A Defensive Trend

In case you aren’t a regular reader of my blog, I’ve been following a distressing trend since the Knicks’ season started. So far defense has been a big issue for New York. The Knicks have allowed their opponents the second highest FG% in the league. However field goal percentage is a bit flawed, and I like to use something more meaningful called eFG% (sometimes called aFG%).

If you want to know exactly how to figure out effective shooting percentage (eFG%), I did a little write up at the end of this article. It’s more accurate than FG%, because eFG% takes into account the extra point a three pointer brings. Peja Stojakovic connected on 48% of his shots last year, but since he hit a lot of threes (with great accuracy I might add), his eFG% of 57% better represents his shooting ability. Good enough for second best in the NBA. Players that don’t hit any treys have the same eFG% as their FG%. Shaq had a FG% of 58%, but since he doesn’t attempt any shots from beyond the arc (thank goodness), his eFG% is also 58%. Effective FG% is gaining mainstream popularity, and you can find it on ESPN’s stat page or 82games.com.

Getting back to the Knicks’ woes, their opponents have been shooting the lights out with a 52.6% eFG%. That’s a whooping 12% better than the league average (47.1%). Only the Hawks & Nuggets are worse, while teams like the Hornets, Bulls, and Sixers rank just above the Knicks. Those aren’t a group of teams you want to be associated with defensively. Right now when teams are facing the Knicks, they’re getting a better look at the rim than the Tidy Bowl Man.

It’s fair to say that 5 games is too small a sample size to make a huge deal over. However consider this: not once this season have the Knicks’ held their opponent’s eFG% under the league average. Three of their opponents shot over 50%, with the Celtics a shade under 60%. When teams that were below average shooters last year (Clippers & Sixers) are having good shooting nights against New York, it’s time to raise the red flag.

What’s interesting is last year the Knicks contested shots very well, allowing an eFG% of only 46.1%. So what happened in a year? The roster overhaul could be the answer as the Knicks no longer have defensive minded players like Deke, Frank Williams, Shanderson and Charlie Ward. Easily 4 of the Knick starters are not thought of as above average defenders, and the 5th, Kurt Thomas, is not a shot blocking big man. Actually the entire roster is void of either a shot blocker or a “defensive stopper”.

This defensive weakness coincides with another Knick sore spot, depth at center. Nazr Mohammed is poor on the defensive end, and isn’t reliable on a day-to-day basis. Against the Clippers he only played 12 minutes, because he forced himself to the bench with constant foul trouble. His strength is on the offensive end of the court, as witnessed by his 11 offensive rebound effort against the Pacers. The Knicks would benefit by having a center that could disrupt the other team’s offense, a ying to Mohammed’s yang. Marbury, Crawford, and whoever is the PF (Thomas or Sweetney) are good enough offensively to carry a millstone at center. The Knicks won’t be able to get a guy like Theo Ratliff without giving up something big in return, but there are cheaper alternatives out there. Shot blocking machine Dan Gadzuric is loosing minutes to Zaza “Gabor” Pachulia, and would have a cheaper price tag considering Milwaukee’s depth at center.

One final thought, eFG% isn’t a complete measure of defense, but is a vital component. Dean Oliver, standing on the shoulders of great basketball minds like the legendary Dean Smith, discovered that shooting at a higher percentage than your opponent is the best single factor that correlates with winning. The founder of the Journal of Basketball Studies states that out shooting your opponent is more important than out rebounding them, getting to the free throw line more often, or winning the turnover edge. The Knicks early season only seems to confirm this, because the better shooting team has won every single game. Hopefully the Knicks can break this trend either by acquiring some good defenders, running better defensive schemes, or just giving a better effort on the court with the current personnel.



A little bit about eFG%

Traditional FG% is calculated by:

(FGM)/FGA

Field Goals Made is simply the number of 2 pointers made (2PM) plus the number of 3 pointers made (3PM). So rewriting the equation becomes:

(2PM + 3PM)/FGA

It’s clear to see that FG% assumes that 3 point shots are equal to their 2 point counterparts. Taking into account the points gained by making a trey, (3/2=1.5) eFG% is simple to understand when you put it’s equations next to FG%’s:

FG% = (2PM + 3PM) / FGA
eFG% = (2PM + 1.5*3PM) / FGA

eFG% gives 3 pointers made an extra 50% bonus because the points scored on a 3 pointer is 50% greater. A simpler way to write eFG% is:

eFG% = (FGM + 3PM/2)/FGA.

Back to top.

Game 3: How Did They Do It?

Tuesday the Knicks beat the Sixers by a fair margin. Even though I watched the game, I was curious what the stat sheet would say about it. In theory, the box score should give us some more insight on how the Knicks won. New York shot 50% eFG%, a very high percentage. However they only gained a small advantage as the Sixers shot just as well, 49%. If the Knicks didn’t shoot better than their opponent, then this couldn’t have been the reason for their victory.

New York was slightly out-rebounded on the offensive end, 28% to 30%, so they didn’t have an edge on the glass. Philly also had an advantage with a higher percentage of free throws (27% FTM/FGA to New York’s 25%). So, if you’re keeping track at home:

  • New York had a small shooting advantage
  • Philly had a small advantage rebounding
  • Philly had a small advantage scoring from the foul line

Each of the stats were close enough to call a draw, which would make it appear that neither team had an edge. So exactly what did New York do to propel themselves to an 8 point victory?

The Sixers turned the ball over on 29% of their possessions, while the Knicks only coughed it up 20% of the time. That’s a huge difference, and was easily the reason the Knicks won. New York had a team effort as their 15 steals were split up among 7 different players. They were led by Marbury, Crawford, and Mohammed(!), who all had 3 steals apiece. The culprits for the Sixers was their starting backcourt, as Iverson & Green combined for 14 turnovers. In fact Iverson almost had a triple double with 29 points, 10 assists and 9 turnovers.

While the Knicks were able to disrupt the Sixers offense with turnovers, Philly was still accurate once they got their shots up. I said earlier, and on more than one occasion, that this would be an issue I would keep an eye on. So far this season, the Knicks are not doing a good job at keeping their opponents from getting a good look at the hoop. Their first two games, the Knicks’ opponents put up effective field goal percentages (eFG%) of 54.4% and 59.7%. This is a bit disturbing because:

  1. The average eFG% last year was 47.1% and
  2. Last year they were better than average (46.1%).

I’m hoping that this is just a small sample size thing, and the Knicks will at least be average in this respect. However the early returns aren’t promising. Even when they faced a weaker opponent in Philly, a team that was below average in shooting percentage last year, they were unable to put up a good effort. They’ll have another chance on Friday against the Clippers, and again, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this issue.

Sixers 88 Knicks 96

For most of the first quarter there was nothing new to the Knicks attack. They mostly played a perimeter game consisting of one of three things:

  • Marbury asking for the pick & roll.
  • Marbury faking the pick & roll & driving to the hoop
  • Crawford using his dribble to get an open jumper.

The Knicks big guys were either to join in the perimeter attack (Kurt Thomas on the pick & roll) or do what Nazr Mohammed did. The Knicks’ starting center scored the first of his two first quarter field goals by waiting for a guard to dish the ball after being doubled team on a penetration drive. The second one Nazr earned with an offensive rebound and put back.

However things changed with about 3 minutes left. The Knicks dumped the ball in the low post to Michael Sweetney. It seemed natural to see New York work out of the post. Sweetney didn’t spin continuously in the paint & muscle his way to a jump hook like Larry Johnson used to. He didn’t hold the ball for 10 seconds and drive toward the middle to take a strong running shot in the lane like Patrick Ewing did in his day. Instead the second year player deftly spun to the paint and gently dropped a finger roll into the net.

In fact Sweetney asked for the ball two more times at the start of the second quarter, and the Knicks feed it to him for post-up scores. The announcers declared it was the first time they’ve ever seen him asking for the ball. That’s a long way from the “wide-eyed rookie” I described him as less than a year ago. That description could have fit Trevor Ariza.

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. Before watching him tonight, I thought the Knicks should trap & press with him in the game. Writing his strengths & weaknesses down on (electronic) paper just reinforces this idea.

Ariza played plenty of minutes thanks to Tim Thomas having his third bad game in a as many attempts. By halftime, Thomas had played 15 minutes and had 0 rebounds with 3 points on 6 attempts. I wonder how many more bad games Thomas can afford before the Knicks hand over the SF starting job to Ariza. The Knicks can’t afford to have Thomas as an overpaid SF sitting on the bench, especially when Shanderson is doing so well in that role. Tim’s huge contract would make him even more impossible to trade if he can’t beat out a 19 year old that every team passed up at least once. I’m sure Wilkens will give him a $12.9M dollar long leash.

Unfortunately Michael Sweetney doesn’t have the luxury Ariza does. Kurt Thomas did what coaches love, all the small things. He blocked two of Iverson’s shots in the first half, and was aggressive on the offensive glass. Thomas ended up with only 8 points, but had 4 offensive rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Even though Sweetney was 4-4 in the first half, he only had 10 minutes in the first half, and didn’t get back into the game until 3:30 in the 3rd quarter. He didn’t take another shot after the first half. Kevin Pelton asked me the other day if this is Sweetney’s team yet. He’d be the starting PF if the other Thomas was ahead of him on the depth chart.

The Knicks best front court was when Michael Sweetney played next to Kurt Thomas. Philly doesn’t have a center that would make New York pay for such a transgression, so the Knicks were able to get away with a small lineup. When bigger centers come to town, Sweetney may loose some of those minutes when the Knicks are forced to play a center bigger than 6’9. Sweetney played only 17 minutes, and that’s with Jerome Williams and Vin Baker getting a combined 3 minutes. Although part of his low minute total can be attributed to 5 personal fouls.

Nazr Mohammed put up great numbers, good enough for the New York press to not be able to use the words “Keith Van Horn” until at least Friday. Unlike Sweetney, Mohammed stayed out of foul trouble which enabled him to play 32 minutes and score 18 points. More impressively he had 3 steals and 3 offensive rebounds.

Simply, the Knicks beat up on a bad team. I can’t blame them for it, because you can only beat who the schedule makers pit you against. New York plays the Clippers at home next, before facing a brutal road trip against 4 top notch opponents. For the time being, I’ll enjoy tonight’s victory & everything that comes with it.

Game 3: The Sixers

After the Knicks first loss, a hard fought battle on the road against one of the NBA’s best team, came their second loss, an effortless embarrassment on their home court. New York needs to do one simple thing tonight: outscore their opponent. No it isn’t a “must-win” game, but it’s a “they-should-really-win-this” game. The Sixers have been on a steady decline since their 2001 Finals appearance, winning only 33 games last season. Philly represents the Knicks’ easiest challenge to date.

What am I going to watch for in tonight’s game? First is if Nazr Mohammed & Tim Thomas decide to start their season. Neither has made any impact so far, and I’m sure both of them are tired of reading the name Keith Van Horn in the papers. Next thing is if the Knicks are challenging the Sixers’ shots. Their opponents eFG% has been through the roof in the first two games, and I wonder if this is going to be a season long trend or if it’s just an early aberration. As always I’m going to see how much Sweetney & Ariza play. Sweetney hurt his thumb in the Boston game, but I’m more curious how the Knicks’ future continue their development. Finally I’ll wonder if this is the day Lenny Wilkens takes my idea & institutes a trap/press defense.


On another note, there’s been some good blogging going on early on in the year. These Days tops my list, and not just because Shaddax approved of my trap/press idea for the Knicks. If you like basketball, baseball, football, soccer, boxing, or great writing you’ll like his site. Bulls Blog is getting press from the mainstream, which means now is your time to request Matt to write an article about the Bulls on your fantasy team. (Thanks Matt!) Keeping it real for the influx of ex-Americans who can’t tolerate “4 more years” is Scott of Raptorblog, while Jeff is hoping the Celts will make it three championship teams in one year in Beantown. If you have a fantasy team, you might want to check out Gimme the Rock, or maybe Aaron Gleeman (the most famous blogger in the world), if Blogger doesn’t conspire to keep his blog NBA free.

Check them out, as well as the links along the side of the page. There’s lots of great writers out there. Just come back tomorrow, hopefully for a recap of a Knicks win.

Two Feet Off The Ground

And when my friend and I were
done we went to rest upon the
sun ’cause life takes from us
the things, we love and robs us
of the special ones and puts
them where where we can’t climb
and we only miss them all the time

— “Life Is Shit”
Dead Milkmen

The Knicks head into Philly Friday night to face the Sixers. Although the Sixers are only a game and a half away from a playoff spot, they’re more likely to vie for a lottery spot than a playoff spot. Their second leading scorer, Glenn Robinson will need surgery on his elbow, and will likely miss the rest of the season. The Sixers could potentially face the Knicks without their two leading scorers, as leading scorer Allen Iverson has missed his team’s last two games with a sore right knee. There is no word on whether or not Iverson has practiced this week either.

Despite not having Iverson or Robinson, Philly has won its’ last three games. Two were against the league patsy Chicago, but the other was against a pretty good team in Milwaukee. Looking at the box score, it’s easy to see why the Bucks fell to the Sixers on Monday. First is that little used Zendon Hamilton and Greg Buckner dropped 39 points on them, 32 more than their season average. Second is the huge 14-4 advantage Philly had on the offensive boards. Finally Keith Van Horn played only 20 minutes for Milwaukee, before fouling out.

I wanted to see why the Sixers beat the Bulls twice. Looking at the stat sheet, the Sixers just shot at a better percentage each game. Most of the stats were the same. Yes they did have more defensive rebounds, but that’s because they had more attempts due to Chicago’s extra misses. (In other words each Bull miss=Philly defensive rebound). In one game Philly had almost twice as many turnovers, but Chicago shot itself out of the game with less than a 38% field goal percentage (40% AFG% for those that are curious).

Iverson has missed 20 games so far this year, and the Sixers are 8-12 without the Answer. No one person has taken up all of the scoring slack for Philadelphia during their latest injury-filled win streak. Kenny Thomas has done well, but they’ve also seen good performances from Hamilton, Buckner, Salmons, Snow, McKie, and even Kyle Korver. So even if Iverson doesn’t show up, the Knicks will have to be careful, since Philadelphia seems to be able to get points from a number of different people. The last time these two teams met, Tim Thomas and Nazr Mohammed combined for 27 rebounds. A repeat performance would be welcomed by one blogger, since I picked up Nazr for my fantasy squad.

Side Note: With the Knicks in Philadelphia, my thoughts go out to the friends and family of Dave Blood. Dave was the bassist for the iconoclastic Pennsylvania band the Dead Milkmen. Some of the happiest times of my life were spent playing his bass lines. Rest in peace, Dave.

Putbacks

I say why on earth do you revolve around me
Aren?t you aware of the gravity

— Another Satellite
XTC

Since some of you may not have thought to check this blog on a weekend, I’ll make today’s entry short. This way you can catch up on Saturday’s column on Lenny Wilkens (right below this one). I’d like to take a quick look at some previous entries. A few days ago I talked about the Knicks’ chances to win their upcoming games. Well they’ve won all three, despite being statistical underdogs in two of them. In case you were wondering, the chance that they would win all three was only 11%. Now some of you may be dying to email me and tell me that I was wrong to give the Knicks such poor odds. However, 11% isn’t as impossible to overcome as you would think. It’s about the same odds as flipping three coins and getting three heads. Not that bad when you put it in that light.

By the way I’ve checked out the Knicks’ updated chances versus the next two teams. Before they had a 64.9% chance to beat Boston at home, and a 38.2% chance away in Philly. Now that the Knicks and Celtics have won a few games, and the Sixers lost a few, the probabilities are different. New York has almost the same chance against Boston (65.5%) and slightly improved odds against Philly (40.6%). The Knicks have a 27% chance of winning both games. This is a little better than the odds you would get with flipping two coins and getting both heads.

That’s twice where I’ve compared the Knicks’ probability of winning to the flipping of a coin. That makes sense when both teams have similar records. Intuitively, they should have slightly better odds against their next two opponents than a coin flip, since their record is slightly better.



In a few of my previous posts, I’ve talked about fouls. Well if there were an official stat for this blog, it might be the personal foul. In one of these entries, I said in recap of a game:

Nazr Mohammad only scored 2 points because he was in foul trouble all night. If you didn’t watch the game, you would know this by looking at the box score. When someone who would probably play 25-30 minutes, plays only 14 and has 4 fouls in that span, you can conclude that they had foul trouble.

Well unfortunately yesterday’s game was not televised anywhere. Actually I’m sure if I had a satellite dish it would have been on some channel, but there’s a few huge buildings between my roof and their satellite.

In any case I didn’t get to watch the game, but I did listen to it on the radio for a little bit, before getting bored and leaving the house. It’s not the same listening to the radio, because I don’t always trust the announcers’ judgements. Later in the day, I checked the box score to see all of the Knick starters perform well, except for one: Kurt Thomas. His time was limited to 22 minutes due to 5 fouls. Obviously his low minute total was due to his foul trouble. He scored 4 points, and had 8 rebounds. Thinking back I remember the radio announcers saying two things about Kurt. Early in the game they said that Kurt was off to a good start. Later in the second quarter they said he had just received his third foul, which sent him back to the bench, only a few minutes after coming off the bench.

Nazr Mohammed is a good rebounder on both ends of the floor, and a good low post scorer. Kurt Thomas is their best low post defender, gets to the defensive glass, and has a decent outside shot. The Knicks are a much better team with them on the court instead of Mutombo, Harrington, and Sweetney. It’s as simple as when Mohammed and K.Thomas get into foul trouble, which limits their minutes, the Knicks are a weaker team. That’s why it’s so important for these two to keep out of foul trouble.

Miss Cleo or KnickerBlogger?

you can’t tell the future in a cookie
but do you ever get the hint?
and you can place your hand on a crystal ball
do you ever think you’ll win?

— “Tales From Tomorrow”
Pulsars

Today Lenny Wilkens proclaimed (for the second time) that Nazr Mohammed will be the Knicks starting center. I’m glad I predicted in my last column that he would be the Knicks starter. Of the numerous articles I’ve read, none have mentioned the one problem that keeps Nazr from being the Knicks’ starter: his foul trouble. Here’s a quick recap of Nazr’s Knick history:

2/20 – His first game as a Knick, Mohammed backs up Mutombo. Nazr plays 17 minutes, but commits 4 fouls. He only scores 2 points, but has 6 rebounds and 2 blocks.

2/22 – Again the backup, Nazr only plays 12 minutes, and again he gets 6 rebounds.

2/24 – Wilkens decides to make Mohammed the starter (for the first time). He plays well for 33 minutes, scoring 15 points, and grabbing 8 rebounds. He stays out of foul trouble, with only 2 PFs.

2/25 – Nazr starts again. This is the game Tim Thomas hurts his elbow, and the Knicks are shorthanded. Mohammed’s time is limited to 17 minutes due to 4 fouls.

2/27 – Unhappy with Mohammed’s foul trouble, and fed up with Mutombo’s inability to cover his own man, Wilkens plays Kurt Thomas at center, and Harrington at PF. Nazr plays well of the bench for 23 minutes, with 12 rebounds and 5 points (and only 2 fouls). Harrington shows he’s not the answer as the starting PF.

2/29 – Wilkens continues with his Kurt Thomas at center (again) experiment, but this time Sweetney starts at PF. The rookie gets into foul trouble quickly in the first quarter, and the PF/C minutes are split between Harrington (8), Mutombo (14), and Nazr (17). Nazr is a non-factor with only 2 points and 2 rebounds.

3/03 – Mohammed to start at home against the Sixers.

In his 6 games, Mohammed has had 2 good games, 2 games where he’s had foul trouble, and 2 non-factor games due to not enough minutes. If being in foul trouble in 2 out of 4 or 6 games seems to be a lot, it’s because it is. His average this year of 5.8PF/48min is below his career average of 6.1. In case you think this might be inflated due to his limited minutes (small sample size), when he started 73 games in ’01, he averaged 5.6. Keith Van Horn who was criticized for committing dumb fouls, only had 4.6FP/48min. Across the river, Jason Collins (5.2) and Kenyon Martin (4.8) foul less than Mohammed. The Knicks have a problem in this area, since Sweetney (6.0) and Harrington (7.3) are also foul prone. Only Deke stays out of trouble with 4.5PF/48min. I guess arguing with the refs on every play pays off for Mt. Mutombo.

At this moment, the only thing stopping Nazr Mohammed from being the Knicks starting center is himself. I think even if Nazr can’t stay on the court, he’ll still start, since the Knicks don’t have any options in this area. I’ll be shocked if Mutombo or Harrington starts again (unless players get injured). If Sweetney develops into a solid contributor, then Wilkens might be pushed into putting him into the starting role, and moving Kurt to center. However I don’t think that will happen this year.

Mohammed would be smart to make a name for himself now, before Vin Baker comes to town. If he?s plays well and becomes entrenched as the starter, it will be harder for Baker to take that spot away. That’s the only legitimate threat Mohammed has, other than the officials.