20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Why Blogging is Booming and Newspapers Are Scrambling to Catch Up

One of the things that gives blogging a chance to surpass the newspaper as a medium to convey information and opinion is the interactive nature of a blog. When Thomas Friedman writes something in the New York Times, most of his readers have no opportunity to interact directly with him to agree with, challenge, clarify or amplify his message--but when David Friedman writes something in 20 Second Timeout, anybody and everybody can comment, knowing full well that I will read and respond in a timely fashion. Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that basketball is more important than foreign policy or that there are not some blogs that are poorly written (with comments sections to match); all I'm saying is that the older, traditional forms of media maintain a distance between the person or persons who dispense information and those who are receiving it. The numerous recent plagiarism scandals and the frequent correction notices that can be found in newspapers bely any pretense that this distance automatically results in a product that is objective and accurate. Dr. Emanuel Lasker, the great World Chess Champion, once said, "On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in the checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite." The blogosphere at its best has a similar purifying effect to that of checkmate: "merciless fact" wins out over supposition. That is why so many of the recent foibles in mainstream media--from Dan Rather's missteps to Reuters' doctoring of photographs and so forth--have been first exposed by bloggers, without whom the general public would have been none the wiser.

What does this have to do with basketball? Simple: some very interesting discussions take place in the comments section of this website. Based on the fact that many different readers post comments I know that at least a certain portion of the readership follows these discussions but I have no way of ascertaining how many "lurkers" read this material without saying anything. I very much appreciate that I have readers who closely follow what is written here and frequently comment about it, sometimes very soon after I make a post. I don't agree with everything that is said but I value everyone's input and always look forward to the opportunity to interact with my readers.

For those of you who may not follow what goes on in the comments sections, I'd like to share the details of a recent (and still ongoing) exchange. Someone, who to this point has chosen to remain anonymous, has posted several comments that contain harsh criticism of Kobe Bryant, parroting the assertions that he is a ballhog and that several other players could have played alongside Shaquille O'Neal and won three titles. The latter statement falls purely in the realm of the hypothetical and cannot be definitively proven or disproven but the weight of the evidence is heavily against it: Bryant has been a fixture on the All-NBA Team, generally as a member of the First Team, since he became a starter in his third pro season. He has also been a fixture on the All-Defensive Team and led each of the Lakers' championship teams in assists. Looking at the NBA during the time period in question, no one else could have filled all of those roles the way that Bryant did.

"Anonymous" then made a more specific assertion, namely that Bryant owns six of the 13 worst shooting percentages all-time for 50 point games. I'd never heard that one before and did not even know how to confirm or deny that, so I asked "Anonymous" what his source was. He told me to go to this page at Basketball-Reference.com. I'd visited there before but had never done the exact box score search that "Anonymous" did. The first thing I noticed was that the box score search function only includes games from 1987-present, so no "all-time" rankings could be made based on this kind of research. There have indeed been 13 50 point games since 1986-87 in which the player shot worse than .500 from the field and six of them were by Bryant. According to "Anonymous," this proves that Bryant is nothing but a gunner. However, I took a closer look at the numbers and here is how I described (in the comments section) what I found: "Kobe's team went 3-3, with two of the losses on the road (even good teams struggle to win half of their road games). The worst of Kobe's shooting percentages is .415 but that includes 7-15 shooting from three point range. He ended up with 50 points on 41 field goal attempts, well more than a point per shot, and had eight rebounds and eight assists in a 112-109 win. A similar story can be told for most of the other six games; in every single one Kobe has significantly more points than field goal attempts because of three point shots and drawing fouls for free throws. Any coach would love to have a player who can score 50 points at a better than a point per field goal attempt clip."

Field goal percentage is not the best tool to evaluate overall shooting efficiency, particularly for players who shoot a lot of three pointers and/or attempt a lot of free throws. A much more precise measure is "adjusted field goal percentage," which is calculated, as I explained in another comment, "by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two. Apply that formula to Kobe's 'worst' 50 point game in the boxscore search and it works out to .500! In other words, in Kobe's "worst" 50 point game he shot the equivalent of 25-50 from the field with no threes or free throws. Of course, he made a lot of threes and free throws in the actual game, which mitigated the effect of his missed shots." I also pointed out that in the game in question Bryant had eight rebounds and eight assists. "Anonymous" stated that Bryant is just a gunner, that he puts up meager statistics in other categories in his high scoring games and that his high scoring games come against weak teams that the Lakers would have beaten anyway. The idea that the Lakers would have won these games anyway clearly makes no sense and in a previous post that looked at Bryant's statistics in his first 16 40 point games of 2006-07 (he later had two more such games with very gaudy shooting numbers, 17-33 and 18-25) I showed that during those games Bryant averaged 7.0 rpg and 4.7 apg while shooting .514 from the field, .500 from three point range and .853 from the free throw line. That works out to a .575 adjusted field goal percentage, which is very good. Bryant averaged 48.9 ppg in those games, during which the Lakers went 12-4; they went 1-1 in his two subsequent 40 point games (which were actually 50 points apiece), so Bryant spent more than a fifth of the season scoring nearly 50 ppg while shooting a tremendous percentage, contributing rebounds and assists and leading the Lakers to a 13-5 mark. I challenged "Anonymous" to find another player, other than Wilt Chamberlain, who had 16 (I should have said 18) such games in one season. In the face of such numbers it is silly to talk about the records of the various opponents: all NBA teams have good players and no one else can come close to doing what Bryant did against NBA opposition. Of course, those games do not even include his "greatest hits" from previous seasons, including his 81 point game, his 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas (outscoring by one point over a 36 minute span an eventual NBA Finalist) or his 56 points in three quarters versus Memphis on January 14, 2002.

This whole interesting discussion came in response to my post Making Your Teammates Better. Two things that I find very interesting about the way today's NBA is viewed are (1) that Steve Nash is basically immune from any criticism despite being a two-time MVP who has never made it to the NBA Finals and (2) that some people respond with a visceral negativity to the idea that Bryant is not just a scorer but in fact the best and most complete player in the game. Regarding point one, think about this: Nash finished his season by shooting 1-8 in the fourth quarter of a very winnable Game Five and then almost completely disappearing (three points) in the first half of Game Six as his Suns lost to the Spurs. Have you seen or heard anything about those stats, other than at this website? Meanwhile, LeBron James' decision to pass the ball at the end of Game One versus a heavily favored Detroit team supposedly is a referendum on whether he will ever be a truly great player. This is James' first appearance at the Conference Finals level, while Nash is a two-time MVP whose team enjoyed homecourt advantage against the Spurs (at least until they lost it in Game One). Regarding point two, the "Making Your Teammates Better" post focused on what great players do, specifically, to make their teams better and I used the consensus top five players in the NBA this year--Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James--as examples. One would think that this would be non-controversial, but the mere suggestion that Bryant--a three-time champion like Duncan--should be considered a team player apparently greatly irritates some people.

I don't "love" Kobe Bryant or "hate" Steve Nash. I think that they are both excellent players. What I "hate" is that most of the "experts" who analyze basketball do not apply the same standards across the board when they evaluate players. I try to make player evaluations the way that a scout would. As I put it during my exchange with "Anonymous," "Kobe has no weaknesses:

1) Finishes at the hoop with either hand
2) Dribbles well with either hand
3) Has excellent post moves and footwork
4) Draws fouls and shoots FTs very well
5) Has three point range
6) Can get off a good shot attempt even against good defense
7) Rebounds well for his position
8) Reads double-teams well and makes the correct passes, which don't always lead to assists for two reasons: the second pass out of the trap often leads to the assist and it is not possible for anyone to get an assist if the shot is not made
9) Excellent defender, as acknowledged by the league's head coaches in All-Defensive Team voting
10) Tremendous inner drive and will to win

There is no other player in the NBA about which all of the above can truthfully be said."

Players should be evaluated on their skill level and how they apply those skills during games--and that has nothing to do with the cliched concepts of "loving" one player and "hating" another player.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 AM



At Saturday, May 26, 2007 2:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One element of Nowitzki's game that is admired but not fully understood.
He is so efficient, he literally allows for more shots for teammates like Josh Howard and Jason Terry.
In some respect, to watch him play, he is an anti-ballhog who doesn't even tally many assists per game in his system.
Duncan (an even better passer) misses out on assists for the same reason. Both of their offensive sets are likely top end with 1on1 isolation plays, which Nowitzki and Duncan are EXCELLENT at setting up.

At Saturday, May 26, 2007 3:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You are right regarding both players. This is an excellent example of why someone's passing ability cannot be evaluated just by looking at his assists total.

At Saturday, May 26, 2007 4:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you: Kobe is a better player than Steve Nash.

That being said, you're beating the point to death. Some people will never believe it no matter what, and won't be swayed by logic.

It's just worth pointing out: Neither of them is playing right now, and therefore neither is relevant.

The best player in the NBA--if you define "best player" as "one who causes his team to win games"--is still playing. His name is Tim Duncan and I can't, for the life of me, understand why he isn't talked about more often.

Kobe's the best guard, period. But he's also out of the playoffs, and by arguing with people who make fun of your (quite fashionable) mustache, you're trolling in the gutters where ya' don't belong.

At Saturday, May 26, 2007 5:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you other anymous tim duncan made all nba his first ten years he has led his team to gonna be 4 championships other players get hype he is substance. i think kobe is up there with nash but david continues to to beat it home comeon they both not playing it's about lebron and duncan now

At Saturday, May 26, 2007 6:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tim Duncan is probably the most underrated player in the game today. Heck, I wrote an article for NBCSports.com in which I made a case for him being the greatest power forward of all-time and yet I may very well have underrated him as well this year in terms of MVP consideration.

This year there seems to be a consensus regarding who the top five players are, so most of what is being discussed here has to do with what order to place them in. Obviously, I rank Kobe first but what I disagree with more than someone ranking one of the other five first is the way that Nash seems to escape criticism from the mainstream media that gets heaped on Kobe, Dirk and LeBron; Duncan basically gets ignored unless his team wins a title and then he gets the Finals MVP.

At Saturday, May 26, 2007 7:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

duncan the best player with wade and lebron and nash dirk my top 5 he underated because he has no personality and thats a shame agreat player that elevates players and make the great

At Sunday, May 27, 2007 2:10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why doesn't anyone discuss supporting cast with these players? Let me point out that Kobe and LeBron are the only 2 players without a fellow teammate on the all-star team.

One other thing to consider is all the injuries the Lakers and thus Kobe has had to deal with this year. If you go look at the stats for the highest number of days that a team has lost players to injury, you'll notice the Lakers near the top.

Which one of the other 4 could have carried their team with that many injuries?

Maybe Duncan.

Kobe is by far the best player and gets no love. David, it's refreshing to see a member of the media recognize how great of a player Kobe really is. You make some great points. It's unfortunate to see such a bias. You are definitely the first person I have seen to mention the fact that Nash is the first player in history to have received 2 MVP awards but has never been to the Finals let alone won a ring. I haven't done my research but I am sure it would be hard to find a player who has won even one MVP award but never made to the finals in his career.

I guess if I voted for Nash as the MVP, I would avoid blasting him too. It might make me look foolish for voting for him.

At Sunday, May 27, 2007 3:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Lakers Fan:

Welcome to 20 Second Timeout and thank you for your comments.

Nash got his first MVP narrowly over Shaq, in part because the media so underestimated the Suns that they had to "explain" why the team did so well. Then Nash had better numbers the next year and Amare was out, so the media felt that they had to give it to him again. After that I joked that at this rate Nash will break Kareem's record for most MVPs unless he gets hurt. Dirk had to lead the Mavs to 67 wins to convince anyone that Nash might not in fact be the best player but you saw after the first round that there was a parade of pundits who declared that they wished they had voted for Nash instead of Dirk. I never heard anyone express a moment of regret about voting for Nash in '06 when his Suns came within one rebound of losing to a Lakers team that was much less talented top to bottom than the G.S. team that beat Dallas this year.

Nash's advocates base their case on his "efficiency" and his impact on winning--but according to NBA EFF, Hollinger's PER and Roland Beech's Roland Rating Nash is not even close to being the most efficient player in the NBA. His impact on winning, to this point, has yet to lead to even one Finals appearance--but plenty of excuses, as if the teams that won titles in those years did not overcome injuries, bad calls and other forms of adversity.

My prediction is that 20 years from now, people are going to look back and wonder how the heck Nash won one MVP, let alone two. KG is an MVP who never made it to the Finals but all of the two-time MVPs won at least one championship except for Karl Malone (who also should not have won two MVPs): Pettit, Duncan, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Dr. J won one NBA MVP and three ABA MVPs and won an NBA title and two ABA titles. Mel Daniels won two ABA MVPs and three ABA championships.

At Sunday, May 27, 2007 6:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that it's fair to compare records from before the salary cap era to the current age. When the Lakers needed inside help after being defeated by the Rockets in 86, they simply turned around and purchased Mychal Thompson by the pound - a former no 1 overall who had not panned out but still became a career starter at center. In comparable circumstances, Phoenix can only wave around the MLE.

It's way harder today to keep your core team intact for more than a couple seasons, which makes it harder to have repeated chances at the ring.

I don't think people give their dues to the Spurs franchise either,for their work at providing Duncan with the stable and professional environment most suited for him to blossom. Player and franchise fit each other perfectly.

At Sunday, May 27, 2007 5:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The salary cap was already in place by the time of the Thompson deal but I understand the point that you are making. In theory it is harder to put a dynasty together now but the reality is that we have seen more dynasties (or at least repeat champions) in the past two decades than the two decades prior to that. Magic's Lakers, the Bad Boys Pistons, the Bulls, the Rockets and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers all won at least two titles in a row. Teams may not be as deep from top to bottom as, say, the Magic-Kareem-Worthy-Scott (etc.) Lakers but the template now is to have an MVP level player and an All-NBA "sidekick." MJ-Pip, Shaq-Kobe, Olajuwon-Drexler, Duncan-Robinson (and then Duncan-Ginobili) led teams to titles in the past 20 years. The Pistons in '04 were more of an ensemble cast, though Wallace was an All-NBA level player at the time purely because of his defense and rebounding.

So the question regarding Nash is, if he is a legit two-time MVP worthy of mention with previous two-time MVPs, why can't he take a team to the Finals even once? He has All-Star sidekicks and several above average role players. The answer, in my opinion, is that Nash is not in fact on the level of other two-time MVPs. That is the simple, obvious explanation for why he has not done what the others (except for Karl Malone, who also should not have won two MVPs in my opinion--the '97 one definitely should have gone to MJ) have done.


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