Ah… The Bittersweet Taste of Ambivalence

As you are no doubt aware by now, the Knicks have hired former Phoenix Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni to be their new head coach (4 years/$6 million per). Opinions are flying in from pundits, bloggers, fans, and onlookers. Opinions, it should come as no surprise, cover the spectrum. Some are excited. Others are disappointed. Personally, I am ambivalent about the hire.

I both love it and hate it.

Ambivalence: The condition of holding opposite feelings for the same person or object

Love. I’ve been begging the Knicks to run for quite some time. Although the current roster is missing Steve Nash the Knicks could increase their pace from a middle-of-the-pack 13th into the top 7 just by deciding to play faster. Running would maximize the strengths of the young core, Curry’s and Randolph’s loafing be damned. When pundits opine about how poorly D’Antoni fits the roster, they are usually referring to Marbury, Curry, and Randolph. But, Walsh is here precisely because these players really are no longer the core. They’re baggage. On the other hand, Nate Robinson, Crawford, Lee, Jeffries, Chandler, and Balkman could potentially thrive in an uptempo running game. And for what it’s worth, in the brief moments Curry has been healthy and in reasonable shape he’s run the floor well. He’s not a poor fit for D’Antoni’s system per se. Finally, the other thing I love is that it is relatively easy to find complimentary players for D’Antoni’s style at fairly reasonable prices. Raja Bell, James Jones, Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Kurt Thomas, and Boris Diaw were all basically considered minor acquisitions when they joined Phoenix or Toronto (Phoenix’s closest imitator).

Hate. On inspection the D’Antoni courtship is eerily like Larry Brown’s. Like Brown, D’Antoni has had some issues working and playing well with others. I’m not suggesting that D’Antoni is a drama queen on par with Brown, but basically D’Antoni put himself on the market because Steve Kerr bruised his ego. It’s ostensibly NY’s gain, but still troubling. I am concerned that D’Antoni’s tendency to bristle at criticism, a bit like former Mets skipper Bobby Valentine, is a potential land mine. If/when Walsh inserts a GM (perhaps Billy King) between himself and D’Antoni we could see history repeat itself. It’s quite possible that the messenger–the inexperienced Kerr–rather than the message was the problem for D’Antoni but it’s something to keep an eye on. I also think it’s legitimate to question D’Antoni’s willingness to hold his players accountable–particularly on defense. Amare Stoudemire is unguardable when he’s on, but he remains mostly an indifferent defender. I don’t expect D’Antoni to publicly humiliate his players but I do expect to see improvement in the “hustle” categories (i.e., steals, blocks, drawn charges, boards, deflections) from stars. A friend once told me that when one of your stars doesn’t defend–which is to say, gives effort on the defensive end–it is a direct reflection of his respect for the coach. I believe that. None of these are fatal flaws for D’Antoni, but they are precisely the kinds of flaws that could keep a championship caliber team out of the finals or turn an imposing rebuilding job into an impossible one.

A word about Mark Jackson. One routinely over-valued aspect of sports is coaching experience. Coaching is obviously important, but it’s so important few truly incompetent coaches ever see the light of day, Jerry Tarkanian’s brief foray into the NBA notwithstanding. The distance separating the best coaches from the worst is routinely offset by factors outside the coach’s control like injuries, relationships with players or management. Inexperience can be offset by the experience of others, like Avery Johnson’s staff in Dallas. I would like to have seen Mark Jackson offered the head-coaching job. He seems like the right fit for a bad team in need of a classic rebuild. But I don’t feel bad for him. This would have been a terrible first job. Having said that, there is little reason to believe that D’Antoni will be a complete disaster. He’s clearly a quality coach and he has players on the roster that do in fact fit his preferred style. NY should improve from horrible to mediocre just from competent management and coaching.

Coach of the Year Needs a Do Over

Coach of the Year is my least favorite NBA award. I tend not to get terribly upset by MVP balloting, as most of the time the choice is among numerous deserving candidates. Although I am firmly in the camp that believes MVP awards by definition should go to the “Most Outstanding Player”, I cannot begrudge sports fans their impulse to “award” it to the individual they deem most important to a team’s accomplishments. In fact, the back-and-forth about ‘what is value?’ and ‘who is more important to his team?’ is actually what makes the MVP race interesting.

By sharp contrast, Coach of the Year is about as interesting as an hour-long lecture on channels of distribution. This is unfortunate because the hard core NBA fan appreciates coaching (and if you’ve read this far in a blog entry that has “Coach of the Year” in the title you’re hard core). They even talk about coaching, just not in conjunction with the COY award. As Martin Johnson points out in today’s NY Sun, the range of likely winners is so narrow and so similar it’s hardly worth any discussing. The formula is easy enough to write out. COY = most dramatic one-season improvement, particularly if the team makes the playoffs. Although the winner is not easy to predict, the non-winners are. Coaches that win consistently virtually never win the award.

This should sound familiar. In season 1 Team A suffers key injuries and loses 10+ wins off the previous season’s total. In season 2 the team gets healthy, adds a lottery pick, and then sees a 10-12 game improvement to 50 wins. Voila! You have a strong COY candidate. Over the same two seasons Team B’s performance holds fairly steady through injuries and growing pains, improving from 45 to 48 wins. Now I don’t know which coach is better, but I do know that Team B’s coach is practically a lock to NOT get strong consideration for COY. So in effect, the process is biased against consistent high performance and in favor of factors that have little to do with coaching. The story is always the same, which seems silly to me. It ensures that no one will care about the award because the best coaches are often not even part of the conversation. It’s one thing for the good-but-never-great player to be shut out of an MVP race. Outstanding play really ought to be measured in short time intervals, but outstanding coaching can really only be seen over time because so many things that impact team performance are outside the coach’s control.

If I were in charge of NBA awards I would move COY from an annual award to a three-year award. (The trophy is already named for Red Auerbach, so the league wouldn’t need to do much other than award it tri-annually instead of annually.) One season simply is not enough time to say much about a coach’s performance. The effects of coaching are generally thought to be quite small and subject to lots of random noise (e.g., injuries, scheduling, strength of competition, etc.). One way of filtering out at least some of the noise is to look at a larger window of time.

Of course three years is an arbitrary window. (Why not five years? Or ten?) But three years is probably close to the typical coaching tenure, and is similar to the window in which coaches are hired and evaluated. I would also make the criteria for winning the Red Auerbach award explicit but open to interpretation. That’s what makes the MVP races so interesting. Different notions of what constitutes value produces candidates who bring different features to the table. Consider how Steve Nash completely changed the MVP profile.

Coaches under consideration for the award should be able to demonstrate:

1. An overall winning record as coach within the three season window; playoff performance may be considered but is not necessary to be eligible. (To the extent possible I want to avoid awarding simple regression to the mean. I want to see some consistency.)

2. Player development;apart from simply winning games players should generally improve under a coach.

3. Other considerations consistent with quality coaching; may include but are not limited to strategic or technical innovations, service to the league (e.g., on rules committees), and acting as an ambassador for the game of basketball.

The Worst Article Of 2007

Folks it’s about that time of year again, to announce the worst article of 2007. While there were many fine candidates throughout the year there’s one article that was published just 2 days ago that has surpassed all others. I’m proud to say that this work is right up there with previous winners such as Charlie Rosen’s most overrated list, and Frank Hughes 2004 piece. The winner for KnickerBlogger’s worst article of 2007 is brought to us by Lou V. of paperbacknovel titled “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck.. Anymore, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do (Suck).”

I don’t know what the internet comparable version of “don’t judge a book by it’s color”, but maybe it should be “judge an article by it’s title.” It certainly applies to this year’s worst article winner. Notice the improper use of the ellipsis (two dots instead of three), and how the author has to add the final “(Suck)” in parenthesis because he decided to throw in the word “Anymore”. If the author wanted a better title, he could have dropped both words for a simpler title: “Why the Knicks Don’t Suck, But the NY Post and NY Daily News Do.” But why go for clarity when you’re aiming for much lower?

While I have to admit I thought at first that this would be an Onion-esque satirical piece, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t. The author, Lou V., starts off by bashing the local media for “getting their [readers’] attentions off real economic and political issues by parading sports and the lottery in front of them.” A reasonable start to an article, as I’ve certainly taken my shots at the mainstream news. Unfortunately he follows it with this monstrocity:

… the Knicks are fine. They remain as they were to start the season — a young, athletic team with guys who can score; they have great chemistry, believe in their coach, and are progressively playing better defense… They’re not a championship team yet, but they’re a good team; a playoff-caliber team.

I guess if you’re going to define “good” as being one of the worst teams in the league, then the 5-11 Knicks are good. By those standards, the 6-10 Clippers are great, the 7-8 Bucks are awesome and the 8-9 Nets are unbeatable. Just about the only thing true in these sentences is that the Knicks are a young athletic team with guys who can score. They do not have good chemistry, and they certainly don’t believe in their coach. Their defense hasn’t progressively improved, in fact it’s been about the same for the last 2 years. No the Knicks aren’t a championship team. No the Knicks aren’t a good team. No the Knicks aren’t a playoff-caliber team. Of course the author throws in this nugget in the same paragraph: “… James Dolan, owner, who has proven to be a stand-up, moral guy …” More on that later.

In his next section Lou V is a bit more sensible. Lou talks about how Isiah was “castigated” by the Renaldo Balkman selection, and states that Larry Brown was viewed favorably due to racism. There’s definitely a valid point to be made with Balkman. Many in the mainstream media criticized Thomas relentlessly for the selection, one that is looking better and better by the day. And yes claiming Larry Brown was liked not because he is one of the better coaches of his generation, flaws and all, because of the color of his skin is one of the more reasonable claims of this column. Read on.

The next section titled “Why Isiah Thomas Doesn’t Suck” is laughable. The author claims that “Isiah has turned the Knicks around in 3 years at the helm as GM.” and “Most GM’s in the NBA would exchange their best three big men for [Curry-Randolph-Lee]in a heartbeat.” I guess you could debate that Isiah has only been around for 3 years, since he is 19 days short of his fourth season. However what’s not debatable is that he’s turned the team around. The Knicks have only bested their ’03 record of 37 wins once in Isiah’s tenure, and are on track for only 25 wins this season.

But it’s the author’s second assertion that has me thinking. How many teams would trade their top 3 big men for the Knicks? Well I think I can safely omit Boston, Orlando, Toronto, San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah, Dallas, and Houston due to their star power at those positions. I might add Miami (Shaq), Chicago (Ben, Thomas, Noah + didn’t want Curry in the first place), Denver (Camby, Nene, K-Mart), Clippers (Brand), Portland (Oden), and Memphis (Gasol). Then there are teams where these three wouldn’t fit in like Golden State (Nellie-ball), and Detroit (‘Sheed/McDyess). Not counting teams that wouldn’t do it for reasons of fiscal irresponsibility, I count 16 teams that wouldn’t trade for our trio tower. Of course I guess a team like the Nets or Lakers might (Bynum?), so Knick fans might want to put in an order for that Kwame Brown or Nenad Krstic jersey they’ve been pining for.

What puts this article at the top of my list is the sidebar containing “Isiah Thomas’s Knicks’ Resume.” Some of the gems:

“Zach Randolph and Fred Jones for Channing Frye? This may go down as one of the great Knick trades ever.”

“Acquired Tim Thomas from Milwaukee and center Nazr Mohammed from Atlanta in a three-team trade…. Mohammed played some good ball in NY, but then helped Isiah rebuild with the trade listed below this one. Tim Thomas played some ball in NY, but then helped Isiah get Eddy Curry from Chicago. This Feb 2004 trade was a fantastic setup trade for the Knicks.”

“Despite the criticisms, Marbury has played a lot of all-star basketball in NY. The final word is still out on this trade as there is still that conditional 1st-round pick hanging out there in 2009 or 2010 that Phoenix gets from NY, but so far, NY got Stephon Marbury for a bunch of crap — including Knick-franchise-of-the-future-according-to-Stu-Laden, Michel Lampe. Penny Hardaway was used by Knicks to help get Stevie Francis, who was used to help get Zach Randolph. Phoenix used this trade to get $7-million under the cap, enabling them to sign free agent Steve Nash, and catapulting them to an elite team. This trade looks good for both teams right now, for different reasons.”

The Knicks best trades of all time: Dave DeBusschere for Bellamy; Riordan and Stallworth for Monroe; Oakley for Camby; and Zach for Frye? Um yeah… The author also credits Isiah for drafting Trevor Ariza and Demitrius Nichols, ignoring the fact that the first was traded and the second’s expulsion from the club was a classic blunder.

Not to be outdone, the author concludes with “Why James Dolan Doesn’t Suck.” He states that “Dolan’s handling of the Anucka Browne Sanders case is prototypical of his high moral fiber.” I guess I couldn’t have said that better myself.

Do Stats Lie?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the greatest offensive team of the last 20 years. Led by Michael Adams and Orlando Woolridge the mighty 1991 Denver Nuggets punished opponents by scoring 119.9 points a night. That Nuggets offense just beats out the the 1992 Mullin-Hardaway Warriors (118.7 pts/g) and the 1989 Chambers-K.J. Suns (118.6 pts/g). Certainly since the 1991 Denver Nuggets scored more points per game than any team since 1987, they were the NBA’s best offense in that timespan.

Or are they? This seems to be a dubious claim. Looking at the 1991 Nuggets, none of the players were voted to the All Star team that year. There aren’t any Hall of Famers on that team. Denver went a rancid 20-62 that year. Of the three teams above, there are no champions. No Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson. No Larry Bird. No Shaq. No Steve Nash.

How can a 20-win team be one of the great offensive teams of all time? You might say that the stats are “lying” because they’re misrepresenting what we believe to be true. But that’s not the case. The numbers are 100% accurate. If you watched every game of the last 20 years, you would not have found a team that scored more points in a season than the 1991 Nuggets. Saying the 1991 Nuggets scored the most points per game in the last 20 years is true. Saying the 1991 Nuggets are the best offensive team in the last 20 years is false. The deception is in the interpretation of the statistics, not in the stats themselves. The problem is in equating “most points per game” with “best offensive team”. The correct interpretation for “most points per game” is “most bountiful offense”, which is quite different from “best offensive team”.

Take this example: Going into the 2007 season, the Chicago Bears have a good chance to win the Super Bowl. One vegas line has their odds at 8-1 to win it all. One of their best players is Rex Grossman who has a fantastic 17-5 record as a starting QB.

Once you pick yourself off the floor laughing, it’s easy to see where the fallacy is. The Bears do have a good chance to win the Super Bowl this year. Their odds to win, at least from one vegas site, is 8-1. Rex Grossman has a 17-5 record as a starter. All these things are true. However they’re not one of the best teams in the NFL due to their QB. Rex Grossman is by all accounts a bad quarterback. Carson Palmer, an All Pro, has a winning percentage of only 55.6%. The deception is in saying that QB win percentage indicates the quality of the QB. There are better ways to judge the ability of a QB like completion percentage, TD-INT ratio, yards per attempt, etc.

Getting back to our original example, those 1991 Nuggets scored so many points per game because they ran a very fast offense (and also a very fast defense). Denver led the league in pace averaging 113.7 possessions per game. To show how much an aberration this was, the league average was only 97.8 and the second fastest team was the Golden State Warriors at 103.6 possessions per game. A team can increase its points per game by simply increasing its pace. This reveals a flaw in the relationship between “points per game” and “best offense.” It’s obvious that points per game isn’t the best measure of a team’s offensive capability.

To more accurately judge which team had the best offense, you need to account for this disparity in possessions per game. Offensive efficiency, sometimes known as offensive rating, calculates how many points a team scores per possession (or more accurately 100 possessions). The importance of offensive efficiency is that it evens the playing field between the fast and slow paced teams. The 1991 Nuggets had an offensive efficiency of 105.2, which placed them 21st out of 27 teams that year. The best offensive team in 1991? The Chicago Bulls, who scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions. This was Jordan’s first championship team, and clearly they were better than the Nuggets on offense that year.

In the end, stats don’t lie. They are numerical records of history. The 1991 Denver Nuggets did score 119.9 points per game. Rex Grossman had a record of 17-5 as a starter going into 2007. The problem is not in the numbers, but rather the people that use these statistics to make claims that they don’t support.


Extras:

  • For more information on points per possession, check out Dean Oliver’s excellent book: Basketball On Paper. Or read this and that.
  • During the season I keep track of offensive efficiency on the stats page. Historical offensive efficiency can be found at basketball-reference.com
  • The team with the highest offensive efficiency over the last 20 years? The 1996 Bulls at 115.8. Does this make them the best offensive team of the last 20 years? Well you might want to account for league average, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  • For more information on the 1991 Nuggets, see this link.
  • For a really good way to rate QBs, I would use DVOA.

Where would you rank Steve Nash among the NBA’s best players?

So I was discussing the Garnett trade with a friend, and part of the discussion was how KG coming to the East helps change the dynamics a bit of the Top NBA players, most of whom play out West. So we did a quick run through of who we thought WERE the top NBA players, and we differed dramatically over Steve Nash. I happen to think Nash is awesome, one of the best players in the league – but I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s one of the top five players in the league, which was what my friend was arguing.

So I thought it would be interesting to see what you folks thought. After all, few things are more divisive than what people think about Steve Nash, right? Ever since he won the first MVP, it’s been a big topic (and then he won the SECOND MVP, and then he ALMOST won a THIRD MVP in a row!!!) – so now I put it to you folks – where would you rank Steve Nash among the NBA’s best?

{democracy:13}