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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Tying Up Some Loose Ends Regarding "Awful Analysis"

After I tried to set the record straight regarding whether Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash is a better player only to receive a response that focused more on facial hair than basketball, one of my regular readers summed up the exchange quite nicely: "Don't feed the troll." The thing is, though, if you don't feed the troll it doesn't stop him from being a troll and may convince some people that he actually knows what he is talking about. Perhaps the troll should starve, but the readers deserve the best possible basketball analysis.

I don't know what the deal is with the comments section at this person's site but rather than write something there that may or may not see the light of day--and will only be read by people who think that 32 points and 16 assists is better than 65 points and that Phil Jackson hid Michael Jordan on defense--I decided to tie up some loose ends here.

One person asked me to explain the difference between Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas in terms of shot selection. Arenas' shot selection is something that I have addressed previously at this website: here and here. He differs from Bryant in many ways: most notably, Arenas dribbles up the court and jacks up long jumpers and three pointers with plenty of time left on the shot clock, while Bryant generally does not do that unless it is at the end of a quarter for a 2 for 1 possession. Yesterday, I charted what Bryant did at the offensive end of the court for the entire third quarter of his most recent 50 point game. Obviously, he doesn't always shoot 6-7 from the field, but the moves were fairly typical. He catches the ball, reads the defense and shoots within one or two dribbles (or passes when he is double-teamed). Arenas just fires at will from all angles. He is very talented, so he makes some of these shots but he also has some horrendous games--15 times this year he has shot below .300 from the field. His repertoire does not include the footwork or ball fakes that Bryant smoothly employs. Bryant is fundamentally sound and that--coupled with his great athleticism--is why he can do things that few other people in the history of the game have done. Arenas' main two "moves" are shooting deep pull up threes and driving hard to the basket. Before some Agent Zero fan angrily denounces me, yes I'm sure that there are examples of Arenas making other shots--but he does not have a back to the basket game that is as refined as Bryant's or an arsenal of turnaround jumpers, pump fakes and so forth the likes of which Bryant uses to attack defenses.

The conclusion of my comment at the other site speaks for itself: "You're right, though. Arenas does 'occasionally' win playoff series. He also 'occasionally' misses two free throws after LeBron psyches him out. Last I checked, Kobe was an All-NBA and All-Defensive Team player while he was a member of three championship teams. Good luck to Arenas on matching that."

As for Nash's "64 point game" (32 points plus 16 assists equals 64 points in the new math) and his 28-22 game and how common those feats are, it should be obvious that Bryant's current 50 point string--now at four and counting, exceeded only by Wilt Chamberlain all-time--is much more rare and difficult. Basketball Reference.com has all the boxscores since 1986-87 (not including this season, yet). There have been 34 20 point/20 assist games since that time. Some notable ones include 32-20-11 (rebounds) by Magic Johnson, 30-21 by Kevin Johnson, 29-21 by Magic, 31-20-16 (!) by Fat Lever, 29-21 by Magic (no, I'm not stuttering; he did it again), 37-20 by KJ, 30-20 by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. What about the exact 32-16 combo that Nash had? There have been 22 other games since 1986-87 in which a player had at least 32 points and at least 16 assists. I'm not trying to take anything away from Nash; 32-16 and 28-22 are excellent--but they are neither as rare nor as difficult as 50-plus points in four straight games. Scoring 65 points in and of itself is very noteworthy. Since 1986-87, that has only happened three other times: Bryant famously had 81 last year, David Robinson had 71 on the last day of the 1994 season when his teammates force fed him the ball so he could win the scoring title and Michael Jordan scored a career high 69 in an overtime game in 1990.

There is no question that Nash is a great player. I think that some of his forerunners--Mark Price and Kevin Johnson and Tim Hardaway and John Stockton--were in many ways underappreciated. Nash is not "better" than Kobe Bryant when it comes to overall skills and completeness. Nash plays on a team that has a lot more talented players than the Lakers do--and yet barely beat the Lakers in a seven game series last year. Frankly, anyone who thinks that the series would have been that close if Nash and Bryant switched teams is simply delusional. Bryant is scoring 50-plus points game after game despite not having even one reliable outside shooting threat on his team or even one bonafide 20 ppg scorer. How exactly would teams guard him if he were playing alongside Marion and Stoudemire? Plus, it is more difficult--if not impossible--to double team a great player in an open court, fast break situation, so Bryant would absolutely thrive in the Suns' offense. If Nash played for the Lakers, he would still score 18-20 ppg--maybe even a little more. He would not shoot as well, because teams could guard him tighter without worrying that his teammates would make shots. Nash's assists would be cut by 20%, at least, as Kwame Brown fumbled the ball out of bounds and Smush Parker clanked shots left and right.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM



At Sunday, March 25, 2007 1:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. There's nothing wrong with the 'stache. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
2. I'm surprised you would include Price, Hardaway, and KJ with Stockton and Nash-- whole different class.
3. I would contend that Stockton is terribly underrated and using his stats to dismiss Nash is unfair.
Also, statistical analysis in general has gone a little overboard-- Fat Lever put up those numbers because of the scheme and pace. He wasn't that great and never would have put up those numbers for Jerry Sloan. Stockton would've averaged 28 and 18 for Denver (that's 64 points a game by the new math, right?). The same argument has been made against Nash.
4. At the end of the day you have to watch the games.
Anyone who attibuted Kobe's Toronto game to ball hogging didn't watch the game. They were behind throughout the first half and only won as he turned it on down the stretch when everyone else proved incapable.
Make judgements based on what you see, not on stats! Stats lie!
I live in Dallas and I love me some Dirk, but there's no freaking way he's the MVP after watching every game he's played in his career.
I guess that's another argument for another day....
1. Kobe 2. Garnett 3. Wade (still) 4. Nash 5. Dirk
6. Chris Webber, baby!

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 2:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I grouped Price, Hardaway, KJ, Stockton and Nash together as small (6-1 ish) guards who could both score and dish. Other than KJ, they all made a ton of threes (Hardaway was more of a volume guy than a pure percentage shooter of course, but he made a ton of big ones). They did not play exactly the same way (as I mentioned, KJ did not utilize the three point shot, Hardaway had the killer crossover, etc.) but they had that "80s/90s" skill set that Kenny Smith spoke of in my interview with him. Nowadays you have guards who can dish and guards who shoot (and some guards who mainly defend) but few guards--particularly the smaller ones--really have complete skill sets. Those guys all did. Price, KJ and Hardaway all dealt with the injury bug that Stockton avoided for 19 years (which is in itself remarkable). I have always thought that Price is a very underrated player. When Nash first came in the league I thought that he was the second coming of Mark Price as a shooter who deftly uses the pick and roll and is a good passer. Former Chicago Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach told me that Mark Price was the best in the business at splitting the pick and roll. Nash's acclaim has far exceeded anything that Price received but other than Nash's higher assist totals since he came to Phx his numbers are similar to Price's when Price was an All-NBA guard in the late 80s/early 90s. Stockton is the best defensive player in this group and I would take him over the others--yes, even over Nash.

I didn't mean for Stockton's stats to "dismiss" Nash. Stockton was a great player, as is Nash. What I don't get is when people say that Nash is "unique" or that he is doing things that others have not done. Stockton did pretty much the same things, for a longer period of time. I think that Stockton should have gotten a few more MVP votes than he did (I don't think that he ever finished better than ninth or tenth) and that Nash should have gotten a few less MVP votes than he has.

Fat Lever did get a boost from the system he played in (as does Nash, by the way) but a 6-3 guard who gets 9 rebounds a game in the NBA is pretty good.

You are 100% correct about watching the games. If you read what I write compared to a lot of the other material out there, it quickly becomes clear who is watching the games and who is just flapping their gums.

I'm with you in terms of Kobe in the top spot. If you read a few of my recent posts you know that I am not a huge KG fan, so he would not be in my top six. Wade moved up in my mind after last year's Finals but the Heat were below .500 without Shaq and with Wade and now they are doing well with Shaq and without Wade (although the Heat have lost a couple recently). I think that your pain about losing in the Finals has caused you to lash out at Dirk a little; I'd have him higher than fifth. I hope that CWebb at sixth is a tongue in cheek remark. I like CWebb's game and what he has done for Detroit but he is a complementary player at this stage of his career. Nothing wrong with that, though.

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 3:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tongue firmly in cheek. You can't deny the upswing in Detroit's fortunes since that acquistion though.

I certaintly didn't imply to mean that you don't watch the games-- it is obvious you do. I just get worn out by the stats.

You may be right about Price. I just remember a Cavs team with him, Nance, Dsugherty, Ehlo, Hot Rod, Harper, etc. that never got as much done as they should have. Perhaps I hold that against him more than I should.

The reason people wanted to vote for Nash the first time he won (and why they didn't vote for Shaq three years ago or McGrady two years ago or Kobe this year or Iverson ever) is because he harkens back to the team-first, less commercial time we want to remember Bird, Magic, and Dr. J as being.
Once you voted for him once, how could you not when his individual stats and team winning percentage went up the next year? And the year after that?

I am pleasantly surprised that the "great white hope" argument hasn't emerged regarding Nash.

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 4:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I assumed that your comment about watching the games was not in reference to me, so no offense taken.

The Cavs had a really nice team for several years but their big problem was they could never beat the Bulls. Once Chicago overcame Detroit the two East teams that played the Bulls the toughest were probably the Knicks and then the Cavs--one of those series with the Cavs came down to a very famous MJ shot over Ehlo. One of the years that the Cavs were really rolling Detroit's Rick Mahorn slammed Price into a basket stanchion and Price was not quite the same the rest of the way that year. Price is really small. He was listed at 6-0 but even that seems generous. I saw him close up when he was a Cavs broadcaster and he seemed not only short but very slightly built. Nash is a legit 6-3 and while he is not bulging with muscles he is solidly put together, a legit 190-195.

Johnny Bach told me that Price was so good at splitting the pick and roll that it actually shortened his career. He made the big guys look bad by blowing past them and they retaliated by banging him around. I asked Daugherty about that and he didn't think that Price was singled out for special treatment--the game was just more physical then. There probably is an element of truth to both statements. Price is so slight that it's a wonder he played as long as he did. He was really fun to watch--great, great shooter, a 50-40-90 guy at his best, just like Nash is now, and a better passer and dribbler than people seem to remember.

I agree that the Nash for MVP bandwagon gained momentum because his stats keep getting better. A while back I joked that he'll end up breaking Kareem's record for most MVPs at this rate, because Nash shows no sign of slowing down and his numbers keep getting better. I thought that Shaq should have won in '05 and that Kobe should have won in '06. Not that Nash is not great, but in those years I would have picked those guys first.

I don't see a "great white hope" component to this, nor do I get the sense that players feel any resentment toward Nash in that regard. After Shaq made some comments questioning recent MVP voting a few weeks ago, I was among a group of reporters that Nash spoke to after a game in Indiana. One of the writers asked Nash what kind of response he has gotten from other players and Nash said that many opposing players made a point of telling him that he deserves the accolades that he has gotten. I have not heard any on or off the record conversation to the contrary of that. Even people like me who truly believe that Kobe is a better player are not "dissing" Nash. I think that Nash is great also.

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 12:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I like the post, even if I totally disagree. A few points:

1. Kobe's teammates are not as bad as everyone seems to think. Lamar Odum is a _great_ player. He's just been unable to stay healthy. Luke Walton, Brian Cook, Jordan Farmer, Bynum: These are all above-average players. Smush is asked to do only 2 things (shoot and defend) and until this year he was ok at both of them. Kwame has a ton of talent, just one of the worst attitudes in the league.
I'm not saying adding Nash could magically make these guys talents shine any more than they do now, but say, LeBron would love to swap his supporting cast for Kobe's. I don't think people give these guys enough credit.

2. You seem to be equating rarity with difficulty. Just as an almost semantic point, I don't think this is necessarily true. Point guards are told (endlessly) by coaches to pass the ball, to find open shooters, etc. On the other hand, very few players have a universally green light to score whenever they have any kind of opening. So we would, just based on that information, assume that scoring 60+ points a game would be much more rare than racking up a 20, 20. Without knowing anything about the difficulty.

3. You place a lot of emphasis for Nash's success on the 'Phoenix system'. You then talk about how Kobe would do amazing in a similar system. I can't imagine this is true.
If the Phoenix system were so good, then everyone would run it. The 'system' works because they have a unique combination of talented and unselfish players. If Kobe was in Phoenix he'd have to play the 4 or 5 because those are the 'finishing' positions in the Suns system.
Ok, I admit it, that might actually work.
But if you traded Kobe for Nash straight up...the Suns would have to change coaches (cuz apparently D'Antoni hates Kobe) and Lamar, Smush, Kwame, Bynum would all get better. I kinda think both teams would get worse.

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 9:09:00 PM, Blogger davidrmoran said...

Anyone who plays knows that if you swapped Nash and Bryant things would change dramatically, sure, but in unpredictable ways. You make it sound predictable and simple and easy. That's unsophisticated, to put it nicely. That's not the way it works. It might well be even up, or even the opposite of what you surmise. Nash improves those around him, just enormously. He is a huge and enduring difference-maker in that sense as well as all the others. Phoenix would suffer with Bryant, to a certain extent. I guess it depends on what timeframe you are talking about. Over a season, sure, Phoenix would adjust to Bryant, to an extent, eventually. The Laker would profit from Nash's brilliance much more quickly. It almost certainly would not go quite as you think.

At Sunday, March 25, 2007 10:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Lamar Odom is a talented player, a multi-dimensional player but he is certainly not a great player. What is the difference? Odom is a big guy who can dribble, pass, shoot, rebound and defend--he has a great skill set for a player of his size. The problem is, he is not great in any one area and is only sporadically productive at a high level. He's been around a long time and has yet to make even one All-Star team--and I don't think that he has been "snubbed," either. Smush is perhaps the worst starting point guard in the NBA, for reasons that I have documented repeatedly here. Walton is a heady player but is he really an above average small forward? Small forward in the NBA is a scoring position. I understand that he is more of a "point" forward, a playmaker, and that the Lakers are better with him than without him but he is not nearly as productive as the top small forwards. Cook is a one dimensional player, a jump shooter who has one good game about every two weeks. I like Farmar and Bynum in terms of potential but their game to game impact right now is all over the map and not consistently good from night to night. Kwame has worked hard to be a presence on defense but has incredibly bad hands, which limit his ability to be productive on offense. LeBron has Z--an All-Star center--Larry Hughes, a versatile player who can play 1, 2 or 3, Drew Gooden, an above average player who does not bring it every night, Anderson Varejao, a high energy guy and Sasha Pavlovic, a young guy who is really coming on. Perhaps LeBron would be tempted by the chance to play with Odom but if he had to swap his whole cast for the Lakers' whole cast I don't think he would do that.

Players from any position can score 60+ points and plenty of players around the league have the green light to score. Kobe's team wins a very high percentage of his 40+ and 50+ games. Scoring that much is both rare and difficult. Come on, Kobe and Wilt are the only two guys to have four straight 50+ games and we're supposed to believe that it is the same as a 28-22 game? Ask anyone who's played the game at a high level and they will tell you how difficult it is to score like that.

I don't think that D'Antoni hates Kobe. They got along fine at the All-Star Game and Kobe looked pretty good in a Phx style game. Admittedly, that was an exhibition game but that style is perfectly suited for Kobe. When he is in transition it is hard to double team him and when he is single covered he is basically unguardable.

I agree that the outcome of trading Kobe for Nash--which of course would never happen in real life for a variety of reasons--could result in some unpredictable things but if you objectively consider both players' strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses of the other players on both teams you can make some reasonable assumptions. Nash gets assists based on guys making open shots. Kobe passes the ball plenty of times to open guys who miss. I don't think that Nash's passes to open Lakers would have a different outcome. Kwame can't catch and several of the Lakers can't shoot. That would not change. Trapping Nash on Phx is a bad idea because he is surrounded by great scorers. Trapping Nash on the Lakers would be a good idea because he would be the best shooter and scorer on the team and forcing him to give the ball up would result in low percentage shots. Meanwhile, with Kobe on the Suns, Barbosa would play point or perhaps D'Antoni would use Marcus Banks and keep Barbosa as a sixth man. Kobe gets 5.5 apg on the Lakers and could easily get 6-7 apg on the Suns. Doubling him would be a disaster with Amare and Marion lurking around the hoop and Bell and Jones on the perimeter. Kobe has played on championship teams and knows what it takes to perform at that level. Put him on Phx and I would consider them the favorites to win. Put Nash on the Lakers and I give them 30 wins, tops. Look at Kidd on the Nets. He is a great point guard and even has an All-Star in Carter and another good player in R. Jeff. But there have been injuries and the rest of the cast is somewhat suspect. Kidd is having one of his best years ever but the team is below .500. Kidd is a better rebounder and defender than Nash. Put Nash on the Lakers and you have the Nets, only worse.

If Nash is going to get all the credit for making Amare and Marion better then I want someone to explain how Dallas and Dirk essentially swapped Nash for non-All-Star Jason Terry and got better. Marion was good before Nash got there and Amare is a very talented player who could score and rebound with a lot of different point guards. Yes, Nash is great but the Nash effect has been somewhat overstated and completely neglects to consider the effect--or lack thereof--when he left Dallas. The Mavericks gave up a future two-time MVP and got better. That has not happened too often in NBA history.


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