Gnate and Nate?

My writing this week hasn’t been shedding Isiah Thomas’ latest move in a positive light. However one day after the draft would be a foolish time to continue to rain on the Knicks. Just one day after the draft Channing Frye is a future All Star, Nate Robinson is the backup PG that is better than half the starters in the league, and David Lee is going walk right in & fill Kurt Thomas’ shoes.

In fact despite railing on the deal just a few days ago, I was pretty excited when I heard that the Kurt Thomas trade was finalized because New York got Nate Robinson. No I haven’t changed my mind on the deal, because I think Richardson is an average player who doesn’t address the Knicks main needs. However if the deal had to go through, getting “Gnate” made it palatable. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the small guys. Years ago when Earl Boykins was a Net and Cavalier castoff I advocated from the top of my barstool that the Knicks should pick him up.

There are just so many reasons to like the diminutive player. I didn’t get to watch much of the NCAA tournament this year, but I saw at least one Washington game. Nate is one of those guys that you can’t help but keep your eyes on, because he will make something exciting happen. Although the Knicks do lack flash, I think Robinson can contribute as a solid player as well. Before going mainstream, the APBRmetric-minded Kevin Pelton gave him a nice write up over at draftcity.com. Meanwhile I can entertain thoughts in my head that Robinson will consider playing nickelback/kick returner for my beloved New York Jets.

Getting back to the Knicks I’m not sure whether they’ve solved their defensive problem. The reviews of Frye is that he’s a polished offensive player, but on defense the word “soft” has been thrown around. While he is a shot blocker, that talent doesn’t always translate from college to the pros. Knicks fans know that we’re not getting Tim Duncan or Tyson Chandler, but the answer to the question on exactly how much Frye can help solidify their D will have to wait. Obviously David Lee isn’t the defensive answer unless the Knicks trade Mike Sweetney (doh!) or Malik Rose (hooray!).

Even without getting another player, there is something Isiah and the Knicks can do to improve their defense: hire a defensive-minded coach. While I don’t believe that a coach can turn an awful defensive team into a stellar one, a good coach might be able to get the Knicks going in the right direction. Larry Brown would be a no-brainer, but there are two other possibilities that I wouldn’t mind New York considering. I know P.J. Carlesimo isn’t the popular choice in town, but he took the last ranked Warriors and turned them into an above average 12th in just two years. The Sprewell incident and sitting on the bench next to Emperor Popovich should make him a more experienced coach.

Nate McMillan’s contract should run out any second now. While the Sonics weren’t a defensive juggernaut, McMillan’s team made the most of what they had, had might have give the Spurs a run for their money had they not have a series of unfortunate injuries. Nate would give the Knicks their first legitimate coach since Jeff Van Gundy, and if he were able to bring over uber-consultant Dean Oliver it would be the icing on the cake. I?d still prefer a known commodity over guys like Herb Williams or Bill Laimbeer. With the draft out of the way, getting a coach should be the #1 priority on the Knicks list.

Dirk, The Daring Defender? Odds & Ends

[If you haven’t read yesterday’s column, you’re not visiting often enough. Click here, read it, then hit back on your browser. Then remember to come here more often. :-) ]

Yesterday, I busted out a table with defensive PF stats. It was to see if Dirk Nowitzki statistically was a serious choice for an All Defensive Team spot. One thing I didn’t consider was that there are four spots between all the forwards. So Dirk would be competing against small forwards as well as power forwards. Adding a few entries to my list:

Name...........	DRank	eFG	 PER 	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Tim Duncan..... 1 .431 15.1 -6.7 .403 14.4
Rasheed Wallace 3 .449 14.6 -5.8 .442 16.1
Elton Brand.... 9 .467 15.3 -4.5 .453 14.3
Dwight Howard.. 13 .440 15.1 1.2 .455 17
Tyson Chandler. 2 .447 14.7 -0.8 .463 18.7
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 .477 15.3 -4.6 .499 16.3
SFs
Andrei Kirilenko 30 .496 16.7 -12.1 .371 11.6
Tayshaun Prince 3 .474 14.4 -3.4 .472 13.4
Bruce Bowen.... 1 .500 13.1 -6.0 .500 13.3
Manu Ginobili.. 1 .396 9.8 -7.3 .385 10.2

Andrei Kirilenko’s numbers are just sick. Due to his injury they represent a small sample size, but he’s light years ahead of the non-Duncan field. Whether or not his time missed will cost him some votes remain to be seen. Bowen’s statistics, while still above average, are meager for his excellent reputation. Looking at Ginobili’s numbers reveals a “Hedo Turkoglu Effect.”

For those that aren’t familiar with the works of Kevin Pelton, the HTE describes what happens statistically when a team uses a defensive stopper that can play multiple positions. Bowen defends the stronger offensive player, whether he is at SF or SG. Therefore Ginobili defends the weaker one. Hence the defensive numbers gets blurred between the two. I can guarantee that Manu’s excellent defensive stats are largely the work of Bowen (and Duncan).


A poster by the name of Sterling commented in Cuban’s blog, (not this Cuban blog)

“For instance? Why are the Timberwolves a .500 team? Well the rank right their with the Mavs as far as field goal percentage, 3 point field goal percentage, and rebounding…But, has anyone notice that they rank 28 out of 30 in Free throw attempts….I think they are putting up to many jump shots…

Now imagine the argument and debate…Maybe somebody will find after reviewing several games that the lack of free throws has more to do with certain player(s) (two particularly) getting touches, than anything else?”

Instead of wondering if Sterling uses the same spell checker as myself, I thought I’d tackle his question. At the time of his writing, the T-Wolves had a .558 winning percentage. By points per 100 possession, Minnesota is ranked 5th offensively, but are an awful 19th on defense. The Mavericks are ranked 7th & 6th respectively, so it’s clear that the difference between the two is the T-Wolves lack of defense. Looking at the four factors, Minnesota is average in defensive shooting percentage, but next to last in forcing turnovers. If I were reviewing games individually, I’d start by looking at eFG & turnovers of Minnesota’s opponents.

Dirk, The Daring Defender?

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, on his webpage blogmaverick.com, advocates 2 Mavericks for the All Defensive team: Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard. The first nominee is a curious one that will raise a few eyebrows. Over the last few years, Dirk’s defense has been thought as mediocre at best. Last year the Mavericks were awful defensively; ranked 26th in defensive efficiency. Mark gives no evidence for Dirk’s change, but offers the following:

This year, Dirk has become better than just a good defender. Dirk has become a very good defender, on his way to being one of the best defensive PFs in the league. If that comment makes you laugh, you arent watching enough games and paying attention to Dirk on the defensive end.

Go down the list of PFs in the NBA….. After Garnett and Duncan, who is a better defender?

Hmmm… Mark Cuban says that if I don’t think Nowitzki is a great defender, I haven’t watched enough Mavs games. While he may be right, I can counter by saying that Mark hasn’t seen every game the Bulls, Pistons, Clippers, etc. have played. So how can he say Dirk is better than the PFs on those teams? With this kind of logic, everyone can claim their team has the best defenders in the league. Instead, we need a more objective way of looking at defense.

This year the Mavericks are ranked 6th defensively, so maybe Dirk’s improved defense has made Dallas a defensive minded team? Since 59% of the time Dirk is the Dallas PF, looking at how opposing PFs fare against the Mavs might give us insight into Nowitzki’s defense. So far this year, opposing PFs have had a 15.3 PER and effective shooting percentage (eFG%) of .477. Both of those numbers are about average, so it really doesn’t prove that Dirk has anchored the Mavs D.

Thanks to 82games.com, we can measure three more ways in which Dirk affects his team defensively. The first is defensive +/-, which has its drawbacks depending on the strength of the team & the bench. Basically they’re comparing the points scored per 100 possessions when the player is on versus off the court. The way 82games.com records this stat, lower numbers are better. Defensively Dallas has been -4.6 points worse when Dirk is on the bench (which means they’re 4.6 points better with Dirk on the floor). The last two stats are oPER & oeFG%, which represent the opposing PFs stats when Nowitzki is on the court. In this respect, power forwards have shot .499 and have an overall PER of 16.3. Again neither are impressive enough to write home about.

If you’re like me & you’re scoring at home, putting all that above into a spreadsheet looks like this:

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3

On their own these numbers are meaningless. What if PERs for power forwards are generally higher? What if PFs generally have better defensive +/-? To find out how good defensively Dirk is, we can put him next to the best defensive PF in the league: Tim Duncan.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	PER	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 0.477 15.3 -4.6 0.499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 0.431 15.1 -6.7 0.403 14.4

Now we have the beginnings of a mini-study. Armed with some statistics, I agree with the one-time Dairy Queen server. We should go down the list of the PFs in the league, and see who is a better defender. Spending hours of my free time that I could have otherwise spent interacting with other human beings, I went through 82games.com for all the stats of the following PFs.

Name...........	TmRank	eFG	 PER 	+/-	oeFG	oPER
Dirk Nowitzki.. 6 .477 15.3 -4.6 .499 16.3
Tim Duncan..... 1 .431 15.1 -6.7 .403 14.4
Kevin Garnett.. 19 .502 17.0 -2.0 .498 16.8
Rasheed Wallace 3 .449 14.6 -5.8 .442 16.1
Elton Brand.... 9 .467 15.3 -4.5 .453 14.3
Shawn Marion... 17 .479 17.4 1.2 .508 20.6
Pau Gasol...... 5 .470 17.0 0.4 .467 17.1
Carlos Boozer.. 30 .473 16.8 2.5 .465 17.3
Dwight Howard.. 13 .440 15.1 1.2 .455 17
Chris Bosh..... 20 .470 16.7 -6.2 .477 17.6
Tyson Chandler. 2 .447 14.7 -0.8 .463 18.7
Kurt Thomas.... 27 .520 19.0 5.9 .511 19.7

Ahhhh I love the smell of spreadsheets in the morning. Looking at this list, it’s obvious that Duncan is the best of the group. Why do I say that? He has the best +/-, the best oeFG, and the second best oPER. Since that seems like a good way to see who is statistically the best, let’s rank the stat of each player against the others.

Name...........	R1	R2	R3	R4	R5	OVR
Tim Duncan..... 1 3 1 1 2 1
Rasheed Wallace 4 1 3 2 3 2
Elton Brand.... 5 5 5 3 1 3
Dwight Howard.. 2 3 9 4 6 4
Tyson Chandler. 3 2 7 5 10 5
Dirk Nowitzki.. 9 5 4 10 4 6
Chris Bosh..... 6 7 2 8 9 6
Pau Gasol...... 6 9 8 7 7 8
Kevin Garnett.. 11 9 6 9 5 9
Carlos Boozer.. 8 8 11 6 8 10
Shawn Marion... 10 11 9 11 12 11
Kurt Thomas.... 12 12 12 12 11 12

R1 is team PF eFG% ranked. R5 is oPER ranked. Tim Duncan is the best in team PF eFG%, and Elton Brand is the best in oPER. The last column OVR is how they rank overall in all the stats.

Other than Garnett’s low ranking, the list isn’t very surprising. If someone told me the 5 best defensive PFs in the league were Duncan, Rasheed, Brand, Howard, & Chandler, I’d believe it. Given a ballot for All Defensive Team, I would choose the top two on my list. Duncan is a no-brainer, but IMHO ‘Sheed, who has never won any defensive honors, is highly underrated in his defensive ability. During last year’s Finals, Sonics analyst Kevin Pelton said of Wallace:

What is clearly most impressive about the Pistons post-Wallace trade is their defense. Detroit was a very good, if overrated team, prior to adding Wallace. With him in the fold, they’ve been nothing short of magnificent.

Nowitzki’s 6th overall ranking shows that he’s upgraded his game under his own basket. He doesn’t fare well in both opposing shooting percentage categories, but he does well in all the others. Despite the evidence that’s he’s an above average defender, I’d still be hesitant voting for him in any kind of all-defensive team.

Bulls 88 Knicks 86

It hit me watching today’s Bulls-Knicks game, that these two teams couldn’t be more different. They are twilight zone-esque mirror images of each other. I’m sure somewhere out there, Jordan’s Knicks defeated Ewing’s Bulls with the requisite Star Trek goatees denoting the presence of an alternate universe. The Garden organ playing the infamous star trek fight music.

On the court the Bulls sport the NBA’s second best defense, while the Knicks are ranked a lowly 26th. Chicago relied on their two big men, Chandler and Curry, whose four blocked shots don’t adequately reflect the intimidation and presence they applied in the paint. The Knicks had their problems scoring inside. Marbury had a drive blocked and recovered by one of the Bulls. Nazr Mohammed was embarrassed when his clear-path-to-the-rim-I’m-going-to-jam-it-with-one-hand was forcefully rejected.

On the other hand, the Knicks starting big men had a total of one block. The Bulls scored from the paint time and time again, where they held a 38 to 26 point advantage. Chicago sealed the game with two big plays. Nocioni grabbed a rebound with less than 20 seconds left, and was fouled which setup the Bulls last play. Gordan used a pick and roll, and was left with a match-up against PF Mike Sweetney. The slower Knick kept up with the quicker guard, but Gordan still managed a high arcing shot no more than 10 feet away from the hoop to give Chicago the victory. Giving up two big plays inside at the most critical point of the game underscores my point. The Knicks just don’t have the personnel nor the scheme to stop their opponents from close range.

Everything the Bulls did on defense was what the Knicks fail to do night in and night out. Duhon fought through screens all game to disrupt the Knicks’ pick & roll. It’s been so long since a Knick guard did that, I thought maybe the NBA had made a rule against it. Even when the Knicks were able to get past their defender, the Bulls had one or two help defenders converge on the play. The Knicks were forced to counter with an outside attack. After Marbury, 3 of their next 4 scorers were perimeter players: K. Thomas, Houston, and Crawford.

From the opening tip, one match-up showed exactly how different the two teams are. The bulky veteran Jerome Williams matched up against the skinny teenage rookie Luol Deng. The Junk Yard Dog will earn $5.6M this year, more than any Bull who played tonight. In fact today there were 7 Knicks who earn more than the Bulls’ richest participant tonight: Tyson Chandler. New York’s starters average age was 30, while their opponents were a youthful 24. And that’s including the 31 year old Othella Harrington who only played for a quarter.

After getting swept in back-to-back games by their mirror-image, the Knick organization is going to have to take a hard look at itself. The players should wonder why they aren’t able to play tough man to man defense like their opponents did. The coaching staff is going to wonder why their defensive rotations don’t go as smoothly as the other team’s. The front office might wonder why their roster doesn’t have many young, cheap, and athletic defenders. Hopefully the Knicks can learn something from looking across court and seeing what they are not.

(Guest Post) – You’re back in the NBA now, Chicago Bulls

[In honor of the Knicks-Bulls matchup this weekend, today’s blog comes from Matt of Bulls Blog. KnickerBlogger’s post is published on Matt’s site..]

Greetings Knickerblogger readers, my name is Matt and I am the creative force behind Bulls Blog. While it can be said that such a title is the blogging equivalent of being the valedictorian of summer school, I still enjoy being in my own corner of the blogosphere writing about the post-dynasty trials of the Chicago Bulls. It’s an honor to write to you on one of the most prolific (and one of my favorite) basketball blogs around.

Your New York Knicks are coming to the United Center on Saturday, so Knickerblogger and I decided to switch places for a good-ole-fashioned preview. Since it’s the first meeting of these two teams, you may not be fully aware of how things are going in Chicago. With so many new players shuffling in and out of the house that Jordan built these past 6 years. That said, unless you haven’t been paying attention to the league lately, you’ve heard that the Bulls are one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Riding a 5-game winning streak (and 11 out of their last 14), the Bulls have rebounded from a disastrous 0-9 start to the 8th best record in the Eastern Conference. But enough about the wins, how are they getting them?

GM John Paxson’s first two drafts since taking over for Jerry Krause have gone particularly well, with 3 his first round picks of Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Ben Gordon now the foundation of the team. Hinrich (PER of 16.39) is probably the Bulls’ most recognizable player, and this season has shifted more to the off-guard position to accommodate the smaller Gordon and 2nd round pick Chris Duhon in the rotation. While you will find him moving off of the ball moreso than last year, he still exhibits his playmaking ability (14 assists against Boston last saturday), and remains the floor leader of the team. Deng (14.79) leads the team in +/- ratio and while he lacks the outstanding athleticism you see of most 19 year old draftees, he more than makes up for it with basketball skills and court awareness that makes him seem a lot older than he is. Ben Gordon (13.03), while not a starter, is definitely the energizing 6th man and ‘closer’ for the Bulls. As the best creator on the team, Ben can take nearly anyone off the dribble to get off his accurate (50.1% eFG) shot launched, an invaluable resource at the end of close games.

Another place where you can see Paxson’s fingerprints is the veteran bench. Through trades of Jalen Rose and Jamal Crawford, Paxson not only gained cap flexibility but picked up veterans Antonio Davis, Eric Piatkowski, Adrian Griffin, and a familiar face to Knick fans in Othella Harrington. While all past their prime, they also are an upgrade from the CBA talents that used to fill the Bulls bench, and help maintain head coach Scott Skiles’ desire to instill the principles hard work and discipline into the younger players. Another bench contributor is 24-year-old Argentian Andres Nocioni. His rookie campaign in the NBA hasn’t shown the offense he exhibited while helping his country win a gold medal in Greece, but especially as a defender he’s equal parts effective and hilarious. Baiting of opponents into technicals, drawing charges on flops, and performing an act on the officials to the point where any call against him is met with no less than bombastic exasperation. These tactics, I’m guessing, will have most opposing fans loving to hate ‘Chapu’.

Now onto the once-heralded cornerstones of the franchise, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. Curry (14.58) still isn’t the dominant player he can be, but finally in his 4th year and at the age of 22, he is becoming a big part of the team’s success. Look for Eddy in the first 5 or 6 possessions of the game to establish post position early, and going right into his increasing assortment of post moves. His talent has always been evident, but now he’s showing it more consistently, which is a scary message to Eastern Conference frontcourts. Chandler (16.56), as you probably know already, is the opposite of Curry. With small hands and awkward moves, his offense is limited. But while Eddy still drifts through defensive assignments and rebounding, Tyson has become one of the premier rebounders (8th in the league in rebound rate) and shotblockers in the league. At 7’1″ and the ability to jump out of the gym, he alters nearly any shot that’s near him, and would have even more rebounds if he were strong enough to hold on to them.

And that brings me to the most important factor in attributing the Bulls success: Defense. Using defensive efficiency as a metric, which as you may know factors in the possessions accrued during a game as well as points allowed, the Bulls are second in the NBA in team defense, behind only San Antonio. The Bulls defense starts in the paint, with Chandler, Davis, and an improving Curry making their capable perimeter teammates’ jobs much easier. This defensive success is mainly due to Skiles, who always has his players playing hard and within the designed scheme. Assuming they keep up their usual intensity on that end, the Bulls’ defense will keep them in nearly any game they play throughout the season.

But all this ‘homer’ praise is not to make you assume that the Bulls do not have weaknesses. Their most glaring weakness defensively is their trouble against opposing guards. No matter which combination of Hinrich/Duhon/Gordon is in the game, there is nearly always a size disadvantage. Gordon especially is immediately targeted by opponents as a post-up victim and despite Skiles’ claims to the contrary, Duhon isn’t much better. And all 3 (along with Curry and Chandler) are known to get in early foul trouble. If Marbury and Houston can be agressive, foul problems could arise for both their man defenders and help defenders alike. Another major problem is turnovers. Both Gordon and Curry are in the league leaders in TO/40 minutes, and while I have mentioned that they play a great team defensive game, they are still a very young team and often throw away possessions on offense. One workable strategy to force the Bulls into these mistakes is to use Duhon’s man to double on Eddy right when he gets the ball. On most occasions either Eddy is rushed into a poor shot or turnover, or an open Duhon bricks a shot of his own (and if you read my blog you’ll know that picking on Duhon is a pretty consistent theme).

To use a generality in terms of how to beat the Bulls, anything that keeps the Bulls from defending effectively will help the Knicks win. The Knicks’ big men will need to crash the glass for offensive rebounds and tip-ins, and getting out on the break after forcing turnovers to not allow the Bulls to dig in. It also means their guards being aggressive and getting to the line, both to shoot free throws and to get the Bulls younger foul-prone players relegated to their bench early. The Bulls aren’t a stellar offensive team, and are prone to long scoreless stretches when Hinrich and Gordon aren’t playing their best. But what they do is stay close, and by crunch time, Gordon and Chandler will use their specialized excellence to try and take over both ends of the court.

Hopefully after reading this you’ll have a better understanding of what to expect on Saturday afternoon. Although after watching the Bulls go from 0-9 to a potential playoff birth, its hard for myself to know what to expect anymore.