Isiah Thomas: 2006 Knicks Head Coach?

I usually don’t comment on things that are rumors before they actually happen. It’s a simple rule I gave myself because often enough the rumors tend to be just that, and the time I spent on the article could have been used on something more productive. However there are a few stories that are either worth the mention or are highly likely to occur that it makes sense to spend the time to investigate them.

The current rumor circulating the New York papers is the possibility of the Knicks buying out the remaining 4 years of Larry Brown’s contract and Isiah Thomas assuming the role of head coach. Between Brown’s wanderlust, Dolan’s loyalty to Isiah, and Thomas’ infinite confidence in himself, this one seems to heading to fruition. As far as rumors go, throw this in the “I’d be shocked if it didn’t happen” pile.

The results of such a move might mean a short term gain for the Knicks. Brown’s career record prior to New York was excellent, one step back then two steps forward. However it seemed that he never found his groove in the Garden. There are many theories abound on why Larry’s first year with the Knicks was a disaster. One theory holds that Brown was unable to mesh with Stephon Marbury. Another was that the Knicks personnel was ill-fit for Brown’s grind them down defensive style of play. The latest rumor is that Larry’s passive-aggressive way of criticizing the team publicly instead of behind close doors led to his own self destruction. Most likely the truth is a little bit of each of these.

It’s obvious that bringing in Isiah to coach the team would help these issues. In Isiah’s 3 years as Indiana head coach, the Pacers were in the top 10 in league pace twice. The Knicks don’t have the spot up shooters nor the post up presence to run a strong half court offense. They lack the interior shot blocking presence and a perimeter stopper to play a standard half court defense as well. Changing to a coach that likes to run, or is flexible enough to play to the Knicks’ strengths should mean a few extra wins next season. At worst an up-tempo game might make a 50 loss season more bearable to watch.

Psychologically, Isiah might be the ideal person to turn the team around. First off Isiah has a strong relationship with Stephon Marbury, and would likely put the ball back in the hands of the Knicks’ best offensive player. Secondly, with Zeke as the Knicks coach, the players won’t have to read the papers to find out where they stand. Finally, the Knicks won’t have the GM/Coach power struggle that marred them last year. Isiah the coach will only have himself to blame if the team construction isn’t to his liking, as he personally signed off on the deals that brought each player to New York.

However while there are positives to Isiah assuming the sideline duties, let’s put a few things into perspective. First off the Knicks were one of the league’s worst teams last year, so even a 38 win season might be seen as an accomplishment for them. However that would give the Knicks their 6th straight losing season, which isn’t something to be proud of. Additionally, there is no guarantee that Isiah Thomas is a good coach. His Indiana teams only finished more than 2 games over .500 once and they never won a playoff series. And let’s not ignore the obvious reason, that under Isiah Thomas’ management the Knicks have become the laughing stock of the league.

So if Dolan decides to stick with Isiah, and Isiah thinks that he is the only one that can turn this team around on the court, how will the situation play out? Well the offical KnickerBlogger Crystal Ball? offers a few possible futures for the Knicks. The best case scenario: Isiah the coach realizes what a genius “Isiah the young talent evaluator” is and what a moron “Isiah the free agent cap specialist” is. He vows not to add any more high and long term contracts to the team. Dr. David Crockett is hired to oversee all cap activity.

The new Isiah does everything he can to stockpile picks, and digs through the NBDL and unsigned draftees to fill in the team’s needs. Unloading big contracts where he can, the Knicks return to a respectable level in regards to the salary cap, leaving Steven A. Smith and Charles Barkley without any salary cap jokes. Unable to think of anything clever to yell, and with the help of guru Phil Jackson, Smith and Barkley find inner peace in silence for the first time in their life. They enter a monastery in a remote Pacific island, and 5 years later world peace is achieved.

Another scenario has Isiah Thomas unable to turn the team around and the players revolt against him. With the team in a downward spiral and fans staying away from MSG as if it were infested with the bird flu, Dolan fires Thomas and brings in Jerry Colangelo. Isiah is brought on to preside over the Atlanta Hawks, and Colangelo jumps on the opportunity. Jerry is able to unload a few contracts and acquire a few of the Hawks unprotected draft picks, and the Knicks gear up for a 2009 run at the playoffs.

The worst case scenario? Due to an easy early the schedule the Knicks are a few games over .500. Jealous of the special treatment given to Eddy Curry, Channing Frye goes public with his displeasure of the team and ends up in Isiah’s doghouse. Smelling the revenue payoff from a possible postseason appearance, Dolan orders Isiah to make the playoffs. In January, Zeke packages the troubled Frye and speedy Nate along with some expiring contracts and a few draft picks to the Heat for Antoine Walker. The 2007 Knicks tank ala the 2005 Knicks, and miss the playoffs by 9 games. In 2011 the Bulls finally unseat the Cavs in the East commencing a friendly off the court (but bitter on the court) rivalry between LeBron James and Greg Oden (acquired with the Knicks 2007 first round pick) that lasts for nearly a decade. The two film a McDonalds commercial reprising the Larry Bird-Michael Jordan game of horse.

What’s likely to happen? Well the 2007 Knicks will probably improve by some amount, just because the 2006 team was so bad. Isiah will feel justified with the improvement, and the effort earns him at least another year as the president of the organization under Dolan. However he is unable to bring in an impact player, and the 2008 team does not make the playoffs. The press catches on that Isiah tenure has lasted as long as Scott Layden’s without any positive results, and harps on the issues that the under Thomas the Knicks haven’t produces a single playoff win. Dolan caves in to the media and fan pressure and finally sends Isiah packing.

Unfortunately for Knick fans, the next few seasons are unlikely to be fruitful unless Isiah unearths a pair of studs with the 20th and 29th picks in the draft, or Kevin Garnett demands to be traded to the Big Apple. With Dolan steadfast in his belief that Isiah will turn the team around, and with Isiah showing little understanding of his own strengths & weaknesses there seems to be little to believe that the Knicks are going to be anything other than a lower-to-middle of the road team.

In Defense of Marbury: Usage Rate and the Ball-Hog

This article was written by KnickerBlogger reader Michael Zannettis, who originally sent this to me in a different form. I’ve taken the liberty to edit the work to make it more befitting this space. Any grammatical or spelling mistakes are therefore mine. Additionally I sat on this article for well over a week, so I’ve attempted to update the stats where applicable. At the time the Knicks were doing much worse on offense and much better on defense, so it may suffer from it’s late publication. While it may not be best presented after Marbury’s 35 point outburst against Detroit, I feel that the piece should be heard, and believe that it still stands on its own.

Again any issues that arise from these changes are the fault of the editor, so save Michael from the voodoo doll pins that many of you are currently using to punish yours truly.


It is with great concern for the current competitiveness and future viability of our beloved Knickerbocker franchise that I have become distressed with the treatment of the Knicks? best player, Stephon Marbury. I was certainly a supporter of one of the great coaches of all-time, Larry Brown, being hired to lead this franchise back to the NBA playoffs, but his initial returns on player development are frustrating.

Most obviously, Mr. Brown?s poor treatment of his only star performer, Stephon Marbury, has collapsed a once-decent New York offense. I will not forget that the defense has made a turn around from 27th to 16th without the addition of even one frontline defensive player. Due credit will be meted out in time, but even Mr. Brown?s championship Detroit Pistons had an average offense to complement their superior defense.

Let the numbers decide the offense?s stature. Last year’s team was an average offense, ranking 17th (105.9pts/100 poss). This year, the team’s production has plummeted to 24th (100.7pts/100 poss), a decrease of 5.2pts/100 poss. Last year, the entire scoring load of the Knicks’ offense fell to its guards, Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford, both of whom were the only Knicks to average 15 points or more per game.

In the more advanced metrics, Marbury fared well while Crawford looked worse. The former led the team with a .690 player win percentage and a 21.9 PER, while the latter was an inefficient, if volumous, scorer with poor defense, whose win share was a replacement-level .344 with an average 15.4 PER. It was Crawford’s low shooting percentage, often forcing ill-advised shots, which killed his contributions to the offense. He didn’t help his cause by being a spectator on the defensive end either.

Marbury was criticized for his high Usage Rate (24.7%) but considering the teammates he was expected to pass to, it’s a wonder that he didn’t shoot the ball even more often. The only other Knick regular with Offensive Efficiency ratings at the league average or better were Jerome Williams and Mike Sweetney. Williams was a rebounding specialist whose 13.2% Usage Rate belied the fact that the only time he scored was off a tip-in or offensive rebound. Meanwhile the underrated and underutilized Mike Sweetney was a low-post scorer with a prodigious free throw rate, who neither was a pick & roll partner nor a particularly explosive finisher around the basket that would complement Mr. Marbury?s talents.

No other teammate, besides the underused Sweetney, approached offensive competence.

If the criticism of Marbury was that Sweetney should have received more touches in the low block, then I would certainly be in agreement. This was not the case. Rather, it was the Knicks’ coaching staff themselves who limited Big Mike’s production by playing him only 19.6 minutes per game, and all that behind inferior talent.

Sweetney even played less when Malik Rose joined the team through a mid-season trade with San Antonio. Rose was clearly finished as an offensive player, and shared Sweetney’s biggest weakness: being short. If Mike Sweetney was losing playing time for being an undersized 6?8? power forward with limited open court athleticism, then what exactly was Malik Rose, an undersized 6?7? power forward who could no longer hit a jump shot doing playing over 20 minutes a game?

Who then was Marbury expected to share the ball with? Because of his incompetent teammates, on any given possession the best option for the Knicks was Stephon taking the shot.

Examining the Usage Rate comparables of the 2004-05 season makes the ball-hog criticism even more inane. Marbury ranked 30th in the league in Usage Rate. For those of us keeping score at home, there are only 32 teams in the league, and since Usage Rate cannot exceed 100% by a team, the more one player’s ratio increases the more another’s must decrease (although if they are playing as substitutes one might not affect another’s directly). An obvious example would be Chris Webber?s high usage rate falling precipitously when he was traded to the Philadelphia 76er?s midseason. Allen Iverson led the league in Usage Rate, and promptly cut Webber?s dramatically, before it stabilized to a 17% decrease from his Sacramento rate.

As Dean Oliver explains in Basketball on Paper, a high usage scorer could be an asset to a team even if he is below average efficiency, because it permits his teammates to take fewer but higher quality shots. This improves the team?s overall efficiency. Ideally, of course, a team would like several high usage/high efficiency scorers. The Chicago Bull dynasty had this with the ultimate example of Michael Jordan and his Top-50 Player of all Time teammate Scottie Pippen. By the time they were done using the ball, the remainder of their teammates had only to use a small high quality percentage, which improved the team?s overall efficiency even more.

Compared to Stephon Marbury?s much maligned 24.7% Usage Rate, Scottie Pippen’s usage during the Bulls? championship seasons is comparable: 1990-91, 23.2%; ?92, 25.8%; ?93, 25.4%; ?96, 24.4%; ?97, 24.1%; ?98, 21.4%. And what about the one year Pippen had to lead the Bulls completely without Jordan? His Usage Rate in ?94 was 27.4%. Obviously, he should have passed the ball more. What a hog!

This additive function of Usage Rates would make it extremely difficult for any two teammates to be near the league leaders in Usage Rate, unless it was a classic pairing like Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles during their championship run, or the aforementioned Jordan-Pippen combination. For the 2004 season, there were only four teams that had a pair of teammates who played with each other all season and both had a higher usage rate than Marbury’s 24.57%, 30th: Indiana Pacers (Jermaine O’Neal 32.32%, 3rd; Jamaal Tinsley 26.12%, 17th; Stephen Jackson, 25.03%, 29th); Miami Heat (Dwyane Wade, 29.03%, 5th; Shaquille O’Neal, 27.45%, 10th); Washington Wizards (Gilbert Arenas, 25.95%, 18th; Larry Hughes, 25.30%, 24th); Minnesota Timberwolves (Kevin Garnett, 25.88%, 19th; Sam Cassell, 25.86%, 20th). In other words, as the best player on the Knicks’ team Marbury only used the ball as much as the 24th most heavily used first-rate player. Including the 76ers and Warriors by projecting full season stats and therefore including Iverson/Webber and Davis/Richardson, only moves Stephon up to 22nd, still a below average rate for a team?s best player.

If Marbury’s reputation labels him a ball-hog, the statistical evidence does not support the hypothesis. Instead, he resembles a talented offensive player who creates his own shots and creates high quality efficiency. Teams need more of this, not less. Considering the Knicks general incompetence at the offensive end, it was a wonder that Stephon Marbury is not asked to increase his Usage Rate.

The New York Knicks: What Can Brown Do For Them?

NBA training camps are now clearly on the horizon and the off-season is drawing rapidly to an anti-climatic close. Now seems a good time to chime in with a few words about the state of our beloved Knickerbockers heading into the 2005-2006 campaign. For brevity?s sake I?ll try to focus my comments on a few key questions, leaving the rest for another day.

Question 1: What exactly is the plan?

To its credit the Knick?s front office finally began to use the word rebuilding this off-season, and many a die-hard fan has longed to hear it. Unfortunately the Knick brain trust, such that it is, has taken far too long to pass through its ?we?re-one-more-player-away? denial phase since the magical run of 1999 ended on Avery Johnson?s baseline jumper. The subsequent years of delusional decision making have taken their toll. The team has fallen down and lost its way. Though there?s not much reason for optimism Knick fans still have hope, especially now that the team has taken the first step; admitting that it needs to rebuild.

So what?s next, Zeke? The closest thing to a plan coming out of Madison Square Garden has been Isiah?s ?younger and more athletic? mantra; really more a slogan than a discernable strategy. Well the Knicks have?for the most part?managed to lower the age and boost the athleticism during Isiah?s tenure. The Knicks will break camp with at most three players above age 30 (Hardaway, Houston, and Malik Rose), none of whom will be counted on for major contributions.

Youth and athleticism are great to have, but not at the cost of fiscal sanity. That little detail has unfortunately continued to elude the Knick brain trust? such that it is. Fortunately, as John Hollinger notes in a recent N.Y. Sun (paid registration required) article, the 100% luxury tax bracket has forced many teams to go yea verily and overspend no more…

That spend-happy system was workable because, as Cuban put it, ?When I first got to the Mavs, there was no luxury tax, revenues from TV and the league went up every year, as did the salary cap.? [?] But once the previous collective bargaining agreement was passed five years ago, the landscape changed. Thanks to a lockout, a recession, and Michael Jordan’s retirement, the salary cap stopped rising every year. As a result, teams increasingly found themselves hemmed in by long-term contracts they thought would be eroded by the league’s history of salary-cap inflation. [?] One hopes the Knicks can learn a lesson from Dallas. With some help from the tax amnesty rule, the Mavs were able to stay competitive while lightening an onerous salary situation. Likewise, New York could greatly improve its payroll situation. If Houston retires and Isiah Thomas can resist the urge to trade Penny Hardaway or Tim Thomas for an even worse contract [emphasis mine], New York will sidestep the luxury tax in 2006-07.

Certainly, avoiding the tax or even being under the cap provides no guarantee that a franchise will suddenly become a hot free agent destination (Salt Lake City never has been, never will be). And at times, we fantasy GMs (I count myself among them) can be a more than a little unsympathetic to the realities of managing the cap in a market with real risk, where franchise players largely stay put and second tier talent is systematically overvalued. However, as any Knick fan can attest, salary cap hell is a uniquely unpleasant place in the NBA. Escaping it?or at least not extending one?s stay there?has to become a much bigger priority in the front office, or at least more apparent in its actions. When I hear credible rumors about New York?s interest in bloated contracts like Antoine Walker?s and Eric Snow?s I start breaking out in hives.

Question 2: What style will this team play under Brown?

Youth and athleticism is often a euphemism for ?inexperienced? and ?unskilled? unless it translates into scores, stops, boards, and ultimately wins. Conventional wisdom suggests that speeding up the pace can minimize the inexperience and lack of skill that comes hand-in-glove with youth. Certainly, one would expect Ariza, Crawford, Frye, and Robinson to excel in an uptempo game. Presumably, Thomas acquired these athletes precisely to play a running style. But is Larry Brown willing to coach an uptempo style? Well, before dismissing the possibility out of hand consider that Brown, in his plaid-jacketed Denver days, coached a pace far above league average. Of course he had David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones on the roster. But, he also quickened the Clipper?s pace in his second season in LA with Mark Jackson, Ron Harper, and Danny Manning. In fact, Brown?s teams by my count have played at or above league pace 11 times in his 28 NBA seasons. So it?s not inconceivable that Brown could speed this team up to suit its personnel. I certainly wouldn?t get my hopes up though. Only two Brown-coached teams since 1994 (his first season in Indiana) have played at or above league pace.

History suggests that Brown won?t have much of a discernable impact on the offense. Though much ink has been spilled over Stephon Marbury?s impending move to shooting guard the switch may have little or no impact on offensive efficiency if the Knicks don?t find a reliable post scorer that can to the FT line. (Or at least find more minutes for the best post player currently on the roster.) Last season?s Knicks were middle of the pack offensively at right about league average efficiency (103 vs. 103.1 league average). Not much that has happened this off-season suggests to me that the Knicks will exceed +2 or 3 of that output this season.

It is much easier to see where Brown will focus his efforts to improve the defense. And, as the KB points out, it?s a fairly safe bet that he will. Last season?s Knicks continued a pattern of wretched defense that has been the norm since JVG said no mas. They allowed opponents an efficiency score of 106.5 (4th worst in the league). But, this off-season key veterans (i.e., Marbury and Thomas) have at least given public lip service to Brown?s gospel of shutting down dribble penetration and helping on defense. They have made themselves accountable in a way that they have not up until now. In itself that won?t make them good defenders but a prerequisite to good team defense is a team culture that expects players to commit to it. I don?t think it?s unreasonable to project a 3-5 point improvement in defensive efficiency, which should lift the Knicks to the middle of the pack. If the Knicks can stay around league average offensively and improve to league average defensively they will challenge to win the Atlantic. (Why this is the sad but true state of the Atlantic Division is for another blog entry on another day.)

Question 3: Can Marbury and Brown survive?

I don?t anticipate as much trouble as many. The two have made their quid pro quo fairly public, and both are savvy enough not to have done that unless they really want things to work out. So a big part of me thinks both are committed to making the relationship work. Marbury will retain his freedom in the offense under Brown, perhaps by moving to the shooting guard. Irrespective of whether that happens officially Brown has been very clear that he wants Steph to score. For Steph?s part he has essentially promised to commit do what Brown asks of him by saying that Brown made him better during the Olympics. Whether this is mere lip service on Steph?s part remains to be seen but Larry Brown is probably the first coach in his career with the power to hold him accountable. There?s almost no way the public and the press will take Marbury?s side in a dispute about his defensive intensity. I suspect the rubber will meet the road early in the season on a night when Steph is playing with high effort defensively, getting lit up, but also not scoring because Brown wants him to set up his teammates. The Knicks lose by 3 points. How both react will go a long way toward determining what their relationship can be.

In truth, I predict a much rockier relationship between Brown and Jamal Crawford should Crawford remain in New York. Would it surprise anyone if Houston and Ariza split minutes at the SG ahead of Crawford? It will be difficult for Crawford if he finds himself out of the rotation. His game hasn?t matured much since he entered the league. He offers nothing defensively, and despite his obvious talent he?s not an especially good offensive player. I see Brown wanting to re-make Crawford?s game along the lines of Richard Hamilton; coming off picks, less ball-handling, fewer threes. I?ve read nothing at this point to suggest that Crawford isn?t already thinking about the next stop now that Nate Robinson has signed and Houston remains on the roster.

Nominee: Worst NBA Article of 2005

(Thanks to TrueHoop for the link. While Henry & I might disagree on Stephon Marbury’s worth, his site is easily one of the best places on the web to keep up with everything going on in the NBA.)

In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t really written much this summer. It’s not that I needed some rest from a long NBA season. Nor is there something going on with my life that requires I take an extended break from one of my favorite pastimes. It’s just that there’s really nothing to write about. OK so maybe there are a few things going on in the league, but I have no interest in speculating where Shareef Abdur-Rahim lands or what Michael Jordan’s friends do on a golf course. While I’m not a professional writer, I take pride with what goes on my site, and try to put up the best material with the limited time my free time affords.

On the other hand, not being a paid writer may have its advantages. For example, I don’t have a boss (editor, manager, CEO or whatever) suggesting that I write about a certain topic. Nor am I obligated to write when the creative juices aren’t flowing in order to feed my family (which is a tad bit smaller than the Sprewell clan). I can only imagine that one of those two scenarios is what led Charley Rosen to write this piece on the most overrated players in history, instead of it being of his own volition.

Rosen starts his piece of with: “The numbers are misleading, and so is the hype. The truth is that too many ‘good’ players are wrongly celebrated as being all-time greats. To set the record straight, here’s an alphabetical list of the most overrated NBA players ever.” The only thing that would make me cringe more than that first sentence, would be to hear that they’re turning Diff’rent Strokes into a movie. It’s not as much that Rosen brushes away any statistical analysis, but rather that he puts it on the same level as “hype”. Real statistical analysis starts by asking a question and using the information available to answer it. Hype is emotional excitement that occurs after the fact, and is the antithesis of numerical analysis. Even the terms “overrated” and “underrated” lack any kind of validity. Whether someone is overrated or underrated relies heavily on the individual’s opinion. For example, if you thought that Shaq was going to be twice as good as Wilt Chamberlain, then he was overrated. Ironically, the same player can be underrated by some and overrated by others (Steve Nash comes to mind).

Some of the players that made Rosen’s list of most overrated of all time are Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing. Throw in Bird & Laettner, and you have the entire front court of the original Dream Team. Charles Barkley, who starts off the list, is called a “a chronic underachiever” by Rosen. Yes, the same Barkley who, despite being at least an inch shorter than his listed 6’6 and gave up nearly half a foot to his competition, made the All Star Team 11 times at power forward. Meanwhile, according to Charley, Karl Malone will only make the Hall of Fame because of two reasons “John Stockton and longevity.” Going by that logic, had the Jazz taken Terry Catledge with the 13th pick instead, maybe he would have been a two time MVP and the #2 man on the all time points scored list.

Of David Robinson, Rosen says “This guy was a cream puff. He could come from the weak-side to block shots, but he couldn’t guard his own man. He could rebound, but rarely in a crowd. He could score, but only on foul-line jumpers, or only if a defender bought a head fake after he drove his left hand into the middle. He couldn’t pass or handle. He couldn’t stand his ground in the paint.” The “cream puff” was All-Defensive 8 times, and ranks 6th all time in blocked shots. Since Robinson’s rookie year, only 12 other players have had more rebounds per minute. He won the Defensive Player of the Year, led the league in free throws 3 straight years, and won an MVP, all before Tim Duncan arrived.

However it’s Rosen’s inclusion of Ewing that really got my goat. If you thought that coming out of Georgetown that Ewing was going to be the next Kareem, then yeah he was overrated. But look at what Rosen has to say about him: “Had he played out of the spotlight in someplace like Orlando or Salt Lake City, Ewing would be remembered as a jump-shooting center who worked hard. Period.”

My friends, Sam Perkins was a jump-shooting center who worked hard. While it’s true that Ewing could bury the jumper, he was more than just an overachieving outside threat. Ewing frequently scored from the paint, something that his 50.5 eFG% and 1.11 PSA will atest to.

Rosen continues: “In truth, he couldn’t handle, pass, move laterally, and do anything worthwhile when an important game was on the line. Moreover, his dim apprehension of what the game was all about precluded any thoughts of being unselfish. Except for the early days of the Mets and the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York sports fans rarely hitch their devotion to a loser like Ewing.”

While I won’t lie and say that Ewing was a fantastic passer and never turned the ball over, the author is clearly cherry picking abilities here. Notice he used the same attributes of not being able to dribble or pass for both Robinson and Ewing. That’s because most centers aren’t known for their ability to run the point. In fact, Patrick’s per 48 minute points (29.3 to 29.2), turnovers (4.2 to 4.0), free throws made (6.4 to 5.9), offensive rebounds (3.3 to 4.4), eFG%( 50.4 to 51.2), and PSA (1.11 to 1.11) are comparable to another contemporary left off the list, Hakeem Olajuwon. Rosen uses a technique he must have learned at the Daily Oklahoman writing school, lowering himself to insulting Ewing by describing him as selfish, dim, and a loser.

Ewing never won any MVP awards, nor did he ever win a championship. However he was the centerpiece on two of the top 5 defensive teams of all times (according to Dean Oliver). During his prime, Ewing had 10 straight seasons where he missed 5 or less games and over that decade, the second highest minute getters on his teams each year were: Gerald Wilkins, Johnny Newman, (an aging) Kiki Vandeweghe, John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Allan Houston (for one year). If #33 was a loser, it was more because of his colleagues than himself. In fact Ewing might have had that championship ring, if not for one of his teammates missing 16 shots one June night. If Patrick was selfish he might have blasted Starks for the game 7 Finals loss. He might have whined about the Knicks never giving him a decent second option on offense. He might have forced his team to trade him, as so many athletes looking at their own best interests do. Instead he stayed for 15 seasons, only asking to leave after the Garden crowd not so politely asked him first.

No matter how you feel about Ewing, you have to admit that my assessment of the man was a bit more fair. So why did Rosen feel the need to do such a hack job on him, and a dozen NBA greats? Maybe it’s the summer heat, or the pressure of paying that air-conditioner burdened electric bill. Charley’s article comes almost a year after Frank Hughes’ stinker of 2004, which makes me glad that I take a little time off in the summer.

Chatting About Phil & The Lakers

[15:47] Me: be interesting to see how he does with a “bad” team
[15:48] Friend1: just like bulls of old
[15:48] Friend1: one star and roll players
[15:48] Me: Well one & a half
[15:48] Friend1: odom is 1/2 ?
[15:49] Me: lol
[15:49] Me: no Jordan = 1.5 stars

AND

[15:48] Friend2: my guess is that Phil thinks he sees something there
[15:50] Me: Yeah Phil sees something there that none of us do – Jeanie Buss naked
[15:50] Friend2: Anyone can see Jeanie Buss naked — she posed for Playboy


So Knick fans can start talking about P.J., Saunders, Larry Brown, Laimbeer, and of course Herb Williams. One thing to ponder – why don’t the Knicks have a coach yet? I can think of three reasons. The first is that Isiah was waiting for Phil Jackson. I have a hard time believing this one, because the Knicks GM doesn’t seem to be patient enough to wait for one person, even someone of Phil’s stature.

The second theory is that Isiah is waiting for P.J. Carlesimo’s season to end. Maybe P.J.’s cooled off since the incident, but it’s possible that being a strict disciplinarian is what Zeke wants. It’s could be that the Knicks recent “soft” coaching has been part of their problem, especially on defense. Remember not only did Thomas win a championship under the tyrannical Bob Knight, but he was going to hire him as a mentor. That so crazy it’s like Jesse Friedman hiring Michael Jackson for some counseling.

The third is that Isiah just hasn’t figured out who to hire. That would scare me, because it seems that this offseason there are a handful of good candidates to choose from. If the Knicks are waiting for P.J. (or even Larry Brown), then it makes sense to wait. However, if that isn’t part of Thomas’ plan, then why not grab Coach Saunders? Flip has a good relationship with Isiah’s main acquisition Marbury, and had a good record in Minnesota nearly leading them to the Finals last year. Of course it’s possible that Saunders isn’t the right coach for this team, but it’s a safe choice. In any case, I’d prefer a “proven” coach than a guy like Laimbeer or even Herb Williams. I didn’t particularly like what I saw from Williams in his “try-out” this year, and having success in the WNBA doesn’t necessarily translate into the NBA (right Michael?)

Revisiting Nash?s MVP Season: Short-Shorts and Culture Clash in the NBA

[Today’s article comes from the mind of David Crockett. “Dr. C” is the director of KnickerBlogger.Net’s Culture & Marketing Department. In his spare time, David Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

I don?t generally pay too much attention to regular season awards but the subject of Steve Nash?s MVP award has stayed on my mind throughout these playoffs for two reasons. First, Nash has played out of his mind offensively in the playoffs. (Amare Stoudemire was just on another planet but that?s for another day.) Heading into last night?s final game of the Western Conference Finals he had posted 24.1 points and 11.4 assists per game on 57% efg shooting with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.1, and made it look easy against good defensive clubs (Memphis, Dallas, and San Antonio). The second reason is that the announcers have cooed and squealed like schoolgirls with every assist and every jumper. Some pundits, like Suns fan Neal Pollack at Slate.com, have gone so far as to claim that Nash and the Suns have ?saved the NBA.?

Despite being a fan since Nash?s freshman season at Santa Clara, I really only began following his MVP season closely after Kevin Pelton?s positively inspired two part series on Nash?s MVP credentials (Part I, Part II). Nash, as we all know, was ultimately named the MVP. (See his regular season stats here.) The announcement was almost immediately followed by the inevitable racial mini-controversy about his MVP worthiness. Now I?m not one to gossip, but Michael Sweetney and Trevor Ariza had yet to see their first days of kindergarten the last time a white player (the ?hick from French Lick?) won the award back in 1986. In a business where more than 80% of the work force is black (and has been so for more than a generation now) it should surprise only the most naive that awarding the highest honor to a white player would meet with some skepticism.

The Nash controversy piqued my interest as both an NBA fan and a scholar. In my day job I research the ways that race, class, and culture are part of the marketing and consumption of products. Perhaps the National Basketball Association is more invested in packaging and selling race, class, and culture than any other business and certainly no chief executive has been as successful at it as David Stern. So the racial dynamics surrounding Nash?s MVP award are important and they certainly warrant comment but I thought I?d wait until after Phoenix?s run to comment on it, especially with Nash getting extended play before a national audience really for the first time this season.

Officially, Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard in his May commentary was the first to point to race, the big elephant in the room. He argues that by the traditional measure ? most productive player on a contending team ? Shaq is by far the more deserving MVP candidate. If voters are taking something else into account, he opines, Nash?s racial novelty is likely a part of what is being considered. Clearly Nash, one of only a handful of whites who played American college ball in the entire league, is something of a novelty. Though Le Batard has been roundly criticized for ?bringing race into it,? I found his comments much more balanced and reasoned than those offered by his TV and talk radio critics, even when I disagreed. For instance, it is easy to dismiss his claim that plenty of black players (or any players for that matter) have had a season like Nash?s. Indeed no one other than John Stockton, the short-shorted one himself, has had a passing season like Nash?s 04-05 in more than a generation ? not once you account for pace and league context. (I feel confident in speculating, however, that most MVP voters did not account for pace or league context when making out their ballots.) Yet Le Batard goes out of his way to avoid reducing Nash?s MVP award to a case of ?best white guy available.? He notes that race may be one of numerous things the voters considered and that it may have been no more important than anything else ? or perhaps not important at all. He writes, ?Who is to say that, given the same stats as Nash, 5-5 Earl Boykins, who is black, may not have gotten the MVP vote, too, because he is so tiny?? Trust me, as a Knicks fan having to defended Le Batard?s honor is a painful thing but he really didn’t say anything out of order.

Although Le Batard is totally legitimate to raise the issue of race ultimately he is unable to do so in a way that generates much insight. (It?s at moments like these that Ralph Wiley’s untimely death stings the most. Insight is the rarest of gifts.) Le Batard swings and misses ? or at least swings and foul tips ? on the important race question by merely wondering out loud whether MVP voters are biased against Shaq, even if only subconsciously. The question about race begging to be answered here is NOT why is Nash MVP instead of Shaq? Rather, the far more intriguing and important question is how Nash won the award when John Stockton never came close. As Kevin?s series presaged, Nash won the MVP award in 2005 with the type of low scoring/high assist season routinely produced by Stockton throughout the 80s and 90s. Stockton posted PERs that exceeded Nash?s 22.0 six different times (according to basketball-reference.com). He posted equivalent or superior passing and PER seasons to Nash?s in both 1988 and 1990. Not only did Stockton fail to win the award he never made the top five in balloting. Why, you ask? Low scoring/high assist seasons have traditionally been seen as the stuff of sidekicks rather than leading men. Consequently, such players have been frozen out of MVP consideration; that is until Steve Nash this season. Nash is the first sub-20 point scorer to win the award since Bill Walton in 1978 and has the lowest scoring average in the history of the award. I took the liberty of re-posting Kevin Pelton?s adjusted assists per game chart, adding in PER for each player, along with the actual MVP winners so you can see what voters valued during some of the greatest passing seasons ever.


Player
Year Team 05APG PER MVP

------------------------------------------------------------
John Stockton
1990 UTA 12.0 23.9 Magic Johnson
John Stockton 1988 UTA 11.5 23.2 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1991 UTA 10.9 23.4 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1992 UTA 10.8 22.8 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1995 UTA 10.6 23.3 David Robinson
Steve Nash 2005 PHO 11.5 22.0 Steve Nash
John Stockton 1994 UTA 10.1 22.5 Hakeem Olajuwan
John Stockton 1996 UTA 9.8 21.9 Michael Jordan
Magic Johnson 1991 LAL 9.8 25.1 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1993 UTA 9.8 21.3 Charles Barkley

Nash?s MVP in light of Stockton?s unheralded 88 and 90 seasons strongly suggests that the league has undergone a major shift in what it thinks an MVP is. What could account for such a shift? How could Nash win the MVP based on production that garnered Stockton all of one first place MVP vote in his superior 1990 season? I think an insightful approach is to consider the role race plays in the context of the ongoing tension between the league?s players, owners, and fans. Race, which I use here as a proxy for culture, style, and aesthetic, may be quite useful in shedding light on the climate change necessary to make MVP voters now value what Nash does.

Kansas City Star columnist and ESPN Sports Reporters panelist Jason Whitlock laid the groundwork for understanding the ongoing cultural climate change this past summer when the USA Basketball slapped Allen Iverson together with 11 virtually identical forwards from the Borg Collective and simply assumed it would win gold. As they bricked and hacked their way out of Olympic gold medal contention Whitlock speculated that many white fans actually rooted against the Olympians, or at least rooted for a style of play euphemistically labeled ?international? or ?European? to prevail. (This label has ever-shifting boundaries and is often based on some pretty crude categorizations.) This public sentiment basically represented, in Whitlock?s view, a vote of no confidence on the NBA by its white patrons. The league has unmistakably come to be seen by many as too closely associated with a hip-hop urban youth subculture whose studio thug imagery sometimes crosses the line into the real thing. In a phrase the NBA has become ?too black,? a point raised repeatedly by a wide array of commentators. Whitlock, like Le Batard, was roundly criticized for ?bringing race into it? but he was basically correct in pointing to widespread ambivalence about the league. Even while it remains popular, large sections of the NBA-watching public are criticizing the ?urban? style of play (another label, also often predicated on crude stereotypes) as overly reliant on athleticism and lacking in fundamentals. The failure of the men?s team to win was an ?I told you so? moment for this growing chorus of critics. Undeniably constructed to run fast and jump high (but apparently not shoot straight), the Olympic team?s failure turned what was a simmering cultural conflict into a full-blown cultural crisis over how the game ?should? be played. This crisis is perhaps best exemplified by the rapid disenchantment with soon to be ex-Memphis Grizzlies point guard/alter ego ?White Chocolate,? the one time hope who is now largely seen as having gone native. Fans and journalists are actively seeking something new. Or, as Neal Pollack at Slate would have us believe, the game needs saving and the ?European? style championed by the Suns is the savior.

It is only in the context of this barely-beneath-the-surface cultural battle involving players, journalists, and fans that Nash?s season could even become part of the MVP discussion. The particular merits of his performance really are not at issue. What is at issue is what the voters value at a given historical moment. It is only in a rapidly changing cultural climate that Nash?s performance could be considered the stuff of a leading man rather than merely that of a sidekick. The aesthetic or stylistic qualities of Nash?s play that have come to be seen as the cure for the league?s rampant hip-hopism are a huge part of why his season generated so much interest.

Personally, I?m glad to see that the voters can deviate from their often stilted and scripted understanding of what Most Valuable Player means. I hope awarding the MVP to Nash foreshadows a much broader consideration of what constitutes ?value? on the basketball court. I would like Nash?s MVP season to be seen by the league and fans for the outstanding performance that it was. But alas, I must confess my skepticism. I fear that awarding Nash the MVP was less a case of updating the script than replacing an old rigid script with a new one that may be just as rigid. Journalists, by rewarding the best player whose style fit their aesthetic preference, may simply have been firing a shot in an ongoing culture war rather than truly expanding what can be considered MVP worthy. That is, since Nash is the antithesis of the hip-hop teenie-boppers so many journalists swear are killing the game I fear they?ve simply fixed the intelligence around the policy so to speak, substituting their sense of style for analysis. (The graceful Nash represents what the game should be and how it should be played.) As a fan I?ve made my peace long ago with the fact that awards handed out by journalists for anything other than journalism will inherently favor whatever passes for ?good copy? over good analysis. I have learned merely to hope that analysis won?t be asked to leave the room.

At the end of the day what I find most disturbing is how these currently competing basketball aesthetics (the so-called European and urban styles) are so highly reliant on cultural fictions and stereotypes their supporters appear blind to how each style informs the other. As a fan I?m greedy. I want to be able to appreciate the similarities and differences between Nash?s game and O?Neal?s without them needing to represent opposing cultural worlds. Maybe we could just let them represent themselves and go from there.

Basketball Authors Wanted

Recently I had plenty of free time due to a solo business trip. In case you’ve never been on one, a solo business trip is akin to being put in jail. Without your wife, your friends, and the comforts of home, you just try to find ways of killing time.

I never knew that going to the book store can be an activity on it’s own. Near to where I was staying was a large book store. On the two nights I visited, the place was jumping. Seriously for a book store, I couldn’t believe how many people were there. There were solo book readers, friends sharing passages in their respective magazines, and groups meeting in the cafe. It was a disco for the literate and sober.

With nothing to do other than browse their large selection, I spent a good amount of time in the sports section. There were about 10 baseball books I would have happily purchased. The selection was large and diverse when it came to baseball. You could get books on baseball statistical analysis, books on the history of baseball, books on the physics of baseball, and biographical books ranging from players, to managers, to umpires. I could name about 5 more categories, but I’ll spare you from the Benjamin Buford Blue impersonation.

On the other hand, almost all the books in the basketball section fell into one of three categories:

  • Books by college coaches
  • Books by outrageous players (Barkley, Rodman, Dawkins)
  • Books on coaching basketball

I’m not too keen on college basketball. Certainly I like watching March Madness, but given the option I would rather read a book on the pros. Books written by outlandish attention-craving players don’t really do it for me either. For those that are ready to point out that statistical books about basketball exist, I already own Basketball on Paper and all the Prospectii. There was a single book on the history of the NBA, which I purchased but is more of a businessman’s book than fan’s. There just aren’t many basketball books that interest me.

The last book on basketball that I’ve read is The Jordan Rules, by Sam Smith. Despite of what you think of Smith, the book is an interesting read. It was published more than a decade ago, so it was fascinating to see what things were like back then. I wonder how many kids today are unaware that there was a time when Jordan’s leadership was questioned. Years ago Michael had spent 6 seasons as one of the best players in the league, but without a lot of playoff success. His inability to win a championship had columnists labeling him as a selfish player. Six championship rings later, no one would dare question his Airness in such a matter. However the book is about the Bulls’ first championship run, before his greatness was bronzed.

Unless you were a member of the 90-91 Bulls, you won’t be able to verify the book’s authenticity. Whether or not the stories are true, it’s certainly an entertaining page turner, as Sam is good at creating the mood of the team. Often times we don’t know anything about a player other than what they do on the court. In my experiences, I’ve seen that often a person’s on court demeanor is different from his off court one. Nice guys can step onto the floor and become the meanest SOBs you’ve ever met. Quiet guys turn into field generals. Funny guys loose their sunny disposition. Guys that would cross town to give you the shirt off their back won’t bother to chase a loose ball.

Sam Smith goes into the locker room to let you know what everyone is like off the court. It’s just like any work place, with conflicts left and right. The bench guys want more time. Pippen wants more money. Phil Jackson uses Bill Cartwright as the team’s pincushion in a complicated psychological ploy to motivate the team. Grant is fighting off losing his job to a younger player. Everybody wants the ball more. Everyone is jealous of Krause’s obsession with the unknown Toni Kukoc.

Jordan is the central figure in the book, but he’s a solitary mysterious figure. Michael is the genius that suffers no fools. He criticizes the GM frequently. He blames his teammates when the team looses. Seemingly his only concerns are his golf game, playing poker, the scoring title and winning a championship. The Jordan Rules refer not to the Pistons’ defensive rules that kept Jordan in check, but rather how the rules are changed for Michael off the court due to his fantastic ability on the court. It’s these Jordan Rules that help separate him from the rest of the team.

Unfortunately Smith’s book is the only one I’ve been able to find that illustrates the NBA in such an entertaining manner. I can’t even begin to count how many baseball books that I’ve read in my lifetime (25? 50? maybe 100?). Unfortunately the hoops section of any bookstore is far behind their hardball bretheren. There is no basketball version of the American classic Ball Four. Nothing as indepth as the Bill James’ Hoops Historical Abstracts would be. No Physics of Basketball to tell me why some shots go around the world before dropping. No Big Book Of Basketball Lineups to pass the time with franchise tidbits. Nothing as funny for hardwood lovers as Nice Guys Finish Last. The NBA is still 75 years behind MLB, so maybe this generation of youngsters that fill the playground courts will be tomorrow’s authors of great basketball literature.