Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bucks 100, Spurs 98

I had a few thoughts about this game I wanted to jot down. There's also a solid recap of the game up at brewhoop:

For those who have trouble seeing why numbers people will look at point differential instead of won-loss record to assess a team's quality, notice that in this game: (1) Charlie Bell hit a couple of impossibly difficult jumpshots in non-crunch time -- shots that would miss 8 times out of 10 and shots that, if they had missed, could have tilted the game in San Antoni's favor, and (2) Tim Duncan missed an easy layup that would have sent the game into overtime. How often will these events happen in the same game? Milwaukee played great and absolutely earned this victory on the road, but realistically it's a game that could have gone either way.

The Spurs played a lot of the game with Tim Duncan as the only big in the lineup (as they have throughout the entire season as they wait for a number of injured bigs to recover) , and all of the Bucks took advantage by cutting to the basket whenever Duncan was drawn out of the paint. Andrew Bogut was the biggest beneficiary, scoring on a number of dunks over Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Duncan was drawn out of the paint more and more in the second half because of Luke Ridnour, who heated up and scored 11 points in the third on 5-8 shooting. The Spurs responded by trapping Ridnour aggressively to end the third and throughout the fourth, and the Bucks made them pay with smart off-ball movement. 

That isn't to say, necessarily, that the Spurs made the wrong choice by going to the smaller lineups (not that it is much of a choice, given the health situation). Combined, Tony Parker, Roger Mason Jr., Michael Finley, and Manu Ginobili shot 25-41, including 9-12 from the three point line. More often than not, if the Spurs get that kind of perimeter production, they'll win. 

The Bucks outrebounded the Spurs 43-29. It helped that Michael Redd (averaging 3.3 rebounds per game for the year) grabbed 10 rebounds himself. 

It doesn't show up in the numbers, as far as I can tell, but Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (who also happened to play a mostly solid offensive game) did a lot of really nice things defensively in the third quarter. He made the right rotations at the right times, and generally was always in the right place, and fought to get there. It's not surprising to see that for the season, he has the best defensive net plus/minus rating on the team. Considering that he's taking minutes that last year went to Yi Jianlian and Charlie Villanueva, it's understandable how much better the team is defensively this year.

I generally forget to mention when I think a local broadcast team does a good job, but I thought the Spurs broadcasters were very watchable and informative. There are a number of broadcast teams around the league who do excellent work, and I'll try to remember to give them some credit whenever possible (New Year's resolution!).

Example #408,344 that Tim Duncan is really good: check out this sequence from about halfway through the second quarter. Duncan, at that point, was a bit frustrated for a variety of reasons. Anyways:

- Duncan rebounds an Andrew Bogut miss and immediately turns around and leads a fast break, dribbling the length of the court and setting up Roger Mason for a wide open three point look in the right corner (Mason misses, but it's a brilliant set up from Duncan). 

- After Mason's miss, Duncan gets back on defense, and sees Andrew Bogut about to pass to a cutter in the paint before Bogut actually makes the pass. Duncan hops back into the passing lane and intercepts the pass, and immediately looks up and throws a perfect outlet to Tony Parker, who is streaking down the court. Parker misses the resulting layup, but again a great setup from Duncan.

- As the rest of the players work to get back up the court after Parker's layup attempt, Richard Jefferson finds himself with the ball at the three point line with only Tim Duncan in front of him (no one else has even crossed the halfcourt line yet). Duncan obviously knows the scouting report on Jefferson, so he sinks back towards the hoop and holds his ground, drawing the inevitable charge from Jefferson as he comes crashing into the paint. 

- On the Spurs' ensuing offensive possession, Tim Duncan makes a tough, leaning 8-footer in the paint over Andrew Bogut and draws the foul on Bogut in the process. Duncan completes the three-point play by hitting the free throw.

- After a Michael Redd made jumper, Duncan gets the ball on the left side about 15 feet out, and makes the bank shot over Bogut.

All told, in about one minute and 15 seconds of game time, Duncan leads a 5-2 mini-run for the Spurs, making every play on both ends of the court. In addition to scoring the 5 points during this time, he creates two turnovers on defense (one of which comes off of a fast-break situation), grabs a rebound that leads to a fast break because of his ball-handling ability, and draws two fouls. It's difficult to think of another player who could have done all of that in 75 seconds. Perhaps Kevin Garnett, maybe Rasheed Wallace? In any case, it's a brilliant little sequence in the midst of a very exciting game.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Possible New Year Turnaround Stories

Happy holidays, all.

The calendar is flipping into a new year, but the NBA season is just starting to heat up a little. Given that less than half the season has been played so far, it's easy to draw mistaken conclusions about what's going on in the league. I, for one, have no idea what will happen for the rest of the season -- it looks as though the best teams in the league right now are the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Lakers, but I imagine that Houston, San Antonio, Utah, and Orlando will have something to say about that eventually. In any case, I thought it would be fun to take a look at both the numbers and what I've seen from teams and try to project some of the "surprises" that we might see in the 2009 part of the 2008-2009 season (both good and bad).

By The Numbers: Almost The Entire Central Division
There are a ton of stories here right now. The Cavaliers are definitely one of the top teams in the league no matter how you want to measure it, but after them the rest of the teams have records that don't really indicate all that's going on beneath the surface.

The Pacers are 10-20 right now, but have played much better than what their record would indicate. They've lost more than their share of close games, and have played, in terms of winning percentage, the toughest schedule in the league so far. They do have the tendency to play to the level of their competition, following up wins against playoff teams with losses against cellar dwellers, but I think they'll get this figured out. The schedule doesn't get any easier in January, but if they're within shouting distance of .500 by the time February rolls around, they'll have a nice soft schedule that they can use to make a big playoff push. I can see them having a similar story to last year's Philadelphia 76ers team who surged into the playoffs and had some success against Detroit before bowing out. I can also see them finishing ahead of the Miami Heat in the standings. What's impressive about Indiana's strong play so far is that they're doing it all without one of their better players, Mike Dunleavy Jr. The injury to Dunleavy has forced coach Jim O'Brien into playing rookie Brandon Rush for big minutes, and Rush has definitely been the weak link in that rotation. If they can get Dunleavy back healthy for the second half of the season (a big IF, to be sure -- Dunleavy has been suffering from knee problems and has no scheduled return date, and has barely begun practicing), this might be a team to avoid in the playoffs. Danny Granger deserves a lot of credit for holding things together -- he's dramatically increased his usage this year (from 23.2% last year to 29.7% this year) without losing any efficiency, which is a pretty rare accomplishment.

While we're on the topic of teams that have refused to fall apart in the face of a tough schedule -- the Bulls have played the second hardest schedule of the year and are currently sitting on a 13-17 record. However, while I see the Pacers finishing the season strong, I can't really see the Bulls doing the same. That's completely a hunch, though.

The Pistons have been treading water, at best, since they traded Billups away, and despite their 17-11 record they really need to improve in order to have any relevance in the spring. Coach Michael Curry has tinkered a bit trying to find enough playing time for Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton, and Allen Iverson, and somehow the odd man out has been Amir Johnson (Curry decided to go small and start all three of the guards), who went from being a starter in November to barely playing by December. Johnson was forced back into the starting lineup in the Pistons' most recent game due to an injury to Hamilton, and the Pistons had a strong defensive and overall effort in beating a good Bucks team with Johnson playing 35 minutes. We can't draw conclusions from just one game, but hopefully experiences like this will help to convince Curry to keep Johnson in the rotation even when Hamilton comes back. He's the best rebounder on the team, and rebounding at both ends has been a major weakness for them so far this year.

Finally, the Bucks have really impressed this year, despite playing 20 of their first 33 games on the road against some very stiff competition, and despite playing half of their games without leading scorer Michael Redd. Rookie Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should be getting a lot more attention as one of the better rookies this year, and Scott Skiles deserves a lot of credit for getting a team without any notable defenders to play elite-level defense (their defensive efficiency is right around even with San Antonio and Houston so far), after finishing dead last in the league in defense last year. It's early, but it isn't unrealistic for Bucks fans to be shooting for a top-five seed in the playoffs and the chance to avoid Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando in the first round.

Conditional on Health: Jazz and Warriors
While my optimism regarding the Bucks and Pacers is based on analysis of the numbers to date, I'm also optimistic about the Jazz and Warriors for reasons that aren't necessarily based on the numbers.

The Jazz have played above-.500 ball this year despite both Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer missing a lot of games. Williams is back though he was slowed when he first came back and his defense has suffered, while Boozer is still out indefinitely. Paul Millsap did an amazing job stepping into the starting lineup and filling in for Boozer, playing efficiently on offense and much better than Boozer on defense. Now Millsap is out for a week or so with a strained PCL, and it really seems like the Jazz will never get everyone back at the same time. For the time being, the bench will suffer the most as Andrei Kirilenko moves into the starting lineup to fill the void at power forward. Despite the injury issues, I don't think there's a lot of doubt among analysts about the Jazz making the playoffs, but they make my "optimistic" list because if they can get healthy by the all-star break they can be one of the top 3 teams in the West, instead of just making the playoffs. Of note with the Jazz is that they are fouling a lot less than they did last year, which has really improved their defense since they aren't giving up easy points at the free throw line.

There really aren't any numbers to back up my optimism regarding the Warriors. Not only are they sitting on a 9-23 record, but there is apparently all sorts of turmoil throughout the organization. There is a power struggle among the coach, GM, and owner, the owner is going behind the back of the GM to sign older players to long-term contracts, the coach is trying to get a promising young rookie traded, and everyone from fans to front office people seem to be unhappy with the performance of big-time free agent signee Corey Maggette, among other things. Still, if you look closely, there are reasons for optimism. The Warriors are the youngest team in the league, and have had the most road-heavy schedule in the league (20 of their first 32 games have been on the road so far) including numerous back-to-back games and already two stretches of four games in five nights. So many road games so early would be difficult for any team, but it's particularly difficult for such a young team that needs, more than anything, time to practice together -- time they just haven't had. Furthermore, they've played the entire season without their best scorer, Monta Ellis. Ellis has been spotted at shootaround before games recently, and is hopefully close to a return to the rotation. By the time he gets back, the Warriors should be looking at a decent stretch of home games in front of the best and most supportive fans in the league. There are too many good teams in the West, and the Warriors are too far behind, for Golden State to have legitimate playoff hopes, but they are definitely better than their 9-23 record would indicate.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Game Recaps from December 23, 2008

It's been a little while since I've done any game recaps, and I happened to watch another three games last night and take some notes, so here we go.

Houston 90, Cleveland 99
The most exciting game of the night, for me. Cleveland won this game but I thought Houston played particularly well given that it was their fourth game in five nights. Houston stayed close until the end of the third, and then even had a run in the fourth to make it interesting. Zydrunas Ilgauskas did an admirable job powering Yao Ming out of low post position in the fourth quarter (when the Cavs often chose not to double-team him as they had earlier, giving up open threes), but couldn't keep himself from fouling out and helping to send Yao to the free throw line 12 times in the quarter. Anyways, I've been so busy watching the Bucks, Grizzlies, and Hawks this year that I've only had a chance to see each of these teams play about 3 or 4 times before last night. I was impressed by both. Aaron Brooks was all over the place for the Rockets in the first half, and as a team they impressed with their ability to score against an excellent Cleveland defense; meanwhile Mo Williams made some huge plays for the Cavs at the beginning of the fourth quarter with Lebron on the bench, and that was something that was missing last year (so far this year, the Cavs are playing about even with their opponents while James is on the bench, and that's a huge advantage for them). I thought the Rockets did a good job defending Lebron James, but I looked at the box score at the end of the game and James had 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists (although he was forced into 7 turnovers). So, I guess what I'm saying is that James is quite good.

Houston shot 8-16 from the three point line in the first three quarters, but only 2 for 8 in the fourth when Cleveland stopped sending regular doubles towards Yao Ming.

Chicago 98, Detroit 104
For several years now, Detroit has combined the talent to be the best team in the league with the attitude to do just enough to win. It felt like that happened again here, when the team played excellent ball in the first quarter, got a big lead, and then just kind of coasted to the win while riding the coattails of an impressive performance by Rodney Stuckey (40 points on 24 shots with just 3 turnovers). In the first quarter, Detroit went inside to Rasheed Wallace repeatedly and with great success and also succeeded in getting Derrick Rose into foul trouble (which threw off his game for the entire night), all while committing just one turnover in the entire quarter. During the first 9 minutes, Allen Iverson looked brilliant on offense, gathering 5 quick assists on all sorts of passes, hitting cutters and curlers as well as breaking the defense down off the dribble. Iverson ended up leaving the game in the third quarter with a strained groin, and Wallace shot 1-9 in the second half with 2 rebounds, after going 4-5 with 2 boards in just the first quarter, but Stuckey played well throughout and Arron Afflalo had a nice third quarter. Detroit only had 9 turnovers all game, which is impressive.

Lakers 100, Hornets 87
The Lakers played Trevor Ariza on Chris Paul for stretches, and it worked swimmingly. With Jordan Farmar getting surgery and probably set to miss several weeks of the season, I wonder if we'll see a lot more of this for the Lakers, who've had a lot of issues containing point guards so far this season.

Something I've noticed about the starting unit -- they defend well in the half court but often get beat in transition more easily than it seems like they should, given their athleticism and the pace they like to play at. Part of the reason they play so well against New Orleans is that New Orleans really doesn't like to run, but against other teams there's really no reason the Lakers shouldn't be able to get back in transition defense.

A late highlight of the game for me was a sky-high defensive rebound by Kobe Bryant with 1:30 left to play. The reason it was a highlight was the context. Rewind to about 4 minutes to go in the game, the Lakers have a 13 point lead. Here is how the ensuing three possessions go for the Hornets:

Possession 1: Chris Paul misses a shot and gets his own rebound. Then Mo Peterson misses a three-point attempt, but Paul gets another rebound. Finally, Rasual Butler makes a shot on the Hornets' third shot attempt of the possession.

Possession 2: Chris Paul hits Mo Peterson for a jumper.

Possession 3: David West misses a shot, but Rasual Butler corralls the rebound. Butler misses a three-pointer, but Tyson Chandler gets the rebound. Finally, Chris Paul hits the three-pointer, again on the Hornets' third shot attempt.

The Hornets got 7 shot attempts in three possessions, and it felt like they would have had an offensive rebound on the second possession if Peterson had missed. The Lakers' defensive lapses recently have included, among other things, an inabity to hold opponents to one shot attempt during important possessions -- for the season, defensive rebounding is the most glaring weakness for the Lakers defense, which shouldn't be the case with Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol aboard (the Lakers are currently 15th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, but are top-8 in every other defensive factor).

In any case, the Lakers still have a 10-point lead after Paul's three pointer (the Hornets are completely unable to slow Kobe down at the other end), but at this rate even if they hold on, the victory will feel hollow given the mini-collapse. The Lakers need to have a solid defensive stand on the next possession, both to ensure the win and also to stop sliding down the defensive hill they've been on. So on the ensuing possession, Paul misses a three-pointer, and the rest of the Hornets gather under the rim for what feels like the inevitable second-chance opportunity. But somehow in the middle of all those Hornets, Kobe leaps over Tyson Chandler and company and secures a very tough defensive rebound. Game over. Kobe once again hit huge shots down the stretch, but it was that rebound that I'll remember as being the most clutch moment.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Smarter Visualizations, Exploiting the Play by Play

Often here when I do a game recap I'll link to the pocornmachine visualization of the game in question, as a point of reference for the claims I might make about how the game was affected by particular lineup changes. I've always found the gameflow presentations there to be insightful and useful, and overally just a smart and effective way of communicating as much relevant information as possible from the play-by-play logs that are available to us. If you haven't looked at the gameflow data there yet, I highly recommend taking a look at a few games' worth to get a feel for how the information is presented and how to read it, as it's a valuable source of insight into a game.


A little while back, I stumbled upon a similarly ingenious visualization of play-by-play data, currently being presented here. It takes a while to get used to, but the use of color allows you to see at a glance which players were involved with various runs throughout a game, and at what point the decisive run might have happened. I don't have much to say about it right now, except to direct your attention towards that site, as it is a unique and interesting way to look at the data.

On the topic of intriguing visualizations, I always found the work of The Arbitrarian particularly smart. I especially enjoyed the network diagrams of player similarities, like this one. Sadly, that blog has been inactive for a while, ever since the author was hired away by an NBA team. Similarly, at countthebasket, Eli's use of shot location data to come up with detailed shot charts was really nice, and something I'm hoping to copy for upcoming team-by-team looks. Eli also got hired away.


Anyways, not much else to report here, just wanted to draw your attention to those new visualizations at the NBA Graphs website. Also, while I'm going over some nice references, I might as well mention the "Statistical Scouting Reports" up for each team at the basketball geek website. I found it interesting enough to add a link up in the reference section here, but do check it out. Try researching the opponent of your favorite team before a game, and see if there's anything to pick up and watch for during the game.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Canadian Dog Whistles

I don't want to cherry-pick articles and make it look like the NBA is under attack, and I don't want to unnecessarily draw attention to poorly thought-out columns by people who probably haven't seen an NBA game in 20 years, if ever. Really, I'd rather write about what an amazing game last night's Jazz-Pistons matchup was, or how brilliant Rasheed Wallace was in the first half or how much of a difference Deron Williams made in the second quarter. But I somehow ended up reading this article by Mark Hasiuk (which I arrived at through this post) and it seemed worth digging into, since most of the responses to it caught the obvious racist tropes but missed the old-school Jew-Bashing aspect. 

So, let's dig in:

Title: "NBA: a ghetto gutter run by money grubbers" - Dogs everywhere just went deaf. A question, though -- is the title anti-Black, anti-Jew, or both?

The NBA is America at its worst - Really? See, I would have gone with something more obvious, like indefinite detentions and waterboarding at Guantanamo. But you know, maybe it's the NBA. Yeah.

Players like Allen Iverson--perhaps the greatest basketball talent of his generation--spend more energy producing sneaker commercials than winning basketball games. - I honestly haven't seen an A.I. shoe commercial in a very long time. 

NBA players wear saggy shorts, roll in posses and cuss on camera. - Hey hey old friends! Why didn't you bring the rest of the gang, you know, tatoos, cornrows, and jewelry? (A few paragraphs down, there is in fact a reference to "flamboyant chauvinism, jailhouse lingo [and] black ink tattoos").

Television ratings have dropped steadily since 1996.  - Apparently no one filled him in on the news.

Basketball icons such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the late Red Auerbach have denounced today's players, calling them 'thugs' and 'bums.' - There isn't any reference here, so it's hard to respond. I would find it odd if Kareem had denounced today's players that he still works as a coach for the Lakers. Similarly, Auerbach was involved with the Celtics right up until the end. He also probably called everyone a bum, that's what you call people when you're from Boston.

Now comes the anti-Semitism alert. See if you can spot the dog whistle words and phrases in the below passage. I'll bold them, just in case.

Hip hop, a cultural movement spawned in 1970s New York, has been dead for years.

It sold its soul to corporate sleaze merchants, who repackage black music for a white suburban consumer base.

Nope, the remnants of hip hop--flamboyant chauvinism, jailhouse lingo, black ink tattoos--didn't kill the NBA. It was New York lawyers like Stern, who cashed in on the athletic ability of young black men while ignoring the social realities of basketball in America.

. . .

Ironically, the greed of Stern and his gang of crafty owners (ubiquitous Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban currently faces insider trading charges) may ultimately rescue the NBA from the gutter.

Look, Mark Cuban isn't Jewish, but anyone who's ever paid attention knows what "greedy" and "crafty" and "New York lawyers" mean. And "sleaze merchants" takes it old school, to the days of Shakespeare.

Stern can keep his basketball franchise. His NBA cabal doesn't belong around here. - Again, "cabal" has expanded its meaning and can be used in non-denoninational ways, but taken in context, it's hard to believe that the use of a word that's derived from Hebrew wasn't purposeful.

Oh Mark Hasiuk, who are you? Ah, it turns out that when you're not busy trying criticize a sports league about which you know nothing, you're writing about the threat to the future of a pure Canada posed by immigration from the third world. Well, I for one am thrilled that I won't be seeing you at the next game I go to. You can keep your pure Canada and your Pat Buchanon and your "European culture" that "spawned the now-universal tenets of democratic rule, personal freedom and Christian-based virtue—not to mention many of civilization's greatest scientific and technological achievements" -- but I'm keeping my NBA, my mongrel heritage, and the number zero

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mining Shaq's Rejuvenation

Chances are you've noticed by now that Shaquille O'Neal is having a bit of a bounceback year this year, particularly in terms of scoring efficiency, as he's currently on pace to set a career high in True Shooting Percentage at 61.4%. This isn't merely a case of being in better shape or trying harder, either -- from the games I've seen, the starters in Phoenix have gotten more accustomed to getting him the ball in the places where he's most effective. I noticed several occasions last season when Shaq would establish low post position but the guards wouldn't get him the ball quickly enough to take advantage, and that sort of hesitation seems to be gone this year.

The sort of success Shaq's having, though, raises some questions about the trade that brought him to Phoenix. The story we were sold when the trade was made was that O'Neal provided much-needed interior defense and rebounding. Most basketball fans probably noted at the time that Shaq is no longer a defensive/rebounding force, so obviously we were skeptical. Looking at Phoenix so far this season, they are once again one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league (4th overall), but they are the 26th ranked team in terms of defensive efficiency -- they're worse than they were in the D'antoni years. Specifically, their defensive rebounding rate is 22nd in the league (not any better than they were in 2006-2007, before Shaq's arrival). Individually, O'Neal's defensive rebounding numbers are pretty much in line with his career numbers, but digging a little deeper, the Suns only rebound 72.2% of opponent misses while Shaq is on the floor, which would put the Suns right around the level of the Knicks as a team, and opposing centers are averaging 13.8 rebounds per 48 minutes (for comparison, Erick Dampier, who plays on a similarly paced team, allows opposing centers to get 12.6 rebounds per 48). I don't mean to say that Shaq has hurt the team or anything like that -- in all he's having a positive effect and defensively he's a tremendously better option at center than Amar'e Stoudemire, but it does seem like a stretch to say that Shaq has improved the defense enough to justify the trade.

In a very close game last night against the Portland (who, granted, are the best offensive rebounding team in the league), the Suns gave up 15 offensive rebounds -- if Phoenix can corral two or three of those the outcome of the game is completely different. Most of the second chance opportunities allowed weren't Shaq's fault, but it does seem a concern that Phoenix can continue to get beat in this way after trading for him.

On the other hand, while Phoenix's offense isn't quite as efficient as it was in its most free-wheeling D'Antoni days, it is still very efficient and Shaq brings a lot to the table here. We've already gone over how efficient he's been at scoring, but there have also been other little changes that might help Phoenix in the long term. The most important, I think, is shot-creation. For the last several years, people have criticized the lack of an adequate backup to Steve Nash. Since there are so few players who can consistently create their own shots on this team, they were looking for someone to be able to create when Nash was off the court (this was part of the reason they were excited to bring Grant Hill aboard, for instance). But now, with Shaq, they have the option of running their offense through him, since he's such a skilled passer. Seven Seconds or Mess did a nice job breaking down some of Shaq's plays against the Knicks recently, and notice how many of them are passes leading to easy shots for teammates:



I'm wondering if, instead of helping the defense, Shaq's main benefit on this Suns team this year will be to create easy offensive opportunities when Nash isn't on the floor (obviously Shaq plays most of his minutes with Nash and the starting unit, but that unit doesn't seem any more efficient than it was before the trade, so I'm looking at those few minutes with the reserves). For instance, while Shaq is averaging 2.3 assists per 40 minutes on the floor with Nash, he's averaging 4.5 assists per 40 when he's on the floor with Goran Dragic. It seems like a really obscure reason to pay someone $20 million and trade away Shawn Marion, but is it possible that those few minutes of increased offensive efficiency when Nash isn't on the floor could mean the difference in close games in April, May, and June (recall, for instance, in game 1 of the playoff series against the Spurs two years ago, before all the controversy of the suspensions, there was the Nash bloody-nose game that the Suns lost after Nash had to sit out a couple of key posessions at the end of the game getting his nose bandaged and re-bandaged)? I'm not really sure, but it seems like an interesting tidbit to keep an eye on.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Around the League -- Early Fruity Storylines


As we approach the 1/3 mark of the season, I thought it would be nice to take a look around the leauge and see early surprises and storylines. In the process, I'll compare actual storylines of the season to what I talked about in the season previews for each team during the preseason.


Fired Coaches
So far this season, as of this writing, 6 of the 30 teams have made coaching changes. None of the firings were huge surprises on their own, but as a group to see 20% of teams change coaches within the first 20 or so games of the season is a bit of a shocker. I get the feeling that we'll see all of these guys, except for P.J. Carlesimo and Randy Wittman, in other NBA head coaching positions in the near future. Carlesimo, though -- I thought his head coaching career was over before the Sonics hired him last year, so who knows.


Fantastic Rookie Guards
The rookie class as a whole has been very impressive, with an assortment of strong centers (beginning with Oden and Marc Gasol, but also Brook Lopez), forwards (particularly Jason Thompson, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Marreese Speights, but also Kevin Love recently), and athletically intriguing question marks (Javale McGee and Anthony Randolph!), but the sheer number of strong rookie guard performances has been impressive.

Point Guards: Derrick Rose was supposed to be good as the first overall pick, but I'm not sure anyone expected him to be this good this quickly. He's averaging an efficient 18 points (54.2% True Shooting Percentage) and 6 assists along with some pretty decent defense for a rookie at a very tough position. At 4 rebounds per game, he's not quite Jason Kidd but overall I can see why the comparisons were drawn. Meanwhile, there have been a number of solid point guards behind Rose. Mario Chalmers has started every game for the Heat and has made a name for himself as a solid defender, averaging 2 steals per game in just 30 minutes. George Hill of the Spurs has provided some much needed scoring and shot-creation early on as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker worked back to full health, and is a big part (along with Roger Mason, Jr.) of why the Spurs didn't fall apart when their star guards were injured. His ability to get to the rim regularly without turning the ball over often helped what otherwise might have become a stagnant Spurs offense. D.J. Augustin, meanwhile, has been coming on strong of late, and is shooting 43.8% from the three point line while scoring 13.5 points and 4.4 assists in just 29.5 minutes per game. Russell Westbrook has played well since becoming a starter, and has excelled defensively, keeping opposing point guards out of the paint while being among the league leaders in steals per game and having an overall positive effect on the defensive end. He also leads all point guards in offensive rebounds per game despite playing just 28 minutes per game, and that sort of athleticism leads me to believe that he might be able to improve his ability to finish at the rim, so if he can improve his jump shot, he will be a solid contributor for the Thunder for years (maybe those Rajon Rondo comparisons were apt).

Shooting Guards: Both O.J. Mayo and Rudy Fernandez should be in the running with Derrick Rose for rookie of the year, and behind them Eric Gordon has had some good games. Meanwhile, undrafted rookie Bobby Brown has been consistently productive in providing offense off the bench, while fellow undrafted rookie Anthony Morrow has been quite the scorer when he has had the chance to play.

Rajon Rondo
In the preseason, I mentioned Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen as players to pay attention to. Allen is having a decent year, averaging career highs in steals and blocks per 36 minutes, but Rondo has improved yet again over his performance last year, to the point that he can legimately be considered for all-star status this year. His shooting percentage is up to 51.4% and he's averaging over 7 assists in just 31 minutes per game, while currently placing 3rd in the league in steals per game.

Devin Harris
Devin Harris is, so far, the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Did anyone expect that?

Cleveland Cavaliers Offense
In the preseason, I singled out Cleveland's offense and begged for Lebron James to be offered opportunities to work more off the ball. Well, that's exactly what they did and now, surprisingly, Cleveland has the best offense in the league. This is largely due to the ever-brilliant James having the best season of a remarkable career, but give credit also to the supporting cast, who have really picked up the slack in terms of efficiency, beginning with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, but also notably including Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Anderson Varejao.


Mike Bibby's Rejuvenation
The Hawks have played, I think, a bit better than expected so far this year. Joe Johnson has been very good, as expected, and Josh Smith has been strong defensively as usual. But Mike Bibby is having perhaps his best year of his career, as a 30-year old. He's shooting a career high 43.7% from three-point range, and overall a career high 55.4% effective field goal percentage. It'll be interesting to see if he can keep this pace up for the whole year.

Joel Anthony
In the preseason, I mentioned that the question marks for Miami would be at point guard and center. As mentioned above, Mario Chalmers has done an admirable job filling the point guard spot. Meanwhile, Joel Anthony has taken over Alonzo Mourning's role as shot-blocker extraordinaire, coming in third in the league so far in percentage of oppoenent's shots blocked.

J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd
I suggested in the preseason that Jason Terry would have a very good year. He has so far, but in unexpected ways. He's averaging a career high in points per game, as well as in field goal attempts as he has really taken to the sixth man role and is in the early running for sixth man of the year. J.J. Barea's ascent was unexpected, though. He's been a fan favorite and played well on offense, particularly since Josh Howard went down. And Jason Kidd, out of nowhere, has turned into a knockdown shooter, shooting 42% on his 3-point attempts (he's a career 34% shooter) and he's currently on pace to set a career high in effective field goal percentage. Also of note with the Mavericks has been Gerald Green's apparently finding a home, finally.

The Bucks' D
I expressed doubt in the preseason about whether Scott Skiles would be able to improve this defense, despite his reputation as a defensive coach. However, the Bucks have been, so far, the 13th best defense in the league this year, which is a HUGE improvement from their last place finish a year ago. Skiles deserves some credit here, but I doubt he'll get any consideration for Coach of the Year type honors even if the Bucks keep up this pace.

Mike Miller's disappearance
Mike Miller was a big part of the trade that sent O.J. Mayo to Memphis and brought Kevin Love to Minnesota, and it seemed at first like he'd provide a solid fit as an outside threat alongside Al Jefferson's inside game. At 28 years old, though, Miller is having his worst season of his career so far. His shooting percentages are down, but even more of a concern is that he's taking less shots -- his usage rate is down to 15%. In the games I've seen him play, he looks somewhat hesitant to create shots, but I wonder if a bigger part of the dropoff has to do with the fact that Al Jefferson isn't nearly as good of a passer out of the post as Pau Gasol.

Aaron Brooks
Last year the Rockets seemed to fall apart a bit without Rafer Alston in the lineup. Adding Ron Artest should have helped the offense some, but it hasn't. What has really helped is the emergence of Aaron Brooks as a legimitate backup point guard and sometimes starter.

Darius Miles
In a story that might only be interesting to me (and Portland Trailblazer fans), D-Miles has signed a 10-day contract with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Early Awards, etc.
It's too early to really say anything meaningful, but as recognition of those who have performed admirably in the early part of the season:

MVP: Lebron James (although Dwyane Wade should lead the "those who should receive more votes than they actually will" category -- his season is similar offensively to Kobe Bryant's 2005-2006 season).

Most Improved Player: Devin Harris (if it were still called "comeback player" then Nene would win this one in a landslide -- as it is I'm not sure he'd be eligible to win Most Improved).

Sixth Man: Jason Terry (a healthy Manu Ginobili will surely overtake him, but so far it's been Terry)

Most Defensively Improved Player: I realize this isn't a real award, but it was the only place I could squeeze in some acknowledgment of how much better Carmelo Anthony has looked on that side of the ball, both in terms of man-defense and rebounding.

Best Temporary Injury Replacement: Another fake award, but shouldn't it be real? To recognize the efforts of a bench player who is forced into starting due to injury -- this is quite different from being a sixth man. I'd vote here for Paul Millsap, who has been fantastic in taking over for Carlos Boozer early in the season.

Best Defensive Player: Ron Artest. Seriously -- watch a Rockets game, check out the numbers. The team is 14.6 points better per 100 possessions when he is on the court compared to off of it, and he's holding opposing small forwards to 39.3% effective field goal percentage and a 9.8 PER. Those number are a bit inexact, since he's not always guarding small forwards. But in any case, I think he's done a solid job -- hopefully the Rockets can hold things together while he and McGrady recover from injuries. I'd like to throw some consideration in for Andrew Bynum, though, who has done a remarkable job as an all-around defender, both positionally and in help situations. I don't think he'll get a ton of attention for this award, since he has impressive but not gaudy blocks per game numbers (1.9, but he's playing just 29 minutes per game), and the Lakers aren't known as a great defensive team despite being third in the league in defensive efficiency. But it's hard to find a consistently better defensive center.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New NBA Commercials

Courtesy of Alana G, here are some outtakes from the new NBA commercials. Lebron James + Cyndi Lauper. I think that should be enough to intrigue you . . .. There's more information about the commercials here, but in any case I'm pretty excited to see them. They'll be unveiled during the Christmas Day games. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Converting off of Defensive Rebounds


This is completely random, but I was curious so I played around a little bit calculating team offensive success immediately following a defensive rebound. Is a team aided significantly by rebounders who lead a fast break, like Jason Kidd or Lamar Odom? Are there any bigs who are underrated due to their effective outlet passing?

I took a look at the play-by-play data from 2005-2008, and every single defensive rebound recorded during those three seasons. I then removed those that were immediately followed by a timeout or by the end of a quarter, and ended up with a record of defensive rebounds that were followed by either a shot (made or missed), a drawn foul, or a turnover. For this study, we'll consider "made shot" or "drawn foul" to be successes, and we'll take a look at the success rates after defensive rebounds for different players. I'll look team-by-team so as not to have to worry about the quality of a team's offense skewing the success rates. In addition to success, I'll take a look at the average time between the defensive rebound and the next play, to see whose rebounds lead to more fastbreaks and early offense.

For the purposes of this project, I've included only players with 250 or more defensive rebounds in a given season.

Here's some notes from teams that have interesting stories (I'll skip the teams where there wasn't much of interest to take away):

Atlanta
Josh Smith's defensive rebounds consistently lead to much faster action than thos of anyone on his team. For instance, in 2006-2007, Smith's rebounds turned into an offensive play within an average of 9.6 seconds, whereas the rebounds of his teammate Marvin Williams turned aruond in 11.7 seconds. Last year, it was 9.2 seconds for Smith and 10.8 for Williams. The change over the years for Smith, though, has been his success rate. It has climbed each year, from 47% in 05-06 (which was second-lowest on the team) to 53% in 07-08 (highest on the team, and much higher than second place Al Horford, who had a success rate of 49%). So what happened? Well, the big improvements came in FG% after rebounds, which went from 42.3% in 05-06, to 50% two seasons ago, all the way up to 53.9% last season. This ascent mirrors Smith's own FG% on inside shots over the years, from 58.5% in 05-06, to 61% in 06-07, to 61.8% last year. Maybe he just got better at finishing what he started?

Charlotte
Last year Gerald Wallace's rebounds led to much more effective offense than those of any of his teammates, with his success rate at 55% compared to his team's average of 48%. The effectiveness wasn't a result of his necessarily starting fast-breaks, though, as his rebounds didn't cause any faster action than those of his teammates. So what's the story? I have no idea -- if you have any, leave them in the comments.

Chicago
Andres Nocioni's rebounds result in turnovers more often than those of any of his teammates.

Cleveland
Obviously, when Lebron James gets a rebound, good things happen, and they happen quickly. Lebron has high success rates every year, and his rebounds turn into plays close to two seconds faster, on average, than those of his teammates.

Denver
We know they've been a fast-paced team for a few years. What's intriguing here is that center Marcus Camby doesn't slow down the offense at all -- his rebounds turn into offense just as quickly as those of Carmelo Anthony. On a team that likes to get out and run, I could see Marcus Camby being hugely valuable since he is a very good defensive rebounder who is also good at starting the fast break. Without Camby this year, Denver is playing at a much slower pace than they did last year. Meanwhile, the Clippers are struggling, and, by the way, they are playing at close to the same pace as they did last year, despite adding prolific fast-breakers Camby and Baron Davis (discussed below). Maybe they'd be better using their talents if they got out and ran more?

Golden State
We've all seen Baron Davis and Monta Ellis single-handedly start fast-breaks, so it shouldn't be a surprise to see that last season their defensive rebounds turned into offense a lot more quickly than anyone those of anyone else on the team (an average of 7.2 seconds for Davis, and 7.7 seconds for Ellis -- compared to 9.2, 8.2, and 9.7 for Andris Biedrins, Al Harrington, and Stephen Jackson). I did find it odd to see Stephen Jackson's rebounds being not only the slowest on the team last year, but also the least successful, with just a 47% success rate. He is helped a little when you look at points produced, as he likes to shoot those pull up three pointers in transition. So even though his success rate is lower, his rebounds produce points at about the same rate as those of his teammates.

Houston
Tracy McGrady is easily the fastest Rocket around, turning his boards into offense in an average of 10.4-10.7 seconds each year (Rafer Alston is also pretty quick, but doesn't grab enough rebounds to qualify). Unfortunately for McGrady, his success rate has dropped each year, from 52% (which led his team and was much higher than the team average of 45%) to 47% to 46% last year.

LA Lakers
I expected to see Lamar Odom's name more prominently here, but in fact Kobe Bryant has been the Laker who converts his rebounds into offense most quickly and most effeciently for the last three years. Of interest to this year's Lakers' squad is the case of Pau Gasol in Memphis -- Gasol is one of the few bigs in the league who led his team in creating early offense off of defensive rebounds, turning his rebounds into offense faster than even the gaurds on his team. This year, it appears that he has continued that tradition, constantly looking for the outlet once he's secured a rebound -- but I'll wait to see the numbers before drawing firm conclusions.

James Posey
Posey gets his own entry here because he showed similar results while playing for different teams. For two years in Miami and one year in Boston, Posey's defensive rebounds were the slowest on the team to turn into offense, and had the lowest success rate.

New Jersey
Jason Kidd definitely likes to get out and run, creating offense off of his rebounds within 8 to 8.5 seconds each year (around 1 to 2 seconds faster than his teammates). But it's Vince Carter who has the highest success rate over that period. Kidd, a great passer in the open-court, might have just needed some more teammates who could finish on the break (Carter can finish and draw fouls on his own in the open court, so was less held back by the lack of quality teammates).

Hornets
Like Kidd, Chris Paul gets out off of rebounds much faster than any of his teammates, although Paul has a much higher success rate than his teammates, also. Peja Stojakovic, meanwhile, turns his boards into offense a whopping 2.5 seconds more slowly than Paul.

Orlando
Hedo Turkoglu wins the speed and efficiency contests here, and it makes sense from watching games -- a lot of times after he grabs a rebound he turns into the de facto point guard, bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense. The numbers show that this helps the Magic, which would partly explain why the Magic offense was so much more efficient when he was on the court last year.

Portland
Good things happen when Brandon Roy gets rebounds!

San Antonio
Like Gasol, Tim Duncan is another of the rare bigs who generates fast and efficient offense off of his defensive rebounds. So, add that to the list of good things you can say about Duncan's game.

Conclusions
Well, that was fun! Hopefully this will be the beginning of being able to look at offense and defense together. Most of the statistics available deliniate a very clear boundary between the analysis of offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Sometimes on television broadcasts we get to see statistics like "points off of turnovers," but I think that in some cases looking at points off of defensive rebounds might be valuable. The above exercise shed some additional light, I think, on a couple of areas:

- Point guards who can rebound are additionally valuable since they can so effectively generate offense off of those rebounds -- for instance, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, and Baron Davis above (similarly effective but not mentioned: Gilbert Arenas and Steve Nash, who tend to have lower rebound totals, so can't make this feature as much a part of their game).
- Marcus Camby, Tim Duncan, and Pau Gasol are special in their ability to quickly turn rebounds into offense through ball security and effective outlet passing. We should be able to take a look after this year to see if Kevin Love, he of the world-famous outlet pass, measures up.
- Maybe there is some value after all to athletic 3/4 tweener/hybrid types. Josh Smith, Gerald Wallace, and Hedo Turkoglu all proved to be very effective at both rebounding the ball on the defensive end and immediately turning those rebounds around into points on the offensive end.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Doing Homework, and Calling BS


There's something fishy about this:

Five games, five Golden State losses and a more than 2:1 turnover-to-assist ratio. Maggette's selfish play hasn't gone unnoticed by other players. According to sources, after the final buzzer against Boston, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett turned to Maggette and shouted, "Way to get your numbers."

"He just puts his head down and goes to the basket," an Eastern Conference scout said. "He doesn't even look to pass."

Word from team sources is that the Warriors are already regretting signing Maggette to a five-year, $50 million deal last offseason. When Monta Ellis returns to the lineup early next year, Golden State will have to figure out how to spread the wealth among three players (Ellis, Jamal Crawford and Maggette) who aren't very good at spreading it.


Was the quote from the scout recent, or something laying around the office? Had the anonymous Eastern Conference scout (and honestly, is there any justification for the anonymity here? This isn't national security, people) ever seen Corey Maggette play? This is his 10th NBA season, and this is the way he's played for the previous 9 years. Who are these "team sources" who say the Warriors are regretting the Maggette signing, and did they sign Maggette without ever having seen him play? Does anyone do their homework before paying someone $50 million?

Here's the thing: Corey Maggette has been a scorer whose style consists of putting his head down and going to the basket for his entire career. Maybe if it were earlier in his career you could try to criticize him for not expanding his skillset, but at this point, if you thought you were getting anything other than exactly what he's been for 9 years, that is stupid. No one has ever praised him for his great passing or his all-around game. He is a so-so shooter who scores efficiently because he can get to the rim and get to the foul line. That's what he's always been.

Ok, let's be generous. Let's say that Mr. Mannix, who wrote the article, and the "team sources" (if they exist at all) who are quoted, knew exactly what Maggette's game was throughout his carreer, but they are complaining that he passes even LESS than he did before. Let's see if the numbers back that up:

Compared to last year, Corey Maggette is taking slightly more 3-pointers per game than he did last year -- but this is on a team whose offensive identity revolves around jacking up threes. Further, Maggette is going to the line a little less often, but that seems like the flip side of shooting more threes. His usage rate is actually down, from 27.6% to 23.9%, which would seem to suggest the opposite of "selfish play." As for assists, his assists are slightly down, but he never got many assists to begin with. Further, his turnovers are down as well, and the assists and turnovers together might be a reflection of scheme as much as anything else -- Golden State prefers to shoot quick shots rather than risk turnovers. For instance, this year the Warriors assist on 52% of their made baskets, and that is fourth lowest in the league. 

All told, Maggette is more or less the same player he's always been. So why should I believe that his playing style is somehow surprising someone involved in a decision to sign him? 

But my problem with this article isn't only about the assualt on common sense. It's the liberal use of anonymous sources that has become so prevalent in sportswriting. First off, we have "According to sources, after the final buzzer against Boston, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett turned to Maggette and shouted . . .." Really? We need unnamed sources to describe what happened in an arena in front of 20,000 people? I realize Garnett can seem kind of intense and scary at times, but he's not in the mafia -- he's not going to kill anyone who happens to describe what they witnessed. This stinks of journalistic laziness. (Also: KG, you used to be cool, and I've always loved your game. But between this and getting involved in Bosh's business, you're starting to turn into Brett Favre. Please stop). 

Then, the quote from an unnamed Eastern Conference Scout. Putting aside the fact that even a scout from the Eastern Conference should know Maggette's game by now, I don't understand why the scout can't be named. He's not outing a spy here, he's describing something that anyone watching could see.

And finally the "team sources." I can see why they might not want to be named. Because they are complete idiots if they are surprised.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Re-Imagining Defensive Rebounding (plus some bonus thoughts)

A few early bonus thoughts:

While watching the Kings-Jazz game tonight, I heard Kings color-commentator Grant Napier refer to Spencer Hawes and Brad Miller as the "Ivory Towers." I did some research and found that Hawes was the one who originally came up with the term, which sounds about right. Hawes is a solid player who's improving every time I see him, but his sound bites are as goofy as ever. 

Also: Caught this at a fun blog, thought you might enjoy it. Click the link for more.


Also, a random question: does anyone know how to use greasemonkey scripts with google chrome? I'm sort of tired of having to open up separate browsers, and I like surfing with chrome but all of my scripts only work in Firefox. 

Ok, on to the main point. The last two nights, there were two very close games in which the game turned on a timely offensive rebound. The big story at the end of yesterday's Heat-Warriors game was Beasley's steal in overtime, but the game never would have gotten to that point if Udonis Haslem hadn't grabbed an offensive rebound and scored at the end of regulation. Then tonight, the 8-8 Pacers beat the 14-1 Lakers on a last second tip-in by Troy Murphy. In both cases, the moments were fitting, since Miami retrieved 45.7% of their missed shots and Indiana retrieved 36.5% of theirs (on the season, the Lakers only allow their opponents to grab 25.1% of their misses). So I've had offensive rebounding on the brain. But not in the sense in which it was discussed before, as a boon to offensive efficiency. Instead, I am wondering about how well a player helps his team prevent opponents from getting offensive rebounds.

Here's what our stats currently measure: At the team level, we have defensive rebound percentage, which tells us exactly what we want to know -- how well a team stops its opponents from getting second chance opportunities. However, we have no good way of parlaying that knowledge down to the individual level. Instead, we have individual raw defensive rebounding numbers (per game, or per 36 or per 48 minutes), and we have individual defensive rebound percentage, which tells us roughly what portion of an opponent's misses a player rebounds himself. The problem is that defensively, the goal isn't to get a defensive rebound, it is to stop the offense from getting an offensive rebound. 

Those two goal statements may sound the same, and at the team level, they are. However, at the individual level, stopping an offensive team from getting a rebound involves both going after defensive rebounds and not allowing the opponent to be in a position to rebound, and it's this latter part of the equation that isn't really measured. There's a bit of an analogy here to shot-defense, another important aspect of the game that isn't measured by any traditional stats. A big component of stopping an opponent from scoring is challenging shots and forcing low-percentage shots, but at the individual level there isn't any measure of how a player is defending opponents' shots. Seen through this analogy, defensive rebounds become as blunt of an instrument in measuring individual defense as blocked shots. (For both defensive shooting percentages and team defensive rebounding percentages, 82games.com does a good job of showing a player's effect in terms of on-court vs. off-court, but there are a number of limitations to that approach, particularly the inability to extract the impact of an individual player versus the effect of the lineups he's most likely to be a part of. 82games also does a good job of showing player and player-counterpart production, but doesn't separate offensive and defensive rebounds).

So, some preliminary thoughts that will hopefully inform the discussion:

1) When I read it, I found this study very enlightening. At the same time, I thought it supported an intuition I had anyways -- that, basically, a lot of times if a player doesn't get a particular defensive rebound, one of his teammates might still end up with it; whereas with offensive rebounds, that isn't usually the case. That intuition is presented in terms of the marginal values of individual offensive and defensive rebounds, but the gist (for this discussion) is: individual defensive rebound rates aren't really additive -- putting two prolific defensive rebounders next to each other (for instance, Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby on the Clippers this year) doesn't guarantee a great defensive rebounding team, since these rebounders are often just taking rebounds away from each other and their other teammates, as opposed to taking them away from the opposition (the study hints that on the offensive end, this isn't the case). 

2) After the Ron Artest trade, I wondered about whether Houston would be able to remain one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the league, given Artest's historically lower rebound rates. However, so far this year the Rockets are 3rd in the league in defensive rebounding. 

3) In a recent post on Nene, I discussed the fact that Denver is performing just as well this year in terms of defensive rebounding as they did last year, despite the fact that Nene has a much lower defensive rebounding rate than Marcus Camby did last year. (2) and (3) seem to provide examples of the point I'm trying to make -- that an individual can contribute to a defensive rebound without actually getting credit for that rebound, and that this contribution isn't really measured.

4) I have a feeling that defensive rebounds by point guards might be more valuable in terms of stopping the opposing team from getting a second chance than rebounds from other positions, and this link seems to agree, a little bit.

Ok. So, it's easy when watching a game to get an idea for who's doing a decent job of boxing out and who isn't, but there aren't great statistics to get a feel for that kind of thing at a summary level or for games you can't watch, and there won't be until defensive box-outs are kept as official box-score statistics. So instead, we're left guessing. For instance, I didn't get to watch tonight's Lakers-Pacers game, but I saw the recaps and the boxscores and the four factors information and the popcornmachine recap afterwards. What I gathered (other than the fact that I was right to worry about T.J. Ford) was that Troy Murphy and Rasho Nesterovic were primarily creditable for the Pacers' impressive offensive rebounding showing against the normally stingy Lakers defense. But for the Lakers, which players were responsible for the collapse? Murphy and Nesterovic combined for 4 offensive rebounds in the first half of the third quarter, when they were presumably being guarded by Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. However, Nesterovic grabbed four offensive rebounds by himself in the last 5 minutes of the fourth quarter (during which time the Pacers went on a 14-4 run), while Bynum was on the bench and Lamar Odom was in the game -- I'm assuming that at this point Nesterovic was Gasol's responsibility (during the same stretch Murphy, who was being guarded by Odom at that point, didn't get a single offensive rebound until the game-winner). Combined with the fact that Gasol himself only got 5 defensive rebounds in 36 minutes (and the fact that Odom was a +10 for the game while Gasol was a -6), I can sort of assume that he was the one getting beat the most often (while still acknowledging that defensive rebounding is a team responsibility). But as you can see, the process is roundabout and filled with guesswork. 

There's a number of cool stats that I've always thought could and should be part of normal boxscores. For instance, FGM-against, FGA-against, and points-against, which would track the efficiency of shots when a particular player was the closest defensive player to the shooter as well as the number of times a player was challenged during a game (here's an example of Kevin Pelton charting this type of data). Another cool stat would be a completion percentage on post-entry passes, which could add another layer of understanding to the passing game on top of assists. And now, I'm thinking I should add defensive box outs to that list, maybe with a box-out success ratio (how often a player's box-out stopped the boxed out player from making the rebound). 

Monday, December 1, 2008

Heat 130, Warriors 129 (OT)

I just finished watching this heartbreaking (for Warriors fans) game, a very exciting game (unless you're a fan of defense), and had a few very quick thoughts:

1) Jamal Crawford is to getting fouled while shooting three pointers as Mickael Pietrus is to accidentally stepping out of bounds as he makes a move.

2) New Named BoxScore: The Corey Maggette. A Corey Maggette is when a player scores 25 or more points on 12 or fewer shot attempts. Charles Barkley was an early practitioner of the Maggette. With a very different style but similar boxscore results, Reggie Miller and Kevin Martin have also shown an ability to put up Maggettes. Maggette himself came close to scoring a Maggette tonight, with 29 points on 15 shot attempts. On that note, Dwyane Wade was 3 turnovers away from scoring a D-Wade Triple Double (points, assists, turnovers).

3) Watching Wade got me kind of curious about how often he goes left vs. going right, so I did a quick calculation. Did you know that so far this year, Wade takes 35% of his shot attempts from the left side of the court, vs. just 9% from the right side? (He also takes 14% from the middle of the court and 42% from way inside, right at the hoop).

4) The Heat won this game with offensive rebounding. They retrieved a whopping 45.7% of their missed shots, which is completely unacceptable for the Warriors to allow. It's impossible to stop an NBA team from scoring when they're getting a second chance attempt after every other miss. Shawn Marion and Udonis Haslem led the way for the Heat, combining for 13 offensive boards between the two of them. So while it looks bad that the Warriors' starting guards combined for just 1 defensive rebound in almost 100 combined minutes of playing time (which is, in fact, pretty bad), I place some of the blame for the rebounding fiasco on Brandan Wright and Ronny Turiaf, who not only combined for just 4 defensive rebounds in 49 minutes, but also failed to box out Haslem at key moments (Maggette often boxed out Marion only to find him jumping over his head to grab a rebound -- this was just a mismatch as opposed to a lack of effort on Maggette's part). Turiaf in particular was so focused on blocking shots that he jumped himself out of rebounding position on several occasions (he did have 5 blocked shots in just 18 minutes, though). Part of the reason that Turiaf and Wright (who also had 2 blocks in 31 minutes) were forced out of rebounding position, though, is because of how easily Dwyane Wade was getting into the paint (Wade had 37 points and 13 assists, and also had 3 of his shots blocked in the paint) -- and that is on Stephen Jackson. 

5) Watching the parade of Warriors' free throw attempts (they took 52 free throws in the game), I got to thinking of the value of Corey Maggette. Last year, the Warriors were 25th in the league in free throw line scoring, averaging 20.8 made free throws for every 100 field goal attempts. So far this year, they are 9th in the league, at 25.8. Meanwhile, the Clippers were 5th in the league last year at 26.4, and this year they are 26th in the league at just 19.6 made free throws per 100 field goal attempts. Players like Maggette, Paul Pierce, and Dwyane Wade help everyone on their team get free points. For instance, last year Stephen Jackson scored 26 points from the free throw line for every 100 shot attempts he took, Andris Biedrins was at 21, and Kelenna Azubuike was at 17. This year, Jackson's at 29, Biedrins is at 28, and Azubuike is at 24. Some of this increase has to be attributed to Maggette getting opposing teams into the penalty early in quarters. His style doesn't make for the prettiest or smoothest of games, but it does lead to a lot of points. (Stats from KnickerBlogger).

6) Jamal Crawford is the bizarro-O.J. Mayo. He ended up having a nice-looking scoring night, but almost every single one of his shots looked like a bad decision until it went in. Earlier this season, I mentioned that Mayo had a really good-looking 5 for 20 shooting night. Tonight, Crawford had a bad-looking 11 for 22 (and this is something Crawford has done throughout his career). 

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Close Readings - Bynum's D, Durant's O

I thought it would be nice to take a close look at a couple of early storylines as they play themselves out in game situations. For this episode, I'm interested in: Kevin Durant's offensive effectiveness since his move to the small forward position, and Andrew Bynum's defensive contributions against teams whose bigs stretch the floor.

Kevin Durant
One of the major changes in the Oklahoma City Thunder since Scott Brooks took over as interim head coach has been Kevin Durant's move from the shooting guard position to the small forward, where many observers feel he is a more natural fit given his skillset. The move allows the team to play another perimeter player (Damien Wilkins), creating more space inside and allowing Durant to work closer to the basket. Early in his career, Durant has struggled to be efficient as a scorer, and partly because of that the Sonics/Thunder have been a pretty poor offensive team in terms of efficiency.

Durant has now played 5 games at the 3 position under his new coach. It's still very early, but statistically, the results are promising. Under P.J. Carlesimo, Durant was shooting a pretty low 46.1 eFG% (recall that eFG takes into account the extra point that three-pointers are worth). Since the coaching change, he's improved that to a solid 52.4%. Further, he's getting to the free throw line 3 more times per game than he was before (7.8 attempts per game now, 4.8 before the switch). One unexplained stat is that Durant is attempting more three pointers per game (3.2) than he was before the switch (1.3), although he's maintained his impressive percentage (43.8%). His turnovers are also down since the move.

Here's a comprehensive look at Durant's performance at each of the two positions, including minutes played at small forward before the coaching change. It's a very small sample, but the fact that the team is 15 points per hundred possessions better on offense with Durant at the 3 as opposed to the 2 is encouraging.

All of that should, I hope, serve as some background. But I am aware that, this early in the season, with so few minutes played, not much can be concluded from a look at the numbers. So instead I decided to watch and take notes on Saturday's Thunder-Grizzlies game (hey, someone had to watch it, right?). These notes will only be about Durant's offense, so before I begin, I'll make a few random observations from the game: on defense, Durant repeatedly got left out of rebounding position without anyone to box out when a shot went up. He ended up with 7 defensive rebounds in 39 minutes, but the Thunder allowed Memphis to retrieve 31% of their missed shots, which isn't horrible but could be improved (league average is just 26.9% so far this season). Of particular concern were Greg Buckner and Javaris Crittenton combining for 4 offensive rebounds in 42 combined minutes, as well as a telling play in the first half: Durant was guarding Darrell Arthur, who went up to set a screen at the top of the key for Mayo; Durant hedged to slow Mayo down, but didn't recover quickly enough as Arthur rolled to the basket; Mayo drove all the way to the hoop and missed a layup, but by the time Durant arrived he was behind Arthur, who was in perfect position to grab the rebound and go back up with a dunk. O.J. Mayo had yet another brilliant game. This was the first I'd seen Crittenton this season, and I was impressed with his agressiveness (8 free throw attempts in just 18 minutes, and no turnovers). Russell Westbrook leads all point guards in the league in offensive rebounding -- this just seemed worth pointing out. Also worth pointing out -- Westbrook is one of the few players whose rebounds deserve to be highlights by themselves. And finally, the Section 209 Crew at FedEx Forum in Memphis have been giving life to a lifeless stadium throughout this year, and even though I'm only watching on television, I'm grateful for their presence.

Anyways, on to the game. It should be noted that this was the first game this season in which Russell Westbrook was the starter at the point. Below are specific offensive possessions in which Durant played an important role in a scoring attempt, although I've left out several transition buckets that Durant got:

1st quarter
At the start of the first quarter, with Darrell Arthur guarding Kevin Durant, the Thunder focus on getting the ball into Chris Wilcox in the post, working against Marc Gasol. Durant doesn't factor much for the first several minutes, and Wilcox didn't do that much against Gasol. I found the strategy odd, since Gasol is an excellent defender, but whatever.

Halfway through the quarter, Arthur went to the bench and was replaced by Greg Buckner, and Durant immediately began working in the post against the smaller Buckner.

Here's how his possessions went:
- Durant gets the ball isolated at the left free throw line extended and draws a shooting foul (he makes both FT).

- After a weakside block by Rudy Gay (I forget on whom), the Thunder grab the rebound and Durant drifts out to the left wing while Gay is still under the basket. Durant gets the ball at the arc and shoots the open 3-pointer with 10 seconds on the shot clock. Gay is late closing out, but Durant misses.

- Durant gets ball on the right wing, dribbles left around screen by Westbrook, puts up a contested 22 foot jumper and misses. Probably should have waited for a better shot here.

- Out of a timeout, Durant takes Gay off the dribble from the right wing, gets into the paint and kicks out to Damien Wilkins for an open corner 3, but Wilkins decides to pass up the shot and dribbles into the paint. Durant floats out to about 14 feet and misses a tough-angled shot off of Wilkins' penetration.

- Durant posts up Gay down low on the left block, backs him down for two dribbles and makes a right-handed jump hook over him. This seems like the sort of thing Durant should be able to do regularly against a lot of 3's.

2nd quarter
Durant sits for the first 4 minutes or so, returning with 8:25 left and is matched against Javaris Crittenton at both ends.

- At 7:36, he posts up Crittenton on the right mid post and calls for the ball. Crittenton tries to deny the entry and ends up fouling Durant. Immediately, Mayo comes in for Crittenton.

- Working off the ball, Durant comes off a Joe Smith baseline screen on the left side and receives a pass from the top of the key and he catches the ball at about 12 feet just left of the paint with an open shot. Darko Milicic comes out to challenge while Mayo continues to pursue Durant around the screen, leaving Joe Smith unaccounted for. Smith begins to roll to the basket and Durant throws a bounce pass perfectly leading him, but Mayo, recognizing the opening, grabs Smith's right arm and doesn't let him get to the ball. The foul isn't called, and the play results in a turnover and a transition dunk for Rudy Gay. This was a nice play, despite the result.

- Out of a timeout, the Thunder go back to the exact same play, and this time it results in a Durant assist on a Joe Smith dunk.

- After a Grizzly time out (and an O.J. Mayo basket coming out of it), the Thunder again go to the Smith/Durant baseline screen. This time, Durant runs up from the left corner to receive the pass at the left elbow as Smith screens Mayo. Marc Gasol is in at center instead of Milicic this time, and Gasol positions himself to shut down any driving lane for Durant, but doesn't give Smith an easy lane to roll to the basket. Smith comes off the screen and settles in at about 15 feet. Durant turns down the jump shot and passes to smith, who misses a baseline jumper that he can usually make.

After that play, we see a series of possessions that feature Durant isolated on the left high post against several different defenders.

- Durant is isolated in the left high post against Mayo. He turns and faces, but Mayo pokes the ball away as Durant begins his dribble. Durant recovers the ball and ends up taking a tough 17 foot jumper while falling to his left, which he makes. He's 3 of 8 shooting at that point, but he makes 5 of his next 8 shots and ends the day 8 of 16.

- The next time down, Durant gets the ball in the exact same place (left high post), isolated against Mayo again. This time he takes his time and backs him down into the paint. No help arrives, and Durant makes an easy layup over the much shorter Mayo.

- On the next trip down, the more physical Greg Buckner guards Durant. Durant has to work a little harder for it, but again receives the ball at the left high post. Buckner plays Durant closer and more physically, so Durant turns and faces and then easily drives baseline around Buckner straight to the hoop. No help arrives, so Buckner fouls Durant as he goes up. Durant makes one of two free throws. The last three possessions show some of the versatility in Durant's game that makes it hard to guard him one-on-one if he gets the ball in a position to score. While taller defenders might have a little more success, there aren't many taller players in the league who are quick enough to stay with Durant off the dribble. If Durant starts with the ball at the top of the key, on the other hand, there are a lot more ways to shut him down or force him into bad shots.

Anyways, during Durant's free throws, the Grizzlies bring Darrell Arthur back into the game.

- On the next offensive possession, Durant is again isolated at the left high post, this time against Arthur. Durant turns and faces, but Arthur steps back and gives him the shot. Durant takes the 18 foot jumper but misses (despite the miss, it's a decent shot). The Thunder retrieve the offensive rebound and get it into Jeff Green on the right side in the post against Rudy Gay. Green sees Durant open at the three point line on the left side, but the cross court pass is intercepted.

For the rest of the quarter, Durant mostly hangs out on the perimeter while the Thunder outscore the Grizzlies 6-4.

3rd quarter
- Darrell Arthur starts the 3rd quarter, but on the Thunder's first possession, Durant gets fouled by Arthur in transition and makes both FT. The foul sends Arthur back to the bench, forcing Gay to defend Durant again.

- Later, after a defensive switch caused by a Durant screen, Durant finds himself posting up Mike Conley. Unfortunately, Damien Wilkins can't get into position to get a good angle on the entry pass, so instead takes a tough 17-footer as the shot clock expires, and makes it.

After that, the Thunder again begin feeding Wilcox down low against Gasol. This takes up much of the next several possessions (with a little more success this time -- forcing back-to-back defensive 3-second violations leading to technical free throws for Durant) except for the following:

- At about 7:20, Durant gets involved again, getting a handoff from green at the right elbow and driving to the basket. From the paint, he kicks the ball back out to green, who misses a 3-pointer (leading to one of Russell Westbrook's breathtaking offensive rebounds -- he had 5 on the night).

- Durant passes from the top of the 3 point line into Wilcox at the left free-throw line extended, then cuts down to the baseline, rubbing his man off of Wilcox. He gets the pass back from Wilcox and hits the baseline jumper over Gasol.

- Durant gets a wide open dunk off a sideline out of bounds play, but I can't see how he got open because the camera was stuck on a closeup of O.J. Mayo's face for some reason.

After a few more Wilcox post-isolations, Durant gets involved again:

- At around 4:10, Durant ends up isolated at the top of the arc against Hakim Warrick, with the other four Thunder players spaced around the court. Durant takes a hard left-handed dribble and pulls up and makes the straightaway 20-foot jumper over Warrick.

- 3:36. Durant sets up in the left corner guarded by Gay, Green posts up Warrick at the right elbow, Earl Watson is in the right corner guarded by Mayo. Westbrook dribbles up to the top of the arc, guarded by Kyle Lowry, and makes the entry pass into Green, then runs down to the right corner and sets a screen on Mayo, forcing Lowry to switch onto Watson while Mayo chases Westbrook along the baseline up to the left corner, which Durant is in the process of vacating. Watson runs back up along the arc and gets the ball at the right wing from Green as Green screens Lowry, while on the weak side Durant runs up to the left wing while Wilcox moves down to the left elbow and Westbrook arrives at the left corner. Wilcox picks off Gay as he chases Durant, and Watson passes the ball to Durant at the wing. With Mayo sticking to Lowry in the corner and Gay stuck behind Green, there is a wide open driving lane and Durant doesn't hesitate, taking the ball straight to the hoop and getting fouled by Gasol as he goes up for the shot.

- At 1:45, Durant gets the ball at the right wing, and tries to drive. He loses the handle and the play results in a backcourt violation turnover. This is significant since it's one of the only times in the game he tries to attack from the right side, and it doesn't go well.

- :40, Durant gets the ball in the left post with good position against Gay and quickly turns and shoots and misses badly. I'm assuming he was going for the 2-for-1, because he could have gotten a much better shot if he had taken a little longer.


4th quarter
Durant sits out the first half of the quarter, and comes in at about 6:06 with the Thunder down by 1, 92-91. He spends the fourth quarter in a very small lineup with Jeff Green, Earl Watson, Russell Westbrook, and Desmond Mason.

- 3:20. Durant gets the ball in the low right post, misses a turnaround baseline jumper (there's that right side again).

- The next time down, Durant gets the ball isolated in the left high post, faces up and drives baseline, and gets to the basket easily with a left-handed drive, and is fouled in the act of shooting.

- On the next offensive possession, Durant gets the ball in the exact same position, and again easily faces and drives with his left to the hoop, but this time help arrives and Durant gets called for a charge at the basket.

After that, the Grizzlies turn the ball over and Durant gets fouled in transition. The subsequent free throws put the Thunder up by 7 with 48 seconds left, and after that it is a free throw shooting contest.

The Grizzlies' help defense wasn't great in this game (and even though Durant exclusively drove baseline when he drove, the Grizzlies were unable to shut off the baseline penetration), but it was still possible to see some of the possible advantages to playing Durant in lineups with an extra shooter. A lot of those isolations in the left high post were possible because there was less congestion down low, giving Durant the option of driving or backing his man down to the paint, in addition to taking the shot. Because the Memphis rotations were late most of the time, I didn't get a chance to see how well Durant would pass out of a double team if he got in close to the basket, but that will be key now that Damien Wilkins (shooting 40.9% from 3 this year) is in the lineup with him (in addition to Jeff Green, who is still shooting an impressive 46.9% from 3 this year). In this particular game, Oklahoma City went on runs of 10-0 and 5-0 in the fourth with the small lineup of Durant/Green/Westbrook/Watson/Mason. That won't always work, but it was nice to see the coach giving it a shot. Defensively, Durant might be better equipped to guard forwards instead of guards since he lacks the quickness to do the latter (in this particular game, Durant was able to spend a lot of time guarding Arthur and Buckner, who aren't really offensive threats, and that allowed him to rest/roam on defense. When he did end up matched up against Rudy Gay, he struggled). However, without an extra big in the lineup, Durant will be relied upon more on the defensive glass, and he'll need to improve there in order to make this change work.

Bynum
On Sunday, the Lakers hosted the Toronto Raptors. I was interested in this game since the Lakers have recently struggled defensively a bit with teams who have bigs who can contribute from outside the paint. Coupled with penetrating guards, these perimeter bigs have drawn the Lakers' shotblockers out of the paint and left it open for smaller guards, exposing the Lakers' inability to stop dribble penetration. These weaknesses were apparent recently in games against Detroit and Sacramento. The Raptors don't have the sort of penetrating guards that would be able to take advantage of the vacated painted area that Detroit (Iverson) and Sacramento (Salmons, Udrih) have, but I thought it would be interesting to watch how the Lakers dealt with Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani anyways.

While the Lakers played decent defense overall, they occasionally struggled staying in front of Roko Ukic and repeatedly lost track of Anthony Parker. Altogether, the Lakers allowed 32 points in the paint. But even though I started out watching for guard penetration, what I was most impressed by and distracted by was just how well Andrew Bynum took to the challenge of guarding Chris Bosh.

Bosh has been making a case for himself as an MVP candidate this year, with 27 points and 10 rebounds a game and shooting 54% from the field. But Bynum held Bosh to 12 points on 4-13 shooting, and 4 turnovers in 37 minutes. With help behind him, Bynum kept Bosh out of the paint most of the night (with the exception of a couple of memorable Bosh dribble-drives along the baseline), and challenged shots much farther away from the basket than he's used to. Bosh shot 2 for 8 on shots outside the paint, excluding his lone three-point attempt (which he made), and shot 1 for 4 inside the paint. Some quotes:

And if you like what you saw, credit the Captain with a big assist. After watching Bosh draw a foul against Drew and can a 21-footer in his face in Toronto's early possessions, he gave Bynum some advice during the first time out. Smiled Bynum, "Kareem was like, 'Make sure that you stay within the arm length of him and play his left hand, before he even makes a move, play him on to he left side.' And it worked."


Bosh on the defense:

"They come from that bottom spot and take every pass away except the furthest pass, which is in the corner and the backboard is in the way. I have two seven foot defenders on me. It was very tough."
It remains to be seen how the Lakers will adjust if Bynum is consistently guarding a threat outside the paint and the opposition has a player who can regularly get past the perimeter D, but tomorrow night's matchup against the Pacers might be a nice test. With Rasho Nesterovic and Troy Murphy stretching the floor, T.J. Ford and Danny Granger should find plenty of opportunities to get into the paint without any shot-blockers there to meet them. I would worry specifically about Ford.

An unrelated aside
He's only played 13 games so far, but Devin Harris is averaging 25 points (on 49% shooting), 6.4 assists, and only 2.1 turnovers per game. His offensive efficiency -- 129 points per 100 possessions -- is unheard of for such a high usage (he uses 28.4% of his team's possessions) player. Historically, the only players who've ever kept up anything close to that level of efficiency at such a high usage rate for an entire season are Michael Jordan (1990-91) and Adrian Dantley (1983-84). We can probably expect Harris to come down to earth a little bit at some point, but you might want to keep an eye on him just in case.