Welcome to the NBA, Michael Sweetney

There is a wait so long
You’ll never wait so long
Here comes your man

— “Here Comes Your Man”
Pixies

The official stats say Michael Sweetney has played 25 games so far this year. I’m here to tell you they’re off by 24. #50 for the Knicks, has played his first NBA game. Before you call Dr. Phil and ask him to examine my noggin, let me explain.

In a previous column, I said this about Sweetney:

The Knicks rookie PF looks skilled, but lost at times especially on defense. I expect that if the Knicks are patient enough to give him playing time, this befuddled play will disappear…

I also wrote about Sweetney on Raptorblog.com :

Sweetney is undersized vertically, but a bit wide in the midsection with a long wing span. He’s a bit timid, and gets lost on the defensive end. He’s every bit the wide-eyed rookie, but with Wilkens slowly giving him minutes he’s looking more and more comfortable on the court. Due to his lack of minutes, there isn’t much to say about him other than he can rebound, and he makes a great looking inside shot every few weeks or so.

Previously, Sweetney never looked comfortable on the court. If you watched him the whole game, you’d see him make mental mistakes. He looked uncomfortable on defense, always switching a little bit late, and sometimes looking around for his guy. On offense, he seemed to never get into the swing of things. His main asset seemed to be getting defensive rebounds.

Last night we saw a different Michael Sweetney. Sometimes during a game I’ll take notes, because it’s hard to remember all the subtleties that occur. To recap Sweetney’s night, I didn’t have to pick up my pen. The images were burnt into my memory. Maybe not all of them, but enough anyway.

Early on he received a pass in the post on the right blocks. He spun to his right, gave a head fake, and hit an easy layup over a fooled defender. A few plays after that Marbury was double teamed off of Sweetney’s pick, and kicked the ball out to Sweetney for an easy 12 footer. It’s the first time that I can remember Sweetney hitting an inside and an outside shot in the same game.

The rookie would show his quickness, with a steal near midcourt. With no one between him and the basket, only a Celtic flagrant foul would prevent him from scoring. Later in the game, he out rebounded Paul Pierce on the offensive glass for an easy lay in.

Sweetney just loooked comfortable out there. If you had never seen a Knicks game before you wouldn’t have been able to pick out who the rookie was. Even his mistakes weren’t entirely his fault. One was a bad cross court pass while being double teamed. It wasn’t all Sweetney’s fault, since the the Knicks didn’t get open to give him any other target. On another fast break, Sweetney received the ball from Shandon Anderson on the wing, and passed it back quickly, but it was Anderson that couldn’t handle the pass. In the second half, Sweetney was rejected attempting a dunk by a trio of Celtics. However, he calmly got the rebound under their rim, and went up again, this time banking the layup off the backboard. At that point, he looked like a veteran that had seen it all.

I’m sorry if you came here to read about some esoteric stat. They’ll be no Dean Oliver’s Off. Rtg. No John Hollinger’s PER. No “Joe’s” linear weight performance. On a night, where the Knicks lost on a missed last second shot, I’ll be happy to write about their first round draft pick’s fabulous performance.

Lenny Wilkens: Good Or Bad?

captain, there are doubts
regarding
your ability
to lead them
the men

— “Brave Captian”
fIREHOSE

Scott’s guest column yesterday gave me an idea. It seems that Toronto fans aren’t at all pleased with the job Lenny Wilkens did as coach of their team. So far as coach of the Knicks, I’ve had no complaints. Well maybe one, giving any minutes to Moochie Norris instead of Frank Williams. Noticing that the Knicks have a problem in the middle, Lenny tried a few different lineups, including starting Othella Harrington and Michael Sweetney, seeing if they could rise to the task (neither could). He’s settled on Nazr Mohammed as the center, which has added stability to the Knicks.

So how can we tell if a coach is good or bad? Phil Jackson fans will point to his championships with two different teams to attest to his greatness, while those that would mock him as “Chief Big Triangle” will be quick to point out that the credit should go to the great players he’s always had.

Bill James created something called Pythagorean Expected Win Percentage. It basically says that a team should win a certain percentage of their games depending on how many points scored for and against a team has over a season. So another theory (which I will call the Rob Neyer manager theory) says that if a coach consistently wins more games than expected, he’s probably a sound coach when it comes to in game strategies. Digging up Lenny Wilkens’ actual and expected wins I came up with this chart:

Year	Team	WINS	LOSS	ExpW	ExpL	ActW%	ExpW%	DIFF	SIG
1969	SEA	36	46	33	49	.439	.402	+.037	+1
1970	SEA	38	44	38	44	.463	.463	+.000	+0
1971	SEA	47	35	42	40	.573	.512	+.061	+1
1974	POR	38	44	42	40	.463	.512	-.049	-1
1975	POR	37	45	37	45	.451	.451	+.000	+0
1977	SEA	42	18	46	36	.700	.561	+.139	+1
1978	SEA	52	30	49	33	.634	.598	+.037	+1
1979	SEA	56	26	55	27	.683	.671	+.012	+0
1980	SEA	34	48	35	47	.415	.427	-.012	+0
1981	SEA	52	30	53	29	.634	.646	-.012	+0
1982	SEA	48	34	48	34	.585	.585	+.000	+0
1983	SEA	42	40	40	42	.512	.488	+.024	+1
1984	SEA	31	51	24	58	.378	.293	+.085	+1
1986	CLE	31	51	29	53	.378	.354	+.024	+1
1987	CLE	42	40	43	39	.512	.524	-.012	+0
1988	CLE	57	25	62	20	.695	.756	-.061	-1
1989	CLE	42	40	39	43	.512	.476	+.037	+1
1990	CLE	33	49	33	49	.402	.402	+.000	+0
1991	CLE	57	25	57	25	.695	.695	+.000	+0
1992	CLE	54	28	60	22	.659	.732	-.073	-1
1993	ATL	57	25	57	25	.695	.695	+.000	+0
1994	ATL	42	40	45	37	.512	.549	-.037	-1
1995	ATL	46	36	45	37	.561	.549	+.012	+0
1996	ATL	56	26	59	23	.683	.720	-.037	-1
1997	ATL	50	32	53	29	.610	.646	-.037	-1
1998	ATL	31	19	31	19	.620	.620	+.000	+0
1999	ATL	28	54	23	59	.341	.280	+.061	+1
2000	TOR	47	35	48	34	.573	.585	-.012	+0
2001	TOR	42	40	39	43	.512	.476	+.037	+1
2002	TOR	24	58	21	61	.293	.256	+.037	+1

[DIFF is the difference between actual win% and expected win%. SIG means was the difference significant enough to say it was a positive or negative season. I used a .025 difference to determine this. The first four years in italics are when Wilkens was both a player and a coach. I’ll ignore them for now, since we can’t split his contribution as a player from his contribution as a coach.]

So what does this chart tell us about the different stops Lenny has had?

Seattle: 8 seasons, 4 significantly better than expected, 0 worse.
Cleveland: 7 seasons, 2 better, 2 worse.
Atlanta: 7 seasons, 1 better, 3 worse.
Toronto: 3 seasons, 2 better, 0 worse.

According to this Seattle was his best tenure, which most people would agree with since that’s where he won his only championship. It’s ironic that Atlanta shows up as his worst job, since he’s credited with taking an average franchise and turning it into a contender. Even more ironic is Toronto, where he was booed last night, because Wilkens has no negative seasons.

Another way to measure a coach’s effectiveness is how the team performed before and after the coach’s arrival. When Wilkens took over Seattle in 1977 the team changed radically, so it’s impossible to say whether the impact was Wilkens or let’s say Gus Williams. After he left the Sonics, Bernie Bickerstaff took over the reigns. Bickertsaff had the same exact record, despite adding the 4th overall pick Xavier McDaniel to their starting lineup. I would say that this could be a “plus” for Wilkens.

George Karl’s ’85 Cavs bear little resemblance to the ’86 team that Wilkens led. In fact all 5 starters were different, as Ron Harper, Brad Dougherty, and Hotrod Williams all played their first year in the NBA. When he left Cleveland, Mike Fratello won 7 less games the next year. An old Larry Nance played half a season, but the Cavs did make a few additions in Tyrone Hill and Chris Mills, so it’s hard to make a determination either way. You could argue another “plus” or “neutral.”

Wilkens won 14 more games than his predecessor in Atlanta his first year there. Danny Manning was an addition for that team, but I don’t see Manning as making a team 14 games better, so I’ll credit Wilkens with some of this improvement. Lon Kruger won 3 less games than Wilkens, but the team was significantly different, so I can’t credit or condemn Lenny there.

In Toronto Butch Carter’s ’99 team had Tracy McGrady and won 45 games. McGrady left via free agency for Wilkens’ first year, but the coach ended up winning 2 more games than his predecessor. That could be a “plus” as well. As for last year, Vince Carter missing half a season is not enough an excuse for winning only 24 games, and I have to give Wilkens the blame.

The three methods I’ve used:

Visual (a.k.a. my opinion) – Wilkens looks good as the Knicks coach, but it’s very early.
Actual Wins vs. Expected Wins: Good for 2 teams, bad for 1, 1 tenure neutral.
Wilkens’ vs. other coaches with similar teams: 2 to 4 times he was better vs. only 1 worse.

These are only three methods of evaluating a coach, and even though I tried to be as objective as possible and use statistics (except in the first), it’s nearly impossible to get a non-subjective viewpoint of a coach’s impact on a team. Of course I didn’t even touch any other things like player development, rotation management, or chemistry.

As for the Raptor fans dislike of Lenny I can say that it might be warranted. Dean Oliver’s Basketball On Paper goes in depth on the 2002 Raps, if you ever want to read a whole chapter on them. That team had three extended winning and losing streaks. That kind of inconsistent play will draw the ire of fans. Last year’s expectations were much higher than the 24 games he won. It gets worse when the team’s franchise player criticizes the coach.

As for his current role, it’s unknown if Wilkens will be the coach of the Knicks after this year. But as far as I can tell, he’s a good coach for ths team.

The Next 5 Games

There was something I really wanted to show you
But I just can’t find it

— “Can’t Find It”
Smoking Popes

I was reading the newspaper this morning (online of course), and one of the lines caught my eyes:

SOFT SCHEDULE: All of the Knicks’ next five games are against teams with losing records.

The sentence implies that the Knicks will be at an advantage their next few games, since they are playing “bad” teams. But is this really true? There is a well known formula that you can use to try to predict who will win a certain matchup. According to Dean Oliver:

In a 0.500 league, i.e., where all we have are the overall records and no information about home court advantage, etc.:

Win%A_B = [Win%A*(1-Win%B)]/[Win%A*(1-Win%B)+(1-Win%A)*Win%B],

where Win%A_B is the chance that A will beat B, Win%A is A’s winning percentage against the league, and Win%B is B’s winning percentage against the league.

So I took the Knicks next 5 opponents, and plugged their records into a spreadsheet. Using the above equation, I was able to figure out what the Knicks’ chances are to win each game (KN_w%).

Knicks Opponent	W	L	Pct	KN_w%
 Philadelphia	24	36	.400	.527
 Toronto Raps	25	34	.424	.503
 Washington	19	39	.328	.604
 Boston Celts	26	36	.419	.507
 Philadelphia	24	36	.400	.527

According to this equation, the Knicks have about an even chance at beating the Raptors and the Celtics. They have slightly better odds against the Sixers (twice), and pretty good odds against the Wizards. In fact according to this, the Knicks should be favorites in 3 of the five games, and at least even in the other two. However, a keen eye might notice that this equation doesn’t care who is at home or away. If teams do better at home, wouldn’t we want to take account of this?

The answer is yes. Since I already had the NBA standings in my spreadsheet, I decided to calculate the home records for whole league. The home team in the NBA this year wins 64% of the time. That seems to be a huge advantage, so can’t we account for this in our matchup equation? Luckily someone already thought of this as well. Back to Dean’s web page:

For example, if Team A is the home court team and Win%H is the percentage of times the home team wins, we have

Win%A_B = [Win%A*(1-Win%B)*Win%H]/[Win%A*(1-Win%B)*Win%H+(1-Win%A)* Win%B*(1-Win%H)]

So recalculating:

H?	Knicks Opponent	W	L	Pct	KN_w%	KN_w%lgw
H	 Philadelphia	24	36	.400	.527	.667
A	 Toronto Raps	25	34	.424	.503	.360
A	 Washington	19	39	.328	.604	.459
H	 Boston	Celts	26	36	.419	.507	.649
A	 Philadelphia	24	36	.400	.527	.382
Home teams in bold

Now things have radically changed. The Knicks are substantial favorites in their two home games against the Sixers and the Celts. They are underdogs against the other three teams, and substantially more against the Raptors and Sixers. What’s especially noteworthy is that they play the Sixers twice. Against Philly, they go from being a 67% team at home to a 38% team on the road. Also in a neutral site, they are most likely to beat Washington, but accounting for home court advantage, they are no longer the favorite.

Of course these are just percentages. The Knicks could win all 5 games (1 in 37 chance), or they could loose all 5 (1 in 40 chance). Going back to the newspaper quote, you might expect the Knicks to win 3 or 4 of their next 5 games, but in reality they’re expected to only win 2 or 3.

On a final note, this equation doesn’t take into account many factors. The two most important I can think of are injuries, and whether the records used are indicative of a team’s true strength. For example this Knick team is radically different from the one that started 2-8. Let’s say with the additions of Marbury, Hardaway, Nazr, Tim Thomas, and Lenny Wilkens the Knicks are better than their record. If they were let’s say a .500 team, things would change even more. The Knicks would become heavy favorites at home against Philly (73%) and Boston (71%), slight favorites away against Washington (53%), and slight underdogs against Philly (45%) and Toronto (43%).