Memphis 82 New York 90

Thanks to a good friend, I was able to watch tonight’s game from section 133. Some notes from the game:

  • When you enter the garden there is a huge (30 – 50 feet?) poster of about 6 or 7 Knicks. There’s the recognizable Knicks, Marbury, Thomas, etc. But one of them is Vin Baker. Do you think the one in Memphis has Tsakalidis in it?
  • Sweetney blocked a Gasol shot, and was the recipient of his hard work on the break for 2 easy points. Very impressive for him to block a taller player’s shot & hustle down the court to finish the play.
  • Right by Gate 60 there is a bar that sells good drinks. They’re inflated, but for an extra full or half buck you can get a real beer.
  • I saw Marbury hit 4 straight three pointers in the second quarter to singlehandedly bring the Knicks back into the game with a 2 point lead. What a big difference he can be when the other team isn’t double teaming him & he is free to shoot.
  • I’m pretty sure Marbury likes it from the top of the key, either just off to the left or right.
  • On his fifth consecutive attempt from beyond the arc, Marbury missed, but Sweetney was there to get the rebound & tip it back in.
  • Sweetney played most of the night at center. As long as it’s not someone of Shaq or Zydrunas’ skill, he should be able to earn more minutes that way.
  • If you show up during the second quarter, and you didn’t see if Tim Thomas played, you can always ask the guys in front of you. New Yorkers are very helpful if you ask one a direct question.
  • The same guys will give you hi-fives when their favorite player does something spectacular.
  • When JYD does something, most of the crowd will bark. Curiously everyone barks differently.
  • The halftime highlight show on the monitors showed a montage of the Knick bench. Baker appears two or three times early on, but none were from him actually playing in the game. Just like close-up head shots.
  • Trevor Ariza is fast.
  • Trevor Ariza fouls a lot.
  • When Kurt Thomas came in to replace Mike Sweetney in the fourth quarter, the crowd let up a big cheer. Now I definitely know I’m not the only that thinks he deserves more playing time.
  • Pau Gasol really didn’t like fouling out & took a little cajoling to get off the court.
  • Magazines commonly sold at Penn Station have a ratio of 7:1 of women to men on the cover. Of the women magazines 77% of them are showing off either their breasts/cleavage or have their back turned to show off their other main asset. Of the men on the covers, only 19% of the men magazine even have them showing as much as a bare shoulder.
  • 73% of inane stats come when you have to wait 15 minutes or more for a subway train, and have a pen & paper handy.

Way Too Early Season Review Part II

If you haven’t read Part I already, then you might want to do so now.


The main reason the Knicks can afford losing Kurt Thomas is because Mike Sweetney (18.1, 17.1, -6.2) is ready to play PF full time. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Back in June, supersonics.com writer Kevin Pelton said the best age-21 comparisons for Sweetney are Zach Randolph and Carlos Boozer. While Basketball Forecast author John Hollinger thinks the former Hoya is ready to break out and become a 14-12 guy. Sweetney has two major strengths: he can score efficiently, and he can rebound. He’s hitting 55% of his shots, and he leads the Knicks in points per shot attempt:

Player's Name	 PSA 
M. Sweetney.... 1.26
J. Williams.... 1.25
Stephon Marbury 1.20
N. Mohammed.... 1.14
J. Crawford.... 1.03
Kurt Thomas.... 1.00
A. Hardaway.... 0.96
Trevor Ariza... 0.88
Tim Thomas.... 0.83
Vin Baker...... 0.46
Moochie Norris. 0.44
Jamison Brewer. 0.41

(Jerome Williams’ PSA is that high because he only shoots when he’s 3 feet from the hoop with a clear path.)

In addition to being a good scorer, Sweetney had the highest rebound rate on the team last year. Isiah may not clear the way for him to start this year for numerous reasons. With the Knicks on a quest to win the Atlantic, they might not want to trust the PF position to a second year player, Zeke might not be able to peddle Kurt for something the Knicks need, or they’re keeping Thomas as insurance for the center position, because the backup is gulp Vin Baker (12, 20, -1.2 last year).

The most surprising Knick up to this point is Nazr Mohammed (21.5, 17.0, +14.2). Upon seeing his numbers I thought the improvement was because he cut down on his personal fouls, but his rate hasn’t changed over the last few years. The major improvements I’ve found are in his shooting percentage (52.7%) and offensive rebounding (6.1/40min). FG% is the stat that fluctuates the most from year to year, but this year’s improvement shouldn’t be a fluke considering he shot 56% after being traded to New York last year. What might drop Nazr back to earth is his offensive rebounding. His highest rate in a full season is 4.5OREB/40mins back in 2001, and he’s a point and a half ahead of that.

In fact I think Nazr’s improvment in shooting percentage is directly related to his offensive rebounding. Last year in Atlanta, Nazr had a lower rebounding percentage, only 49% of his shots were inside, and 63% of them were assisted. Whereas in New York, his numbers are 60% and 54% respectively. Simply put, since coming to the Knicks about 10% of his shots are now unassisted and in the paint. It sounds like he’s earning those by cleaning up on the glass.

Another thing I like about Nazr is his combination of good hands and ability to finish. Mohammed usually converts on a Marbury drive & pass in the paint. Mohammed’s downfall is his weak defense, especially at the critical center position. He doesn’t bail out the other Knick defenders with blocked shots, something the Knicks could use thanks to their all around poor defense.

I think the whole city of New York has watched every step of Tim Thomas on the court (4.0, 14.9, -8.3), and it’s safe to say that I don’t need to do a full review on him. If his problem was mental & he’s back to normal, I think we can give him a Mulligan on the first month of the season. If he doesn’t regain his form, he’ll be replaced in the lineup before long. His defense looks like it’s improved slightly, down from the 16.4 oPER from last year.

The Knicks best defensive position is SF (13.8 oPER). While Thomas has improved, it’s the other three guys that can take a lion’s share of the credit. Jerome Williams (18.7, 15.8, +11.9), Trevor Ariza (13.2, 13.4, -1.3), and occasionally Penny Hardaway (10.5, 11.7, +3) are all fine defenders in their own right. Unfortunately the revival of Tim Thomas spells less time for the two most energetic Knicks, Williams and Ariza. Early on in the season Ariza was getting good court time, but these days it’s likely that he’ll play less than 10 minutes. The recipient of Ariza’s decline in minutes is Jerome Williams who has worked his way out of the dog house (pun intended). The SF situation is the same as it was last Monday when I said:

New York has a real logjam. There doesn’t seem to be a clear solution in sight. Thomas and Hardaway are nearly untradeable due to their large contracts, while trading Ariza would be insane due to his potential. I’d hate to see Jerome Williams go, because his game is uniquely different from anyone else’s on the team. So maybe everyone stays until the summer, when Hardaway and Thomas become more attractive as $30M in expiring contracts.

If it seems that the Knicks have too many forwards, they might have a similar problem with the guards once Allan Houston becomes healthy. How Lenny Wilkens handles this should be interesting. Houston will initially come off the bench, but if he’s back to his true form, who plays the two guard spots in the fourth quarter between Starbury, Crawford and Houston? The guard quandary is more difficult to solve than the PF or SF one. Guys like Ariza, Sweetney and “JYD” can handle being benched due to their circumstances, but how do you tell the 3 Knicks accustom to taking last second shots that one has to sit?

Wilkens giving Ariza few minutes isn’t much to get upset about. Trevor is young and inexperienced, and there is a lot of depth at SF. But Lenny needs find more time for Sweetney. Although he’s averaging 17 minutes a game, his time has dwindled so much that against Toronto he played a total of 17 minutes in 2 games. There are times that Jerome Williams’ infectious style and hustle are what the Knicks will require, but for a majority of the time Sweetney should be the first big man off the bench.

Generally Wilkens gets a good grade in my book. Other than Sweetney’s playing time, I have a hard time finding anything else largely disagreeable. This year the Knicks have a fair amount of depth, and Wilkens has to walk a tight line between winning now, developing their young talent, and keeping everyone happy.

As I write this, the Knicks just slipped back over .500 with an OT win over the Hawks. Writing this took a life on it’s own, because the Knicks have so many interesting topics to hit on. This year we have developing youngsters, players battling for time, Allan Houston’s return, a division race, and the speculation that Isiah Thomas can rearrange the team at a moment’s notice. Watching tonight’s game made me realize that only a short time ago, the Knicks were more like the Hawks, a team just looking forward to the next draft.

An Interview With John Hollinger

Recently the 2004-2005 edition of the “Pro Basketball Forecast” (formerly Prospectus) hit the bookstores, and it’s clear that John Hollinger’s work keeps getting better and better. Whether you’re a fantasy basketball GM, a hardcore hoops head, or just a casual fan, there’s something for everyone. Hollinger keeps readers interested with funny anecdotes in between the hard hitting analysis and his unabashed criticism. There are gems on every page, like when Hollinger jokes about little used 2001 draft pick Primoz Brezec being thrilled about having “front row NBA seats,” or when he declares Etan Thomas as the “NBA’s best dreadlocked big man.”

In the first edition Hollinger introduced us to a new stat, PER, which has become the de-facto standard of measuring an offensive player’s performance. Not only is he able to express a player’s ability in one single number, but Hollinger is able to quantify a player’s ability to rebound, pass, score, and turn the ball over in a way that makes more sense than traditional statistics. If you’re still unsure about buying “Pro Basketball Forecast”, go to the book store, turn to page 90 & read Hollinger’s take on Bimbo Coles. You’ll be laughing all the way to the cashier. If you have never followed basketball closely before, with one purchase, you’ll know everything about every team and their players for the upcoming season.

Luckily, John took some time outside of his busy schedule of writing for Sports Illustrated, the New York Sun, alleyoop.com, and of course next year’s Pro Basketball Forecast to do an interview with yours truly. [Hyperlinks added by me.]

Writing a Book

Do you use co-authors & how much of the book is written by you?
I write all of it.

How long does it take?
Well, the nice thing about an annual is that it can’t take more than a year. In all seriousness, I start writing bits and pieces before the season even starts, but probably 80% of the book is written in a furious blitz after the season ends

What is the process of writing a book of this magnitude?
There’s essentially two parts. During the seamy the most important thing is making the effort to see all the teams and players multiple times so you really get a feel for what they’re doing — even the guys who hardly play. Once it ends I’m pulling together all the final stats and writing most of my player and team comments. Then in July I have to make adjustments for the draft and as many free agent moves as I can accommodate before it goes to the publisher.

This Year’s Prospectus/Forecast

Why the name change from Prospectus to Forecast?
It basically had to do with a licensing agreement my publisher had to use the Prospectus name for their basketball and football books, which expired. So we had to call it something else this year.

What are some of the things that separates this year’s version from previous years?
I made a lot of progress in terms of coming up with new tools to help predict performance. I projected each player’s stats (at least, each important
player’s) for the coming season and that’s a tool I’m continuing to refine. I also came up with some metrics to help evaluate which players in Europe can be of assistance in the NBA.

In last year’s edition regarding defense, you said you weren’t on the tip of the iceberg, but rather “the tip of the tip.” How much of the iceberg can we see in the 2004 version?
Much more. I did some work to evaluate individual defense and provided a “Defensive PER” for every player for the past season.

Even though you acknowledge the offseason moves in the team descriptions, you have the players listed under the teams they played for last year. Why not list players like Shaq, McGrady, and Crawford under their new teams?
Because we can’t get every change in before the publishing deadline — for instance, Kenny Anderson and Jon Barry signed with the Hawks well afterward. So if we try to do it that way we’ll just end up confusing everyone.

Your book has gotten bigger and bigger each year.

'02 - 285 pg
'03 - 307 pg
'04 - 314 pg

For next year’s edition, should I take the over/under on 330 pages?
Well, the seven-page increase this year can entirely be blamed on the Bobcats, so I’d expect it to hold steady around 315.

Why should the casual fan buy this year’s book?
Because it has a lot of information you can’t find anywhere else, and critiques of the players that most announcers and beat writers don’t have the freedom to unleash.

All About John

Any chance that you’ll do reporting on a more frequent basis (either for SI or your blog alleyoop.com)?
Well, I write two columns a week for the New York Sun, so since you’re in the Big Apple that’s a big fat yes.
Otherwise, I’ll be doing a weekly piece for SI.com.

Other than your own, what are some of your favorite basketball books?
Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls is the gold standard, classic story telling mixed with some insights into a league not that many people saw. I enjoyed Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson as well, although I’ve yet to read his new book. And, getting really old school, the Wooden-Sharman Method by John Wooden and Bill Sharman is still on my bookshelf.

When you step on the court, which NBA player’s game does your style most resemble?
LOL … I guess I’d be somewhere between Nick Van Exel and a lefthanded Jon Barry. Lots of 3s, no conscience, not much defense.

Guessing on the Knicks:

By the end of the year, who will be the Knicks’ starting PF?
Mike Sweetney, if they know what they’re doing.

There are currently 4 players on the roster left from the pre-Isaiah era (Houston, Anderson, Sweetney & Thomas). What will that number be by playoff time?
I’ll say two. Thomas will be in the Western Conference and Anderson will be in the Eastern hemisphere.

Nazr Mohammed over or under 5.8PF/48mins (his average last year)?
I’ll say over. He got to play some power forward with the Hawks last year but won’t have that luxury as a Knick.

True or False, the Knicks will end up in the second round of the playoffs this year?
False. The Knicks will be No. 5 behind Indiana, Detroit, Washington and Miami.

Kevin’s Off-season Plan

I’ll be the third person to officially lay out on an off-season plan of attack for the Knicks. Presumably, you’ve already read Dave’s take, and Chad Ford recently put together his “summer blueprint”. I don’t have Insider, so I haven’t read all of that one, but if the free part I linked is any indication, it’s as insipid as Ford’s “blueprints” traditionally are.

I can’t copy Ford’s stuff and don’t care nearly enough to re-type it, but, to summarize, Ford complains that Isiah Thomas has locked the Knicks into long-term mediocrity with his moves and left them with no chance in the free-agent market. That’s true, of course, but no more so than it was true when Thomas took over the team. With Houston’s mammoth deal and a few others on the books, the Knicks weren’t getting under the cap in the foreseeable future anyway, so all Thomas really did was spend more of Cablevision’s money. Raise your hand if you care about Cablevision’s bottom line. I didn’t think so.

If there is an argument to be made, it would center on Thomas dealing youngsters like Milos Vujanic and Maciej Lampe, as well as some picks, but it would be a relatively weak one. Vujanic and Lampe can’t hold a candle to Stephon Marbury and Mike Sweetney at their respective positions, and the Knicks’ picks wouldn’t have had a huge impact either. New York can get players of similar ability, if not potential, in free agency.

Brendan at the These Days blog (which I found thanks to its link to KnickerBlogger) has a slightly different Knicks rant that I can get behind:

I understand that to rebuild the Knicks is a 5 year job, minimum. As a fan, I’d much rather watch that than any more of this high-paid dreck. Isaiah Thomas, for the most part, deserves credit for the way he’s been able to make trades with the mess Scott Layden left him- but he’s still executing an interest-annihilating and utterly dreadful strategy handed down from on high. The result is, even when I read something really interesting like Kevin Pelton on Knick power forwards which teaches me something that I didn’t know, like how good Mike Sweetney was, all I can think is ‘dang, now I’ll be really annoyed when he’s tossed in on some deal for a guy like…Malik Rose’. And so it goes, at the Garden.

In a broader context, are the Knicks in a good position? Of course not. But that’s not Thomas’ fault; he inherited a mess, and if he has to sweep some junk into a corner so the house at least looks presentable enough for guests, well, I don’t think that’s a huge mistake.

Assuming that Thomas doesn’t dump Sweetney for a journeyman — and please, if that is going to happen, let Sweetney come to Seattle for Jerome James! — I actually think there is a way the Knicks can make some slight modifications to remain competitive in the East without sacrificing their youth.

I outlined some of what I’d look at in my position-by-position analyses, but let’s start with this. Entering the summer, my ideal Knicks rotation would look like this:

PG Marbury	  Williams
SG Houston Williams
SF T. Thomas Johnson/Ariza
PF Sweetney K. Thomas
C Mohammed K. Thomas

Houston is now the only starter on the wrong side of 30, Thomas the only backup that old. It’s a decent start. Giving minutes that went to Dikembe Mutombo and Othella Harrington to Sweetney should alone be worth a couple of wins. Trying to put a round number to that, by the win-based system I’ve introduced, giving Sweetney Harrington and Mutombo’s minutes and replacing Sweetney’s minutes with a replacement-level player improves the Knicks by one win, right on the top. Amazingly, replacing Shandon Anderson with Dermarr Johnson projects as worth about a win and a half over the course of the season. A healthy Allan Houston (fingers crossed) adds another win or two, as compared to Anderson and Anfernee Hardaway. So, barring major injury, it’s not unreasonable to think the Knicks might improve next season.

Even though Ford points out the Knicks won’t be luring Kobe Bryant or Rasheed Wallace to New York any time soon, that hardly means they’re finished in free agency. The name most bandied about at the moment is Chicago’s Jamal Crawford, but, even though Crawford’s a Seattle native, I’m not a big fan, certainly not for the Knicks. Crawford’s a low-efficiency, high-possessions tweener who isn’t very good on defense; barring a Houston injury, he does nothing for the Knicks, really. I’d rather give those minutes to Frank Williams, who at least brings some complementary skills relative \to what the Knicks already have.

Unfortunately, with their mid-level exception, the Knicks will have a hard time picking up someone who’s better than their two weakest starters (Thomas and Mohammed). The best they can probably hope to do is upgrade their reserve core, making a logical target for me a backup small forward who can also play some shooting guard and step in if Houston gets hurt.

Looking around, you’ve got guys who will likely have any offer matched by their current team (Darius Miles, who’s an interesting prospect after putting up off-the-charts numbers in Portland) or don’t fit the Knicks’ needs (Rodney White).

The best fit I could come up with was Toronto’s Morris Peterson. Peterson isn’t really young, as he’ll turn 27 over the summer, but he’s in the prime of his career, he’s a good outside shooter (which my vision of the Knicks wouldn’t really have on the bench) and a quality defender who shut down opposing small forwards last year.

Peterson is a restricted free agent himself, but the Raptors aren’t in great financial shape and might have to choose between signing a point guard and re-signing Peterson. He could be had for a pretty reasonable deal — maybe three years, $10-$12 million? — and would be a huge upgrade on Anderson playing a similar role.

Lo and behold, this might not be a completely implausible thought; Newsday mentioned Peterson in a recent free-agent roundup.

Now that we’re through free agency, we’ll have to look at the trade market. The first move I’d make is with the Sonics. The Knicks have been linked to James for two years now, and a deal that would make sense for both sides is Dikembe Mutombo and Cezary Trybanski (for cap purposes) for James. Mutombo is probably the more valuable player, but not really wanted in New York from what I read about him while researching my centers breakdown. The Knicks basically take a chance that James can make good on his promise, and it’s not really a risk for either side since both players’ contracts end next year and neither is penciled in as a key player next year.

After making those moves, I go fishing for a bigger deal with the Thomases and/or Mohammed as the lures, trying to upgrade either small forward or center. I’m not sure I could find any takers or make anything make sense, but it’s worth a look. Kurt Thomas wouldn’t really be a big loss; we could fill in his minutes with James (or Mutombo) and possibly a low-level-type free agent power forward (Vin Baker? Michael Doleac? There’s not a whole lot else out there).

Beyond that, I look at some buyouts (Hardaway, Norris, Anderson) and sign some cheap, underrated guys: Richie Frahm, Jaime Lloreda, Zendon Hamilton, keep Andre Barrett around as my third point guard. Good times.

Depending on who, if anyone, I can trade for, I project this team to win somewhere between 40-45 wins. Unless the bottom really falls out, it’s a playoff squad, with the potential to get as high as around the fourth or fifth seed (depending on how Miami fares). At the same time, it’s a reasonably young squad. These aren’t the Baby Bulls or anything, but virtually all the contributors are young enough that they’ll still be productive in two-three years. Again, depending on the trade, I haven’t done any further damage to the salary-cap situation, so the long-term sacrifice is minimal. And if Sweetney turns out to be as good as I think he might be ? well, maybe life isn’t so bleak at the Garden after all.

With KnickerBlogger’s return on the horizon, just a couple of days away, that wraps it up for me unless the Knicks do something exciting over the weekend, and, presumably, for all of us guest bloggers. I hope the readers out there have enjoyed this as much as I have — it really was a fun exercise looking in detail at a team I’d followed only casually beforehand, and I’ll be rooting for the Knicks the rest of this summer and into the season. I mentioned to KB recently that I wished I had a team blog, and he retorted he wished he worked for a team, so I suppose the grass is simply greener on the other side. It was certainly nice to spend a couple of weeks on this side of the fence, and I’d like to wrap up by thanking KB for the opportunity.

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

Knicks Roster Analysis – Power Forwards

After some excellent insights from both Bob Chaikin and Dave, we’re on to the Knicks’ power forwards. If you haven’t read my point guard analysis, that’s probably worth reading before this post so that you understand what I’m doing here.

Kurt Thomas

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 33.8 13.9 9.1 1.1 .542 15.6 0.03 89.9 90.8 .502 5.9
02-03 31.8 14.0 7.9 2.0 .511 14.5 0.23 89.4 89.8 .484 4.5
03-04 31.9 11.1 8.3 1.9 .503 15.0 0.19 87.8 89.5 .457 3.0 $3.446 $5.885

Last Thursday, before the draft, I wrote that a deal of Thomas for Jerome James and the 12th pick would be good for both the Sonics and the Knicks. You’ll have to excuse me for that one; I was apparently delusional because of writing too much about the draft. Thomas’ game is showing some steady signs of decay, both in terms of traditional statistics and more advanced metrics. Last year, his offensive game cratered, as he was very inefficient without using many possessions. His rebounding has been consistent, but neither that nor his defense is good enough to keep him valuable unless he’s scoring better than he did last year.

The real reason a Thomas trade wouldn’t have been good for the Sonics (or most anyone else) is the extension he signed during last season. Thomas is now signed up for three years after this one, presumably with standard 10%-12.5% raises. That means by 2007-08, Thomas will be pulling in $8.09 million. He’ll also be 35 then, and, given the current trend, it’s tough to see Thomas being a particularly valuable player. The raises in contracts can often make them a lot worse than they look. You look at the salary numbers I report above, and Thomas looks overpaid, but not drastically so. The problem is that his salary and production will likely be headed in different directions in the years to come.

There was a school of thought that Thomas’ numbers would improve with him returned to power forward instead of playing out of position at center, as he did almost exclusively during 2002-03. That was pretty clearly not the case on offense, which is backed up by 82games.com’s by-position data. Thomas defended power forwards better — especially when you take into account that power forwards in general have higher PERs than centers — but I doubt the difference is big enough to overcome the greater positional scarcity in the middle. Thomas is simply more valuable as a center.

What can Thomas do to get back on track? The biggest thing would be getting to the line more. Thomas is a good foul shooter for a big man, hitting 83.5% last year, but he doesn’t get to show off the skill very often. When Thomas was at his most efficient, 2001-02, his FTM/FGA ratio was 0.23; the last two years, it’s dipped to 0.13.

From a Knicks perspective, I think Thomas would be best utilized as a combo four/five, coming off the bench behind the starters at both positions. He’s productive enough to keep around, but if the Knicks get an offer that doesn’t return them an equally bad contract (read: Jerry Stackhouse), they have to seriously consider it, especially if they can use him in a multi-player deal to upgrade either small forward or center.

Mike Sweetney

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
03-04 11.8 4.3 3.7 0.3 .544 18.3 0.02 88.1 89.3 .563 1.7 $3.266 $1.979

It was about a year ago that I fell in love with Sweetney. He had the best college stats of any player in the 2003 Draft, and in my newfound infatuation with these numbers, I was desperately hoping he’d be left on the board when my Seattle SuperSonics picked 12th. Unfortunately, even a blind squirrel finds acorns now and again, and Scott Layden scooped Sweetney up three picks ahead of the Sonics. It might just have been the best move of Layden’s time in New York.

Sweetney spent the first half of the season buried, but finally found some playing time after Lenny Wilkens took over the New York helm and acquitted himself quite nicely. That 54.4% true shooting percentage is outstanding for a rookie, and Sweetney was a fabulous rebounder, pulling down nearly one in every five available rebounds. He was also one of the few Knicks not to embarrass themselves during the playoffs.

One of my few concerns about Sweetney was whether he could translate his ability to get to the free-throw line to the NBA, but that wasn’t really a problem. Entering this season, he has breakout written all over him (not literally; that would be strange).

Want some incredibly exciting news, Knicks fans? Here are Sweetney’s best age-21 comparables. Number one? Zach Randolph. Number two? Carlos Boozer. If I’m running the Knicks, I do whatever I can to ensure that Sweetney is playing at least 30 minutes per game next season, and let the results speak for themselves. Most Improved Player isn’t a bad guess, and I’ll pick Sweetney so long as a path is cleared for him to start.

Vin Baker

 Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 31.1 14.1 6.4 1.3 .517 12.1 0.05 89.2 91.8 .436 1.3
02-03 18.1 5.2 3.8 0.6 .531 11.9 0.02 87.6 90.8 .413 0.3
03-04 24.3 9.8 5.2 1.2 .530 12.2 0.11 88.9 90.1 .472 2.0 $3.131 UFA

Before I say anything about Baker, I want to emphasize that I am as far from possible as objective about Baker. He is one of my least favorite players in NBA history because of his time in Seattle, and as much as I may try to divorce myself from that, it still factors into my thinking.

To demonstrate that, I’ll start by saying I find it a validation of my WARP ratings that they reflect Baker’s uselessness prior to last year more accurately than do my linear-weights ratings. The 2003-04 rating reflects an interesting mix of Baker’s numbers in Boston and in New York. With the Celtics, he was rated at a .494 winning percentage and 2.0 WARP; in New York, those dipped to .393 and 0.0.

A lot of credit for Baker’s great start to the season went to his new svelte physique. Well, amazing as Baker’s transformation was — he looked different facially, he was so skinny — I don’t think it was the real reason he was improved. Baker’s fitness was never really an issue in Seattle after the lockout season; every year we heard how he was in better shape and was going to turn it around, but he never dead. I think, instead, that the noticeable uptick in play stems from the fact that Baker was, presumably, sober. By the time he got to New York, one has to imagine (hope?) he was still sober, but he also hadn’t played for some time and didn’t have a training camp to work his way back into the swing of things.

After his short stint with the Knicks, Baker is a free agent again. There is clearly interest out there in him; big guys are in such short supply, especially in the Eastern Conference, that somebody will give him a chance. I can’t see investing too much money in him, because of the history with alcohol. Even if it weren’t for that, Baker will turn 33 in November, and age alone will take its toll. Thomas seems interested enough by Baker that a return is a possibility, but I don’t see the Knicks gaining much by that.

Othella Harrington

 Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 20.3 7.7 4.5 0.5 .567 12.9 0.01 89.7 92.0 .437 1.2
02-03 25.0 7.7 6.4 0.8 .563 15.1 0.04 88.8 92.0 .440 1.6
03-04 15.6 4.6 3.2 0.5 .546 11.7 0.02 87.0 91.3 .357 -0.8 $1.156 $3.150

Before last Thursday’s Draft, some friends and I were trying to make sense of Al Jefferson’s ridiculous high school stats, including better than 42 points per game (besides the fact that high school stats are only one step above meaningless because of the inconsistent level of competition), and one mentioned that Harrington averaged similar stats in the same league. Well, apparently that’s not quite true — he only averaged something like 29 points and 25 rebounds per game — but I had not realized that Harrington was an incredible prospect who was MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game in 1992. Maybe because I was 10 then. I also didn’t know he averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman and won Big East Rookie of the Year before his numbers trailed off, presumably because of Allen Iverson’s arrival on the scene after his sophomore season.

In the NBA, Harrington has found his niche as a high-efficiency, medium to low volume scorer who doesn’t offer a ton on defense and the boards. Harrington’s true shooting percentages are great, but they overrate him, because he’s assisted on a high percentage of his baskets (66% last season) and rarely picks up assists of his own. Harrington wasn’t as efficient last season and also posted the worst rebounding season of his career in terms of rebounds per minute. As a result, he went from an acceptable rotation player to a guy who didn’t deserve to see major minutes.

Harrington’s contract is one of the few on the Knicks that isn’t a problem; he’s signed for just one more year at slightly more than $3.15 million, which is more than he’d pull on the open market but not horrible. He might be included in some sort of deal, but otherwise he’ll play some spot minutes off the bench up front.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com. Check back Thursday for his analysis of the Knicks’ centers.

return on investment – allan houston….

mike asked me to write a column or two for his knick blogger – while he was away sunning himself on some remote beach – concerning anything about pro basketball. i’ve never been a knicks fan (being from cleveland, ohio), and the closest i’ve ever gotten to a knick was to play pickup ball against long time knick charles oakley many moons ago (who went to high school here in NE ohio and who stuffed many of my jumpers). but i do have a unique perspective on the nba in that i analyze the game through statistical analysis using computer simulation of nba games, and would like to do so here for something concerning the knicks…

its not hard to get the computer to play basketball – the key is just to get it to do so accurately. but after watching many tapes of games, charting things the league never kept track of (this was over a decade and a half ago and before www.82games.com, whom i wish was around back in 1990), and fiddling around with the numbers, after 15+ years i think i’ve got it down. the key is to derive from the stats how to rate players for how often they handle the ball on offense, and then to rate them for how often they shoot, pass, get fouled, and turn the ball over per time they do handle the ball on offense. the first i call a player’s possession factor (his touches/minute), the second his player attributes. once you can do that getting the computer to simulate the actual playing of a game, i.e. re-creating every shot, pass, rebound, assist, steal, turnover, blocked shot, etc, is relatively easy, and to get the computer to play hundreds or thousands of games takes little time. rating player defensively was alway tough, but thanks to www.82games.com, that part of the process has been made much easier too…

because i look at the league differently than most people do, i often feel i have an advantage over those who do not use computer simulation, in particular those in the league responsible for signing players, especially to mega-dollar long term contracts. in hindsight we can only shake our heads at the contracts given to players like stanley roberts and calvin booth, players given big money but who had played little time in the league prior to their contracts being signed, and wonder what were those teams thinking. but many players in the league have gotten long term contracts at top dollar, and the question is are they worth it?…

one contract i have always wondered about was the one given to allan houston. in july of 2001, after having played five seasons for the knicks, new york gave him a six year deal worth a staggering $100,000,000, and while i’m not sure i’m guessing its all guaranteed. that works out to about $16-$17 million per season, one of the highest annual salaries of any player at the time the contract was signed (and still one of the highest today), and double what he signed for with the knicks after coming over from the pistons following the 95-96 season. the question is – is he worth it?…

the neat thing about computer simulation is that you can take any player and place him on any team, and run as many games as needed to determine if that team is better or worse with that player. its ideal for running “what if” scenarios – like what if the knicks has shaq at C instead of mutombo/mohammed? but its also ideal for determining just how good your players are in relation to other players from around the league – by simply putting other players on your team to replace a certain player and simulating hundreds or thousands of games to see if the team is better or worse….

here are the knicks players from last season (03-04) and their minutes played:

                          default
sub
min min/82 pattern min/g
n.mohammed 1611 20 20 20
k.thomas 2548 31 32 32
t.thomas 2088 25 24 24
a.houston 1799 22 24 40
s.marbury 3254 40 40 40
d.mutombo 1494 18 20 20
o.harrington 872 11 12 12
s.anderson 1947 24 24 12
p.hardaway 2095 26 24 24
m.norris 847 10 8 4
f.williams 714 9 8 8
m.sweetney 494 6 4 4
240 240

the 1st column is simply each player’s minutes played, the 2nd column their minutes played divided by 82 games. the computer simulation model can only substitute for players in increments of 4 minutes, so to get a default substitution pattern for the team i chose the multiple of 4 closest to their actual minutes played divided by 82 games (the 3rd column). do this for each team in the league and you can play entire seasons by computer to re-create what happened in the actual real-life season…

in 03-04 the knicks went 39-43, and based on their statistics they should have gone only 37-45. the above substitution pattern (the default), when 8200 games (100 seasons) are simulated on the computer, averages a W-L record of 38-44. to gauge the maximum impact of a player on a team i typically look at how the team does when that player plays 40 min/g, which is about the maximum playing time per game the best players play in any single season….

using the substitution pattern in the 4th column, i played allan houston 40 min/g, taking minutes away from shandon anderson and moochie norris. however when houston played 40 min/g the knicks W-L record increased just another 2 games over an average 82 games to a W-L record of 40-42. may not sound like much of an improvement for one of your team’s best players to play an additional 16 min/g, but keep in mind in 02-03 allan houston actually played all 82 games and 38 min/g, playing what was probably his best season statistically for the knicks, and the team went just 37-45….

better yet why not put that 02-03 allan houston on the 03-04 knicks and play 8200 simulated games to see how much better they play? i did just that and the team’s W-L record improves, but by just another half a game over an average 82 season, to 40.5-41.5. thus houston’s best season statistically of 02-03 wasn’t much better than his 03-04 campaign, just half a game over the span of an entire season…

so let’s see if the $16 million/yr man is worth his salary. the best way to judge that IMHO is to “trade” a number of SGs from around the league to the 03-04 knicks, replacing allan houston for 40 min/g at SG, and playing enough simulated games (in this case 8200, or 100 simulated seasons) to see if they improve the team’s W-L record or not, moreso than what houston does. typically i’ll try this with some of the best players in the league at that specific position (in this case SG), and also some of the worst, to see who the player in question (houston) plays like more. three of the best SGs in 03-04 were kobe bryant, tracy mcgrady, and ray allen, a few of the “worst” statistically were david wesley, dion glover, kendall gill, and dajuan wagner, and i also ran vince carter and lebron james for comparison. here are the results:

            average          scoring
player W-L pts/g FG% reb/g ast/g st/g to/g bs/g touches/min
mcgrady 02-03 53-29 29.7 .553 6.4 4.9 1.6 2.3 0.8 1.7
mcgrady 03-04 45.5-36.5 26.6 .517 5.9 5.2 1.4 2.5 0.6 1.6
bryant 02-03 51-31 26.7 .540 6.4 5.1 2.1 3.1 0.8 1.6
bryant 03-04 49.5-32.5 24.7 .539 5.7 5.1 1.8 2.6 0.4 1.5
r.allen 03-04 45.5-36.5 21.8 .558 5.3 4.6 1.3 2.7 0.2 1.4
carter 03-04 42.5-39.5 22.5 .494 5.0 4.7 1.2 3.0 0.9 1.5
l.james 03-04 41-41 20.4 .480 5.6 5.7 1.6 3.3 0.8 1.6
houston 02-03 40.5-41.5 21.9 .555 3.0 2.6 0.7 2.1 0.1 1.0
houston 03-04 40-42 19.7 .533 2.8 2.1 0.8 2.2 0.0 0.9
glover 03-04 38-44 15.0 .444 6.2 3.1 1.2 2.4 0.5 1.0
wesley 03-04 37-45 16.8 .478 2.8 3.4 1.4 1.9 0.3 1.1
k.gill 03-04 36.5-45.5 14.6 .438 5.3 2.4 1.7 2.2 0.4 0.9
wagner 03-04 33-49 14.5 .436 3.1 2.6 1.3 2.0 0.4 1.0

scoring FG% is simply (2pters + 1.5x3pters + FTM/2)/(FGA + FTA/2)…

i also ran kobe bryant’s and tracy mcgrady’s 02-03 stats because while they were the two best SGs in the league in 03-04, they were also each better statistically in 02-03 than they were in 03-04…

as you can see the difference between the best and worst players at a single position can be upwards of 15 to 20 games in a single 82 game season, in this case tracy mcgrady’s stellar 02-03 campaign (where he led the league in scoring with 32 pts/g on a very good scoring FG% of .553), compared to some of the league’s worst SGs. but what is also evident is that allan houston’s performance statistically is just a few games better over an 82 game season than that of some of the league’s worst SGs, and far worse than the league’s best SGs….

now don’t think that being just a few games better than some of the worst players at your position is insignificant – if all of the starters on your team were 4-5 games better than the worst players at your position, that means your team would theoretically be about 20-25 games better than the worst team in the league. if the worst team in the league wins 15-20 games out of 82, that means your team would win somewhere between 35-45 games (which btw is what the knicks won in both 02-03 and 03-04). but again its nowhere near as good as being 10-15 games better than the worst players at your position…

when allan houston signed his huge contract extension after the 2000-01 season, he had played for the knicks for 5 seasons, yet in those 5 seasons he averaged less than 18 pts/g (less than 19 pts/g in the playoffs) and never averaged as much as 20 pts/g in any single season, was an average defender (at best), was a poor offensive and average defensive rebounder, a player who got few steals and few blocks, and a shooter who hit a good 40% of his 3pters but just 46% of his 2pters (less than the league average of .468 on 2pters during those 5 seasons). his scoring FG% during that 5 year span was .533, which is good, but which is less than 2 percentage points above the league average of .515 during that same time period. to his credit he missed only 5 games out of the knicks 378, but is that worth $16-$17 million/yr for six years?…

notice that lebron james on new york wins just as many simulated games as allan houston does (41 to 40) but shot much worse, a low scoring FG% of just .480 (03-04 league average was .508) compared to houston’s .533. yet he rebounded twice as good, almost tripled houston’s ast/g, doubled his st/g, and blocked far more shots. bottom line is that in his 5 seasons as a knick before signing his extension allan houston was a very good shooter but contributed little else to his team…

Lenny Wilkens: Good Or Bad?

captain, there are doubts
regarding
your ability
to lead them
the men

— “Brave Captian”
fIREHOSE

Scott’s guest column yesterday gave me an idea. It seems that Toronto fans aren’t at all pleased with the job Lenny Wilkens did as coach of their team. So far as coach of the Knicks, I’ve had no complaints. Well maybe one, giving any minutes to Moochie Norris instead of Frank Williams. Noticing that the Knicks have a problem in the middle, Lenny tried a few different lineups, including starting Othella Harrington and Michael Sweetney, seeing if they could rise to the task (neither could). He’s settled on Nazr Mohammed as the center, which has added stability to the Knicks.

So how can we tell if a coach is good or bad? Phil Jackson fans will point to his championships with two different teams to attest to his greatness, while those that would mock him as “Chief Big Triangle” will be quick to point out that the credit should go to the great players he’s always had.

Bill James created something called Pythagorean Expected Win Percentage. It basically says that a team should win a certain percentage of their games depending on how many points scored for and against a team has over a season. So another theory (which I will call the Rob Neyer manager theory) says that if a coach consistently wins more games than expected, he’s probably a sound coach when it comes to in game strategies. Digging up Lenny Wilkens’ actual and expected wins I came up with this chart:

Year	Team	WINS	LOSS	ExpW	ExpL	ActW%	ExpW%	DIFF	SIG
1969	SEA	36	46	33	49	.439	.402	+.037	+1
1970	SEA	38	44	38	44	.463	.463	+.000	+0
1971	SEA	47	35	42	40	.573	.512	+.061	+1
1974	POR	38	44	42	40	.463	.512	-.049	-1
1975	POR	37	45	37	45	.451	.451	+.000	+0
1977	SEA	42	18	46	36	.700	.561	+.139	+1
1978	SEA	52	30	49	33	.634	.598	+.037	+1
1979	SEA	56	26	55	27	.683	.671	+.012	+0
1980	SEA	34	48	35	47	.415	.427	-.012	+0
1981	SEA	52	30	53	29	.634	.646	-.012	+0
1982	SEA	48	34	48	34	.585	.585	+.000	+0
1983	SEA	42	40	40	42	.512	.488	+.024	+1
1984	SEA	31	51	24	58	.378	.293	+.085	+1
1986	CLE	31	51	29	53	.378	.354	+.024	+1
1987	CLE	42	40	43	39	.512	.524	-.012	+0
1988	CLE	57	25	62	20	.695	.756	-.061	-1
1989	CLE	42	40	39	43	.512	.476	+.037	+1
1990	CLE	33	49	33	49	.402	.402	+.000	+0
1991	CLE	57	25	57	25	.695	.695	+.000	+0
1992	CLE	54	28	60	22	.659	.732	-.073	-1
1993	ATL	57	25	57	25	.695	.695	+.000	+0
1994	ATL	42	40	45	37	.512	.549	-.037	-1
1995	ATL	46	36	45	37	.561	.549	+.012	+0
1996	ATL	56	26	59	23	.683	.720	-.037	-1
1997	ATL	50	32	53	29	.610	.646	-.037	-1
1998	ATL	31	19	31	19	.620	.620	+.000	+0
1999	ATL	28	54	23	59	.341	.280	+.061	+1
2000	TOR	47	35	48	34	.573	.585	-.012	+0
2001	TOR	42	40	39	43	.512	.476	+.037	+1
2002	TOR	24	58	21	61	.293	.256	+.037	+1

[DIFF is the difference between actual win% and expected win%. SIG means was the difference significant enough to say it was a positive or negative season. I used a .025 difference to determine this. The first four years in italics are when Wilkens was both a player and a coach. I’ll ignore them for now, since we can’t split his contribution as a player from his contribution as a coach.]

So what does this chart tell us about the different stops Lenny has had?

Seattle: 8 seasons, 4 significantly better than expected, 0 worse.
Cleveland: 7 seasons, 2 better, 2 worse.
Atlanta: 7 seasons, 1 better, 3 worse.
Toronto: 3 seasons, 2 better, 0 worse.

According to this Seattle was his best tenure, which most people would agree with since that’s where he won his only championship. It’s ironic that Atlanta shows up as his worst job, since he’s credited with taking an average franchise and turning it into a contender. Even more ironic is Toronto, where he was booed last night, because Wilkens has no negative seasons.

Another way to measure a coach’s effectiveness is how the team performed before and after the coach’s arrival. When Wilkens took over Seattle in 1977 the team changed radically, so it’s impossible to say whether the impact was Wilkens or let’s say Gus Williams. After he left the Sonics, Bernie Bickerstaff took over the reigns. Bickertsaff had the same exact record, despite adding the 4th overall pick Xavier McDaniel to their starting lineup. I would say that this could be a “plus” for Wilkens.

George Karl’s ’85 Cavs bear little resemblance to the ’86 team that Wilkens led. In fact all 5 starters were different, as Ron Harper, Brad Dougherty, and Hotrod Williams all played their first year in the NBA. When he left Cleveland, Mike Fratello won 7 less games the next year. An old Larry Nance played half a season, but the Cavs did make a few additions in Tyrone Hill and Chris Mills, so it’s hard to make a determination either way. You could argue another “plus” or “neutral.”

Wilkens won 14 more games than his predecessor in Atlanta his first year there. Danny Manning was an addition for that team, but I don’t see Manning as making a team 14 games better, so I’ll credit Wilkens with some of this improvement. Lon Kruger won 3 less games than Wilkens, but the team was significantly different, so I can’t credit or condemn Lenny there.

In Toronto Butch Carter’s ’99 team had Tracy McGrady and won 45 games. McGrady left via free agency for Wilkens’ first year, but the coach ended up winning 2 more games than his predecessor. That could be a “plus” as well. As for last year, Vince Carter missing half a season is not enough an excuse for winning only 24 games, and I have to give Wilkens the blame.

The three methods I’ve used:

Visual (a.k.a. my opinion) – Wilkens looks good as the Knicks coach, but it’s very early.
Actual Wins vs. Expected Wins: Good for 2 teams, bad for 1, 1 tenure neutral.
Wilkens’ vs. other coaches with similar teams: 2 to 4 times he was better vs. only 1 worse.

These are only three methods of evaluating a coach, and even though I tried to be as objective as possible and use statistics (except in the first), it’s nearly impossible to get a non-subjective viewpoint of a coach’s impact on a team. Of course I didn’t even touch any other things like player development, rotation management, or chemistry.

As for the Raptor fans dislike of Lenny I can say that it might be warranted. Dean Oliver’s Basketball On Paper goes in depth on the 2002 Raps, if you ever want to read a whole chapter on them. That team had three extended winning and losing streaks. That kind of inconsistent play will draw the ire of fans. Last year’s expectations were much higher than the 24 games he won. It gets worse when the team’s franchise player criticizes the coach.

As for his current role, it’s unknown if Wilkens will be the coach of the Knicks after this year. But as far as I can tell, he’s a good coach for ths team.