Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thoughts while watching the playoffs in my hotel room in Charlotte

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

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

Friday, April 24, 2009

It's the journey

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

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

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

I love the playoffs!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Weekend Thoughts (Playoffs!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Playoff Preview, Round I (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matchup to watch: Tayshaun Prince guarding Lebron James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Playoffs!

Monday, April 13, 2009

We interrupt this silence . . .

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On Ginobili's Injury and Candace Parker's League

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

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

Expectation is crazy, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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