With the 43rd pick of the 2004 NBA Draft …

“Here’s the one you’ve been waiting for here at the Garden,” Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik said in introducing the Knicks’ pick.

And what exactly would that be? A backup small forward. Apparently. Isiah Thomas went with UCLA forward Trevor Ariza, who I foolishly neglected to mention this morning. Ariza makes a lot of sense from the Knicks; he’s very athletic, which Thomas likes, and a defensive upgrade on Shandon Anderson and Dermarr Johnson. I had Erik Daniels rated ahead of him, but Ariza is the clear winner in terms of potential, and the 43rd pick isn’t a bad place to try to get lucky.

Surprising no one, none of the trade rumors involving the Knicks came true on what turned out to be a surprisingly quiet draft day. The only major trades, of course, were those announced yesterday but being made official today.

30 Second Draft Recap

Five Best Picks
1. Anderson Varejao, Orlando/Peter John Ramos, Washington – not exactly difficult picks, but good value nonetheless. I disqualify Luol Deng at seven, Josh Smith at 17, and Jameer Nelson at 20 as being too obvious/lucky.
2. Romain Sato, San Antonio – gives the Spurs another quality perimeter defender at pick 52.
3. Delonte West, Boston – $5 says he’s Boston’s starting point by season’s end (I’m on a high after winning $3 in a pool to predict the Sonics’ 12th pick this evening)
4. Tony Allen, Boston – is he a good fit? Could they have gotten him later? I don’t care — I love this guy that much.
5. Blake Stepp, Minnesota – and thus ends the Darrick Martin era.

Five Worst Picks/Biggest Reaches
1. Josh Childress, Atlanta – is there anyone who doesn’t see us looking back on this and mocking the Hawks? I think there’s a pretty good chance Deng, Luke Jackson, and Andre Iguodala are all better players than Childress.
2. Royal Ivey, Atlanta – all or nothing night for the Hawks. Ivey would have been a reach in the 50s; he’s a decent passer, but he makes Chris Duhon look like Michael Jordan.
3. Sebastian Telfair, Portland – uh, why couldn’t they have gotten him at 22 or 23?
4. Lionel Chalmers, L.A. Clippers – about five better point guards left on the board at that point.
5. Ben Gordon, Chicago – sorry, I just don’t get this one, and I don’t think he’s all he’s cracked up to be.

Lots of interesting NCAA free agents — Jamie Lloreda, Daniels, Nigel Dixon, Andre Barrett, Bryant Matthews, Arthur Johnson. It will be interesting to see where they end up and if they can do as well as guys like Marquis Daniels and Theron Smith.

(Subsequent edit — NYC native Barrett has signed on with the Knicks for summer-league play. Isiah Thomas targeted him after the draft and got the job done. Nice work Isiah!)

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com.

Knicks Off-Season Preview (Part 2 of 2)

What the Knicks Should Do Now

I?m back to offer a ?quick and dirty? assessment of the Knicks? primary needs with the help of a few stats compiled at 82games.com. I also offer a few modest suggestions for how to address them. (By the way if you didn?t catch part 1 of my off-season preview go check it out.)

Defense. Overall the team?s aggregate defensive numbers depict a mediocre but not awful unit. However those mediocre aggregate numbers mask a disturbing trend. The Knicks yielded points per game (93.5, ranked 13th) that belied their respectable eFG defense (46.2%, ranked 8th). To put this in perspective consider that New York?s eFG defense was only slightly behind Indiana?s (46%), identical to New Jersey?s (46.2), and slightly better than Miami?s (46.4), Memphis?s (46.5), or Philly?s (46.7). However, New York gave up 93.5 ppg and 104 points per 100 possessions (ranked 12th), more than all the aforementioned teams. How, you ask? The Knicks were more generous than the United Way, sending opponents to the free throw line 26.8 times per game. This ranks them 3rd from the bottom. Only the Bulls and Jazz were more charitable.

The most straightforward explanation for why the Knicks fouled so often in 2003-04 is that very few of them can adequately defend their counterpart. In fact, in the backcourt Marbury was no better than adequate and Houston was only a bit better. The two starters managed to hold opposing guards to slightly below average shooting and below average PERs at their respective positions. (NBA eFG averages for PGs and SGs were 46.1% and 46.9%; PERs were 15.1 and 15.2) Houston actually played admirably well defensively, considering his age and knees, holding opposing SGs to 13.9 PER, well below the PER average at his position. Marbury?s individual defensive numbers did improve when he came to New York, though at least some of that may be attributed to the fact that Eastern Conference point guards were not as good as those in the West. The average eFGs and PERs for Western conference PGs were 47% and 16. The Eastern conference PG averages were 45.1% and 14.2. Interestingly, Marbury in Phoenix yielded defensive numbers that were practically identical to the average Western conference PG’s output. In New York he basically gave up the average Eastern conference PG’s output. So, while I was pleasantly suprised to learn that Marbury?s defense doesn?t appear to be turning scrubs into all-stars I think it’s safe to say that he could be a lot better if he wanted to be. In a pre-playoff article posted at NJ.com by the Newark Star-Ledger’s Dave D?Alessandro (whose link appears to have expired) Marbury talked unselfconsciously about taking his rest on defense to keep himself fresh throughout the game. On the other hand Frank Williams played spectacular defense, holding his counterparts to a PER of about 10.1 and 40% eFG per 48 minutes.

Unfortunately, the frontcourt?s defensive numbers were not encouraging apart from Penny Hardaway and Michael Sweetney, who both held their counterparts to below average PER and below 45% eFG. Kurt Thomas’s and Nazr Mohammed’s defense on opposing power forwards and centers was far from inspiring. But Tim Thomas’s 51% eFG defense (emphasis not in original) and above average PER on small forwards were worse than Keith Van Horn’s in New York. In fact they were downright Peja-like. Of course looking solely at a counterpart?s offensive production to measure defensive impact doesn?t tell the entire story, especially for frontcourt players who must rotate and cover for other players often sacrificing position to their counterpart. For instance, Ben Wallace looks like a mediocre defensive center when measured this way, but of course we all know better. Nonetheless, individual defense measures yield interesting insight into the Knicks because they expose the starters? overall poor individual defensive ability. Only two of the five starters appear even adequate by these measures. This inability to defend one on one in all likelihood explains why the team gives up almost 27 free throw attempts per game.

Offense. The Knick offensive numbers tell a similar story of overall mediocrity masking frightening underlying trends. The Knicks scored just under 92 ppg, right at about the league median (half the teams scored more than the Knicks, half scored less). The Knicks managed to be a decent shooting team, ranked 13th in eFG at 47.4% (but only 3.4% behind league leader Sacramento). This is despite the roster changes and despite playing long stretches without leading scorer Allan Houston. The Knicks outshot the Nets, Pacers, Pistons, and Heat on the season. The team?s top three offensive players, Marbury, Houston, and Tim Thomas, all shot well above 45% eFG and had at least an average PER at their primary position. The Knicks were also a solid rebounding team, one of only 11 who grabbed greater than one full rebound more than its opponents. Yet the Knicks ranked only 21st in points per 100 possessions with 102. How does a decent shooting and good rebounding team end up toward the bottom in scoring? Simple: the Knicks lost 17% of their offensive possessions to turnovers and they took only 21 free throw attempts per game. The turnover rate tied for 3rd worst with bunch of other teams. The Knicks made far more bad passes (-120) and committed more offensive fouls (-39) than did their opponents. Unfortunately the Knicks? turnovers were debilitating because they did nothing in sufficient quantity, like rebound or generate steals, to offset them. The free throw woes have been well documented; only Toronto took fewer free throws per game. The turnovers and inability to get to the free throw line more than offset shooting and rebounding that were modest strengths.

What are the Knicks most glaring needs? On defense the team simply cannot continue to send opponents to the free throw line. No matter what acquisitions Isiah Thomas makes this off-season it is self-evident that the team needs both defensive upgrades and perhaps more importantly a recommitment to playing defense, particularly from its top players. On offense the team needs better offensive efficiency more than a dominant post player per se. Although a dominant big man would be a welcome sight in orange and blue offensive efficiency begins with taking care of the ball. A big man?s impact is seriously diminished when the team loses almost 20% of its offensive possessions to turnovers. Just ask the Rockets, who are rumored to have grown weary of Stevie Franchise and his turnover prone ways.

So what should the Knicks do now? Again, my hope is to address this question at the strategic level rather than suggest a host of roster moves, keeping in mind that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

First, I strongly urge the front office to pursue only players that bring better defense, versatility, or ball handling/passing to the team – not just more prolific scorers. On defense the team needs substantially better individual defense, especially in the frontcourt. On offense the team?s turnover problems stem from a serious absence of ball skills among the starters other than Marbury. None of the other four starters are particularly skilled ball handlers or passers. The Knicks, with limited salary cap flexibility into the foreseeable future, will find themselves best able to acquire these skills by leveraging its few valuable assets for draft picks and young, reasonably priced veterans who can help lay the foundation for a winning organization. Fortunately the Knicks can add such players through the draft, salary exemptions, and by moving expiring contracts, waiting to add a star player as the final piece of the puzzle. This is the most realistic, if not altogether preferable, means of building a serious contender in the post-Jordan salary cap era. Detroit was the first to win a title this way but Indiana and Memphis have been building themselves similarly all along, now hoping to find the player who can elevate them the way Rasheed Wallace elevated the Pistons. For the Knicks, Isiah Thomas must perform due diligence and investigate the availability of the top talent but I?m certain he realizes that the team?s immediate future is more likely to be filled with the likes of Antonio McDyess, Shane Battier, and Trevor Ariza than Rasheed Wallace and Shaquille O?Neal. Though neither McDyess nor Battier would be a sexy acquisition both bring skills this team needs. They play at both ends of the floor, pass well, and don?t turn the ball over. The market for McDyess is almost certain to be limited to some part of the mid-level exception and Battier is the kind of player who could be targeted in a three way deal involving an expiring contract. Both players could potentially start or come off the bench and neither would likely prohibit the Knicks financially from making another acquisition. I am not endorsing these players per se, though I do like them, except to suggest that there will be numerous players available who bring the skills the Knicks need who are not necessarily stars.

Second, to the fans I would caution that failing to acquire a superstar does not equal a failed off-season. Many of us fans are infatuated with the idea of acquiring one (or more) of the premier (i.e., Shaq or Rasheed Wallace) or high second tier (i.e., Erick Dampier or Marcus Camby) post players expected to hit the market this summer. However it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks can land premier or high second tier big men with only salary exemptions to offer, and less to package in a sign-and-trade. Even should the Knicks somehow miraculously land one of the second tier big men for the mid-level salary slot, consider that his impact on the team could be lessened (if not swamped) absent improvements in New York?s two biggest problem areas: turnovers and fouls. So, for instance, although Dampier is a clear and welcome upgrade in every respect to Nazr Mohammed his ability to avoid foul trouble would be sorely tested by the team?s mediocre perimeter defense, and that could seriously diminish his impact. The point is that the Knicks must address turnovers, defense, and free throws in order to improve. They cannot upgrade in other areas and leave these unaddressed. As I look at any transactions Isiah makes this off-season that is how I will assess them, including the second round pick in the upcoming draft.

Third, the Knicks must find ways to drop deadweight from the roster before training camp. Shandon Anderson should be bought out and released, as was the plan at one time last season. It should be made clear that he is not in the picture. No hard feelings. Buying him out would be best for everyone involved. I feel similarly about Moochie Norris. In his entry Kevin suggests buying out Penny Hardaway. Financially, this move would be a no-brainer if both sides could reach an agreement. From a basketball standpoint however I wouldn?t be upset if Penny makes it onto the opening day roster. He and Marbury are really the only two offensive players on the team that can score, pass, and handle the ball. Although Penny?s physical skills have eroded he played surprisingly good defense at small forward last season, and he still ?thinks? the game at a high level. Apart from that, since he plays most of his minutes at small forward now he?s not really taking minutes away from any of the youngsters. Only Tim Thomas and Shandon Anderson played significant minutes at that position last season. If the Knicks could keep Penny to 15 minutes per game he would be valuable.

In all, this promises to be an exciting off-season but I hope the excitement is generated by prudent moves that continue to shape the identity of the franchise and lay the groundwork for a future NBA champion.

David Crockett, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com

“Finals Experience”

I haven’t been able to write much recently, and I missed game 3 due to an important family matter. This brings the number of bloggers I know that are going through family tragedies to 2. Luckily there has been some good writing out there recently, especially if you’re a stathead like me. Page23’s Kevin Pelton put out a column about how the Pistons are winning instead of the Lakers losing the series (though we’re still waiting for the second installment of the Future of NBA Statistics). Newcomers to my links section, under the bleachers, are putting out some great stuff about both basketball & baseball. A few days ago they wrote:

Another sports debate that gets me worked up is the one over experience, as in “will the Pistons’ lack of Finals experience hurt them?” It seems like the sort of thing that you can only cite after a team wins or loses — “well, the Pistons lost because they didn’t have enough Finals seasoning.”

These guys hit the nail right on the head with this one. How can something exist if it isn’t a good characteristic of future performance? I can say that adding Shaq to a team gives it a good chance to win a championship because he was clearly the best player on a championship team. Horace Grant played in 6 different Finals. They should both have “Finals experience,” but I would say adding Shaq to a team gives them a better chance of winning it all than Grant.

Two years ago, I’m sure somebody out there attributed the Lakers victory over the Nets to the Lakers’ “Finals experience”, and the Nets lack thereof. However the Lakers simply had the better team. Last year the Nets were the ones with the “Finals experience” advantage, since the Spurs hadn’t been to the Finals in 4 years. Of the Spurs top 3 scorers, only Duncan had been to the Finals before, whereas New Jersey’s top 5 scorers all had “Finals experience.” In this series the Spurs won in 6 games. The most recent lopsided “Finals experience” mismatch is the 1991 Finals. The Bulls hadn’t been in any of the previous Finals, while their opponents, the Lakers, had been in 7 of the last 9 Finals. In this case, having experience meant nothing, as the Bulls won in 5 games.

I can understand this kind of thought process. You perceive that a team that recently has been to the Finals has some kind of advantage over a team that hasn’t been to the Finals, because these teams win more often than not. However is the “Finals experience” the cause for this?

You can look at “playoff experience” the same way. If you look at the history of the playoffs, and took all the matchups where one team made the playoffs the year before, while the other didn’t, I’m sure the team with the previous playoff experience has a high winning percentage. Again is this because of the “playoff experience” factor? No. Most likely teams don’t miss the playoffs one year, then are good enough to win their first round matchup the next year. Turnaround isn’t that quick in the NBA, unless you can get a top notch guy. Even that isn’t a guarantee, as proved by Michael Jordan’s first year. In fact it took Jordan’s Bulls 4 years to get out of the first round. The important factor was not “playoff experience,” but rather being a good team.

The same can be said about “Finals experience.” When you have a team that has the ability to win it all, they should be able to compete at a high level for a few years, and might win a few championships. The “Finals experience” doesn’t make a team win, but rather it’s the other way around. A team wins multiple Finals because the team is great at winning to begin with.

DON’T LET’S START

Don’t let’s start
This is the worst part
Could believe for all the world
That you’re my precious little girl
But don’t let’s start
I’ve got a weak heart

They Might Be Giants

What a day to start a Knicks blog. In case you decided to do something else last night other than watch the game yesterday (lucky choice), you might not understand why. I can attest to you first handed that the Knicks played a half-hearted effort for 3 quarters last night. I wish I could say anything about the fourth quarter, but I switched to another game half way through. They scored 11 after the first quarter, 28 at the half. It was that kind of night. Thank goodness I don’t believe in omens or anything of that sort, or this might turn out to be the worst blog ever.

This is the Knicks team that we’ll see for the rest of the year, since the trade deadline has passed. Only 5 of the 12 players that played last night were on the team at the start of the year. It’ll be 6 when Houston comes back from injury. For the most part, I really like what Isaiah Thomas has done with this team since his arrival. This is a team that won 37 games last year, and 30 the year before. Scott Layden had assembled a bunch of overpriced bench players, that seemingly had zero value and couldn’t be dealt. Over the summer Knick fans had hope again, when Layden drafted 3 young players with promise. It should have been a good sign when for once the Knick fans at the draft were cheering for the players that were drafted instead of their usual “Fi-re Lay-den!”

However things went sour quickly, as two of the rookies were burried on the I.R., and the third was so low on the depth chart that he played a whole 44 minutes (garbage minutes) before heading to the I.R. in December to join his draftmates. The team was in the worst sort of disarray, they were losing games and not developing their rookies. You can’t blame Dolan for firing Layden at that point.

Since then Isaiah, has taken over the reigns. If the NBA was a western movie, Isaiah would have been the cowboy who stops the gallooping horses from taking the carriage off the cliff. He cut rookie Slavko Vranes. The Knicks had about 7 guys that could play PF, but only 2 SG and 2 PGs. Weatherspoon went to the Rockets for Moochie Norris. Zeke made the huge trade for Stephon Marbury & Penny Hardaway. And a few days ago, he traded Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac, and a second round pick for Tim Thomas and Nazr Mohammed.

In my opinion, he’s done a great job on each move, except for the last one. I still don’t understand that last deal. Keith Van Horn is Tim Thomas’ superior in most of the important statistical categories. He’s a better scorer. A better rebounder. A better offensive rebounder. A better thief. A better free throw shooter. Better at drawing fouls. Thomas has him beat in assists, turnovers, and age.

So I was shocked to see the media for the most part praising this move. I don’t know the statistics on this, but I’m sure nobody could give a reason without including the words “more athletic.” I can’t verify this either, but I’m sure the word “alley-oop” increased on Knick message boards by about 500%.

One question that just leaps into my mind: If Thomas is more athletic, then what words would you use to describe why he has put up less statistically? Unskilled comes to mind to me. Unmotivated seems to be a favorite choice of optomists. There have been plenty of players that have been great athletically, but aren’t good basketball players. There is more to basketball than being athletic, just like in baseball (right Michael?).

I guess in the scope of things, the loss to the Knicks in this deal isn’t that bad. Nazr Mohammed is by most scouting reports, an excellent rebounder and a decent shooter. He hasn’t played much in the last few years, so maybe he can develop into a decent big man, like another Knick did. If he can develop into a C that can play 24-30 minutes a game, maybe that can alleviate the loss of Van Horn. The Knicks are a better team today because of Isaiah Thomas than they were just two months ago. I just hope Houston comes back ASAP & is healthy, because right now the Knicks don’t have a good second scorer.