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.”

Why Would Anyone Be A Knick Fan?

Lately the continued poor performance of the Knicks combined with the statements made by Isiah Thomas has me wondering why people would continue to be fans of the team? The franchise has had 6 consecutive losing seasons, and this year will most certainly be number 7. Additionally team president Isiah Thomas has twice insulted the fan base. The first comment was revealed during the sexual harassment trial where Thomas allegedly voices his disdain for season ticket holders (“I don’t give a fuck about these white people”). The second just last week when a fan claimed that coach Isiah blamed the team’s woes on the sixth man, referring not to David Lee but to the crowd (“We need a sixth man to be a good team”).

With the organization in disarray, wouldn’t it be easier for fans to find a different team to root for? The Nets are better off, as they still have 2 franchise players in Kidd and Carter. There’s a likable young team in the Orlando Magic who feature the NBA’s best young center in Dwight Howard and are attempting to become one of the Eastern powerhouses. Cleveland will be good for as long as LeBron James is wearing a Cavs jersey. For those that find Eastern rivals to be too close to home, a team like Golden State or Phoenix provides plenty of excitement. For every Knick fan, one of the 29 other teams is likely to be a better fit than their current choice.

Yet it seems that few fans are willing to leave the blue & orange despite the organization’s failures. The explanation for this irrational behavior is “commitment bias” (sometimes known as “irrational escalation of commitment”). In his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, Robert Cialdini details how important it is for people to look consistent with their actions. Hence when people make a small investment in something, they are more likely to stay consistent with that principle, even if that goes against their normal beliefs. Getting the tiniest commitment can cause people to “throw good money after bad.” There are hosts of examples of commitment bias from the Vietnam War to NASA’s International Space Station. There’s even a pedagogical tool called the dollar auction where you can get people to bid more than $1 for a single dollar bill.

This principle can be applied to sports fans. Growing up in an area where there is only one local team will inevitably result in a majority of its inhabitants to root for that team. This is because the inhabitants have made their investment (with their home), and wish to stay consistent with that investment by bonding with their area. So the commitment bias trickles down from your home all the way to your sports teams, forcing most people into a relationship that they cannot easily terminate. Even when people move to a new location, they tend to take their sports allegiances with them.

You have to imagine every NBA front office knows that getting people to become fans creates a nearly unbreakable bond. No wonder sport franchises are increasing in worth by the hour. And no wonder so many sports try to cater to youngsters. How many other industries can be complete failures for years and still gain the adoration of millions of people? For proof of this you only have to look at which team tops Forbes list of most valuable NBA franchises. It’s not the Spurs who have been a top tier franchise for a decade. It’s not the Mavs, Suns, or Pistons all of which have been among the league’s best over the last few years. The NBA’s most valuable franchise is the New York Knicks. The franchise that is on their way to their 7th straight losing season. The franchise that has repeatedly insulted their fan base. The current Knick regime benefits not from being a model organization, but from monopolizing one of the largest fan bases, the success of previous generations, and of course the commitment bias.

2007 Playoff Predictions: Round 1


I was asked by Henry Abbott of TrueHoop to join an NBA playoff prediction contest against other number crunching analysts. I figure I have a head up on the competition, being that I used to run the blogger’s bracket. Nonetheless I took to the task seriously, using as much information as possible. Not only do I take into account numbers from my own stat page, but I also looked back at 16 years of playoff data to come up with my predictions. And wherever needed, I asked my 7 day old daughter to assist (yes yours truly became a father last weekend — and like a true Knick fan, KB2.0 already hates the Nets).

This was my submission to Henry, so I apologize if it appears elsewhere and you accidentally read it twice. Wish me luck as I go against some of the NBA’s best statistical gurus.

Dallas in 4
The Warriors have 2 main strengths: forcing turnovers and good shooting. Unfortunately for them, those strengths don’t match up well against the Mavericks. Dallas is good at keeping the ball and holding their opponents to a low field goal percentage. Nellie’s poor rebounding team will be their undoing, as the Mavs are the most well rounded rebounding playoff team in the West.

Phoenix in 6
While it’s possible that Kobe Bryant will have a scoring explosion, the Lakers are awful on defense. And guess which team lead the NBA in offensive efficiency? Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%), which adjusts for three point shots, is the best measure of a team’s shooting prowess. And Phoenix’s 55.1% eFG is 3 points higher than the NBA’s second best shooting team. Despite the disparity, the Suns energetic offense and the Kobe-Raja matchup should make this one of the most entertaining series.

San Antonio in 6
The Spurs have the league’s best point differential in the league. This is important because point differential corresponds better in year to year winning than wins and losses. So if you’re a Spurs fan, this bodes well for next year’s performance as well. Why haven’t I given any analysis for this series? There have been 11 non-strike playoff seasons since a #1 or a #2 seed lost in the first round. Even if it were going to happen this year, this isn’t the series anyway.

Houston in 7
These complementary teams should have a close series that goes 6 or 7 games. Utah’s main weakness is sending opponents to the free throw line (30th in FT/FG), but that’s a weakness that Houston won’t exploit on offense (26th in FT/FG). Meanwhile the Rockets have the 3rd best defensive efficiency, but they are evenly matched by the league’s 3rd best offensive efficiency. Instead the game will be won on the other end of the floor, where the Rockets average offense (14th) faces off against a sub par Jazz defense (19th).

Detroit in 4
The Pistons do one thing better than anyone else in the league: keep the ball. Detroit is first in the NBA in turnovers per possession. Unfortunately for Mickey Mouse and his neighbors, Orlando is the NBA’s worst team in holding onto the ball. Detroit won all 4 games during the regular season (with the turnover advantage in 3 of those 4), and I see the same thing happening in the playoffs.

Cleveland in 5
With Arenas and Butler injured, you can put the Wizards on the hibachi.

Toronto in 6
This series will be a litmus test for the term “playoff experience.” The Nets trio of Kidd, Jefferson, and Carter has appeared in 184 post season games in their career. Meanwhile Toronto’s sextet of Bosh, Parker, Ford, Bargnani, Garbajosa, and Peterson has only played in 18. But clich?s aside, the Raptors are clearly the better team here. Finally Canada gets justice for Vince Carter dogging it in his final season up north.

Miami in 6
Everything statistically points to Chicago over Miami. The Bulls have a fantastic point differential, and Miami is one Dwayne Wade crash to the floor from dipping their toes in the sand. But the Bulls point differential is misleading (in my opinion) due to an inordinate amount of blow out victories. And Miami’s injury filled regular season may not be a true example of their strength. Here’s a stat that pushed me over the edge: Shaq’s team has beaten a better team in 5 of the last 6 playoffs.

KnickerBlogger’s Anti-Tank Idea

The NBA’s dirty little secret is out, and everyone knows that teams are intentionally losing games down the stretch. Franchises that have been eliminated from the playoffs and held on to their pick (sorry Knick fans) can reward themselves by losing games down the stretch. And I can’t say I blame them. Athletes are trained from day 1 that winning is the ultimate goal (right Herm?) and a lot of players will resort to just about any means that accomplishes that goal. I’m sure Knick fans aren’t outraged when Malik Rose gets a handful of jersey when he performs his “pull the chair out from under the guy” routine. While an illegal move, if he can get away with it, Rose would be foolish not to keep it in his repertoire. The same goes for the league’s franchises. Would Milwaukee or Memphis or Boston be doing their team a disservice by trying to win down the stretch, when they can put an inferior lineup on the floor? Yes, as long as they can get away with it.

There has been some discussion in the media about possible solutions. One idea, which I think Mike Wilbon of PTI fame has been touting, would be to give all non-playoff teams an equal chance at the lottery (or the “one team one envelope” rule). The downside to this solution is that teams that really need help may not get it, which is antithetical to the draft’s purpose. Imagine if the Clippers or Pacers landed that #1 overall pick this year, while Boston or Memphis sat at #14. A team could finish in last place for 3 straight seasons, and would only have a 51% of getting one top 3 pick (for those scoring with a calculator at home that equation is 1-[11/14]^3). Not only would this solution cause an imbalance in the league, but it would give conspiracy theorists something else to harp on. To this day there are people convinced that Patrick Ewing to the Knicks was an NBA orchestrated event.

Bill Simmons has proposed a tournament where the top 6 teams in each conference are guaranteed playoff spots, and everyone else plays for those last remaining playoffs spots. It’s an interesting concept, but it’s just as easy to circumvent. No one in their right mind would think that if Boston or Memphis won a mini-tournament, they could go on and take the Pistons or Mavs in 7. So this doesn’t really address the problem. Why would a team risk losing a franchise player like Durant or Oden in order to have the privilege of getting spanked by the first or second seed? Teams will be tanking games in the tournament just as they would if it were a regular season game. In fact they would only have to purposely lose one game with this method.

Other solutions include handing out fines to teams that tank, shortening the season, and eliminating the lottery altogether. David Stern’s office could fine teams that are throwing games, but this would be a hard rule to enforce. Often teams have players fake injuries, and disproving something like knee tendinitis would be impossible (right Steve?). And an eliminated team could say they’re trying to give extra playing time to their end of bench guys. Shortening the season would take revenue from both the players and owners, so that option is out the window. And removing the lottery would just exacerbate the problem. In fact that’s what the lottery was created for in the first place, so that teams wouldn’t tank down the stretch.

So what’s a league to do? Here is a fool proof solution: set the lottery order earlier in the season, like at the All Star Game. In other words take a snapshot of the standings at the the All Star break and use that as a basis for the lottery. Obviously only the teams that fail to make the playoffs will participate in the lottery. The only teams that this might give an advantage to are teams like the Sixers who have a good second half. But then again, that’s what we want bad teams to do, win games down the stretch (and Philly was trying to rebuild with the Iverson trade). No team is going to start the season losing, because attendance is linked to winning percentage. And also they might have a Cinderella team in the making (2005 Sonics, I’m looking at you), which would net them profit due to a playoff series (7 games series means that both teams get at least 2 home games).

Below is a chart with the lottery team’s All Star Game ranking (ASG), and their end of season ranking (EOS).

ASG Rank EOS Rank Team
11 20 Indiana Pacers
16 24 Minnesota Timberwolves
17 17 Los Angeles Clippers
18 18 New Orleans Hornets
21 22 New York Knicks
22 21 Sacramento Kings
23 25 Portland Trail Blazers
24 27 Atlanta Hawks
25 26 Seattle SuperSonics
26 23 Charlotte Bobcats
27 28 Milwaukee Bucks
28 19 Philadelphia 76ers
29 30 Memphis Grizzlies
30 29 Boston Celtics

Crawford Out for the Season

You already know about that Crawford, but did you know about this one?

David Stern suspended referee Joey Crawford indefinitely today following Crawford’s ejection of Tim Duncan in Sunday’s Spurs/Mavs matchup on national TV. According to the story, Stern said:

“Especially in light of similar prior acts by this official, a significant suspension is warranted,” Stern said in a statement. “Although Joey is consistently rated as one of our top referees, he must be held accountable for his actions on the floor, and we will have further discussions with him following the season to be sure he understands his responsibilities.”

The article goes on to suggest that Crawford thinks he may have officiated his final NBA game.

I must admit I am pleasantly surprised by the commissioner’s decision to suspend Crawford. The league is usually tight-lipped when it comes to disciplining its zebras, and rightly so. But some public disciplining of Joey Crawford has been due for some time.

The actions of officials are routinely blown out of proportion and discussed without proper appreciation for how difficult their jobs are. However, Joey Crawford is in a category all by himself. I cannot think of a single official that so publicly and consistently crosses the line to the point of being unprofessional. Crawford consistently refuses to follow the “sticks and stones” mantra that the league expects players to follow. Crawford, is to my mind rarely satisfied with simply diffusing a situation. He insists on having the last word. Everyone else must walk away, must not laugh, lest they show him up. But Crawford seems to have no problems showing others up. I have never felt this way about a single other official in any sport. (And I’m a baseball fan first and foremost where the screaming matches with umpires are legendary.)

We entrust officials with control over our games so that a disinterested third party can manage the rules and manage conflict. The league has done an admirable job of making players understand that they must respect this arrangement. But, those to whom such trust is given must also respect the arrangement–not lord it over others. Joey Crawford, on too many occasions for my taste, lost sight of that.

Striking Gold in the Alamo

A League of Their Own
The current prevailing opinion is that there are three clear cut NBA Championship contenders?Spurs, Mavs, and Suns?with the rest of the league on the outside looking in. We as objective analysts make our living proving popular opinion wrong?except when it?s exactly right on the money.

The Spurs, Mavs, and Suns really are the three best teams in the league. How do we know this? We could point to Win-Loss record, but that?s somewhat subject to randomness at this point. In other words, it?s subject to luck and luck is neither an indicator of quality, nor has any ?predictive? worth. Instead, we?ll look at the expected win percentage calculated from the margin of victory for each team. Much has been written about using expected wins to predict which teams have been under or over performing their actual records. In fact, this metric is actually a better tool for simply judging a team?s quality in the first place since it takes into account every single play of the season and does not overvalue a lucky bounce or two.

The Spurs (+8.8), Suns (+6.9), and Mavs (+6.8) rank first, second, and third in win margin, respectively. All three have been relatively healthy, but more importantly, they each have a track record of success. These are three of the top five teams for the last several years running. But saying they are the best three does not speak for their quality. These three teams are quite a bit ahead of the next contenders, the Rockets (+5.6) and Bulls (+5.0), who are themselves far ahead from the next grouping of teams. It?s not just that one team is better than another, it?s that they are significantly better than the next?not only are they the best, they are the best by a mile.

This bunching at the top is no surprise. Last season had the same results. The Spurs (+6.8), Pistons (+6.7), Mavs (+6.1), and Suns (+5.6) finished at the top of the league in win margin, with a considerable drop to the fifth best team, and eventual NBA Champion, the Heat (+3.9).

The Gold Standard
Look at those win margins again: +8.8, +6.9, +6.8. Which of those three does not belong? If the Spurs, Suns, and Mavs are the three best teams in the league, it?s certainly not a case of take your pick for which one these is the NBA?s gold standard. That distinction belongs to the Spurs (+8.8) and to the Spurs alone.

In fact, one could argue that the NBA title picture should say Spurs, then everyone else. The Spurs rank first the way Tiger Woods is ahead of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, or how Spitzer won the gubernatorial election, or how Ali beat Sonny. The Spurs are two points per game ahead of the Suns, which translates to four wins in the final standings. Two points and four wins doesn?t seem a lot, and it shouldn?t if we?re talking about average to above average, since it?s relatively easy to improve a team from forty to forty-four wins. But it?s considerably more difficult to get an already elite team into another stratosphere of competitive value, to go from sixty-two to sixty-six wins.

Think of the improvement with the analogy of PER. For a player to improve his rating from the league average, 15, and get to above average, 18, is relatively easy?but it?s considerably more difficult to go from a MVP-level season, 27, and genetically morph into Michael Jordan, 30. This is actually exactly what the Spurs have done. And they?ve done it with excellence on both sides of the court.

Characteristically, the Spurs rank second in the league in Defensive Efficiency, behind Houston, who has a mediocre offense. The Spurs also rank fourth in Offensive Efficiency behind the Suns, Wizards, and Pistons. The Wizards are as bad at defense as they are good in offense. The Piston?s slip in defense pushes them to merely above average. The Suns are a good, but not great, defensive team, which coupled with their league-leading offense, is enough to make them the second best team in the league behind the Spurs. For the record, the Mavs are sixth in offense and fifth in defense, so they?re no slouches either. They?re like the Spurs-lite?the less filling, low-calorie version.

The Spurs are not getting much press at the time since they haven?t had a double-digit win streak, and are basically under-performing their expected wins, but nonetheless, if you?re looking to find a team to top your power rankings, make a stop at the Alamo.

The Best Spurs Team Ever
The Spurs are currently outplaying their opponents at the rate of +10.0 points per one-hundred possessions?that?s not good, it?s scary. There are about fifty games left to be played, but at this pace, this years version of the Tim Duncan’s Spurs would be the first to have better than a +10.0 in efficiency. We are looking at possibly the best Spurs season ever. And mind you, the man has already won three championships.

The lowest spread for any Duncan non-rookie season was +6.3, which put them on pace for 57 wins. Of course, that?s one of the years they won the Championship, beating the Nets in six games. The Spurs best regular season was +9.6 in ?00-01. They were expected to win 63, only won 58, then they were swept out of the conference finals by the Lakers, whose only playoff loss that year came in overtime of Game 1 of the Finals to Allen Iverson?s Sixers.

Tim Duncan?s San Antonio Spurs?point differential per 100 possessions

?06-07: +10.0 (through 33 games)
?05-06: +8.0
?04-05: +9.1
?03-04: +8.3
?02-03: +6.3
?01-02: +7.1
?00-01: +9.6
?99-00: +7.0
?98-99: +8.9
?97-98: +4.8

Subjectively, this outstanding quality is hard for us to notice because the Spurs are always an excellent team. It?s easy to notice the change from bad to good, or to see that the acquisition of a new player has had a positive effect on a team. What we don?t often notice is the ascent from elite to absolute, relentless powerhouse.

Year after year the Spurs produce at an incredibly high level, with machine-like consistency, led by one of the greatest players of his generation, who also happens to have almost no marketable personality to speak of. In a very real sense, we take them completely for granted.

A lot could change in the next fifty games. Just because they?re on pace to be a team for the ages, of course, doesn?t mean they?ll finish this way. Blowouts do have more effects on the numbers. But then again, winning by a blowout (and not losing by blowout) is a good indicator of a quality team. And, of course, as evidenced by previous Spurs seasons, having an outstanding regular season win margin doesn?t guarantee you the championship. It just makes you the favorite.

Michael Zannettis has a Masters in Public Policy and writes regularly on his blog,, exploring topics such as politics, science, humor, and what young people do with their free time. His first full-length manuscript, ?At the Feet of Giants?, is currently in search of a publisher. He lives in Astoria where he often dramatically reenacts the Larry Johnson four-point play at the local playground.

Knicks Need To Address Home Woes

[This does not include last night’s game against Detroit.]

The New York Knicks have entered a major home streak in their schedule. Of their next 11 games, 10 will be at Madison Square Garden. For most teams, being within the friendly confines of home is a boon to the team. When you think of home field advantage, your thoughts might be of 60,000 fans in snowy Soldier Field or the varying outfield dimensions in half a dozen baseball stadiums. But the NBA boasts a better home win percentage (about 60%) than either football (58%) or baseball (55%).

Yet for the Knicks, home is hardly where the heart is. New York has an abysmal 1-6 record at home, while boasting a respectable 5-5 record on the road. Presented to a reasonable person, the simple conclusion would be that the Knicks have faced tougher competition at home. Looking at the stats, this might seem to be true. The Knicks home opponents have averaged a .520 win%, while their road opponents average only .485.

However a closer inspection of the facts show that these numbers may not be the true reason of New York’s home mystery. If you exclude New York’s opening day victory over hapless Memphis, the Knicks road opponents average a more respectable .509. Additionally the Knicks have lost to two teams at home (Boston & Cleveland) that they beat on the road. So if strength of schedule isn’t the answer, what is causing the Knicks to perform worse at home?

Looking at the four factors for guidance, the problems become clear. On offense, the Knicks shooting percentage (46.5% eFG%) is significantly worse at home than on the road (50.6%). In fact New York has only bested their road average once in 7 tries at home. Ironically that’s the only area that is worse at the Garden. The Knicks turn the ball over less, get more of their misses, and accumulate more points from the free throw line at home.

Unfortunately you can’t say the same about the Knicks defense. New York is worse on defense at home in every single category: shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws. Away from home, the Knicks defense averages 106.3 pts/100 possessions which is about where the Mavs/Nets are this year, nearly league average. But bring the same group home and the average dips to 111.2. That would place the Knicks home team among the defensive dregs of the league like Seattle and Milwaukee.

From this the keys to a Knick home exorcism is simple. First is to be patient when they have the ball. Just about everyone who has watched the Knicks on a regular basis would agree that they just look better when they stay within the frame of the offense. The Knicks should move the offense away from the guards and feature Curry (53.5% eFG%) and Richardson (53.9%) with David Lee (61%) cleaning up the scraps.

More importantly the Knicks need to bring home the defensive intensity that they’ve shown on the road. Oddly, enough the injury to Channing Frye may have helped the Knicks here. With David Lee in the starting lineup, Renaldo Balkman has seen more and more playing time coming off the bench. If Balkman isn’t the Knicks’ best defender, he certainly is their most tenacious. He’s earned the name “the Human Windmill” by the KnickerBlogger household for the way he swings his long arms on the defensive end. Additionally Isiah has turned to the zone to help the Knicks’ defensive woes. Although Zeke relies on the zone too often (last night Detroit feasted on the outside shot), it’s helps mask some of the Knick poorer defenders. But ultimately New York needs to give more effort on the defensive end.