Is Marbury a Loser?

Stephon Marbury has the skills, stats, and salary of a star. Nonetheless, he is perceived by many to be a loser. This greater perception of Marbury-As-Loser is likely formed in part by a constellation of subsidiary perceptions, such as the perception that Marbury is selfish (especially if you are a point guard purist), the perception that he has a poor attitude (especially if you consider wearing a towel on one’s head to be an indicator of poor attitude), and the perception that he is a poor teammate (especially if you’re into the tabloids). Probably the biggest factor in his losing rep, though, is just the fact that in his 10 seasons in the NBA, Marbury’s teams have finished in the lottery 6 times and have never won more than 45 games. In the 4 seasons where Marbury’s teams qualified for the playoffs, they failed to advance past the first round.

All else being equal, that history of futility at the team level could be construed as pretty damning. In fact, it comes off worse than just that. Jason Kidd and Steve Nash both managed to immediately elevate teams that faltered with Marbury just a season before, making it seem as if the team success was there for the taking all along, just waiting for a competent point guard to unleash it. Likewise, the fact that Marbury’s spotty team success has been distributed over four tours of duty in four different cities makes it seem as if the losing is a trend more readily attributable to the player than to his various teams.

However, closer inspection of Marbury’s career reveals numerous counterpoints to the above lines of reasoning. A thorough, season-by-season laundry list of objections one could raise to the traditional Marbury-As-Loser argument has recently been compiled by Dax-Devlon Ross. The Reader’s Digest version is that more often than not, Marbury’s teams have been either awful in terms of raw talent, or ravaged by injury, or both.

Points similar to those Ross enumerates have been raised in various Internet discussions on the Knicks ever since Marbury was traded to New York, but historically the skeptics have remained unconvinced. The bottom line, they insist, is that Marbury has failed to get it done. What is more, they claim, is that even those stats that do seem to reflect well on Marbury are misleading. Marbury’s 20 and 8 are nothing but numbers, empty stats that serve to promote the ego rather than team success. Sure, Marbury can ring up the scoreboard, but in the end his numbers do not translate into a tangible, on-court impact that really helps his teams win. Or so it is claimed.

What is nice is that these sorts of arguments needn’t be as indirect and unresolved as they sometimes seem fated to be. We don’t need to be satisfied with circumstantial evidence or received wisdom in this case.

How do we directly measure a player’s impact on his team’s success? The most straightforward measure is the player’s raw plus/minus statistics, which is a measure of the team’s point differential while a player is on the court vs. the team’s point differential while the player is off the court. But these plus/minus stats are not optimal for isolating the true impact of a given player, since they are subject to several influences beyond the player’s control. Consider, for instance, that you could hold a player’s impact on the court constant but change his plus/minus numbers drastically by changing the quality of his substitute, or by changing the quality of opposition he normally faces, or by changing the quality of teammates he normally plays with. For instance, TJ Ford would probably have a better plus/minus if his backup were Moochie Norris rather than Jose Calderon.

A more sophisticated measure of a player’s impact on his team’s success is adjusted plus/minus. The idea behind adjusted plus/minus is that we use statistical methods to remove the variation in a player’s plus/minus data that results from the other 9 players who happened to be on the court during his various court appearances. In essence, this removes the confounds alluded to above and gives us a pure measure of how much better (or worse) a player makes his team. (More on adjusted plus/minus methodology here and here.)

The major drawback to the adjusted plus/minus numbers is their scarcity. Unadjusted plus/minus numbers are only readily available starting from the 2002-03 season, which is presumably the season when the online game logs necessary for calculating plus/minus stats became available. And then there is the matter of calculating adjusted plus/minus from those rawer stats; thus far, no NBA stats site out there has made it a matter of course to fully integrate adjusted plus/minus numbers into its databases.

Fortunately, David Lewin recently crunched the adjusted plus/minus numbers for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons in a series of articles for 82games.com. The results of the analysis would seem to turn the popular conception of Marbury on its head.

In the 2004-05 season, Marbury?s first full season in New York, the Knicks tallied a disappointing 33-49 record. Adding insult to injury, Marbury was roundly criticized after a torrid stretch of play in December inspired him to proclaim himself “the best point guard in the NBA.” The comment offended on two fronts. First, it was perceived as a politically incorrect kind of comment to make. (Things have apparently changed since the days of Muhammad Ali.) Second, it was regarded as a laughable claim at best. Sure, Marbury averaged 21.7 ppg and 8.1 apg, and even finished the season with a career second-best 21.9 PER? but those were empty numbers belonging to a loser. His team was no good, he didn?t make his teammates better on offense, and he didn?t play defense.

Marbury?s proclamation may still be regarded as non-PC, but in light of the adjusted plus/minus data, entertaining its truth value doesn?t seem quite so absurd. According to Lewin?s numbers, Marbury was 4th in the league in the 04-05 season in adjusted plus/minus at +12.4 points per 100 possessions, behind only Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan, and Elton Brand.

The simple conclusion to draw from this is that the Knicks’ struggles during the 04-05 season came in spite of, rather than because of, Marbury’s play. In fact, Marbury’s positive influence on the court was strong enough to rank among the league’s best. Therefore? in line with Ross?s arguments? if one were inclined to assign blame for the Knicks disappointing record that season, one would more properly distribute that blame among Marbury?s lackluster teammates, and possibly his coach.

The 2005-06 season is regarded as a down season for Marbury and his Knicks, as Larry Brown rode into town and… well, you know the rest. Marbury averaged career lows in points and assists per 40 minutes (17.9 and 7.0) and his 16.5 PER was his worst since his first two years in the league. His team stumbled to a bitterly disappointing 23-59 season. Marbury?s stock in adjusted plus/minus slipped as well, but he still posted a quite strong +7.57 points per 100 possessions. As with the prior season, Marbury was one of the few bright lights on an otherwise struggling team. It would be difficult to pin the losing aura of the 05-06 season on Marbury?s lapel since he was one of the few forces driving positive, winning play for the team.

Taking the weighted average of adjusted plus/minus over the 04-05 and 05-06 seasons, Lewin found Marbury to rank 8th in the league overall at +10.47 points per 100 possessions. By way of comparison, Nash (+8.47) and Kidd (+8.27) ranked 16th and 17th, respectively.

At this point, one can imagine the familiar response arising: those are just empty numbers; they don?t capture what the players are really doing on the court. But of course, adjusted plus/minus stats are designed exactly for the purpose of measuring a player?s net impact on his team?s success, rather than measuring milestones like points scored and assists recorded that may or may not contribute to a winning effort. It is logically possible for a player to average 20 ppg and 8 apg but still not help his team win. However, it is not possible for a player to rank exceptionally well on adjusted plus/minus but still not help his team win.

If one insists that Marbury is a sieve on defense, it must be the case that he is just that much better on offense. If one insists that Marbury is selfish and does not make his teammates better, it must be the case that Marbury?s style of play is nonetheless extremely effective at the team level, making the style critiques a moot point. If one insists that Marbury has still not been putting his teams over the top, one would seem to be criticizing Marbury for not being the best player in the league. In the end, it is not clear exactly how Marbury has helped his teams play better in recent seasons, but that he has helped them play better seems indisputable.

So, is Marbury a loser? Popular opinion may say yes, but at least in recent seasons, it turns out that popular opinion is wrong.

Caveats
Of course, as with any other statistic, the adjusted plus/minus data do not come without caveats. A basic caveat is that the data may be rather noisy. Adjusting for the influence of surrounding players means you must measure the influence of surrounding players, and in some instances this may result in small sample sizes and hence the final numbers may come with rather large degrees of statistical variance.

One effect this has is to throw rank orderings into doubt. If two players are close in terms of their mean adjusted plus/minus, but both data points come with considerable statistical variation, then we may not have a lot of faith that the player who ranks higher is really higher in any statistically meaningful sense. Still, in the end, the actual averages that we get are our best guesses as to who should rank higher than whom.

It is also worth noting that in Lewin?s 05-06 analysis, the Detroit Pistons had strange adjusted plus/minus numbers, which Lewin argues was an anomaly due to their extremely rigid substitution patterns. Lewin does not think that this kind of substitution effect significantly skews the data for other teams. Still, it is worth noting that these sorts of problems may occur with the data.

These sorts of caveats do not seem to matter much to the general conclusion made here regarding Marbury, however. For instance, although Marbury was the point guard with the best adjusted plus/minus in 04-05, we probably cannot say with great confidence that his adjusted plus/minus (+12.4 points per 100 possessions) is really statistically distinguishable from Jason Kidd?s adjusted plus/minus from that same season (+11.15 points per 100 possessions). Therefore, one should not take away from this the ironclad conclusion that Marbury was in fact the best point guard in the 04-05 season. But if one is just asking the much more general question of whether Marbury really helps his teams win or not, then the sheer magnitude of his adjusted plus/minus numbers would make it very difficult for someone to argue that, in spite of the data, he is still a “loser.” Even factoring in statistical uncertainty, Marbury comes out looking roses on this analysis.

One final point of interest is that Marbury?s overall strong play may be a recent development. Dan Rosenbaum conducted an adjusted plus/minus analysis on the 02-03 and 03-04 seasons for 82games.com. Although Rosenbaum?s methodology differs somewhat from Lewin?s, in Rosenbaum?s analysis Marbury comes out looking like an average, break-even player during the 02-03 and 03-04 seasons. It is unlikely that such a drastic difference can be chalked up to the relatively minor methodological differences employed in the two studies. Therefore, it may be the case that one or more of the traditional critiques of Marbury (e.g. gives everything back on defense) were in fact legitimate at one point, despite being false in more recent years. It is hard to make any strong conclusions regarding this, though, given the absence of consistent methodologies across seasons and the paucity of data before the 02-03 season.

Suns 112 Knicks 107

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Last night’s basketball game was a tale of two cities. Or better yet two halves.

The Suns came into the game as the second best team in the league (or the first, depending on how you rank them). Although the Knicks beat Phoenix in a thrilling triple overtime earlier this year, talent wise they’re not on the Suns level. When talking about the Suns’ streak on Pardon The Interruption, the announcers assumed Phoenix would win tonight.

From the start of the game, it appeared the Knicks wouldn’t be much of a challenge to the Suns. On the first Knick possession Jared Jeffries nearly walked before turning over the ball with an errant pass. In the first 5 minutes the swingman would turn the ball over again, force a post up shot, and commit 2 fouls. Despite the poor start, New York held their own against Phoenix and more. Balkman had a dunk with almost 9 minutes to go to give the Knicks a 10 point lead. The Suns rallied back, but had a meager 3 point lead at halftime.

The Knicks were toe to toe in the first half with one of the best teams in the league due to an odd set of circumstances. With Marbury unavailable due to injury and Jeffries unavailable due to a lack of talent, Isiah Thomas had to improvise with the rotation. Lee, Robinson, & Balkman saw more time than they normally would, and it paid off. As usual Lee rebounded well (4 REB in the first half) and chipped in 6 points. The diminutive Robinson didn’t shoot well (1-7), but pulled down an astounding 6 rebounds and got Steve Nash into foul trouble. Balkman played defense well in Jeffries’ stead, and provided a spark off the bench. As a team, the Knicks held the Suns to a halftime offensive efficiency of 94.1, well below their yearly average of 116.6.

Additionally the Suns had no answer to Eddy Curry in the first half. The Knick center led all scorers with an 21 points, and did so in a highly efficient manner. Curry hit 7 of 9 from the field, and 7 of 10 from the stripe. Exiting the first half, it appeared New York was going to give Phoenix a fight to the wire.

But the wheels came off the bus in the second half for New York. Phoenix went to a zone defense that stymied the Knick offense. By playing zone they were able to nullify Eddy Curry’s low post dominance and forced the Knicks to beat them from the outside. Following games that the Knicks use a zone defense we usually end up writing something like “Detroit feasted on the outside shot” or “Pacers worked the ball to get any shot they wanted against the zone.” However the Knicks were unable to capitalize from the outside. Nate Robinson shot 4 of 12 in the second half, and Jamal Crawford was only 2 of 7 from downtown. The Knicks futility from outside combined with Curry’s impotence (only 4 second half points) gave the Suns a 13 point lead by the final quarter.

At that point, New York still had a final chance at a victory, but Isiah’s rotation would be his undoing. Curry left early in the fourth quarter with an injury, and Thomas chose Malik Rose to play the final 12 minutes. The veteran was largely a non-factor. Rose hit only 1 shot and had only 1 rebound to go with 2 fouls and a turnover. Renaldo Balkman, who helped stabilize the defense in the first half, played only 5 minutes in the second half. Instead of Balkman, Thomas inserted seldom used rookie Mardy Collins for the final quarter. Granted Frye was in foul trouble, Richardson looked hurt, and Jeffries still sucked, so Isiah’s options were limited. But Balkman had played well earlier, and has about 400 more minutes on experience over Collins. Predictably Collins was a non-factor (0 pts 2 ast).

Seeing Curry dominate was promising. Watching the Knicks unable to break the zone was disheartening. Having Renaldo Balkman provide a spark on defense was uplifting. Seeing Malik Rose close the game was dismaying. In the end the Knicks turned an encouraging first half into a disappointing second half.

Round 2 Odds & A Quickie

Before I get to the odds, during the Spurs-Mavs game today the announcers were talking about the Suns-Clippers series. Dufus-philosopher Bill Walton’s two sentence analysis of the Suns-Clippers series went something to the effect of Phoenix “has found it’s offense” and mentioned the name of “Barbosa, Diaw, & Nash”. That prompted me to do 2 things. The first was to seek out my local bookmaker and consider putting every spare cent I have on the Clippers. (Luckily for Ms. KnickerBlogger, I’m not a gambler).

The second was to officially proclaim Shawn Marion as the NBA’s most underrated player. According to my stat page, he’s 9th overall in PER, two places ahead of his teammate-MVP. Yet Steve Nash wins back-to-back MVP awards while Marion gets a single 5th place vote. “The Matrix” averaged 18 points on 47% shooting (eFG), 9.4 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and 0.9 blocks in the first round of the playoffs. He had double digit points in every game, 20 points or more in 4 games (and scored 19 in another), and 3 double-doubles. And poor Shawn is forgotten on national tv.

Funny thing is, if I were forced to pick an upset it would be the Suns. Just because it took them 6.5 games to dispense with the Lakers, while the Clippers bounced out the Nuggets in 5 despite “earning” the road field advantage. However according to the odds based on the season’s records, it’s the Heat and Spurs that are most likely to be upset. Prior to creating the below chart, I wouldn’t have thought the Spurs or Heat to be vulnerable.

San Antonio has won 2 of the last 3 championships and finished this year with the best record in the West, so you wouldn’t imagine them to be in trouble in the second round. However this odd playoff format has pitted them against the second best team in the West. The winner of this series should have an easier time in the next round, against an inferior opponent. Meanwhile a 59 game season from Shaq left the Heat with “only” a .634 winning percentage, close to the Nets .598. So maybe New Jersey doesn’t have as good a chance as the chart below would indicate. On the other hand, if Dwayne Wade takes another hard tumble or any part of Shaq acts up, then the Nets will have a good chance to advance to the East Conference Finals. So in a way, maybe the regular season takes into account the Heat’s fragility, and hence is a true representation of New Jersey’s odds.

  One Game Home Game 5 Game 7 Game 5 Games (modified for home field) 7 Games (modified for home field)
Spurs 54.8% 64.5% 58.9% 60.4% 61.2% 63.0%
Pistons 69.4% 77.3% 82.9% 86.6% 83.6% 87.3%
Heat 53.8% 63.6% 57.1% 58.3% 59.4% 61.0%
Suns 59.0% 68.4% 66.5% 69.1% 68.3% 71.1%

Michael Sweetney: Big Mike’s Numbers and the Analysts Who Love Them

The foundation of the statistical analysis revolution in sports is the fact that subjective impressions are not sufficient measures of a player performance. Objective measurements, usually in the form of statistics, are needed to properly determine value. Using too much subjective impression will either overvalue or undervalue a player. By the basis of their objectivity, statistical analysts (statheads) are supposed to be immune to the rank subjective posturing that afflicts most general managers and sports writers. That statheads are impartial observers is itself a hypothesis, which like all scientific hypotheses must be tested against the evidence. For that end, let us consider the stathead commentary on our favorite misused Knick of the past three years, Michael Sweetney, a.k.a. Big Mike.

Just the very fact that I appropriately used the word “favorite” to describe Sweetney is telling in as much as it is accurate. First, take a great player like Lebron James. His talent is so obvious and properly reflected by the scorecard statistics that there is little in the way of evaluation a more advanced statistical analysis provides. On the other hand, Sweetney is widely viewed as a toad: short, fat, and slow. Therefore, statheads like you or me love Big Mike because it gives us a chance to prove our hypothesis: “Subjective impression is insufficient to gauge player worth, so we need objective measurements.” Big Mike validates our scientific enterprise because we “know” he’s a productive player, even if nobody else can see past his limitations.

In a sense too, we statheads are rooting for an underdog, seeing in Sweetney his inner prince .

Accordingly, statheads are willing to look past Sweetney’s warts: he is a poor open court player, draws too many fouls, and does not rotate well on defense. These are all real concerns in the current ecology of the NBA which favors quick perimeter players. But staheads still stare at his steadfastly efficient production as a scorer and rebounder and insist he has value.

Last season, while we were ruing the Knicks’ poor usage of Sweetney, not much was being said of the undervaluing of their best player, Stephon Marbury. That statheads would ignore Marbury’s Top-3 point guard PER (just a hair behind the league MVP Steve Nash) to complain that he “dominates the ball too much” is a curious case of selective judgement. Compare the two: Sweetney is a statistical monster, who upsets aesthetically, and Marbury is a statistical monster, who upset aesthetically. But statheads have been much more vocal in support of Sweetney than for Marbury.

The reason for this asymmetrical commentary is strictly subjective “liking” of a player (which admittedly was the motivation for why I wrote my first piece on Marbury). This author was outright flabbergasted at the subjective criticism levied against Stephon Marbury by statheads in the face of his outstanding statistical performance. As statheads we laugh at labeling a productive player like Sweetney as useless for being lumbering and oafish. However, we then turn around and bemoaned Marbury’s inability to improve teammate performance, even if we should know better. By our own advanced metric standards of Plus/Minus, Marbury made the Knicks 12 points better per 48 minutes, easily ranking him as a league leader in that category.

By our own standards, the criticism of Marbury’s cancerous effect on team play is completely unjustified.

An update on Sweetney’s performance demonstrates another limitation on statistics: They are for the most part reactive. They tell us what happened in the past, but even our informed opinions on the future are still educated guesses. Statheads expected Sweetney’s performance to steadily improve, thrusting him into the Top-10 Power Forward plateau. Unfortunately, much to our chagrin, he has regressed, now posting a PER as slightly below league average.

This PER depression is largely due to a dramatic plummet in TS%. Sweetney was a monster low-post scorer last season, but his Field-Goal percentage has sunk inversely to his weight. Sweetney’s foul rate was expected to decrease as he got older and saw more regular minutes, but that hasn’t happened either. One promising indicator is his turnover rate declined with increase usage, though that is tempered greatly by his lowered shooting efficiency. In all, we should take Sweetney’s unique player card and file it into our database in order to improve our models and hypothesis. The regression is especially alarming because Sweetney is short for a frontcourt player and those performers have historically had shorter (no pun intended) careers with quicker peaks. At this stage it might only be wishful thinking, and not statistical indication, to believe he will ever move into an elite tier of power forwards.

Statistical analysis does greatly improve the evaluation of player performance, but like any other science it must maintain its discipline to be both credible and effective. For that matter, we cannot only point fingers at the subjective media for filling their columns with mindless ruminations: we must also be vigilant in policing ourselves. There should be no rooting in the press-box, nor in the regression model.

Of course, we can in our own time take off our stat thinking hats too and place Sweetney’s framed player card atop our mantle, remembering fondly how on those horrifically bad Knicks teams sometimes the only entertainment was his periodic hip checking of seven footers out of the lane.

Losing <> Rebuilding

People say this is a rebuilding year, we are suppose to lose.

This is rebuilding. It just doesn’t seem like it because this should have been Scott Layden’s responsibility.

this team is four years behind schedule thanks to Scott Layden’s refusal to do anything that resembled a rebuilding process. What we are seeing now is that rebuilding process, more or less, and you can expect to see this for the next two or three years because that’s at least how long it takes to turn things around.

The fans say the Knicks are rebuilding. The press says the team is rebuilding. Even the Knicks front office has admitted as much. But I’m not one who just accepts conventional wisdom. So I ask “should the label ‘rebuilding’ be applied to the Knicks?” I could call myself “Dick Cheney” or “Chancellor of the Klingon Empire,” but if my actions don’t match that of an evil tyrant, then those descriptions are rejected. However if I choose to call myself “KnickerBlogger” and perform duties that others would expect from a “KnickerBlogger”, then the term is accurate.

So what does “rebuilding” mean when applied to a sports team? Rebuilding teams are concerned with winning in the future, while their opposite, competing teams, are concerned with winning now. Competing teams usually trade away their draft picks for players that can help them immediately. For example last year the Spurs traded away a pair of first round picks in order to acquire Nazr Mohammed for their championship run. One characteristic of a rebuilding franchise is a team that stockpiles draft picks or tries to improve on the quality of their picks.

Although there are other elements of rebuilding, such as freeing cap space or trading for players, teams still need the draft to improve themselves. Signing Steve Nash or trading for Shaq would not have made their respective teams championship caliber had those teams not drafted All Stars like Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, and Dwayne Wade. Building a strong team without the draft is possible, but it’s not a legitimate strategy. For instance, to repeat the Pistons success another team would have to unearth gems like Ben Wallace and Chauncy Billups. Digging through the league’s unwanted bin looking for All Stars is not a high percentage move.

So one way to judge whether the term rebuilding can be applied to Isiah Thomas’ Knicks, is by looking at each trade regarding draft picks and see if it falls under the “win now” or “win later” category.

Thomas’ first major move was to trade the Knicks 2004 1st round pick, and a conditional future 1st round pick to the Phoenix Suns in the Stephon Marbury deal. While Marbury is young enough to be considered “win later”, the picks moved, the contracts taken on, and the young talent traded away pushes this trade into the “win now” pile.

Isiah’s second draft pick transaction was the Keith Van Horn trade. In this deal he sent a 2nd rounder in order to get Tim Thomas and Nazr Mohammed. A year later the Knicks would parlay Nazr Mohammed into a pair of first round picks, clearly a rebuilding move. So let’s combine these two moves into one and add it to the “win later” pile. On the same day Nazr was shipped out of New York, they sent a 2nd round pick to acquire Maurice Taylor. Isiah Thomas might be the first GM in history to have a “rebuild the franchise” trade and a “compete right now” trade on the same day.

Over the summer, New York made two deals involving their draft picks. A draft day deal had the Knicks moving up from the 54th pick to the 21st pick (Nate Robinson) losing only veteran Kurt Thomas. Clearly a “win later” move. A few weeks after, the Knicks traded for Eddy Curry. Although Curry’s status as a former 4th overall pick, might give the impression of a rebuilding move, the surrounding elements clearly mark it as a “win now” deal. The Knicks gave up a slew of picks, including next year’s #1, the option for the Bulls to swap #1 picks the year after, and two 2nd round picks (2007 & 2009).

If you are scoring at home, Isiah’s Knicks have made 3 “win now” deals, and 2 “win later” deals. Optimists might say that the Marbury and Curry deals were “win later” proposals swinging it 4-1 in favor of rebuilding moves. However let’s look at how Isiah Thomas has treated New York’s draft picks year by year to get an overall picture:

2003: The 2003 draft was handled by Layden, but no players drafted remain due to Isiah’s trades.
2004: Traded away 1st round pick (#16).
2005: Traded away their 2nd round pick. Traded for a late 1st round pick (#30 – David Lee). Traded for a second round pick (#54), then traded that pick to move up to a mid 1st (#21 Nate Robinson).
2006: Traded away their 1st round pick (based on Knicks record – currently projected to be a lottery pick). Traded away their second round pick. Traded for 1st round pick (Spurs – projected to be a late pick).
2007: Gave the Bulls an option to swap 1st round picks. Traded away their 2nd round pick.
2008+: The Knicks have traded away a future 1st round pick that has to be used before 2010. They also have traded their 2009 2nd round pick.

In the 8 years between 2003 and 2010, the Knicks have essentially traded their own first round pick at least 4 times (5 if you include the 2007 Bulls’ swap). They’ve traded their own second round pick 5 times. While they have acquired 1st rounders as well, none will be impact players. In the next three years it’s likely that the Knicks will not have any of their first round picks, and only 1 of their second round picks. Simply put, the Knicks have taken the free draft picks given to them by the league and downgraded them or flat out gave them away at nearly every turn.

Another characteristic of a rebuilding team is a losing record, and right now the Knicks are losing at an alarming rate. However just because a team can’t buy a win doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rebuilding. To use the dreaded “r” word, the team should be actively trying to win in the future. For example the 1997 Spurs won only 20 games, but they weren’t rebuilding. San Antonio lost David Robinson for the year, and they knew they would be getting him back the next season. They didn’t trade Avery Johnson or Vinnie Del Negro for a couple of picks, despite the pair being on the wrong side of thirty. From the evidence above, the Knicks aren’t rebuilding either. They’re just doing a really bad job of “winning now.”


Specials thanks to the below two web sites for providing the information used in this article.

http://www.hoopshype.com/general_managers/isiah_thomas.htm
http://www5.realgm.com/src_future_draftpicks.php

CTN: What Can Stats Do For You? (Part III)

LINK: http://www.courtsidetimes.net/articles/6/

The problem with per game stats is simple. Although each team plays a 48 minute game, the participants can try to limit (or expand) the number of opportunities to score each game. Last year the Pistons had fewer opportunities to score than the Suns. This is because the Suns had Steve Nash pushing the ball up court at every opportunity, and Phoenix?s unmatched athleticism at every position was able to sustain that high tempo offense. Meanwhile, in Detroit Larry Brown had Hamilton run around screens until he was open, and the Pistons milked the shot clock like it was the last cow in town.

Nominee: Worst NBA Article of 2005

(Thanks to TrueHoop for the link. While Henry & I might disagree on Stephon Marbury’s worth, his site is easily one of the best places on the web to keep up with everything going on in the NBA.)

In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t really written much this summer. It’s not that I needed some rest from a long NBA season. Nor is there something going on with my life that requires I take an extended break from one of my favorite pastimes. It’s just that there’s really nothing to write about. OK so maybe there are a few things going on in the league, but I have no interest in speculating where Shareef Abdur-Rahim lands or what Michael Jordan’s friends do on a golf course. While I’m not a professional writer, I take pride with what goes on my site, and try to put up the best material with the limited time my free time affords.

On the other hand, not being a paid writer may have its advantages. For example, I don’t have a boss (editor, manager, CEO or whatever) suggesting that I write about a certain topic. Nor am I obligated to write when the creative juices aren’t flowing in order to feed my family (which is a tad bit smaller than the Sprewell clan). I can only imagine that one of those two scenarios is what led Charley Rosen to write this piece on the most overrated players in history, instead of it being of his own volition.

Rosen starts his piece of with: “The numbers are misleading, and so is the hype. The truth is that too many ‘good’ players are wrongly celebrated as being all-time greats. To set the record straight, here’s an alphabetical list of the most overrated NBA players ever.” The only thing that would make me cringe more than that first sentence, would be to hear that they’re turning Diff’rent Strokes into a movie. It’s not as much that Rosen brushes away any statistical analysis, but rather that he puts it on the same level as “hype”. Real statistical analysis starts by asking a question and using the information available to answer it. Hype is emotional excitement that occurs after the fact, and is the antithesis of numerical analysis. Even the terms “overrated” and “underrated” lack any kind of validity. Whether someone is overrated or underrated relies heavily on the individual’s opinion. For example, if you thought that Shaq was going to be twice as good as Wilt Chamberlain, then he was overrated. Ironically, the same player can be underrated by some and overrated by others (Steve Nash comes to mind).

Some of the players that made Rosen’s list of most overrated of all time are Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing. Throw in Bird & Laettner, and you have the entire front court of the original Dream Team. Charles Barkley, who starts off the list, is called a “a chronic underachiever” by Rosen. Yes, the same Barkley who, despite being at least an inch shorter than his listed 6’6 and gave up nearly half a foot to his competition, made the All Star Team 11 times at power forward. Meanwhile, according to Charley, Karl Malone will only make the Hall of Fame because of two reasons “John Stockton and longevity.” Going by that logic, had the Jazz taken Terry Catledge with the 13th pick instead, maybe he would have been a two time MVP and the #2 man on the all time points scored list.

Of David Robinson, Rosen says “This guy was a cream puff. He could come from the weak-side to block shots, but he couldn’t guard his own man. He could rebound, but rarely in a crowd. He could score, but only on foul-line jumpers, or only if a defender bought a head fake after he drove his left hand into the middle. He couldn’t pass or handle. He couldn’t stand his ground in the paint.” The “cream puff” was All-Defensive 8 times, and ranks 6th all time in blocked shots. Since Robinson’s rookie year, only 12 other players have had more rebounds per minute. He won the Defensive Player of the Year, led the league in free throws 3 straight years, and won an MVP, all before Tim Duncan arrived.

However it’s Rosen’s inclusion of Ewing that really got my goat. If you thought that coming out of Georgetown that Ewing was going to be the next Kareem, then yeah he was overrated. But look at what Rosen has to say about him: “Had he played out of the spotlight in someplace like Orlando or Salt Lake City, Ewing would be remembered as a jump-shooting center who worked hard. Period.”

My friends, Sam Perkins was a jump-shooting center who worked hard. While it’s true that Ewing could bury the jumper, he was more than just an overachieving outside threat. Ewing frequently scored from the paint, something that his 50.5 eFG% and 1.11 PSA will atest to.

Rosen continues: “In truth, he couldn’t handle, pass, move laterally, and do anything worthwhile when an important game was on the line. Moreover, his dim apprehension of what the game was all about precluded any thoughts of being unselfish. Except for the early days of the Mets and the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York sports fans rarely hitch their devotion to a loser like Ewing.”

While I won’t lie and say that Ewing was a fantastic passer and never turned the ball over, the author is clearly cherry picking abilities here. Notice he used the same attributes of not being able to dribble or pass for both Robinson and Ewing. That’s because most centers aren’t known for their ability to run the point. In fact, Patrick’s per 48 minute points (29.3 to 29.2), turnovers (4.2 to 4.0), free throws made (6.4 to 5.9), offensive rebounds (3.3 to 4.4), eFG%( 50.4 to 51.2), and PSA (1.11 to 1.11) are comparable to another contemporary left off the list, Hakeem Olajuwon. Rosen uses a technique he must have learned at the Daily Oklahoman writing school, lowering himself to insulting Ewing by describing him as selfish, dim, and a loser.

Ewing never won any MVP awards, nor did he ever win a championship. However he was the centerpiece on two of the top 5 defensive teams of all times (according to Dean Oliver). During his prime, Ewing had 10 straight seasons where he missed 5 or less games and over that decade, the second highest minute getters on his teams each year were: Gerald Wilkins, Johnny Newman, (an aging) Kiki Vandeweghe, John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Allan Houston (for one year). If #33 was a loser, it was more because of his colleagues than himself. In fact Ewing might have had that championship ring, if not for one of his teammates missing 16 shots one June night. If Patrick was selfish he might have blasted Starks for the game 7 Finals loss. He might have whined about the Knicks never giving him a decent second option on offense. He might have forced his team to trade him, as so many athletes looking at their own best interests do. Instead he stayed for 15 seasons, only asking to leave after the Garden crowd not so politely asked him first.

No matter how you feel about Ewing, you have to admit that my assessment of the man was a bit more fair. So why did Rosen feel the need to do such a hack job on him, and a dozen NBA greats? Maybe it’s the summer heat, or the pressure of paying that air-conditioner burdened electric bill. Charley’s article comes almost a year after Frank Hughes’ stinker of 2004, which makes me glad that I take a little time off in the summer.