The Knicks Needs, Summer 2004 Part 1

The rumors have been rampant on who will be traded to the Knicks this offseason. Erick Dampier. Jamal Crawford. Antoine Walker. Even Vince Carter – yeah right! Message boards are lighting up with differing opinions on which would be the best fit for New York. Since each one plays a different position, each one potentially offers a different set of skills to the Knicks. So the question should become, what areas do the Knicks need improvement in the most?

First it helps to know which factors are most important for a successful team. Dean Oliver says there are four factors for a team’s success: shooting percentage (eFG%), turnovers (TO/poss), offensive rebounding (OReb%), and scoring from the line (FTM/FGA). Each stat has an offensive and defensive component. Your shooting percentage may be great, but if you also let other teams get a good look at the basket then you’re not getting an advantage in this category. Additionally some of these are weighted more than others. For example, shooting percentage is most relevant to winning. Turnovers are slightly more important than offensive rebounding. The least important is scoring from the free throw line.

By looking at these factors, we can see what areas the Knicks need to improve. Let’s take a look at each one & see how the Knicks fared last season.

Shooting Efficiency (eFG%)
Offense 13th, +0.6%
Defense 8th, +2.1%

I’m going to introduce a set of numbers that I’ll use in each section. The first number is the Knicks rank among all 29 teams in this category, the second is how much better than the league average they were. In this case, on offense the Knicks ranked 13th in eFG%, and were 0.6% better than league average. On defense they ranked 8th, and were +2.1% above the rest of the NBA.

This might come as a slight shock to Knick fans, either to find out their defense was better than their offense, or that they were pretty good in limiting their opponents shot selection. This is because 4 of their 5 starters (Marbury, Houston, Tim Thomas and Nazr Mohammed) aren’t better known for their offensive game than their defensive prowess. In retrospect, Houston and Mohammed didn’t play a full season, and shared time with offensively-challenged yet better defenders in Anderson and Mutombo (at least in help defense).

It’s impossible to assign blame or credit for every shot attempt. There are a myriad of things that can happen on any NBA trip down the court, from fast breaks to double teams to switching defenders. In addition, traditional NBA stats give an incomplete picture of individual defense. However thanks to 82games.com, we can see what each of the 5 positions shot against the Knicks & try to narrow the field down from there.

The Knicks were very good on the perimeter, keeping point guards and shooting guards at bay with a 44.0% and 44.8% respectively. The other three positions were the Knicks’ Achilles heal, with an eFG% just above 47%. Tim Thomas’ defense was plain awful, letting opponents shoot at a high 51.1%, and Nazr Mohammed wasn’t far behind at 49.1%. Surprisingly Sweetney and Mutombo held their opponents to good percentages. Actually Sweetney was great at PF (43.7%) and horrible when out of position at center (52.7%).

If Allan Houston is healthy all of next year, their offensive efficiency should improve. H20 is a career 50.0% eFG% shooter, at a moderately high usage rate (16.3 FGA/G over the last 5 years). The players that hurt the Knicks offensively in this area were Anfernee Hardaway (40.9% eFG 9.7FGA/G), Frank Williams (42.8% eFG 3.7FGA/G), and DerMarr Johnson (43.8% eFG 4.6FGA/G). Frank Williams gets a pass because of his ridiculously good opponents? eFG% (40.5% eFG), the low number of shots that he takes, and his youth. If anyone needs to shoot less it’s the Knicks’ 6th man Hardaway. He’s had a decline since his first year in Phoenix (49.4%) and is nowhere as near as good as he was his first 6 years in Orlando (50.7%).

At 24 years old, DerMarr is the Knicks’ “special project”. So far in his NBA career, which was derailled by a car accident, DerMarr has shown to be a poor shooter, and his defense which was touted in the first Basketball Prospectus, may have declined as well. Johnson will attempt to improve his shooting (and his game) this summer.

Turnovers (TO/POSS)
Offense 23rd, -7.0%
Defense 23rd, -7.2%

If the Knicks want to make a big improvement next year, turnovers is the first place Isiah should look. New York was atrocious on both sides of the ball. Looking at turnovers per 48 minutes, there isn’t a single qualifying Knick in the top 50. On the other side of the ball, Marbury is the only Knick ranked at #46 in steals per 48 minutes. Meaning they just don’t have anyone that is good in either of these categories who plays a lot of minutes. Othella Harrington (3.6 TO/48 & 0.66 STL/48) and Vin Baker (3.8/1.07) are the worst, while Penny is the best (2.6/1.65).

Of course all defensive turnovers aren’t registered with a steal. A defender can take an offensive charge or a player can dribble the ball of his foot due to defensive pressure. The NBA doesn’t keep track of these stats, but our good friends at 82games.com do. For every team, they keep track on both ends of the court of offensive fouls, bad passes, ball handling errors, and miscellaneous turnovers. Here’s a chart with some of the best & worst teams & how they commit or force turnovers:

Offense
Rnk Team Foul Pass Drib Misc

1 DAL 106 577 299 13
2 MIN 152 454 398 29
23 NYK 188 570 491 34
28 HOU 170 595 547 50
29 WAS 168 645 586 33

Defense
Rnk Team Foul Pass Drib Misc

1 DEN 216 546 515 23
2 MEM 156 638 569 20
23 NYK 149 450 507 23
28 ORL 151 487 431 37
29 CLE 97 529 418 25

With the 5 teams I picked, it seems that dribbling is one area that could indicate a team’s turnover tendencies. (Of course more research would have to be made before there is a definite correlation found.) On the other hand a team like Memphis creates a lot of turnovers by forcing bad passes, while Denver is superb at taking charges. The chart puts into perspective the Knicks numbers. On offense they are causing too many fouls, and they don’t have great ball handlers. Defensively, they are woeful in challenging the passing lanes.


Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will check out the Knicks performance at the offensive glass and free throw line. Also I’ll take a quick look at the three that are rumored to come to New York & what areas they might help or hurt.

Predicting the Finals (The Long Way)

Predicting sports events is a losing endeavor. There is a reason that gambling is a such a lucrative business, for the bookmaker that is. Professional gamblers, like “psychics”, want to sell you their “knowledge”. Even wonder why don’t they use their “gifts” to make themselves rich without your money? Nobody can see into the future, and nobody’s system is good enough to beat Vegas’ odds consistently.

However for those that write about sports, predicting teams is a winning proposition (as long as there is no money on the table). If the prediction is correct, I can refer to it later. If it’s wrong, I’m sure no one will care, since it’s foolish to be held to that kind of accountability. Everybody has their own way of picking who will win. Some people decide which team is more hungry. Some people use which team has more heart. Other will look at which team has more playoff experience. I’m sure these people have varying degrees of success with these methods. I don’t know how anyone could quantify which team has more heart without getting a cardiologist involved.

I prefer something more tangible. As I’m typing this right now, I don’t know who I will predict to win. I’m going to look over all the data I have & make an educated guess at the end. I’m going to use Dean Oliver’s four factors of winning. Despite digging around, I haven’t found how he came to these results. This bothers me a little, but since his work in Basketball on Paper is so thorough and logical, I can let it slide for now. There are actually 2 sides to each factor, an offensive and defensive component.

Factor 1. Shooting (eFG%)

OFFENSIVE

L.A.	48.1%	102%	7th
DET	46.1%	98%	20th

[NOTE: The first number is eFG%, the second is their percentage of the league average, the last is their rank.]

Los Angeles has the advantage here, and it should be no surprise. Shaq led the league in eFG% with his massive FG% (58%). Payton, Malone, and Kobe all had better eFG% than the Pistons’ team average.

On the other hand Detroit is a poor shooting team. Adding Rasheed (47%) slightly improves their percentage, but their big scorers Hamilton and Billups have an eFG% of 46%. Meanwhile Larry Brown’s Ben Wallace experiment has me scratching my head. Wallace’s offensive contributions used to be limited to put backs and easy shots, which gave him a near 50% FG%. This year Brown has asked Wallace to take a more active role, and he’s been horrible (42%). Brown’s logic is to keep teams honest by using a defender on Big Ben, which should give the other Detroit shooters a small edge. Either it hasn’t worked as Detroit is 20th in eFG%, or the Pistons are a worse shooting team than I expected.

DEFENSIVE

L.A.	47.1%	100%	15th
DET	44.1%	107%	2nd

This is where the Pistons shine. Although L.A. is simply average, Detroit is awesome, only behind the Spurs. Which brings an interesting comparison, since Los Angeles beat the Spurs earlier this year. Here’s a little chart of L.A.’s big 4 scoring in that series.

Name	1	2	3	4	5	6	1-2avg	3-6avg
Shaq	19	32	28	28	11	17	25.5	21
Kobe	31	15	22	42	22	26	23	28
Payton	4	7	15	8	5	15	5.5	10.8
Malone	10	13	13	9	7	8	11.5	9.3
?????	32	33	28	23	28	25	32.5	26

Los Angeles lost the first two games, but won the next 4. The difference seemed to be Kobe Bryant, who averaged 5 more points in the Laker’s wins. The last row is Bruce Bowen’s minutes, Kobe’s main defender. Granted Kobe torched him in game 1, but it’s apparent the less Bowen played, the more points Bryant scored. The reason Bowen played less is the Spurs’ offense fizzled and they needed more scorers on the court. San Antonio’s offense was ranked 14th, slightly better than the Pistons. Detroit should learn a lesson from the Spurs. They have to stay close in the game, so Brown won’t be tempted to take his defenders out for more firepower.

Factor 2. Turnovers (TO/100poss)

OFFENSE

LA	14.2	109%	5th
DET	16.2	96%	20th

DEFENSE

LA	15.4	99%	16th
DET	16.5	106%	7th

Again, the Lakers are better on offense, while the Pistons are better on defense. However the Lakers have the edge here. How? They turnover the ball 14.2 times per 100 possessions, but force turnovers 15.4 times, which is a net of +1.2. Meanwhile the Pistons give it up 16.2 times, and get it back 16.5 times, which is a small +.3 net.

Factor 3. Offensive Rebounds (oREB%)

OFFENSE

LA	28.1%	98%	16th
DET	30.1%	105%	9th

DEFENSE

LA	26.7%	108%	5th
DET	28.3%	101%	12th

Getting this far is seems that these two teams have strengths & weaknesses in the opposite areas in just about every aspect. Detroit is better on the offensive glass, while the Lakers are better on the defensive. I can’t tell who has the advantage here. The Lakers’ great offensive rebounding is tempered by their below average offensive rebounding. Detroit is above average in both respects, but nowhere near the Lakers’ efficiency on the defensive end. I would guess that Detroit has a slight edge, but not by much.

Factor 4. Free Throws (FTM/FGA)

OFFENSE

LA	.244	107%	7th
DET	.247	108%	4th

DEFENSE

LA	.222	103%	16th
DET	.202	113%	3rd

I guess I spoke too soon about their strengths & weaknesses. Detroit is clearly superior here at both getting to the line, and keeping their opponents from the charity stripe. One thing to consider is how will Shaq change this? Surely the Pistons will foul Shaq when it suits them, so will this negate this advantage? For example, maybe the Pistons can get away with a foul here & there, because their big men don’t foul often. Giving a few free fouls to Shaq, will that put them in the penalty sooner? It might, but I don’t think it’ll be as much of a factor, since Detroit is so good in this respect.

SUMMARY:
Detroit has an edge in the weaker categories, free throws & rebounding, and Detroit’s defense should put them over the top. However Los Angeles is very efficient when it comes to scoring and not turning the ball over, combined with Detroit’s weakness in these same categories gives the edge to the Lakers. In simpler terms, Los Angeles has a good offense, and an average defense, while Detroit has a good defense, but a bad offense. It’s Detroit’s lack of offense that will hurt them.

Does this mean that the Lakers will definitely win? No. I’ll spare you from the all too familiar “anything can happen in a 7 game series.” Instead I’ll say that the statistics don’t tell the entire story. This entire column is based on the regular season stats. However, Kobe only played 65 games, Shaq 67, and Malone 42. On the other side of the ball, Rasheed only played in 21 games for the Pistons. We really don’t know exactly what these teams are like at full strength. I won’t write off Detroit yet, but I do think they’ll have to do a few things to keep themselves in the game.

No one can stop Shaq for a long period of time. The Pistons will likely do what everyone else has done, which is to put a body on him as best they can & foul him when it’s profitable. Detroit needs to stop the rest of the gang, especially Kobe. If L.A. can jump out to a lead, they’ll force Detroit to do something they’re not good at, which is try to score. The Pistons move at a slow pace, and turning out lots of points very quickly isn’t how they got here. The key for Detroit is to keep the games close. They can do that by keeping the non-Shaq Lakers from scoring, and getting good production out of Hamilton, Billups, & Rasheed.

The key for the Lakers is to score and put the pressure on Detroit. They need points out of someone other than Shaq & Kobe. Malone has done well enough (13PPG), despite facing two great defenders in Garnett and Duncan. Gary Payton has all but disappeared from the offense, scoring 8.8PPG in the playoffs. The Lakers need production from the rest of the gang, whether it be Fisher, George, or Rush. They’ll want to score points off of turnovers, while minimizing any damage the Pistons might cause on the offensive boards and at the free throw line.

I said I would make a prediction at the beginning of this column, and I’ll stick with it. If Detroit wins I won’t be surprised (or sad), but I have to go with the evidence I have. I know I said over a month ago that the Lakers wouldn’t be holding the trophy by summertime, but I’m going with the Lakers, in a hard fought 7 game series. The Lakers’ offense and the Pistons’ lack of offense give Los Angeles the edge they need.

Spurs/Lakers

Last night the NBA had one whole playoff game going on, but it was the marquee matchup of the second round. The Lakers and Spurs went at it again. In case you were out busy celebrating, you can find out easily who won the game, by looking at the score. But how they won is a different story. What statistics are the most important in relation to winning?

An article by Dean Oliver titled “The Four Factors of Basketball Success” discusses exactly this. In it he outlines the four most important team stats that lead to victory. They are (with weight in parenthesis):

1. Shooting % (10)
2. Turnovers (6)
3. Offensive rebounding (5)
4. Getting to the line (3)

So how did the two teams compare yesterday?

1. Shooting percentage (eFG%)
LAL: 53%
SAS: 56%

Both teams shot exceptionally well, although the Spurs had a slight advantage here. Watching the game I can tell you this was caused by a lot of layups from fast breaks for the Spurs & dunks by Shaq.

2. Turnovers (TO)
LAL: 16
SAS: 8

So far everything seems to be in the Spurs favor. To me these first two stats says something about the Lakers defense, or rather lack of. Not only did the Spurs shot at a high percentage (see above), but they only had 8 turnovers. It doesn’t seem that the Lakers did anything to stop them from scoring.

3. Offensive Rebounds (OReb% = oReb/attempts, where attempts = opp dReb + oReb – opp oReb)
LAL: 12/(33+12-6)=31%
SAS: 6/(6+42-12)=17%

Well here is one place the Lakers dominated. Most of the credit goes to Shaq who was nearly unstoppable at times. Not only did he have 6 of the Lakers’ 12 offensive rebounds, but he shot 15/21 (71%)!

4. Getting to the free throw line (FTA)
LAL: 18 (39%)
SAS: 30 (60%)

The Spurs dominated here as well. They had almost twice as many chances from the charity stripe, and they also converted at twice the rate. Duncan himself hit 10 (of 14), which is more than the Laker’s entire team (7 FTM).

Easily it was a contest dominated by the Spurs. Right now it doesn’t appear that the Lakers added the right players. Malone and Payton are great players, but when they’re not the focal point of the offense their contribution to their team is diminished. Why would you need Gary Payton, when your offense is primarily lobbing the ball into Shaq, or letting Kobe loose. They would be better served with a few guys that can’t create offense, but instead can do things like shut down their opponent, rebound, or hit their shots at a high percentage.

Knicks 92 Portland 91 (or Fun With Numbers)

Yesterday I spoke about the discussion going on in the APBR_analysis group. One of the messages by Dean Oliver said:

My point is that you can break down the games of baseball or basketball to an infinite degree. I think baseball and basketball offenses are broken down pretty well by stats. What’s left over are small variations of strategy or training. Do they matter? Yes, but do we miss a significant amount of value by not measuring them? I don’t think so.

Let me frame it one other way. From a team standpoint the value of the four factors are

1. Shooting % (10)
2. Turnovers (6)
3. Offensive rebounding (5)
4. Getting to the line (3)…

I’m not exactly sure where he got this information & what the numbers in parenthesis mean. To take an educated guess, I’ll say that these numbers mean that a team with an advantage in shooting% (10) is twice as likely to win as a team that has an edge in offensive rebounding (5). Same with turnovers (6) having an edge over getting to the foul line (3). I’d imagine when a team shoots better than their opponents, and gets more turnovers they will win a large percentage of their games, even if they allow their opponents to get to the glass more & send them to the line more often.

Just to have some fun with these numbers, let’s assume they are points assigned to each team for getting an advantage in that category. Let’s see how the Knicks did last night.

Shooting% – 10 points

Portland shot 50% yesterday (34-68), while the Knicks only shot 47% (38-81). However I just measured FG% there, and the original wording was “shooting %.” FG% doesn’t account for the extra bonus you get from hitting three pointers, just like batting average in baseball doesn’t make a distinction between a single and a home run. Last year Doug “Can I buy a vowel?” Mientkiewicz and Hank Blalock both hit .300. However, Blalock hit 29 homers, while Mientkiewicz hit only 11.

Accounting for treys, both teams get a slight bump. Portland’s aFG% is now 52%, and the Knicks 49%. It’s close, but Portland wins 10 points.

Turnovers – 6 points

The Blazers turned the ball over 13 times, the Knicks 11. The Knicks will get the 6 point for this one. One interesting thing about ESPN’s box scores is that you can see how many points the team scored on turnovers. The Knicks scored 18 points off of turnovers, while Portland only had 13.

Offensive Rebounds – 5 points

The Knicks win again here, anyway you look at it. They had more offensive rebounds 12 to 6. You could argue that they had more chances, since they missed more shots. This is true, but they also converted a higher amount of those chances. Portland had 36 boards, 6 on the offensive side. So that means they had 30 defensive rebounds. The Knicks had 12 offensive rebounds, so that means they had 42 (30+12) total chances. The Knicks got 12 of them, which works out to 29%. The Knicks got 28 defensive rebounds (40 total – 12 offensive), and the Blazers got 6 offensive rebounds. That mean Portland got 6 offensive rebounds in 34 total, or 18%.

Getting to the Line – 3 points

It’s well known that the Knicks commit a lot of fouls, and Portland took advantage of this. The Blazers shot from the charity stripe 23 times, and the Knicks only had 16. Advantage to Portland.

Summary

So what do we end up with? Portland 13, Knicks 11. However the Knicks won this game, so what gives? First this information wasn’t meant to be used the way I did. I just took the numbers to mean something out of their original context.

Second, the system I created has flaws. I assigned the entire point value for the winner of each category. For example, “shooting %” was close enough that we shouldn’t have given Portland a full 10 point advantage. Three percentage points in aFG% doesn’t mean much. Maybe I could have given them a 6, instead.

Finally the game was close. The Knicks won by one point. This means if they missed one shot or Portland hit one more the final numbers of my little system would not have changed, but the result of the game would have been very different.