Monday, October 26, 2009

Welcome to 2009-2010

Hello, world!

Fruithoopz is back, having put on 15 pounds of muscle in the NBA offseason. I apologize for the long time off, but it was much needed for a variety of reasons.

Before I get to any other business, I would like to recommend that you take in this important book from the good people of Basketball Prospectus as a way of preparing yourself as a fan for the upcoming season -- I've gone through it cover to cover, and still continue to page through it as a reference. It's a must-read. And it provides a better preview than anything I could put together.

Other notes:

- There are a couple of pretty interesting statistical issues to watch this season. The first is the "usage experiments" being carried out by Houston and Memphis, which should hopefully give us some pretty good data on the relationship between usage and efficiency, which we're always talking about.

- The second is Kevin Durant, whose ongoing development should teach us something about boxscore-based productivity metrics and plus/minus-based metrics.

- Joey had a pretty thoughtful reflection on the upcoming season, and the seeming changing of the NBA guard.

- Kobe Bryant is a fan of Ambrose favorite, Anthony Parker.

- I've expressed some appreciation of Andre Iguodala's game here, and have enjoyed him as a player since his rookie year. This post did a pretty good job of breaking down a lot of what makes Iggy good, statistically.

As far as fruithoopz, for the upcoming season, I'd like to spend more time doing game-by-game analysis. Overall, we'll stick to a similar schedule as we had last year -- with the first third of the season or so dedicated to looking at young or surprising players, the next third spent on under-the-radar teams that might find themselves fighting for a low playoff seed in the spring, and finally the last third of the regular season will focus on the contenders. I hope we have a great season together, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I'm currently compiling some material for a proper offseason post, but I happened to run across a little something that seemed worth sharing. Shannon Brown (pictured above) does not lift weights, sticking "mostly to push ups and [doing] little to nothing with his legs":

In fact, late in the season, Brown explained to us that while he did do some lifting in high school and at Michigan State, he has basically stayed away from weight training since entering the NBA.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Making moves

In un-composed bullet format:

  • From what I've seen, pundits love Minnesota's move to get the 5th pick in the draft for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. I am a little confused, though. All I've heard about this draft is that it's exceptionally weak. Now, I know the Wolves weren't going anywhere with Foye and Miller, but the Wolves actually picked up longer-term salary obligations, while sending away their best perimeter scorers, for the 5th pick in a supposedly weak draft and some serviceable bigs. I don't hate the move, but I'm not completely sold, either. I guess it all depends on what they do with #5?
  • And now the Wizards are really stocked with dudes who can score a lot and don't really defend -- Foye, Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison . . .. Flip Saunders has had some productive teams at both ends of the court -- this could be a fascinating team to follow next year if they're healthy.
  • I started out really disliking the Shaq move for Cleveland. And I still have issues with it. But last year, I said that Cleveland needed someone to create offense besides Lebron, and then Lebron went and had the highest usage rate of his career. One thing we know Shaq can still do at this point in his career, is create offense. Lebron could use the break.
  • Since I began writing this post, the draft started up. So, a couple of random draft thoughts: 1) Minnesota, enjoy the Ricky Rubio era. (and just as I write that, they pick Jonny Flynn also. Interesting . . .) 2) James Harden is going to be a great pro. I like him in Oklahoma City, I've decided. You heard it here first!
  • This required it's own bullet: I understand having concerns about Dajuan Blair's injury history, but his height? We know this: rebounding is a skill that transfers seamlessly to the pros. Also: Girth and wingspan can be just as (if not moreso) important to defending the post as height (Chuck Hayes, anyone?). If I know this, GMs should know this.
  • Does Sergio Rodriguez get minutes in Sacramento?
  • Get well soon, Yao.
  • So, my initial reaction to the Magic getting Vince Carter is very positive. It'll be interesting to see what happens with Hedo Turkoglu and Marcin Gortat, but Vince should work well on that team.
  • Apropos of nothing: I thought this was a useful case study regarding contract rules and the salary cap, particularly considering that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement will expire in 2011. It is an explanation of Kobe Bryant's contract options written by the always informative Larry Coon. (via Ramona Shelbourne)
Enjoy the draft, people!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Remains of the day

The first rumors I saw this morning had to do with a proposed trade sending Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen to Detroit in return for Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, and Rodney Stuckey. Like Kelly Dwyer, I was mighty confused that the Pistons would turn down such a deal, and I continue to be confused by the ongoing assumption that the Celtics are looking to move Rondo. Why would they be trying to get rid of the conference's best point guard?

But then the real moves happened. Milwaukee moved to acquire Amir Johnson and Kurt Thomas (along with Bruce Bowen's contract, which is only partially guaranteed until August 1), with San Antonio picking up Richard Jefferson, and Detroit taking Fabricio Oberto (whose contract is also only partially guaranteed until July 1). These moves make a ton of sense for Milwaukee, who needed to clear up space in order to potentially re-sign Ramon Sessions (a very promising young point guard, who I've written about several times here) without going over the cap. They got rid of, essentially, an average but overpaid wing in Richard Jefferson. In other words, the Bucks are cleaning up after a mistake they made last year, when they inexplicably traded for Jefferson in the first place. The Bucks' financial outlook, and options, are laid out really clearly in this well-written piece. A couple of additional points: 1) I am one of the handful of people who still really likes Amir Johnson, and think the Bucks made a solid move in picking him up -- it's a low-risk move that could pay off huge if Johnson can get some minutes and play without foul trouble this year; 2) While the Bucks probably have enough room under the luxury tax limit to sign Sessions and still have money left over (not Charlie Villanueva money, but some money), I wouldn't be surprised, if the Bucks go over the tax line this offseason, to see them make moves to get back under the tax before the trade deadline. If that's the case, watch for a smart contending team to go after Charlie Bell: he's the sort of player - a versatile guard who can play either backcourt position and who defends - who contenders can really use down the stretch.

I was sort of down on the San Antonio side of this move at first -- mostly because I've never particularly cared for Jefferson's game. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Because of their smart planning and management, the Spurs have the luxury to overpay an average player for a couple of years. Meanwhile, given the ages of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, it makes no sense for this team to be planning for any kind of future -- they are looking to win now. So, they pick up Jefferson, a capable defender who can hit the open 3's he'll see in the Spurs' offense. Additionally, Jefferson can still create his own shot -- not with a ton of efficiency, but still adequately -- and is the only Spur outside of the Big 3 who can do so. An inability to generate offense during stretches of games has plagued the Spurs for several years now, so Jefferson should provide a big boost (particularly if Manu Ginobili happens to miss some time again). And Richard Jefferson's tendency to stay on the court -- he's played in 78 or more games in 6 of his 8 seasons and all 82 games in each of the last two years -- shouldn't be overlooked as an asset to his team.

So all in all, a good trade for both teams. I'll try to put up some thoughts about the Wizards-Wolves deal tomorrow, once I've had a chance to digest the details.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Many Things

I got punched in the face yesterday. The way it happened was instructive. I was sparring, and my opponent threw out a quick jab towards my head. I slipped it without a problem, shifting my hips and shoulders just enough to hear my opponent's glove whiz past my left ear. But then I made a mistake. See, I saw him throwing a second punch right behind that jab, and I just assumed it was coming towards where I was at that moment, so I moved back in the other direction. And Whack! See, my opponent saw the way I was anticipating, so he took advantage by throwing a punch not where I was, but where I would be. As it turns out, I should have just stayed where I was (and thrown a hook, but that's another story), and responded to the actual punch rather than trying to anticipate it.

So why is that informative? During this time of year, just before the draft, as basketball fans, it's easy to get caught up in unsourced rumors and speculation. For a couple of weeks it seems like everyone is going everywhere (Al Jefferson to Phoenix, Josh Smith to anywhere, and so on and so forth), and when everything settles, it's often the case that most of those players didn't get moved. It's better for us, then, not to chase every possibility, but rather to let things unfold and respond to things that actually happen, rather than to rumors. And that's what we'll do here. I'll respond to the occasional rumor when a writer makes a point that seems blatantly wrong, or, on occasion, something insightful, but if there's nothing to learn from a rumor, then it'll be ignored here.

Ok, so what's up in the league? Congratulations to the Lakers, first of all. Further, a couple of quick links:

This seems important, as a continuation of the narratives begun by Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler in the men's game.

This basically summed up my own response to the "Shaq to Cleveland" rumros. Except that I would add one other complaint: if you claim to be looking for someone who can defend Dwight Howard without help, why on earth would you go after someone who can't defend the pick and roll?

I know nothing about the NCAA, and I readily admit it. That might be why I'm rooting for Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings to succeed. In general, though, the source I trust most for draft-related information is draftexpress. I recommend going there before the draft. For no particular reason at all, the players I'm most curious about seeing in the NBA are (and have the highest hopes and expectations for): Ricky Rubio, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Earl Clark, Omri Casspi, and Rodrique Beaubois. I also see no reason why Dajuan Blair and Darren Collison won't be solid pros, at the very least. What do you think?

Random musing on the Reggie Evans - Jason Kapono trade: good for both teams!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hey reporter! Do your job!

No more cliches!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Real Talk

At what point are we allowed to say that Lamar Odom has officially arrived? I am voting for now. From this point forward, we don't refer to him as having "potential" or being an "enigma" or being "mercurial." He is who he is, right now, and it is great.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Links: A Bit of game analysis

This first link is actually from before game 1, but it goes over a play that the Magic did run a bit in the first game, and wil surely run more. You'll need to log-in to view the full report, but the account is free and if you're a Lakers fan, why don't you already have one?

At Seven Seconds or Mess, Gian goes over a little bit of what the Lakers did defensively, highlighting a few excellent defensive possessions for the Lakers. He also shows examples of Rashard Lewis choosing to pull up when he could have been far more effective if he had attacked the basket. Make sure to pay attention to this video, and expect to see (and watch for) Lewis be more agressive in game 2.

And finally, at X's and O's the coach takes a look at the topic that everyone was going on about after the game -- Kobe's mid-range proficiency shredding the Magic defense. What sorts of adjustments should we expect from the Magic? Well:

I think for Game 2, you'll see Stan Van Gundy go with more traps and double-teams on Kobe. The key will be how the weak side defenders zone up and close out on the other Laker players. That is what the Nuggets couldn't do, they doubled, but they couldn't properly defend on the weak-side, allowing players like Ariza and Odom to get off good shots.

Hmmn. I can't wait to see how it plays out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Quick Thoughts in Advance of Game 1

There are all sorts of previews of this series and stories about each team out there that are worth reading. I won't recap all of them, but here are links to a handful that I personally found to be illuminating:
  • Kevin Arnovitz is a good of a basketball writer as there is out there, and luckily for us he's done quite a bit of work looking at the Magic recently. Three of the resulting articles which I found incredibly enlightening: Seven Reasons to Fear the Orlando Magic, When Orlando Has it Going, and It's not Magic, it's Execution. One point that really comes through in all of them: the Magic are really well-coached, as they are always executing flawlessly. There is more here than a superficial look would lead you to believe, which is why you should really check those pieces out, if you haven't already. Since we're already talking about Arnovitz, here's a nice little musing on why this is such an exciting series for basketball fans
  • A two-parter at Forum Blue and Gold, focusing on when the Magic have the ball and when the Lakers have the ball. The former includes a pretty detailed breakdown of the dangerous Magic high pick and roll, and the Lakers' options in defending it. Also, I also would like to see Kobe Bryant posting up Courtney Lee at every opportunity.
  • Kevin Pelton takes a look at the series, and sees advantages and disadvantages at both ends (though there seem to be more matchup advantages for the Lakers). One specific matchup to watch is the Rashard Lewis - Pau Gasol one, though how much we see of it depends on Odom's minutes and Bynum's fouls. Pelton, like many expect Gasol and Lewis respectively to light each other up on offense, assuming neither can defend the other. I'm a bit of a Laker homer, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think Gasol might do a serviceable job defending Lewis.
  • Tom Ziller brings up one of the more curious stories of the series: all season, the Lakers have played a style of defense that actually allows for a lot of weakside 3-point attempts. It has worked for them, as they had the 6th best defense in the league during the year, but Orlando's whole gameplan is trying to create open 3's. Will the Lakers continue to play a style of defense that seems to play right into Orlando's hands? My guess is probably not, but it is important to emphasize that the Lakers don't give up 3's willy-nilly, that they're smart about what they concede, which is part of why the Lakers were the third best team in the league at holding opponents to a low FG% from 3. Then again, the Cavs were first, and Orlando torched them from beyond the arc. The Lakers' perimeter defenders are longer and better suited to close out the tall Orlando shooters, but Orlando is still going to have stretches where they score in bunches from the 3-point line.
  • This interview with Lakers Advance Scout Rasheed Hazzard was pretty ineresting.
I would like to once again point out that the Magic defense was the best in the league all season. That seems to get lost sometimes in all the chatter about three-pointers and whatnot. The Lakers have an offense that is, at its best, completely unstoppable, but please don't call them soft or underachieving or anything if they have stretches of struggling to score. Orlando is as good of a defense as there is out there.

We'll have more time in the upcoming days, weeks, months, years, here at fruithoopz to dwell on Kobe Bryant's game. But it's worth reminding yourself that he's smart, and that's a big part of his success. That article is a little bleh and over the top idolizing, but pay attention to him on the court during this series, whether or not he has the ball. There are plenty of guys in the league who are bigger, taller, faster, stronger, quicker, and higher leapers than he is, but he's the "superstar" we're left with because he knows so much and because he prepares so well. He doesn't just put himself in the best positions to score (though he does that), but positions himself at both ends of the court in just the right positions to be most helpful to his team, just by being there. Trouble getting the ball into Gasol in the post? He'll cut and set up on the weak side, knowing he's taking defenders and attention with him, to clear a lane for the entry pass. Double team? He'll get as far back as possible to give his teammates room to operate 4-on-3. And if the Lakers send help, he'll be in just the right place to defend two guys on the weakside. These are all really basic examples, but he does a lot more. The assist is an incredibly cheap way to measure "making teammates better." Kobe Bryant changes the geography of the basketball court.

So does Dwight Howard, by the way, in his own way.

If, throughout the finals, you are limited in terms of the time you can spend reading up on what's going on, just limit yourself to pieces by Kelly Dwyer and you should be fine. (If you have more time, though, then come here and click on the links to the right).

I am really curious about Dwight Howard in this series. Are we supposed to believe after the Cleveland series that he's now arrived as a post scorer? Even though he's never shown it before? The pick and roll is one thing, but I'm guessing that in other situations the Lakers choose to single cover Dwight in the post and see what he's capable of. Make him prove it.

On a completely unrelated note: fruithoopz contributor Ambrose has an art exhibit opening at the mauve? gallery on Monday. Support!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Initial Finals Thoughts

First off: congratulations to both the Magic and the Lakers. Both of these teams deserve to be exactly where they are, and together form an absolutely worthy pair of potential champions. Further, both teams have gone through an incredible amount to get to where they are now -- Boston, Cleveland, Houston, and Denver would be included in the top six teams in the NBA in every year that I can recall. On that note, Charles Barkley said something during the Cavs-Magic postgame that I think will be lost over the coming days -- that Cleveland's winning the most games during the regular season was a remarkable accomplishment. Take a look at that roster, 2 through 15, and then think about how much credit is due to Mike Brown, Lebron James, and the willingness of all of those role players to put everything into filling their roles perfectly.

Also, regarding the Magic: please ignore any talk that suggests that their being here is a fluke. Further, I would like to suggest the following statement for further discussion. It is currently an incomplete thought, but I think it is a starting point for something productive: Jameer Nelson is to the 2009 NBA playoffs as Andrew Bynum was to the 2008 playoffs.

Finally, before we begin an ongoing discussion of the Lakers-Magic matchup, we should take a moment to give credit to Mr. Courtney Lee. A rookie. Think about that, for a moment. All season, and throughout the playoffs, this young man has been exactly what Orlando has needed, and we just don't see that from a rookie.

Ok, so what is there to say about Lakers-Magic? We'll hopefully continue to talk about the matchups up until Game 1 on June 4th, and throughout what should be a fascinating series. In the meantime, here are some initial thoughts.

Rebounding: As is often the case with the Lakers, the rebounding battle should be an enlightening one. During the regular season, the Lakers were the 3rd best offensive rebounding team in the league, while the Magic were the 2nd best defensive rebounding team in the league. If the Magic are able to limit the Lakers' second-chance points, they have a chance of slowing down an incredibly impressive offense -- during the regular season the Magic were one of the best teams in the league at defending the two most efficient areas on the court -- the three point line and the area closest to the basket (the Magic's success in both of these areas is evidence backing up Dwight Howard's choice as Defensive Player of the Year: discuss). The Magic's ability to defend efficient shot attempts without compromising their team defensive positioning (they are able to defend most positions without having to collapse and leave open shooters, thanks to Dwight Howard's ownership of the paint) allows them to be in position to rebound to finish out defensive posessions. So, for instance, the Magic held the 76ers -- the second best offensive rebounding team in the league during the regular season, to retrieving just 21% of their own misses in the playoffs, far below average.

And individual matchups? A couple of quick thoughts: Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza are as well-suited to guarding the Magic's nightmare forward lineup of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis as anyone in the league. Those guys will present mismatches no matter what, but against the Lakers, that effect should be minimized. At the other end, while I admire what Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus have accomplished this year, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Kobe Bryant is uniquely suited to destroying the Magic defense.

The real story will be Dwight Howard on offense. During the playoffs, he has shown growth at that end, to the point where you can no longer count on being able to force him into turnovers with unexpected doubles (he's been making better and better passes), or being able to effectively single-cover him (Kendrick Perkins was able to do this, but there aren't any Lakers with Perkins' ability as a post-defender).

We'll have some more complete thoughts up here in the coming days, but I wanted to start the discussion right away. If you have any thoughts, leave them below.

Predictions? I'll go Lakers, in 5 or 6.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Before you crown Cleveland

Let me tell you something. During the regular season, and so far in the playoffs, Cleveland has been a better team than Orlando. They've had a better record, a better efficiency differential, and any look at the stats currently available lead to only one reasonable conclusion -- that the Cavaliers are more likely to win the Eastern Conference than the Magic are. The Cavs are playing with a better starting hand.

Part of the reason I like to focus on matchups in playoff series is because I still believe they're important. But another reason is because there is actually a discussion to be had. I'm sorry, but claiming that the "better" (in terms of efficiency differential or won/loss record) team will win, and then if they don't, blaming it on luck? I'm not insisting it's wrong -- my day job as a statistician doesn't really allow me to go that far -- but I will say: that is boring.

So, let's talk about matchups. Among his many skills and talents, Lebron James has a remarkable ability to get into the low paint on offense, and finish once he's there. The stats at 82games bear it out, as does the Hotspot map:

Recall my own writings on offense and defense in the "low paint" from earlier posts. Lebron took nearly 40% of his shots from that area, and converted at a close to 70% rate. Cleveland's offense relies on that efficiency to generate points and create opportunities for the rest of the team. Any team hoping to slow them down needs a way to challenge him near the rim without collapsing and leaving wide open spot-up shooters. And it just so happens, the Magic have someone who can help with that.

Three games isn't enough to prove anything one way or the other, but what we've seen of Lebron vs. the Magic has been telling. The splits show that he has shot worse percentages (47% eFG%, vs. 53% for the season), but luckily I can dig even deeper. As it turns out, when Dwight Howard was on the court, Lebron took 63 shot attempts, but only 7 of those (11%) came in the low paint -- this is a far lower rate than what he was used to over the season (this speaks well not only for Dwight's help defense in the halfcourt, but the Magic's transition D also; it probably also has something to do with Lebron perhaps choosing to shoot 3's when he was hitting them). Lebron is actually a decently effective, if streaky, midrange shooter -- the thing is, at that range, he is human. You can beat a human in basketball. All told, Lebron hit 28 of his 63 shots when Dwight Howard was on the court, resulting in 61 points. 61 points on 63 shots comes out to an eFG% of 48%, which just isn't enough for Cleveland to win regularly. It's not just the points lost on his attempts (after all, if he shoots his season average, he scores 67 points on those shots -- 6 points over 3 games isn't a huge change), but the opportunites that don't open up for guys whose job it is to shoot wide open shots without having to put the ball on the floor.

Orlando struggled with Boston. Boston is a hell of a team, though, even though they were greatly diminished by injuries. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen can shoot mid-range shots off the dribble more efficiently than anyone on Cleveland's roster. These things matter.

The Lebron-Dwight matchup at the rim isn't the only story of this series. But I don't want to pretend it's completely unimportant. It will be important for Cleveland's offense for their bigs to move effectively without the ball and find open spots either at the basket or on the perimeter, while Dwight Howard is focused on helping on Lebron. If Ilgauskas (and Joe Smith) is hitting consistently from outside, or Varejao is finding open lanes to the rim, then the Cavs should be pretty efficient offensively. But those things are not guaranteed. The big takeaway for me: you give yourself a chance when Lebron produces like a human (still a star, but not an otherworldly one).

So let's give Orlando more of a chance than all of these people. Not because they're all wrong, but because I hope that the playoffs are about more than 7 flips of a weighted coin, weighted for the team with the better efficiency differential over the course of the season. There is something unsettling about the unanimity in favor of the Cavs. Like everyone is overlooking just how brilliant the Magic D is, or how dangerous the mismatches caused by Turkoglu and Lewis can be when the Magic are on offense. Forget all of the drivel about killer instincts and having a closer and this and that. The Magic have gotten this far against far tougher competition than Cleveland. Now is when they show us who they are, whether they have the instinct, whether they can get it done. We can't assume failure before they've even begun. Bollocks to conventional wisdom, Vitamin Water, ESPN, and even my beloved stats people. I'm picking the Magic in 6.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

Quick Follow Up

In the previous post (please read), I meant to write something about Rajon Rondo and walking the dog, in regards to the Magic-Celtics Game 1. As it turns out, though, Henry Abbot beat me to it, and wrote it much better than I would have:

Rafer Alston made, honestly, one of the most fascinating and exciting plays of the year with about 3:23 left in the game. After a Dwight Howard free throw, the Magic were up a dozen. Perhaps the game would soon be out of reach. 

With a stopped clock, Rondo had the opportunity to save some precious seconds. The clock wouldn't start until he touched the ball. So he didn't, letting it bounce up the court.

This is sometimes called walking the dog.

Alston gave Rondo room ... to a point. But as Dwight Howard ran by, Alston hid behind him a bit and then ... POUNCED FOR THE KILL. Just launched his body fully horizontal, like a jaguar, diving cleanly between Rondo and that ball. 

If Rondo walked the dog, and Alston was a dog assassin.

Just so ballsy and strategic. It was a risky play by Alston, and bizarre and creative. But justified, as it worked.

But then he was lying on the floor, more or less on the ball, while Mr. Big Active Hands Rajon Rondo began to work him over. Alston's teammates didn't know what was up, and didn't rush to make themselves targets for an Alston pass. Within a couple of seconds, Rondo not only had the ball back, but he then fired a strike to Brian Scalabrine, who was wide open for a game-changing 3.

The one thing that the Magic got out of it, however, was that they had at least made Rondo think twice about where he walks his dog. Right?


In the game's closing seconds, Rondo showed all of his indomitability, by making history for quite probably the longest dog walk ever in NBA play. He escorted the ball, untouched, three-quarters of the length of the court, before plucking it up at the 3-point line and firing. A hero for doing that. And a flawed one, for missing as badly as he did.

Real Talk

(Title stolen from a friend of the site)

Real Talk
Yao Ming is a baller

I think Ron Artest is great, but come on -- Yao Ming needs some better PR. Fuck what you heard, he's the best center we have in the game right now. And he was healthy all season. And he's killing it in the playoffs.

Which reminds me: is this year the redemption of the foreign player? The regular season storyline was about the U.S. Olympic Team players playing out of their minds.  But with the last couple of years, we've seen the storylines surrounding Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol in the playoffs reflect a general attitude towards international players that has been a little concerning (see this, for instance). But now in the playoffs, between the way Yao Ming has been playing, and the way Dirk Nowitzki has been playing (also fantastic), it seems like maybe we might have a bit of a redemption year. Not to mention the play of Luis Scola, which has been superb. 

And: Orlando has matchup advantages all over the floor against Boston. The fact that Boston came back tonight -- that's either a big concern, or a giant fluke. I'm not sure yet. During that fourth quarter run, Orlando seemed so caught up in trying to exploit mismatches that they started going into pure iso-play, which I don't see working against a defense like Boston's. Orlando won the game, though, so let's hope they learned their lesson. You heard it here first: Orlando WILL give Cleveland some trouble if they meet in the playoffs. Cleveland can win the series, but the way it's written about it's like it's a done deal. Don't sleep on the Magic. 

Back to the Rockets: Did I mention Yao Ming led my "points saved in the low paint" stat? He's good, people. And he was healthy this year. That is important. We are lucky.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thoughts while watching the playoffs in my hotel room in Charlotte

- I support Josh Smith's mustard-filled dunk attempt, despite the unfortunate result. Anyone who's been watching the Hawks this year has seen how much his dunks mean to that crowd, and how much the crowd's support seems to feed the team. And: THEY WERE UP 20! Relax, TNT crew.
- That Denver team has been packed with talent for a while now. But these days, the difference is that the pieces make sense, together, despite the whole picture being rather fantastical. Chauncey Billups is a part of this, but there's more going on there. Nene and Kenyon Martin make more sense down low than Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin. And Chris Andersen coming in off the bench (not to mention Balkman) is huge. And J.R. Smith is insane, but an absolute thrill. And Carmelo Anthony, despite his down scoring year, is still, I think, a completely different player this year and has been incredibly effective. 
- The TV was all over two upcoming matchups in the Denver-Dallas series: Jason Kidd vs. Chauncey Billups, and Josh Howard vs. Carmelo Anthony. I agree that both of those (particularly the latter) will be great fun to watch. And Josh Howard has been great fun to watch lately. But my first two thoughts were: Kenyon Martin defending Dirk Nowitzki, and Jason Terry/J.R. Smith off the bench. 
- Oh my lord, the Bulls and Celtics. Jesus Jesus Ray Allen off the curl, over and over. And then Big Baby Davis hitting some big shots and huzzah John Salmons and great job Brad Miller. But I thought that Joakim Noah's steal/dunk was going to be the play of the game. When that happened, I jumped out of my hotel bed. Then, a couple minutes later, the Derrick Rose block on Rondo . . .. Just wow. 

- Congratulations Rockets!! I still think the Lakers are a better team here, but the Rockets are a very very good team. I was shocked to see so many people picking Portland to win that series, even with homecourt. This should be a nice series. Matchup to watch? Obviously Battier/Artest on Kobe. But perhaps a bigger issue to watch for, is whether or not L.A. can take advantage of a height advantage when Yao Ming is out of the game. Without Dikembe Mutombo, Houston will be forced at times to defend Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol with Luis Scola or Carl Landry. But those dudes can defend, even when at a disadvantage. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

It's the journey

Other people, besides myself, are doing a fantastic job covering the playoffs. I have had various minor ephiphanies: Boozer looking healthy in game 3, Sixers-Magic, Rose and Rondo, Josh Smith's Game 1, Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams, Portland's entire team denying Yao Ming and waiting for another Rocket to beat them, etc.. (Tony Allen death threats?)

Not to mention a memorable insight: "I always think it has to do with hangovers. Like, I really think like a huge percentage of teams having bad nights has to do with hangovers."

But the big thing for me has been how unexpected individual moments have been, yet how expected the results are. There aren't any series that, if you just look at the win-loss information, are in an unexpected spot right now (I'll admit I didn't think Philadelphia would win two games before Orlando, but based on how things have happened so far, I still think Orlando wins that series). But how it got to where it is? I'm still trying to process. Thoughts?

I love the playoffs!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Weekend Thoughts (Playoffs!)

Sorry for the weird frequency around here. In and out of town, and a generally odd weekend.

Speaking of which, some comments on the playoffs so far, including some stuff I wanted to include in the previews before they got cut short:

- I was pretty convinced that Atlanta would win the Hawks-Heat series, and that it wouldn't be as close as people were predicting. But an almost-30 point blowout? That is not representative of what this series will look like (is it?). For one, as we've stated here before, the Hawks are a different team on the road from what they are at home, particularly defensively. One result that's not a mirage, though, is Josh Smith's playing well. I alluded to this earlier, but he looked better and better, more and more assertive, near the end of the season. Here's an example -- his propensity to end up with dunks or layups over time, since his return from injury in December (click to enlarge):

- The Lakers defend well -- the really do. But they defend strategically, also. While teams like Cleveland and Boston have visibly strong defenses, denying everything without question, the Lakers seem to encourage their opponents to send the ball into certain spots. Anyways, one way to be able to beat their defense is to be able to knock down three-pointers. Unfortunately for Utah, the Jazz are the second least three-point-shooting team in the league, shooting 3's on just 16% of their shots (only Oklahoma City shot fewer 3's during the regular season, at 14%). Without Okur, their offense is going to clog up really easily against L.A.. If Okur comes back, though, he'll help pull the Laker shotblockers out of the paint, and create some space down low for all of those cuts.

- Speaking of the Lakers -- one quiet concern for them is how Kobe Bryant is holding up at this point in the season. Numerous little tweaks and bumps, the trip to the Finals last year, the Summer Olympics, and a fantastic full regular season . . .. Is he wearing down at all? How can we tell? I looked at his dunk-to-layup ratio from month to month (the dunk-to-layup ratio was first published, as far as I know, in this wonderful book):

Other than a little bump immediately after the All-Star break (late February, early March), Kobe's dunk-to-layup ratio has been in decline all season. Is he wearing down? Or just saving himself for the post-season? I guess we'll find out soon (he looked fantastic in the first game against the Jazz).

- From the All-Star break through the end of the season, J.R. Smith shot 58% eFG%, continuing to score 18 points per game in just 29 minutes. He had some ridiculous games near the end of the year, but he's been hot for a while. His hot streaks still seem to envelop him, though -- like, he and the crowd all get so caught up in trying to figure out just what he can do, and it ends, invariably, in a three-point attempt from 5 feet behind the line with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. You take the good with the bad.

- Speaking of the Nuggets: they are much more talented than the Hornets, and probably should win their series with them. But I wonder if the series might come down to Chris Anderson and J.R. Smith -- New Orleans has so little depth, that that handful of minutes off the Nuggets' bench might be the difference.

- The only result that I really never saw coming was Philadelphia squeaking by Orlando in Game 1. That said, I still think Orlando has a good chance of making it all the way to the finals.

- Kelly Dwyer wrote, much more eloquently than I have, about the sort of rim-protection that I've been going on about here lately. However, according to the "points saved" number I came up with (looking at Totals, and not rate-statistics like per-minute or per-shot attempt), the top low-paint protectors were, in order: Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Kurt Thomas, Kevin Garnett. While Yao Ming is an outstanding player, his numbers are probably inflated since he has so much perimeter help from Shane Battier and Ron Artest, so I'm cool with the vote for Dwight Howard for Defensive Player of the Year. However, doesn't Kurt Thomas seem out of place on that list? I dug into the numbers, and as it turns out Kurt Thomas has had quite a defensive year by a number of measures. And, though the sample sizes are small, the Spurs performed better on defense when they held the rest of the lineup constant and replaced Tim Duncan with Kurt Thomas.

- I am slowly becoming a huge Houston fan. They looked great against Portland in game 1. I fully expect them to make it to the second round, and a series between them and the Lakers would be far, far more interesting and competitive than, I think, most pundits would predict.

- Speaking of the Portland-Houston series, a couple of things to watch: (1) The battle of the boards. Portland was the best offensive rebounding team in the league during the regular season, and Houston was 4th in the league in defensive rebounding. Something has to give. In Game 1, Portland was able to do a good job grabbing their own misses, with Joel Pryzbilla and Greg Oden combining for 6 offensive rebounds in under 39 combined minutes. Houston won anyways, though, partly because they were able to hold Portland to an uncharacteristic 1-11 from the three-point line. That brings us to (2) Houston allowed the third fewest three-point attempts as a percentage of shot attempts of any defense during the regular season, while Portland often worked inside-out to get open 3's for Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and Travis Outlaw.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Playoff Preview, Round I (Part I)

We at fruithoopz would like to wish Mr. Kevin Garnett a speedy recovery. He will be missed this postseason. And a get well soon to Mr. Danny Ainge, also. 

Ok, Let's get to it! I should note that Ball Don't Lie is doing a great job previewing all of the matchups, so check over there for more. 

I'll be travelling for the next couple of days for work, and back on Sunday, so there won't be much here during that time. But I'll try to have regular updates once I'm back on the playoff goings-on. 

1 Cavs vs. 8 Pistons
Obviously, the Pistons have been a disappointment this season. That said, Joe Dumars again has them in a great position for the future, with both Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace coming off the books this summer, and a lot of young talent on the roster. And it's been a great run -- as PhDribble put it eloquently: "maybe only Atlanta Braves fans can truly understand how lucky we are to be Detroit Pistons fans."

But enough about the past and the future -- let's look at the right now. We know the Cavs are huge favorites, so the question is, what does Detroit have to do to have a chance here?

While the Pistons' defense has been nowhere near the level it's been in past years, they've continued to do a solid job of defending the 3-point line, trailing only San Antonio, Orlando, and Houston in the percentage of shots they allow from the 3-point line. They are mostly able to stay at home on shooters, when they play well. As you've probably noticed, a huge part of the Cavaliers' offense is shooting open 3's generated by the attention that Lebron James draws. So, if the Pistons can continue to take away the three-point line without allowing Lebron to go crazy, they might be able to slow down Cleveland's attack. On the other end, the Pistons live on mid-range shots, but Cleveland might be the best team in the league at defending that part of the court. So where can Detroit get its offense? I honestly have no idea. I re-ran those rim-protection numbers for this season, and added an additional layer -- I used the percentages and the shot totals to calculate the "points saved" by a defender either discouraging or altering shots in the low paint. Of the Cavs' interior defenders, Ben Wallace was by far the best, "saving" 43.5 points over the course of the season, or 2.2 points per 100 shot attempts. Wallace, though, is out with an injury. Unfortunately for the Pistons, I don't think they really have any inside scorers who can take advantage of this, unless Rasheed Wallace is able to perform consistently at a level that he hasn't really been able to reach during this year. 

And let's end this with a note about Rasheed Wallace: this season for the Pistons has been disappointing for a number of reasons, but I feel like the Allen Iverson drama has detracted attention from how disappointing other Pistons' individual season have been, with Wallace chief among them. Rasheed Wallace has had one of the worst years of his career, and watching him play this year he just didn't seem to bring his A game more than once every several games. With him being 34 years old, I'm not necessarily willing to brush this off on attitude -- maybe he's just getting old? There has been the issue of a calf injury and other ongoing issues, so we shouldn't write him off completely. Still, it's something to keep an eye on, as he'll be a free agent this summer.

Matchup to watch: Tayshaun Prince guarding Lebron James.

2 Bulls vs 7 Celtics
Even without Kevin Garnett, it's hard to see how the Celtics can lose to this talented but flawed Bulls team. There are a couple of things to watch for, though. First off, the Celtics' biggest weakness, all season, has been their tendency to turn the ball over. The Bulls need to cause turnovers (which they haven't exactly done well during the season) to have a chance. 

The other thing to watch for? Kevin Garnett was more vital to the Celtics' ability to protect the low paint ("saving" 3.9 points per 100 shots) than center Kendrick Perkins (just 2.4). The Bulls could, theoretically, try to exploit his absence by forcing the ball into the low paint. None of their bigs can create for themselves, though, and John Salmons -- one of their better slashers -- has been hobbled by a groin injury lately. So, all of a sudden, rookie Derrick Rose becomes the key. He's probably one of the quickest players in the league with the ball, and can usually get to where he wants to go. Kendrick Perkins is a good defender but the paint looks a lot more welcoming without KG there. The only obstacle to getting there regularly is Rajon Rondo, one of the better defenders in the league from the point guard position. 

Which brings us to THE matchup of this series and the whole reason to watch: the Derrick Rose-Rajon Rondo matchup. These two are a treat to watch, and should be matching up for years to come. 

3 Magic vs 6 76ers
This is a really tough matchup for the 76ers. The Magic stumbled a bit to end the season, but the Sixers looked even worse, and the Magic are just a better team all around. The Magic are an elite defense, and the Sixers are basically an average offense, and even worse when you force them to work in the halfcourt. Look how precipitously their effective field goal percentage drops after the first 10 seconds of a possession (from 82games):

Unfortunately for the Sixers, the Magic (besides Dwight Howard) aren't a particularly turnover prone bunch, so it's going to be difficult for them to get into transition. Their only real hope in the halfcourt is to rely on Andre Miller posting up the smaller Rafer Alston. Probably not important, but interesting: Philly is the worst 3-point shooting team in the league, and Orlando is the second best in the league in terms of opponent 3-point percentage (they defend the line well, which I guess won't really be necessary in this series). I still believe, however, that Donyell Marshall will play an important role in at least one or two of these games.

At the other end: Philly is an average defense who does one thing well (cause turnovers) and everything else pretty poorly. That does not bode well. 

A fun matchup to watch might be the battle of the young backup bigs - Marcin Gortat for the Magic and Marreese Speights for the 76ers. Speights has had a really strong rookie campaign individually. And while Gortat isn't quite as prolific a shot-blocker as Dwight Howard, he does rate highly in terms of his overall ability to defend the low paint, rating in my numbers behind only Yao Ming, Kevin Garnett, and Kurt Thomas. 

Unfortunately, I can't finish this preview today because of my travel schedule. But stay tuned! Feel free to leave any other notes in the comments, and remember to check out more detailed previews from the team blogs linked on the right, and from Ball Don't Lie. 

Happy Playoffs!

Monday, April 13, 2009

We interrupt this silence . . .

I'm still crunching numbers for a hopefully epic playoff preview, once the seeds are determined . . .. Don't forget, the playoffs start this weekend! In the meantime, though, I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of little observations from the weekend:

First of all, take a look at the boxscore below (click to enlarge). Try to guess whose game blew me away on Sunday, and all season. (Hint: it's Chris Paul).

Were that someone else, we might see the line as a reflection on Jason Kidd and the Dallas defense. Paul, however, has been doing this all season.

Also: Josh Smith's ankle is fully healthy. He has 52 dunks in his last 22 games (since the beginning of March), compared to just 51 dunks in the first 45 games of the season. In the last 10 games, he's shooting 53% eFG%, with 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks per game. Just in time for the playoffs. Hooray!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Ginobili's Injury and Candace Parker's League

First off, some unrelated links that I think are important reads:
48 Minutes of Hell has been doing a fantastic job of providing some reflection and analysis on the Manu Ginobili injury, and ended up saying a lot of what I was thinking. These two posts in particular are excellent, one looking towards the long-term future, the other looking towards this year's postseason where the Spurs will be true underdogs for the first time in forever. Timothy Varner points out something that I think has been easily ignored or forgotten all season, but is absolutely true -- that the Spurs this year, a down year, are still one of the top five teams in the league:

Take this year: there hasn’t been a single stretch when the Spurs were firing on all cylinders, but I’d still pick them, sans Manu Ginobili, in a 7 game series against every team in the league, save the Cavs, Lakers, Celtics and Magic. That’s an incredible statement, I know. But it’s true. Let it sink in.

Expectation is crazy, huh?

As a basketball fan, the biggest takeaway from this unfortunate news is not the lessened competitiveness of the Western Conference playoffs, but missing out on seeing one of the more exciting players in the league. Even this year, in and out of the lineup, with his effectiveness coming and going from game to game, Manu Ginobili has been a fantastic watch. He accomplishes all of the things you want from a 2-guard, but the style with which he does them is completely unique -- the long strides and giant step-backs, the herky jerky direction changes in the paint and occasional run-ins with giant elbows, the oddly angled and even more oddly timed but perfectly placed passes to wide open teammates, to say nothing of the precise work off the ball and the unexpectedly effective team defense and charge-taking. Anyways, get well soon Manu! In addition, though, the new narrative for the Spurs' season is wide open. We know the Spurs won't give up, so it should be interesting to see how they do for the rest of the year.

And finally, Rethinking Basketball has a thorough and thoughtful discussion about the framing of women's sports, with the background of the recent ESPN The Magazine cover story on Candace Parker (as well as the editorially questionable decision in the first paragraph to focus on Parker's breast size, among other things). You should really take a look at the entire post at Rethinking Basketball, but I'll draw attention here to the things that stood out to me:

Q addresses and deconstructs the rather flimsy argument that is often directed against professional women's basketball -- that people want to see the "best" and most "spectacular" athletes and basketball players and will therefore always choose to follow the men. My gut reaction whenever I hear that is to point to the popularity of men's NCAA basketball, which is neither the best nor particularly spectacular in terms of athletic plays. Instead, as far as I can tell, the widespread appreciation of NCAA ball is based on arriving at the sport on its own terms, understanding that is an entirely different brand of basketball, not to be compared with the NBA. And that pretty much describes my feelings about the WNBA as well. Q goes deeper and looks at the historical validity of the claim that people follow the NBA because it is spectacular:

There was a time when the idea of professional basketball being marketable was laughable. There was a time when the idea of black professional basketball players was laughable. It's not like people watch sports purely because they are spectacular. By most accounts, the ABA definitely had the NBA beat in the "spectacular" category. In the end, it comes down to people buying into the narrative a sport presents.

It wasn't generic high leapers and quick movers who made the NBA what it is today, it was the Magic-Bird rivalry, the Michael Jordan myth-building, and so forth. The challenge for women's basketball in a sexist society, though:

It just so happens that the stories that work best are those that resonate with people's existing sensibilities...not ones that challenge their pre-existing ways of thinking about the world. That's quite a hurdle for women's basketball to overcome...

The underlying tension in anything written about Candace Parker is the fact that the WNBA has been placed on her shoulders, more or less. Will she, not only as a basketball player, but also as a pitchwoman, be able to sell the WNBA? And to whom? A big part of the question of the viability of professional women's basketball, I think, is the question of who the audience is. It seems sometimes that the WNBA has tried to market itself to existing consumers of the men's game, which, given the above discussion, isn't the only option.

Anyways, the discussion of at Rethinking Basketball is an important one. Q makes the important point that accepting female athletes involves expanding our defintion of womanhood:

The challenge then is not to sell women as athletes separate from their gender but to learn how to include "female athlete" within our entrenched understandings of femininity. That is going to take time and conscious effort on the part of those who write about and frame news about female athletes.

One starting point, of course, is to stop comparing female athletes to their male counterparts. But beyond that? How do women as athletes, as basketball players, become a part of popular culture?

I did, by the way, eventually get interested enough to read the ESPN piece itself. It's a good enough read, but it expresses doubt both about the ability to sell women athletes in team sports (I'm not totally clear about why it's easier to sell women athletes in individual sports, but the success of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Danica Patrick, et al seems to indicate that that is the case) and about being able to make Parker an icon when she plays a sport that few people watch. My response to the latter point is: Lance Armstrong. How many Americans actually watch cycling? Yet we all know exactly who he is when he's pitching some random product on the television. I'm not saying I'm in favor of people not watching basketball, but it does seem like Parker could become an icon without a huge increase in the WNBA's following (I'm assuming that the rest of the WNBA would hope that she brings the WNBA with her).

On a completely unrelated note: did you see the Magic-Rockets game tonight? I think Marcin Gortat played Yao Ming better than Dwight Howard did.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Random Awards

The regular season is coming to an end rather quickly. I'm preparing some pretty in-depth (boring?) playoff previews, and that's taking a lot of my analytical time. So in the meantime, I decided to just start handing out end of season awards. These are just my opinion and for the most part I won't be offering much to back them up, but thought it might be fun. If you disagree or think of another award that needs giving, go ahead and leave it in the comments.

1) Lebron James
2) Chris Paul
3) Dwyane Wade

Everyone will be arguing for the next couple of weeks about how to define MVP. For me, I'm not picking the best player, or the guy who if you took him off the team they would suffer the most. Instead, I'm just looking at who did the most. That's it. Lebron James did the most. If we take search trends to be a proxy for popularity, then it appears that fans have caught up to that fact, as Lebron James has really pulled away in the last week:

(Why aren't we making a bigger deal about Dwyane Wade?)

Rookie of the year
Winner: Brook Lopez
Runners-up: Kevin Love, Derrick Rose

It took me a long to come around on Lopez, but better late than never, right?

6th Man
Winner: Jason Terry
Runner-Up: Nate Robinson

Most Improved Player
Devin Harris seems to have this award wrapped up already, and deservedly so. I'm pretty sure Danny Granger will get a few votes, as well. So instead, I'm making up this award:

Player who should get more Most Improved Player Award votes than he actually will
Winner: Tony Parker

Parker has played out of his mind all season. His footwork and finishing ability in the paint is as strong as ever, his mid-range shooting has been acceptable, and he's taken on way more of the Spurs offense than ever before in his career, partly due to injuries. Despite taking on more of the offense, his shooting percentages remain quite high.

Reason you should pay for League Pass
Winner: Gerald Wallace
Runner up: Kevin Durant

Wallace is unique and quietly had a strong year in Charlotte. He's a total possession monster, what a hustle player would be if hustle players had superstar length and athleticism. And it's not just that he is constantly creating extra possessions for his team, but that he's restless and always coiled and ready to get out in transition. In football, announcer sometimes talk about "hidden yards" like special teams yardage and penalty yardage. Gerald Wallace is all about hidden points -- creating a fast break or two off of a defensive rebound, blocking a shot and keeping the ball in play for his team, stealing a routine entry pass, sneaking in behind the defense for an easy dunk . . ..

Guy we'll be talking about a lot more than we have this year
Winner: Anthony Randolph

What a treat to watch. Hopefully things will go well, he'll get more minutes next year, and he'll win the Gerald Wallace award.

Best basketball writers
Britt Robson ("On The Ball" column about the Timberwolves for Secrets of the City)
Kevin Arnovitz (ClipperBlog)
Ryan Parker (Basketball Geek)

Best second rounder (or best unexpected performance)
Winner: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Runner up: Mario Chalmers

7th man of the year
An award for bench guys whose minutes are more limited than those of 6th men, but who provide a lot.

Co-Winners: Chris Anderson, Carl Landry

Biggest storyline that didn't receive enough attention
1) Yao Ming's health
2) Lebron's 2010 shoe company free agency

Assuming he plays out the last 7 games of the season, Yao Ming will have played 78 games this year, which is 20 more games than he's played in any one of the last three seasons. This is after he appeared in the Olympics over the summer. People seem shocked at how well the Rockets have done despite the loss of Tracy McGrady this year, but Yao Ming playing almost every single game is a huge part of that -- I doubt anyone would have predicted he'd be healthy all year before the season began.

Meanwhile, with all the attention being paid to Lebron James' impending free agency in 2010, somehow the fact that his contract with Nike expires in the summer of 2010, also. His last contract was worth $90 million over 7 years. What will he make this time around? And how much will the 2010 deadline be on his mind this year and the next as he tries to win a championship before all these decisions get made?

Best off the ball offensive player
Kobe Bryant

There are lots of great shooters in the league who play great off the ball, and Ray Allen is probably near the top of that list. But Kobe's non-stop working and his ability to be a threat from so many different places on the floor makes it impossible to deny him the ball and really tough to force him into a bad spot. Since Andrew Bynum went down, he's been even more insistent than before on taking smaller defenders down into the post and it has paid off handsomely, as he's having one of his best years ever in terms of mid-range shooting percentage.

Best bounce pass
Deron Williams

Best high post offensive player
Dirk Nowitzki

Best pull-up jumper
I think this was Jameer Nelson before the injury. Now? I don't know. Deron Williams might be in the running.

Best hesitation dribble
Brandon Roy

Best step-back jumper
Even though he missed a lot of games, and wasn't his usual self for several more, Manu Ginobili still (to me) has the most dangerous step-back jumper, in terms of efficiency and range, in the league. Don't sleep, though, on Deron Williams at the top of the key, particularly in the fourth quarter.

Best/Most unexpected direction changes
I'll give this one to Dwyane Wade for this year, although the award itself should be named after Manu Ginobili.

Best example of the boxscore not telling the full story
According to the boxscores, Carmelo Anthony has been having a down year. But anyone who's been watching the games can tell you that he's actually having his best all-around year, having improved particularly on the defensive end. (Runner up: Lamar Odom, for the same reasons).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Protect Ya Rim

Say you're watching a game, the Lakers and the Rockets. You see Kobe Bryant with the ball at the wing, with Shane Battier in front of him. Bryant makes a jab step, gets Battier off-balance, and then quickly begins a drive towards the baseline before Battier can recover. Bryant lowers his shoulder as he turns the corner and has his body in front of Battier's. It looks like he has his man beat, and is about to throw down a highlight dunk. And then, for no apparent reason, instead of attacking the rim, Bryant pulls up from about 12 feet out for a jumper, with Battier behind him. 

What happened? Why didn't he dunk? You decide to rewind the tape and watch the play again. This time, though, instead of ball-watching, you pay attention to the battle of the bigs down low. You notice that as soon as Bryant has a step on Battier, Yao Ming slides over in the paint and places his body between Bryant and the basket. The television announcers often talk about the importance of having a center who can block shots, or even "alter" shots, but in this case Yao isn't altering a shot, he's discouraging the shot attempt. 

Some of the most important moments in halfcourt defense are significant not because of what does happen (like a block) but because of what doesn't happen (a shot attempt from close to the basket). I was reminded of this recently when reading the stuff published over at basketballgeek. First, there was the study of the relationship between shot location, shooting percentages, and efficiency which, in addition to other things, showed that good defenses not only decrease their opponents' field goal percentage from inside, but also minimize their opponents' shot opportunities from inside. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how centers around the league do in protecting the painted area.

The method I chose to go through this data is based on the way Football Outsiders looks at cornerbacks. Instead of just counting interceptions, as is traditionally done, they count the number of times a corner was targeted (ie, the number of times the quarterback threw to the receiver a corner was covering), and how successful those throws were when they happened -- accounting for incompletes and short completions as well as interceptions. That gives you an idea of how effective a corner is, filtering out corners who are taking a lot of risks to make big plays and rewarding those who are blanketing receivers so completely that they never even have a chance at an interception.

Assuming that the center is supposed to be the last line of defense at the rim, I've looked at the 2007-2008 regular season and counted the number of times opponents took shots at the rim while a center was on the court, how often those shots went in, and how often they were blocked. This all comes from the very useful play-by-play data made available at basketballgeek. The definition I'm using of "low paint" is the same as what Ryan used at that site, which is shots in the paint within 6 feet of the basket. Hence, some of these numbers will be slightly different from what 82games reports as "close" shots. Here's the spreadsheet:

You can also take this link to see the same spreadsheet:

You'll notice a couple of columns at the far right that might need a little extra explanation. Opponent quality matters -- it's a different proposition to stop Lebron James from scoring in the paint than it is to stop Tyronn Lue -- so I calculated how much above or below average each center held each of his opponents. For instance, individual opponents on average shot 6.8% below their season averages in the paint when Dikembe Mutumbo was in the game. Similarly, "% of Opponent shots in low paint compared to average" compares how many of an opponent's shots were taken in the low paint against each center versus that opponent's proportion of shots taken down there for the whole season.

(As a matter of curiousity, I calculated how each center in the league performed against Lebron James. For what it's worth, last year, Joel Pryzbilla had the most success against Lebron in the paint, holding him to 4-12 shooting. Shaquille O'Neal was at the other end of the spectrum, allowing Lebron to go off for 11-12. For reference, Lebron averaged 66% from the low paint on the season. Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, and Jeff Foster had the most success at keeping Lebron out of the paint altogether, as the only centers holding him to taking less than 30% of his attempts in the paint). 

Notice in the numbers that centers who defend the paint well don't always register a lot of blocked shots (see: Jason Collins), while some centers get a lot of blocks but seem to do a better job of blocking and altering shots than they do of "discouraging" them (see, for instance, DJ Mbenga or Samuel Dalembert). 

These numbers aren't meant to be an end-all to measuring low-paint defense, but (I hope) they do tell a story, and I hope you'll find them useful. Keep in mind that the number of shots a center allows in the low paint will be related to the talent of his perimter defenders, coaching, and other factors. For a more complete story of how players affect opponent shot distribution and FG%, please see this post, which uses adjusted plus/minus methodology to measure these things. My goal here was to present some easily countable and understandable numbers that can be used in conjunction with other numbers to tell a complete story. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

This Beautiful Game

I don't know if he was trying to end the game early since it was the first of a back-to-back, or if he's getting himself into playoff mode, or if he was just in a mood, but Kobe Bryant was in complete, maniacal, murder mode for tonight's game against the Pistons. He played under the sort of tensed and flexed control -- with a dash of rage -- reminiscent of mugshots that you see on the evening news with voice-over neighbors saying "he always kept to himself, but he seemed nice enough." It was as though he had an aneurysm, like he was trying to conceal some intense pain but you could just see his head ready to explode all over The Palace at any moment. 

Bryant always plays with intensity -- he's the surest ticket in the NBA, but this was the playoff version, there was a different mask, a different persona. This guy, who played this game, had focus to spare. No complaining to refs, no shortcuts, no settling for low-percentage shot attempts, no taking plays off on defense. 

Bryant's controlled fury is apparent, though not fully captured, in his boxscore: 30 points (on 10-18 shooting from the field), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and just 1 turnover. The efficient 30 points were the result of the whole bag of tricks -- the pull-up, the crossover, the drop-step, the fadeaway, the three-pointer, the baseline reverse, the irresistible shot fake, you name it. That doesn't do full justice to the work he did, though. You can study the boxscore for more hints: his lockdown, ball-denial defense reflected in Rodney Stuckey's line for the night: 5 points, 3 assists, 4 turnovers (this is a guy who was averaging 16 and 6 in the 10 games leading up to this one, and is the heir apparent to Chauncey Billups). Or you can see the way he single-handedly zoned off the weakside when he wasn't denying the guard to guard entry pass, the effort reflected in his two steals on the night. You can see how, as a team, the Lakers held the Pistons to 39.5% shooting, including just 2-13 from 3, resulting in just 87.5 points per 100 posessions (currently Boston has the best D in the league, and they allow 101.5). 

If you don't trust all of that, then you should look at the game flow. With Kobe in the first quarter, the Lakers went on an 18-6 run en route to a 13 point lead. As he sat for the first three and a half minutes of the second, the Lakers gave up a 12-0 run. Then, with Kobe again in for the third, the Lakers went on a 20-0 run to effectively put the game away.

But there was more to it than all of that. Bryant was all over the floor, making deflections, tipping out rebounds, moving the ball, making the plays that MVP voters will never see, since they may read the boxscore and the game recap but probably won't watch the game broadcast. Through it all, Bryant's expression didn't change a single time. Not when he was working feverishly off the ball to establish post position against a smaller defender, not when he was limping after a hard hit that appeared to injure his knee, not when he was sitting on the bench watching the game.

There is a four second indication of how badly Kobe wants to win this game at the end of the third quarter. Kobe goes to the bench with 1:14 left in the third for his usual rest, expected to come back with around 8 minutes left in the fourth if needed. But when the Lakers get the ball with 4 seconds left, Kobe throws off his warmups and returns to the court, just to run the last play. It results in a missed three pointer, but his being on the floor at all spoke volumes.

This wasn't a game where Kobe took over offensively and took a lot of shots, or dominated the ball and racked up assists, or yelled and screamed and beat his chest. Still, the leadership element was apparent. If I was able to sense the tension and focus watching on television, surely his teammates picked up on the energy. Lamar Odom played his usual active defense and ended up with 3 steals and 12 rebounds, to go with 7 assists and a block. Luke Walton's statline doesn't show it, but he took a couple of pretty serious spills that might normally have seen him at least take a few moments to gather himself, if not be taken out of the game entirely. But tonight, he just bounced back up as though nothing had happened (who knows how he'll be walking tomorrow?). Even Sasha Vujacic, who had an otherwise forgettable game, abstained from pleading with the refs when his flops drew no attention. He just redoubled his efforts on defense and worked to pester the Piston backcourt. 

So nevermind that the Pistons were playing without Allen Iverson, Rip Hamilton, or Rasheed Wallace, and that the Lakers were expected to win this game easily. Nevermind that Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher were completely incapable of staying in front of 6 foot D-League alum Will Bynum (9-14 shooting, 25 points, 11 assists). And nevermind that the rest of the Lakers had a pretty subpar offensive game. Because if Kobe Bryant is playing the way he played tonight, they won't be beat.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Count on one hand

If you have the chance, I would highly recommend watching tonight's Utah-Houston matchup. Unfortunately, Carl Landry is still recovering from a gunshot wound, so we won't be treated to the Paul Milsap - Carl Landry showdown, but both of these teams have been playing so well recently that this game should be a must-watch.

What to watch for: These teams know each other pretty well by now, so they should be pretty prepared for this game. Utah once again has one of the more efficient offenses in the league, and Houston, as usual, has one of the better defenses. The battle of the boards might be telling -- Utah is the fifth best offensive rebounding team in the league, grabbing close to 29% of their misses, while Houston is the fifth best defensive rebounding team in the league, only allowing their opponents to retrieve 25% of their own misses. So, something has to give (in 3 games so far this season, Houston has done an acceptable job of keeping Utah off the offensive glass). The battle should be particularly pronounced at the power forward spot, where Paul Milsap and Carlos Boozer of the Jazz are two of the better offensive rebounders around, while Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes of the Rockets are two of the better defensive rebounders around. At the other end of the court, the Rockets have been mostly average on offense while Utah has improved their defense this year and are top 10 in the league right now. However, Utah continues to be pretty foul-happy, which is a problem since the Rockets as a team are the fourth best free throw shooting team in the league, at 80.6%. The Jazz need to avoid giving up free points to the Rockets. Also, Ron Artest has really improved his offensive game over the last few games, playing within himself and making good decisions. If he continues to do that, and Kyle Lowry continues to give them some fast break opportunities off the bench, then Houston's offense should be fine.

Other: I've been noticing more and more how pronounced the internal narrative of each game I watch is. The story is easier to pick up in some games than it is in others, but I suspect that this Houston-Utah matchup should give us a pretty good storyline, without having to build anything into it from the outside.

I linked to it elsewhere, but this piece about Lamar Odom is worth reading.

I agree with a lot of what Bill Simmons says in this ESPN the Magazine column, in fact he echoes a lot of what I've been saying here (he has a few details wrong -- for instance, what he calls "mega-assists" are already available at and Queen City Hoops (as super-assists), and 82games also answers the Dwyane Wade question for us -- his effective field goal percentage is a full 1% higher if you exclue the 10% of shots he takes with 3 or fewer seconds left on the shot clock). I like this line: "You could be feeding us gourmet cheeseburgers, except you're more interested in cloning cows. Let's clear up the small picture before we get to the big one." He's definitely right to say that teams have access to a lot of game-charting information that would be great for us as fans to see, but that they keep a secret. What he's saying about wanting more contextual stats reflects, I think, what is so interesting about what this guy's been doing recently, but it's more than a rejection of boxscore-based value metrics like PER and Wins Produced -- it's philosophically a repudiation of things like adjusted plus-minus, which in its current form assumes that a player's effect on the court is fixed regardless of the context changing around him. His example of the Spurs needing Bruce Bowen more than they would have needed Carmelo Anthony makes sense even though it's problematic -- Bruce Bowen throughout the last several years has consistently performed better in +/- type stats than Carmelo Anthony. The argument Simmons is making, though, isn't that he's a better player, but that he's a better fit (although might have been even more powerful if he used Tayshaun Prince and Anthony, seeing as how the Pistons had the opportunity to draft Anthony and passed). The argument could conceivably be extended to other more extreme cases, and particularly cases where even the adjusted +/- tells us that player B is better but we know player A is a better fit -- although I'd warn that the most recent Olympics showed us that the superstars in the league are much more capable of expertly filling specific and limited roles on talented teams than most of us probably would have imagined.

And, speaking of 82games, there's a good interview of Roland Beech (the guy behind the site) up at Slam Online. Mr. Beech also gives a pretty persuasive argument in favor of more context and less all-encompassing player metrics. He and Simmons together in the same day seem to be good cheerleaders for tracking more basic information in boxscore-like formats as opposed to trying to guage an overall value: "Oddly while I have published a lot of regression based ‘adjusted +/-’ articles on 82games, I am not actually a fan of that approach. I think again, with more data on hand you can really understand a player’s strengths, weaknesses and traits very clearly without having to resort to mathematical techniques to try and extract info that you think is ‘missing.’" I also loved that he ended with this: "It’s ultimately entertainment. I take issue with the notion that teams should be all about a championship or they need to blow things up. It was sad to see the Suns dismantled prematurely to my mind when they were such a great team to watch, and had certainly some significant success with still the hope of finally breaking through."

And finally: The Lakers website has an article up about Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar that maybe sheds a little light on my previously hypothesized "BFF Theory."