Knicks Roster Analysis – Point Guards

Hi, I’m Kevin Pelton. At the risk of going all Lionel Hutz on you, you may remember me from such columns as “Page 23” at Hoopsworld.com and such contests as KnickerBlogger’s 2004 Bloggers Bracket. Over the last couple of months, his KBness and I have shared some e-mails and AIM conversations, and I was flattered when he asked me to do a little guest blogging during his vacation. After giving him some crap about vacationing on the best day of the NBA year, I gladly agreed and offered to give an outsider’s take on the Knicks. I’m basically thinking of this as my chance to do one chapter’s worth of a Pro Basketball Prospectus-style annual.

As KB said in introducing the guest bloggers, I’m a Sonics fan, but I’ve followed the Knicks more closely than the average NBA team the last couple of years. I guess it’s the contrarian in me that makes me feel a certain kinship with a group of guys roundly criticized as underpaid. I championed the Knicks as a playoff team in my preview this year, repeatedly insisting they were better than the Celtics. Lo and behold, I nailed the C’s record and was one game off on the Knicks. Just forget the fact that both teams remade their rosters during the season.

Before we start examining the players in detail, some technical notes about the statistics I’ll be using in the statistical summary:
TS% – true shooting percentage, the best measure of offensive efficiency (PTS/(2*FGA + .88*FTA))
Reb% – percentage of estimated available rebounds grabbed
Pass – 50 * ((AST/MIN)^2)*(AST/TO)

The other measures are all derived from my possession-based rating system, which creates an imaginary team composed of four average players and the player in question. Off and Def are this team’s offense and defense ratings, Win% its winning percentage, and WARP the wins the player is worth over a replacement-level player.

Value is derived from a slightly adjusted WARP formula and uses the Marginal $/Marginal Win concept I’ve adapted to basketball from the late Doug Pappas. I only have this for last season. Salary is the player’s 2004-05 salary (from Hoopshype.com).

Without further ado. ?

Stephon Marbury

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 38.9 20.4 3.2 8.1 .519 4.7 5.12 93.1 91.1 .547 9.7
02-03 40.0 22.3 3.2 8.1 .520 4.6 5.06 93.4 89.9 .592 13.0
03-04 40.2 20.2 3.2 8.9 .519 4.6 7.05 93.0 89.2 .601 13.6 $11.48 $14.63

I spent the summer of 2002 “covering” the Suns for News@Hoopsworld, and the process made me a Marbury fan. That summer, Marbury was feeling the full wrath of the comparison between him and the player he was traded for, Jason Kidd. Marbury was fairly blamed for a foolish DUI, but the blame for the teams’ performance was unjustified, as it usually is. Kidd is a better player, but he’s also been the best point guard in the NBA over the last three years. It wasn’t Marbury’s decision to effectively trade Clifford Robinson for Bo Outlaw, just as Kidd didn’t draft Richard Jefferson or magically heal Kerry Kittles.

Statistically, Marbury is one of the league’s most devastating offensive forces. It’s my belief that players who are good at more than one thing don’t get as much credit for those skills as do one-dimensional players, and Marbury might be exhibit A in that argument. Last year, Marbury posted an identical assist/turnover ratio to Kidd’s and handed out only slightly less assists per minute, but anyone suggesting that they were in the same league in terms of passing would be laughed off the ‘net.

With the Knicks, Marbury drifted slightly more to the true point guard side of things, sacrificing a point per game for an assist per game, a trade-off I imagine Lenny Wilkens was happy to see him make. It’s not inconceivable that Marbury could lead the NBA in assists next season.

The concern is that Marbury gives it all back at the defensive end of the court. Hey, look, here’s a quote that says just that!

“Marbury’s one of the top 10 players on offense,” Wayne Winston, half the brains behind WINVAL, told the Washington Times. “Everybody thinks this guy is a great player. But when he’s on defense, he gives it all back.”

Indeed, per 82games.com, the Knicks were 6.7 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Marbury in the game, 5.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense.

But is that right? Plus-minus numbers, particularly the adjusted kind WINVAL uses, are valuable, but they’re not the complete story on defense. John Hollinger reported in last year’s Prospectus that the Suns ranked fourth in defending starting point guards, and 82games.com also reports that Marbury held opposing point guards in check.

Marbury’s other big weakness is that sometimes he tries to do too much. The playoffs were the quintessential example of that; the image of Marbury forcing it time and time again in desperation against the Nets will be hard to forget (and not just because I picked the Knicks to pull the upset). Marbury put up 23 shots a game over the last three games of that series. He’s been at his best when paired with a strong power forward along the lines of Kevin Garnett and Amar? Stoudemire — and the Knicks might just have someone like that on their roster.

I think the defense requires a slight downgrade to the numbers I get for Marbury, but he’s still certainly amongst the top five point guards in the NBA and likely amongst its top 20 players. At $14 million-plus next year and for many years to come, he’s somewhat overpaid, but he gives the Knicks a star player they haven’t had since Patrick Ewing, and the price paid for him in the trade with Phoenix was worth it.

Moochie Norris

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 27.4 8.1 3.0 4.9 .471 6.3 4.14 89.7 91.1 .463 2.9
02-03 16.8 4.4 1.9 2.4 .470 6.7 2.32 88.4 89.7 .468 2.0
03-04 12.8 3.5 1.0 1.8 .471 4.5 1.93 87.7 88.4 .454 0.9 $2.528 $3.850

Since I’m only going back three years, Norris’ last good year doesn’t show up. The last three years, Norris has barely been adequate for a backup point guard, and last year he was even worse than that after seeing his passing and rebounding numbers tank. If there’s good news, it’s that Norris did pick up his performance after joining the Knicks in a trade for Clarence Weatherspoon, pushing his field-goal percentage from a dreadful 31.0% to 40.8%.

Most point guards come out better offensively than defensively by my system, which makes sense. With scoring and passing, most of their contributions come on the offensive end of the court. But Norris hasn’t been an efficient scorer in the last three years and has only been a good passer one of those years.

As a price for unloading Weatherspoon’s larger contract, Norris isn’t that bad, but the Knicks shouldn’t feel particularly compelled to play him, and if he’s still in the rotation next fall, that’s not a good sign.

Frank Williams

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
02-03 8.0 1.3 0.9 1.6 .393 6.3 4.15 86.1 90.3 .372 -0.1
03-04 12.8 3.9 0.9 2.2 .478 4.3 2.76 88.1 89.5 .432 0.5 $2.216 $0.957

Williams has just recently been discussed here, so I’m not sure entirely how much I have to add for the discussion. Unlike Dave, I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Williams in college. I recall thinking of him as an underachiever (I also abhorred Illinois teammate Brian Cook), and scoffing when people got excited about his summer-league play before his rookie seasons.

After a couple of NBA seasons, however, I have to agree with Dave that the Knicks need to keep Williams and give him more action. Offensively, Williams and Norris were similar players last season, and neither was very good. The first place there’s a difference between the two of them is that while Norris will be 31 this summer and is on the downside of his NBA career, while Williams turned 24 this season and has plenty of room to grow.

The second difference is defense. I hadn’t really investigated Williams’ defense very much before this, but there’s little question statistically that it’s fantastic. Williams’ on-court/off-court comparison is the reverse of Marbury’s – 5.7 points per 100 possessions better on defense (and also 1.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense). Williams’ individual defense also looks great; he limited opposing point guards and shooting guards both to a microscopic 10.1 PER.

Sadly, I’m going to copy Hollinger again by using my similarity scores to assess the future prospects of the Knicks’ youngsters. Williams’ closest age-24 comparable is Jeff McInnis, at the time playing limited minutes as a backup in Washington. It would take a couple of years, but McInnis eventually developed into an adequate starter. The next four names on the list — Morlon Wiley, Anthony Goldwire, Dan Dickau, and someone named Lowes Moore — aren’t as encouraging, but next after that is Scott Skiles and Sam Cassell also lurks in the top ten. So there’s some breakout potential there.

KnickerBlogger correctly points out that there won’t be a ton of minutes for Williams next season if Allan Houston is back, but what about the possibility of just cutting bait on Anfernee Hardaway? Hardaway isn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not a part of the Knicks’ future and Williams could be. I think Williams is plenty thick enough to play 20-25 minutes behind Marbury and Houston as a third guard in a three-guard rotation and that would really help the Knicks’ perimeter defense.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com. Check back Wednesday for his analysis of the Knicks’ shooting guards.

Indiana 107 New York 86

First Half Notes:

Two shocking moments for Knick fans in the first half. First is Lenny Wilkens getting visibly angry. The usually reserved Wilkens “lost it” when Tim Thomas got called on a dubious offensive foul against Ron Artest. No technical called on the Knicks coach. Maybe the refs were too shocked to call a T.

Second, a Dekembe Mutombo sighting! When Deke came in the second quarter, my jaw almost hit the floor. It was good timing, since the Knicks had been getting killed by Pacer defensive rebounds.

After Thomas’ foul (see above) DerMarr Johnson subbed in. Johnson made a nice play on a missed Indiana shot that won’t show up in the box scores. With the Pacers in good position for (another) offensive rebound, Johnson came from under the hoop. DerMarr, using his height & leaping ability, tipped the ball out to a Knick to save the rebound. He won’t get any credit for the play, but he should have.

Shandon Anderson got stripped by Jamal Tinsley twice in the first half. I could swear that he just dribbled the ball towards the Pacer’s PG and practically handed Tinsley the ball.

Penny Hardaway ruined an easy 4 on 2 fast break. Even I know when you’re going down the court, and you have the option, you give it to your big man (Nazr). Mohammed was open on the wing, but instead Penny passed it to the trailer behind him. The Pacers easily stole the ball & had a break of their own.

Nazr Mohammed started off 4-4. It should have been 5-5. Mohammed had head faked his defender & had a clear path to the hoop. Nazr (6’10), instead of going strong to the basket, tried to lay it in from a late helping Ron Artest (6’7). Artest got called on the foul, but Mohammed missed the shot. Had the Knicks’ center taken it strong, he most likely would have gotten an opportunity at a three point play.

Michael Sweetney played excellent in the first half. He stopped the bleeding that was the Knick’s defensive rebounding, by pulling a few down. Of course as soon as he got started, he was back on the bench again. At least it wasn’t in favor of Othella Harrington (0 first half minutes).

Second Half:

One of the announcers was talking about Nazr Mohammed’s development. He said that Mohammed is growing every day, because this was his first year starting. A moment later, he tried to qualify his statment by saying that he had started in the past, but that it was only spot starts, and this was Nazr’s first real year as starter. If starting 73 of 82 games in 2001 doesn’t count as being a starter, then I don’t know what does.

Mohammed blocked 4 shots tonight. The last time he did that, was January of 2003, against Portland.

It’s shocking to see Andy Pettitte in another uniform. The Astros/Giants game on ESPN2 was infinitately more enjoyable than another one of those New York Met commercials. I almost expect them to be fully endorsed by George Bush.

Vin Baker has just lost it. He’s fouled Jermaine O’Neal 4 times in a row, and if that wasn’t showing his frustration enough, he’s earned a technical foul for arguing as well.

The Knick announcers, with a 19 point lead and 9 mintues left, were discussing since the Knicks have a home game tomorrow, Lenny Wilkens will have to decide when to give up on tonight’s game, and save the player’s energy for tomorrow. Well if Lenny had the “game state matrix”, he would know that the Knick’s chance of winning on the road at that time, was less than 2%.

Disappointed

Disappointed a few people
When friendship reared its ugly head
Disappointed a few people
Well, isn’t that what friends are for?
What are friends for?

— “Disappointed”
P.I.L.

There’s nothing like a loss to bring out the worst in fans. Lurking around the message boards, you’ll see some posts titled: Knicks are the WORST defensive team in the League, New York Quitters, and FIRE LENNY WILKENS. Ouch!

The Knicks have been a lottery team the past two seasons, but this year we’ve all but locked down a playoff spot. No we’re probably not a threat to take the East, and we’re nowhere near a championship level team. Most likely a first round exit is in order. However isn’t this better than Knick fans expected at the beginning of the year? Expectations were much lower when Scott Layden was at the helm.

Isaiah Thomas has done a respectable job with the mess he inherited. I won’t pretend that I liked every move, or that he is maximizing the team’s strengths. I’m happy that he’s brought in at least one top tier player in Marbury. I don’t mean “top tier” as in McGrady, Duncan, Garnett, or Shaq, but it’s unmistakable that Marbury is one of the best PGs in the league. The Knicks haven’t had anything close to that since #33 roamed the Garden floor.

It’s impossible to expect anyone to turn a 37 win team into a 50 win team midseason. Those are unrealistic expectations. I’ll be happy with a playoff appearance after a long absence. I’ll be happy that we have a 27 year old PG to build our team around. I’ll be happy that we’ll go into the offseason with a GM that couldn’t be worse than the last. If Dolan wants to win now, and won’t allow the team to rebuild, then he better win now. This year a 7th seed will make most Knick fans happy, but next year we’ll all expect more.

Nets 108 Knicks 83

“If the Nets are injured and not playing well, whoever faces them is definitely going to have a good chance of beating them… But they’re going to play hard. They’re defending Eastern Conference champs for the last two years. So they’re not just going to give up.”

Penny Hardaway was right with one part of his quote. The Nets played hard last night and didn’t just give up, trouncing the Knicks 108-83. For the most part the Nets dominated the entire game. The closest the Knicks got after the beginning was a 6 point deficit in the third. It was the type of game where points came fast and furious in spurts. As soon as the Knicks were that close, they were back down by 13 only a few moments later.

New Jersey exposed New York’s weakness, interior defense. I tried to keep a play-by-play account using Dean Oliver’s method from his book, Basketball on Paper. I got through a little more than a page, before deciding to give it a rest. The Nets first play of the game was to post up Rodney Rogers. The play didn’t net any points, but I’m sure that was coach Frank’s game plan. According to my score sheet, they went into the post 4 times in the first 6 minutes.

Not that you needed a score sheet to know that. You probably wouldn’t have to watch the whole game, since I’m sure the dunk Jefferson had with 6:00 gone in the first quarter on Kurt Thomas will be shown coast to coast. That dunk gave the Nets a 18-9 lead, and forced Lenny Wilkens to call a time out.

Right after the timeout, my score sheet shows Tim Thomas missing a shot near the foul line. What would happen next would prompt me to drop my pen and forgo keeping track of the game. Jefferson got the ball to Collins in the post. The Nets center missed the easy shot, but quickly got his rebound. He did this two more times, until the Knicks were able to get the ball away from him. He didn’t end up with any points on the scoreboard, but he had made another point: the Nets owned the paint. I dropped my pen part in anger because Collins was able to get his missed shots back so easily & part because it happened so fast it was hard to keep up with.

The Knicks’ aren’t going to be able to compete if they don’t protect the basket. If Dekembe Mutombo were healthy, I’m sure he would have seen action early in this one. None of the Knick’s other big men are great defenders, not Nazr, not Baker, not Sweetney, not Harrington, and not Thomas. Kurt Thomas is a good man-to-man defender, but as Jefferson found out tonight, he’s not a great help-defender. The Knicks will have to address this flaw in the offseason.


If you’re the optimistic type, you’ll be happy to know there was plenty of garbage time. Coach Wilkens gave playing time to Sweetney, DerMarr Johnson, and even Frank Williams. Frank Williams is back on the active roster because Allan Houston went on the IL. Unfortunately non of the Knicks’ young players did anything special. Hopefully we’ll see more of Williams, and I’m not hoping for more garbage time either. He can’t be any worse than Moochie Norris.

Vinsanity 40, Starbury 38 (but the Knicks win)

Vince Carter might have outscored Stephon Marbury 40-38 last night, but it was Marbury with the last laugh as the Knicks won 108-101. I tried to watch the game last night, but was suffering from food poisoning (slightly worse than the bad taste left in my mouth from the Memphis game). In between bouts of running to the bathroom and a general overall sense of nausea and pain, I saw Marbury light it in the second half.

I’d love to wax poetic about Stephon Marbury, but I’m sure you could open up any of the New York newspapers and read about Starbury’s efforts last night.

Other than Stephon Marbury’s outburst there were a few notables in last night’s game. First is DerMarr Johnson’s 40 minute 15 point game. It was his first 40+ minute game since March 13, 2002. That year he had 4 games where he played that many minutes. The first month and a half of that year, he didn’t get much play, but eventually he would log major minutes, and start 46 games that year. Of course he would have that ill fated car accident in the off-season, which ended his Hawks career.

So far Dermarr’s time as a Knick has been unspectacular. He’s only had 6 games with more than 10 minutes, but we should see more of him with 4 of those coming in the last 4 games. Dermarr’s time yesterday was out of necessity, with Houston only playing the first 8 minutes due to injury, coupled with Toronto’s ability to go big at times. At one point the announcers noted that Vince Carter was the shortest player on the court at 6’6″. If you’re Lenny Wilkens, you’re not exactly going to put Moochie Norris on the court as the SG at that point.

Shooting 5-14 isn’t that impressive, but when you hit 3 from beyond the arc, it becomes a more respectable 46% adjusted FG%. He hit his only 2 free throws in the fourth quarter to help seal the deal against the Raptors. His 6’9″ frame also helped him to snag 7 rebounds. It’s hard to judge a player that has seen as little time as DerMarr has, but his Achilles heal seems to be his erratic shooting. Right now Wilkens’ has little other choice to play Johnson, but if the youngster wants to earn more minutes, he should concentrate on his shooting.

Also appearing last night was Michael Sweetney. The Knicks’ first round pick made his presence felt in the second half. In his 20 minutes, he grabbed 9 rebounds, and scored 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting. He left the game after committing an ill advised foul to stop the clock late in the game. If you call this a rookie mistake, you’d have a hard time explaining why Kurt Thomas did the same thing a few seconds later.

Of course there was little room for Sweetney in the first half, because Othella Harrington was logging his minutes. Other than miss 3 shots, Harrington only managed to commit a personal foul in his seven minutes of play, which is right about his average. I just don’t see why he gets any time at all. At best he should be the third option, when Thomas & Sweetney are in foul trouble. It’s more beneficial for the Knicks’ present and future to give Sweetney 27 minutes instead of 20.

Knicks 96 Hawks 84

I love MSG Rewind. Monday nights I rent a court with a couple of guys I’ve been playing with for a few years. The gym runs 7 to 10. Tonight the Knicks game started at 8:30, so usually I would have to choose between the two. Luckily MSG Rewind comes on at midnight, so I can still watch the game instead of trying to rush home and catch the 4th quarter without prior knowledge of what happened earlier in the game. Unfortunately last night’s game wasn’t a very noteworthy game. Actually I came away with more questions that answers. I guess it’s appropriate, since I started off this week with an interview.

How good is Penny Hardaway? In the first half, he botched a couple of easy passes. One on a fast break. I was surprised to see this, since he does play PG some of the time, but I don’t recall him handling the point tonight. Penny seems to be able to knock down shots when open, and can create a jump shot when needed. The bad passes really bothered me, but I’m not going to judge him on one game, so this will be a question I’ll be looking to answer with more statistical and observational evidence.

Why does Nazr Mohammed play inconsistently? Some nights he looks like a world beater. Tonight he scored impressively from at least three different methods: getting good passes while cutting to the hoop, crashing the offensive glass, and using his post up game. Other nights he’s almost non-existent. So what is it that causes this? Is it the foul trouble? Is it the defensive ability of his opponent? Is it when he faces an offensive player that saps his energy on the defensive end? Another question to table for a future study.

Can’t the Knicks stay healthy? The team is just too thin without Houston & T.Thomas. Sure Houston is on the wrong side of 30, but until this year, he never missed more than 6 games in a season. Tim Thomas is on the good side of 30 and has never missed more than 10 games in a season. So how are they both hurt at the same time? Deke I can understand, and Frank Williams is suffering through a personal tragedy (who we probably won’t see again this year). I’m not going to turn this into a study, so I guess this is more of a rhetorical question.

Who is the real Dermarr Johnson? He’s an intriguing player. A young prospect for the Hawks until he was in a car accident. Is the future Dermarr the guy that can hit the trey, and dunked on his former team, or is it the one that threw up an airball and shot less than 40% his first two years? We probably won’t know until next year, and I can wait until then for an answer.

Do I like Lenny Wilkens’ coaching style? I won’t even get into the phantom time out debacle of this weekend. Wilkens is fearless with who he plays. He’ll give everyone playing time, which is good during a season because you want to know what you have. However I’m not crazy about some of his choices. Why is Moochie getting more play than Frank Williams (even before F-dub went on the IL)? Why is Othella Harrington getting any non-garbage time? For now I’ll give him the thumbs up, especially after living through Van Gundy who had a tight leash in these matters.

The Dean Oliver Interview

Baseball is in the midst of a revolution of sorts. No it’s not about steroids or home run records, but rather the wave of statistical analysis that is hitting the league like a Pedro Martinez high and tight fastball. The grandfather of this uprising could be Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers GM. More than half a century ago, he knew there were flaws in measuring a player’s value with stats like BA, RBI, and even fielding percentage. Even though the baseball world ignored these simple findings, other people did not. A small group of people asked: “what are the best tools we have to evaluate baseball players?”

The fathers of the revolution are guys like Bill James, Pete Thorn, and John Palmer, who have given birth to the modern day soldiers. Current GM’s like Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Paul Depodesta, and Theo Epstein value statistical analysis over observational appraisal. Columnists like Rob Neyer are part of the mainstream and have forced the old regime to pick up new terms like OPS to adapt. Voros McCracken, a lawyer turned baseball consultant, turned a world of baseball thinkers on their head with his theory that (with few exceptions) pitchers have little effect on a batted ball in play. The movement has hit the streets with a new generation of writers from all walks of life preaching the new credo.

What does this have to do with Dean Oliver? His book is part of a parallel movement in basketball. Dean’s goal with his book is to better understand basketball through statistics. Where current statistics don’t give enough information, Dean creates his own. Whether you’re a casual fan or a failled GM looking for a way to improve your way of thinking, Dean Oliver’s book should be of interest to you.

“Basketball On Paper” tries to answer the tough questions. Is Team A really good defensively or does their slow tempo give that illusion? Read the book. Which team was the best offensive team of all time? Read the book. Can my team benefit from playing a risky strategy or should they tone it down? Read the book. How valuable is Iverson with his low FG%? Read the book.

The fires of same revolt are slowly starting to kindle in basketball. No there are no Billy Beane’s in the front offices of the NBA, yet. Nor is Bill Walton scrambling to learn what PER means. Jon Hollinger’s “Basketball Prospectus”, columns like Kevin Pelton’s Page 23, discussion groups like the APBR, and Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper” will change the way people think about basketball, like their sabermetric cousins are currently doing in baseball.

And now, on to the interview:

“Basketball on Paper”:

KB: Since writing your book “Basketball on Paper,” what have you been working on since & what can we expect from you in the future?

I’ve actually been working on marketing the book and convincing NBA teams of the value of this kind of work — any of the type of statistical work that is logical and reasonable to help a team. I have been talking to a number of teams, the league office, and to media. I’ve done a couple of limited studies relating to work I’ve done for years for the Seattle Sonics. I’ve written a couple things and I am outlining another book on statistical approaches to basketball strategy.

KB: What were some of the responses to your book?

I did a radio show down in Tampa and Doc Rivers came up to me after hearing it and really wanted to talk to me and get a copy of the book. That was nice. I sent the book on to Bill James, who in an email to me said it was an excellent book. He is planning an endorsement. I know that some readers get concerned by seeing formulas or numbers of any sort, which is a bit of a shame since they really are there to support stories and lessons of how the game works and how good talent is.

KB: What is missing or what is next in the literature on basketball statistics?

I think what is missing is the same large audience that baseball stats have. There isn’t a lot of money in a lot of the basketball writing at this point. And it’s a difference in the games. Baseball is slow enough that fans can really talk about what’s going on, pull in numbers. Basketball numbers are tremendous, they’re plentiful, and they’re insightful, but the time to use them or to make adjustments based on them is just not there. So fans look for the excitement and coaches make a lot of decisions based on gut feel. I’ve introduced some rules of thumb for hoops that can be applied on the fly, but it’s going to take a little while to catch on.

What is next in line for research is really a translation system for players from one league to the NBA. College stats have the best history, but high school and international leagues have significance now. We’re just catching up on this and it is not an easy problem. I’ve figured a few things out, but I have too many rules like “The Pitino Rule” that are just annoying and not very general. (Basically, Pitino’s system causes some of his players to be overvalued by stats.)

KB: When I read your book, “Basketball on Paper” I couldn’t help but think of it as the “Win Shares” of basketball, because of :

  • It’s ability to try and understand defense, where traditional methods are lacking
  • The clarity in which advanced statistical ideas are presented
  • The author’s humor

Do you see yourself making a book similar to “The New Bill James’ Historical Abstract”, either by making a recount of basketball by historical periods, or by ranking players by position?

I would very likely do such a book in combination with people like John Grasso, Bijan Bayne, Harvey Pollack, and my contacts in the NBA. The statistical library to evaluate the older players is incomplete, so video and news stories would be very important to make some accurate representations. These guys could definitely help. And I wouldn’t want to do what Elliott Kalb did with his book recently either, which is subjectively rank guys without a lot of link to objective evidence. You mention the recount of basketball by historical periods and I have done a lot of that. Total Basketball does some work along these lines, but doesn’t really talk about why Wilt scored 50 ppg in 1962, for instance, which is important. I mention those things — pace, less judiciousness in shot selection, lack of double-teams — in Basketball on Paper and would like to assemble more of that in a book like this.

Is this something that is right around the corner? Probably not. The group of interested basketball historians is growing, but it isn’t large enough to pay for the massive research involved. I hate having to say it that way, but basketball writers do need to make a living.

Stats:

KB: On ESPN’s MLB main stat page, they have a “sabermetric” stat OPS on the main page, and a sabermetric page with such stats as isolated power and runs created. On ESPN’s NBA page, the closest they have to advanced metrics is points per shot and adjusted field goal percentage. How long do you think it will take before the major sports web sites will post stats like your off. Rtg., stop%, or Hollinger’s PER?

We’re getting there. The WNBA will put out possession stats and points per possession stats this year. The WNBA is also quite receptive to some of the defensive work we did with them a couple years ago and we’re hoping to do that again this year. Issuing monthly reports on what individuals forced the most misses would be nice small pieces of information that help that league and intrigue the bigger brother, the NBA.

The NBA does now have something it calls “efficiency”, which is just a sum of the good things minus the bad things, something I’ve heard referred to as “plus/minus” or is almost Tendex or Bob Bellotti’s Points Created. Going to the more advanced individual numbers is going to take a while. Putting team numbers out there first is huge. Then, in a couple years, we can start talking about other stuff. What we don’t want is another NFL-like passer rating stat that everyone jokes about as the lead stat.

KB: How would you define who is the best rebounder in the league? Would you simply look at REB/48min, or are there other considerations (incl. FG% and pace)?

Primarily, rebounders can be evaluated by the percentage of available rebounds they get. With 10 guys on the court, 10% would be average. I think Rodman was up around 20%. This accounts for pace and FG%. What it doesn’t account for is whether it really makes the team a good rebounding team, which is a modifying factor. A guy who gets 15% of available rebounds on a bad rebounding team is not as useful as one who gets 15% on a good rebounding team (because he is competing against his own teammates for boards). But that is relatively small in terms of importance.

KB: Is there a way to translate a player’s college statistics into his success at the professional level?

As I said above, this is one of the most important projects on the front burner. I’m getting better at it by studying the cases that just don’t work the first time and figuring out why.

KB: What has surprised you about the NBA season this year so far?

In terms of wins and losses, there aren’t a lot of surprises. I’m a little surprised at how successful the Nuggets are. I thought they’d be a lot better, but not this much better. I have been surprised by the coaching turnover. Doc Rivers was out quick, though the losing streak made it less surprising. Byron Scott’s firing and the discord between Ainge and Jim O’Brien — those really surprised me. I also was surprised at how cheaply Portland got Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

The Knicks:

KB: What do you think of the job Isaiah Thomas has done with the Knicks this year?

He wasn’t shy. Being decisive is usually a good thing, but his history in charge generally concerns me. So, picking up Marbury is a nice thing. Marbury is a very good piece to have. I just don’t know if the baggage of the other players, plus the losses were worth it if he’s trying to build a championship team. It’s more important that Isiah know how to follow up the moves he has made than just standing on what he’s got. So he gets a big Incomplete at this point.

KB: If you had to, where would you rank Stephon Marbury among today’s point guards?

Jason Kidd is solidly above him. Otherwise, he is in a class of points who are quite good (Nash, Parker, Billups, Cassell, Payton, and I’m sure I’m forgetting someone). Marbury is the best on the offensive side, but his defense lacks. Intangibly, he’s worn out his welcome a few times now and that matters.

KB: In your opinion, what player (current or former) is Nazr Mohammed most similar to? In the best case scenario what player could he aspire to become?

Curious that you ask that. Curious that the Knicks really valued him. One of my techniques for looking for players is to look at successful players in the league and see what guys are modestly similar to them who may not be getting much time. Mohammed came out modestly similar to a couple prominent big men in a study I did for the Sonics. I think Garnett or Duncan was one. But I have sooo many numbers that suggest he just isn’t going to end up good that I discarded him as a legit possibility. I did all that right before the trade, so I found it very coincidental. Best case: he might be Jamaal Magloire. He just can’t consistently score inside.

KB: Is Kurt Thomas worth $30 over 4 years, or could the Knicks have gotten similar production out of a cheaper and younger player?

Kurt Thomas is serviceable. He’s not a bad player. But he’s just not someone I see as a significant component of a championship team. It’s a risk to go after a younger player, but I would have taken that risk.

One final question:
KB: What do you like best about the Knicks?

Weeellllll, I do tend to root for Lenny Wilkens. He may be old-school and not care about the kind of work that I do, but he’s always seemed like a decent guy.