Addition By Subtraction?

Here in Georgia, we’ve struggled with drought for several years. Last fall, folks with lakefront lots on Lake Lanier saw their boats sitting on mud flats, and Atlanta was down to its last 60 days of water.  Governor Sonny Perdue decided to organize a prayer circle and pray for rain. (He also sued Florida and Alabama). A few hours after the group prayer on the steps of the state Capitol, the clouds burst and Lo! there was rain. What does this have to do with basketball? Well, the Knicks have gone through a long drought….

But I promised to talk about “addition by subtraction.” Posters offered: 1) trading Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd; 2)  trading Marbury for Steve Nash; 3) trading Zach Randolph for Steve Francis & Channing Frye; 4) trading Isaiah Rider for Sean Rooks & change; 5) trading Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue; 6) Firing John McLeod (!) and  7) trading Allen Iverson for Andre Miller.  

It’s clear that to most people, “addition by subtraction” means “trading a star player.” But usually, a player “subtracted” means others “added.” After all, Channing Frye’s mother doesn’t refer to “the Zach Randolph trade.” In some of these examples, one team did get a lot better – but the key was clearly the addition (MVP Nash, 2nd-place MVP Kidd) — NOT the subtraction.  Other examples are more complicated. The Blazers got substantially better after dumping Randolph, as did the 76ers after buying out Webber. The Sixers also improved after trading their superstar for a supposed role player. Are these examples of better chemistry? 

The year he was cut, despite a high usage rate of 23.4, Webber had a TS% of 40.9 and was one of the worst defenders in the league. Not surprisingly, his replacements were better. Randolph’s minutes were largely taken by LaMarcus Aldridge; some of his shots went to Brandon Roy. Both players are more efficient shooters than Randolph, and better defenders. Portland also got back the services of Joel Przybilla, who missed 2006-2007 due to injury. While Randolph is an excellent rebounder, Przybilla is even better – a rebound rate almost 20 percent higher. He’s also a good defender. Meanwhile, as Ted Nelson noted, even before the trade some people considered Andre Miller an equal or better player to Allen Iverson.

Which brings us to Stephon Marbury. Some suggest that the Knicks would help themselves most with a buyout, rather than letting Marbury sit on the bench or trading him. In theory, Marbury offers terrible “intangibles,” and cutting him would improve team chemistry, leading others to play better. 

Paraphrasing Dave Berri, in sportswriter-speak “intangibles” are everything but scoring, measured by points-per-game.  The Knickerblogger reader knows better.  “Intangible” just means we can’t measure it. About the only statistic for which we don’t have a pretty reliable measure, is off-the-ball defense. With that in mind – Stephon Marbury doesn’t have bad “intangibles.” He’s just a mediocre player: a slowing 31-year-old: average on offense, abominable on defense and offering little else. Four statistical ranking systems all tell the same story: a steady decline over the past three years, from a starting point either slightly above or slightly below average. 

PER: 16.52, 15.36, 13.84  (15 is average)

WP/48: .092, .070, .050  (.100 is average) 

Roland Rating: +1.5, 0.0, -4.6

Adjusted Plus/minus:  7.57, 2.88, TBD

The Knicks will defend better with Chris Duhon on the floor, and they might play better overall. But that’s not saying the team would play better with Marbury in Boston, or sitting home. Back in Georgia, Sonny Perdue thanked the powers that be for sending rain. Do you prefer a simple explanation, or the intangibles? 

p.s. The Timberwolves improved 14 games the year after trading Isiah Rider. They had several similar players take his minutes; they also gave an extra 800 minutes to Kevin Garnett and replaced Spud Webb with the rookie Marbury. The Spurs didn’t really improve post-Rodman until Tim Duncan arrived. 

Real Point Guards

Unfortunately for Knick fans there’s little to say this Monday morning. With the trade deadline passed, talking trades is nearly pointless until the season ends. There probably won’t be any major changes until the offseason, because if Isiah Thomas lasted this long he’ll finish off the season as the Knick head coach. As for on the court action, there isn’t much to watch. While I’d love to see what Balkman, Chandler, and Morris can do with real playing time, Isiah seems intent on letting them rot on the bench. There’s such a lack of creativity from the coaching side that when Randolph was unable to play Thomas chose the rail thin Jeffries to start at power forward. There’s really nothing to say about that move without expletives.

So with no reason to watch the Knicks, I’ve started to turn my attention to the rest of the NBA. I caught parts of two games this weekend: Hornets vs. Jazz and Mavs vs. Lakers. There’s one thing that really stuck out at my about both teams, the defensive play of two point guards.

Watching Jason Kidd and Chris Paul play reminded me on why both are considered to be among the best point guards in the game. It wasn’t so much their offensive game, but watching them on defense was a treat. Kidd’s assignment for some critical plays in the game was Kobe Bryant. And although Kobe blew past him at least once, Kidd was able to harass him off the ball. With a few ticks in regulation and the game tied, the Lakers tried to inbound the ball to Kobe, but Kidd was able to deflect it to force overtime. Additionally the former Net was active on the glass grabbing 6 rebounds, 5 on the defensive end. Although Kidd is no longer able to play great man defense, he contributed with ball denial and rebounding.

As for Chris Paul there was one play that stood out in my head. Paul and his man were isolated on one side of the court. The Hornets guard made sure to stand in a position where he could see his player and the rest of the court. As the Jazz guard held the ball and the play was developing, Paul was constantly turning his head from his man to the rest of the players behind him. Despite standing in the same spot, Paul was playing excellent defense by preparing for what might occur.

These plays were a joy to watch, because the Knick guards in the Isiah era have been particularly lacking on the defense. I couldn’t imagine Crawford, Marbury, or Robinson being as active and aware on defense as Paul or Kidd were. As for rebounding, only Nate Robinson likes to clean the glass. The last time Crawford had 6 or more rebounds was in December of last year. And this despite playing nearly 42 minutes a night. I think watching players like Kidd and Paul are the reason why I find myself wanting to see more playing time for guards like Mardy Collins and Frank Williams. It’s not because I think Collins and Williams are/were particularly valuable (that’s especially true in Collins’ case), but because they bring an element that has been missing in New York for some time.

Cross-Conference Deals: Did the East Get Stronger?

Looking back on a frenzied trade season in the NBA I thought I’d take a conference-level approach rather than a team-by-team one, just for kicks and giggles. The dominant perspective among all of us NBA blowhards—bloggers, fans, and press alike—is that the West not only has better teams but also the better top-to-bottom talent. Then the Celtics landed KG and Ray Allen, and some of us thought the deal might reverse the flow of talent back to the East as teams responded to it. After a busy trade season where a lot of players actually did switch conferences I wondered how much those deals have narrowed the on-paper talent gap.

Overall, I think the Eastern Conference certainly managed to stop the bleeding, and perhaps even close the gap a bit. Perhaps most significantly, focusing solely on in-season deals, the second tier eastern teams made moves to restore credibility. That’s important because that’s where I think eastern teams can compete. For instance, New Jersey positioned itself to rebuild reasonably quickly with a solid off-season. Atlanta put itself in a position to get its feet wet in the playoffs and continue to develop its core.

I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the talent that has flowed across conference lines since the season began. Again, my interest is in overall improvement in talent for each conference—not each team. I use two quick-and-dirty indicators of talent: career player efficiency rating (PER) to indicate productivity, and age as a loose indicator of what we should expect from a player in the future. (Due to my interest in the conference, I ignore deals involving teams in the same conference.) This is more of a broad look–not an in-depth statistical profile.

Players Moving East (Age, Career PER)
Gordan Giricek (30, 11.8)
Wally Szczerbiak (30, 16.5)
Mike Bibby (29, 17.1)
Maurice Evans (29, 12.8)
Shawn Marion (29, 20.9)
Trenton Hassell (28, 8.8)
Stromile Swift (28, 16.4)
Brian Cook (27, 14.4)
Marcus Banks (26, 12.1)
DeSagana Diop (26, 10.3)
Devin Harris (24, 16.6)
Delonte West (24, 13.8)
Maurice Ager (23, 1.0)

Average age: 25.2, Average PER: 12.33
(Note: I did not include Keith Van Horn, who is not likely to play for the Nets)

Of the 14 players moving to the East the “prize” acquisitions are either entering their primes (e.g., Harris) or likely have another 2-3 seasons left in it (e.g., Bibby, Marion). Five of the 14 have career PERs at or above league average (15). All but two are under 30. Granted, none have a ceiling comparable to Shaq or Jason Kidd but the list includes a number of useful role players including West, Diop, Swift, and Cook who are still fairly young.

Players Moving West
Shaquille O’Neal (35, 27.4)
Jason Kidd (34, 18.7)
Donyell Marshall (34, 16.8)
Adrian Griffin (33, 11.9)
Anthony Johnson (33, 11.3)
Ira Newble (33, 9.6)
Lorenzen Wright (32, 13.4)
Tyronn Lue (30, 13.1)
Malik Allen (29, 10.8)
Jason Collins (29, 7.6)
Kyle Korver (26, 12.7)
Shelden Williams (24, 11.8)
Antoine Wright (23, 7.2)
Trevor Ariza (22, 14.2)

Average age: 29.8, Average PER: 13.2

When looking at the in-season deals involving players moving to the West, it’s one season after this—maybe two—where Shaq and Kidd can be centerpieces of a championship caliber team. There isn’t much else to consider beyond them, save a few expiring contracts. More than half (8) of the players are 30 or more. Some are useful role players (e.g., Trevor Ariza, Kyle Korver) but none has even Devin Harris-level upside.

The other component to the in-season deals is the draft picks. The Nets own two firsts from the Mavs deal. Seattle owns a second round pick from their three-way with the Cavs and Bulls. Sacramento owns a second round pick from Atlanta. Also, Utah owns a protected first round pick from Philly. To quote Knickerblogger, “looks like a win for the East there too.”

NBA 3 Way Deal Good For Most

Cleveland
Receives: Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, Joe Smith
Loses: Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Cedric Simmons, Shannon Brown, Ira Newble, Donyell Marshall

Sure it’s a sore point that the Cavs aren’t getting the point guard that they’ve been looking for, especially considering Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby, Devin Harris, and even Mike James have all changed teams this year. But looking at who they gave up, it’s addition by subtraction. Consider the league average for TS% is typically around 54% (53.7% at this moment), and look at who’s heading out of Cleveland: Drew Gooden (48.7%), Larry Hughes (46.7%), Donyell Marshall (42.7%), Shannon Brown (43.3%), and Cedric Simmons (21.0%). Only Ira Newble (52.2%) has a TS% anywhere near the median. [On a side note, one has to wonder the merits of conventional wisdom when looking at these numbers. Isn’t playing with a great passer/great scorer (LeBron James) suppose to make the rest of the team better on offense? Where are all the open looks in Cleveland?]

Enter Wally Szczerbiak (TS% 57.3%) and Joe Smith (TS% 51.5%), both of who should provide an offensive boost to Cleveland. Szczerbiak has never had a problem scoring efficiently, and at 30 years of age is still near the top of his game. Suddenly the Cavs look to have the makings of a strong offense: LeBron, Szczerbiak, Gibson, Ilgauskas, Varejao, Smith, Damon Jones, all have TS% above 50%. And although Ben Wallace is shooting poorly (TS% 39.1%) he’ll help the defense as well. With Ilgauskas, Wallace, Varejao, and James the Cavs have enough defense to make up for the guards.

In the end it’s hard not to like this trade for Cleveland. It’s not like the big named deals Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas made, but it should make them a considerably better team in the playoffs.

Seattle
Receives: Adrian Griffin, Donyell Marshall, Ira Newble
Loses: Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak

For Seattle this trade boils down to one thing: getting rid of Szczerbiak’s contract. Wally was Seattle’s highest paid player at $12M/year, nearly twice as much as their second highest paid player (Wilcox $6.5M). As for whom they’ll receive: Marshall has two years left at about $6M per, Adrian Griffin has two years left at $1.7M and Newble’s $3.4M expires this year. It’s not a great deal for Seattle, but it just doesn’t make sense to keep a Wally around on a rebuilding team that’s going to win 20-25 games. The one downside to this deal for Seattle residents is that cutting salaries is usually a necessary step prior to a team’s changing addresses.

Chicago
Receives: Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Cedric Simmons, Shannon Brown
Loses: Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Adrian Griffin

And so ends the Ben Wallace era in Chicago. Big Ben never paid dividends in the Windy City for a number of reasons. Age caught up with Wallace, but he wasn’t the right fit for the Bulls in the first place. Chicago would have been better off keeping Tyson Chandler and grabbing a power forward that can score from the post. Instead they ended up with four defensive minded big men who had trouble scoring: Ben, Andres, Tyrus, and Joakim. Sometimes grabbing the best player in the draft isn’t the best option for teams that are looking to compete now.

However it’s really hard to like who the Bulls received. It’ll be a miracle if Larry Hughes can revert to his best days in Washington. As the years go on it looks as if Hughes’ 2004 & 2005 are the exceptions not the rule. Additionally Hughes contract is nearly as bad as Big Ben’s. Meanwhile Wallace and Joe Smith’s departure is addition by subtraction, because it will force Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah into more minutes. Drew Gooden might be helpful in this area as he should be compliment these players better than they would each other.

In the end it seems as if this was about getting rid of Ben Wallace more than anything else. But the price was to take on Cleveland’s equally bad free agent mistake of Larry Hughes. Chicago can benefit from this trade if one (or both) of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah become successful with the absence of Wallace.

Tonight’s 4 Factors (@ NJN, 12/5/07)

After each game this season, we’ll be taking a look at what the four factors have to say about the game– how the winner won and the loser lost. For an intro to the four factors, see A Layman’s Guide to Advanced NBA Statistics.

Knicks defeat Nets, 100 – 93

	Pace	Eff	eFG	FT/FG	OREB%	TOr
NYK	87.0	114.9	53.0%	45.5	10.3	11.5
NJN		106.9	45.7%	41.4	31.4	14.9

Another Knick win powered mainly by the offense, but in a bit of an unusual way this time. The offensive rebounding, usually powerful, was almost non-existent. The shooting from the field was very good but not out of this world. Credit the very strong offensive performance primarily to a fantastic showing at the FT line (30 FTM on only 66 FGA) and great ballhandling (season low 11.5 TOr, including only two TOs in the second half). Do not expect to see many games like this this season.

The D seems adequate enough, and indeed the Knicks had a better defensive performance than their season average (112.5 pp100). But considering the circumstances it was a weak effort. The Nets have awful offensively this season, scoring only 100.3 points per 100 possessions, and tonight they just happened to be missing the straw that stirs the drink, Jason Kidd. The bulk of the blame goes to too much fouling, allowing the Nets as monstrous an impact at the FT line as the Knicks themselves had. But the Knicks also did a poor job protecting the offensive glass and forcing TOs from the league’s most turnover prone team, even though (again) they were without their primary ballhandler. Tally it all up and it’s another pretty poor defensive effort by the Knicks, first appearances to the contrary.


4 factor stats were acquired using the ESPN4Factors script by Cherokee of the ABPRmetrics board. Firefox users can use this script (after installing the Greasemonkey extension) to see 4 factor stats automatically displayed in all NBA boxscores on espn.com.

Has the United States Made the Adjustment?

Yesterday, the United States brought their record in the FIBA Americas Championships to 3-0 with a 50 point throttling of Canada, 113-63.

Through the first three games, the US is averaging a winning margin of 52 points per game.

While these early opponents aren’t all that impressive, the dominance of the victories IS, and it is a very good sign for the return of United States competitiveness in international play. And really, it seems to be a simple solution to their past problems – the US seems to have actually taken the situation SERIOUSLY for the first time in some years. Read More