Friday, January 30, 2009

On the Super Bowl and the NBA's Obama Era

I hope you don't mind some semi-football related talk here on the eve of the Super Bowl. 

In retrospect, given what we know about the national political scene, maybe we should have seen the downfall of the Patriots coming. Looking back, the New England Patriots were the team of the Bush Administration. The parallels go a little deeper than the simultaneous reigns -- Bush came to power dubiously, on a techincality, bypassing the conventional electoral process and getting chosen to govern by the Supreme Court despite evidence that the voters had not in fact elected him; meanwhile, the Patriots rise to championship level was aided by the questionable application of a little-known rule known as the tuck rule, which gave the Patriots the ball even though it was clear to those watching that they shouldn't have had possession. Once in power, the Bush Administration became known for an obsessive, paranoid insistence on secrecy and control, while Bill Belichick's team similarly was known for tight-lipped press conferences and injury report antics. The two regimes then turned to a series of abuses to consolidate their power, with the Bush regime resorting to warrantless wiretapping and spying on the civilian population and the Belichick regime resorting to surreptitiously videotaping opponents' hand signals. 

The Patriots, as much as any sports team, were representative of the general mood and specific abuses of America immediately after September 11, 2001, so it's no surprise that their first Super Bowl victory was so closely tied to the mourning and outpouring of patriotism that was prevalent in those days. 

With the tide turning as it is, I think it's time to close the book on the Patriots. Mr. Brady might be back and healthy, but that team was for another time, a time that's passed. As a nation, we turn our eyes to the NBA, which is experiencing the rise of the draft class of 2003 as well as other youngsters such as Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Brandon Roy, and Kevin Durant. These newcomers are bringing with them a new era -- the Obama Era. These players evoke a sense of optimism among their fans, and the promise of some type of change in both the substance and form of the league -- finding actual success on the court along with an undeniable marketability for their own brands as well as the NBA. Some examples (first, an AI commercial from the old era, and then a Lebron commercial from the new era):

There is, I think, a lot to be said about the similarities and differences in these two commercials. 

And that brings me to this and this. I highly recommend both reads, and to me they are related. "The new NBA is at peace . . .." I have a lot more thoughts about those two links, I just can't seem to put everything together right now -- just do take the time to read them.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Why am I so disappointed about Michael Redd's knee injury?

I have never been particularly enamored of Michael Redd's game. On the one hand, he's a multi-faceted scorer who's capable of efficiently putting 25 or so points on the board, but on the other he's never been as pure of a shooter as he gets credit for and he doesn't appear to offer a whole lot -- aside from the efficient scoring -- to validate the attention he gets as a star player. Also, I wasn't too into all the Jesus stuff.

That's not meant to be an expression of hate. I wish him success, and I enjoy watching him play. But he'd never make one of my "favorite players to watch" type of lists.

So why do I find myself so heartbroken at his season-ending knee injury? Well, aside from the fact that it's always tough to see anyone have their season cut short by injury, it's that I saw (and still continue to see) this year's Bucks team as a promising "make-the-playoffs-interesting" team in the East, able to break up the monotonous inevitability of the Celtics/Cavs/Magic ascent in the postseason. Given the right breaks, they might have shocked one of those teams in the playoffs, or at least put up a good fight before bowing out. And I'm nothing if not a sucker for the unexpected storyline. Seeing predictable results in the postseason just encourages the sort of caste-style reporting we see on mainstream sites. A fan new to the NBA, trying to learn about the league by reading ESPN, would not be in a position to even know that there are teams in Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Memphis, Minnesota, or Milwaukee, despite the fact that there are numerous incredibly intriguing stories to tell about each of those teams at this moment. The Bucks "coming out of nowhere" to impress on a national stage in the spring? That would have been a great way to introduce these talented and hard-working players to the rest of the country.

And I'm still optimistic that it can happen. When Andrew Bogut is healthy, Milwaukee sports one of the best defenses in the league. And while Redd made a huge difference at the offensive end, one possible "bright side" to the injury could be more minutes for Ramon Sessions, who's been playing well enough that he should be known to more of an audience than fantasy players and potential-fetishists. Given coach Scott Skiles's preference for the more consistent and predictable, if lower-ceilinged, Luke Ridnour, Sessions had lately been squeezed into third guard minutes, averaging 16 and a half minutes per game since the beginning of December. However, we saw early in the season when Redd was out with a different injury that Skiles was willing to play a Ridnour-Sessions backcourt, a backcourt that had some success, and I expect we'll see more of that -- recall that Sessions averaged over 33 minutes per game through November.

The team also has the inspiring story aspect: Sessions was drafted at the very end of the 2nd round and is a D-League callup who didn't get the fanfare reserved for lottery picks, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was a 2nd round draft pick and overshadowed before the draft by his college teammate Kevin Love, and Charlie Bell went undrafted and had to prove himself in Europe before signing on with the Bucks. Seeing these three contribute significantly to a successful team -- isn't that exactly the sort of hard work and pulling on bootsraps Horatio Alger story that every journalist is dying to write?

The Bucks' season just got a lot harder without Redd, but there is still a foundation for success there, and they are still a playoff-caliber team. And that's the thing. I was wrong, really wrong, about everything to do with this team before the season started. I was wrong in thinking that Scott Skiles wouldn't have much of a positive effect on the defensive end. I was wrong about Andrew Bogut -- he's a far better player than I gave him credit for before this year. I was wrong in thinking this team wouldn't be that much fun to watch this year. And it's reassuring to be wrong like that, to be reminded that it's worth following the league because you just really never know. This team deserves national attention, and they're not likely to make it onto many TNT, ESPN, or NBA TV games this year, so the only way they'll be seen is if and when they make a strong post-season showing. That won't be easy without Redd, but hopefully they can build off the success they had early in the season when Redd was out. They deserve gushing stories by writers better than myself.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Youth Movement

I was at a cafe staring out a window on Saturday morning and decided to flip through the sports page, and saw on the third page a couple of paragraphs on Friday's Thunder-Clippers matchup. The game involved huge performances from Eric Gordon, Kevin Durant, and Al Thornton. That seemed like enough of a reason to call up that game on League Pass and give it a watch, so I did, with a notebook. I took notes on Kevin Durant and Eric Gordon only (I feel like Thornton's game is more or less known at this point). Here are some of my observations. Before I begin, I would just like to point out that Nenad Krstic is able to touch his tongue to his nose:

Anyways, Eric Gordon scored 41 points on a remarkable 12-19 shooting, along with 4 assists. He played both with the ball (mostly in pick and roll situations) and off the ball, as he and Ricky Davis (!!) shared primary ballhandling duties when the Clips' 5th (?) string point guard, Mardy Collins, went down with a strained calf. I've written before about Gordon's relentlessness when he drives to the basket, and his ability to absorb contact there, and he did a lot of that in this game too, taking 14 free throws for the game. He also had a particularly pretty drive in transition in the first quarter, using a hesitation crossover dribble to get past Kyle Weaver to the basket and finish with a layup. But in addition to his outstanding work with the ball (and the superb decision-making that went into that), his work off the ball was really strong -- especially in the third quarter. Throughout that quarter, Gordon worked off baseline screens and curled up to the wings for 2 point jump shots, 3-pointers, and drives to the basket. As with his ability to score in the paint, Gordon used his body really well to create space for his jumper, and showed off an ability to quickly catch-and-shoot that should serve as a nice complement to his ability to score off the dribble. Gordon looks even less like a rookie than O.J. Mayo does.

In all, Gordon had an extremely efficient second half in terms of scoring -- he shot 8-12 for 25 points in the half.

As a sidenote: Ricky Davis played a solid game while filling in as point guard. He's only 29 years old, which is pretty grown up in basketball-years but is still young in real-life years. Looking at his career thus far, it's easy to point at unfulfilled potential as a result of a lack of maturity. Recently, though, he's been looking a lot more mature as a basketball player. Considering how old 29 really is (or isn't) in real life, it shouldn't really be surprising to see him growing, and yet, because sports is so skewed, it does seem surprising. I don't want to delve too far into this at the moment, but consider every 20-something you know. Doesn't it seem impressive how early in their lives most NBA players are able to figure things out -- enough so that Ricky Davis, who took until his late-20's, seems like an anomaly?

Kevin Durant scored in a variety of ways, but the running theme of his performance was a refusal to settle. He missed his first couple of jumpers, and after that seemed determined to get to the rim, or at least to his most efficient shooting locations, for the rest of the night. I've seen him in other games settle for wherever the defense is pushing him out to, unable or unwilling to establish position, and he's a good enough shooter to make that work, since he really can hit from anywhere on the court. But in this game, he was constantly attacking and not settling, and he was rewarded with 26 free throw attempts (he made 24). 

The most awe-inspiring moments Durant had were in transition. He is so much faster with the ball than anyone should reasonably expect, and on this night he used that ability often, particularly in the early going. He fought for rebounds at the defensive end more than usual, and ended up with 13 defensive rebounds (15 total). A number of these rebounds turned into fast-break points as Durant flew 94 feet down the court without any Clipper able to get in front of him before he got to the rim. In the first quarter alone, Durant got 4 defensive rebounds and every single one of them resulted in a one-man fast-break, producing 8 easy points on 2-2 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line, all of the points coming in 6 seconds or less after the rebound. It would be nice to see Durant get a lot of rebounds consistently, to help him get out in transition.

Watching these two players provided a sort of interesting contrast, too. Eric Gordon seems to work extremely hard for every shot he gets, while, at least from my vantage point, there is an ease to Durant's scoring. This isn't a judgment one way or the other, just an observation. I enjoyed watching Gordon get those shots -- he worked hard but the hard work always paid off in extremely high percentage looks. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Welcome Back, Monta

I was fortunate enough to catch yesterday's Warriors-Cavaliers game, the return of Monta Ellis. The game itself was entertaining, but for this post I want to consider the case of Monta Ellis. Monta looked a lot better than I thought he would given the long layoff -- he isn't yet able to hit those 15-18 foot jumpers from the elbows that he shot so efficiently last year (I'm sure it will take a few games before that shot comes back to him), but he was still very creative and effective around the rim and in transition. It is definitely a promising beginning.

In the offseason, before the unfotunate moped nonsense, I wrote about Monta's expected increase in usage rate, and what that might mean for him and the team. At that time, I chose to ignore the effect of a proposed move to the point guard position, but it's probably time to return to that topic. 

Since Jamal Crawford was out with an injured hamstring for last night's game, it is hard to draw too many conclusions about what the lineup will look like when everyone is healthy, but it was interesting to see Monta play the entire game at the point guard position. As we've seen in the case of Randy Foye, who has continued to succeed at the 2-guard spot since the Minnesota coaching change, not every guard with a handle is equipped to make the move to the 1. In my offseason post I mentioned that Monta has not had much success as a point guard so far in his career (I was looking at pre-06-07 numbers), but I took another look at the numbers from last year, and noticed that he actually played solidly in the very few minutes he had at point guard. His effective field goal percentage wasn't affected, and he was able to get to the free throw line more, while turning the ball over a little bit more (his assists were up slightly). 

So on to last night's game. Monta played the point for 34 minutes, and the Warriors as a team posted a somewhat respectable 108.2 points per hundred possessions against the second best defense in the league. That offense was partly the doing of the second unit, who outplayed Cleveland's bench, but Monta played exceptionally well. He finished the game with only one turnover, and as a team the Warriors only turned it over 13 times in a high possession game. Further, the offense seemed to run smoothly while Monta was in the game, with the Warriors getting into their sets quickly and Monta making decisive passes. Also, Monta's quickness and ability to track down long rebounds led to a fast-break or two for the Warriors. Looking long-term, Monta's ability to rebound -- which is so-so for a 2 but decent for a 1 -- might be a boon to the Warriors (Monta is a better rebounder, for instance, than either C.J. Watson or Jamal Crawford). 

It was only one game. But I was impressed enough that I'd be interested to see more Monta at the point. 

Details about the game:
NBA Graph breakdown
Four factors: 

Offensive efficiency: Warriors - 108.2, Cavs - 109.3
eFG%: Warriors - 47.5%, Cavs - 48.2%
FT/FG: Warriors - 36.3, Cavs - 28.2
OReb%: Warriors - 20%, Cavs - 26.1%
TOrate: Warriors - 13.4%, Cavs - 10.3%

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Worldwide Farm

Ambrose's post from earlier today has had me seriously thinking about where non-NBA development happens.

Think about Anthony Parker's story. He was good enough, skilled enough, big enough, athletic enough, to be drafted in the first round, but his early career was derailed a bit, as many careers are, by the wrong circumstances. He struggled with injuries and couldn't find a good fit, and was out of the league within two years. To his credit, he worked hard, eventually got a gig in Israel, and proved he could ball at the highest levels by winning back-to-back EuroLeague MVPs and EuroLeague Championships. With similar early struggles, Chauncey Billups bounced around the NBA for a number of years before blossoming into an NBA Champion, All-Star, and MVP-candidate in Detroit. These days, players faced with these sorts of issues early in their careers also have the option of competing in the D-League and proving themselves that way, while getting a chance to work on their games. Clearly, there are a number of (extremely tough, but still possible) routes available to players who either aren't drafted or are drafted but don't make a splash during their first go in the league.

But what I find interesting about Parker is the skillset he brings to the table. As Ambrose points out, he really is a complete perimeter player. He won't post-up like Joe Johnson or Kobe Bryant, but otherwise he has a strong mid-range game while also shooting a superb percentage from beyond the three-point line, he can catch-and-shoot as well as shoot extremely well off the dribble, he is incredibly smart and understands spacing and moves flawlessly off the ball, he makes good decisions with the ball and is a good passer, he has solid (but fading, somewhat, at the age of 33) athleticism as well as size and is an acceptable defender . . .. From the description, it really sounds like I'm discussing a star, because of the well-roundedness of his skillset. But Parker is not a high-usage type of guy, he only shoots when he's open (hence the high shooting percentages), and was never a 20 point per game type of scorer in the NBA (though he was definitely that kind of star in the EuroLeague). He's basically a solid fill-in-the-gaps type of guy, a guy you can count on to score 10-12 points without making any mistakes, but who won't get headlines or national attention. Every good NBA roster is filled with these sorts of players, we call them role players. But most role players are specialists. We have Steve Kerr-style shooters who are in the game to shoot a high percentage from three, and not much else; we have undersized defense-and-rebounding bigs who can hit the occasional mid-range shot but don't have a well-developed post game and aren't relied upon for points, like Josh Powell or Ronny Turiaf; and so on, and so forth.

While specialists are a dependable resource for a coach to look for off the bench, I'd venture that the way domestic player-development is handled also leads to the Fordist divisions we see. After all, if a player doesn't have instant success in the league, the domestic path will often look like: find the skill(s) you have to offer, and work with trainers to refine those particular skills until they are undeniably NBA-level, play in the summer league and possibly spend time in the D-League proving yourself, and hopefully get called up. And the D-League, while a wonderful development tool, is still seen as a stepping stone to the NBA, and so games will inevitably be somewhat shaded by individual agendas. I don't mean that in a negative way -- this is a solid enviornment in which to refine individual skills. But this sort of development puts a premium on specializing -- find what you have to offer at an NBA level, and focus on that.

But the EuroLeague, on the other hand, isn't really a means to an end. The EuroLeague is, like the NBA, a high-level competitive professional league. While I'm sure Parker continued to harbor dreams of the NBA during his time in Israel, he also developed the skills necessary to contribute to his team in a variety of ways, independently of any NBA dreams. It's possible that if he were toiling in the D-League during that time instead, he would have focused on just one or two specific skills and made his bones in the NBA as, say, a lethal spot-up shooter.

As it is, if I'm a GM, I'd spend some time thinking about what my team needs and look to these different avenues for these needs. If the team needs a great rebounder, or a knock-down shooter, chances are I can find that in the D-League. But if I need a contributor off the bench who will do a little bit of everything, without doing anything great? I'd have to consider the EuroLeagues, right? I can see Josh Childress developing the sort of all-around game that Parker boasts during his time in Greece. And I can already see a similar sort of ability to contribute from Rudy Fernandez, although Fernandez's ceiling is higher given his young age.

And who's the next potential Anthony Parker? Looking at DraftExpress's international free agent listings (and we should trust them -- they were all over Parker for two years before he came over to the NBA), the top international free agent is Ramunas Siskauskas. Like Parker was before he came to the NBA, Siskauskas is being called the most complete player outside the NBA, and he is "a phenomenal shooter, ball-handler, passer and defender, as well as one of the smartest guys you’ll find around." But in terms of American players who were unable to make a name for themselves in the league early in their careers, which is what this post is concerned with, we might want to pay attention to Marcus Haislip. Haislip, like Parker, was an NBA first round draft pick who didn't develop early on. And, like Parker, he has used his time in Europe to develop into an all-around player. While he still has some holes in his game that the linked profile covers, the sentence that caught my eye was: "his skill set is radically different than it was when he left Indianapolis for Istanbul."

And that's the bigger picture that I'm wondering about. My hypothesis is that a player like Haislip could very well have developed some NBA-worthy skills in the D-League, but we probably wouldn't see his skillset as "radically different" from what it was when he was drafted -- just more refined. Is it possible that the NBA has somewhat outsourced the very different tasks of developing "utility" role players and "specialist" role players to two completely different leagues (EuroLeague and D-League)? It seems that way to me, and I think it's great. In terms of role players, the league needs Amir Johnsons and Ben Wallaces and Steve Novaks as well as Charlie Bells and Jorge Garbajosas (well, not literally Garbajosa, but that type of all-around player). There's no reason to think these completely disparate strands of development can or should happen in the same leagues, so maybe what we're seeing, as far as American players (I am excluding non-American players for this discussion of development), is different schools for different types of players.

What's so funny about peace, love, and Anthony Parker?

One can only make approximations to my level of surprise this weekend when I turned on the tubes to see Mr. Anthony Parker playing the point guard for the Toronto Raptors. I found this situation to be unusual because of how strong his play has been without the ball; consequently, it is odd to see him with the ball in his hands.

But after my beginning surprise, it appeared to me after another reflection that Parker is a precisely tested Basketball Player -- not "lead guard" or "off guard" -- unweighted by the restrictions of "position." Because of his incubation period in the Euroleague, he developed all the capacities necessary, to exploit everywhere the facets of the perimeter. None of the requisites -- shooting middle range or longer range, passing, cutting, defending, dribbling -- are foreign for him.

So I present to you the following question: what is a better role player? A specialist, or a Basketball Player like Parker?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Some Kudos for Mike D'Antoni

"Mike D'antoni doesn't coach defense."

Some formulation of that statement has been repeated so frequently that it's become accepted as true. And why not? The Suns always played high scoring games, the Knicks do too, all in all his teams always give up tons of points. Steve Kerr also has hinted at believing the no-D meme, as has Amar'e Stoudemire, who claimed the Suns never practiced defense under D'Antoni (Stoudemire's play backed up that claim, which is why it was so easy to believe).

Not to mention this bit of backwards and faulty logic: Defense wins championships (actually, it turns out that to win a championship, you have to win four games in the finals. And to win a game, you need to score more points than the other team. You can use any combination of scoring points and denying your opponents points to accomplish the goal. As it turns out, you usually need both a good offense and a good defense). D'Antoni never won a championship. His teams must not have been playing defense!

Well. This isn't indisputable proof of anything in particular, but I would like to point out something that seems to get ignored:

Phoenix Suns Defensive Efficiency under D'Antoni (starting with his first year there): 105.5 (24th in the league), 107.1 (17th), 105.8 (16th), 106.4 (13th), 108.1 (16th).

Phoenix Suns Defensive Efficiency so far this year: 109.4 (24th in the league).

So D'Antoni, outside of his first year, had the Suns right around the middle of the pack every year in terms of defense (to go along with an elite offense year in and year out). And with him gone, replaced by supposedly a defensive coach, they are back to being near the worst in the league at that end.

Now, the Knicks under Larry Brown first, then Isiah Thomas: 111.0 (26th), 108.8 (25th), 111.9 (29th).

And guess what? This year, under Mike D'Antoni, they have a defensive efficiency rating of 108.6, good for 19th in the league.

[It's better for these year-to-year comparisons to look at the relative ranking rather than the absolute number, because the latter partly reflects changes in the offensive efficiency of the league as a whole]

Nineteenth in the league is not elite by any means, but it is a huge improvement over 29th, and personnel matters here -- this team can only do so much on defense with those players. The point, here, is that there just isn't any evidence to back the oft-made claim that D'Antoni is a poor defensive coach. In fact, from the evidence available we could, if we wanted, claim the opposite: that the same groups of players seem to perform better on defense under D'Antoni than they have under other coaches.

I bring this up now since the most recent webisode breakdown from seven seconds or mess (the weekly youtube videos from there are really good in general, check them out) takes a look at the Knicks' defensive strategy in a recent victory over the Hornets. The video notes the Knicks' decision to switch on every screen in that game, and how that worked. When you think about it, it's a smart, if risky, strategy. It addresses the weaknesses of the lineup on the floor (lack of size in the front court) and the strengths (the length and anticipation of Jared Jeffries and Wilson Chandler), and utilizes the strengths while minimizing the consequences of the weaknesses. What more do we really want from defense?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Watch out for these Pacers

[ed note -- fruithoopz has hired a new contributing writer, Ambrose Beerback. In this, his first of what we hope will be many posts, Ambrose discusses the current incarnation of the Indiana Pacers, which he sees as an up-and-coming team in the East. Welcome to the team, Ambrose!]

Allow me to introduce the Indiana Pacers.

Considering from each and every angle, pondering from the various heights for various periods of time, I've come to the summary which I declare here: The 2008-2009 Indiana Pacers are the Utah Jazz for the Twitter generation. I propose a discussion of this team today as they willmake a ruckus come playoff time. Be prepared!

Coach Paulie Walnutz has the team in states of motion uninterrupted, always on the go. They shoot well, but they keep going, everywhere you turn, there they are, putbacks, tip-ins, backdoor cuts. Walnutz calls the team "Hannibal" because they cut you to death. But just when you thought you could zone them up, they pop you with fast breaks and the pick and the pop. They get those points by hook or by thief, one by one, two by two, three by three, they get those points, they flip them, then they stack them to the ceiling.

On Danny Granger
They the more intelligent men obviously explained, with elegance themselves: "Danny G ain't nuthin' to fuck with." It is true. Don't let the large ears fool you, they are for the preservation of balance in the course of pull-up jumpers and curls off of screens. He has hits from everywhere, 80's, 90's, and today. He gets buckets on top of the other buckets, with or without the bounce. Like Kool Keith would say, "he's an all-star."

T.J. Ford
Take the offense, and press the fast forward button. Zoom! He loves to be near the hoop, and it is difficult to keep him away from his love.

Troy Murphy
I suspect he possibly spends his recreational time listening to the Pogues and drinking stout. However, on the court, he can play the baseline like Charlie Mingus. Do not turn your head, or he will embarrass you with that tip-in. If not the baseline, he likes to hang around up top. Perhaps he will disappear in the transition, only to reappear behind the pack to attack from the downtown area!

Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
aka "Junior" aka "Lil' Dun" aka "Dunny" aka "Chris Mullin hate me"
He is the son of a coaching man, so you know he can shoot. And fill the open spaces. Perhaps the rumor noise that I just invented -- that Dunny practices with Mike Miller during his time of rest -- cannot be proven to contain any truth.

Roy Hibbert
He looks quite large, but Hibs can move it move it! In spite of the being of such a young man, he holds himself to the game of an old man at the park with the kneepads and the safety goggles, keeping the ball high, surprising team members with passes from the elbow. His capacities make him perfectly corresponded to this particular type of offense.

Jarret Jack
They are tears of joy, from splashing the three-pointer.

Rasho Nesterovic
Like the Hibs, he can find the cutters, but he also is more at ease shooting the pop after a pick. Do not let him roam free outside the key as he will demand compensation.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A little upset with the Blazers

I've written bits and pieces here about the unique situation involving Darius Miles and the Portland Trailblazers, but here's a quick recap: Miles was under contract with the Portland Trailblazers, and contracts in the NBA are guaranteed, so despite the fact that Miles has not played with the Trailblazers for a while, he is still guaranteed $9 million this season and $9 million next season. All teams will insure themselves when they sign big contracts, so the fact that Miles has been out injured for 2 years hasn't necessarily hurt the Trailblazers financially, since the insurance company pays his salary. However, Miles's salary still counts against the salary cap, and therefore as long as his contract lasts, the Trailblazers have to consider his salary when determining how much they can offer to potential free agents. However, last season, the Trailblazers asked the NBA to provide an independent doctor to examine Miles and see if he could ever play again, and the doctor determined Miles to be medically unfit to play again. Miles still gets paid what he's owed from his contract by the team's insurance policy, but what changed after the medical exam was that the Blazers were able to take Miles' salary out of their salary cap calculations. That's because league rules allow for exceptions to the salary cap when a player has a career-ending injury. That cap space, and the ability it allows the team to go after free agents, is huge for an up-and-coming team like the Blazers. To make sure that teams don't take advantage of such rules, the league specifies that if a player, after having been deemed medically unfit to play, comes back and is able to play in at least 10 games, then his salary goes back on the team's books.

All well and good. And the Trailblazers are, rightfully, a feel-good story of the NBA, having completely rebuilt and turned around a team that was struggling through smart moves in the draft and smart trades. GM Kevin Pritchard deserves tons of credit for the amazing job he's done.

However, there's one little problem: it turns out that Miles may still be able to play. How do we know? Because he actually has played, in 2 games this season as well as 6 games in the preseason. And if Miles is healthy enough, and teams think he's good enough, to cut it in the league, then he has every right to pursue employment without regard for Portland's cap space and plans for future team-building. That stuff is not his responsibility.

So I'm a little annoyed at how many stories there are insinuating that teams might sign Miles and play him for a few minutes just to hurt the Blazers.

Lots of teams that are down and out have contracts they'd love to be rid of. I'm sure no one in Sacramento likes the fact that Kenny Thomas's contract is stopping the Kings from making all the moves they might otherwise, and similarly in New York with Jerome James's contract. The league is littered with busts, bad signings, and so forth, and the NBA happens to be structured in such a way that it puts teams on the hook for their own mistakes. So Portland thought they'd wiggled through a loophole with regards to Darius Miles, and so sped up the rebuilding process.

I don't feel sorry for them now that it might turn out that that loophole has closed. And I really find this whole business of threatening to sue distasteful. As one of a huge number of players who are working hard to try to make it in the league, Miles should be insulted that his efforts have been reduced to some paper-shuffling conspiracy plot. It's like finding out the person you've been dating has just been seeing you to get back at his/her ex, except way worse.

And it's not just the current lawsuit threats. In the offseason, as well as the start of this season, there were reports that Blazers officials were trying to spread the word that Miles is a horrible character. As a fan of the league, I find that petty and insulting.

And I don't hate the Blazers. Not at all. I'm as impressed as anyone with the moves they've made and how quickly they've returned to relevance. But in basketball, like everywhere, great powers are often built on questionable moral choices, choices which come back and force the power to re-examine itself. It sounds ironic, but Darius Miles has become the conscience of the Trailblazers. Please, Trailblazers, I want to keep liking your team, so please do the right thing here. And the right thing here, is to get out of the way and let the man pursue his career.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Last 10 Game All-Stars

I thought it would be fun to take a look at some players who have been putting up unusually high numbers (compared to their own averages) in the last 10 games. 10 games isn't a whole lot, so this is just for kicks, and to shine some light on some accomplishments that may be flying under the radar nationally.

Brandon Roy
Roy's obviously been having a great season overall, but he had some particularly huge games before missing the last three games and counting with a hamstring injury. In the seven games before the injury, he was averaging 28.6 points per game on just 13.2 field goal attempts (for a scorching 89.5% TS%) to go with 6.1 assists and only 1.6 turnovers, really working that pull-up mid-range game. That's really brilliant. This span of course includes his 52 point explosion against the Suns a little while back.

Kobe Bryant
It seems like every winter, Kobe goes through at least two insanely hot streaks between the months of January and March. I think we're in the middle of the first right now -- through the last 10 games he's averaging 32.2 points per game on just 22 field goal attempts. That's a remarkable level of efficiency, and it's possible because he's shooting 51.4% from the three point line and 54.1% overall. That shakes out to an effective field goal percentage of 58.4% and a true shooting percentage of 63.4% -- that TS% over the entire year would be first among all guards, just ahead of Jose Calderon and Ray Allen.

Kobe's also posting his usual 5.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.4 steals to go with his hyper-efficient scoring over the last 10.

While it's true he's on a bit of a hot streak, if you watch the games there's something else that's apparent about Kobe Bryant's game -- he never takes a shot he hasn't practiced hundreds or thousands of times before. Every movement is rehearsed. I point this out because he may not continue to hit on such a high percentage of his shots throughout the season, but this is not the same kind of "streak" that we might see with, say, Jamal Crawford, and when he cools off, he'll still be efficient. Check out his shot chart for this year:

Those jumpers from the right elbow are like layups for him, and it's no shock that he's taking close to a quarter of his two-point jumpers from there.

That's something that irked me in the first quarter of the Christmas day game against Boston. Kobe hit several jumpers in a row from the right elbow over Ray Allen, as the Celtics avoided double-teaming him at the start. Jeff Van Gundy commented that Allen was playing great defense, and Kobe was just hitting contested jumpers. That was sort of correct, but not exactly accurate given Kobe's strengths -- once Kobe got to that right elbow, it didn't really matter if Ray Allen was trying to contest or not, he had already basically given Kobe one of his most efficient shots. Western Conferenc players who are more used to defending Bryant (and are good enough defenders to do it) such as Bruce Bowen will know ahead of time where they don't want Kobe to go. Rather than just staying in front of him and then contesting when he goes up, they'll beat him to his spot and force him to shoot from a few feet further back or further to the right, or body him into directions he doesn't want to go in (if the refs aren't too whistle-happy). Obviously, Kobe can still hit from anywhere, but the difference between playing good defense and not against Kobe is the difference between allowing him to shoot (contested or not) from places where he can hit over 50%, and forcing him to shoot from spots just a few feet away where he'll hit closer to 40% or less. The difference isn't necessarily apparent when you look for the normal signs of good defense -- harassing and irritating and being up in a players face or making highlight blocks -- beating a man to the spot he's trying to get to is completely forgettable as a spectator, but vital for the defense. This isn't meant to be a criticism of Ray Allen's defense -- I'm sure if the teams meet in the playoffs and both sides are preparing specifically for each other, he'll be more purposeful in his strategy, but it's something to watch for, because with a shooter like Kobe who isn't really bothered by hands in his face, it's hard to see the difference sometimes between someone who's doing a good job defensively and someone who isn't.

Anyways, recently Kobe's been doing more than just hitting shots from his preferred locations, he's been hitting from everywhere. While last night's third quarter explosion (20 points on 8-9 shooting in the quarter) was awe-inspiring, it didn't just pop up out of nowhere -- he's been pretty hot for a few weeks now. When he's hot like that, I don't think there's any defensive option other than bringing the second defender and trapping to get the ball out of his hands, which is what the Hornets eventually did.

Also, yesterday Kobe did this:

Marcus Camby
Marcus Camby has been averaging 18.3 rebounds per game over the last 10. That is absurd, even by Camby's lofty standards. A lot of that production has come from necessity, as Chris Kaman's been out with injury and Zach Randolph went down recently as well. The Clipper guards aren't particularly good rebounders, so Camby's been picking up the slack, accounting for close to half of the team's rebounding totals in recent games.

Eric Gordon

Camby's teammate Gordon hasn't necessarily been on a shooting streak recently, but he's been playing increased minutes due to team injuries and making the most of them by scoring more and maintaining a high level of efficiency. In the last 10 games, Gordon's averaging 19.6 points per game on 59.7% True Shooting. While Gordon is a pretty good shooter from the outside, the way he's been able to maintain such a high level of scoring efficiency is by relentlessly attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. He's a strong guard, but it's surprising how effectively he's able to utilize his strength around the basket so early in his career. Over the last 10 games, he's averaging 6.2 free throw attempts per game in just over 42 minutes, which comes out to about 5.3 per 36 minutes (for the entire season, he's at 4.2 per 36). As a comparison, Dwyane Wade, a similarly sized guard who's made a career out of getting to the charity stripe, averaged 5.3 free throw attempts per 36 for his entire rookie season (he was up to 10 by his third year). Gordon is a much better shooter than Wade was as a rookie, so it's impressive to see him not settling for jumpshots as a lot of rookies probably would.

Randy Foye
I wrote about his move to the shooting guard position in the previous post. Maybe it's paying off? He's been shooting 59.7% TS% (including 43% from the 3-point line) and scoring 18.2 points per game, to go with 4.8 rebounds, over the last 10. It would appear that the Timberwolves have a solid starting 2-guard. Congrats!

Have you noticed any other players going through particularly productive stretches recently? Leave anyone I might have missed in the comments.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Position Matters

In his most recent column, Britt Robson goes into some detail describing the cascading positives resulting from the Timberwolves' moving Randy Foye permanently to his natural position at the off-guard. It's a persuasive and enlightening read, and I highly suggest checking it out. Robson details how the correctly constructed lineups can help create a more beneficial pace for the game as well as allow for appropriate spacing in the halfcourt, among other things. And he throws in this observation from Saturday's game against the Bulls:

Even with the Saturday night injury to Kevin Ollie, there should be no turning back on the commitment to keep playing Foye off the ball. After Ollie suffered a dislocated elbow and left a tie game just 3:37 into the first quarter versus the Bulls, Bassy Telfair manned the point for 38:47 of the remaining 44:23, and racked up a plus +22. By contrast, the Wolves were minus -12 in the two brief stints (comprising 5:36) that Bassy sat and Foye went back to the point.

That made me curious, so I went and checked out the "by position" splits at 82games, and found that this trend has held all season -- the Wolves are actually close to a .500 team when Foye is in at the 2, but are abysmal when he's playing the 1 (he's played at least 500 minutes at each spot, so the sample sizes aren't horribly small). Looking in detail at the lineup data, it's clear that the best-performing lineups that he's a part of involve him playing alongside either Kevin Ollie or Sebastian Telfair in the backcourt, while the worst pair him with Rashad McCants or Mike Miller (there are lineups with both him and Miller in together that perform well, but all of them have Miller playing the 3 with Ollie or Telfair in as point).

The differences here are drastic, and lead to the question (at least for me): what difference does it make? Why should the team look so different when a player is at the 2 rather than the 1? In an earlier post about Kevin Durant's move to the small forward position and the resulting improvement in both his and the team's performance (a result which has continued throughout the season so far), I mentioned the possibility of having an extra shooter on the floor providing more space in the mid-range areas where Durant is effective. However, in the case of moving a player from the point to the off-guard, that doesn't really seem to apply.

It's a question that's caused some consternation in the past -- that blog post from last May by Tom Ziller looks at perceptions about "pure points" vs. "combo guards," which, I think, is related to my question -- just looking at assists doesn't really tell us if someone is a better lead or off-guard, so what are the skills that we look for from a point guard (I'm talking here about the non Paul/Nash universe)?

Robson gives some thoughts:

There are subtle but crucial differences between being a freelance playmaker (which fits Foye's m.o.) and a point guard. To command the point guard slot, you need expansive, strategic court vision and an utterly reliable handle; otherwise, you aren't going to be able to effectively execute your half-court sets against opponents who have scouted the plays and worked up defensive wrinkles to stop them. The point guard's anticipatory vision and second-nature dribbling according to the split-second dictates of his brain and his instincts are key tools in his ability to counter the defensive gambits while keeping the set play reasonably in sync.

Robson focuses on the move to off-guard allowing Foye to score freely without the various restrictions of a lead guard.

Besides the mentioned skills, in general there are some more obvious considerations as well. For instance, if a player's most valuable (to a particular team) skill is scoring/attacking, it makes sense to get him the ball in the triple threat on the wing, where he is most dangerous, rather than already committed to a dribble at the top of the arc. Further, point guard coverage has gotten so wrapped up in the outliers like Chris Paul or Steve Nash who create almost the entirety of their team's offensive opportunities, that we've lost sight of the basic requirements. We say a point guard (since he's got the ball coming across the halfcourt line) often "initiates" the offense -- whether through a post-entry pass, a pass to the wing, penetration off of a screen, or whatever (in addition to his ballhandling, if you're ever wondering why Sasha Vujaucic never became a full-time point guard for the Lakers, watch him attempt to throw entry passes into the post -- every now and then he'll pick a lousy angle for the pass, usually resulting in a turnover). And the point needs to know what's going on -- if a shooter is curling off of a screen the ball needs to arrive at the destination at the same time as the shooter, so the pass has to leave the passer's hands well before that. These are little things, and they're obvious things, but I want to make sure they're not lost, and that we don't forget that these are skills, every bit as much as a polished post-up game, or an ability to shoot.

I'm harping on this a bit since, besides plus/minus numbers, there aren't great statistics to measure all of those skills that point gaurds bring to an offense. This is probably partly what motivates commentators to take the unneccesarily extreme position of measuring a point guard's abilities by looking at his team's won-loss record (similar to how some evaluate quarterbacks in football). Both of the extremes (judging solely on team performance, and judging solely on individual box-score statistics) cause problems unique to the evaluation of point guards in addition to the general problems they cause for evaluating any player. Robson's column illustrates the nuance and holism that really should always be involved in a discussion of a guard's natural position.

Monday, January 5, 2009

What to do on a Monday night in Milwaukee

The scene: a pub in Milwaukee. Two old guys sitting at a bar.

Old guy 1: So, what're you doing tonight?
Old guy 2: Ah, I got some tickets to the Bucks-Raptors game, gonna see if there's any MILF trim to check out.
Old guy 1: Cool, let me know how it goes.

Old man 1: Oooooh yeah. That was fun. Definitely worth it!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

A day of upsets throughout the league. Some observations from the pieces of games I saw:

Raptors over Magic
This might be a stretch, but I kind of think Roko Ukic looks like John Francis Daley:

Anyways, going into the season I was a little worried about the Raptors point guard depth, and have found that worry mostly well-founded throughout the season, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Roko Ukic and Will Solomon play so well filling in for an injured Jose Calderon in this one. They combined to score 23 points on 9-14 shooting, with 11 assists and just 4 turnovers between them. Solomon played a really strong first half while Ukic came on strong late (including the game-clinching shot at the end) and it'll be interesting to see if that was a one-game fluke or if Ukic is starting to get comfortable. Also, Anthony Parker is really good at moving without the ball. In this game, it led to 26 points on 13-16 shooting. 

Pistons beat the Clippers, but barely
The Pistons needed a game-winner from Allen Iverson to beat an injury-depleted Clippers team, and even after that they almost lost on a shot by Eric Gordon that just missed. Not to sound cliche, but the Clippers played hard throughout this game that they had no business being in (Rasheed Wallace was out, but the Pistons still had a huge talent advantage), and they deserve a ton of credit. It is remarkable that the Clippers were down to their fifth-string point guard throughout this game (Mardy Collins, who played 42 minutes), and yet only committed 10 turnovers. They did have some trouble creating offense at times, as Eric Gordon and Al Thornton were the only guys who could create a shot in the halfcourt (Collins did somehow end up with 12 assists, though). 

Mostly, I'm mentioning this game because of how well Eric Gordon played, and has played lately, particularly with Baron Davis out. I haven't written nearly enough about him, but he's quite accomplished as a scorer. It seems like he should be a better rebounder than he is, but as a scorer he is aggressive, skilled, and poised. In this particular game, he's the main reason the Clippers were able to stay in the game in the fourth quarter. I would write more about his game, but there is a writeup far more eloquent than anything I can do up at ClipperBlog, and I'd say that's a must-read. Like, feel free to just ignore the rest of this post, as long as you read that. 

Grizzlies crush the Mavericks
I flipped over from the Clippers-Pistons game just in time to see the Grizzlies pull away in the fourth quarter. I didn't see enough to gather much of the story, but I did notice a couple of things worth mentioning. 

First of all, Hakim Warrick is having a great season, and had another nice game in this one.

Second of all, the Grizzlies held Erick Dampier without an offensive rebound in 24 minutes. There have only been four other games this season when Dampier played at least 10 minutes and didn't register an offensive rebound. Oddly, one of those four was also against Memphis. So props to Marc Gasol, for helping hold one of the better offensive rebounders in the league without an offensive rebound for almost 48 full minutes through two games.

Secondly, Memphis put Hamed Haddadi and Darius Miles into the game for the last two minutes. This was my first time watching Haddadi this year (it's only the second time he's played). He didn't do anything notable, but he didn't look like a stiff either. He was tentative and seemed lost, at one point forgetting to get his hands up in the air for a rebound, but that's to be expected at this point. As for Miles, his playing in this game is notable because if he appears in 10 games this season, his previous salary amount goes back to counting against Portland's salary cap, somewhat restricting their ability to sign free-agents this offseason. His 2 minutes were completely inconsequential to the Grizzlies on this afternoon, but might have profound effects for the Trailblazers for years to come. 

Lakers over Trailblazers
This was the only Sunday game not resulting in an upset or near-upset, and it might have been much closer had Steve Blake and Rudy Fernandez not missed a bunch of wide-open shots in the first half that they almost always make. They combined to shoot 10-29, but many of those attempts were without a Laker anywhere nearby -- the Lakers were extremely fortunate to have a one-point lead at halftime. The Lakers then went on to really tighten up their defense in the second half (as well as clean up their turnover problems, with just 3 in the second half after 10 in the first). The Lakers' final defensive performance of 101.2 points per 100 possessions and an effective field goal percentage allowed of 44.5% was reflective both of the strong D they played in the second half and their good luck in the first half when the Blazers' guards missed easy shots. 

Stu Lantz spent some time criticizing Lamarcus Aldridge's game in the third quarter, which was odd since Aldridge played a solid game and ended up with 22 and 11 on 11-19 shooting, with 4 assists, 2 steals, and a block and just 2 turnovers, and he was the only Blazer besides Nicolas Batum who could hit a shot (both Lantz and Myers also spent a lot of time complimenting Aldridge, so go I'm nitpicking a little).

I was interested in the rebounding battle in this game -- Portland came into it as the best offensive rebounding team in the league, while the Lakers' only real weakness on defense is their average defensive rebounding rate. I thought the Lakers actually did an acceptable job on the boards in this game until one Portland possession in the fourth quarter where Portland worked their way to 5 shot attempts before finally nailing a 3. If it weren't for that possession, the Lakers would have held Portland to a solide 24% offensive rebound percentage. As it was, they allowed Portland to grab 30.6% of their misses, which is below Portland's average but still too high an amount for the Lakers to be allowing. 

It was also fun to watch the battles in the post between Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum. At this point in his career, Oden only has one move when he receives the ball in the post -- a jump hook spinning into the paint that he can hit with either hand. Since he doesn't have any moves going towards the baseline, he can be pretty predictable to defend. The first couple of times he caught the ball against Bynum, Bynum allowed him to spin to the middle to get off his shot (he made one of two). Bynum was really quick to adjust, though, and throughout the rest of the game whenever Oden caught the ball in the block (which wasn't often, since Bynum did a great job through much of the game of fronting Oden), Bynum leaned on his inside shoulder. Instead of using a drop step or spinning baseline, Oden continued to shoot his jump hook in the paint, but the shots were all awkward, off-balance, fading away, and contested (Bynum even blocked one of them). I can see a more polished Oden in the future adjusting to Bynum's adjustment and spinning baseline and getting some easy dunks (which he did do against Gasol at one point . . . why couldn't he do that against Bynum? Not sure). 

Lamar Odom played excellent defense, as he has all year. He allows the team to be really agressive with their traps because of his quickness and precision in his rotations, and he once again led the team in net plus/minus. For the whole season, he leads the team in net plus/minus, and the Lakers sport an elite defense when he's in the game. The Odom/Bynum pairing in the frontcourt is particularly strong defensively.

Finally, a couple of Laker injuries were announced just before the game. Sasha Vujacic played despite tonsilitis, and I assume he'll continue to do so until he gets surgery. Luke Walton, though, was out due to a toe injury that is "commonly associated with long-distance running or dancing." Maybe he hurt himself dancing at home to Tupac Shakur? Anyways, it was a little surprising to see Trevor Ariza get the start instead of Vladimir Radmanovic. Since being pulled from the starting lineup, Radmanovic has barely seen any playing time at all, averaging fewer than 8 minutes per game in the 10 games leading up to this one. He did eventually get into the game, though, and while he was in he played excellently at both ends of the floor, looking like someone who is doing everything to prove that he belongs in the rotation.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Converting off of Defensive Rebounds, Part II

So, a little while back I put up a post looking at the success of teams after defensive rebounds. In the comments to that post, reader Marshmallow Lips gave the helpful suggestion to present the data by position. So, below, I've split out the data for the 2007-2008 season by position, by team, and by individual player (separated out on various tabs based on position).

The positional classifications here come from the player data at dougstats, while the rest of the data was derived from play by play data that I downloaded from basketballvalue. I realize that positions aren't always fixed (for instance, in this data Monta Ellis is considered a point guard and Tim Duncan, despite his protestations, is a center), but hopefully in general the classifications will make sense. 

For the individual player tabs, I've added a color-coded column that looks at whether or not the individual's defensive rebounds resulted in the team's creating offense more or less quickly than what that team's average is. Green means faster (ie, a negative difference between the player's average and the team's average), and red means slower. 

As a reminder, I've included only defensive rebounds that immediately resulted in a shot attempt, a foul, or a turnover. I've removed those defensive rebounds that were followed by a timeout, jump ball, end of quarter, kicked ball or deflected out of bounds, and so forth. Also, the "success rate" metric does not count missed shots that resulted in offensive rebounds as "successes" -- the idea is to look at the success rate of the play immediately after the defensive rebound. Note also that the success rate is not a measure of points produced -- all drawn fouls are treated equally regardless of whether they resulted in made free throws, and made three pointers aren't given any extra credit.

For what it's worth, the individual player breakdown is separated out by team, so players who were traded midseason will have multiple entries. It might be interesting to compare the numbers for one player with different teams . . ..

The positional breakdown, I think, highlights some of the added value of a point guard who can rebound -- notice not only the higher success rate but the faster turnaround time (the "average time" column measures number of seconds from the rebound to the offensive play). Also note that, even here, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tim Duncan show up as extremely valuable. Let me know in the comments if you see any other interesting results or areas for further research. 

(On a mostly unrelated note -- I am writing this while watching the Nuggets play the Thunder, and keep wondering about how to quanitfy the value of the sorts of offensive rebounds that Russell Westbrook retrieves. Nene and Carmelo Anthony have been prolific in terms of rebounding their own misses because the move that results in their shot attempt puts them in rebounding position, but Westbrook comes out of nowhere to extend Thunder possessions that, without his presence, ought to have been over, rebounding misses by centers when most point guards would have been retreating to prevent a fast break at the other end. It's like he's committing the opposite of a turnover. Hmmn . . .). 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Expanding the Empire

Hey all, in addition to this blog, I'll be posting semi-regular tidbits here. Don't be a stranger!