Draft Day Trade Lacks Direction

Shortly after ESPN announced Zach Randolph was traded to the Knicks, a commenter named Harlan said

“are we really getting upset by dumping frye and francis and getting someone who put up 26 and 10, we have a huge lineup now who can score, they cant double team either and randolph has an outside jumpshot.”

Yes, Harlan. Some of us are really getting upset.

If you asked Knick fans what their team’s main weaknesses are, I would suspect most would say: defense, turnovers, injuries, and cap space. Unfortunately for New York, Zach Randolph doesn’t address any of these issues. Randolph is an awful shot blocker, his 0.2 blk/40 last year made Eddy Curry (0.6 blk/40) look like Raef LaFrentz (1.2 blk/40). As for turnovers, Randolph’s 3.5 to/40 would be second on last year’s Knick team behind only Eddy Curry. There’s no doubt that injuries sunk the Knicks late in the season, and Randolph won’t address that need as he has missed an average of 17.5 games each season over his 6 year career. Finally Zach’s large contract will haunt the Knicks for years to come. Next year he’ll make a little over $13M, and it escalates to $17M in 2011. New York could have conceivably been under the cap in 2009, but notions of signing a free agent have now gone out the window for 4 years.

As for what was given up, it’s no secret that I’ve soured on Channing Frye this year. Frye seemed to be uncomfortable on the court, and it’s uncertain exactly what caused it. However he did flash some talent his first year, and trading him this early in his career could haunt the Knicks in the future. Only last year did Isiah make a “no-brainer” trade involving a young player for a seemingly better veteran that is eerily similar to this deal. Lamentably Trevor Ariza blossomed for the Orlando Magic, while Steve Francis wilted in New York.

On the court this upcoming year, I’m dubious that this trade will make New York better. I imagine Randolph will start next to Curry, relegating David Lee to the bench. This is unfortunate since Lee was arguably the Knicks best player last year. Randolph is a strong scorer and rebounder, but Lee is more efficient and one of the top rebounders in the league. Neither Curry nor Randolph pass well out of double teams, so expect the Knicks’ to cough up the ball even more next year. Additionally one has to wonder if Randolph will make Curry less effective, since both players are post up players who require the ball to be effective. Lee’s “low usage plays away from the ball” game seems to better complement Curry. Of course this trade doesn’t address New York’s defensive weakness, their greatest liability, at least in any positive manner.

In the end, I’m saddened that Isiah didn’t address New York’s most crucial needs at the power forward spot with his trade. Isiah Thomas makes the same mistakes over and over again. He sacrifices young talent (sometimes in the form of draft picks) for overpriced players who show little aptitude on the defensive end. As a friend remarked, Thomas seems to be a fantasy basketball GM, getting players who have flashy offensive per-game numbers with little thought of how they fit together. Unfortunately, New York needs an NBA GM with a cohesive plan on building a team.

Does Curry’s Recent Play Mean He’s Turned the Corner?

The short answer is, “I don’t know and neither does anyone else, probably not even Curry.” But, since we here at KB don’t specialize in short answers I figured I’d dig a little deeper. I wanted to see how many times Curry has sustained a similar level of play for eight games. [Note: I finished a draft of this post just before tip vs. Milwaukee. I updated following Curry’s performance after the game. Curry came into the Milwaukee game with eight consecutive 20+ point performances, and three consecutive games with 10+ rebounds.]

I went over to Curry’s page at basketball-reference.com to check the game logs. I looked through each season’s logs for eight or more consecutive double-figure scoring games in order to isolate sustained good play from Curry, hoping to compare his current hot streak against those others using simple box score stats. So this analysis certainly falls into the “quick and dirty” category.

What becomes immediately obvious from game logs is Curry’s maddening inconsistency. He’s had numerous stretches of five or six decent games, sometimes seven, but then he throws in a stinker. Including this current streak, Curry only 10 has double-digit scoring streaks of at least eight games. His longest such streak is 24 games, during the 2004-2005 season with the Bulls. Curry played quite well, averaging 17.5 points on 59% shooting, 5.7 rebounds (2.1 offensive), and just under a block per game. Not bad. I should also note that the Bulls were 3-11 when he began the streak and improved to 21 and 16. So, he has in fact played some of his best ball when it has mattered.

Yet Curry’s best extended period of production probably came during a lost season–a 17 game stretch in the spring of 2003. He averaged 20.1 points on a sizzling 64% shooting, 7.5 rebounds (1.9 offensive), 1.3 blocks, and half a steal in 32 minutes on a Bulls team in the midst of crashing and burning.

So how does his current streak compare? Over the past nine games (November 22 – December 9) Curry has averaged 23.8 points on 60.8% shooting, 8.8 rebounds (3 offensive), almost a full assist (0.9), half a block (0.8), and just over half a steal (0.7). (Although the blocks and steals are in line with his other stretches of good play Curry is challenging and altering shots in a way he hasn’t since coming to NY.) His 9.5 FTAs and 5.2 makes are well above his production during other hot streaks. Isiah Thomas will suggest (of course) that we are now seeing what he envisioned all along for Eddy Curry. (Please let’s not get into what what Curry cost. We’ve already been down that road.)

The question lingering in the thought bubble poised above my head is, are we really seeing Eddy Curry finally start to blossom, or are we being teased yet again? I suppose only time will tell for sure but discriminating Knicks should look for a couple of tried and true indicators to shed some light on whether this is real or fool’s gold. One issue Brian raised is the dearth of quality big men these days. Curry pretty much had his head handed to him earlier in the season vs. Yao Ming and Tim Duncan. Curry is undoubtedly playing well but right now he’s playing against teams where he can physically dominate. I think that is a point that cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, one of the advantages of looking at long streaks is that it allows you to look at periods of play sufficiently long for the league to make adjustments against a given player.

The most telling indicators with Curry, as with any big man, are usually rebounding and free throw attempts. Rebounds and free throw attempts are thought to be “hustle” stats–a direct function of effort. That can be a bit of an oversimplification at times, particularly when they are compiled from box scores rather than rate stats. Still, rebounds and free throws are reasonable indicators of activity under the direct control of the player.

Curry is rebounding at an impressive clip for him right now. He’s pulling in 9.6 boards per 40 over the last nine games. Interestingly, this is not altogether new. Just last season Curry had stretches where he was getting 11.5 rebounds/40 (eight games in early November) and 9.9/40 (15 games in late December/early January). He ended last season at 9.2/40, well above his career average of 8.6. Perhaps the real key to Curry’s recent play has been getting to the free throw line. His FT attempts took a significant leap forward last season. He averaged 6.8 FTA/G last season, which was an improvement of 1.8 attempts from the 2004-2005 season. Up until the 2004-2005 season he averaged a mere 3.9 FTA/G. Including Saturday night’s game against Milwaukee, he is averaging 9.5 attempts during the streak. Only against Milwaukee and Minnesota has he gone to the line fewer than 8 times.

Knick fans and Knick management certainly hope this is the beginning of Curry’s ascendancy into the league’s elite young big men. Only time will tell. He’s had stretches where he’s played well, but few where he’s “put it all together.” If Curry has indeed made a permanent step forward in his career it will be due to his improved rebounding, defense, and ability to get to the line. That should leave Knick fans hopeful.

Zeke Finished With His Free Spending Ways?

Today’s New York Times has an article entitled “The Warmth Thomas Is Feeling Is Likely the Hot Seat” about Isiah Thomas feeling the pressure to succeed as the New York Knicks coach. While Thomas won’t get a warm feeling reading that article, there was one passage that warmed the cockles of my heart:

Thomas obtained his priciest players ? Marbury, Rose, Francis, Crawford and Curry ? by trading expiring contracts. But Thomas said he was done doing so, which is why he could afford to cut Taylor and keep Rose.

“We?re not in the same situation that we were two years ago, when that?s what you needed, to use expiring contracts and everything else to build a team,” he said. “But now we have a young nucleus that?s pretty exciting, and we like our future.”

Now granted often times what a coach or GM says to the press and what they do are two entirely different things. Especially during preseason, that time of year where lip service buds blossom. Before the games matter, hope is everywhere and the possibilities are endless. However should Zeke stand by his words, it would be a positive step forward for the New York Knicks organization. Just last week the addition of another impulsive shopper in Grunwald gave Knick fans agita over the possibility of expanding on their league leading payroll. But if Grunwald is aboard with this mentality as well, then he and Isiah could make a nice tandem grabbing cheap young talent from places like the NBDL and other team’s summer league cuts.

This news won’t allow me to envision the Knicks as the NBA’s version of the Oakland A’s. Nor does instill me with notions that New York will do everything they can to trim off the useless fat off their payroll (Jerome James I’m looking at you). However this news should prevent me from having those Marbury, Frye, and Crawford for Webber and Dalembert nightmares that have been plaguing me all summer.

The Eddy Curry Study

“There is real hope that Eddy will develop into a league-leading center,” (Knicks owner James) Dolan said. “If you watched the second quarter of the San Antonio game he was pretty good. That’s Larry’s job … to get him from one quarter to four quarters.”
New York Daily News
March 02, 2006

Whether it’s due to the variety of cultures or the sheer number of inhabitants, New Yorkers rarely agree on anything. However, thanks to James Dolan & the Knicks front office, 2006 has given New Yorkers a topic all can agree upon: The New York Knicks suck. While Big Apple residents often have the propensity to overstate their cases, it’s hard to be a contrarian on this issue. At 17 wins and 44 losses, New York is dead last in the NBA standings. Additionally the Knicks have the NBA’s worst salary cap situation. Not only do they currently have the league’s highest salary, but they continue to trade for and sign players to exorbitant long term contracts.

Since their 2000 season ended, the boys in blue & orange have been in a slow & steady decline. It’s no coincidence that the Knicks demise is accompanied by two major events that left them absent of a quality big man. Patrick Ewing was traded to Seattle in the summer of 2000, and Marcus Camby was sent packing over a year later. While I’m not obtuse enough to think that you need a dominant center to win in the NBA, New York’s most successful teams have been lead by the man in the middle. The 70s Knicks wouldn’t have been the same without Willis Reed. Patrick Ewing kept the team afloat in the 80s and 90s. And Marcus Camby almost catapulted them to an improbable Finals victory in 2000. Since then, the Knicks have attempted to fill this void with undersized power forwards like Kurt Thomas and Mike Sweetney. New York’s only playoff appearance in this period was when they had a serviceable (but past his prime) Dikembe Mutombo roaming the paint.

It’s probably these kinds of thoughts Isiah Thomas had in his head when he signed Eddy Curry for 6 years and $60M. Curry is only 23 years old, and at a listed 6’11 285lbs is no undersized power forward. There is no doubt that once Curry releases the ball, he is an able scorer. In David Crockett’s last KB.Net article, he said of Curry:

You can count nine centers with better offensive production (Shaq, Duncan, both Wallaces, Ilgauskas, Brad Miller, Zo, Okur, and Gadzuric), and all but Gadzuric are a good bit older than Curry.

And this is where the opinions of Curry begin to diverge. Although he doesn’t lack the ability to score, it’s the other aspects of the game that elude Eddy. He seems disinterested on the defensive end, is a timid defensive rebounder, and turns the ball over too often. When Isiah Thomas decided to pursue Eddy Curry, he must have thought that these attributes would change. In fact the quote above shows that the Knicks owner, James Dolan, feels the same way. But is this true? How likely is it that New York’s present center will become their center of the future?

To answer a question like this, we just need to look in the past. To find players similar to Mr. Curry, I limited myself to 23 year olds who were 6’10 or taller. I also limited myself to the last 25 years, or what I would term the modern era of the NBA (1980 or since). This is due to the changes in the game including the ABA/NBA merger, the three point line, gaps in statkeeping (blocks, steals, turnovers), etc. Using this information, we can gauge how likely it is for Curry to become a more productive player. If we look at 23 year old players whose defensive rebounding rates were close to Curry’s (5.0 & 6.2 DREB/40 min) we find that after 3 years those same players on average saw a meager increase of 0.5 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes. Optimists will find comfort in the knowledge that there were a few players who started out as timid as Eddy, and turned into excellent rebounders.

Marcus Camby was an awful rebounder for the Toronto Raptors, which is probably the reason they traded him to New York. In his first two years he averaged 5.5 and 5.3 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes. In New York, his rates steady increased until blossoming as a full time starter in 2001. That year Marcus averaged 9.9 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes, nearly double his average in Toronto. Another player who went from hyalophobe to hyalophile is Jayson Williams. Like Camby, in his first two seasons Williams showed a fear of glass for the Sixers. And just like Marcus, Jayson nearly doubled his defensive rebounding by age 26, snaring 10.0 DREB/40min.

Camby and Williams show that it’s not impossible for Curry to become a strong rebounder. However if you’re going to start to tout Curry as a future All Star, you might want to preface your statement with something to the effect of being a blind optimist who will be winning the lotto in the near future. By looking at defensive rebounding averages of all players from age 23 to 36 (see graph below), players will hit their peak around the age of 27 and begin to decline at around 32. From this data it might be reasonable to incur that Curry will be at best a league average rebounder for a man of his size, and at worst remain a poor rebounder.

By using this same technique, we can also analyze his turnover and blocked shot rate. The next two charts reveal that both turnovers and blocked shots decrease steadily as a player ages. That turnovers decrease is a good sign for the Knicks, since it’s a major weakness in Curry’s game. As poster NGLI pointed out, the Knicks young center is prone to being stripped due to keeping the ball too low and is called for offensive charging by bowling over his defenders. If Eddy can improve on his career 3.3 TO/40 minutes, it’d make him a legitimate offensive option, one the Knicks can feed into the post without effectively giving the other team the ball in the process. As for blocked shots, it looks as if it’s a skill a player either has or does not have. I did eyeball a few of the league’s best shot swatters, and their rates do increase. Nonetheless for everyone else it’s just a skill that erodes as a player gets older.

Armed with this data it’s clear that Eddy Curry will remain a “Baby Shaq” and never become the real deal. The safe money is that he should be able to reduce his turnovers enough to become an offensively productive center. Unfortunately he’ll never be strong on the defensive end, either in rebounding or blocking shots. Now is this the definition of a “league-leading center” that the Knicks front office had in mind when they gave away a couple of first round picks and signed Curry to $60M? That’s something New Yorkers can debate about for the next few years.