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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What a Fool Believes...

"What a Fool Believes" is a great Doobie Brothers song from the 1978 album "Minute by Minute." It reached number one on the pop charts in 1979 and won Grammys as both "Song of the Year" and "Record of the Year." What does that have to do with basketball? Here are some of the lyrics: "But what a fool believes he sees/No wise man has the power to reason away/What seems to be/Is always better than nothing." That is a good description of Phoenix Suns' advocates who believe that the Suns will win the NBA title this year.

What's so foolish about that? After all, the Suns do have the third best record in the league and split the season series with Dallas, 2-2. As Michael McDonald sang, "What seems to be/Is always better than nothing." The Suns pile up wins in the regular season with a high octane running game, but their uptempo style is not punctuated with layups but rather a record setting barrage of three pointers. This works great against inferior teams that can neither control the tempo of the game nor matchup in the open court with Phoenix' talented group of players. However, there is a reason that Phoenix is just 6-7 versus Dallas, San Antonio and Utah: the elite teams are more equipped to regulate tempo and better able to matchup with Phoenix' personnel.

I just read a blog post by a Phoenix Suns' fan who tried to "debunk" what he called "myths" about the Suns. He questioned why commentators say that the Suns cannot win a championship playing the style that they do and pointed out that there have been previous NBA champions that were high scoring teams. While the latter statement is true, looking at the scoring totals of past champions is deceptive because the NBA was a much higher scoring league in years past. When the 1990-91 Bulls averaged 110.0 ppg they were the seventh highest scoring team in the league and they did not rely on the three point shot nearly as much as Phoenix does. Previous NBA champions that ran a lot (like the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s) ran to shoot layups. The Lakers also had a much better halfcourt game than the current Suns do, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the post or James Worthy isolating on a wing.

A more valid historical comparison to the recent Phoenix teams is not the '91 Bulls or the Showtime Lakers but the 1988-89 Suns: that team won 55 games, the second best mark in the West, just two games behind the Showtime Lakers. They even split the season series with the Lakers 3-3. The Suns led the league in scoring and had a point guard (Kevin Johnson) who averaged 20.4 ppg and 12.2 apg (better numbers in both categories than Nash has posted this year or in either of his MVP seasons); they breezed through the Western Conference playoffs--and got blitzed 4-0 by the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Those Suns averaged 118.6 ppg in the regular season and scored at least 130 points in four of their first eight playoff games but in the four games against the Lakers they only once reached their regular season scoring average. While the scoring numbers then and now are vastly different, the moral of the story is the same: teams that rely on pushing the pace but do not have a strong enough post presence can win a lot of regular season games and can even win some playoff series but in any given year there will always be a handful of teams that can slow them down (granted, this is a relative term when speaking of the NBA in 1988-89) and beat them.

Another of the "myths" that he discussed is "Steve Nash isn't the MVP this year." His primary arguments are that Nash's numbers this year are better than they were the previous two years when he won the MVP and that Nash outplayed Dirk Nowitzki in the two most recent Dallas-Phoenix games; I still don't understand why the latter games "count" more than the first two that Dallas won--when Dallas beat Phoenix twice the race for the best record was still up for grabs but by the time that Phoenix beat Dallas twice the Mavericks had all but sewn up the regular season crown. As for Nash's statistics, I have mentioned before that numbers are absolutely the last place that any Nash advocate should go to seek refuge. Contrary to what some people suggest, I am hardly a Nash "basher." I would place him no lower than fourth this year (behind Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan)--but I don't make my evaluation based strictly on numbers; I watch the games and evaluate a player's overall impact and skill level. That is why I actually "like" Nash more than people who look at things strictly by the numbers. If the MVP were decided purely on the basis of statistics then all categories have to be considered; this is what Nash fans refuse to accept: they trot out his shooting percentages and assists numbers and declare, "Case closed"--except that it isn't, not by a long shot. Nash is not even close to the top five in John Hollinger's PER (player efficiency rating, the NBA's efficiency rating or the the Roland Rating used by Roland Beech at 82Games.com: he ranks 10th, 12th and 10th respectively in those systems.

I would rank Nash higher than any of those statistical systems do because I think that not all of Nash's contributions are captured by those numbers--but to suggest that his intangibles move him from 10th-12th (note that those three different calculations all place Nash in the same general area) to clear first is more than a bit of a stretch.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 AM



At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 12:43:00 PM, Blogger JF said...

a fool believes that you know the meaning of the word objectivity

see my comment to your LAL-suns analsys

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 3:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only a fool believes that an entire season's effort by Kobe is diminished by one poor game.

If the rest of the guys stepped up their effort to fill in the gap, he wouldn't have had to take 30 shots. He also had 10 assists, btw.

He's an 86% freethrow shooter and clutch. Yet one missed freethrow discredits the reputation he's earned?

Maybe the fact that it was the second game on a back-to-back had something to do with him missing that freethrow. If Kobe was missing freethrows regularly, you'd have a point, but that isn't the case.

I doubt you'd be so ready to crucify Nash for any single error he makes. It's always amusing to see the ridiculous standard those who dislike Kobe set for him. Any mistake he makes is magnified and overanalysed. And of course they never apply the same standard to the players they like.

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 4:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Since you posted a comment here, please explain why an "objective" observer should favor the Suns to win the 2007 NBA title. I have explained from both a technical and historical standpoint why the Suns are unlikely to win the championship. Specifically, describe how the Suns will (1) guard Duncan in the post without having personnel on the court (K. Thomas) that will slow down their running game, (2) slow down Tony Parker, who blows by Nash like Nash is a green light, and (3) score enough points to win when the Spurs stay at home on the three point line, denying the Suns their primary weapon of choice.

For several years, Nash advocates have pointed out that he has been the point guard on the league's highest scoring team (first in Dallas, now in Phoenix)--but every year, his teams lose in the playoffs to teams that are more physical and more defensive oriented. Dallas has improved since he departed. At some point, Nash's "value toward winning," as you would call it, must be called into question. Hollinger, NBA efficiency and Roland Rating do not place Nash even in the top five in the NBA and his team plays a style that historically does not win titles.

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 4:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Temp 0x00:

You make some excellent points. The one about Bryant's shot attempts deserves particular emphasis. I did not see the game with the Nuggets, but I have seen enough Lakers games to know that Bryant often gives the ball up early in the shot clock only to end up with what I call a "hand grenade"--getting the ball back late in the shot clock because no one else wants to shoot. Bryant's overall shooting percentage this year--and his elevated shooting percentage in his highest scoring games--belies the idea that he forces shots to an undue degree. I add those last two words because EVERY great scorer forces shots sometimes. Bryant does not do so more than most other great scorers; the top scorer who probably forces the most shots in the NBA today is Gilbert Arenas, who has had a ton of games this year in which he attempted 10-plus shots and shot less than 30% from the field.

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 11:49:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

People who think the 80s Lakers were just a "run and gun" team probably never watched them play. I think they were one of the most underrated defensive teams ever. One can look at ppg or fg percentage allowed and try to argue otherwise, but those Lakers were great at forcing teams to take bad shots, and Riley's trapping defense used to drive other teams nuts. In fact, the success of the Laker fastbreak all started with their defense.

On offense, another weapon the Lakers had that the Suns lack is a dominant low-post presence. Having Kareem in there put so much pressure on opposing defenses, that the Lakers were just fine even when they weren't able to run other teams off the floor. Interestingly, the championship year in which the Lakers had the most difficult time was 1988, the year Kareem's offensive game declined significantly.

All of these pro-Phoenix bloggers and writers who like to cite the Lakers as a similar team should go watch the 1985 Celtics-Lakers series. The Lakers won some really ugly grind-it-out games.

At Wednesday, April 11, 2007 12:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Quite correct, Vednam.

People who didn't watch or don't remember the Showtime Lakers can get fooled (there's that word again...) by the point totals from the games in the 80s NBA. The whole league played at a faster pace than the NBA plays today but throughout NBA history the teams that play good defense and have a strong paint presence are the teams that win championships. That is why most championship teams have been anchored by a dominant center: George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan (who has the impact of a center in terms of his ability to postup on offense and defend the paint on defense). Teams that won championships without a big name, dominant center found a way to collectively defend the paint and were able to postup players at other positions or score in the lane via dribble penetration.


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