On Consistencey & Team Building

One term that is frequently used during the Knicks telecast is consistency. Mike Breen often questions why the Knicks aren’t more consistent. In Breen’s mind, New York’s main problem is their inability to “get the job done night in & night out.” However from what I’ve seen, New York has been very consistent. In their first 16 games, they’ve only held their opponent under the league shooting average (49.1% eFG) 3 times. And they’ve only managed to be over that mark 6 times on offense. They own the league’s second worst defense (112.3 pts/100 poss), and to accomplish that dubious goal you have to be remarkably consistent.

Breen’s words make it seem as if the Knicks have the ability to be better, but some inexplicable force keeps them from jelling in a way as to produce wins. But my response is that New York has been consistent, just consistently bad. The nights they play good defense are the outliers, not the expected.

There have been a lot of discussions both here and around the internet on how valuable a Curry/Randolph frontcourt can be. While their combined production in key categories is tantalizing, there are those who think they are less valuable than their scoring numbers would indicate. A pair of losses this weekend seem to punctuate the idea that the Knicks aren’t getting the production from the duo that they expected.

On Friday night, New York’s frontcourt was man-handled by Philadelphia’s. Friday night Evans & Dalembert combined for 31 points on 14-20 shooting with 20 rebounds, while the Knicks’ Randolph & Curry managed only 16 points on 7-20 shoooting with 10 rebounds. On Saturday night, New York suffered a humiliating 28 point loss on their home court. Randolph & Curry watched most of that game from the bench due to their ineffectiveness.

I think these games highlight a key problem with the Knicks: team building. When people talk about chemistry in sports, they usually refer to off the court personality issues. However in basketball there is a meaningful on the court chemistry. Unlike baseball where a player’s value is largely unrelated to anything other than his own ability, a basketball player’s value is partially tied to his teammates.

Looking at their ability with the basketball, most people would laugh if you said Dalembert and Evans were better than their New York counterparts. You certainly wouldn’t want either to put the ball on the floor or have possession more than 6 feet from the rim. However they are both very capable players without the ball, and in those respects they are head and shoulders above the Knicks pair. Philadelphia’s duo are very good rebounders, with Evans being one of the best in the NBA. While Evans doesn’t block many (any?) shots and he’ll never be thought of as a great defensive player, his defense on Randolph was fantastic for the two games. Zach was held to 6 points on 14 shots in the two games. Evans inability to alter shots is complemented by Dalembert who is usually among the league’s best. He was 11th in blocked shots per minute among players with 1400+ minutes last year.

This weekend I witnessed a Philadelphia team, that when compared player to player should not have swept the Knicks. What I took from these games is that the Sixers are a better built team. While they have a lot of holes on offense (Willie Green being one of them), Philadelphia played solid defense. Although I already mentioned Evans & Dalembert’s contributions, the Sixers defense went beyond the pair. Philly was able to use Iguodala as their defensive stopper, and featured a press/trap that led to some easy buckets and disrupted the New York offense.

In essence the combination of players on the floor and the defensive plans gave the Sixers a synergy in which allowed their team to be worth more than the talent level of their individual players. It’s ironic that in the two wins Evans and Dalembert put up the offensive numbers that you would have expected from Randolph & Curry. But the results show how in basketball it’s more important for teammates to be complimentary to each other than be able to score with the ball in their hands.

Tonight’s 4 Factors (vs PHI, 12/8/07)

After each game this season, we’ll be taking a look at what the four factors have to say about the game– how the winner won and the loser lost. For an intro to the four factors, see A Layman’s Guide to Advanced NBA Statistics.

Knicks lose to Sixers, 105 – 77

	Pace	Eff	eFG	FT/FG	OREB%	TOr
PHI	91.0	115.4	57.4%	14.8	42.4	17.6
NYK		84.6	39.3%	31.4	19.5	19.8

Unfortunately I find myself agreeing with Mike Breen’s assessment. It’s worse to get blown out by 28 points at home by one of the league’s worst, than to get blown out by 45 on the road by one of the league’s best. This one is more embarrassing and hurts more, if that’s even possible.

Philly, one of the league’s worst offenses, scored at will on the Knicks. Especially in the 3rd and 4th quarters, unleashing a prolonged flurry of dunks and 3 pointers. Even so, they scored only marginally more efficiently than they did last night (112.2 points per 100 possessions) when the Knicks only lost by 10. Appearances to the contrary, the Knicks were so much worse off in this game than they were last night because of another atrocious offensive output. Last night they managed to score at a clip of 100 points per 100 possessions. That’s already a bad number, but tonight it dipped in a big way to an unconscionable 84.6.

The Sixers once again completely shut down Randolph and Curry (8 points combined). The starting guards had another off night (12 points combined). And Quentin Richardson continued his season long drought (5 points). Collectively, the starters combined to score at an average clip of 8.3 points per 40 each. If not for Nate Robinson’s 25 points, the offensive output tonight would have rivaled what New York put up in Boston. For a team built around the offensive talent of its starters, these recurring no-shows on offense are particularly devastating. Things cannot go on like this– something is going to need to change, one way or another.

4 factor stats were acquired using the ESPN4Factors script by Cherokee of the ABPRmetrics board. Firefox users can use this script (after installing the Greasemonkey extension) to see 4 factor stats automatically displayed in all NBA boxscores on espn.com.

Tonight’s 4 Factors (@ PHI, 12/7/07)

After each game this season, we’ll be taking a look at what the four factors have to say about the game– how the winner won and the loser lost. For an intro to the four factors, see A Layman’s Guide to Advanced NBA Statistics.

Knicks lose to Sixers, 101 – 90

	Pace	Eff	eFG	FT/FG	OREB%	TOr
NYK	90.0	100.0	47.7%	9.3	31.3	13.3
PHI		112.2	51.2%	15.1	31.6	13.3

Subpar effort on both ends of the court tonight. A good offensive rebounding and ball handling effort was sabotaged by bad eFG% and a horrendous showing at the line (only 8 makes on only 17 attempts). Zach Randolph is the goat, continuously forcing poor shots and finishing 2-11 from the field with no FTs. Curry did some modest damage but was limited by foul trouble (12 points, 5 fouls in 26 minutes). And so the Knicks had no interior presence offensively in this game. The Sixers are an above average defensive team thus far (allowing 106 points per 100 possessions, tied for 12th) so the bad offensive showing against a lottery bound team isn’t quite as bad as it might seem. But don’t let that fool you– it was still awful.

On the other end of the court, the Sixers have been as poor offensively as the Knicks thus far (averaging 101.9 pp100, 23rd). The Knicks allowed them to score over 10 pp100 over their season average though. That number that is almost identical to NY’s average points allowed per 100 possessions (112.3), despite the fact that the Sixers are a below average offensive squad. Tally it up and you have a quite bad defensive performance, even by the low standards set by the Knicks’ average defensive efficiency.

4 factor stats were acquired using the ESPN4Factors script by Cherokee of the ABPRmetrics board. Firefox users can use this script (after installing the Greasemonkey extension) to see 4 factor stats automatically displayed in all NBA boxscores on espn.com.

What COULD You Get For Curry?

Okay, yes, I know, I know, Isiah Thomas would never in a gazillion years trade Eddy Curry, as too much of Isiah’s identity in New York is wrapped around acquiring Eddy Curry. The Suns could call and say, “We want to become a post-up team, we’ll give you Shawn Marion for Curry,” and Isiah would likely counter, “Only if you toss in Amare.”

But if you’ve been following the pre-season, you can just tell – the Knicks just plain ol’ look much better when Curry is not on the floor, as was the case once again in tonight’s 103-90 victory over the 76ers. Read More

Game 1: Postgame Observations

The first pre-season game for the Knicks tipped off this evening in Columbia, SC against the Sixers. Living as I do in Columbia, around the corner from the Colonial Center no less, I strolled on up, bought a ticket and settled in for the first action of the season.

I had three main questions in mind to jot notes on during the game.

1. How does Zebo look physically?

2. Will the Knicks look to run?

3. How will Chandler, Nichols, and Jordon look?

Zebo. Physically, he looked noticeably trimmed down from last season and in pretty decent shape. I’ll have to see him on TV to do a fair comparison though. It’s possible that merely seeing him live took off 10-15 lbs. I doubt it though. He looked quick, bringing the ball up the floor on at least two or three occasions. Offensively, any lingering doubts I might have had about his ability to play alongside Curry and Lee were alleviated. Zebo played a mostly turn-and-face game in the 15-18 foot area, put the ball on the floor, and posted up only occasionally. He was quite active on the boards as well. (As of the time of writing–less than 60 minutes after the end of the game–the box score has not been posted.) On the downside, Randolph is not a good defender though, picking up 5 fouls. Having said that however, in what was a theme on the night, the Knicks starters were as committed to the defensive end as I can recall. Randolph defensively was certainly active, challenging shots, if not always in the right place. (Side note: Jamal Crawford was especially active defensively, using his long arms to get numerous deflections.)

Picking up the pace. It was clear in the first few minutes the Knicks were making a concerted effort to really push the ball up the floor. The starters (Marbury, Crawford, Richardson, Lee, and Randolph) played until about 3:40 left in the first quarter when Thomas made wholesale substitutions. The team continued to run despite several point blank misses early in the game by a variety of players. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see the team look to run off makes and misses. In addition, the halfcourt sets early in the game featured what appeared to be more movement and cutting. It’s quite possible that there wasn’t more cutting, just crisper, harder cutting. To the naked eye though, it seemed like the Knicks had more motion in the halfcourt offense. The Knicks got out to an early lead and were hardly threatened on the night.

Chandler, Nichols, and Jordan. As you might expect the rooks were a mixed bag. Wilson Chandler saw by far the most minutes. It’s easy to see what the Knicks like in the youngster from DePaul. Much like what we saw in summer league Chandler flashed his athleticism with one monster dunk. He hit a three pointer (if memory serves). He rebounded well and defended Igoudala well in stretches. He also took numerous poor shots and ultimately fouled out. Nichols and Jordan interestingly entered the game for the first time in the 4th quarter with the Knicks attempting to hold on to a lead that was shifting back forth between 10 and 8. By that time the offense had far less continuity. Nichols did manage to hit the two three point shots he attempted (one attempt was nullified by a Philly foul). Not having seen Jordan until tonight I was unsure what to expect. Jordan was matched against Louis Williams, the uber-quick high schooler Philly drafted two seasons ago. Jordan’s got handles. Stylistically he’s more Luke Ridenour (similar build, similar crossover move) than I’d pictured. I believe Jordan hit his only attempt, a 20 footer up against the buzzer. He did make a behind the back pass to David Lee, who put the ball on the floor but was unable to finish the play. I don’t think Jordan would have been credited with an assist anyway. Defensively though, Louis Williams blew right past him. Jordan is quick but physically he’s built a lot like Ridenour. Defense is going to be a problem for him, but if the Knicks are as committed to picking up the pace as they led me to believe tonight this kid could come in handy. It’s obvious he has real court vision, a trait in very short supply in NY’s backcourt.

Finally, another “rookie” who got some burn tonight was Randolph Morris, who began the 2nd half with the starters. Since I anticipate nights where Curry is in foul trouble (or the Knicks are trying to protect him from foul trouble) I suspect Morris may see key minutes. On the plus side, he displayed some touch on his pick and pop jumper (from about 12 feet). He hit the boards hard. He also looks to be able to run. On the minus side, he’s got terrible, terrible hands. He fumbled everything he touched. And, although he’s reasonably athletic overall his feet are not exceptionally quick so he has trouble sliding over and rotating. Thus he’s prone to fouls. (By contrast, Philly rookie Jason Smith is a far more fluid athlete.) Overall, again, a mixed bag but enough good stuff to hope the Isiah buys out Jerome James and goes to the kid as the full time backup.

KnickerBlogger’s Anti-Tank Idea

The NBA’s dirty little secret is out, and everyone knows that teams are intentionally losing games down the stretch. Franchises that have been eliminated from the playoffs and held on to their pick (sorry Knick fans) can reward themselves by losing games down the stretch. And I can’t say I blame them. Athletes are trained from day 1 that winning is the ultimate goal (right Herm?) and a lot of players will resort to just about any means that accomplishes that goal. I’m sure Knick fans aren’t outraged when Malik Rose gets a handful of jersey when he performs his “pull the chair out from under the guy” routine. While an illegal move, if he can get away with it, Rose would be foolish not to keep it in his repertoire. The same goes for the league’s franchises. Would Milwaukee or Memphis or Boston be doing their team a disservice by trying to win down the stretch, when they can put an inferior lineup on the floor? Yes, as long as they can get away with it.

There has been some discussion in the media about possible solutions. One idea, which I think Mike Wilbon of PTI fame has been touting, would be to give all non-playoff teams an equal chance at the lottery (or the “one team one envelope” rule). The downside to this solution is that teams that really need help may not get it, which is antithetical to the draft’s purpose. Imagine if the Clippers or Pacers landed that #1 overall pick this year, while Boston or Memphis sat at #14. A team could finish in last place for 3 straight seasons, and would only have a 51% of getting one top 3 pick (for those scoring with a calculator at home that equation is 1-[11/14]^3). Not only would this solution cause an imbalance in the league, but it would give conspiracy theorists something else to harp on. To this day there are people convinced that Patrick Ewing to the Knicks was an NBA orchestrated event.

Bill Simmons has proposed a tournament where the top 6 teams in each conference are guaranteed playoff spots, and everyone else plays for those last remaining playoffs spots. It’s an interesting concept, but it’s just as easy to circumvent. No one in their right mind would think that if Boston or Memphis won a mini-tournament, they could go on and take the Pistons or Mavs in 7. So this doesn’t really address the problem. Why would a team risk losing a franchise player like Durant or Oden in order to have the privilege of getting spanked by the first or second seed? Teams will be tanking games in the tournament just as they would if it were a regular season game. In fact they would only have to purposely lose one game with this method.

Other solutions include handing out fines to teams that tank, shortening the season, and eliminating the lottery altogether. David Stern’s office could fine teams that are throwing games, but this would be a hard rule to enforce. Often teams have players fake injuries, and disproving something like knee tendinitis would be impossible (right Steve?). And an eliminated team could say they’re trying to give extra playing time to their end of bench guys. Shortening the season would take revenue from both the players and owners, so that option is out the window. And removing the lottery would just exacerbate the problem. In fact that’s what the lottery was created for in the first place, so that teams wouldn’t tank down the stretch.

So what’s a league to do? Here is a fool proof solution: set the lottery order earlier in the season, like at the All Star Game. In other words take a snapshot of the standings at the the All Star break and use that as a basis for the lottery. Obviously only the teams that fail to make the playoffs will participate in the lottery. The only teams that this might give an advantage to are teams like the Sixers who have a good second half. But then again, that’s what we want bad teams to do, win games down the stretch (and Philly was trying to rebuild with the Iverson trade). No team is going to start the season losing, because attendance is linked to winning percentage. And also they might have a Cinderella team in the making (2005 Sonics, I’m looking at you), which would net them profit due to a playoff series (7 games series means that both teams get at least 2 home games).

Below is a chart with the lottery team’s All Star Game ranking (ASG), and their end of season ranking (EOS).

ASG Rank EOS Rank Team
11 20 Indiana Pacers
16 24 Minnesota Timberwolves
17 17 Los Angeles Clippers
18 18 New Orleans Hornets
21 22 New York Knicks
22 21 Sacramento Kings
23 25 Portland Trail Blazers
24 27 Atlanta Hawks
25 26 Seattle SuperSonics
26 23 Charlotte Bobcats
27 28 Milwaukee Bucks
28 19 Philadelphia 76ers
29 30 Memphis Grizzlies
30 29 Boston Celtics

Striking Gold in the Alamo

A League of Their Own
The current prevailing opinion is that there are three clear cut NBA Championship contenders?Spurs, Mavs, and Suns?with the rest of the league on the outside looking in. We as objective analysts make our living proving popular opinion wrong?except when it?s exactly right on the money.

The Spurs, Mavs, and Suns really are the three best teams in the league. How do we know this? We could point to Win-Loss record, but that?s somewhat subject to randomness at this point. In other words, it?s subject to luck and luck is neither an indicator of quality, nor has any ?predictive? worth. Instead, we?ll look at the expected win percentage calculated from the margin of victory for each team. Much has been written about using expected wins to predict which teams have been under or over performing their actual records. In fact, this metric is actually a better tool for simply judging a team?s quality in the first place since it takes into account every single play of the season and does not overvalue a lucky bounce or two.

The Spurs (+8.8), Suns (+6.9), and Mavs (+6.8) rank first, second, and third in win margin, respectively. All three have been relatively healthy, but more importantly, they each have a track record of success. These are three of the top five teams for the last several years running. But saying they are the best three does not speak for their quality. These three teams are quite a bit ahead of the next contenders, the Rockets (+5.6) and Bulls (+5.0), who are themselves far ahead from the next grouping of teams. It?s not just that one team is better than another, it?s that they are significantly better than the next?not only are they the best, they are the best by a mile.

This bunching at the top is no surprise. Last season had the same results. The Spurs (+6.8), Pistons (+6.7), Mavs (+6.1), and Suns (+5.6) finished at the top of the league in win margin, with a considerable drop to the fifth best team, and eventual NBA Champion, the Heat (+3.9).

The Gold Standard
Look at those win margins again: +8.8, +6.9, +6.8. Which of those three does not belong? If the Spurs, Suns, and Mavs are the three best teams in the league, it?s certainly not a case of take your pick for which one these is the NBA?s gold standard. That distinction belongs to the Spurs (+8.8) and to the Spurs alone.

In fact, one could argue that the NBA title picture should say Spurs, then everyone else. The Spurs rank first the way Tiger Woods is ahead of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, or how Spitzer won the gubernatorial election, or how Ali beat Sonny. The Spurs are two points per game ahead of the Suns, which translates to four wins in the final standings. Two points and four wins doesn?t seem a lot, and it shouldn?t if we?re talking about average to above average, since it?s relatively easy to improve a team from forty to forty-four wins. But it?s considerably more difficult to get an already elite team into another stratosphere of competitive value, to go from sixty-two to sixty-six wins.

Think of the improvement with the analogy of PER. For a player to improve his rating from the league average, 15, and get to above average, 18, is relatively easy?but it?s considerably more difficult to go from a MVP-level season, 27, and genetically morph into Michael Jordan, 30. This is actually exactly what the Spurs have done. And they?ve done it with excellence on both sides of the court.

Characteristically, the Spurs rank second in the league in Defensive Efficiency, behind Houston, who has a mediocre offense. The Spurs also rank fourth in Offensive Efficiency behind the Suns, Wizards, and Pistons. The Wizards are as bad at defense as they are good in offense. The Piston?s slip in defense pushes them to merely above average. The Suns are a good, but not great, defensive team, which coupled with their league-leading offense, is enough to make them the second best team in the league behind the Spurs. For the record, the Mavs are sixth in offense and fifth in defense, so they?re no slouches either. They?re like the Spurs-lite?the less filling, low-calorie version.

The Spurs are not getting much press at the time since they haven?t had a double-digit win streak, and are basically under-performing their expected wins, but nonetheless, if you?re looking to find a team to top your power rankings, make a stop at the Alamo.

The Best Spurs Team Ever
The Spurs are currently outplaying their opponents at the rate of +10.0 points per one-hundred possessions?that?s not good, it?s scary. There are about fifty games left to be played, but at this pace, this years version of the Tim Duncan’s Spurs would be the first to have better than a +10.0 in efficiency. We are looking at possibly the best Spurs season ever. And mind you, the man has already won three championships.

The lowest spread for any Duncan non-rookie season was +6.3, which put them on pace for 57 wins. Of course, that?s one of the years they won the Championship, beating the Nets in six games. The Spurs best regular season was +9.6 in ?00-01. They were expected to win 63, only won 58, then they were swept out of the conference finals by the Lakers, whose only playoff loss that year came in overtime of Game 1 of the Finals to Allen Iverson?s Sixers.

Tim Duncan?s San Antonio Spurs?point differential per 100 possessions

?06-07: +10.0 (through 33 games)
?05-06: +8.0
?04-05: +9.1
?03-04: +8.3
?02-03: +6.3
?01-02: +7.1
?00-01: +9.6
?99-00: +7.0
?98-99: +8.9
?97-98: +4.8

Subjectively, this outstanding quality is hard for us to notice because the Spurs are always an excellent team. It?s easy to notice the change from bad to good, or to see that the acquisition of a new player has had a positive effect on a team. What we don?t often notice is the ascent from elite to absolute, relentless powerhouse.

Year after year the Spurs produce at an incredibly high level, with machine-like consistency, led by one of the greatest players of his generation, who also happens to have almost no marketable personality to speak of. In a very real sense, we take them completely for granted.

A lot could change in the next fifty games. Just because they?re on pace to be a team for the ages, of course, doesn?t mean they?ll finish this way. Blowouts do have more effects on the numbers. But then again, winning by a blowout (and not losing by blowout) is a good indicator of a quality team. And, of course, as evidenced by previous Spurs seasons, having an outstanding regular season win margin doesn?t guarantee you the championship. It just makes you the favorite.

Michael Zannettis has a Masters in Public Policy and writes regularly on his blog, www.michaelzannettis.com, exploring topics such as politics, science, humor, and what young people do with their free time. His first full-length manuscript, ?At the Feet of Giants?, is currently in search of a publisher. He lives in Astoria where he often dramatically reenacts the Larry Johnson four-point play at the local playground.