Revisiting Nash?s MVP Season: Short-Shorts and Culture Clash in the NBA

[Today’s article comes from the mind of David Crockett. “Dr. C” is the director of KnickerBlogger.Net’s Culture & Marketing Department. In his spare time, David Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

I don?t generally pay too much attention to regular season awards but the subject of Steve Nash?s MVP award has stayed on my mind throughout these playoffs for two reasons. First, Nash has played out of his mind offensively in the playoffs. (Amare Stoudemire was just on another planet but that?s for another day.) Heading into last night?s final game of the Western Conference Finals he had posted 24.1 points and 11.4 assists per game on 57% efg shooting with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.1, and made it look easy against good defensive clubs (Memphis, Dallas, and San Antonio). The second reason is that the announcers have cooed and squealed like schoolgirls with every assist and every jumper. Some pundits, like Suns fan Neal Pollack at Slate.com, have gone so far as to claim that Nash and the Suns have ?saved the NBA.?

Despite being a fan since Nash?s freshman season at Santa Clara, I really only began following his MVP season closely after Kevin Pelton?s positively inspired two part series on Nash?s MVP credentials (Part I, Part II). Nash, as we all know, was ultimately named the MVP. (See his regular season stats here.) The announcement was almost immediately followed by the inevitable racial mini-controversy about his MVP worthiness. Now I?m not one to gossip, but Michael Sweetney and Trevor Ariza had yet to see their first days of kindergarten the last time a white player (the ?hick from French Lick?) won the award back in 1986. In a business where more than 80% of the work force is black (and has been so for more than a generation now) it should surprise only the most naive that awarding the highest honor to a white player would meet with some skepticism.

The Nash controversy piqued my interest as both an NBA fan and a scholar. In my day job I research the ways that race, class, and culture are part of the marketing and consumption of products. Perhaps the National Basketball Association is more invested in packaging and selling race, class, and culture than any other business and certainly no chief executive has been as successful at it as David Stern. So the racial dynamics surrounding Nash?s MVP award are important and they certainly warrant comment but I thought I?d wait until after Phoenix?s run to comment on it, especially with Nash getting extended play before a national audience really for the first time this season.

Officially, Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard in his May commentary was the first to point to race, the big elephant in the room. He argues that by the traditional measure ? most productive player on a contending team ? Shaq is by far the more deserving MVP candidate. If voters are taking something else into account, he opines, Nash?s racial novelty is likely a part of what is being considered. Clearly Nash, one of only a handful of whites who played American college ball in the entire league, is something of a novelty. Though Le Batard has been roundly criticized for ?bringing race into it,? I found his comments much more balanced and reasoned than those offered by his TV and talk radio critics, even when I disagreed. For instance, it is easy to dismiss his claim that plenty of black players (or any players for that matter) have had a season like Nash?s. Indeed no one other than John Stockton, the short-shorted one himself, has had a passing season like Nash?s 04-05 in more than a generation ? not once you account for pace and league context. (I feel confident in speculating, however, that most MVP voters did not account for pace or league context when making out their ballots.) Yet Le Batard goes out of his way to avoid reducing Nash?s MVP award to a case of ?best white guy available.? He notes that race may be one of numerous things the voters considered and that it may have been no more important than anything else ? or perhaps not important at all. He writes, ?Who is to say that, given the same stats as Nash, 5-5 Earl Boykins, who is black, may not have gotten the MVP vote, too, because he is so tiny?? Trust me, as a Knicks fan having to defended Le Batard?s honor is a painful thing but he really didn’t say anything out of order.

Although Le Batard is totally legitimate to raise the issue of race ultimately he is unable to do so in a way that generates much insight. (It?s at moments like these that Ralph Wiley’s untimely death stings the most. Insight is the rarest of gifts.) Le Batard swings and misses ? or at least swings and foul tips ? on the important race question by merely wondering out loud whether MVP voters are biased against Shaq, even if only subconsciously. The question about race begging to be answered here is NOT why is Nash MVP instead of Shaq? Rather, the far more intriguing and important question is how Nash won the award when John Stockton never came close. As Kevin?s series presaged, Nash won the MVP award in 2005 with the type of low scoring/high assist season routinely produced by Stockton throughout the 80s and 90s. Stockton posted PERs that exceeded Nash?s 22.0 six different times (according to basketball-reference.com). He posted equivalent or superior passing and PER seasons to Nash?s in both 1988 and 1990. Not only did Stockton fail to win the award he never made the top five in balloting. Why, you ask? Low scoring/high assist seasons have traditionally been seen as the stuff of sidekicks rather than leading men. Consequently, such players have been frozen out of MVP consideration; that is until Steve Nash this season. Nash is the first sub-20 point scorer to win the award since Bill Walton in 1978 and has the lowest scoring average in the history of the award. I took the liberty of re-posting Kevin Pelton?s adjusted assists per game chart, adding in PER for each player, along with the actual MVP winners so you can see what voters valued during some of the greatest passing seasons ever.


Player
Year Team 05APG PER MVP

------------------------------------------------------------
John Stockton
1990 UTA 12.0 23.9 Magic Johnson
John Stockton 1988 UTA 11.5 23.2 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1991 UTA 10.9 23.4 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1992 UTA 10.8 22.8 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1995 UTA 10.6 23.3 David Robinson
Steve Nash 2005 PHO 11.5 22.0 Steve Nash
John Stockton 1994 UTA 10.1 22.5 Hakeem Olajuwan
John Stockton 1996 UTA 9.8 21.9 Michael Jordan
Magic Johnson 1991 LAL 9.8 25.1 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1993 UTA 9.8 21.3 Charles Barkley

Nash?s MVP in light of Stockton?s unheralded 88 and 90 seasons strongly suggests that the league has undergone a major shift in what it thinks an MVP is. What could account for such a shift? How could Nash win the MVP based on production that garnered Stockton all of one first place MVP vote in his superior 1990 season? I think an insightful approach is to consider the role race plays in the context of the ongoing tension between the league?s players, owners, and fans. Race, which I use here as a proxy for culture, style, and aesthetic, may be quite useful in shedding light on the climate change necessary to make MVP voters now value what Nash does.

Kansas City Star columnist and ESPN Sports Reporters panelist Jason Whitlock laid the groundwork for understanding the ongoing cultural climate change this past summer when the USA Basketball slapped Allen Iverson together with 11 virtually identical forwards from the Borg Collective and simply assumed it would win gold. As they bricked and hacked their way out of Olympic gold medal contention Whitlock speculated that many white fans actually rooted against the Olympians, or at least rooted for a style of play euphemistically labeled ?international? or ?European? to prevail. (This label has ever-shifting boundaries and is often based on some pretty crude categorizations.) This public sentiment basically represented, in Whitlock?s view, a vote of no confidence on the NBA by its white patrons. The league has unmistakably come to be seen by many as too closely associated with a hip-hop urban youth subculture whose studio thug imagery sometimes crosses the line into the real thing. In a phrase the NBA has become ?too black,? a point raised repeatedly by a wide array of commentators. Whitlock, like Le Batard, was roundly criticized for ?bringing race into it? but he was basically correct in pointing to widespread ambivalence about the league. Even while it remains popular, large sections of the NBA-watching public are criticizing the ?urban? style of play (another label, also often predicated on crude stereotypes) as overly reliant on athleticism and lacking in fundamentals. The failure of the men?s team to win was an ?I told you so? moment for this growing chorus of critics. Undeniably constructed to run fast and jump high (but apparently not shoot straight), the Olympic team?s failure turned what was a simmering cultural conflict into a full-blown cultural crisis over how the game ?should? be played. This crisis is perhaps best exemplified by the rapid disenchantment with soon to be ex-Memphis Grizzlies point guard/alter ego ?White Chocolate,? the one time hope who is now largely seen as having gone native. Fans and journalists are actively seeking something new. Or, as Neal Pollack at Slate would have us believe, the game needs saving and the ?European? style championed by the Suns is the savior.

It is only in the context of this barely-beneath-the-surface cultural battle involving players, journalists, and fans that Nash?s season could even become part of the MVP discussion. The particular merits of his performance really are not at issue. What is at issue is what the voters value at a given historical moment. It is only in a rapidly changing cultural climate that Nash?s performance could be considered the stuff of a leading man rather than merely that of a sidekick. The aesthetic or stylistic qualities of Nash?s play that have come to be seen as the cure for the league?s rampant hip-hopism are a huge part of why his season generated so much interest.

Personally, I?m glad to see that the voters can deviate from their often stilted and scripted understanding of what Most Valuable Player means. I hope awarding the MVP to Nash foreshadows a much broader consideration of what constitutes ?value? on the basketball court. I would like Nash?s MVP season to be seen by the league and fans for the outstanding performance that it was. But alas, I must confess my skepticism. I fear that awarding Nash the MVP was less a case of updating the script than replacing an old rigid script with a new one that may be just as rigid. Journalists, by rewarding the best player whose style fit their aesthetic preference, may simply have been firing a shot in an ongoing culture war rather than truly expanding what can be considered MVP worthy. That is, since Nash is the antithesis of the hip-hop teenie-boppers so many journalists swear are killing the game I fear they?ve simply fixed the intelligence around the policy so to speak, substituting their sense of style for analysis. (The graceful Nash represents what the game should be and how it should be played.) As a fan I?ve made my peace long ago with the fact that awards handed out by journalists for anything other than journalism will inherently favor whatever passes for ?good copy? over good analysis. I have learned merely to hope that analysis won?t be asked to leave the room.

At the end of the day what I find most disturbing is how these currently competing basketball aesthetics (the so-called European and urban styles) are so highly reliant on cultural fictions and stereotypes their supporters appear blind to how each style informs the other. As a fan I?m greedy. I want to be able to appreciate the similarities and differences between Nash?s game and O?Neal?s without them needing to represent opposing cultural worlds. Maybe we could just let them represent themselves and go from there.

I Don’t Mind Losing

The West is over. The Phoenix Suns, or their fans, are out of excuses. Apparently, the Suns didn’t have enough rest between their Friday night OT win to end round 2 against the Mavericks and game 1 the following Sunday against the Spurs. In the second game, Phoenix was still smarting from the loss of Joe Johnson when they lost by 3 against Emperor Popovich and Darth Defense. Yesterday the Spurs won by 10, and I’m sure Joe Johnson was still rusty. Or it was playing on the road. Or just a couple of shots here or there.

One of the quotes from game 3 from Steve Nash is “we haven’t found a way to stop them yet.” My question would be have they really been looking? I know the Suns aren’t the best defensive team in the league, but they’ve really stuck with “Plan A.” Their bench outside of their 6 man rotation (McCarty, Outlaw, Voskuhl, Shirley, and Barbosa) has seen 16 minutes the entire series. That includes 13 minutes from Barbosa in game 1. It’s hard to find new ways to stop the same team that’s beat you three straight without changing the personnel. In other words Phoenix hasn’t really tried anything else.

But I digress on that topic, and would rather talk about the battle in the East. The title of this entry refers to my Blog Bracket’s Eastern pick. I chose the Heat to win in 5, but I wouldn’t mind being wrong. In fact I wouldn’t mind if the Pistons won the series, and I have 3 reasons.

1. Defensive Shift
If the Pistons could find a way to win this series, it might usher in a new era of NBA defense. And before I’m deafened from the rolling eyeballs of my readers I’d like to say this defensive era will be different from the last. The Chuck Daly Pistons created a style of play that would be distilled into it’s pure form with the Knicks and the Heat. However this new defensive era would not be of might, but rather of skill and athleticism.

There is no one from those 90s teams that is represented on today’s Pistons or Spurs. There’s no Laimbeer or Aguirre. No Ewing or Oakley. No Alonzo or P.J. The new century has brought about a new way of preventing scoring. The Pistons trio of Ben, ‘Sheed, and Tayshaun is more likely to hit your shot than your torso. Bruce Bowen couldn’t even make it with the Heat in 1997. If a Pistons-Spurs finals were to emerge, the league would have to stand up & take notice. You might see more Tayshaun Princes and less Tim Thomases.

2. Alonzo Mourning.
Ok so you’re thinking that since I’m a Knick fan, I don’t like Alonzo Mourning due to the rivalry. And you’d be damn right. But in case you root for another team and that dislike means nothing to you, I’ll give you something else to think about.

First is the New Jersey Nets. Imagine how exciting the East would have been with Kidd, Jefferson, Carter and Mourning roaming East Rutherford. Alonzo’s defense would have made the Nets a contender. New Jersey went into the playoffs winning 10 of their last 10, and that’s with Jason Collins’ sorry ass in the starting lineup (sorry the Knicks fan is coming out again). I’m well aware that Mourning was involved in the deal, but that brings me to my next point.

The second reason is the Toronto Raptors. I know every player out there wants to win a championship, but I hate players that do it only by riding on the coattails of others. That Gary Payton didn’t find it palatable to go to L.A. until Karl Malone convinced him that he’d get a ring with Shaq & Kobe makes me think it was less of a charitable act and more an ego-centric one (Kevin Pelton’s reply in the comment section in 5,4,3…)

Which brings me back to Mourning. If he wanted to do an unselfish act, he could have suited up & been a mentor to budding big men Bosh & Araujo. Alonzo could have helped be a difference in Toronto’s season, and maybe help them make the playoffs. Instead he never played a game in purple, and pouted until Toronto released him so he could fly south back to Miami where ‘Zo could earn his first ring by playing 20 minutes a night.

3. An Intriguing East in 2006.
Let me ask you a question, which storyline would be better for next year? The Heat make themselves the kings of the East by beating the defending champions Detroit Pistons. So Detroit becomes a fluke champion, having won the title against a flawed and injured Lakers team. Every other team in the East becomes an afterthought.

OR

The Pistons move on to the Finals for the second straight year, and Shaq goes home for the second straight summer wondering how the biggest man in sports lost to a team effort. So the Big Guy comes back next year with three chips on his shoulder to settle. The first with Kobe & the Laker management for rejecting him. The second against the Pistons for stopping him twice in a row. The last against the rest of the league for choosing the diminutive Nash as MVP instead.

If the Heat win this year, it’d make them as instant favorites next year. However if Detroit pulls off the improbable, who would you pick as the 2006 East favorites? Detroit? Miami? Indiana? New Jersey? New York? (Sorry had to throw that last one in there.)

I have nothing against Shaq. Or Dwayne Wade, who seems to be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s elite. It’d just be a more interesting league if Detroit went on to the Finals.

NBA Playoffs: Episode 3

Watching game 1 of the third round on Sunday, I couldn’t help to think of how these two teams couldn’t be any more different. The Spurs defense has been ranked #1 for two years now, and over the last two years have held a Vader-like stranglehold on opposing teams. In fact their defense hasn’t been worse than 3rd since 1997. While many people would attribute the defensive shift with the arrival of Tim Duncan, 1998 also coincided with Gregg Popovich’s first full season as head coach. The two have been the only constants over that 7 year period. While there is no argument that Duncan is a top defender, that kind of team accomplishment doesn’t occur without proper tutelage. To NBA offenses, these two have been like Sith Masters. Emperor Popovich and Darth Defense.

The Spurs, in their black road uniforms, play a game that is less visually pleasing to the common fan. In their home white, the Suns give a new hope to those that would rather see scoring at a frantic pace. Steve Nash has arrived and is delivering passes with more accuracy than Luke Skywalker aiming for womprats in his T-16. Should the Suns win a championship this year, the league could be filled with clones running the ball up the court trying to score at a frenzy.

At a glance, Sunday’s game appeared to be everything the Suns could have hoped for. They played at a fast pace (98 possessions) and scored at an efficient rate (52.3% eFG). Phoenix wasn’t overwhelmed on the offensive boards (13 apiece), didn’t give the ball away (12 turnovers to the Spurs’ 11), and they held the edge at the line (24FTM to 21FTM). Last year this was a game the Spurs most certainly would have lost. The difference is the improved San Antonio offense (ranked 8th) shot a blistering 57.5%.

Tony Parker awoke from his three game carbonite freeze to lead the team with 29 points, while Duncan, Barry, and Ginobili combined for an additional 69. Barry’s inclusion in this group was especially damaging to the Suns, as he hit 5 of 8 from downtown and had 13 points in the fourth quarter. He’ll be important to San Antonio, because Bowen’s usefulness is minimized due to the Suns getting most of their scoring from positions he’s ill-suited to guard. In game 7 against the Sonics, Bowen chased Ray Allen around for 41 minutes while Barry only saw 22 minutes of floor time. However, on Sunday they reversed their roles with Barry earning 34 minutes and Bowen only on the court for 27.

With the Spurs out gunning the Suns, Phoenix residents might have “a bad feeling” about this series. The Suns’ weakness has been their defense and bench depth, both of which San Antonio exploited more than that ill-designed ventilation shaft in the Death Star. Things weren’t all bad for Phoenix, as they kept the tempo up and shot well. Joe Johnson’s eventual return will return Jackson back to the bench, to improve their depth. And although Marion’s jump shot looks like it comes from a galaxy far far away, he should be able to contribute more than 3 points in the future matches. If the Spurs win game 2, at least that’ll free up some time to get to the movies before the Finals start.

Brrr?. Is There a Draft in Here?

[While KnickerBlogger has been ignoring his blog by shmoozing it up with close friends visiting from out of town, KnickerBlogger’s Head College Expert David Crockett has been busy thinking about the Knicks future. In an attempt to become the Mel Kiper Jr. of the NBA, “Dr. C.” has gone over the Knicks’ needs for the June draft.

David Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

On May 24th the 2005 Draft Lottery will take place in the NBA studios. At that time the Knicks will know where they will draft in what is shaping up as a reasonably talented draft, depending on which early entrants hire agents and stay in the draft. Of course the playoffs will determine where the team?s second first round pick, obtained from the Spurs (via Phoenix), will be chosen. I knew it was time to think about a draft column when I got an email from a buddy of mine, a bona fide Jayhawk backer and Duke hater, comprised of three short sentences:

I hope you?re sitting down when you read this?
I just heard that Shavlik Randolph is going league.
I am incapable of rational thought right now.
So even though much is still to be determined between now and June I thought I?d fire up my Mel Kiper wig and dig into the NBA draft a bit.

First, We Need a Guard
So what do our beloved Knickerbockers need heading into the 2005-2006 season? Well, in a sharp departure from many of the pundits I believe the Knicks? first priority is in the backcourt rather than at center.

Stephon Marbury had one of the finest offensive seasons by a New York Knick in recent memory in 2004-2005. Though he is not the league?s best point guard, a claim for which he was waaaay overcriticized, ?Starbury? demonstrated the kind of skill and maturity ? e.g., moving off the ball to facilitate Crawford?s development ? few thought possible. According to Knickerblogger’s stat page Marbury?s assist ratio (27.3 assists per 100 possessions) ranked him a somewhat pedestrian 14th in the league among those playing at least 25 minutes per game. However, he was one of only five players on that list who also had a turnover ratio under 10. 82games.com lists Marbury?s PER as a lofty 23.3 and Knickerblogger reports it as a tad below 23; both numbers are clearly in the high-rent district. Marbury?s efg was over 50% and he went to the line frequently, making 35 free-throws per 100 shots from the floor.

Of course, offense was not the problem at the world?s most famous arena this season. Offensively, the Knicks? 103 points per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency) was middle of the pack (16th) ? a far cry from Phoenix?s 111.8 but better than that posted by these playoff teams: Pacers, Nets, Bulls, Pistons, Sixers, and Grizzlies. Unfortunately, in an all too familiar refrain the Knicks sucked eggs defensively this season; just like last season. However unlike last season when the available statistical evidence failed to provide undisputable proof that the backcourt was the primary problem, this season?s stats are much more sympathetic to this point of view. Marbury and Crawford were, simply put, terrible. According to 82games, in 2003-2004 Marbury held opposing point guards to a surprisingly respectable 14.5 PER. (Average PER is set at 15.) This season he allowed an opponents? PER of 16.5. Marbury gave up more penetration (26% in-close FGAs vs. 21% in 2003-2004) and more free throw attempts per 48 minutes (4.7 vs. 3.6). His opponents shot 48.6% efg and had over 8 assists per 48. These incidental numbers strongly suggest that Marbury?s shoddy defense requires him to post phenomenal offensive numbers just to remain a net positive and that his offense comes at the price of major stress on the frontcourt to cover for his deficiencies.

Certainly, a large part of Marbury?s inconsistency and ineffectiveness on defense comes from his indifference. However, we are also starting to see the ill-effects of 8 consecutive seasons of 38+ minutes per game (mpg) on his body. He has fatigued at the ends of the last two seasons and his knee became a problem as this season wore on. Is it any wonder? He just completed his ninth season averaging 40 minutes per game and a career high in total minutes, 2nd only to Lebron James. Only in Marbury?s rookie season did he average fewer than 38 mpg. It would simply be foolish for the Knicks to continue to play Marbury 38-40 minutes per night without expecting his body to break down even more rapidly and eventually impact his offense. Marbury can be more effective playing fewer minutes. Jason Kidd has had seven sub-38 mpg seasons, including each season in New Jersey. Steve Nash has yet to average 38 mpg in any season. This season he averaged 34 (not even among the top 50), managing the league?s most efficient offense without a ?true? backup point guard no less. If these two guys are playing around 34-35 mpg Marbury should be playing no more.

At the shooting guard position Jamal Crawford looked every bit the ?instant offense? third guard he really is this season. At times he was indefensible but as his minutes increased to 38+ his warts became more visible. According to 82games.com, in his minutes at shooting guard Crawford shot almost 50% and had a more than respectable 16.8 PER. However his 18.2 opponents? PER made everyone he guarded look practically like Peja Stojakovic. Crawford, like his backcourt mate, gave up tons of penetration to opposing guards (26% in-close FG%), and ever the gentlemen, regularly ushered them to the free throw line (5.3 FTA per 48). Whatever additional pressure Marbury put on the frontcourt to mask his defensive shortcomings Crawford matched, only without the consistent offensive production. The Knicks don?t want to be forced to play Crawford more than 20-25 mpg, much less the 38+ he played this season.

The Knicks desperately need backcourt help. On a per 48 minute basis the opposing backcourt is taking more than half its shots from in close and taking 10 trips to the free throw line. The key to defensive improvement is cutting down on the penetration from opposing guards. A shot-blocking center that can erase penetration is a luxury; one most teams must live without. Such players are in woefully short supply and the Knicks would not be wise to pin their hopes on acquiring a ready made center in the draft or the free agent market.

The wiser course of action is to look to the draft for backcourt help. The value appears to be at point guard, with high-quality collegiate point guards available into the 2nd round. The shooting guard position looks weak by comparison. Which point guards and shooting guards should the Knicks consider with their three picks? I?ve listed a few players the Knicks might consider just to whet the appetite. More will come after the Chicago pre-draft camp and workouts. (Note: comments on college players only.)

Point Guards

Name/College Availability? Comment
Chris Paul, Wake Forest Early first round, 2nd (New Orleans) to 6th (Milwaukee), depending on team needs and workouts Paul was perhaps the most efficient offensive perimeter player in the nation this season. He absolutely lived at the free throw line; amazing for a sub-six footer. On the other hand, Paul doesn?t defend. The Knicks don?t need anymore of that.
Deron Williams, Illinois Early first round 4th (Utah) to late lottery 16th (Toronto) depending on workouts I really like Williams even though he doesn?t fit Isiah?s ?athleticism? mantra. He?s a high IQ, instinctive player. He?s a bit like Andre Miller without the post-up game but a much better jump shooter. He?s best-suited to run a half-court screen-roll or a passing and cutting offense but he can get up and down too.
Raymond Felton, North Carolina Early first round 4th (Utah) to mid-lottery 12th (LA Clippers) No college player is better than Felton at pushing the ball at the defense. He?s smart, fearless, he defends, and his jump shot is developing. He?s tailor-made for an uptempo team that asks its point guard to penetrate-and-kick. He strikes me as a comparable, though better prospect than T.J. Ford because of his strength.
Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech. Mid-lottery 8th (Knicks) to end of round 1 30th (Knicks) depending on workouts Declared but hasn?t hired an agent. Opinions are all over the place on him. His detractors generally point to his turnovers. I love Jack?s all around game, particularly his on ball defense, and his athleticism. If he goes to Chicago and plays well he could solidify his status in the mid-to-late lottery.
Nate Robinson, Washington Early 2nd round Robinson is an exceptional on-ball defender and may be the best pound-for-pound athlete in the draft. Unfortunately, he also may have hurt his draft status more than any other player with a disappointing NCAA tournament.
John Gilchrist, Maryland Early to mid 2nd round He has everything you could ask for from a physical standpoint. His basketball IQ just isn?t there yet. He should have gone back to school.
Luther Head, Illinois Early-to-mid 2nd round Luther is a combo guard who will find his way onto a team as an excellent passer, defensive stopper, and a guy who will take a big shot.
Aaron Miles, Kansas Late 2nd round/free agent Miles has all the intangibles ? basketball IQ, pure point guard skills, feel for the game, leadership, toughness, unselfishness ? but lacks size and anything resembling a jump shot. He?s small and light. He has to find the right situation, or as I heard someone put it recently, ?Hit the Chris Duhon lottery.?

Of the point guards listed I think Williams, Felton, and Jack have the most to contribute to the Knicks immediately. Each could run the second unit. Each pushes the ball and thinks pass-first, but can score if needed. Most importantly, each will play their first NBA summer league game as a better on-ball defender than Marbury or Crawford is right now.

Shooting Guards

Name/College Availability? Comment
Antoine Wright, Texas A&M Late lottery #10 (Lakers) to #30 (Knicks) Played his entire career on really awful teams but put up good numbers. He?s a willing defender and a potentially dynamite scorer. He has an NBA ready body.
Kennedy Winston, Alabama Late lottery #10 (Lakers) to #30 (Knicks) There is a lot to like. Winston has a great body and a great stroke, but can be lazy defensively and is turnover prone.
Francisco Garcia, Louisville Late first round #20 (Denver) to #30 (Knicks) Garcia is the Deron Williams of shooting guards. His basketball skills and IQ are his biggest assets. He?ll need to go to a team that values those things and is willing to live with his athletic deficiencies.
Salim Stoudamire, Arizona Early 2nd round More Steve Kerr (pure shooter) than Eddie House (scorer). Unlike House or Kerr though, Stoudamire?s defense will allow him to stay on the floor. Also, he can run the point for a few minutes a night.
Tiras Wade, LA-Lafayette Mid-late 2nd round Big-time scorer with nice size from a small conference.
Alex Acker, Pepperdine Late 2nd round/free agent Alex is another combo guard. An athletic 6?5? with some legitimate point guard skills he could conceivably work his way into round 1.

Overall, I?m not so sure this is the draft the Knicks will find an heir apparent to Houston at shooting guard, particularly once Wright and Winston are off the board. I?m assuming Isiah isn?t silly enough to consider a schoolboy shooting guard (Gerald Green or Martell Webster), particularly since defense rather than scoring is the problem in the backcourt. The Knicks may be best off continuing to develop Ariza as a swing man rotating him with Crawford and Penny.

Coming Soon: We Need a Center Too

My Final Four

Detroit
Offense: 102.8 (17th)
Defense: 98.0 (3rd)
Net: +4.8

The Pistons don’t scare their opponents like they did last year. The most frightful thing heading into the Palace has become the fans, not the players. The reason this year’s squad doesn’t command the same respect is two fold. First the defense just isn’t as good as it was last year. After acquiring Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons defense was one of the best of all time. A year later the third ranked defense is super, but not dominant.

The second difference between last year’s championship team and this year’s version is the depth. The 2004 Pistons had 8 guys with a PER greater than Tayshaun Prince’s 13.3 on their playoff roster. This year they have 7 guys below that mark. Elden Campbell’s PER has been cut in half as he’s apparently taken a drive off Roberto Alomar Cliff, and worthless “Donnie” Darko Milicic might as well sit on the end of the Pistons bench wearing an eerie rabbit suit.

The core of the championship team is still there, plus McDyess (17.6 PER) who to the consternation of Knick is actually making a positive contribution to his team. Since they play in the Easy East, the only thing between them and the Finals is either a Shaq injury or beating him for the second year in a row.

Phoenix
Offense: 112.0 (1st)
Defense: 103.4 (14th)
Net: +8.6

The Suns are the sexy favorite to win it all. With Steve Nash at the helm, the offense purrs like a new engine through his gifted hands. Amare the Great and Shawn Marion seem to be a new generation of undersized front court players who succeed through superior physical ability. Watching the Suns score is like watching Cary Grant act, they just make it look smooth and easy.

Until of course they go to the reserves.

While I’d classify Detroit’s bench as below average, I’d call Phoenix’s craptacular. Their two best pine riders are uni-dimensional shooter Jim Jackson and shot blocker Steven Hunter. Barbosa has shown improvement and has moved up to being just a below average guard. Rounding out this sad bunch are three guys who would have trouble getting run on Charleville-M?zi?res: Bo Outlaw, Walter McCarty, and Paul “Don’t Call Me” Shirley. The Suns reserves are so bad that in an overtime game against San Antonio the starters played 244 of 265 (92%) possible minutes.

The Suns can win it all if their starters have no ill effect from playing so many minutes during the regular season, and can keep the bench on the bench.

Miami
Offense: 108.3 (2nd)
Defense: 100.1 (6th)
Net: +8.2

Although the Heat are primarily a two man squad, Miami has some decent pieces surrounding Shaq and Wade. Whether it’s the addition of the Big Guy, Wade’s rise into the NBA’s creme de la creme, or something else altogether, the Heat have gotten efficient scoring from the rest of their players. The league average for John Hollinger’s points per shot attempt (PSA) was 1.06 this year, and Miami has 7 guys that better that mark with 2 more that are above 1.03. Additionally, Damon Jones, Udonis Haslem, Christian Laettner, are sporting the highest PSAs of their career.

Miami’s weakness on offense is at the SF spot. For 10 years Eddie Jones has had a perfectly groomed moustache and an above average PER. This year he only has the ‘stache. Jones’ (13.9 PER) substitutes, Rasual Butler (10.6 PER) and Shandon Anderson (9.2 PER), don’t provide much in terms of scoring other than a nice free throw percentage. I’d have picked them as champions this year if it weren’t for …

San Antonio
Offense: 105.1 (6th)
Defense: 95.7 (1st)
Net: +9.4

If San Antonio and Miami meet in the Finals this matchup would be close, but I think the Spurs have a slight edge. Last year’s team was an average 14th in scoring, but this year the defense won’t have to carry the team alone. Tim Duncan has received a scoring boost from the continuing maturation of Tony Parker (18.4 PER) and Manu Ginobili (22.8 PER). While Devin Brown (14.9 PER) and Beno Udrih (14.6 PER) have given them some surprising production for youngsters, the Spurs have added veterans Brent Barry (14.3 PER), Nazr Mohammed (16.8 PER), and even Glenn Robinson (17.5 PER in 9 games). The Spurs have the deepest bench of the top 4 teams. Despite having all those offensive upgrades, the excellent defense is still the corner of this franchise.

Of course San Antonio’s problem is their health. In addition to Duncan taking it easy the last 4 games of the year, Rasho Nesterovic has been out two weeks with his ankle problem. Nazr Mohammed is more able than most backup centers, so San Antonio will be OK even if it takes a few more games for Rasho to get back. However they won’t reach the Finals without Duncan, who is pivotal to this team’s success.

Summary:
This year’s playoffs seem to be a departure from previous years, where only one or two franchises were clearly dominant over the rest. While the Spurs are a holdover from the dynasty teams that ruled the NBA throughout the last decade, last year’s Pistons win coupled with the dissolving of the Lakers has created a fresh canvas for any team to make their mark. Not only are these 4 teams strong enough to go all the way, but none are so dominant that we can begin to etch their name into the record books. In fact I could argue that the field could be extended to 7 clubs. Consider that Seattle is still confounding their opponents, Denver had that phenomenal second half, McGrady and Yao look unstoppable, and Dallas had too good a regular season to write them off just yet. It shouldn’t be a surprise if any of these teams were crowned champions in June, and speaks well of the current parity we’re enjoying in the league.

Four Reasons Knicks Fans Loved Sunday’s Game

1. Blackout Averted
Thanks to the schedule maker, Knick fans suffering under Time Warner and MSG’s bickering were able to watch their favorite team on television. The Knicks-Pacers game was nationally broadcasted on ABC, giving New Yorkers who opted to stay home on a pleasant weekend day to perform spring cleaning ample entertainment.

2. Indiana Pacers
Although last week’s game was billed as Miller’s last in New York, yesterday’s game was Reggie’s final against the Knicks. While the two teams are no longer vying for Eastern Conference bragging rights, there is still some life left in the rivalry. Just having Reggie Miller on the court against the Knicks creates a little extra electricity, but don’t forget about Isiah Thomas’ relationship with Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers. I’m sure the Knicks’ president takes a little extra interest when he faces his former club, and the man that ran him out of town.

3. Marbury 19 Assists
I cringe everytime I hear something along the lines of “Stephon Marbury’s teams lose because he’s too greedy.” After watching Marbury play for a year and a half, I just can’t buy that. Even those that track regular statistics should notice that the Knicks’ point guard is fourth in assists per game. While he’s not a “pass first, second, and third? PG in the mold of Steve Nash or John Stockton, Marbury does get his teammates involved. Under Wilkens, the Coney Island native ran the pick & roll perfectly, and he’ll hit the open man when he’s double teamed. Stephon’s deficiency is his horrendous defense, not his avarice. So what better to silence his critics then to dish out 19 on national television?

4. Knicks 113 Pacers 112 (OT)
The game itself was exciting, which is a rare occurrence for Knick fans these days. The Knicks started the fourth quarter expanding a 7 point lead into 12, before the Pacers woke up & put New York 6 points into the deficit column. The game looked lost when Marbury missed the game tying free throw in the final minute, but a defensive stop and an improbable Kurt Thomas three pointer sent the game into OT.

Short at small forward, New York played most of the game with a big lineup. The Knicks had Trevor Ariza, but used him for only 6 minutes. Instead Herb Williams decided to use three of Kurt Thomas, Malik Rose, Mike Sweetney, and Jerome Williams for a majority of the game in a zone defense. What a brilliant idea!

If Marbury?s free throw miss, the Kurt Thomas three pointer, and the big man lineup didn’t make the game intriguing enough, New York inexplicably shot better from three point land (54.5%) than the free throw line (54.2%). Both teams had the same amount of rebounds and free throw attempts. The game was so close that the last possession was literally the difference.

The icing on the cake was Sweetney’s game winner. While he didn’t have a good game early on, Big Mike came through when it counted. Not only did he win the game for the Knicks cleaning up Marbury’s miss in OT, but Sweetney’s and-1 brought New York from 6 to a manageable 3 late in the fourth. Coach Williams did something that he’s never done before: give Mike Sweetney major minutes. The young power forward (masquerading as a center) repaid his coach with a solid performance: 20 points on 8-15 shooting and 9 boards in 37 minutes. While Sweetney might be the forgotten man in Herb’s rotation, snapping a 9 game losing streak is a good way to get a little recognition.

No Horns On Luther’s Head

I love watching sports arguing shows. Ok not all of them. It’ll be a long time before I willingly turn on Mike and the Angry Puppy on my television or radio again. Instead I’ll admit that I prefer watching either “PTI” or “Around the Horn.” Now before my loyal readers decide to erase KnickerBlogger.Net from their bookmarks, I don’t watch these shows for the “intelligent sports banter”. Like people of an earlier generation who watched Siskel & Ebert, I tune in for the arguing. While “sports talk” that degrades into “sports yelling” is entertaining, it’s also valueable from a rhetorical standpoint. To be persuasive, how you say something is sometimes more important than the content of your words.

The other day the prevailing (but not unanimous) opinion on “Around the Horn” was that watching MLB’s Opening Day would be more entertaining than the NCAA Final game. Those that were patient enough to sacrifice 0.6% of their team’s baseball season were rewarded with an exciting game. Illinois clawed back from a 13 point halftime deficit to tie the game late in the second half. Unfortunately the Fighting Illini came up short in the last seconds.

I’m sure someday somebody revives Luther Head’s final college minutes in a negative fashion. It might not be tomorrow on the aforementioned sports yell shows, or in a newspaper column. However eventually I have faith that on a message board in cyberspace somebody will imply that Luther Head was the goat. They couldn’t be more wrong.

I freely admit that in Illinois’ final two possessions with the game on the line, Head turned the ball over and missed the tying three pointer. However unlike Chris Webber’s time out folly, the mistakes were something you would see on any normal possession & not caused unduly by stress. The turnover was from a drive & kick, that was literally tipped by UNC’s Raymond Felton. In his final attempt, Luther Head’s missed three pointer was not a rushed shot. His feet were set, shoulders squared, and didn’t hurry the shot. It was well aligned, but a tad long caroming off back of the iron. In each case, only a few inches separated Head from being the hero of the game.

So often in sports, people try to make sense of something by pinning the entire team’s result on a single person. In baseball the pitcher earns the win or loss, despite the fact that he doesn’t control how much his team scores, how his fielders perform, or what the bullpen does with his lead. While pitchers are highly influential on the outcome of a baseball game, they aren’t the sole determining factor. Certainly if Randy Johnson had any offensive help last year, he would have posted better than a 16-14 record with his obscenely low 2.60 ERA.

People get so carried away with crediting an individual for a team effort, that they’ll do the same in other sports as well. Things like W-L records are even more ludicrous in other sports like football. Trent Dilfer was 7-1 in 2000, and that should tell you something about the nonsense of attributing wins & losses to a QB. Even when NBA MVP voters note that the Suns are 2-4 without Nash, it implies that Steve’s individual record is 54-13. Nash may very deserve the MVP award, but not because of his teams’ record without him.

Wherever you cross the misinformed soul that attempts to claim Luther Head lost the game for Illinois, you can remind them that Head led his team in scoring and shot a respectable 50% (eFG%). Point out that James Augstine couldn’t stay out of foul trouble long enough to score a single point. Tell them that Head wasn’t responsible for defending Sean May, who put in 26 points while only missing one shot from the field. Remind them that teammate Ingram was so oblivious in the final minute a pass hit him in the back. Or better yet, tell him basketball is a team game, and the Tar Heels were just the better team on this night.