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Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Counterfeit Currency of David Berri's Wages of Wins

A couple months ago, I took the Wages of Wins Journal to task for asserting, among other things, that performance-enhancing drugs do not in fact enhance performance; WoW is apparently oblivious to Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Floyd Landis and an entire generation of East German Olympic swimmers. The latest "revelation" from WoW is that Kobe Bryant is not the best player in the NBA. Admittedly, there is a certain degree of subjectivity in calling any one person the best at a particular endeavor (except maybe in the cases of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer) but if you took a straw poll of NBA executives, coaches and players you would find that a plurality, if not a majority, would say that Bryant is the best player in the NBA. Even people who would not vote for him for MVP because his team did not win 50 games would still say that he is the best player. Of course, the WoW people are economists and economists know everything about everything, so why should they care one bit about what actual basketball experts think?

The WoW writers can, pardon the pun, "wow" the casual fan because their work appears to be so in depth and some of their credentials are superficially impressive--but their in depth work in fact contains serious flaws and their credentials have nothing whatsoever to do with being able to understand sports. Anyone who believes that Kobe Bryant is not the best player in the NBA is going to point to the WoW article and say, "Aha! That proves it." Suit yourself--but be aware that the same system also led to the conclusion that Dennis Rodman was more valuable to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls than Michael Jordan. That is the thing with statistical based analysis (as opposed to combining stats with one's own analysis and the analysis of informed observers, the method that I prefer to use)--you cannot pick and choose what you like. If you are signing on for Bryant not being the best player based on WoW's methods then you are also signing on for Rodman being more valuable than Jordan. Also, it is worth noting that when called to task about making the Rodman/Jordan statement, David Berri's initial response was to deny ever making such an assertion; that is kind of like Rafael Palmeiro wagging his finger defiantly and then flunking a drug test (maybe Palmeiro should have just said that WoW denies that performance-enhancing drugs enhance performance). As Salon.com's King Kaufman pointed out, "alas and alackaday for Berri, when you write something in a book it stays writ and the statement that Rodman was more valuable on a per-minute basis than Jordan--that is, a better player who just didn't play as many minutes--was on Page 144" of the book The Wages of Wins. The exact quote on that page is "Per 48 minutes played, Rodman's productivity even eclipsed Jordan."

By the way, earlier this year, FreeDarko.com posted a thorough refutation of WoW's methods of basketball analysis. Also, other economists are not necessarily buying what WoW is selling. Here is an extensive discussion of the flaws of WoW, as described by Dan Rosenbaum and others at APBR Metrics. If wading through those 19 pages is a bit much for you, here is a good summary of some of the flaws that Rosenbaum--a professor of economics who has also done statistical analysis work for the Cleveland Cavaliers--finds in WoW's approach (he posted the following at APBR Metrics on July 29, 2006, shortly after the WoW book was published):

One of the main points of Wages of Wins is that according to the evidence presented in the book, it appears that NBA decision-makers are irrational. They write: "It is not that people in the NBA are lazy or stupid. It is just that the tools at their disposal do not allow them to see the value of the various actions players take on the court."

The argument that supports this conclusion is they show that Wins Produced explains wins much better than NBA Efficiency, but NBA Efficiency is much more closely tied to salaries and All-Rookie Team voting (done by coaches). Thus, according to their evidence, it is irrational for teams to not be using something like Wins Produced to make their decisions.

OK, but the difficulty with this argument is that it hinges on Wins Produced better explaining wins than NBA Efficiency. Wins Produced does a great job explaining wins because of their team defense adjustment, but the authors admit that this adjustment has very little effect on their relative rankings of players. So if it doesn't matter much for the relative rankings of players, I just don't see how it can be used as a justification for the methodology. To me, that whole exercise raises a big red flag about the validity of using the prediction of team wins as a barometer for a metric for individual players.

But then if we move to another barometer--adjusted plus/minus ratings--we see that Wins Produced only performs better than NBA Efficiency if position adjustments are used for Wins Produced but not for NBA Efficiency. That significantly changes the story of much of their book. Instead of a story about NBA teams overvaluing scorers, their story becomes one that NBA decision-makers are irrational because they don't properly position adjust.

Moreover, the authors provide little justification for their position adjusting, especially in relation to how important it is to their metric. They argue that big players would have difficulty filling the roles of guards; i.e. a team could not play all centers. But if centers truly are worth more than guards as their unadjusted Wins Produced suggests, this would not be the only reaction of NBA decision-makers. Instead of playing centers at guard, what would happen would be that they would pay centers more than guards--which is precisely what does happen. So rather than proving conventional wisdom wrong, maybe the authors have provided justification for conventional wisdom.

Now I am not necessarily trying to defend NBA decision-makers as being super-rational. Lots of points made in Wages of Wins are points I agree with wholeheartedly. And I highly recommend that everyone in this APBRmetric community read this book. You will find lots that you agree with in this book and lots that will force you to think more deeply about things.

But when we go to cast stones at NBA decision-makers, we need to be sure that our own house is in order. And that is really my biggest complaint about Wages of Wins. My experience has been that NBA people often do a much better job than we give them credit for. I work for Cleveland, and last year when we traded for Flip Murray I was against it. Flip was the lowest rated two guard in my system. (And I am sure he would not be rated too highly in Wins Produced.)

But you know what? Flip did not play too badly for us. He was not a star or even a good starter, but he made some changes to how he played in Seattle and he contributed to us doing well down the stretch and in the playoffs. So in that situation if Danny had listened to me (or probably consulted Wins Produced), the team would have won fewer games.

There is a lot about this game that we in this community know well, but there is a lot we don't know well. I strongly believe that good stats work can play an important role in a well-run organization. But I vehemently disagree with those who are ready to start calling NBA people irrational because of some results from a possibly mistaken empirical analysis. We all can work on being better than that.

The most important point that Rosenbaum makes is one that should be obvious: NBA personnel executives, who have devoted their lives to the sport, have some idea of what they are doing. Sure, some of them are better at it than others, but Berri's wide-ranging broadsides questioning the competency of NBA executives have no more credibility than when Joe Sixpack declares that he could coach better than his favorite team's coach does or run a team better than his team's general manager does.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:13 AM


Preseason Roundtable at Clutch 3

I recently participated in a preseason roundtable with several other NBA bloggers. We offered our takes on the Shawn Marion situation, our picks to win each conference and the NBA championship, our predictions about who will win the MVP plus some thoughts on several other pertinent topics (the questions were posed and answered before Jerry Buss reopened the whole Kobe Bryant situation, so that matter was not addressed). You can check out the roundtable here.

Observant readers may notice that my take on the Memphis Grizzlies in the roundtable is more optimistic than the viewpoint expressed in my Western Conference preview--and there is a very good explanation for that. I submitted my roundtable answers before I saw Memphis lose a game in the NBA Europe Live Tour. The two NBA teams that lost a game in Europe last year--Clippers, 76ers--did not make the playoffs. Although my initial thought had been that the Grizzlies will be much better with a healthy Gasol, Memphis looked so soft in the loss to Unicaja Malaga that I downgraded my opinion.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:49 AM


Friday, October 19, 2007

Lakers Cruise Over Sonics for First Preseason Win

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 20 points in just 16 minutes as the Lakers rolled to a very easy 126-106 win over the Sonics. Bryant, who shot 6-11 from the field, also had five rebounds and four assists. Lamar Odom did not play due to his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and he told TNT's Cheryl Miller that there is not an exact timetable for his return but that he is feeling better. Andrew Bynum and Brian Cook scored 19 points each as six Laker reserves reached double figures against a very porous Seattle defense that allowed L.A. to shoot 46-82 (.561) from the field; Bynum shot 8-11, Cook shot 7-9 and Chris Mihm--who seemingly has not played in decades--shot 5-5. If the Lakers are really this good then they will easily win the championship. Of course, that will not happen; all this proved is that Seattle's defense is terrible, particularly on the inside. Kevin Durant led Seattle with 19 points on 8-20 shooting. He shot 1-2 from the free throw line, earning those attempts in the last couple seconds of the game. As usual, the rest of his boxscore was pretty empty: other than showing off some quick hands by getting three steals, Durant only managed to get three rebounds, one assist and no blocked shots. Mercifully, Coach P.J. Carlesimo shifted Durant from shooting guard to small forward and did not have him trying to chase around Bryant, although Durant did have the misfortune of attempting to guard Bryant in transition a few times in the third quarter.

Ronny Turiaf set the tone right from the beginning, scoring all 13 of his points in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 28-24 lead. TNT's Doug Collins explained that this year Lakers Coach Phil Jackson plans to alternate Bryant between a facilitating role and a scoring role in the Triangle offense. Apparently, it is not enough to ask Bryant to be Michael Jordan; he now must switch on the fly between being Jordan and being Scottie Pippen. On this night, at least, it worked well, but that had a lot to do with the strength of the opposition. The terminology is kind of moot, anyway, because at the end of the season Bryant will lead the team in both scoring and assists, as he did last season. In the first quarter, Bryant facilitated his way to three assists and made several other good passes that were not converted into scores. As TNT's Kevin Harlan noted later in the game, Bryant cannot really "win": when he is the facilitator, he gets criticized for not carrying the team by scoring but when he is in a scoring mode he gets criticized for shooting too much. After careful consideration, I have figured out the only possible solution to this conundrum: the Lakers should schedule the Sonics 82 times.

Durant got off to a rocky, 0-4 start. His first miss came on a straightaway three pointer that Bryant did not even bother to contest (apparently, Bryant has seen Durant's field goal percentage). A little later, Durant missed another jumper. There is not anything obviously wrong with his form and because of his height, length and athletic ability he can get his shot off easily so one would assume that at some point his percentage--at least on standstill jumpers--will improve. However, another problem for Durant is that he is a very soft finisher in traffic. Considering that he was a double figure rebounder in college one would not expect him to so obviously shy away from contact and this cannot just be dismissed as being the result of his slender frame; there have been plenty of great players who had slight builds but knew how to absorb contact and draw fouls. Durant's third missed shot came after he made a nice dribble drive move but then lofted a very soft attempt in the lane. His fourth miss came after he drove hard to the right but stopped well short of the paint--avoiding the possibility of contact--and threw up a wild shot that caromed off of the backboard. In the summer league, Durant drew some fouls on these pell-mell drives even as he tried to dodge contact because his opponents were not good enough or savvy enough to avoid getting called for blocking but it is obvious that unless Durant starts playing a lot differently he will not be making many trips to the free throw line this season. Durant sat out the last half of the first quarter and did not return until the 7:20 mark of the second quarter.

A few minutes after Durant left the game, fellow rookie Jeff Green entered the fray. Green may not have the athletic gifts that Durant does but he seems to have a better understanding of how to play; Green is without question a stronger finisher around the hoop, as he showed on the first possession of the second quarter when he faced up Cook, drove baseline and converted a power move in the paint. Green scored on several moves like that during the game but ended up shooting just 6-13 because he went 0-2 from three point range. With his body type and his ability to go strongly to the hoop Green needs to leave the three point shot alone for now. Collins admitted that this statement may sound crazy but he suggested that Durant and Green may finish 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting. Considering the dearth of talent Seattle has after the departures of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the team will have no choice but to give Durant and Green heavy minutes and plenty of shot attempts. I realize that Durant is everyone's golden boy but I wonder how long it will take for Seattle's coaching staff to realize that instead of having Durant shoot 20 jumpers and soft layups while Green only attempts 13 shots that the team would be better off if Green took 20 shots in the paint and when he got double-teamed then he could kick the ball out to Durant for 12-15 standstill jumpers a game. Durant has no postup game right now and does not take the ball to the hoop with authority so why should he automatically be penciled in for 20 FGAs?

Durant finally made his first basket at the 6:48 mark of the second quarter, making a nice two dribble move and nailing a jumper after a pass from Green. Seattle spent a lot of time using a weak zone that will either have to be improved dramatically or completely discarded. After Durant made his first jumper, he was stationed on the low block on defense, trying to guard the much larger Bynum without engaging in too much physical contact. Watching the play, one could visualize a poster in the making. Sure enough, Luke Walton lobbed the ball in to the big center and Bynum threw down a two handed dunk while Durant awaited future developments (to borrow the choice phrase that appeared in a Sports Illustrated caption of a photo of a similar defensive "effort" by Darryl Dawkins decades ago). Durant tried to answer with another jumper after a quick dribble move but he missed.

A very interesting sequence happened later in the quarter. Durant had the ball on the left wing while veteran Kurt Thomas was posting up against the much smaller Walton on the left block. Instead of passing to Thomas to exploit the mismatch, Durant waved Thomas out of the post so that he could go one on one against Cook. Thomas complied, whereupon Durant took a couple half hearted dribbles before settling for a long jumper. Not recognizing a mismatch is bad enough but at the very least Durant should have then driven past the defensively challenged Cook. A little later, Durant made three shots in a row in a little less than two minutes--an off balance runner, a reverse layup on a fast break and a smooth jumper--and TNT play by play man Kevin Harlan got so excited that I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Harlan tends to be high strung and usually I don't mind that but after watching Durant brick his way through most of the first half I didn't feel like Durant making three shots in a row signaled a shift in the balance of power in the basketball universe. Collins spoke of Durant's "flashes of brilliance"--which also seems more than a bit overly exuberant--but he tempered that with an excellent observation: "Right now he doesn't take good shots." Bingo! Durant shoots far too many off balance shots and when he gets in traffic he goes up softly. Collins said that Carlesimo told him that 10 of Durant's 22 attempts in the previous game were shots that Durant cannot make. Durant closed the half out by dribbling the ball off of his foot and out of bounds while attempting to go for the last shot. The Lakers led 64-47 at halftime, fueled by great first half performances by Bynum (15 points) and Cook (10 points). Bryant sat out the second quarter with ice on his knees and Collins speculated that he might not play any more during the game.

That did not turn out to be correct, as Bryant started the third quarter and Collins quickly stated that Bryant appeared to be playing in the scoring role in the offense, not the facilitating role. That proved to be an understatement, as Bryant reeled off 12 straight points on 5-5 shooting in a little over 90 seconds after Seattle cut the lead to 67-62. Durant was not assigned to guard Bryant but ended up picking him up in transition on a few occasions; of course, no one in the league can stop Bryant when he gets on that kind of roll. As Bryant single-handedly took over, Collins related an interesting story from the Team USA practices this summer. Collins said that at one point he closed his eyes and just listened to Bryant talking to his teammates on the court: "The things he says, the way he approaches practice and the attention to detail--I had a flashback to when Michael Jordan was 25 years old and I was coaching him in Chicago." Bryant finished with 16 points in the quarter and the Lakers led 95-85 going into the final stanza. Collins declared, "Kobe Bryant is showing tonight why he is the best player in the NBA: a guy who has no weaknesses, First Team All-Defense, led the league in scoring."

Bryant did not play at all in the fourth quarter but the Lakers still won comfortably. Durant matched his 4-10 first half shooting with 4-10 second half shooting. During a stoppage of play, Carlesimo gestured animatedly toward Durant--imitating someone shooting a layup--and he told him, "Go up strong! Come on!" Durant nodded his head slightly and walked back on to the court.

I don't doubt that Durant could become a good player in time. What I don't understand is the rush to canonize him--as the presumptive Rookie of the Year and the next great thing--before he has actually accomplished anything at the NBA level. Right now, Durant is not the Rookie of the Year nor is he a bust; he displayed a lot of ability in one year of college but he is finding out that the NBA game is a lot tougher mentally and physically than the collegiate game. If he works hard and stays focused then his talent will eventually blossom--but there is no shortcut to greatness.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 AM


Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Know This Above All Else...Time Waits for No Man": Kobe Bryant Talks to Esquire Magazine

It is hard to miss the current issue of Esquire; the cover declares that Charlize Theron is the "sexiest woman alive" and offers some visual evidence of this. However, you can tell your wife/girlfriend/significant other that you bought the magazine for the articles--specifically, Mike Sager's Kobe Bryant profile, titled "Scito hoc super omni." Those Latin words--meaning "Know this above all else"--are part of the mantra Bryant posted on the home page of his website (the complete phrase, which Bryant posted in Latin, reads "Know this above all else...Fully use every point, moment and hour that you have. Time waits for no man"). The subtitle of Sager's article is, "Kobe Bryant doesn't want your love, but he does want to be so good, so great, you have to love him."

Sager caught up with Bryant while Team USA was in Las Vegas for the FIBA Americas tournament and he made a sincere effort to really understand what makes Bryant tick as opposed to buying into the stereotypes and the superficial statements that litter most articles about the Lakers' superstar. The article begins where all stories about Bryant should begin--on a basketball court. Bryant explains to Sager that he does not practice taking shots, he practices making shots.

To whet you appetite to read the entire piece, here is Sager's reaction to that statement: "If you're clear on the difference between the two ideas, you can start drawing a bead on Kobe Bryant, who may well be one of the most misunderstood figures in sport today. It is a tragic misunderstanding, for his sake and for ours. You can blame it on the press. You can blame it on the way the world revolves around fame and money. You can blame it on Kobe himself. Having just celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday, Kobe is about to begin his twelfth season in the NBA. Lately, somewhat grudgingly, people are beginning to acknowledge him as the greatest all-around player still active in the game, mentioned as a peer of Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan...Spending five days with Kobe--a dozen hours, really, spread over five days--is to glimpse the life of a highly skilled craftsman. He sees his work as his art, his calling." This is reminiscent of how Steve Young speaks passionately about the craft of quarterbacking and how seriously he devoted himself to that craft during his career.

Sager adds that it was Bryant's idea for his Sprite and Nike commercials to focus on his grueling workouts. "This is the essence of me," Sager says of Bryant's rationale. "The guy who guts it out on every rep" (the italics were used in the original statement). The Bryant that Sager goes on to describe is focused, prepares relentlessly, has a tremendous thirst for basketball knowledge and has an amazing attention to detail. For instance, Bryant requested that Nike put a special band in the arch of his shoes to cut hundredths of a second off of his reaction time; also, he ices his knees front and back, something that many players neglect to do because it takes more time.

Bryant's famous 81 point game was not a fluke. "That game was a culmination of days and days of hard work," Bryant says. "The best thing about that game is it feels good because we won...to me, winning is everything. That's the challenge, the ultimate challenge--how do you get to that elite level as a group?"

It is easy to forget just how much hard work Bryant has put into becoming the best player in the NBA. Although Jerry West always believed in Bryant and traded up to draft him straight out of high school, many people were skeptical. I have to admit that I was one of them at first (that has always been my default position with hyped up young players, from Jordan to McGrady to James to Durant--prove your greatness on the NBA level and then I will sing your praises). The Lakers traded an All-Star quality center--Vlade Divac--to draft a high school guard. That seemed very risky to me at the time. Bryant hardly took the league by storm as a rookie and what sold me on him as a player may seem strange at first glance. While it was quickly apparent that Bryant possessed a lot of physical skills it was not clear how long it would take for him to learn how to play the game or how mentally tough he was. Those questions were answered during an infamous playoff game in Utah that ended with Bryant shooting three straight airballs. What struck me was not that Bryant missed those shots but his reaction to it: he walked off of the court with his head held high, his confidence unbowed. He was not afraid to take big shots and he was not devastated by missing them. I knew then that it was only a matter of time until he became a great player. Earlier this year I reminded Bryant about that moment and he told me with a smile, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice." Bryant's work ethic and confidence have enabled him to fully develop his abundant talents. As he told Sager, "God blessed me with the ability to do this. I'm not going to shortchange that blessing. I'm going to go out there and do the best that I can every single time."

posted by David Friedman @ 8:27 PM


Orlando Overcomes Slow Start to Rout Team China All-Stars

Playing for the second time in 24 hours, the Orlando Magic started out looking every bit as jetlagged as they must feel before rallying to post a 116-92 victory over the Team China All-Stars in the NBA China Games 2007. Team China took a 12-3 lead in the first 4:47, holding the Magic without a field goal during that span. Dwight Howard answered with a monster dunk on the next possession and within four minutes the score was tied. By the end of the quarter, Orlando led 24-18 and it was apparent that the Chinese team had no chance. Howard played just 14 minutes, finishing with 12 points. No Orlando starter played more than 21 minutes. Backup point guard Carlos Arroyo led Orlando with 25 points, nine assists and four steals. Orlando's final game on the China tour is a rematch against Cleveland, which will be televised by ESPN2 at 12:30 A.M. this Saturday.

The Chinese team did not have the services of Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian--each of whom is participating in NBA training camps--so calling this outfit an "All-Star" squad is almost as fraudulent as the new TV advertisement that describes J.J. Redick as the greatest shooter of all-time (he followed up his 1-6 effort yesterday versus Cleveland with a 2-9 clunker versus a completely outmatched opponent). Olumide Oyedeji, who played in the NBA for parts of three seasons between 2000 and 2003, led the Team China All-Stars with 25 points. Wang Zhi Zhi, the first NBA player from China, had 16 points and seven rebounds. He made four three pointers, including two during China's scoring burst at the start of the game.

During the NBA TV telecast, commentator Alaa Abdelnaby talked about the adjustment that Yi Jianlian will have to make as an NBA rookie who is used to playing under FIBA rules. Abdelnaby experienced that transition in reverse, finishing his career overseas after playing several seasons in the NBA: "Going overseas to play in Europe, learning to play under FIBA rules took me a long time. It took about five or six months to adjust and about one good year to get my confidence and really feel good out there on the floor." In other words, it is not an excuse to cite the different rules and different officiating styles when talking about why Team USA did not win gold medals in the most recent Olympics and FIBA World Championships. Although NBA teams still hold a talent edge over their FIBA counterparts, the gap has narrowed to the point that better familiarity with the rules enables the very best FIBA teams to compete with Team USA squads that--in previous years--have been haphazardly thrown together just prior to big FIBA events. Under Jerry Colangelo's direction, USA Basketball has implemented a long-term program that is enabling a core group of players to work together to become familiar with how to play effectively as a group in FIBA events. We got a taste of the results of this in the FIBA Americas tournament and that success will carry over to next year's Olympics in China.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:06 PM


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Orlando Opens NBA China Games 2007 With 90-86 Win Over Cleveland

With Cleveland's starters watching from the bench down the stretch, Orlando posted a 90-86 win in the opening contest of NBA China Games 2007. Dwight Howard led both teams with 31 points and 14 rebounds. He is no longer relegated to picking up other people's scraps on the offensive boards; the offense runs through him and he has worked on a face-up game to go along with his power dunks. Howard also made his free throws (13-16), something which could add several points to his average if he can keep it up for a whole season. He shot 9-17 from the field, with the only blemish on the boxscore being his game-high five turnovers. Jameer Nelson had 24 points and six assists, shooting 6-10 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line; he was simply too quick for any of Cleveland's guards. Rashard Lewis did not play due to a sprained ankle. LeBron James led Cleveland with 17 points in 28 minutes and Larry Hughes added 16 points.

The valuable information that we can derive from two jet-lagged NBA teams playing a preseason game in Shanghai, China is somewhat limited. Obviously, Orlando will be a much better team with Lewis in the starting lineup, so maybe Cleveland's 14 point first half lead is deceptive. On the other hand, the Cavaliers are without the services of holdout free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, who ESPN2's Hubie Brown rightly called two of their top six players (actually, Brown repeatedly called Pavlovic "Petrovic," an uncharacteristic mistake for the Hall of Famer). When/if they are back in the fold Cleveland will be a much stronger and deeper team. Cleveland started James, Hughes, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, while Orlando countered with Howard, Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Keith Bogans and J.J. Redick. Before the first substitution was made at the 5:47 mark of the first quarter, Cleveland led 19-8. Two things that remain constant about the Cavaliers are that they play good defense and they rebound. Coach Mike Brown has spoken of his plan to add some more wrinkles to the offense this season and in the early going the Cavs utilized a lot of movement and screening to good effect. Ilgauskas had eight of the 19 points and Hughes had five, taking advantage of his matchup with Redick. Everyone seems to think that Redick will have a breakout year because of Coach Stan Van Gundy's wide open system and because Howard and Lewis will draw a lot of defensive attention. I disagree. Redick wowed people with a couple good summer league games and then tailed off badly. Similarly, he started out the preseason with some solid games but shot 1-6 against Cleveland, finishing with three points in 33 minutes. His only basket was a wide open three pointer and he also shot an airball and a brick (brief segue: whoever wrote the copy for the TV ad that asserts that Redick is the greatest shooter of all-time is either legally drunk or criminally insane. Ever heard of Jerry West? Rick Mount? Pete Maravich? Reggie Miller? Ray Allen? Redick is not even the best Orlando shooter of all-time and may not be the best shooter on the current roster). Even if Redick can average double figures for a season--and I doubt that very much--he will give up much more at the defensive end, where opposing shooting guards will have the delicious choices of driving right around him, posting him up or simply catching and shooting right over him. Hughes is not much of a postup player, but he availed himself of options one and three several times throughout the game and even when he did not score on his drives the resulting defensive breakdowns provided offensive rebounding opportunities. Expect Van Gundy to ultimately go with a better defender as the starting shooting guard; in fact, that is exactly what happened at the start of the third quarter as Bogans shifted to shooting guard and the Magic played their best ball of the game (not counting the meaningless fourth quarter when Cleveland's best players were out). Watch Redick's minutes dwindle as the season wears on and his body is not able to withstand the demands of playing against the best shooting guards. Maybe Redick can carve out a role as a 15 mpg spot up shooter in Van Gundy's offense but he will have to not only show something more at the defensive end of the court but also prove that he can maintain his shooting stroke even when he is fatigued.

The Magic closed the gap to 23-20 by the end of the first quarter (Orlando made a 9-2 run when Redick was replaced by Pat Garrity). The second quarter opened with reserves playing against reserves and Cleveland went on a quick 11-0 run. Van Gundy inserted Howard and Nelson back in the game and they scored Orlando's next 14 points, by which time Cleveland's lead had shrunk to 40-34. The Cavs were only up 46-42 at halftime.

Orlando briefly took the lead in the third quarter (53-50) before Cleveland regrouped and went up by 10, 70-60. James scored nine points in the period and the Cavs led 72-64 going into the final 12 minutes. Orlando outscored Cleveland 26-14 in the fourth quarter but these are the important numbers: each Orlando starter played at least 32 minutes, while no Cleveland starter played more than 28 minutes and the difference largely came as a result of Cleveland's top players sitting out down the stretch. In other words, Cleveland was rotating a lot of players and trying out different combinations, while Orlando placed a greater emphasis on winning the game. This is not surprising considering that the Cavs made it to the Finals last year while the Magic lost in the first round of the playoffs. Rather than breaking down a completely meaningless fourth quarter, let's consider what we saw overall from several key players on both teams:

1) We've already talked about Howard's game; if he can maintain his improved shooting touch then he could very well average 25 ppg this year.

2) James did what most veterans try to do in preseason games: run up and down the court, get some work in, avoid injury and and then call it a day after less than 30 minutes. He was productive and will again be one of the very best players in the league this year. Brown said, "He is the premier small forward in the game, arguably. He and Kobe Bryant and 1 and 2 or 2 and 1--however you want to look at that--as the premier player in the league."

3) Cleveland's surprise playoff contributor Daniel Gibson did not play but if he can be productive over the course of an entire season and Hughes can stay healthy then the Cavs can get by without Pavlovic. Hughes moved well and seems to be completely healthy; Cleveland's record since they acquired him is much better when he plays than when he sits.

4) Nelson can be a dynamic offensive player but his defense is not great. Also, if he and Redick play together then the Magic backcourt is very small.

5) Ilgauskas and Gooden had typically solid efforts on the boards (nine and 11 rebounds respectively). They may not be "name" players but they played a significant role in Cleveland's success last year. The big question--pardon the pun--for Cleveland is who will get Varejao's minutes if he is not re-signed. Without him the Cavs lack frontcourt depth.

6) Cleveland reserve guards Devin Brown and Shannon Brown did not shoot well but showed some signs that they could contribute off of the bench this season. They are both good athletes and if they commit to playing good defense then Coach Brown will include them in his rotation.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 PM


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Heat is Definitely Not On in Miami

In the wake of the Miami Heat's weak 2006-07 season--and on the verge of perhaps an even worse campaign in 2007-08--the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith asks a simple question about all the money that Pat Riley spent to acquire Shaquille O'Neal: "Was it worth it?" Smith hastens to add that many Chicago Cubs' fans, looking jealously at Miami's gaudy 2006 NBA Championship rings, would unhesitatingly say "Yes." I offered my take on this subject shortly before the Heat completed their improbable title run: "Cost for a future Hall of Fame center? $20 million. Winning an NBA championship? Priceless."

I stand by that sentiment; if a team is close enough to winning a title that one move would likely put them over the top then it is worth it to overspend a bit to try to make that happen because legitimate opportunities to win championships are rare and fleeting. Of course, if the Dallas Mavericks had not folded after taking a 2-0 lead in the Finals then things would look a lot different now. It is obvious that the Heat are not winning any more titles with the current group of players, so if they had not won the 2006 championship then they would have spent a lot of money and had absolutely nothing to show for it.

Many stories have captured the imagination of the media and the general public--Greg Oden versus Kevin Durant (and Oden's season ending injury), whether or not Kobe Bryant will be traded, the Kevin Garnett blockbuster deal and Team USA's performance, to name just four. That did not leave much air time or column inches to talk about Miami's quick tumble from championship glory to ignominious first round exit. Yes, injuries to O'Neal and Dwyane Wade caused problems but the Heat looked lethargic and disinterested from game one--a 108-66 home loss to the Chicago Bulls right after the Heat got their championship rings--to the 92-79 loss to the Bulls that closed out a 4-0 first round sweep. The team's overall attitude--despite many bold public statements and promises to the contrary--seemed to be that winning one championship was more than enough and anything else would be gravy. O'Neal talks a good game about how he wants to be defined by winning championships but he has often fallen far short of that standard in terms of his commitment to his conditioning and his willingness to play hard defensively. O'Neal has won four championships and that is a very notable accomplishment but it is fair to wonder if the most physically dominant player of the post-Michael Jordan era could have done even more. Tim Duncan is less physically overpowering and probably less gifted athletically than O'Neal but he has always worked hard and the results of that work are evident: a game that earned him the nickname of "The Big Fundamental"--a phrase coined by none other than O'Neal himself--and four championship rings, meaning that in the history books Duncan must receive at least equal billing with O'Neal as the defining basketball figure of this era.

Obviously, the tone for any organization is set from the top, so if O'Neal is not working hard then there is a trickle down effect (except, perhaps, for Dwyane Wade, who is a star and a leader in his own right, and who always seems to be committed to doing the necessary work). The Heat are virtually guaranteed to get off to a slow start with Wade still rehabilitating from various injuries and several players not meeting Coach Pat Riley's conditioning standards. At least one team that did not make the Eastern Conference playoffs last year has to be considered a postseason lock this year--the Boston Celtics--so one of last year's qualifiers will be on the outside looking in next summer. I expect that team to be the defenseless-Wizards but it may very well take everything that Wade can muster in the second half of the season for Miami to not be that team.

So, is it worth it to spend $20 million per year on O'Neal to win one championship? Heat fans will probably have a lot of free time to think about that question during the next few summers until O'Neal's contract is off the books and the team is able to rebuild around Wade.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:09 PM


Monday, October 15, 2007

Clips Nation Hosts Carnival of the NBA #51

"Clipper Steve," who runs the website Clips Nation, says that he usually prefers to say in his own little quiet corner of the internet--but he has stepped into the limelight big time by hosting Carnival of the NBA #51. These Carnivals generally have a theme, so "Clipper Steve" titled this one "It Might be a Carnival" as a tribute to his favorite band, "They Might be Giants." My contribution to the festivities is my post about the Celtics' 89-85 win over the Raptors in the opening game of the NBA Europe Live Tour.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 AM