Sweetney, Kurt Thomas, and Feedback

A few weeks ago, I added a link for comments to my webpage to get some feedback from my readers. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. At that time I was blogging in a vacuum, only getting feedback by email, and for the most part people won’t email you unless:

* You really really pissed them off.
* They really really agree with you.
* They want you to link to their blog/fan page/message board/scalper site.
* They want to sell you all-natural pills that will make your breasts bigger.

The first two are always welcome, the third is tolerated, and as for the last, I have no desire to look like Robert Paulson from Fight Club. Since adding the ability for my visitors to interact with myself and each other, I’ve received a lot of good comments like this one:

Jim K. wrote:
I dunno, this season I haven’t been as impressed with Sweetney as I was his rookie session. He plays with enthusiasm (or is it reckless abandon?) and puts up some nice stats (although his rebounding per minute is down from last year), but his defense seems nonexistent to me. As the Knicks are so bad, I guess he should get more minutes, but I don’t see Sweetney being a more than a 20 minute a night guy…I think Ariza has more of a case, just cuz Tim Thomas is so erratic, but Kurt Thomas is probably the Knicks most reliable vet, knows how to run the plays and actually defends his man in a reasonable fashion. Maybe shift Kurt back to center, start Sweetney, have Mohammed come off the bench, and hope Thomas has the energy to cover Sweetney’s defensive mistakes?

If you’re a regular here, you know I don’t hold Kurt Thomas’ defense in high esteem. The way I see it, Crazy Eyes’ good defensive ability is by reputation only. Thomas is at his best when defending in the post, but even then he’s not going to intimidate and shutdown his man. As for the rest of his defensive game, Kurt is just awful at stopping PFs that can operate from outside, nor does he bail his teammates out with great shot blocking ability.

As for Mike Sweetney, defense is one area where he has improved from last year, but that’s just a nice way to say he doesn’t get lost on switched assignments as often as he used to. He’s similar to Thomas, in that he’s not a great defender in any area. In Sweetney’s defense (no pun intended), he’s usually undersized in his matchup (more on this later). If Kurt Thomas was a current or former All Defensive Team member, I wouldn’t be upset with the frontcourt rotation. However, Thomas is not good enough defensively to warrant keeping a much better offensive player in Sweetney on the bench for 30 minutes a game.

And make no mistake, “Sweet ‘N Low” is the better offensive player. Jim noticed Kurt sets up the offense better, as Sweetney has regressed in running the pick & roll. It seems like he gets whistled for an illegal pick every other time the Knicks run it with him. But take a look at the per 40 minute stats below:

NAME....  PTS.  eFG%  PSA  REB.  OREB  BLK  TO.  PF. 
K.Thomas  12.5  47%   1.0  11.0  2.2  1.1  1.4  4.1
Sweetney  18.0  52%   1.2  10.9  4.0  1.2  3.2  5.7

Just as Jim said, Kurt Thomas is the more reliable of the two. He turns the ball over and fouls less frequently, but Sweetney has him flat out beat offensively. He’s an excellent offensive rebounder (OREB), shoots at a higher percentage (eFG%), gets to the line more often (PSA), and can take a heavier load of the offense (PTS/40). In tonight’s game against the Bucks, when Sweetney was in the post, he was getting double & triple teamed, but he still ended up with 18 points and 9 boards in only 22 minutes. Kurt had 16 & 10, but in double the time. Given those minutes, Sweetney would have put up some eye-popping numbers.

If I think Mike Sweetney is worth 30 minutes a night, and Jim thinks he’s worth 20, then maybe his solution of starting him along side Kurt Thomas is a good compromise. In fact I would prefer Jim’s solution to have Kurt play the five, because when they’re on the court together, Mike usually covers the opposing team’s center. According to 82games.com, Sweetney plays center 80% of his time, and rarely if ever is on the court at the same time as center Nazr Mohammed. This is a far cry from last year, where he played more than half his time at the four. Maybe Jim’s observation of Sweetney’s decline in play this year is due to the 6’8″ power forward being forced into duty against taller players?

Unlike the NHL, I’d agree to a compromise under one last condition. Kurt Thomas is averaging 37 minutes per game, 5 more than he did each of the last two years. Take 5 of those minutes & give it to Sweetney at PF along the first team offense. In tonight’s game, Milwaukee continuously double teamed “Big Mike”, because he played with the second unit of Norris, Hardaway, Jerome Williams, and Kurt Thomas. With no other inside presence and 3 bricklayers on the outside, the Bucks sent squadron after squadron into the post. With those extra minutes and the other team forced to respect the Knicks that can actually score, I’d like to see what Sweetney can do against the power forwards of the league.

Miami 116 New York 110 OT

[The analysis of last night’s game against the Heat comes from KnickerBlogger head correspondent David Crockett, Ph.D. David is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

What a tough loss tonight in overtime to Miami. I suppose that Marbury’s 6 free throw misses deserve to be the story. That’s a rare poor night for him from the charity stripe. It was a good opportunity to steal a game though, especially with Shaq having an off night offensively.

A Couple Of Thoughts:

The Knicks need to display more diversity in the halfcourt. Right now the Knicks score the bulk of their points on two plays: the screen-roll and off Marbury’s penetration. When the Knicks really need a basket they don’t have anything else to go to. Tonight was a repeat of an earlier game. Teams simply trap Marbury, blowing up the screen-roll, and the Knicks have no response. The last time this happened Marbury and Crawford tossed it back and forth. This time Kurt Thomas at least got a shot off, although it didn’t hit the rim.

When they need one basket at the end of the game New York must put Sweetney or Tim Thomas in the post. They’re the only two post-up players on the roster. You cannot have Marbury and all jump shooters on the floor. Yeesh.

On the bright side, Trevor Ariza gets a little bit better each week. He’s still got a lot of holes in his game (no mid-range game, suspect handle, limited strength.) Like any kid who hasn’t played a lot of basketball there’s much he doesn’t recognize until it’s already too late. Nonetheless, he’s better now than he was a month ago and much better than when the season began. He starting to put together some decent games.

[End David’s part]

Dave, it’s amazing how “Air-Riza” gets better by playing more. What’s even more amazing is the Knicks can’t apply this philosophy to Mike Sweetney. Trevor can get in 36 minutes despite his Swiss cheese game, and yet Sweetney plays only 18 despite being the more polished of the two. You’d think the Knicks could find him more time, especially when they’re running a 7 man rotation in an OT game, and the starting PF ended up with 6 fouls.

The only reasonable theory for further delaying Sweetney’s growth is the window dressing of Kurt Thomas for other GMs. The trade deadline is February 24th, so benching Thomas so close to it might decrease his worth. Maybe I’m seeing things through my blue & orange shaded glasses, but despite his salary Thomas should bring in some decent value in a trade. How many teams couldn’t use a blue collar power forward who can rebound on the defensive end, finish the pick & roll with a sharp jumper, and hasn’t missed more than 5 games in any of the last 7 seasons?

To finish off my rantfest, the Knicks should take a serious look at Jamal Sampson. Sampson will turn 22 in May, is 6-11, and can rebound like nobody’s business. His career reb/40min is 15.0 which is Evans/Fortson territory. If given 40 minutes he would also block 2.1 shots, which is triple what that duo combined would give you in the same amount of time.

Sampson’s shooting is a liability (45% eFG, 59% FT), but Jamal won’t kill you with his turnover rate (about the same TO/min as Nazr Mohammed). Sampson’s shot blocking alone would be great for the “paint-allowing” Knicks, but consider his phenomenal rebounding skills, and it’s a no-brainer. Certainly this poor-man’s Ben Wallace can’t be worse than Vin Baker or Bruno Sundov. A sign of a good GM/coaching staff is the ability to find guys like Sampson for cheap, and turn them into useful players.

2004: A Good Year

The New York Knicks entered the first day of January 2004 with 14 wins and 19 losses on the 2003-2004 season. While they would lose 4 straight games to start the year, it would turn out to be a good year for the 32nd street crew. The Knicks went 25-24 the rest of the way and made the playoffs for the first time in 3 years. Against the New Jersey Nets in the playoffs, New York received a whooping the size of Tim Thomas’ lower back bruise. Still the Knicks improvement was celebrated by their fans, and the summer of 2004 would bring a ray of hope for New York.

Isiah Thomas signed Jamal Crawford to sow up two gaping holes. Crawford would provide insurance for Allan Houston’s knee, while his ball handling skills would make him able to play point guard when required. Jerome Williams was a minor addition, while Trevor Ariza and Mike Sweetney showed promise in the summer league. Based on their good second half and the additions they made in the offseason, the Knicks were favorites to win the newly diluted Atlantic division.

Facing a seemingly tough schedule, the usually optimistic Isiah Thomas hoped his team would go 10-10 in their first 20 games of the 2004-2005 season. After a 34 point debacle in Boston, the Knicks were off to a bleak 0-2 start. However, they rebounded from their early ineptitude, and met their president’s expectations of 10-10. In December, New York won 6 and lost 3, and entered 2005 with a 16-13 record.

Considering the two years before, 2004 was a success for the Knicks. After two lottery seasons, they had seemed to turn the corner. They made the playoffs in the summer. By the winter, the Knicks were 3 games up in the win column, their best record in 4 years. No one else in their division was over .500. From January to December of 2004, the Knicks were 41-37. It seemed that 2005 would be even better than 2004 for boys in orange and blue.

It’s hard to believe that was only one month ago. Since the ball last dropped in Times Square, the Knicks have lost 14 of their last 16. In one 8 day stretch, the Knicks lost 4 games; two back-to-back to the baby-Bulls, and one each to the single digit win Hornets and division rival Raptors. Three days after, their coach had resigned. Right now, they are tied for last in the weakest division in the NBA.

So far in 2005, the Knicks’ have been bitten by the injury bug. Mike Sweetney was incapacitated for 4 games, which is the exact number of games that Penny Hardaway has played in. When Trevor Ariza twisted his ankle, he suffered his first injury as a pro. Both shooting guards have missed a combined 12 games. Allan Houston’s future is uncertain, and the expensive guard has refused any talk of retirement. Being strapped by Houston’s contract is bad enough, but not being able to get any production for their money is the deepest cut.

For 2005 the question becomes: is the Knicks 2-14 record the exception or the rule? Even if the Sixers remain two games under .500, New York would have to go 21-14 the rest of the way to retake the Atlantic. Tough, but not impossible. Right now the onus is on the players and coaches to steer the ship from crash landing in April. If not, this summer it’ll be up to Isiah to give New Yorkers back the hope that they had only a year ago.

Two Points For Herb

What will new coach Herb Williams bring to the Knicks? Here are two points that I’m most interested in.

1. Overall team improvement.

Improving on the Knicks win/loss record is the highest priority right now, but I’m going to concentrate on the team’s offensive & defensive rating (also known as points per possession). Why? Studies show that a team’s pythagorean record (simply a record based on their points scored & allowed) predicts how a team will do the next year better than their actual record. But more importantly I’m interested in what kind of coach Herb Williams is. We don’t know if he’s an offensive or defensive minded coach. Watching how the Knicks perform on both ends of the court will give insight into his style of coaching. Also I’m interested in the Knicks’ defense which has been awful all season. Can the current group improve with better coaching, or will Isiah need do get some better defenders in the offseason?

.......	RANK	pts/poss
Offense 17th 101.0
Defense 24th 104.3

2. Youth Movement

With the Garden Front Office considering (gasp) “rebuilding”, the Knicks will need younger cheaper talent. Fortunately New York already has some future holdings on their roster, but those players will never mature unless they are thrown into the fray.

Whether it’s his bullying of Dikemebe Mutombo for a rebound on Friday, or his blocking of Keith Van Horn and going into the camera row to retrieve the ball on Sunday, Mike Sweetney shows flashes of brilliance every night. Despite his skill, Sweets was only getting 16 minutes a night under the old regime. His Player Efficiency Rating, (18.6 third on the team), is fueled by efficient low post scoring, and tenatious rebounding. I’m concentrating on Sweetney’s minutes under Herb, because it’s undeniable that giving him playing time is beneficial to the team in the short and long term.

One word captures Trevor Ariza’s future: intriguing. I wrote about him in November, and my opinion of him hasn’t changed since:

Actually Ariza’s skills make him a Jekyl & Hyde player. He’s calm & confident in transition, or when the focus is not on him in the half court. One play in the first quarter exemplifies Ariza’s strengths. He stole the ball near midcourt, and beat out everyone to the ball and laid it in leaving everyone else trailing behind him on the play. It looked like Ariza was jogging while everyone else was running at full speed. Clearly, he was in his element.

On the other hand, Ariza looks lost in the half court game. His first jumper rebounded high over the backboard, causing him to loose faith in his shot. By my count, he passed up 3 open jump shots in the first half. The other end of the court didn’t offer any solace for Ariza, where his one-on-one defense was lacking.

Many people think that “Air Riza” is a good defender because his athletic ability and instincts get him 2.2 steals per 40 minutes (first on the Knicks). However, he has lapses when it comes to one-on-one defense. Even Desmond Mason blew past him a few times on Sunday. For the time being it looks like the Knicks won’t be able to rely on him day in and day out. There are times when his flashy rebounding, getting to the free throw line, and propensity to steal will make him look like a future All Star. But there will be other nights when his matador defense and lousy shooting (41% eFG) will make Herb Williams wish he was still an assistant coach.

Some coaches tend to rely on veterans because they’re too impatient to live with a rookie’s mistakes. Herb Williams has shown that he’s not that kind of skipper, by making Ariza his starting SF Sunday. The Knicks coach will come under fire the days that Ariza doesn’t produce, especially with fan favorite Jerome Williams on the bench. How many minutes Ariza gets will show how committed Herb is to developing his young players.

Sweetney 16.3 18.6 54%
Ariza... 15.8 12.4 41%

Bulls 88 Knicks 86

It hit me watching today’s Bulls-Knicks game, that these two teams couldn’t be more different. They are twilight zone-esque mirror images of each other. I’m sure somewhere out there, Jordan’s Knicks defeated Ewing’s Bulls with the requisite Star Trek goatees denoting the presence of an alternate universe. The Garden organ playing the infamous star trek fight music.

On the court the Bulls sport the NBA’s second best defense, while the Knicks are ranked a lowly 26th. Chicago relied on their two big men, Chandler and Curry, whose four blocked shots don’t adequately reflect the intimidation and presence they applied in the paint. The Knicks had their problems scoring inside. Marbury had a drive blocked and recovered by one of the Bulls. Nazr Mohammed was embarrassed when his clear-path-to-the-rim-I’m-going-to-jam-it-with-one-hand was forcefully rejected.

On the other hand, the Knicks starting big men had a total of one block. The Bulls scored from the paint time and time again, where they held a 38 to 26 point advantage. Chicago sealed the game with two big plays. Nocioni grabbed a rebound with less than 20 seconds left, and was fouled which setup the Bulls last play. Gordan used a pick and roll, and was left with a match-up against PF Mike Sweetney. The slower Knick kept up with the quicker guard, but Gordan still managed a high arcing shot no more than 10 feet away from the hoop to give Chicago the victory. Giving up two big plays inside at the most critical point of the game underscores my point. The Knicks just don’t have the personnel nor the scheme to stop their opponents from close range.

Everything the Bulls did on defense was what the Knicks fail to do night in and night out. Duhon fought through screens all game to disrupt the Knicks’ pick & roll. It’s been so long since a Knick guard did that, I thought maybe the NBA had made a rule against it. Even when the Knicks were able to get past their defender, the Bulls had one or two help defenders converge on the play. The Knicks were forced to counter with an outside attack. After Marbury, 3 of their next 4 scorers were perimeter players: K. Thomas, Houston, and Crawford.

From the opening tip, one match-up showed exactly how different the two teams are. The bulky veteran Jerome Williams matched up against the skinny teenage rookie Luol Deng. The Junk Yard Dog will earn $5.6M this year, more than any Bull who played tonight. In fact today there were 7 Knicks who earn more than the Bulls’ richest participant tonight: Tyson Chandler. New York’s starters average age was 30, while their opponents were a youthful 24. And that’s including the 31 year old Othella Harrington who only played for a quarter.

After getting swept in back-to-back games by their mirror-image, the Knick organization is going to have to take a hard look at itself. The players should wonder why they aren’t able to play tough man to man defense like their opponents did. The coaching staff is going to wonder why their defensive rotations don’t go as smoothly as the other team’s. The front office might wonder why their roster doesn’t have many young, cheap, and athletic defenders. Hopefully the Knicks can learn something from looking across court and seeing what they are not.

Dallas 123 New York 94

I had spent the day on my couch with what was either food poisoning or a stomach virus. Unable to eat anything solid for 36 hours, and working from home, the only thing I had to look forward to was watching the Knicks face off against the Mavericks in the Garden. And I thought my day couldn’t get any worse.

Dallas embarrassed New York, coasting off their 39 point halftime lead to a 123-94 laugher. I should have known the Knicks were in trouble when they brought in Vin Baker in the first quarter. With Nazr in mild foul trouble, the Knicks need to bring in a big man. They could have either brought in Mike Sweetney, who’s offensive rebounding and high percentage shooting are what the Knicks’ lacked early on. Or they could have brought in Jerome Williams who’s high energy and defense would have provided helpful when New York came out flatter than the hardwood they play on. The Knicks’ announcers said Lenny Wilkens had to bring in Baker due to a “match-up” problem. Kurt Thomas couldn’t switch to center because he was the only Knick that could defend Nowitzki. Huh?

First when Sweetney and Thomas play together, it’s usually Sweetney that covers the other team’s center. So New York could have brought in Sweetney, and still played Thomas at PF. Secondly whether or not you consider Kurt to be a good defender, he’s certainly at his worst against PFs that can play from outside the post. Multi-talented guys like Antoine Walker, Dirk Nowitzki, and PFs that can hit the side of a barn like Kyle Korver, Croshere, and Kenny Thomas cause problems for Kurt. Finally, if it was defense that Wilkens was concerned with, he could have brought in Jerome Williams, who hounded Nowtizki in the first matchup.

In either case Nowitzki had no problems scoring, as he had 23 point by halftime. All of those were while Kurt Thomas was on the court, but he wasn’t the only New Yorker playing matador defense. Finley lit up the boys in orange & blue for 17 first half scores, and Howard poured in another 14. That’s 54 points from the Mavs new-not-so-big-three, by halftime.

Needless to say I didn’t stick around to catch the second half. I looked for something less depressing, and switched over to the Diary of Anne Frank. It’s too bad, because Bruno Sundov got some quality time, and it would have been nice to get a scouting report on him. Unfortunately the Knicks’ first half performance was all my stomach could handle.

Knicks 104 Washington 106

[Today’s entry comes to us from David Crockett, Ph.D, an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, who can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

The problem last night heading down the stretch was not benching Allan Houston, rather it was benching Mike Sweetney.

The box score from last night for both players says all you really need to hear. Sweetney must see more minutes, even at the expense of Kurt Thomas.

K. Thomas.. 34 7-11 0-0 3-8 3 3 14
M. Sweetney 17 6-7 2-2 1-7 1 2 14

In half the minutes Sweetney matched Thomas’s production in virtually every category. Perhaps more importantly than what is reflected in the simple box score is the fact that Sweetney scores the bulk of his points in the painted area (65%) while Thomas, an accomplished mid-range shooter, gets most of his fgs on 15-18 foot jumpshots (89%).

I picked up the game in the 3rd when the Knicks had a sizable lead, 8 points if I recall. When Sweetney was in the game the Wizards had a difficult time matching up with him physically. With Thomas in the game the Wizards appeared to the naked eye to be the much more physical front line. I mention this because of the game’s ending. On the final Knick possession Wilkins designed a nice play to get Mohammad a shot deep in the post. Had that play been designed with Sweetney rather than Thomas rebounding from the weakside I suspect the outcome would have been a putback or a trip to the free throw line for Sweetney. Kurt Thomas could not finish inside over Jared Jeffries once he got the rebound. Five years ago, maybe even three years ago, Thomas puts the tip back or gets to the line easily. He isn’t that player anymore.

I should mention that once again Marbury had what appeared to be a poor floor game. The two turnovers he is charged with mask how poorly he ran the team down the stretch. He simply does not operate well against zone defenses. He was able to penetrate late, getting a basket and a disputed non-goaltending call. However, of the team’s last 10 offensive possessions certainly 6 or 7 of them were quite poor. That isn’t solely the point guard’s responsibility but it’s mostly his responsibility.

Dave, it’s great to hear someone else say that Sweetney should be getting more minutes. I took some slack when I suggested that the numbers show that Kurt has lost a step defensively. However since seeing that data, my eyes have shown it to be true.

One criticism of the data was that Kurt faced the best PFs in the league against Garnett, Nowitzki, Duncan and Brand which inflated his numbers. Since then he’s been torched by ‘Toine (36pts), Okafor (20), Nailon (17) and Jamison who had 8 offensive boards in addition to his 25 points. Mind you they are good offensive players, but shouldn’t Kurt be holding this second tier of NBA PFs under their per game average?

The second argument was that Thomas was inundated with penetrators that made his stats look worse. That next game against Atlanta, I recorded the number of times that Walker could shimmy his way back up the court due to being the recipient of a distracted Thomas, and I can say that not more than 6 of his 36 points were scored that way. Game after game power forwards come out against New York with better scoring numbers than they came in. According to 82games.com Thomas is the Knicks’ PF 2/3 of the time, and opposing PFs have a PER of 19 against New York, 3 more than the next position. If Kurt isn’t a good defensive player, then it’s hard to see why he’s getting double the minutes of an offensively superior player.

As for Marbury, I don’t think he’s the only one to blame for the Knicks inability to beat the zone. For years the NBA has turned into a 2 or 3 man offense with the rest of the team standing around watching. To beat the zone you want the exact opposite, lots of motion and penetration with the proper spacing. Marbury can help with a few forays to the hoop, but the zone can morph itself to take away this kind of attack. So in my eyes, it’s the coaching & the 4 other guys on the court that are at fault. Maybe NBA players have gotten used to taking a few plays off on offense when their number isn’t called. Maybe the Knicks haven’t practiced enough against the zone. David, here’s where you might be right about Sweetney’s inside presence. Maybe his ability to draw a double team in the post can help open things up on the perimeter. I’m really not sure exactly which of these will best help the Knicks against the zone, but right something has to change, because things can’t be any worse.