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 82games.com 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."

Friday, March 20, 2009

College, Pro, and the Age Limit (And CHUBBY COX)

Shoals had a nice column up at the Sporting News yesterday that I wanted to draw your attention to, asking "has the age minimum really created a bridge between the college and pro ranks? Or is the NCAA just wasting the time of eventual All-Stars?" The column isn't an opinion piece about the age limit. Instead, Shoals asserts, "college ball is quite simply a different form of basketball than the pros." It's a reasonable assertion, one I've made myself many times. The column uses that assertion to start a discussion specifically about NBA all-star type talents, so ignore for now the narrative of the NCAA star who becomes an effective role player in the NBA, for instance.

We are also leaving aside, here, the Carmelo Anthony-type stories of players who dominate the NCAA and go on to become stars in the NBA. Instead, we're looking at players who didn't stand out in college play, or seemed like role-players at the college level, but went on to become stars at the NBA level.

On the other hand, college ball has the uncanny ability to stifle future stars, or camouflage them altogether. We’re not talking about the all-too-familiar economy of sleepers and busts that makes the NBA draft an all-consuming passion for some (including even a few scouts). Looking at this year’s rookie class, I’m left wondering how O.J. Mayo -- once the Next LeBron, now the future of the Memphis Grizzlies -- could have been so prosaic at USC, to the point where his going third in the draft was considered a comeback of sorts.

Or why did the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, one of the most dynamic and versatile young guards in the league, spend two years at UCLA known only as a defensive stopper and raw dunker? To paint an even more extreme picture, how is it that Dwyane Wade and Brandon Roy, both of whom served extended tours of duty at their alma maters, were merely very, very good at what’s supposedly an inferior level of play?

I don't really follow the NCAA enough to have a ton to add to the discussion, but wanted to point it out to you. I would submit, in terms of specific and material differences, that what separates most superstar perimeter scorers from just decent scorers in the NBA is the ability to create and convert pull-up midrange jump-shots (since most NBA defenses have a good shotblocker near the rim, unless your name is Lebron James you're not always going to have an opening to finish at the rim when you beat your man off the dribble). The NCAA, with its closer 3-point line, shrinks a lot of the floor and doesn't really have space for that midrange pull-up game to flourish. Just a thought.

The real March Madness: The race to crown the best ever NBA name
I had thought that Ruben Boumtje Boumtje had this award locked up forever, until today. I randomly stumbled across the career statistics of the great Chubby Cox. Cox was drafted in 1978 but never played a pro game until 4 and a half years later when he signed a couple of 10-day contracts with the Washington Bullets. And if you were looking for proof that the NBA is the greatest thing ever: It turns out that Chubby Cox is Kobe Bryant's uncle on his mom's side. So what do you think? Did Chubby Cox beat out Ruben Boumtje Boumtje? Or is there another candidate that I'm missing completely?

UPDATE: I guess I should do a little more research next time. After posting this, I did a quick Google and realized that basketbawful had already written about Chubby Cox and his awesome name and Kobe connection, 2 years ago. Credit where it's due.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Pale View

Jason Terry is probably the favorite at this point for the 6th man of the year award, and deservedly so -- he's having a great year, scoring an efficient 20 points per game off the bench. But why haven't we heard more about Nate Robinson's candidacy for the award? Robinson's averaging 18.2 points, 4.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game, while shooting solid percentages from the field and the free throw line. I'm assuming we'll start hearing more and more about him as a possible 6th man award winner because of how he's performed recently -- since the all-star break, he's putting up 25.8 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.5 rebounds while shooting 47% from the field, 39% from the 3-point line, and 87% -- all off the bench (33.5 minutes per game). That's a remarkable run. 

Meanwhile, it's starting to seem like it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to see Donyell Marshall have a huge impact on at least one or two playoff games this spring. He's only appeared in 16 games for the 76ers so far this year, and in very limited minutes, but he's shooting close to 54% from the 3-point line in those games, which is exactly what Philadelphia needs. So far, the team is 5.3 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Marshall is on the floor.

In the Western Conference: with Thabo Sefalosha playing, the Thunder have stretches when they look like a respectable defensive team, which is a big improvement from where they were without him. Not to mention, he's averaging 2.4 steals per game on a team that loves to get out and run. Step by step, this team is making its way towards being competitive. They've been right around .500 since their abysmal start, and they are definitely going to be worth following closely next year.

And finally: I don't watch NCAA ball and I've never filled out a tournament bracket (though if I did, it would be this very attractive one). So for no particular reason, here are my completely uninformed picks for which teams will make the elite eight: Pittsburgh, UCLA, Gonzaga, Syracuse, Louisville, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Memphis. Let's see how I do!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Looking ahead with the Hawks

Unrelated asides: If you're into art or re-imagining office spaces, check out a side-project I'm involved with called mauve?. Speaking of side-projects, I'm also involved with this [not entirely safe for work] site.

I might be the Hawks' good luck charm this year -- it seems as though every time I watch them, even on tape-delay, they not only win but play fantastically. A lot of that has to do, I think, with my having watched more of their home games than their road games. Still, even with the postseason still a ways away, it's hard not to begin imagining this team (assuming a healthy return for Marvin Williams) advancing to the second round of the playoffs this spring.

Yesterday morning's game might not have been the perfect example -- they were playing at home to Portland at 10 a.m. West Coast time. But I'll use it anyways. Joe Johnson is the main story for the Atlanta offense, both in this game and throughout the season, but for now I'd like to focus on the defense. When they are at their best, the Hawks do a great job of switching and closing out on shooters and generally making things difficult for the opposing offense. Unfortunately, they're not always at their best -- below is a chart of Atlanta's defensive efficiency over the course of the season. The blue line is their defense from game to game, and the pink line represents their overall defensive performance during the prior 10 games -- a moving average (recall that for defense, lower numbers are better). Click the image to make it bigger.

As you can see, they crapped out a bit around late December and early January, but have recently been picking it up again (for context, a defensive rating of 108 would be about average this year). More striking is the home-road split: the Hawks allow just 104.8 points per 100 possessions at home (that would be sixth in the league, right behind San Antonio), but 110.5 points per 100 on the road (which would be 24th in the league, behind the Knicks). Fortunately for them, they're on track to end up with the fourth seed in the playoffs, which would give them homecourt for the first round, probably against either Miami or Philadelphia.

On Sunday, the Hawks held the Blazers, the best offensive rebounding team in the league, to just retrieving 28.6% of their offensive rebounding chances (Portland averages over 32%), and it was mostly due to the bigs' boxing out and allowing the guards to get a number of rebounds (Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby combined for 11 defensive rebounds).

When they're at their best, the Hawks continue to be one of the more fun teams to watch in the league, despite numerous flaws. And, despite all of those flaws, if the team plays the sort of defense that they've shown themselves to be capable of so far in March, they'll still be around for the second round of the playoffs, for the first time in a decade.

Neither here nor there
Since getting called up from the D-League, Pops Mensah-Bonsu has played in a handful of games (8 total). Somehow, he's averaging close to a point and a rebound every other minute -- that is, close to 7 and 7 in just 14 minutes.

Also: I was flipping around on the TV the other day and saw this odd sight:

And finally: the Warriors aren't exactly going anywhere and the whole franchise seems to be in disarray, but since coming back from resting his stiff ankle, Monta Ellis has looked like Monta Ellis again. That is a good thing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Clippers, in 7 seconds

No game is won or lost in the last few seconds. I understand that. But last night, I saw one of the more frustrating late game decisions I can remember, and wanted to share. See, last night I got home from seeing the movie Gomorra (worth watching!), and turned on the tube to find the Clippers ahead of the Cavs with just a few minutes left to play. Thinking I'd see a possible upset or at least some Baron/Lebron heroics, I settled in.

The Cavs, obviously, were in the process of a comeback. Almost immediately after I tuned into the game the Cavs had tied it up. There were some big shots by Mo Williams and Boobie Gibson, as well as Al Thornton. But then, with 7 seconds left, the Clippers get the ball and are down by 2. I'll let Kevin Arnovitz of Clipperblog explain what happened next:

[4th, 0:06.6] This game ends for the Clippers the way it begins — with a Zach Randolph airball from 27 feet. What do the Clippers want, down two points with a hair over six seconds remaining? According to Mike Dunleavy, “We ran a side out-of-bounds play to try to get the ball into Baron.” That appears to be the intent: Baron starts along the baseline, with Randolph, Novak, and Thornton in a sort of line set across the stripe. Al, who’s farthest from the inbounder [Gordon], runs to the front side around Randolph/Varejao and Novak/Pavlovic. Meanwhile, Baron sprints up from down low, trying to shake loose of LeBron around the Randolph/Noak stack. Baron tries to split them, but the whole ordeal is clumsy — LeBron actually beats Baron around the screens, making any attempted inbounds pass to Baron impossible. Eric is stuck. He could go to Thornton on the near side wing, but Williams — who’s guarding him — has cut off that angle. Finally, Randolph steps toward the sideline to receive the ball from Gordon. When he does, Eric steps onto the court and asks for it back, only Randolph never looks at him. Never looks at anyone. With the court spread, there’s an nanosecond when you believe Zach might just want to take Varejao off the dribble, but that notion dissolves pretty quickly. Instead, Randolph takes a couple of dribbles, then elevates to launch the shot with exactly 5.0 seconds left. His teammates are perplexed. Al Thornton drops his arms, then after the whistle is blown, looks back as if to confirm he saw what he thinks he saw, then turns around in disgust. Baron looks angry and Eric bemused. 1.6 seconds remain. When Cleveland inbounds the ball, Mo Williams is fouled with 0.00.6, and sinks both FTs, which ices the game.

The Clippers are a caricature of themselves.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Around the League

Some quick notes that I thought were important enough to pass along. Apologies for the bullety form, work is starting to settle down, and hopefully I'll be able to go home and do this at more reasonable hours starting soon.

- I don't want to comment on the game itself, but do want to address briefly the Trevor Ariza foul that led to Rudy Fernandez's injury. I think Matt Moore's point that the foul wasn't dirty so much as reckless was pretty accurate. I would point out, though, a couple of things. One, players probably need to be judicious in how they approach a situation where they're behind the play on a fastbreak and want to challenge the shot (from behind). However, I can see how Ariza might have thought he had a shot, he made a similar play in the first game of the season against Jerryd Bayless, and it resulted in a clean block. Further, Ariza, and others like Josh Smith or Andrei Kirilenko, use blocks from behind as an important part of their games, as a way of capitalizing on their length and athleticism. But there's a difference between blocking a player from behind in the halfcourt and coming across his body from behind when he's at full speed on a fast break. The problem wasn't, as the announcers tried to argue, that it was a 30-point game and Ariza should have just let him go -- that is stupid. The problem was that the probability of causing an injury there was much higher than the probability of defending the shot. Anyway, the main reason I'm bringing the episode up is that I happened to be watching a Portland feed of the game. Now, I've never met Rudy Fernandez myself, but as soon as the play went down, I was horrified and all of my thoughts were along the lines of "I hope he's ok" and "I hope that wasn't as bad as it looked." So why was Portland's color commentator, who I assume actually knows Rudy personally, obsessed only with how the referees would hand out techincal fouls for the resulting skirmish or whether Lamar Odom would be suspended for briefly leaving the bench, even as Fernandez was laying motionless on the ground? You can mention those things, of course, but can't you at least pretend to be concerned for the player who might have just been seriously injured and is being taken out on a stretcher? The color guy, whose name I can't recall right now, didn't say anything about Fernandez. That's disgusting.

- I am really glad to hear that Fernandez will be ok. After watching replays, I was relieved to see that a head, neck, or spine injury seemed very unlikely. I sort of thought that it might be one or more broken ribs. As it turns out, it is "soft tissue damage." I have no idea what that means, but the reports make it sound not as serious as the other possibilites.

- I only caught the first half of the Rockets-Nuggets game last night, but wow, the Rockets' defense is fantastic. Right now in the standings, the Rockets are third in the West. That would match them up with the Hornets in the first round, and I don't think the Hornets make it out. Watching Ron Artest and then Shane Battier at times guard Carmelo Anthony was obviously big, but I was more taken by how Yao played both in team defense overall and specifically against Nene.

- Speaking of the Rockets, Bill Simmons had Houston GM Daryl Morey on as a guest on his podcast, and it is worth listening to if you get the chance. Some roundabout dithering on statistics: the podcast includes a few pretty clear digs at Dave Berri and the Wages of Wins, and I hear that Mark Cuban also referred to the WOW as dumb. As the volcano said to the riverbed, "I share your sediment." Although I have some theoretical disagreements with Berri et al's approach to basketball statistics, the real issue I have is with the style and tone that the blog has taken. This idea that repeatedly debunking "conventional wisdom" while being dismissive of any other work done in the field and treating the audience like it is stupid is . . . well, it makes analsysis in general look bad. And it serves as some sort of confirmation to those who are resistant to any quantificational analysis that there is nothing of value there. What I found interesting about the Morey-Simmons conversation was that Simmons is one of those resistant types, and he goes into what he thinks is important, discussing, basically, context. And that's interesting to me because I think that's what a lot of people who care actually are trying to uncover using numbers. As I've said here before, as a fan, I have no interest in using statistics to show "who's better" or "who's the best player in the league?" or whatever. I want to know things like "what would Philadelphia look like if they had a better outside spot-up shooter who didn't disrupt their defensive style?" or "would this team benefit more from a center who always comes out of the paint to defend the pick and roll (Kendrick Perkins?) or someone who sits back in the paint but is a great shot-blocker (Marcus Camby)?" I guess what I'm saying is that Simmons is right, there, but his point isn't a strike against statistical analysis, it's a strike against stupidity and oversimplification. (This is a subtle recommendation to read the recent work at basketball geek, for instance). Anyways, as fans we don't have a ton of access to data outside of what's in play-by-plays, like how a player shoots off the dribble as opposed to spotting up, how efficient he is going right or going left, or how well a player defends under different strategies of defending the pick and roll. But that's data that I'm pretty sure is available to a lot of teams.

- I didn't see yesterday's Heat-Bulls game, unfortunately. I know I just rambled about the uselessness of the boxscore and whatnot, but look what Dwyane Wade did: 48 points (shooting 15-21), 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals, and three blocks. Good lord. I realize that the NBA is a league of outliers. When we talk about 450 of, probably, the 1,000 best basketball players in the world, that's more than one or two standard deviations from the mean -- we're talking about really exceptional players, the top .0001% or something. So the fact that, even among this group, there are a handful of players who are just that much stronger, faster, smarter, than their peers, is remarkable. I'm looking at you, Lebron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade. Kind of the athletic successors to the younger Kevin Garnett and Orlando Tracy McGrady.

Again, apologies for the lack of structure. There are well-formed essays swimming around my head, I'll do my best ot get them up in time for when the NCAA takes over all the attention.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A special Birthday post

This is a special post celebrating the birthday of a dear friend, who may or may not be reading this. In honor of this friend, some pictures of a sampling of the hottest players in the NBA. Let me know if I've missed anyone. In no particular order. (HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRIEND!)

This list could go on and on, but I started to feel weird about it. And now, birthday songs!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hey Fantasty Folks

In case you hadn't noticed yet, this might be important at some point:

This season, per 36 minutes, Anthony Randolph is averaging 16.5 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, and 1.2 steals.

True, he doesn't get consistent minutes, and he turns the ball over a lot, and he only shoots 45% from the field. But he's 19 years old. We can build on this.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March Boringness

Apologies for the sporadicness of recent posting. My day job has been particularly demanding recently, and I haven't had much spare time. I've still been following the League, but watching games without taking notes doesn't often lead to many great insights. Anyways, there's a couple of things I wanted to discuss in this post. This is kind of a mind-cleaning for me, some thoughts that have been kicking around in my head. March seems like the time to get them out for some discussion, what with all this focus on the NCAA now.

First off: some stat-ish links:

- I've focused a bit in the past on metrics measuring how well teams get into the break off of defensive rebounds. So it was nice to see a real coach expounding the virtues of that. And advocating tracking the time from rebound to score (like I did!).

- For a while now Ryan at basketball geek has been doing really fantastic work examining what makes a good defensive lineup. He started out looking at each of the four factors' contributions to defensive efficiency, then began an investigation of shooting efficiency. First, he looked at which areas of the court have the most importance to overall efficiency (good defensive lineups guard the basket and the three-point line, as expected. Also of note -- the most efficient areas on the court to begin with (low-paint area and the corner 3's) are also the places where a defense can make the most difference by defending. It would be interesting to see to what extent a defense can affect the shot selection -- Eli at counthebasket had a pretty intelligent approach to this question about a year or so ago, with some results here, and if I were smarter I'd look into how they relate to Ryan's findings. In the latest installment, Ryan's applied the adjusted +/- methodology to look at the effect of individual players on low-paint shooting percentages, since low-paint FG% was such an important part of overall efficiency. While results were only statistically significant for some players, the idea and methods outlined here are really smart and thoughtful. Ryan points out in the first post that he's doing some defensive game-charting of games, and "I want to ensure I’m getting data that helps create a clearer picture of defense. To do this, I need to know what information would be most helpful to have." A reasonable extension, though: these results could inform how to create more informative box-scores that can tell us something about players' defense. Bruce Bowen, born too late!

- Kevin Pelton had two nice pieces about the correlation between team age and success in the NBA. Pelton himself notes that the correlation he finds could be caused by a bit of self-selection, mentioning that better teams always look for older players to fill out the rotation while rebuilding teams give more minutes to youngsters. There's also another factor at play, probably -- that lousy young players don't really last in the league, and so the only ones still playing at the later ages are the ones who were good to begin with. It seems like Portland, with so many good young players playing a lot of minutes, is an exception that doesn't really have a precedent (and the Lakers, who have so many very good players who are in their primes). In any case, the findings are interesting, and worth checking out. While I'm at it, Pelton also has an article up about the Spurs that's worth reading.

Other Notes

- For all the talk about Mo Williams in Cleveland, and the talk seemed to reach a high point during the "debate" about whether he should be on the all-star team, everyone who's been watching the games knows that Delonte West is probably an even bigger part of the story in Cleveland. He's a great fit for that team, and he's been playing out of his mind all season. So my question is: are the pundits watching? Why no Delonte mentions?

- Speaking of Cleveland, that Joe Smith acquisition should be big for them. As well as Hickson can play the minutes opened up by Ben Wallace's absence, Joe Smith will still do an infinitely better job playing whatever's left than anyone else would, and he'll also take some minutes from Hickson, Varejao, and Z. Good for everyone. I know Boston didn't want to take any chances, but I have to think they'd have been happier with Smith than with Mikki Moore . . .

- I like Kyle Lowry on the Rockets.

- Before the playoffs start, please make a date to watch a couple of Oklahoma City Thunder games. You won't regret it. Preferably wait until Durant and Green are healthy.

- The Bobcats have the 8th best defense in the league. Hats off to Larry Brown.

- My coach of the year choices so far this season. They are all rather obvious. In no particular order: Jerry Sloan, Mike Brown, Stan Van Gundy, Scott Skiles (ugh), Gregg Popovich.

More thoughts later . . ..