Can Curry and Randolph coexist?

I must admit that my initial gut reaction to the Randolph trade was not exactly great. And I still don’t really like it. The obvious parallel here is the disastrous Francis trade, in which the Knicks acquired a talented but flawed player with a huge contract who duplicated almost exactly the skill set of a player already on the roster. Unlike the Francis trade, there is no question the Knicks won big on the talent end of this trade. But is there any hope that Curry and Randolph might coexist any better than Marbury and Francis did? On closer inspection, it’s not as poor a match as your gut reaction might have you think. Not that I’m doing jumping jacks over here, but let me explain.

The immediate concern is that Randolph’s prodigious scoring duplicates what Curry brings to the table. However, the story is not quite that simple. Curry is exclusively a low post player; last season he attempted 79% of his FGAs close to the basket and shot those at a stellar .667 eFG%. On the 21% of his FGAs that were further out, he shot an embarrassing .243. However, Randolph is more of a perimeter player. Last season he attempted a full 59% of his FGAs on jumpers and dropped them in at a .417 clip, which is actually pretty good efficiency on a jump shot for a big guy. (By way of comparison, in Frye’s rookie season he attempted 64% of his FGAs on jumpers and shot an identical .417 clip. The similarity here is actually pretty eerie.) A relatively paltry 41% of Randolph’s FGAs came in the paint, and his eFG% on those inside attempts was .551– good, but not Eddy Curry good.

So there is a relatively natural division of labor here: Curry is exclusively the workhorse in the paint, whereas Randolph has an effective face-up game to complement his effective post game. It is plausible that Randolph could become the more perimeter oriented complement to Curry that Frye was supposed to be while still doing considerable damage in the paint as well. In fact, admittedly having not seen much of Portland over the past few seasons, checking out his youtube clips reveals a player who is surprisingly quick and nimble with an effective face up game and a sneaky knack for scoring. He is not quite the methodical bruiser I had in mind, in spite of his hefty physique. For instance, did you know Zach Randolph could do this? It seems that the offensive talents of Randolph and Curry do indeed have a fighter’s chance of coexisting. If it works out it would be an awfully tough duo to contain.

While we’re comparing the two, Randolph is also a much better passer than Curry. He had twice as many assists per 100 possessions (7.9) and more than 6 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions (11.6) than Curry last season. In fact, contrary to appearances, Randolph’s turnover rate is entirely benign. His turnovers per 40 minutes were only so high last season because of his monstrous usage rate. Compare Randolph’s turnovers per 100 possessions with other high usage big men last season and you find that it’s actually par for the course. Only one guy sticks out like a sore thumb on this list. Can you guess who it is?

player usage rate TO / 100poss
Nowitzki 26.8 8.3
Garnett 25.2 9.9
Bosh 23.8 10.5
Brand 22.3 10.9
Boozer 24.9 11.2
Randolph 30.2 11.6
Gasol 23.3 11.6
J. O’Neal 25.8 11.9
Duncan 25.5 11.9
Shaq 26.3 12.1
Yao 29.9 13.2
Stoudemire 22.5 14.2
Curry 23.1 17.7

All this means that Randolph is the more versatile, and ultimately superior, offensive option even though he does not dominate the low post like Curry does. This may explain why Randolph’s usage rate has been consistently higher than Curry’s over their respective careers. Defenses have a harder time denying Randolph possession because of his more diversified game, which could be important for the Knicks given that guards not named Jamal Crawford have sometimes had difficulty feeding Curry the ball. Randolph does not need a guard to feed him in the low post in order to be dangerous, which is key in late game situations.

What about defense? By reputation, Randolph is a slouch. It doesn’t help his case that last season he blocked as many shots per 40 minutes as Nate Robinson. (Yes, you read that right.) But here are his defensive +/- numbers since 02/03:

season defensive +/-
02/03 +5.8
03/04 +2.0
04/05 -2.8
05/06 +1.5
06/07 +1.7

As always, +/- is an imperfect tool that is difficult to interpret. But nonetheless, over the past 4 seasons a relatively consistent pattern emerges for Randolph. His defensive +/- suggests that on average his teams have been better defensively when he’s off the court, but only slightly so– by less than one basket per 48 minutes 100 possessions. However, all of those teams since 03/04 have been in the bottom third in defensive efficiency, which qualifies the interpretation of the +/- numbers. What they suggest is that Randolph isn’t so bad on defense that he makes an already poor defensive team much worse. That isn’t quite the same as concluding that Randolph is even a passable defender. On the other hand, it maybe suggests that Randolph won’t make the Knicks worse on D than they already are. But is he bad enough that he could drag down a defense that is otherwise average or above average? I don’t think the existing data allows a firm conclusion on that question one way or the other. It’s clear that he is not a stalwart on D but it’s not clear if his weaknesses are relatively benign, entirely prohibitive, or somewhere inbetween.

At least the guy is a terror on the boards. He was among the league leaders with a 17.6 rebound rate, which figures to bolster New York’s existing strength in rebounding. The Knicks are already an elite offensive rebounding squad (2nd in the NBA last season), and Randolph should help improve the defensive rebounding (11th). A front court of Randolph (17.6), Lee (20.7), and Balkman (16.4) could be genuinely dominant on the glass on both ends of the court. And of course this is the one area in which Randolph clearly and uncontroversially complements Curry.

So setting aside for now the inconvenient truths that Randolph comes with a huge contract and a history of jail time and punching opponents and teammates alike… he may not be as poor a fit on the court for the Knicks as you thought on first glance. Now, if we could just trade Eddy Curry for Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, then we’d really be cooking.

Draft Day Trade Lacks Direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Star “Snubs” – An Exercise in Intellectual Laziness

With the starters being named, and the reserves all set to be named Thursday, there has been a lot of discussion (as there is every year) about who should make the team, and when the rosters are announced, you will of course hear about players being “snubbed.”

The problem is that, with the notable exception of a few journalists (Hollinger, for one, does a very nice job in this area), they never acknowledge the fact that to be “snubbed,” someone must have been picked over you that you deserved a spot over. Instead, they just pick the most prominent player not to be on the team, and say that those players were “snubbed.” If you want to exercise your mind, experts recommend the Laweekly’s Delta 8 carts with CBD.

To wit, Josh Howard will most likely not make the team, and as a result, many people will say that he was “snubbed.” And heck, you could even make an argument that he deserves to be there over the other Western forwards, but that won’t be the argument that will be made come All-Star time, it will be “Josh Howard didn’t make the team? But he’s having a great year! What a snub!”

Steve Kerr has already developed this argument last week, in a column where he stated, conclusively, that Howard “deserves to go,” but besides MENTIONING the other star forwards in the West (Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer and Zach Randolph), Kerr does not even bother to argue why Howard should beat out four of those six players.

And that is just intellectual laziness.

And we get it every year.

Isiah Currys No Favor With Fans

Isiah Thomas reminds me of Felix Unger. The Odd Couple character’s downfall was that he couldn’t leave well enough alone. Nearly every episode had Unger ruining his life because his compulsive nature forced him to go too far. Last night, Isiah traded for the Bulls’ disgruntled center Eddy Curry. Chicago had been looking to move Curry since he pulled his Redd Foxx act during last year’s playoffs. Thomas traded away the Knicks young power forward Mike Sweetney along with Tim Thomas and garbage time specialist Jermaine Jackson along with two picks, which have yet to be disclosed.

The only way to like this deal is if physique is your only criteria on building a basketball team. Of the two, Sweetney is the one more likely to be confused as a Sumo wrestler. But for those who’ve watched their fair share of Knick games last year, Sweetney used his body in the paint to his advantage, tossing opponents like, well, a sumo wrestler. An excellent rebounder, he used his size, reach, and footwork to pull down rebound after rebound, often tipping them to himself when fighting against taller opponents. On the offensive end, when he received the ball under the hoop, there often seemed to be only two options: an easy field goal or a trip to the foul line.

However going into next year with the third year player as the starting forward wasn’t good enough for Isiah. Thomas insists on building the team in his “younger and more athletic” mold. Curry certainly fits that bill, just like outgoing Tim Thomas did. However it’s arguable whether or not Eddy is the better player on the court.

Name		FG%	PSA	USG	RBR	R/40	TO	PF	PER
Sweetney	52.2	1.16	17.6	16.8	11.5	2.7	5.6	16.6
E. Curry	52.9	1.13	21.2	11.8	8.5	3.3	5.1	15.8

They score at about the same rate, although Curry’s usage rate is higher. That could be because the offensively challenged Bulls leaned on Eddy, while the Knicks never featured Sweetney in the half court set. The turnover numbers and foul numbers are close enough to even out. However despite giving up 3 inches and 10 pounds, Sweetney’s rebounding numbers puts Curry to shame. Using John Hollinger’s rebounding rate, Sweetney ranked 20th last year in the league ahead of such luminaries as Yao Ming, Zach Randolph, Shawn Marion, and Elton Brand. In fact within the last year Isiah Thomas has traded two of the top 20, with Nazr Mohammed showing up at #11 on that list.

If Knick fans are looking for a silver lining on this deal, it won’t be Curry’s defense. While Chicago was one of the top defensive teams last season, the Knicks didn’t get the defensive stalwart of the Bulls frontcourt. According to 82games.com, the Bulls were 3.3 points worse with Curry on the floor, although he did keep opposing centers in check with a 13.3 oPER. Last year those numbers were 2.7 and 13.8. Dan Rosenbaum rated Curry as the 5th worst defensive center in the league while Matt from Bulls Blog, now over at BlogABull.com, said Curry won’t help the “Knicks’ awful help defense.

In fact in that column, which was written almost a year ago, Matt hit the nail on the head:

Another observation was laughing at the Knicks’ awful help defense. Curry won’t help there, but sometimes Isiah sees something shiny around the league and must have it. After my initial look at Sweetney (and I would really like to hear a Knicks’ fan’s perspective), I’m starting to hope that Isiah gets his man.

Isiah’s obsession with other team’s players has led him to acquire guys like Jamal Crawford, Jerome James, Tim Thomas, and now Curry. Jerome James came from a playoff team, but since he barely played, his contribution to their success was dubious. The 2004 Bulls won 23 games, and Isiah has 3 of their starters (including Antontio Davis)on his roster. Do these sound like the players you would be targeting if you were a GM?

The only positive is Curry’s arrival means the Knicks no longer have to worry about being undersized at the 5, but it comes at a heavy price. While I have no illusions that Sweetney would be enshrined in Springfield, he’ll be an above average starting power forward in this league. Additionally, the supposedly still rebuilding Knicks have given up some future considerations in the form of draft picks. Meanwhile, the Knicks will pay Curry $60M over 6 years. I usually don’t like to deal in hypotheticals, but it’s logical to assume the Knicks could have gotten Sweetney to sign for half that. Sweetney would have given the Knicks about the same amount of production (albeit at a different position) for half the price & New York wouldn’t have to worry if his heart will hold up under the Gotham media.

Isiah’s fault seems to be his inability to stay the course. One minute the Knicks are rebuilding, the next they’re spending $90M dollars for two centers with dubious histories. At the last trade deadline the Knicks were stock piling draft picks like a Central Park squirrel in fall, but now Isiah may have given away two for Curry.

Marbury is still an offensive force, while second rounder Trevor Ariza has flashed great potential. Nate Robinson dominated the summer league, and could be Isiah’s second steal in a row. Additionally, the Knicks have two more youngsters in Frye & Lee. Coach Larry Brown is one of the best in the business. If Isiah stopped there, New York would be in great shape to start the season. Instead, he’s bogged down the team with bad contracts. Eddy Curry, Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford, and Jerome James will reportedly cost the Knicks over $180M for the next 5-7 years. That will undoubtedly make the Knicks observers in free agency over that time. The worst part about it is that none of those players are worth it. None are locks to even make a single All Star Appearance. With the salary cap, it’s better to underpay for marginal talent than overpay for an average return. New York’s downfall will be Isiah’s inability to sign cheap talent and leave well enough alone.

Changing Of The Guard

Going into the offseason, 2005 looks to be the year of the guard. Nearly every big free agent this year just happens to be a shooting guard. At the head of the free agent class was Ray Allen. The 30 year old scorer might have led the SuperSonics to the Finals last year, if not for the key injuries his Seattle teammates suffered before their matchup with the Spurs. However, before teams could pry him away, Ray chose to stay in Seattle for 5 more years.

Allen’s early signing opened the door for the other shooting guards looking to improve their bank accounts. With Ray unavailable, Michael Redd instantly became the best available free agent. However that was short lived as well, when the Bucks decided to keep their shooting guard for a tune of 6 years and $90M. New Yorkers silently snickered that the deal was awfully close to what Allan Houston received, a contract that has ominously loomed over the organization for the last 5 years. However there are two major differences between the two deals. First is that Redd is three years younger than Houston was, which means that Milwaukee will be paying him through his peak, not after. Second is that Redd is far more productive than H20 ever was. While both guards are listed at 6’6, Redd gets twice as many rebounds per minute, and turns the ball over at 1/3 the rate. Although last year was his worst full season, Redd’s 18.3 PER was still better than Houston’s best year (17.7). While it remains to be seen if Redd was overpaid, his deal is not as bad as Scott Layden’s.

The Cleveland Cavs, failing to sign either of the above players and a shooting guard rotation comical enough to make Drew Carey’s guffaw, turned to plan C. General Manager Danny Ferry with cap space burning a hole in his pocket grabbed the next best free agent who happened to be another shooting guard: Larry Hughes. The Cavaliers will be Hughes’ 4th team, who was drafted by the Sixers at the tender age of 19. The oft-injured shooting guard has only had 2 seasons where he has played in more than 70 games, so his health will be under constant scrutiny in Cleveland. Although he has a reputation for being a fine defender, earning first team all defensive last year, it’s not entirely validated statistically. While the Wizards’ defense was 3.3 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court, opposing guards enjoyed a healthy 18.6 PER. It doesn’t seem to be a one year fluke, as the year before those numbers were 2.9/20.9. Hughes appears to be a good gambler, grabbing nearly 3 steals a game last year, but he’s not a lockdown defender like a Prince or Bowen.

While he hasn’t suited up in 7 seasons, Nate McMillan will be patrolling the sidelines in Portland next year. The former Sonics guard and last year’s coach sited a desire “to develop, to teach” among the reasons he left. In Portland, the disciplinarian will have plenty of opportunities to expand Darius Miles’s vocabulary, teach Zach Randolph how to drive to Vancouver, and maybe develop a few young basketball players with his free time. Nate’s departure from Seattle caught a few people by surprise, as his nearly 20 years in Seattle earned him the nickname “Mr. Sonic”.

Just recently the Atlanta Hawks have gotten Joe Johnson to sign a $70M deal, albeit one that the Suns have the option to match. One of the rumored reasons that Phoenix gave up Richardson was to clear up some space to resign Johnson, the other being that Bryan Colangelo gets perverse pleasure out of sending his poor defenders to Isiah Thomas. So it’s likely that Johnson will stay put as well.

Although more of a swingman than shooting guard, the Milwaukee Bucks signed Bobby Simmons to $47M as well. Meanwhile teams might be able to sign Michael Finley or Allan Houston, as their respective teams look to save money with their one time luxury tax loophole. While Finley is still productive enough to provide help to a team needed some scoring, Houston’s career is still in serious doubt. Allan remains firm in his belief that he will return to the court, which means the number of people that think Allan Houston will contribute positively to an NBA team is still stuck at one.

Way Too Early Season Review Part II

If you haven’t read Part I already, then you might want to do so now.


The main reason the Knicks can afford losing Kurt Thomas is because Mike Sweetney (18.1, 17.1, -6.2) is ready to play PF full time. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Back in June, supersonics.com writer Kevin Pelton said the best age-21 comparisons for Sweetney are Zach Randolph and Carlos Boozer. While Basketball Forecast author John Hollinger thinks the former Hoya is ready to break out and become a 14-12 guy. Sweetney has two major strengths: he can score efficiently, and he can rebound. He’s hitting 55% of his shots, and he leads the Knicks in points per shot attempt:

Player's Name	 PSA 
M. Sweetney.... 1.26
J. Williams.... 1.25
Stephon Marbury 1.20
N. Mohammed.... 1.14
J. Crawford.... 1.03
Kurt Thomas.... 1.00
A. Hardaway.... 0.96
Trevor Ariza... 0.88
Tim Thomas.... 0.83
Vin Baker...... 0.46
Moochie Norris. 0.44
Jamison Brewer. 0.41

(Jerome Williams’ PSA is that high because he only shoots when he’s 3 feet from the hoop with a clear path.)

In addition to being a good scorer, Sweetney had the highest rebound rate on the team last year. Isiah may not clear the way for him to start this year for numerous reasons. With the Knicks on a quest to win the Atlantic, they might not want to trust the PF position to a second year player, Zeke might not be able to peddle Kurt for something the Knicks need, or they’re keeping Thomas as insurance for the center position, because the backup is gulp Vin Baker (12, 20, -1.2 last year).

The most surprising Knick up to this point is Nazr Mohammed (21.5, 17.0, +14.2). Upon seeing his numbers I thought the improvement was because he cut down on his personal fouls, but his rate hasn’t changed over the last few years. The major improvements I’ve found are in his shooting percentage (52.7%) and offensive rebounding (6.1/40min). FG% is the stat that fluctuates the most from year to year, but this year’s improvement shouldn’t be a fluke considering he shot 56% after being traded to New York last year. What might drop Nazr back to earth is his offensive rebounding. His highest rate in a full season is 4.5OREB/40mins back in 2001, and he’s a point and a half ahead of that.

In fact I think Nazr’s improvment in shooting percentage is directly related to his offensive rebounding. Last year in Atlanta, Nazr had a lower rebounding percentage, only 49% of his shots were inside, and 63% of them were assisted. Whereas in New York, his numbers are 60% and 54% respectively. Simply put, since coming to the Knicks about 10% of his shots are now unassisted and in the paint. It sounds like he’s earning those by cleaning up on the glass.

Another thing I like about Nazr is his combination of good hands and ability to finish. Mohammed usually converts on a Marbury drive & pass in the paint. Mohammed’s downfall is his weak defense, especially at the critical center position. He doesn’t bail out the other Knick defenders with blocked shots, something the Knicks could use thanks to their all around poor defense.

I think the whole city of New York has watched every step of Tim Thomas on the court (4.0, 14.9, -8.3), and it’s safe to say that I don’t need to do a full review on him. If his problem was mental & he’s back to normal, I think we can give him a Mulligan on the first month of the season. If he doesn’t regain his form, he’ll be replaced in the lineup before long. His defense looks like it’s improved slightly, down from the 16.4 oPER from last year.

The Knicks best defensive position is SF (13.8 oPER). While Thomas has improved, it’s the other three guys that can take a lion’s share of the credit. Jerome Williams (18.7, 15.8, +11.9), Trevor Ariza (13.2, 13.4, -1.3), and occasionally Penny Hardaway (10.5, 11.7, +3) are all fine defenders in their own right. Unfortunately the revival of Tim Thomas spells less time for the two most energetic Knicks, Williams and Ariza. Early on in the season Ariza was getting good court time, but these days it’s likely that he’ll play less than 10 minutes. The recipient of Ariza’s decline in minutes is Jerome Williams who has worked his way out of the dog house (pun intended). The SF situation is the same as it was last Monday when I said:

New York has a real logjam. There doesn’t seem to be a clear solution in sight. Thomas and Hardaway are nearly untradeable due to their large contracts, while trading Ariza would be insane due to his potential. I’d hate to see Jerome Williams go, because his game is uniquely different from anyone else’s on the team. So maybe everyone stays until the summer, when Hardaway and Thomas become more attractive as $30M in expiring contracts.

If it seems that the Knicks have too many forwards, they might have a similar problem with the guards once Allan Houston becomes healthy. How Lenny Wilkens handles this should be interesting. Houston will initially come off the bench, but if he’s back to his true form, who plays the two guard spots in the fourth quarter between Starbury, Crawford and Houston? The guard quandary is more difficult to solve than the PF or SF one. Guys like Ariza, Sweetney and “JYD” can handle being benched due to their circumstances, but how do you tell the 3 Knicks accustom to taking last second shots that one has to sit?

Wilkens giving Ariza few minutes isn’t much to get upset about. Trevor is young and inexperienced, and there is a lot of depth at SF. But Lenny needs find more time for Sweetney. Although he’s averaging 17 minutes a game, his time has dwindled so much that against Toronto he played a total of 17 minutes in 2 games. There are times that Jerome Williams’ infectious style and hustle are what the Knicks will require, but for a majority of the time Sweetney should be the first big man off the bench.

Generally Wilkens gets a good grade in my book. Other than Sweetney’s playing time, I have a hard time finding anything else largely disagreeable. This year the Knicks have a fair amount of depth, and Wilkens has to walk a tight line between winning now, developing their young talent, and keeping everyone happy.

As I write this, the Knicks just slipped back over .500 with an OT win over the Hawks. Writing this took a life on it’s own, because the Knicks have so many interesting topics to hit on. This year we have developing youngsters, players battling for time, Allan Houston’s return, a division race, and the speculation that Isiah Thomas can rearrange the team at a moment’s notice. Watching tonight’s game made me realize that only a short time ago, the Knicks were more like the Hawks, a team just looking forward to the next draft.

Knicks Roster Analysis – Power Forwards

After some excellent insights from both Bob Chaikin and Dave, we’re on to the Knicks’ power forwards. If you haven’t read my point guard analysis, that’s probably worth reading before this post so that you understand what I’m doing here.

Kurt Thomas

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 33.8 13.9 9.1 1.1 .542 15.6 0.03 89.9 90.8 .502 5.9
02-03 31.8 14.0 7.9 2.0 .511 14.5 0.23 89.4 89.8 .484 4.5
03-04 31.9 11.1 8.3 1.9 .503 15.0 0.19 87.8 89.5 .457 3.0 $3.446 $5.885

Last Thursday, before the draft, I wrote that a deal of Thomas for Jerome James and the 12th pick would be good for both the Sonics and the Knicks. You’ll have to excuse me for that one; I was apparently delusional because of writing too much about the draft. Thomas’ game is showing some steady signs of decay, both in terms of traditional statistics and more advanced metrics. Last year, his offensive game cratered, as he was very inefficient without using many possessions. His rebounding has been consistent, but neither that nor his defense is good enough to keep him valuable unless he’s scoring better than he did last year.

The real reason a Thomas trade wouldn’t have been good for the Sonics (or most anyone else) is the extension he signed during last season. Thomas is now signed up for three years after this one, presumably with standard 10%-12.5% raises. That means by 2007-08, Thomas will be pulling in $8.09 million. He’ll also be 35 then, and, given the current trend, it’s tough to see Thomas being a particularly valuable player. The raises in contracts can often make them a lot worse than they look. You look at the salary numbers I report above, and Thomas looks overpaid, but not drastically so. The problem is that his salary and production will likely be headed in different directions in the years to come.

There was a school of thought that Thomas’ numbers would improve with him returned to power forward instead of playing out of position at center, as he did almost exclusively during 2002-03. That was pretty clearly not the case on offense, which is backed up by 82games.com’s by-position data. Thomas defended power forwards better — especially when you take into account that power forwards in general have higher PERs than centers — but I doubt the difference is big enough to overcome the greater positional scarcity in the middle. Thomas is simply more valuable as a center.

What can Thomas do to get back on track? The biggest thing would be getting to the line more. Thomas is a good foul shooter for a big man, hitting 83.5% last year, but he doesn’t get to show off the skill very often. When Thomas was at his most efficient, 2001-02, his FTM/FGA ratio was 0.23; the last two years, it’s dipped to 0.13.

From a Knicks perspective, I think Thomas would be best utilized as a combo four/five, coming off the bench behind the starters at both positions. He’s productive enough to keep around, but if the Knicks get an offer that doesn’t return them an equally bad contract (read: Jerry Stackhouse), they have to seriously consider it, especially if they can use him in a multi-player deal to upgrade either small forward or center.

Mike Sweetney

Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
03-04 11.8 4.3 3.7 0.3 .544 18.3 0.02 88.1 89.3 .563 1.7 $3.266 $1.979

It was about a year ago that I fell in love with Sweetney. He had the best college stats of any player in the 2003 Draft, and in my newfound infatuation with these numbers, I was desperately hoping he’d be left on the board when my Seattle SuperSonics picked 12th. Unfortunately, even a blind squirrel finds acorns now and again, and Scott Layden scooped Sweetney up three picks ahead of the Sonics. It might just have been the best move of Layden’s time in New York.

Sweetney spent the first half of the season buried, but finally found some playing time after Lenny Wilkens took over the New York helm and acquitted himself quite nicely. That 54.4% true shooting percentage is outstanding for a rookie, and Sweetney was a fabulous rebounder, pulling down nearly one in every five available rebounds. He was also one of the few Knicks not to embarrass themselves during the playoffs.

One of my few concerns about Sweetney was whether he could translate his ability to get to the free-throw line to the NBA, but that wasn’t really a problem. Entering this season, he has breakout written all over him (not literally; that would be strange).

Want some incredibly exciting news, Knicks fans? Here are Sweetney’s best age-21 comparables. Number one? Zach Randolph. Number two? Carlos Boozer. If I’m running the Knicks, I do whatever I can to ensure that Sweetney is playing at least 30 minutes per game next season, and let the results speak for themselves. Most Improved Player isn’t a bad guess, and I’ll pick Sweetney so long as a path is cleared for him to start.

Vin Baker

 Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 31.1 14.1 6.4 1.3 .517 12.1 0.05 89.2 91.8 .436 1.3
02-03 18.1 5.2 3.8 0.6 .531 11.9 0.02 87.6 90.8 .413 0.3
03-04 24.3 9.8 5.2 1.2 .530 12.2 0.11 88.9 90.1 .472 2.0 $3.131 UFA

Before I say anything about Baker, I want to emphasize that I am as far from possible as objective about Baker. He is one of my least favorite players in NBA history because of his time in Seattle, and as much as I may try to divorce myself from that, it still factors into my thinking.

To demonstrate that, I’ll start by saying I find it a validation of my WARP ratings that they reflect Baker’s uselessness prior to last year more accurately than do my linear-weights ratings. The 2003-04 rating reflects an interesting mix of Baker’s numbers in Boston and in New York. With the Celtics, he was rated at a .494 winning percentage and 2.0 WARP; in New York, those dipped to .393 and 0.0.

A lot of credit for Baker’s great start to the season went to his new svelte physique. Well, amazing as Baker’s transformation was — he looked different facially, he was so skinny — I don’t think it was the real reason he was improved. Baker’s fitness was never really an issue in Seattle after the lockout season; every year we heard how he was in better shape and was going to turn it around, but he never dead. I think, instead, that the noticeable uptick in play stems from the fact that Baker was, presumably, sober. By the time he got to New York, one has to imagine (hope?) he was still sober, but he also hadn’t played for some time and didn’t have a training camp to work his way back into the swing of things.

After his short stint with the Knicks, Baker is a free agent again. There is clearly interest out there in him; big guys are in such short supply, especially in the Eastern Conference, that somebody will give him a chance. I can’t see investing too much money in him, because of the history with alcohol. Even if it weren’t for that, Baker will turn 33 in November, and age alone will take its toll. Thomas seems interested enough by Baker that a return is a possibility, but I don’t see the Knicks gaining much by that.

Othella Harrington

 Year    MPG   PPG   RPG  APG   TS%  Reb%  Pass   Off   Def  Win%  WARP  Value  Salary
01-02 20.3 7.7 4.5 0.5 .567 12.9 0.01 89.7 92.0 .437 1.2
02-03 25.0 7.7 6.4 0.8 .563 15.1 0.04 88.8 92.0 .440 1.6
03-04 15.6 4.6 3.2 0.5 .546 11.7 0.02 87.0 91.3 .357 -0.8 $1.156 $3.150

Before last Thursday’s Draft, some friends and I were trying to make sense of Al Jefferson’s ridiculous high school stats, including better than 42 points per game (besides the fact that high school stats are only one step above meaningless because of the inconsistent level of competition), and one mentioned that Harrington averaged similar stats in the same league. Well, apparently that’s not quite true — he only averaged something like 29 points and 25 rebounds per game — but I had not realized that Harrington was an incredible prospect who was MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game in 1992. Maybe because I was 10 then. I also didn’t know he averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman and won Big East Rookie of the Year before his numbers trailed off, presumably because of Allen Iverson’s arrival on the scene after his sophomore season.

In the NBA, Harrington has found his niche as a high-efficiency, medium to low volume scorer who doesn’t offer a ton on defense and the boards. Harrington’s true shooting percentages are great, but they overrate him, because he’s assisted on a high percentage of his baskets (66% last season) and rarely picks up assists of his own. Harrington wasn’t as efficient last season and also posted the worst rebounding season of his career in terms of rebounds per minute. As a result, he went from an acceptable rotation player to a guy who didn’t deserve to see major minutes.

Harrington’s contract is one of the few on the Knicks that isn’t a problem; he’s signed for just one more year at slightly more than $3.15 million, which is more than he’d pull on the open market but not horrible. He might be included in some sort of deal, but otherwise he’ll play some spot minutes off the bench up front.

Kevin Pelton writes “Page 23” for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached at kpelton@hoopsworld.com. Check back Thursday for his analysis of the Knicks’ centers.