Isiah Currys No Favor With Fans

Isiah Thomas reminds me of Felix Unger. The Odd Couple character’s downfall was that he couldn’t leave well enough alone. Nearly every episode had Unger ruining his life because his compulsive nature forced him to go too far. Last night, Isiah traded for the Bulls’ disgruntled center Eddy Curry. Chicago had been looking to move Curry since he pulled his Redd Foxx act during last year’s playoffs. Thomas traded away the Knicks young power forward Mike Sweetney along with Tim Thomas and garbage time specialist Jermaine Jackson along with two picks, which have yet to be disclosed.

The only way to like this deal is if physique is your only criteria on building a basketball team. Of the two, Sweetney is the one more likely to be confused as a Sumo wrestler. But for those who’ve watched their fair share of Knick games last year, Sweetney used his body in the paint to his advantage, tossing opponents like, well, a sumo wrestler. An excellent rebounder, he used his size, reach, and footwork to pull down rebound after rebound, often tipping them to himself when fighting against taller opponents. On the offensive end, when he received the ball under the hoop, there often seemed to be only two options: an easy field goal or a trip to the foul line.

However going into next year with the third year player as the starting forward wasn’t good enough for Isiah. Thomas insists on building the team in his “younger and more athletic” mold. Curry certainly fits that bill, just like outgoing Tim Thomas did. However it’s arguable whether or not Eddy is the better player on the court.

Name		FG%	PSA	USG	RBR	R/40	TO	PF	PER
Sweetney	52.2	1.16	17.6	16.8	11.5	2.7	5.6	16.6
E. Curry	52.9	1.13	21.2	11.8	8.5	3.3	5.1	15.8

They score at about the same rate, although Curry’s usage rate is higher. That could be because the offensively challenged Bulls leaned on Eddy, while the Knicks never featured Sweetney in the half court set. The turnover numbers and foul numbers are close enough to even out. However despite giving up 3 inches and 10 pounds, Sweetney’s rebounding numbers puts Curry to shame. Using John Hollinger’s rebounding rate, Sweetney ranked 20th last year in the league ahead of such luminaries as Yao Ming, Zach Randolph, Shawn Marion, and Elton Brand. In fact within the last year Isiah Thomas has traded two of the top 20, with Nazr Mohammed showing up at #11 on that list.

If Knick fans are looking for a silver lining on this deal, it won’t be Curry’s defense. While Chicago was one of the top defensive teams last season, the Knicks didn’t get the defensive stalwart of the Bulls frontcourt. According to 82games.com, the Bulls were 3.3 points worse with Curry on the floor, although he did keep opposing centers in check with a 13.3 oPER. Last year those numbers were 2.7 and 13.8. Dan Rosenbaum rated Curry as the 5th worst defensive center in the league while Matt from Bulls Blog, now over at BlogABull.com, said Curry won’t help the “Knicks’ awful help defense.

In fact in that column, which was written almost a year ago, Matt hit the nail on the head:

Another observation was laughing at the Knicks’ awful help defense. Curry won’t help there, but sometimes Isiah sees something shiny around the league and must have it. After my initial look at Sweetney (and I would really like to hear a Knicks’ fan’s perspective), I’m starting to hope that Isiah gets his man.

Isiah’s obsession with other team’s players has led him to acquire guys like Jamal Crawford, Jerome James, Tim Thomas, and now Curry. Jerome James came from a playoff team, but since he barely played, his contribution to their success was dubious. The 2004 Bulls won 23 games, and Isiah has 3 of their starters (including Antontio Davis)on his roster. Do these sound like the players you would be targeting if you were a GM?

The only positive is Curry’s arrival means the Knicks no longer have to worry about being undersized at the 5, but it comes at a heavy price. While I have no illusions that Sweetney would be enshrined in Springfield, he’ll be an above average starting power forward in this league. Additionally, the supposedly still rebuilding Knicks have given up some future considerations in the form of draft picks. Meanwhile, the Knicks will pay Curry $60M over 6 years. I usually don’t like to deal in hypotheticals, but it’s logical to assume the Knicks could have gotten Sweetney to sign for half that. Sweetney would have given the Knicks about the same amount of production (albeit at a different position) for half the price & New York wouldn’t have to worry if his heart will hold up under the Gotham media.

Isiah’s fault seems to be his inability to stay the course. One minute the Knicks are rebuilding, the next they’re spending $90M dollars for two centers with dubious histories. At the last trade deadline the Knicks were stock piling draft picks like a Central Park squirrel in fall, but now Isiah may have given away two for Curry.

Marbury is still an offensive force, while second rounder Trevor Ariza has flashed great potential. Nate Robinson dominated the summer league, and could be Isiah’s second steal in a row. Additionally, the Knicks have two more youngsters in Frye & Lee. Coach Larry Brown is one of the best in the business. If Isiah stopped there, New York would be in great shape to start the season. Instead, he’s bogged down the team with bad contracts. Eddy Curry, Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford, and Jerome James will reportedly cost the Knicks over $180M for the next 5-7 years. That will undoubtedly make the Knicks observers in free agency over that time. The worst part about it is that none of those players are worth it. None are locks to even make a single All Star Appearance. With the salary cap, it’s better to underpay for marginal talent than overpay for an average return. New York’s downfall will be Isiah’s inability to sign cheap talent and leave well enough alone.

Defensive About Brown

I don’t like to dwell too much on rumors, because if I jumped on every scenario that Peter Vecsey has envisioned, I wouldn’t have much time to write about things that actually happen. However with the Knicks tending an official offer to Larry Brown making it a real possibility that he’ll be the New York coach in 2006, now might be an appropriate time to look at what he could mean to this city.

So far the reviews have been mixed at best. Some people think that the unselfish ABA assist leader from ’68-’70 might clash with the Knicks’ star trying to convince Marbury to shoot less, or that the Knicks roster is too far from contention. Even Pro Basketball Prospectus author John Hollinger is against the move, noting that hiring Brown is antithetical to the Knicks’ rebuilding philosophy. No one pays a coach $10M to babysit the tykes while Jerome James does a 21st century revival of Marv Throneberry. In fact it’s Hollinger’s opinion that surprises me the most. Not only is one of the part time jobs of the voluminous author to cover the Knicks for the New York Sun, but John also coined the term “Larry Brown Effect” in the ’03 Prospectus. The LBE showed that Larry Brown (pre-Detroit) has improved his teams by an average of 11.2 wins in his first season.

While Hollinger looked at Brown’s overall effect on his clubs, I wanted to look deeper into those teams. So I split his accomplishments up between offensive & defensive rankings, and I looked at the teams in the first and second year of Brown.

Year    Team    Y1O     Y1D     Y2O     Y2D
2003    DET     -4      2       -3      1
1998    PHI     1       6       1       21
1994    IND     -6      13      -3      16
1993    LAC     2       5       5       -2
1989    SAS     -13     9       -5      19
1982    NJN     0       13      2       15
1975    DEN     7       3       7       2
1973    CAR     4       8       7       5
        SUM     -9.0    59.0    11.0    77.0
        AVG     -1.1    7.4     1.4     9.6
        MEAN    0.5     7.0     1.5     10.0

By the chart above, teams that Brown coached improved an average of 7.4 rankings on defense in their first year, and 9.6 in the second. On the offensive end, they showed little to no improvement. In other words Larry Brown is a defensive wizard. Which is why I would be thrilled to have him as coach of the Knicks.

When Herb Williams took over the head coaching responsibility in January, one of the things I said I would keep an eye on is how the Knicks fared on offense and defense for the rest of the season. At the time they ranked 17th and 24th respectively, and unfortunately they showed little to no improvement by the end of the year. On offense the Knicks finished 16th, but on defense they dropped three spots to 27th.

It was New York’s defense, or lack thereof that irked me. Even 5 games into last season, it was clear that the Knicks needed an upgrade. Isiah Thomas’ roster seemed to have players who lacked effort or ability on the defensive end, including his two prize guards: Marbury and Crawford. Stephon’s defensive liabilities were so bad that only a few weeks later it prompted guest-blogger David Crockett to write that Marbury should be traded because he created “easy scoring opportunities for opponents, putting his teammates in a terrible bind.” He added “at this point in Marbury?s career it seems unlikely that he is going to devote himself more fully to defense for more than a quarter here or there… How can the team construct a title contender with Marbury as its focal player?”

As for Crawford, in April I had an email-versation with John Hollinger that went like this.

KB: “I’m not sold on Crawford. Combine the awful defense with the chuck at all costs offense, and 2011 seems a far away. Both would have to change for Craw to be a useful starter, and I’m not high on those odds.”

JH: “Reasonable people can disagree on Crawford. I just think a stronger coach could whip him into shape and help smooth all those rough edges. We won’t know until or unless the Knicks hire one.”

Enter Larry Brown, stage left. Even though it was half of a hopeless season, Herb Williams’ inability to get the Knicks to play any defense left me doubtful that he would be the right guy to get the job done. Not only could Brown get Marbury and Crawford to shut down down the conga-line to the hoop, but he might be able to affect the rest of the roster as well. With the right training, Trevor Ariza could become a defensive stopped in the mold of Tayshaun Prince. Isiah’s new acquisition, the burly and foul prone Jerome James, might be able to stay in the game for more than 20 minutes a night with a little guidance. The Knicks have a rookie Channing Frye that, if his summer league 10 foul game is any indication, needs a little help in becoming their future center. And he can’t mishandle Mike Sweetney any worse than his predecessors.

Brown is exactly what the organization needs. The Knicks need someone that can get this young team to play defense. What better for this franchise to remind New Yorkers of its’ past than to become a defensive minded squad? Fans can be reminded of the Camby-LJ-Sprewell era, the Ewing-Oakley-Starks era, or the Reed-Jackson-DeBusschere era depending on their age. Notice that behind each one of those teams was a strong coach: Van Gundy, Riley, or Holzman.

Even if Brown stays for two or three years and the team only is good enough to go a round or two in the playoffs, the franchise should be better off because most of the players are in a position in their career where they can improve. It’s possible that the lessons the players learn under Brown can stay with them for the rest of their career. As for the aftermath, the proof is in Brown’s last few stops (we’ll throw out the Clippers, since we’re only concerned with legitimate NBA franchises). No one is predicting that Detroit will cease to be an Eastern powerhouse because Brown is no longer patrolling the sidelines. Indiana arguably was better after Brown left in 1997. Last I checked the Spurs have done pretty well for themselves since 1992. Only Philadelphia is the worse for wear, but in Larry’s last year their top guys included Keith Van Horn, Eric Snow, and Derrick Coleman. It was inevitible that they were going to crash sooner or later. As for the Knicks, the odds look good to me with Brown at the helm. Even if it’s only to temporarily right the ship.

[Edited after a full night’s sleep.]

No To Brown & Walker?

In case you thought everyone in New York wanted Larry Brown, there are at least two guys that feel it’s not the best move for New York. The illustrious John Hollinger has a freebie in the New York Sun (that I’m sure everyone has read by now), and Tim from HoopsJunkie with a lengthy expantion on the topic. And my nomination for best post on a team-centered message board goes to the man named ‘tomverve’ on Antoine Walker vs. Mike Sweetney. It’s good. It’s long. It’s well thought out. It’s logical. It’s got numbers to back everything up. It links to my page :-). What’s not to like?

Four Players That Need More Time

In today’s article, I’ll identify 4 guys who were productive last year, but didn’t see enough minutes from their team. All of them are big men, and two have been playing well for two or more seasons now.

Dan Gadzuric

By definition, the league average for John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is 15. Last year despite only playing 22 minutes per game, Gadzuric managed a PER of 18.5. The next person on the list was Michael Redd. Ironically Redd just received a 6 year $90M+ contract from the Bucks, while Gadzuric will play for the same 6 years, but for $54M less. Doesn’t seem fair does it? Just the other day, the APBRmetric board was discussing this very topic. That is that teams tend to overpay for guys with good pts/g, and that if a Moneyball type executive wanted to exploit the NBA, this would be good place to start.

If given a fair chance, he could easily step in & start for 20 teams in the NBA. Maybe even 25 teams. While I have no delusions that Gadzuric would be an All Star, it seems a waste in a league where centers are at a premium. Just looking back over the last few years of free agency, mediocre 7 footers like Foyle, Dampier, and Olowokandi have received big deals for little production. Meanwhile, Dan has posted a PER above 17 for two straight years. An athletic player, he can hit the glass at both ends of the court, block shots, and come up with a steal. Gadzuric shoots at or above 50%, and has cut back on his fouls to a level where he could easily play 30-35 minutes a game. With the arrival of #1 overall pick Bogut, the Bucks may not need Dan more than the 22 minutes a game that they gave him last year. It’s a shame, because given quality minutes, this guy could really shine.

Al Jefferson

Just go to a Celtics forum, and mention the words “trade” and “Jefferson” in the same sentence. You might see some replies like:

heff: “blasphemy!”
Big Al: “Jefferson is basically the only untouchable player on the team right now”
Jahwei: “Another reminder. Kids, don’t do drugs.”

Well you get the picture. Despite 2005 being Jefferson’s first year in the league, and receiving only 15 minutes a game, he still put up a PER of 16.6. Oh and remember this kid can’t kick back with a beer after the game until January, unless David Stern decides to play the Celtics home opener in Tijuana. As most youngling that enter the league, Jefferson was prone to turnovers and fouls. Considering that he can work on those numbers, he’ll be an asset for the Celtics next year. Jefferson is a fine rebounder, and ranked 19th in John Hollinger’s rebounding rate last year (with the above mentioned Gadzuric being 2nd). Doc Rivers was critical of Jefferson’s defense last year, which limited his minutes. If Al can hustle during preseason and get on his coach’s good side, Rivers might loosen the apron strings and be pleasantly surprised with the results he gets.

Mike Sweetney

How much longer will Mike be on these lists? Do I have to show up in the Garden with a “Free Mike Sweetney” sign? The guy had a 17.2 PER in his first year, despite spending the first few weeks on the IR behind such NBA luminaries like Clarence Weatherspoon and Othella Harrington. Still the Knicks only played him in 11 minutes per game. The year after Sweetney posts a 16.4 PER, despite playing against taller opponents at the five. Still the Knicks limit his minutes to under 20, whether or not he’s performing well.

Even this summer, with the Knicks trading Kurt Thomas, Sweetney’s hold on the PF position is tenuous. He’s been rumored to be traded for everyone from Antoine Walker to Kwame Brown. In last year’s Basketball Forecast, John Hollinger wrote “a good way to judge if the Knicks know what they’re doing is to see how long it takes for Sweetney to take Kurt Thomas’ job.” For this year’s book, Hollinger would be smart to copy & paste the same quote in, because a year later the Knicks still might not have figured out what they have. New York still has a glut of PFs, and it’s possible that Herb trots out Malik Rose, Jerome Williams, and Maurice Taylor often enough to limit Sweetney’s minutes again. However if given the chance to play 30 minutes a night, Big Mike will be a nice sleeper for those in fantasy basketball leagues that are looking for a double-double power forward.

Nick Collison

In 2003, just three picks after New York nabbed Mike Sweetney, the SuperSonics drafted Collison. Unfortunately the pick didn’t pay immediate dividends for Seattle, as Collison missed the season with surgery on both shoulders. Last year he rebounded back from his injuries, and had a PER of 15.0.

Collison took advantage of the Sonics open offense, and shot nearly 54%. Add to that an ability to draw contact, where he had a true shooting percentage of 57%, the same as Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard. Another reason to like Collison is that he upped his game during the playoffs. During the season he scored at a rate of 15.9 pts/48 minutes, but during the playoffs that average went up to 20.3. Getting more playing time next year shouldn’t be an issue for Nick. Seattle lost center Jerome James, and you never know what’s going to happen with volatile Danny Fortson.

Gnate and Nate?

My writing this week hasn’t been shedding Isiah Thomas’ latest move in a positive light. However one day after the draft would be a foolish time to continue to rain on the Knicks. Just one day after the draft Channing Frye is a future All Star, Nate Robinson is the backup PG that is better than half the starters in the league, and David Lee is going walk right in & fill Kurt Thomas’ shoes.

In fact despite railing on the deal just a few days ago, I was pretty excited when I heard that the Kurt Thomas trade was finalized because New York got Nate Robinson. No I haven’t changed my mind on the deal, because I think Richardson is an average player who doesn’t address the Knicks main needs. However if the deal had to go through, getting “Gnate” made it palatable. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the small guys. Years ago when Earl Boykins was a Net and Cavalier castoff I advocated from the top of my barstool that the Knicks should pick him up.

There are just so many reasons to like the diminutive player. I didn’t get to watch much of the NCAA tournament this year, but I saw at least one Washington game. Nate is one of those guys that you can’t help but keep your eyes on, because he will make something exciting happen. Although the Knicks do lack flash, I think Robinson can contribute as a solid player as well. Before going mainstream, the APBRmetric-minded Kevin Pelton gave him a nice write up over at draftcity.com. Meanwhile I can entertain thoughts in my head that Robinson will consider playing nickelback/kick returner for my beloved New York Jets.

Getting back to the Knicks I’m not sure whether they’ve solved their defensive problem. The reviews of Frye is that he’s a polished offensive player, but on defense the word “soft” has been thrown around. While he is a shot blocker, that talent doesn’t always translate from college to the pros. Knicks fans know that we’re not getting Tim Duncan or Tyson Chandler, but the answer to the question on exactly how much Frye can help solidify their D will have to wait. Obviously David Lee isn’t the defensive answer unless the Knicks trade Mike Sweetney (doh!) or Malik Rose (hooray!).

Even without getting another player, there is something Isiah and the Knicks can do to improve their defense: hire a defensive-minded coach. While I don’t believe that a coach can turn an awful defensive team into a stellar one, a good coach might be able to get the Knicks going in the right direction. Larry Brown would be a no-brainer, but there are two other possibilities that I wouldn’t mind New York considering. I know P.J. Carlesimo isn’t the popular choice in town, but he took the last ranked Warriors and turned them into an above average 12th in just two years. The Sprewell incident and sitting on the bench next to Emperor Popovich should make him a more experienced coach.

Nate McMillan’s contract should run out any second now. While the Sonics weren’t a defensive juggernaut, McMillan’s team made the most of what they had, had might have give the Spurs a run for their money had they not have a series of unfortunate injuries. Nate would give the Knicks their first legitimate coach since Jeff Van Gundy, and if he were able to bring over uber-consultant Dean Oliver it would be the icing on the cake. I?d still prefer a known commodity over guys like Herb Williams or Bill Laimbeer. With the draft out of the way, getting a coach should be the #1 priority on the Knicks list.

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.

Brrr?. Is There a Draft in Here? (Episode II: The Frontcourt)

[If you missed Episode I click here.

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

I the previous Episode I identified the backcourt as the team’s highest priority heading into the off-season. Whether through the draft, a sign-and-trade, or with the mid-level salary slot the Knicks must find a way to improve their perimeter defense as well as shave Marbury’s and Crawford’s minutes. To that end, let’s take a look at the frontcourt. First up: the big guys.

The Knicks ended the season with perhaps the highest percentage of power forwards on any roster in the league. Consider that the team started essentially two power forwards, Kurt Thomas and Mike Sweetney. Herb Williams also played Jerome Williams at both forward positions regularly. Isiah then traded for Malik Rose and Mo Taylor, placing Tim Thomas a mere heartbeat away from 4th string power forward.

The team’s ostensible center, Mike Sweetney, put together a solid (at best) campaign, especially considering that he played out of position. It was the kind of season that probably didn’t change many minds among his supporters or detractors. On offense, his PER (from 82games) at center was a very nice 18.8. As always, he shot a solid efg (53.5%), rebounded well (13.5 per 48), and got to the free throw line (7.9 per 48). However he struggled on the defensive end, giving up an opponent’s PER of 17.7. Though he managed to outshoot and out-rebound opposing centers per 48 minutes he also slightly out-fouled them (7 per 48), which meant that much of his potential offensive productivity went unrealized as he sat on the bench. That he struggled with fouls and offered essentially no shot-blocking against opposing centers is not necessarily surprising. He played virtually every game at a significant height disadvantage. Even conceding this, I still maintain that “Sweets,” as he is commonly known, would do well to lay off the sugary treats and slim down. He may be a bit young to remember that once upon a one time “The Thing that Ate” Ollie Miller was more than a punch line for a would-be sports writer.

Miller was an even better version of Sweetney, a rising young player with promise, fresh off the toughest Finals series the Jordan-led Bulls ever played. But basketball is an unforgiving profession on tendons and joints, even for the most finely tuned bodies. So ultimately Miller’s inability to keep off the extra 35-40 pounds made him less effective on the floor, kept him on the injured list with an endless assortment of ankle and knee ailments, and eventually forced him from the league. His problems were exacerbated – if not caused outright – by his obesity; and I won’t even get into the John “Hot Plate” Williams cautionary tale. (Note: “Hot Plate” is mentioned in this Washington Times column by Tom Knott on the end of the Bullets/Wizards futility. I defy you to read the article and NOT laugh out loud. It’s hysterical.)

Interestingly, backup center Mo Taylor is this season’s biggest defensive surprise. Ignoring for the moment that his acquisition is Isiah’s least defensible roster move to date, Taylor was a genuine surprise. After expecting to see Marburyesque indifference I recall watching games this season and being genuinely stunned at Taylor’s defensive effort. The numbers appear to bare it out. On offense Taylor was pretty much what I’d come to expect: an accomplished (though streaky) scorer and a turnover machine. His PER of only 13.1 at center was a tad lower than I’d expected but not altogether shocking. I would expect that with a full training camp we’d see Taylor move into the 14-15 range. The big stunner was on defense where Taylor held opposing centers to a fantastic 14.3 PER. Obviously the Knicks would love to see this kind of defensive production off the bench. Even should Taylor regress a bit on defense an opponent’s PER just around league average would be tremendous production from the backup center over a full season.

At power forward, Kurt Thomas is limited in what he can contribute on offense as a spot-up jump shooter and rebounder. Though his PER at power forward is below league average (14.4) he remains a decent shooter from field (46% efg), and superb in the 15-20 foot area off the screen-roll. He also still rebounds quite well (13.7 per 48). On defense he’s pretty awful, allowing opposing power forwards a 19.1 PER. Among the backup forwards perhaps the biggest surprise is Malik Rose. His defense, which is his calling card, was generally quite good (13.7 opponents PER). His aw-fense was awful. His PER of 9.7 is the unsightly fate of undersized power forwards with limited perimeter skills; they rarely age gracefully. But, such is the price of the additional first round pick. He better be good, whoever he is because watching Rose jack up shots has been painful. I knew that it seemed like he shot the ball an awful lot to me but when I went to 82games.com I was dumbfounded. For all the talk of his selfless professionalism no one mentioned that this guy is a bona fide ball hog. Rose took almost 13 shots per 48 minutes at power forward, hitting at an abysmal 40% efg. Sweetney and Thomas both took just under 15 and JYD took only 10.3 shots per 48. These players all shot over 50% efg.

Wherever it comes from the Knicks most certainly need better overall play from the frontcourt. I compared Sweetney’s and Thomas’ PER and opponent’s PER with center/power forward tandems from the league’s five most efficient defensives. (I also included the same comparison for backcourt players – just for kicks and giggles.)

Name Pos. PER Opp. PER
Sweetney, M (NY) C 18.8 17.7
Thomas, K (NY) PF 14.4 19.1
NBA Top 5 Teams in Defensive Efficiency
Duncan, T. (SA) C 28.6 13.8
Muhammed, N. (SA) PF 6.8 15.8
Nesterovic, R. (SA) C 13.1 13.2
Curry, E. (Chi) C 17.4 13.3
Davis, A. (Chi) PF 13.1 14.6
Chandler, T (Chi) C 19.1 12.8
Wallace, B. (Det) C 18.7 15.8
Wallace, R. (Det) PF 17.7 15.3
Ming, Y. (Hou) C 24.9 14.6
Howard, J. (Hou) PF 13.9 16.9
Wright, L. (Mem) C 15.4 16
Gasol, P. (Mem) PF 25.7 17

Name (Team) Pos. PER Opp. PER
Marbury, S. (NY) PG 23.3 16.4
Crawford, J. (NY) SG 16.8 18.2
NBA Top 5 Teams in Defensive Efficiency
Parker, T. (SA) PG 19.6 13
Ginobili, M. (SA) SG 22.7 10.8
Duhon, C. (Chi) PG 10.8 15.2
Hinrich, K. (Chi) SG 17.6 13.8
Billups, C. (Det) PG 20.4 12.9
Hamilton, R. (Det) SG 17.5 13.8
Sura, R. (Hou) PG 16.1 17.3
Wesley, D. (Hou) SG 12.4 15.7
Williams, J. (Mem) PG 16.7 16.2
Battier, S. (Mem) SG 18.3 14.1

* Non-starter

Although this comparison hardly qualifies as scientific it aptly illustrates how far the Knicks are behind the best defensive teams. Nonetheless, there is hope that at least Sweetney can lower his opponent’s PER into the 15.5-16.5 range next season. Entering his third season he should begin to catch an occasional break from the zebras on the “nickel-dime” type fouls that put him on the bench with regularity. Hopefully, his summer will be spent working on his conditioning so he will be less prone to such fouls. More importantly, the Knicks must make the commitment to put him at his natural power forward spot and keep him there. This of course means the team must acquire or develop a center.

Should the Knicks look to the draft to address the frontcourt presumably they’ll be in the market for a player who can log many if not most of his minutes at center, preferably providing some shot blocking. Given the paucity of quality true centers available in the draft in the table I combine centers with power forwards who play both positions. I leave out high school and international players as well as true power forwards that would have a difficult time helping the team immediately (e.g., Sean May, Ike Diogu, Wayne Simien).

Centers/Power Forwards

Name/College Availability? Comment
Andrew Bogut, Utah Top five Bogut is a consensus top 5 pick. He is a good ? not great ? athlete who can control a game with his skill and passing, particularly for a team who could play him in the high post. I hope he likes Atlanta.
Chris Taft, Pittsburgh Anywhere from #8 to #15, based on workouts/interviews The size and willingness to use it are all what you?re looking for in a big 6?10? pf/c, yet he has never dominated. People keep waiting for the light to come on. The interviews may be as important to this kid as any in the draft, including the high schoolers. It?s unlikely he falls far out of the top 10, if at all. If the Knicks remain at #8 this will likely be the guy slotted to them.
Charlie Villanueva, UConn Anywhere from #8 to #20 There is much to like about Villanueva. He runs the floor well. He shoots a high percentage. He rebounds and blocks shots. Unfortunately, he also likes to play like a small forward at times even though he is 6?11?. Does he want to play center?
Channing Frye, Arizona Anywhere from #15 to late first round Disclaimer: I?m an Arizona grad. Channing Frye may be the Shane Battier/Josh Howard of this draft. He doesn?t have superstar potential but he also doesn?t have a lot of holes in his game. He should be a very good pro PF/C for a lot of years. It would be highway robbery if the Knicks pick him up at the end of the first round. More likely they?d have to move into the 16-20 area.
Randolph Morris, Kentucky Anywhere from #15 to mid-second round I know the league is starved for big players but if this kid doesn?t pull out and go back to Kentucky for at least one more season something is dreadfully wrong with the NBA. I can understand over-estimating the potential of high schoolers but this kid staying on the floor at Kentucky and he was basically the only center in the entire SEC.
Jared Homan, Iowa State Second round If you?re looking for a backup center that ONLY rebounds and blocks shots in the second round he?s your guy.

Adding to the depth at this position are some talented international players: Johan Petro from France, Fran Vasquez from Spain, and Tiago Splitter from Brazil, as well as two schoolboy 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Andray Blatche. Although no David Robinsons or Tim Duncans populate this draft, some pretty serviceable centers are available. Most – after Bogut – will likely go off the board in the 8-20 range. If the Knicks remain at #8 in the draft lottery they could conceivably move down and still get a pretty decent player.

Small Forward

Name/College Availability? Comment
Marvin Williams, UNCC Top 3-4 pick Honestly, I didn?t see him play enough to do anything but parrot what everyone else is saying. ?This kid is the greatest thing since snowshoes. He?s much better than Cats. I?d go see him again and again.? They must know what they?re talking about, right?
Danny Granger, New Mexico Late lottery to end of first round I doubt Granger lasts until the end of the first. I think he?s the best ?true? small forward available but that tends to be the deepest pro position. His points per shot each year at New Mexico: 1.29, 1.41, 1.55, 1.62. His rebounds: 7.1, 7.9, 9, 8.9. He hurt himself with an awful game in the NCAA though.
Joey Graham, Oklahoma State Mid-to-late first round The athletic comparisons to Corey Maggette I have yet to see. Like Maggette he?s going to have to move his game outside to play his pro position. Coming out of OSU, he?s not surprisingly a good defender.
Ryan Gomes, Providence Late first/Early second Gomes re-made himself from a post-up only player into a ?power? 3, with a lot more skill than Graham. He dramatically improved his ball-handling and his perimeter shot.
Linas Kleiza, Missouri Second round/undrafted Kleiza is quality rebounder with a decent offensive repertoire. He probably lacks the quickness to defend SF?s in the NBA. He may go to Europe.

Looking at New York’s roster today, small forward does not appear to be a position of need. Of course, things change in the off-season. The Orlando Sentinel is reporting that Penny Hardaway is pushing for a buyout in order to re-sign with the Magic. Tim Thomas is also entering the final year of his deal. So those two contracts may indeed be moved this off-season. If they are, Trevor Ariza may be the incumbent at small forward unless Allan Houston can come back. Consequently, the Knicks cannot afford to ignore the swingmen in the upcoming draft. I’ve included swing players, who play in the backcourt, as well as ‘tweener types that play up front but handle the ball.

Of the small forwards I see the Knicks as most interested in a swingman than a power-three. Should the Knicks wind up in the top 3 certainly Williams would have to be one of the names they’d consider, along with Bogut and Paul. Should the Knicks remain at #8, irrespective of who is on the board the team should strongly consider Granger. He’s a do it all swing player. He could play in the backcourt, with Ariza at the small forward, and all of a sudden the Knicks could be looking at cutting off much of the penetration that plagues the defense.