Some Plays Count: Stephon Marbury & David Lee 11/11/07 (Part II)

In the last installment, I looked at a recorded version of the Knicks’ game against Miami on Sunday in order to get a better understanding of the team. Today I’m going to look at David Lee’s play in the first quarter. Due to Zach Randolph’s absence, Lee started but was removed only a few minutes into the game. From a layman’s perspective this might have seemed justified because his man Udonis Haslem scored 10 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting. Isiah Thomas sent Malik Rose, whose strength lies on the defensive end, to the scorer’s table just 7 minutes into the game. Since I was curious what Lee did that earned him a quick hook, I’m only going to look at the plays that are significant to this event.

10:40 [NYK 6-0]
Lee Slam Dunk Shot: Made (2 PTS)
Assist: Marbury (1 AST)

The Heat get distracted as Quentin Richarson fumbles the ball, but recovers it. Lee slips past his defender under the hoop and raises his hands. Marbury hits Lee with a pass, and David dunks the ball for an easy 2 points.

Davis Layup Shot: Missed Block: Lee (1 BLK)

Miami has the ball and attempts a pick & roll with Davis & Haslem. The pick & roll (especially with Haslem) will be a staple of the Heat offense all night long. Lee switches on the play, follows Davis to the hoop and blocks his shot attempt.

Crawford Turnover:Lost Ball (1 TO) Steal:Hardaway (1 ST)
9:59 [MIA 2-6]
Haslem Driving Dunk Shot: Made (2 PTS)
Assist: Hardaway (1 AST)

Crawford losses the ball as the Knicks bring it up, and Lee picks up Jason Williams in transition to slow the Miami fast break. Unfortunately nobody picks up Lee’s man Haslem, and Hardaway finds him for an easy score.

Lee Turnover:Lane Violation (1 TO)

This one speaks for itself. Lee steps into the lane too early on a Curry foul shot attempt, and the Knicks lose a point. This is a foolish mental lapse on Lee’s part.

Davis 3pt Shot: Missed
Lee Rebound (Off:0 Def:1)

David Lee is one of three Knicks that has to guard against Jason Williams’ incursion into the lane. Williams kicks the ball out to Ricky Davis who misses an open three. Lee grabs the miss.

8:48 [MIA 5-8]
Williams 3pt Shot: Made (3 PTS)

Another pick & roll by Miami. This time Crawford is on Jason Williams, and the pick is set by Haslem. Crawford is so far behind on the pick, that Williams is at the free throw line while Jamal is still behind the three point line. Lee does a good job picking up Williams and forces him to the baseline, preventing him from getting in the lane. Crawford recovers, and Lee leaves to cover Haslem. However with Crawford on him, Williams creates some space for himself and sinks a three pointer.

Lee Layup Shot: Missed

On the next series, Lee goes baseline against Haslem, but he misses the reverse layup. The Knick announcers state that it was a “nice move” despite the negative outcome.

Marbury Foul:Shooting (1 PF)
Williams Free Throw 1 of 2 missed
8:17 [MIA 6-8]
Williams Free Throw 2 of 2 (4 PTS)

Miami runs the pick & roll again, this time Marbury is on Jason Williams. Lee gives Stephon room to go under the pick. Despite being in a position where he should be able to defend the inside, Marbury is unable to prevent Williams from getting to the hoop. Marbury fouls Williams, who converts one of two.

7:45 [MIA 8-8]
Haslem Jump Shot: Made (4 PTS)
Assist: Williams (1 AST)

The Knicks miss a shot, and Miami is in transition. Quentin Richardson is playing center field, making sure no one gets an easy bucket. Marbury takes Richardson’s man, Ricky Davis. Suddenly Davis drives to the hoop towards Richardson with Marbury trailing. With two defenders on him, he kicks it out to Marbury’s man, Jason Williams. Lee rotates over, and Williams hits Lee’s man Haslem for an open jumper.

Lee Turnover:Bad Pass (2 TO) Steal:Hardaway (2 ST)

Richardson is posting Hardaway, and Lee tries to get Quentin the ball. Penny jumps in front and intercepts the pass. Miami tries to take advantage of the opportunity…

Davis Layup Shot: Missed
Lee Rebound (Off:0 Def:2)

…but Davis misses the shot and Lee grabs the miss.

[MIA 10-10]
Haslem Jump Shot: Made (6 PTS)
Assist: Williams (2 AST)

Jason Williams blows past Marbury on a Shaq pick & roll. Lee helps out on this play, and Haslem is wide open. Williams hits Haslem, who nails the open 12 footer.

O’Neal Layup Shot: Missed
Haslem Rebound (Off:1 Def:1)
6:21 [MIA 12-12]
Haslem Hook Shot: Made (8 PTS)

Shaq has the ball in the post and Lee double teams to assist Curry. Lee flails his arms as Shaq comes towards him, but O’Neal misses the shot. Looking at the replay, two things occur here. First is that Lee is shocked for a moment that he isn’t called for a foul on the play. It looks like he intended to foul Shaq to force him to convert from the charity stripe. This moment of hesitation may have cost him the rebound. Haslem beat Lee to the ball and puts it back for another score. The second thing is that Eddy Curry could have had the rebound. After Shaq misses the shot, Curry who is less than 6 feet from the hoop runs towards the offensive end, instead of trying to rebound the ball.

Lee Jump Shot: Missed

David Lee misses an open jumper. Lee had the ball by himself on the baseline, but Shaq was under the hoop conceding the shot, not allowing Lee to get closer.

Malik Rose seen sitting at the scorer’s table waiting to check in.

O’Neal Jump Shot: Missed
Lee Rebound (Off:0 Def:3)

Shaq misses, and Lee grabs the rebound.

3:41 [MIA 18-14]
Haslem Jump Shot: Made (10 PTS)
Assist: Williams (3 AST)

Williams and Haslem again run the pick & roll. Williams goes through it to his left, then back to his right. Marbury is unable to stay with Williams, and Lee helps out picking him up at the foul line. Williams passes the ball behind his back to Haslem, and Haslem buries his 5th shot. In this play, Lee was hampered by Marbury who ran into him trying to get Haslem, preventing him from getting to Udonis.

Lee Layup Shot: Missed
3:21 [NYK 16-18]
Curry Putback Layup Shot: Made (8 PTS)

Marbury & Curry run their own pick & roll. Marbury passes to Curry, who is quickly double teamed. Curry then hits Lee who is picked up by Shaq. Lee can’t make the layup, but Curry is there to clean up the mess.

Lee Substitution replaced by Rose

Looking back at Haslem’s perfect 5-5 stretch against Lee, 2 were in transition, 2 were on pick & roll plays, and one was due to an offensive rebound. However it’s hard to single out Lee as the culprit for these plays. For the transition baskets, Lee made sure he was back on defense, but had to cover someone else’s man. Similarly with the pick & roll, Lee had to defend the guard on the Haslem buckets.

While Lee didn’t have a good offensive start, his defense was at least adequate. Looking at these plays it’s clear that the Knicks’ defensive problems stem from more than just one player. It’s easy to point to the guards as the root of the cause, but New York’s defensive woes may go further than that. Take the pick & roll. I don’t recall the last time the Knicks “hedged” (where the forward steps out to slow down the guard) under Isiah Thomas. It’s funny because the hedge was a staple of the past Knick teams. In fact I can’t even think about Kurt Thomas without thinking how good he was at slowing down guards on the pick & roll. In fact they seem to do one of two things. Either the guard goes under, or the guard goes over and tries to catch up with his man. Unfortunately neither tactic seems particularly effective. The Knicks inability to come up with any way to slow down the pick & roll might be the fault of their players. But it might also be the fault of the coaching staff, who has been unable to put together an adequate defense.

Renaldo Balkman For DPOY (oh yeah and Knicks 119 – Denver 112)

I like to see myself as a person that’s grounded. Someone that doesn’t get exceedingly excited on trivial matters, or get swept up by things that are over hyped. I think I’m a realist, and from the feedback I get I’m probably right on that issue. Some people think I’m too liberal with my assessment of the team (and Isiah Thomas). On the other hand I’ve been called a Knick-hater by the most loyal of the orange and blue.

So I say this with all seriousness: Renaldo Balkman could win “Defensive Player of the Year” one day.

Last night’s Knick game started as a clinic on how not to play defense. The halftime score was 66-60 Denver, and neither team seemed interested in stopping their opponent. The Knicks shot 60%eFG, only to be topped by the Nuggets at 61.5%. New York did turn the ball over 12 times, but most of it was throwing the ball away, easily seen by Denver’s 4 steals. Barely noticed on the stat sheet was Renaldo Balkman, who played just over 5 minutes. He only scored 2 points, and had a +/- of -6 (thank you NBA for keeping track of that in real time). By the end of the game, Balkman had 11 points and 4 rebounds in 27 minutes. Hardly game changing stats. But make no mistake about it, Renaldo Balkman gave New York the keys to victory.

Balkman spent most of the second half defending against Linas Kleiza and Carmelo Anthony. Kleiza had torched the Knicks in the first half, hitting all 5 of his attempts, 2 from beyond the arc. In the second half, he shot only 3-8. Balkman used his closing speed and long reach to force Kleiza into two bad three point attempts, blocking one of them near the end of the third quarter.

Knick fans know the team has serious issues preventing opponents from scoring from downtown. In their first two games, the Knicks allowed the opposition to shoot greater than 50% from three. Last night, Denver started off hot from downtown, nailing 5 of 6. But with Balkman playing 22 minutes in the second half, Denver managed only 1 of 10 three pointers. Balkman has amazing quickness to recover to the outside, phenomenal leaping ability, and superb length. I don’t think I’ve seen many defenders that can reach the outside and block the shot of an open shooter standing behind the arc. Bruce Bowen can’t do it. Ron Artest can’t either. The only comparison I have is Andrei Kirilenko. It’s funny because at some point last year KnickerBlogger writer, and USC employee, Dave Crockett received flack for using the same comparison. Watching Balkman, the analogy is apt.

But Balkman isn’t just your run-of-the-mill skinny shot blocker. Balkman’s most impressive work of the second half was on Carmelo Anthony. Due primarily to the work of Balkman, Anthony shot 2-9 in the second half with 3 turnovers. Against Anthony, Balkman bodied him up, usually on the blocks, and forced him into uncomfortable situations. Balkman blocked one of Carmelo’s layups in the third quarter, and forced Anthony to cough the ball up with a critical charging call in the fourth quarter. The latter play was partially due to Marbury reaching for the ball, but Balkman anticipated the spot Anthony would turn to and hit the floor convincingly when contact was made. It was the type of play that Artest or Bowen excel at. Strong physical defense combined with the intelligence to know when to hit the floor.

Good defensive players usually excel at only one area of defense. There are the skinny shot blockers like Kirilenko, Camby, and Gadzuric who aren’t physical enough to be effective man defenders. On the other hand there are good man defenders that don’t block shots well, such as Jason Collins, Bruce Bowen, and Kurt Thomas. However Balkman seems to encompass both attributes, which makes him a particularly strong defender. If he can ever get enough minutes and stay healthy, I could see Balkman could competing for a DPOY.

They Said It (11/06/07)

The internet offers a place for many people to express their opinion. Gone are the days where only the opinion of people who get paid for writing are seen by the masses. Today anyone can state what they think on a subject publicly, for everyone to see. Below are some quotes taken directly from various web pages, so I can?t take credit for any of them. I?ve only added a lighthearted header (in bold) to enhance your reading pleasure.

I find them to be pretty useless after 82 games too.

Power rankings are pretty useless after only 2 NBA games.

Ummmm Chris, this article is either 1 month too early, or 4 months too late.

Fire Isiah Thomas

It’s over. Done. Finished. Thomas is not the coach for this team. Nor is he the president. Thomas would be a great fit as the Knicks’ director of college scouting, but I don’t think he would agree to that type of demotion.

And I hate posting ironic quotes…

I hate jumping to conclusions so early… Yet we are 2 games into the season and I am already sick of Q… these past 2 games have been awful for him and he’s brought nothing to the table thus far (Not even good defending)

I would have said it would take him 13 attempts to hit you 4 times.

If you heckled [Jamal] enough that he charged into the stands, just hide behind another fan because you know Crawford doesn’t fight through screens.

This could be taken 2 entirely different ways. (Real thread title on a message board.)

Where are all the Kurt Thomas Lovers?

I think your last sentence answers your question.

Why are we the most hated team in the league? Everyone seems to treat our team almost as if we should be kicked out of the NBA. I know we’re from NY and there’s high expectations but we get trashed more than every other team in this league. They talk bad about us on almost every forum. It’s crazy because there’s no team in this league that we can’t beat on any given night.

Although this was a funny answer too. (Response to the post above.)

They jealous because they don’t have a 33 win team like us.

OK, we will.

“That will change next year,” Crawford said in a phone interview. “You can quote me on that one. We’ll be in the playoffs next year and beyond, God-willing that everyone is healthy.”

Put down the crack pipe, and slowly walk away from the computer.

Come on now people,

SO WHAT if [Crawford] wants to take the final shot. he is the ONLY player on NY that actually isn’t afraid to step up. If everyone was keeping up with the knicks you would know that he has brilliant court vision and a high basketball IQ. Almost Single handedly he was responsible for Eddy Curry’s explosion this year. He is a great passer and NEVER gives up when he makes a mistake.

Talk about buys who are full of shit, like jarred jeffries & jerome james. We have our perimeter defenders in JJ, QR and balkman. Unfortunately, Two of those guys were injured teh majority of the season. If Crawford didn’t go down, I bet you that we would have been in the playoffs last year. A man scores 52 with 15 straight shots while he has injured, what more do you want? That was when Curry was injured he stepped up, after the denver brawl, crawford was part of the crew that stepped up.

You wanna look for deficiencies, in NY…. Blame the medical staff. Its there wrong prognosis on Lee, Crawford and Quentin that cost us the season.

I heard Simonides of Ceos is much more civilized. (Responding to the quote above.)

I can’t have a civilized argument with a homer. whatever I say, you will just spew the same old rhetoric. I just wish there was a policy where extreme homers like you got banned. Hopefully in the future.


Before you get all fanboy on it, it’s meant to be funny. My favorite line:

New York might be the only team in the league whose second unit could beat its first team. Lee, Robinson, Balkman… Jared Jeffries and Jerome James. Never mind.

Sometimes it’s good to laugh at all the stupid things we take seriously around here.

Knicks 2007 Report Card (A to Z): Channing Frye

KnickerBlogger: Channing Frye looked to be one of the better picks of the 2005 draft, earning a berth on the All Rookie 1st team, and was one of the bright spots of the abysmal 2006 season. Frye’s main strength was his jump shot. He showed good accuracy and range on his jump shot, making him an ideal pick and roll partner. Frequently he burned opposing big men who were too slow to guard him on the outside. Although primarily an outside threat, Frye did have the buddings of a decent low post game. And while he was not a fantastic rebounder or shot blocker, Frye certainly didn’t embarrass himself in either category. According to, the top 5 comparables to Knick forward/center were a solid group of Sharone Wright, Drew Gooden, Marcus Camby, Joe Smith, and Michael Doleac. Isiah Thomas looked as if he worked his draft magic yet again.

However a funny thing happened on the way to the All Star Game, Channing Frye suffered a horrendous sophomore slump in 2007. His PER plummeted from a vigorous 18.0 to an anemic 10.5. Frye had setbacks in a few major categories namely his scoring (20.4 to 14.4 pts/40), free throw attempts (5.8 to 2.3 FTA/40), offensive rebounding (3.5 to 1.9 oReb/40), and eFG% (47.9% to 43.5%). Frye’s top 5 most comparable players after last year were Michael Doleac, Thurl Bailey, Doug Smith, Anthony Avent, and Steven Stepanovich. Hardly the same class of players as the first 5.

There are a host of theories on what happened to Frye from his freshman to his sophomore season. The first is the Curry-Frye theory, which claims that Frye’s decline was due to Curry’s emergence as the Knicks sole low post player. Pushing Frye out to the perimeter would explain his drop in rebounding and foul shots, but shows Frye to have a higher PER at the forward position than at center (where he plays with Curry off the court). So the entire blame can’t be placed on Curry’s shoulders.

The second theory is the Sax-Knoblauch theory, which claims that Frye’s decline was from the pressure to succeed in New York. While the Knicks aren’t as high profile as the Yankees, Frye was visibly shaky at times. He passed up on wide open 20 footers, normally his bread and butter. It’s unknown what could cause such a transformation, but clearly Frye’s suffered from a lack of confidence.

Finally the last theory, also known as the Frye-Injury theory, claims that Frye never fully recovered from his injuries. Channing missed the end of 2006 with a knee sprain, and the summer with a twisted ankle. It may not even be that Frye was physically hurt, but rather disoriented from the lack of cohesion with his teammates due to missing so many games.

KnickerBlogger’s Grade: F

2008 Outlook: Whichever theory or combination of theories you ascribe to regarding Channing Frye’s sophomore slump, 2008 is going to be a make or break season for him. Luckily for Frye, he’ll have a fresh start in Portland. He’ll back up the high profile duo of Oden & Aldridge for a team with little expectations and less brighter lights. With a boost of confidence and an offense that features him a bit more, Frye could show that 2007 was just a bump in the road.

Dave Crockett: I hate to give a guy an F, especially a fellow Arizona alum but… yeesh. This was a throw away season for Frye. For my money–and this is after having seen a ton of his college games–I think the move away from the screen-roll oriented offense along with the injuries were the major culprits. Perhaps more fundamentally though his game was built to be unsustainable; so one-dimensional it was. Frye should benefit from playing for Nate McMillan on a team that will probably run the floor a little more; something I happen to think is a palliative, if not the cure for athletic big men prone to offensive droughts.

Brian Maniscalco: Here’s a project for an ambitious researcher. Has there ever been another player whose PER dropped by 7 or 8 points in consecutive seasons early on in his career? The magnitude of that drop is so enormous that it must rank among the all time free falls in NBA history, especially for a player so early in his career. If there are players with similar falls from grace, how did they fare in the future? Is this the sort of thing a player can recover from or is it a death knell?

My guess is that Frye will bounce back, but I doubt he will regain the promise he held after his rookie season. I expect him to be a good-to-very-good backup for Portland, and in the best possible circumstances it’s conceivable that he could win a sixth man award or possibly slip into an All-Star game. But after such an awful performance last season I don’t see his ceiling being any higher than that, whereas after his strong rookie campaign it seemed like the sky was the limit.

Michael Zannettis: My feelings about Frye’s play this year are well-documented. Without getting to the free throw line or being a force on the offensive glass, the one player that showed up in his comparables both seasons, Michael Doleac, seems to be the player he’s become. Another name that comes to mind is Maurice Taylor. As we’ve learned from players like Doleac and Taylor is that as sweet as that mid-range jumpshot is, it’s actually the worst shot to take on the court. You’d have to hit it at a ridiculous rate to be a viable offensive player if that was your only skill.

I can’t blame Frye’s struggles on the screen-and-roll, the brights lights of New York, or the tunnel vision of Mr. Curry. Simply put, he didn’t man up. He played soft. As much as we often like to question Curry’s effort level, especially on defense, we have to wonder where Frye’s determination to grab an offensive board went. They don’t call it “fighting” for position, for nothing.

Brian Cronin I took Brian’s challenge, and took a look at every rookie in NBA history who played as many games as Channing Frye did in his first year (65) and ended up with a PER of at least 8 for the season.

Of the 915 matches, only ONE of them had a PER drop as large as Frye’s, John Shasky, who posted a 12.7 PER for the Miami Heat in their expansion year of 1988-89, but only a 2.5 in 14 games for Golden State the following season. Shasky played one more year before his NBA career ended, with a nice rebound PER of 11.1 for Dallas in 1990-91.

So this is basically unprecedented (Shasky wasn’t a major rotation piece like Frye was), which I guess bodes well for Frye, in the sense that it sounds like a bit of a fluke.

However, upon looking through the players, I did note a number of players who suffered decent setbacks (minus 4 or so points) and in almost every case, while there was some bounceback, for the most part, they continued to stay at the lower level or even decline further.

So I don’t think Channing Frye’s future is a bright one.

As for his grade for this past season, I’m gonna be nice and say D-.

Could Eddy Curry Cost the Knicks Kobe Bryant?

It’s as official as unofficial gets. According to news services, Kobe Bryant has met with Lakers owner Jerry Buss and re-iterated his desire to be traded. According to ESPNNEWS, Kobe is willing to go to 1 of 3 different teams: Phoenix, Chicago, or New York. Of course it makes sense that the Lakers would refuse to trade Kobe to Phoenix, a Western Conference rival, so essentially it would be a 2 team race.

There’s a lot of speculation concerning possible Kobe deals. Chris Sheridan wrote that New York is a possible front runner, offering Jamal Crawford, David Lee, Channing Frye, Nate Robinson, Randolph Morris, Renaldo Balkman, and a pair of picks (’08 & ’10). Funny thing is, according to ESPN’s own’ trade checker, that deal isn’t possible, since the Knicks would be about $1.5M short with not enough small salaries to match. Even if they did a sign & trade (Cato?) to make the deal cap-frienldy, it would leave the Knicks with a roster similar to Kobe’s current team; one severely devoid of talent. New York’s depth chart would look something like:

PG: Marbury/Collins
SG: Kobe/Francis
SF: Richardson/Jeffries
PF: M.Rose/Jerome James
C: Curry/James/Cato?

The power forward depth chart would be a ghastly Malik Rose/Jerome James combo. The inevitable injury to Quentin Richardson would mean major playing time for both Jared Jeffries and Mardy Collins. New York wouldn’t have a draft pick to shore up their needs until the next Republican president. Glued to the bench for 35 minutes a game, Steve Francis would probably have his third career “in-season vacation”, and trading him would only leave a hole at reserve shooting guard. Isiah Thomas would only be left with the mid-level exception to build the team, and his previous acquisitions of Vin Baker, Jerome James, and Jared Jeffries wouldn’t instill me with confidence that he could acquire enough spare parts to build around Kobe.

Chad Ford imagines an interesting scenario: a 3-way deal concerning Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago. The Bulls would send Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas, P.J. Brown to make the salaries match, and this year’s #9 pick. The Wizards would send their disgruntled superstar (Arenas) to the Lakers, and receive the Bulls’ young players. Meanwhile Chicago would net Kobe with enough of a team remaining to be highly competitive. This would be a more palatable deal for Los Angeles, who get a star in Arenas in return. Even if Washington isn’t interested in moving Arenas, Chicago can offer this deal to Los Angeles directly. Either Arenas or the Bulls package would give Los Angeles bigger name recognition and more talent than the one Sheridan proposed above

From a Knick perspective, what’s most curious about Ford’s proposal are the Chicago players involved. Chicago received Tyrus Thomas and the #9 pick from New York in the Eddy Curry trade. So with the rival Bulls in a much better position to get one of the premiere talents in the NBA, I can’t help to wonder if the Knicks would be in a better position to get Kobe had they not made the Eddy Curry trade? In this alternative world New York could send David Lee, who would fit Gordon’s role as young possible All Star, and Steve Francis who would not only match Kobe’ salary, but would be a useful replacement. An offer of David Lee, Tyrus Thomas, the #9 pick, and Steve Francis is just as good if not better than Ford’s trade. In this scenario, the Bulls wouldn’t have Thomas or the #9 pick to compete against New York’s offer, and instead Chicago would be the lesser player in this negotiation. New York could still increase the offer by including youngsters Balkman, Robinson, and/or Collins. In such a trade, New York’s depth chart would look like:

PG: Marbury/(Robinson/Collins)
SG: Kobe/Francis/Crawford/(Robinson)
SF: Richardson/(Balkman)/Jeffries
PF: M.Rose/(Balkman)
C: Frye/James/Cato?

Assuming that the Knicks don’t have to sweeten the pot with their young trio, the franchise would have better depth and more assets to trade than in Sheridan’s scenario. Crawford and Francis would both be expendable, and could be used to upgrade the F/C positions. Even Balkman, Collins, or Robinson could be moved to fit the team around Kobe’s needs. New York would finally have the marquee player they’ve sought since Ewing was traded. But most importantly, the Knicks would have a powerhouse team to end their 6 year declinasty.

Of course this is just speculation. The Wizards may wish to reconcile with Arenas. The Bulls might be forced to make a stronger offer containing Deng. A third team like the Pacers or Timberwolves might try to acquire Kobe. Or Kobe might rescind his trade demand and stay put. But if, or I should say, IF Kobe does get traded to Chicago for a package that included the fruit of the Eddy Curry trade, I’d spend a lot of time wondering if Eddy Curry cost the Knicks Kobe Bryant.

Is the NBA Draft Broken?

With the dust of the 2007 NBA lottery beginning to settle, two lines of complaint are fresh in the media and fans? collective consciousness:

1. Something is wrong with the draft because it encourages tanking.
2. Something is wrong with the draft because the top picks do not always go to the worst teams.

The implicit irony in the whole situation is that these flaws are not independent. At one end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (2) by assigning draft order strictly by record. But this system maximizes worries about (1) because it gives every non-playoff team every incentive to do their very worst.

At the other end of the extreme, we can imagine a system that completely eliminates worries about (1) by assigning draft order completely randomly, say by pulling all 30 team names out of a hat one by one. But this system maximizes worries about (2) because it completely disregards the notion that talent should be distributed according to need.

It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a draft system to eliminate all worries about both (1) and (2); rather, some compromise between the opposing injustices must be struck based on the relative ?moral? weight we assign them. In this case, we can?t both have the absolute greatest taste and the absolute least filling, but we can at least try to find the best balance.

So we must ask, then, which is the graver sin: to encourage teams to tank, or to risk giving the riches to the already rich (or, at least, the lower middle class)? In my mind, it?s no contest. It is worse to fail to give the best talents to the teams that most need them.

Think about it. Because playoff seedings give most teams a reason to remain competitive throughout most of the season, tanking only takes hold for the bottom third of the NBA universe, the part that wasn?t good to begin with. Furthermore, tanking is a tricky game because you can?t be too obvious about it, which in turn limits the extent to which you can actually tank in an effective fashion. The most effective tanking strategy would be for a team to play its five worst players for all 48 minutes of every game, but of course public pressure against deliberately losing prevents teams from deploying anything nearing such a fail-safe tanking method. For the same reason, any outright directives to coaches or players to, you know, not try so hard are taboo– in the not unlikely event that such explicit directives are leaked to the media, you?re sitting on a PR disaster for the ages. Likewise, funny business about who plays how many minutes can only be brought into play in the latter stages of the season without raising too many eyebrows.

So, in reality, what tanking comes down to is this: a handful of the NBA?s worst teams may decline to play a handful of their better players for a handful of games (or fourth quarters) in the last third or quarter of the season. Sure, in principle it violates sportsmanlike ethics, but in practice it doesn?t seem too outrageously bad, does it? Fans of said tanking team only have to sit through play over the final stages of the season that, on average, is marginally worse than the poor play they had already been sitting through all season. As compensation, in the short term they get to see their team?s youth play and in the long term their team gets marginally better prospects for a better talent in the draft. In the grand scheme of things, this may not be ethically ideal, but it does not strike me as a huge quandary either. It is maybe on a par with a poor-salaried cubicle worker striking back at the system by stealing office supplies every now and then– a regrettable attitude that is antithetical to the ideals of the profession, but which nonetheless entails relatively benign consequences.

On the other hand, failing to give the neediest teams the best new talent is, in the NBA world, a crime of the highest order. In basketball, one singular talent can be the difference maker for a franchise for over a decade, as Knicks fans know all too well. A team?s legacy and place in basketball history, as well as an entire basketball era in the lives of thousands of current and yet-to-be fans, may depend on the team securing that singular talent. These are the things that make basketball, as a sporting institution, go ?round. And in a just world we?d like for those wellsprings of basketball life to go to the teams and fans that have longest been deprived of them.

So, if we must strike a compromise between a system that encourages tanking and a system that encourages equitable distribution of talent, it should certainly hedge considerably toward equitable distribution of talent.

But, strangely enough, I?m not so sure that the current system really is broken. The implicit social constraints on just how much a team can tank limits just how many wins a team can shave from its record, and the way the lottery system works ultimately limits the impact of those shaved wins on draft standing. In an ESPN Insider article written back in March, John Hollinger figured that a tanking team is liable to drop at most 5 games due to its (socially constrained) tanking efforts, which on average boosts a team?s chances at the top pick by only 6 percentage points. That is the best case tanking scenario; most are not even that dramatic in terms of wins sacrificed or percentage points gained.

Likewise, the current system does a reasonably good job of allowing for equitable distribution of talent. There is a fairly considerable amount of volatility at the top, but only true bottom feeders are really in contention. (Although the 3 worst teams all dropped out of the top 3 slots this year in an already infamous upset, it is hard to argue that the teams that managed to move up are substantially less needing or deserving of those top picks.) And, because only the top 3 picks are up for lottery grabs, it is ensured that a lottery team will select no lower than 3 spots below its ranking according to record, which is an effective way to limit the volatility of the lottery process and ensure equitable distribution of drafting opportunities across the map.

On the whole, the system seems reasonably well balanced, given the inherent compromises that must be made. An argument can be made that the system should be tweaked to either further discourage tanking or to assign draft order more systematically according to record, but I get the feeling that calls for such tweaks are overreactions to extraordinary circumstances. Where have these complaints been the last 10 years? So much attention has been called both to tanking and to the worst teams losing the best picks simply because there is so much talent at the very top of this draft class, and thus so much at stake. This is a historically unusual situation that, because of its potential to alter the NBA landscape for the next 10 years, makes the injustices on both sides of the current lottery compromise seem more pronounced, more unjust, and more in need of change. But to shift the compromise and change one injustice for the better is to change the other for the worse, and it?s not clear that, on the whole, the system isn?t already settled on a reasonable balance.