2008-9 Game Thread: Knicks vs Celtics

Stu Jackson helped give the Knicks a punter’s chance of winning tonight by suspending Kevin Garnett one game, so the All-Star Forward will miss tonight’s game. Then again, he missed two games against the Knicks last year as well, and the Knicks lost both games.

In other news, apparently Gallinari may “only” need to rest two months rather than have surgery, which is good news, if true (thanks to Italian Stallion for the heads up).

Euro Trip

What’s the best course of action for America’s best 18 year old basketball player? The answer depends on what year it is. Decades ago a player probably would have gone to college for 4 years to refine their game, possibly get an education, and prepare themselves for the NBA. Although Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins skipped college and went straight to the pros in the mid 70s, this wasn’t a common decision. In fact for 20 years no other player took this direct route. Even Shawn Kemp and Lloyd Daniels went to college, although neither played in an NCAA game due to off the court issues.

But as time passed, the options for an 18 year old baller increased. Due to some combination of the NCAA increasing its eligibility standards for incoming athletes, the popularization of high school athletics, the increasing amount of underclassman opting out of college, and rising NBA salaries, many players opted to go straight to the pros. When Kevin Garnett decided in 1995 to forgo college and apply for the NBA draft it was a controversial decision. But over the next few years as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Jermaine O’Neal made the same jump (and with a good degree of success) it became more common for players to skip college.

Consider the options at this time for a high school senior that was likely to be drafted in the first round. They could go to college where competing against Division I players could expose a player’s flaws. Waiting an extra year could result in a deeper draft class, and the player would get drafted later. Or the player could suffer an injury, and they would never get drafted at all. Each of these could cause a player to potentially lose millions of dollars. On the other hand a player’s NCAA play could enhance his draft standing, sending him to the top of the draft. Because most first rounders earn at least $1M a year, the difference between $4M and $1M in terms of life changing opportunities isn’t worth the risk of losing it all. For most athletes, the smart choice meant going to the NBA as soon as possible.

This progression continued for about 10 years until the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement set the age limit to 19 for a player to join the NBA. Hence players could no longer make the jump directly from high school to the NBA. Basketball pundits thought this move was to force players to go to college, and the term “one and done” (a prospect who went to college for one year only because they weren’t eligible to apply for the NBA draft) gained popularity. However it may not have been NBA Commissioner David Stern’s intention to send prospective employees to college. In fact when asked about the “one and done” phenomenon recently on Pardon the Interruption, Stern remarked something to the effect of “this is not an NBA problem it’s an NCAA problem.”

And indeed it is. Not only have college players shortened their amateur career, but many have skipped it entirely. Take for example the most famous underclass team: Michigan’s Fab Five. The three most talented players (Webber, Howard, and Rose) all left before their senior year. It’s no longer news when a player applies for the draft. These days it’s news when a player stays around for another year (e.g. 2006 Gators). In this last NBA draft, 4 of the top 5 players were underclassmen on Final Four teams. This attrition must hurt the pool of talent available to NCAA schools.

However there may be another option in the future for young basketball players. Earlier this week the New York Times said that top point guard prospect Brandon Jennings was considering playing in Europe, and yesterday ESPN has confirmed that Jennings has made his decision to go overseas. There are three factors which have opened up this possibility for Jennings. The first is the increased NCAA academic standards. (“Jennings has committed to play at Arizona and his adviser, Kelly Williams, has said that he will find out if Jennings qualified on Friday.”) The second is the age limit to the NBA. (“Even if he enrolls at Arizona, Jennings is expected to spend only one year with the Wildcats.”) The third is that the NCAA doesn’t pay its student athletes, while European teams do. According to the New York Times, “[Jennings] would most likely get a minimum of $300,000, including salary and endorsements”. Although Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress says he can’t see a top European club offering Jennings more than $100,000.

Naturally college coaches are against such a move. (“[Memphis Coach John Calipari] cited the language barrier, games against more physically dominant competition, and the cultural adjustment for a teenager.”) But for a single year in Europe, a player could make enough money to pay for four years of college (one year at Rutgers University costs $20,096). Playing against more skilled players would make them more NBA ready. Teenagers frequently compete in European professional leagues. Knicks draft pick Danilo Gallinari was playing in Italian Serie B1 League at the age of 15. Spain’s Ricky Rubio debuted in the Euroleague at 16. And of course living in another country is a great life experience. Consider that college students typically consider studying abroad as an opportunity.

Ultimately the NCAA is largely responsible for creating these conditions. They make billions off of student athletes while paying them relatively next to nothing. For years they’ve been able to exploit athletes whose desire is to play professionally by controlling a monopoly to the doorsteps of the NBA. The relationship between the NCAA & young athletes have been a one sided affair. According to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

Every student who goes to school, post high school is given every opportunity and encouraged to maximize their effort and optimize their resources to achieve their goals. Unless of course they happen to attend a school that is a member of the NCAA and their goal is to be a professional athlete.

Jennings could become his generation’s Kevin Garnett and high school players might consider going overseas the better choice to a year of college. Should he return to the NBA, it will become a viable option, especially for those worried about meeting academic standards. What happens next is unclear. It’s highly unlikely that the NCAA makes a major change, since they won’t pay their athletes. One possibility is the emergence of a basketball minor league, but this interview with the former GM of the Utah Flash shows that the NBDL isn’t ready to fill the void.

An example, we had Brandon Wallace on assignment from the Celtics, he was a draft pick and they sent him to us. He was on our roster, he played for us. And in January, late December, the Celtics cut him and we had no rights to him. And that didn’t make any sense to us. We tried to make it work, we talked to his agent, but we just couldn’t get it worked out. And I think that was a source of embarrassment for the league.

With European leagues breaking up the NCAA’s monopoly on young basketball players, don’t expect things to stay the same. Depending on the contract, European teams can receive up to $500,000 from NBA teams for a drafted player. With Jennings opening the door, foreign teams will have incentive to recruit America’s best underage basketball prospects. Eventually some organization is going to want to keep these players from going oversees. The NBA would have a motive since they would be paying an extra half million dollars for some of their draft picks. The NCAA might want to make a change before their basketball empire crumbles. And the NBDL could take advantage of this opportunity to make themselves a proper minor league. One thing is for certain, future 18 year old basketball prodigies will have more than one option to consider.

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. 

Celtics All In With KG Deal

The Boston Celtics have acquired their second All Star since the season ended. According to a few sources, Minnesota has agreed to send Kevin Garnett to Boston. The players included aren’t official yet, but it’s possible that Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, and a piece of paper with Theo Ratliff’s signature on it will be included. Other possibilities include Sebastian Telfair and Ryan Gomes. Earlier this year, the Celtics traded the #5 overall pick to Seattle for Ray Allen. It’s clear that Danny Ainge is cashing in his chips in an effort to win now. Ainge failed to (re-)build a winner around Paul Pierce, trying to combine failed draft picks (Troy Bell, Dahntay Jones, Delonte West, Tony Allen) with overpriced veterans (Theo Ratliff, Gary Payton, Michael Olowokandi, Ricky Davis). So instead Danny Ainge has gone “Flip That House” on the Celtics roster, and have instantly upgraded at 2 positions.

As a Knick fan I’m a bit disappointed that Garnett, a top notch NBA superstar, will be playing against New York for a division rival. In a way I wonder why Isiah couldn’t match or top the deal, since we should have more talent than the 24-win Celtics. You seriously have to wonder how much Ainge and McHale’s Boston ties helped to solidify this deal, because you think a few teams (Chicago, Detroit, Toronto) could have matched this offer as well.

However just because Boston has the most potent trio East of the Mississippi, doesn’t guarantee them a spot in the Finals. Garnett, Allen, and Pierce are all on the wrong side of 30, and they missed 66 games combined last year. The one problem with this deal is that it leaves Boston with few pieces left to surround this talent. While top flight talent is one criteria for building an NBA powerhouse, one thing that separates the good teams from the championship level teams is depth. That said there’s just too much talent with these three players for this not to work. As long as all three stay healthy, they can make a serious postseason run. Now that Danny Ainge is all in & his friend just passed him the ace he needed, Ainge needs to finish the job & surround this trio with quality role players for it to work. But at least for him, the hard part is done.

The Garnett Rumors

According to a (very) recent report, the consensus now in NBA circles is that Kevin Garnett will very likely be traded to the Phoenix Suns, with the Lakers still pushing to get involved.

Garnett playing alongside Nash would be tremendous to see, even more so if the Suns somehow manage to avoid losing Amare Stoudemire in the deal.

Meanwhile, though, if you’re Boston – if you don’t get Kevin Garnett (or Stoudemire, I suppose), why would you ever trade Al Jefferson?

If you’re Atlanta, how awesome would it be to flip #3 and #11 for Amare freakin’ Stoudemire?!?!

If you’re Minnesota, which would you prefer – Jefferson and the #5 or the #3 and the #11? I think Jefferson and the #5 is a no brainer.

In any event, looks like some interesting times leading up to the NBA draft. It looks like we WILL have a deal before the draft, so tomorrow and Thursday should get reeeeeeeeeal interesting.

Draft Prospects, Part III

If you missed Parts I & II highlighting PGs and SGs/SFs respectively who may be on the Knicks? radar screen during this upcoming draft click here for Part I and here for Part II.

I?ll go position-by-position and highlight at most a handful of players who may be available when the Knicks select at #23. The players are listed in no particular order. Player stats and profiles come largely from draftexpress.net and nbadraft.net.

The Knicks got very good offensive production from their power players this season. The tandem of Eddy Curry and David Lee were both in the top 15 in true shooting %, one of only three such tandems in the league (Nash/Stoudemire and Dampier/Nowitzki were the others). Curry managed to keep himself on the court long enough to shoot his customarily high percentage while David Lee emerged as one of the league’s elite rebounders. Unfortunately, Channing Frye’s dramatic sophomore slump and Lee’s late-season injury threw a sizable monkey-wrench into the development of one of the league’s best young power threesomes. Lee’s and Frye’s names have been connected to potential blockbuster trades (read: pipedreams) for Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Given the low likelihood of acquiring either superstar and with the addition of free agent Randolph Morris from Kentucky the Knicks seem stocked at power forward and center. Many of the players profiled here are considered late-first or second round picks. So it seems likely that the Knicks would only be interested in a few (if any) of these players at #23. Yet we all know how quickly things can change in the NBA. The Knicks could potentially move down or pick a player at #23 for another team and trade for one of these players.

Power Forwards

1. Josh McRoberts (6’10”, 244#, Duke)

If you can get past the fact that McRoberts didn’t quite live up to outsized expectations at Duke it is easy to like his floor game. McRoberts strikes me as a Jason Collins-type defender with more athleticism. He averaged 2.8 blocks per 40 and he did it without fouling excessively (averaging .99 blocks/foul). He blocks shots in man-to-man and on weakside rotation with good positioning and nice timing. He’s also an excellent passer from the PF position. He averaged just under 4 assists per 40 (tops among PFs) with a 1.43:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. (Keep in mind that none of his Duke teammates look like bona fide NBA prospects.) McRoberts is not a great rebounder, though not necessarily a liability in that area (9 per 40) either. He’s really not much of a scorer, just under 15 ppg on 56% TS. He doesn’t get to the line much and doesn’t shoot threes. But, if he can find his way onto a team that needs his floor game he can contribute right away.

2. Nick Fazekas (6’11”, 225#, Nevada)

If you’re looking for a perimeter-oriented big man Fazekas is the prime candidate (along with Colorado State’s Jason Smith). His calling card is his shooting, though I’ll note that Fazekas is a better rebounder than he’s typically credited for being (14.5 boards per 40, a hair under 29% of his team’s rebounds). He has those Ilgauskas-like long arms. As I mentioned, he is renowned for his shooting, especially the pick and pop. He’s a 65% true shooter but he does it almost exclusively from the perimeter (only .35 FT/FG). To his credit he’s not careless with the ball despite not being an especially good ball-handler, averaging around 2 TOs/game throughout his career. He is adept at the pick and pop, catch and shoot game. He may slide to the 2nd round mostly because he’s been on scouts’ radars long enough to have his game completely picked apart.

3. Jermareo Davidson (6’11”, 230#, Alabama)

Davidson is a Camby-lite shot-blocker and Camby-like bean pole. His 2.9 blocks per game and 1.3 blocks/foul suggest that there is something to the Camby comparison. He offers nothing on offense other than rebounds and putbacks. He could go anywhere in the 2nd round or go completely undrafted.

4. Tiago Splitter (6’11, 240#, Brazil)

There’s a boatload of stuff out already on Splitter. The only thing I’ll add is that he may have some buyout issues, though that could just be a nasty rumor.

5. Jason Smith (7′, #, Colorado State)

Although Smith is a 7-footer, offensively he is mostly a turn-and-face player in the halfcourt. He is also very athletic. He runs the floor well and can handle the ball a bit. He has range in the 15-18 foot area. Unlike Fazekas he managed to get himself to the line in college (.66 FT/FG) while shooting the same TS% (65%). Unfortunately, also unlike Fazekas, he’s turnover prone (almost 4 per 40) but a good rebounder (13 per 40).

Center

Centers are similar to defensive tackles in football. To get a great one you have to get him early. However, you can find limited but serviceable ones later if you have an eye for talent and the patience to wait.

1. Marc Gasol (7′, 270#, Spain)

Pao’s baby brother is a big, strong, classic center. He is purported to have nice hands and a good feel but lacks athleticism, which is a huge drawback.

2. Aaron Gray (7’2″, 272#, Pittsburgh)

Aaron Gray is a decent rotation center for a team that runs a lot of halfcourt sets. He has always been a strong rebounder and isn’t turnover prone. Although he scored over 20 pts for the offensively-challenged Panthers this season his TS% is pedestrian (57%) and he doesn’t get to the line (.46 FT/FG), suggesting that he isn’t likely to develop into much more than a rotation guy.

3. Sean Williams (6’10”, 235#, Boston College)

Most observers at this point are well-aware of what Williams brings to the table. His shot-blocking numbers really are astounding: 6.3 per 40 and 1.56 per foul. For those of you who saw Williams play you recognize how these numbers may understate his defensive impact. On numerous occasions I have seen Williams switch out on screen-roll situations and block jump shots. He has been compared to Ratliff, though I think Camby is the more apt comparison because of Williams ability to play out on the floor defensively. I don’t recall seeing that from Ratliff. What is probably most surprising about Williams’ play, given the athleticism, length, and timing, is that he’s a legitimately mediocre rebounder (8.7 per 40, which was a substantial improvement over his first two seasons). Of course, since he offers little on offense other than putbacks it’s like playing 4-on-5 with Williams on the floor if he doesn’t help much on the glass. (Frankly, I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around how a player can be a truly great shot-blocker without being a great rebounder. Are there other players like this?) Williams gets the all-capsCAVEAT EMPTOR tag. He is in most respects a one-trick pony with a history of poor personal decision-making. He has considerable on-court work to put in just to be a more complete rotation player. He has the talent but to really develop in the NBA takes a fair bit of maturity. I’m not sure anyone has seen evidence of it.