examples. Fortunately for me, a few other people have already done that. So instead I’ll just give a link-o-rama. One note before I do, if you read the whole thing without falling asleep, at the very bottom of the post there is a little reward.

STAT DEFINITIONS
Kevin Pelton’s Stat Primer – A great place to start. Kevin goes over many of the APBRmetric standards.

Kevin Pelton’s description of Dean Oliver’s 4 factors (team stats) – The four factors is hands down the best way to analyze a team’s strengths & weaknesses.

“What Are Those Numbers?” by Forum Blue & Gold (Lakers blog) – covers a few things Pelton might have missed.

BOOKS
Required reading.
Basketball On Paper
– Dean Oliver’s revolutionary book on basketball statistics. If you don’t have it, you’re not looking at the game with open eyes.

Basketball Forecast 2004
– John Hollinger, who is undeniably today’s best basketball writer, analyzes every player and team using his own brand of statistics.

DAILY/HISTORICAL STATS
http://82games.com/
THE site for current stats. 82games features unique stats you can’t find anywhere else. oPER, team scoring by position, 5 man teams, +/-, etc.

http://www.basketball-reference.com/
THE site for advanced historical stats (PER, eFG, PSA), with incredible query labs.

http://www.knickerblogger.net/stats/
Stats page by yours truly – I have everything John Hollinger has in his Prospectus/forecast series, Dean Oliver’s four factors for teams, and per minute stats.

http://members.rogers.com/brothered/index.html
The Stats Pimp Page (currently down) – has lots of other things, including Dean Oliver’s win%, pythagorean standings, strength of schedule, etc.

And for those whose left click button died on them just after clicking on the link, here is my lazy-assed 30 second version of a stat primer.

Poss = Possessions. A possession means the ball has changed hands from the offense to defense. This is primarily used to equalize per game stats between teams, since faster teams use more possessions than deliberate squeeze every second out of the shot clock teams. (Example: points allowed/possession is more indicative of a team’s defense than points allowed/game).

eFG% = Effective Field Goal Percentage. FG%, but normalized for three pointers.

PSA = Points per Shot Attempt. A misnomer, since the equation is not the simple PTS/FGA, but it’s a measure of a player’s ability to score per attempt including free throws. If you see TS% (True shooting percentage) it is half of PSA.

PER = Player Efficiency Rating. John Hollinger’s linear weight, adjusting for minutes played & pace. 15 is average, MVP season ~ 30.

oPER = opposition PER. Only kept by 82games, basically the PER of the opponent playing the same position. Or a defensive version of PER.

PPR = Pure Point Rating. JH’s (John Hollinger’s) stat to compare Point guards.

AST-R = Assist Ratio. JH’s stat to replace AST/TO ratio.

REB-R = Rebounding Ratio. JH’s stat for measuring rebounding.

TO-R = Turnover Ratio. JH’s stat for measuring turnovers.

USG-R = Usage Ratio. JH’s stat for measuring ability to create shots.

Finally as I promised, a little treat for all the statheads out there. A
Basketball-Reference.com Search Plugin for Firefox. Click on this link from firefox & you’ll be able to search for any player in Basketball-Reference.com’s in your browser in a split second. If you haven’t switched over to Firefox yet, this is yet another reason to do so. It’s clearly superior to IE.

Oh and while I’m at it, here’s one for Baseball-Reference.com as well.

Steve Nash for MVP? (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

John Hollinger to Join ESPN!

If they keep this up, ESPN is going to have to change their name to ESPMN. The “M” would stand for Moneyball, for the controversial book that chronicled the stat-centric Oakland Athletics front office. Today Moneyball is synonymous with any type of sports statistical analysis. For years Rob Neyer has been the main attraction of ESPN’s statistical writers. The former Bill James assistant is sabermetrics’ most popular author, bringing objective analysis of baseball to a main stream audience on a regular basis. Already having baseball’s best number-crunching author, ESPN is building a Moneyball monopoly by signing Neyer’s basketball’s equivalent.

It has been learned by KnickerBlogger.Net that John Hollinger will soon be writing for ESPN.com Insider. Hollinger made a name for himself when he created a web page, www.alleyoop.com, for his thoughtful sports analysis. His groundbreaking work didn’t go unnoticed for long, and John would eventually write for CNNSI.com and the New York Sun.

However, Hollinger might best be known for authoring the annual Pro Basketball Prospectus/Forecast books. Largely if not entirely a solo project, he fills the pages with analysis on every NBA player, while interspersing his own unique studies. John avoids the monotony or writing about such a number heavy topic with his humor. He circumvents using complex terms or stats where common language can succinctly get the same point across. For example, his entire analysis on guard Bimbo Coles who ceased being useful years ago: “Please, let this be the end.”

The unofficial announcement was made on Friday by fellow hoops author Dean Oliver on APBRmetrics, the main forum for basketball statistical discussion. To date there hasn’t been an official word on the move. Odds are Hollinger’s columns won’t appear on ESPN.com rival CNNSI.com, and it’s still unknown if he’ll still be writing for the New York Sun. What is known is that ESPN.com’s Insider members can now enjoy fantastic writing in two sports.