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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Action Packed Friday

Friday night's action featured several close contests and perhaps the most watched regular season game in NBA history. Here are some things that caught my attention.

The Score: Houston 104, Milwaukee 88

The Key Stat: Perhaps 250 million people in China tuned in to check out the Yao-Yi matchup; Yao Ming finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots, while Yi Jianlian had 19 points and nine rebounds.

The Bottom Line: Tracy McGrady had an excellent game (21 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) for the 5-1 Rockets, who have already have posted wins over each of last year's Western Conference finalists, the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz. If Yao and McGrady stay healthy then Houston is a legitimate championship contender.

The Score: Cleveland 93, Sacramento 91

The Key Stat: LeBron James scored 19 of his 26 points in the second half, including Cleveland's final seven points in the last 1:49.

The Bottom Line: Cleveland's winning formula is simple: defend and rebound every night and rely on James to be the best player on the court most nights. The first two parts of the equation are easy to overlook but they are the reason that this team will be in almost every game at the end, which gives James the opportunity to take over down the stretch. Cleveland held Sacramento to .400 field goal shooting and outrebounded the Kings 49-41. Even though Cleveland also did not shoot well (.380), the Cavaliers kept the game close, enabling James to seize control with one burst. Just as impressive as his late scoring, though, is that James played excellent defense to thwart Kevin Martin's attempt to nail a tying jumper as time ran out.

The Score: Utah 103, Seattle 101

The Key Stat: Kevin Durant finished with 21 points but he shot just 7-21 from the field and had four of his shots blocked. He shot 1-8 from three point range and only had one assist. Durant attempted 103 shots in the first five games of his career, the fifth highest total since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger and the ninth highest total of all-time.

The Bottom Line: Durant had a chance to tie the game in the waning seconds but he went up with a soft, double-clutch shot that Andrei Kirilenko swatted away to preserve the win. I have no problem with people praising Durant's brief college career or mentioning that he has a lot of talent but what I don't understand is the rush to crown him as a "sensation" and as a shoo-in to be Rookie of the Year. Why can't we simply let his performance dictate the accolades that he gets instead of writing the storyline before the games are played? Maybe Durant is the best rookie but that is certainly not a slam dunk--which is what he should have tried on the last play, ensuring that he either scored or drew a foul.

The Score: Denver 118, Washington 92

The Key Stat: Denver shot .511 from the field and held Washington to .383 shooting. Gilbert Arenas finished with 18 points, four assists, four steals and four turnovers, shooting 5-13 from the field (including 2-8 from three point range). He had the worst plus/minus score (-16) among Washington's starters.

The Bottom Line: Denver missed three alley-oops in one quarter, committed so many miscues that Coach George Karl quipped that he would mix the game film in with Abbott and Costello outtakes--and the Nuggets still won by 26 points. The Wizards are 0-5, the worst start for the franchise since 1966, when the team was known as the Baltimore Bullets. Washington Coach Eddie Jordan offered this take on the carnage: "We just weren't disciplined. We didn't stay organized. We didn't rebound. We didn't share the ball. We didn't execute. It's one of the most disappointing games I've been involved in." Other than rebounding, every shortcoming that Jordan listed is largely the responsibility of the point guard--the one and only Agent Zero. I realize that Arenas is not completely healthy at the moment but there is a lot of truth to the old school credo that you can play hurt but you can't play injured. If Arenas is just hurting a little, then he needs to stop talking about it and find a way to play better; if he is truly injured to the extent that this is really the best that he can play right now, then maybe he should shut things down until he is healthier. I don't know how badly Arenas is hurt; all I know is that his performance right now is hurting his team.

The Score: L.A. Lakers 107, Minnesota 93

The Key Stat: Lamar Odom had 18 points, 10 rebounds and a game-high +22 plus/minus score in his 2007-08 debut.

The Bottom Line: Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 30 points on 9-19 shooting. He also had seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals. Lakers' big men Andrew Bynum (10 points, 10 rebounds), Chris Mihm (10 points, 10 rebounds) and Ronny Turiaf (11 points, two rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots) had productive games, a crucial element that was missing for the Lakers for most of last season. Derek Fisher (11 points, nine assists) continues to provide steady point guard play. Al Jefferson (24 points, 15 rebounds) was the lone bright spot for the winless Timberwolves.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:01 AM

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Wizards' Win Total Still Matches Arenas' Jersey Number

The Washington Wizards squandered a 20 point lead and lost 87-85 to the New Jersey Nets, falling to 0-4 to start a season for the first time since 1992-93. Gilbert Arenas had a chance to go for the tie or the win on the last possession but he dribbled out the clock before launching a terrible, twisting shot from the right baseline that was partially deflected by Vince Carter and fell well short of the goal. Arenas candidly admitted after the game, "I should have stayed straight up going toward the basket instead of going right. Once I went right, there was no time left and Vince jumped pretty quick...It was just a bad shot on my part." Honesty is nice but good execution would be even better. This is a good illustration of why the purely statistical approach to player evaluation leads to results that are more quirky than Arenas himself. There are all these numbers about "clutch shooting" but the reality is that the percentages are against any player who is taking a last second shot to win the game, so how well a player shot in a small sample size of that nature does not tell us too much. Ideally, you'd like your best player to be someone who puts you in a position to be leading the game at the end so you don't need such heroics, but I guess there is not a statistic for scoring 15 points in a fourth quarter or making shots with two or three minutes left in a game, which is at least as "clutch" as making a shot with five seconds left. The other thing to consider is that if your team does end up in a situation where it needs a last second shot then you want your best player to have the judgment and skill to create a high percentage attempt for himself or a teammate. The Wizards were only down two points at the end and Arenas had more than enough time to attack the hoop and score, get fouled or pass to an open teammate. The likelihood that Kobe Bryant would, of his own volition, dribble into the corner and shoot the shot that Arenas did is very low. I realize that someone is going to find YouTube clips of Bryant shooting off balance shots, so please note the words "of his own volition": sometimes there is only one or two seconds left and a player does not have much choice but to fire away and hope for the best--but with plenty of time to work with there is no way that Arenas should have ended up with the shot he took, as he acknowledged.

Enough about last second shots. How did the Wizards blow a 20 point lead? Let's look at the play by play sheet, starting at the 7:07 mark of the second quarter when Washington led 37-17. Arenas had eight points and four assists at that juncture. Vince Carter made a couple free throws sandwiched around a missed jumper by Antawn Jamison. The next two Wizards' possessions read "Arenas 3pt Shot: Missed" and "Arenas Turnover:Bad Pass (2 TO) Steal:Kidd (1 ST)." By then New Jersey had cut the lead to 37-24. Caron Butler made a layup and Antonio Daniels missed a jumper. The Nets kept scoring and now only trailed 39-29. Arenas missed another three pointer and New Jersey scored again to make the score 39-31, so the lead had been slashed by 12 points in a little over four minutes. The quarter closed with Arenas getting his shot blocked by Carter, who then missed a dunk, after which Arenas made a jumper as time ran out to give Washington a 41-36 halftime edge. The game was nip and tuck the rest of the way.

The point is not just that Arenas missed a last second shot or even that he used poor judgment with how he conducted the last possession; the point is how he ran the game from the point guard position throughout the contest. Arenas finished with 21 points, six assists, four rebounds and six turnovers while shooting 7-17 from the field, 2-7 from three point range and 5-7 on free throws. Nets' point guard Jason Kidd finished with six points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and two turnovers while shooting 2-9 from the field, 1-6 from three point range and 1-2 on free throws. The box score does not tell us much about either player's defense--which is a serious drawback for statistical based analysis since half of the game is spent playing defense (adjusted plus/minus supposedly accounts for this but it cannot tell you which players are responsible for good defensive plays and which players are responsible for defensive breakdowns). Neither player shot well, but Kidd shot a lot less frequently and got the ball to his teammates in scoring positions more often than Arenas did while turning the ball over less frequently. Kidd also finished second on his team in rebounds. Arenas had a -2 plus/minus rating, while Kidd had a +5 plus/minus rating. I don't know how the two players' box score numbers compute in PER or anything else but I know that I'd rather have Jason Kidd as my point guard than Gilbert Arenas. There is no doubt that Arenas is a talented player but his outgoing personality--and a few spectacular performances--have convinced a lot of people that he is a much better player than he really is. This may sound harsh, but the best thing that happened to Arenas' reputation as a player last year is that he went down with a knee injury before the playoffs; that enabled Wizards' fans to believe the fantasy that if he had been healthy that the Wizards, not the Cavaliers, would have gone on an extended run in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Reality check time: Cleveland beat Washington 4-2 in the 2006 playoffs and after beating the depleted Wizards in the first round in 2007 the Cavaliers beat a solid Nets team that had upset Toronto and then the Cavaliers closed out the Pistons by winning four straight--and a team that beat the Pistons four straight times in the Eastern Conference Finals was not going to lose to the Wizards in the first round, Arenas or no Arenas. The problem for Arenas and the Wizards is that the myth of how well they might have done in last year's playoffs is going to be exposed by how poorly they actually do in this regular season.

Obviously, the Wizards are not going to go 0-82. They will start winning some games soon and Arenas will have some good performances along the way. I also realize that Arenas is not 100% healthy in the wake of his knee surgery; I expected as much and that is part of the reason that I ranked the Wizards lower than other analysts did--Arenas should probably have considered his physical condition before he shot off his mouth about how he and Washington were going to beat the Celtics in Boston's home opener. That kind of trash talk is why I'm not dwelling on Arenas' injury as a major factor in his performance; if he has enough confidence to tell the world what he is going to do, then I am going to assume that he is healthy enough to back it up.

The bottom line is that last year's Arenas for MVP talk was more than a little out of hand and that in the improved Eastern Conference it is going to be tough for the Wizards to make the playoffs this season. The rise of the Celtics means that at least one of last year's playoff teams is headed for next year's draft lottery and Washington is the most likely candidate.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:04 AM

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Mavs Down Warriors in a Fast Paced Shootout

The Dallas Mavericks defeated the Golden State Warriors 120-115 in a rematch of last season's most exciting first round playoff series. One regular season win does not avenge being on the wrong end of perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history but it does once again reaffirm what I have said numerous times about the Warriors: contrary to popular belief, the way to beat them is not to slow the game down but to speed it up. I pointed out during last year's playoffs that the numbers clearly show that this is true. If you watch Golden State closely, then you understand why this is the case. As I wrote in the above post months ago, the Warriors play like a bunch of Gilbert Arenas clones: "Arenas shoots from anywhere at any time and when he is hot everything is beautiful. Of course, sooner or later bad shot selection catches up with you" (Arenas' Wizards are 0-4, a subject that I will discuss in my next post). The Utah Jazz ran Golden State out of the gym in the second round of the playoffs and the Jazz did it again last week.

Six Mavericks scored in double figures, with four of them getting more than 20 points: Josh Howard and Jason Terry had 24 points each, Dirk Nowitzki had 22 points (plus 11 rebounds) and Devin Harris had 21 points. Baron Davis led the Warriors with 37 points, while Kelenna Azubuike--a second year forward who started in place of the suspended Stephen Jackson--had 27 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. Nowitzki only shot 6-15 from the field but he had the best plus/minus score (+13) of any player in the game. He is criticized for not posting up the smaller Golden State players who guard him but Nowitzki is not a postup player; he didn't lead the Mavericks to the 2006 Finals by posting people up and he didn't lead the Mavericks to 67 victories in 2007--winning the MVP in the process--by posting people up. Nowitzki is a great faceup shooter who is an above average driver, a very good rebounder and an improving passer. Golden State Coach Don Nelson drafted Nowitzki and coached him for years, so he knows better than anyone what Nowitzki can and cannot do--and, just as importantly, what Nowitzki is comfortable doing. That is why Nelson uses all of these zone defenses against Dallas and why he puts the short but muscular Davis on Nowitzki; Nelson is trying to bait Dallas into posting up Nowitzki, taking him away from his comfort zones. Nowitzki does not have great post moves and any time he puts the ball on the floor in the post area the smaller, quicker Warriors players swarm him, resulting in forced shots or forced passes. Nowitkzi is tall and lanky, with a high center of gravity; he is never going to bull over a fireplug like Davis, nor is he going to overpower Al Harrington, Andris Biedrins or Jackson (who often guarded Nowitzki during last year's playoffs). What Nowitzki needs to do is catch the ball on the wing, facing the hoop; if his defender crowds him, then he can drive, draw an extra defender and pass to the open man. If his defender backs up, then he can shoot right over him; if the defender is as short as Davis he can shoot right over him whether or not he backs up. This is why Dallas should be pushing the ball and running as little halfcourt offense as possible, even if this goes against what Coach Avery Johnson ideally would prefer to do. When the Mavericks push the ball Nowitzki can get a lot of open jumpers without having to worry about being double-teamed; even if you try to play a slowdown game against Golden State as soon as the Warriors get the ball they are off and running; what ends up happening is you fight in the halfcourt against their zones and traps for 24 seconds without getting a good look, then they get the ball--make or miss--and run it down your throat. That is how Dallas lost to Golden State in last year's playoffs. Dallas and Utah have better individual players than Golden State and they have better teams, so neither squad should be afraid to get into a running game with the Warriors.

A sequence that happened at the end of the third quarter should help make all of this clear. With less than a minute remaining, Nowitzki caught the ball near the top of the key. He was facing the hoop with Monta Ellis guarding him. Instead of turning his back to the basket and trying to post Ellis up, Nowitzki simply took one dribble and drilled a foul line jumper over the much shorter Golden State guard. Yes, it is true that Charles Barkley--who even in his playing days had a rear end wide enough to be on both sides of the lane at the same time and who was also an explosive leaper--would have backed Ellis into the first row and dunked on him; yes, it is true that Tim Duncan would have backed Ellis down, made a little bank shot and drawn a foul. Nowitzki has a different body and a different game than those guys and that did not stop him from leading his team to a playoff series win over Duncan's Spurs two years ago. Within five seconds of Nowitzki's jumper nestling through the hoop, Golden State pushed the ball up the court, resulting in a Biedrins dunk--make or miss, the Warriors are running. Dallas now had the ball with 46 seconds left, enough time to go "two for one"--in other words, shoot with more than 24 seconds on the clock, thereby making sure that the Warriors cannot take the last shot of the quarter. Instead of playing in attack mode, which might have led to another Nowitzki jumper, Dallas slowed down for over 20 seconds and ended up with an off balance attempt by Harris; Golden State could have held the ball for the last shot but instead they rushed the ball up the court and Ellis scored a layup four seconds after Harris' miss. See the pattern? Whether the opponent plays fast or slow, Golden State plays fast and often shoots in five seconds or less. You might think that you can grind it out in the post against Golden State's smaller players but they are athletic, physical and tough--the postup game is fool's gold against the Warriors unless you have a guy like Duncan or Utah's Carlos Boozer and even then it is not easy (Boozer had 12 points in 42 minutes in Utah's blowout win over Golden State last week). Dallas ended the quarter with another grind it out possession and Stackhouse managed to make a very difficult bank shot over two defenders as time ran out. In less than a minute, the Warriors scored two fast break layups, while Dallas' offense produced a Nowitzki jumper, an off balance miss by Harris and a very tough shot by Stackhouse. The only Dallas possession that had any fluidity was the first one, when Nowitzki caught the ball, made a quick faceup move and nailed a jumper. That is how he and Dallas need to play against Golden State and if they played that way the whole game they would win by 15 points--even with Stephen Jackson back in the lineup.

TNT's Mike Fratello correctly identified another problem that Dallas often has against Golden State. Early in the fourth quarter, Nowitzki was double teamed in the left corner and he passed to Trenton Hassell, who caught the ball and hesitated for a moment, seemingly unsure what to do. Fratello said that when Nowitzki passes out of the double-team whoever catches the ball must immediately attack the open seam in the zone defense and make the Warriors pay for trapping Nowitzki. This is a good example of how things can go wrong that the superstar gets blamed for by the casual fan but are not really his fault. Teams don't trap mediocre or bad players; they trap players who are dangerous. That is why Nowitzki and Duncan and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James see so many double-teams. Once a great player is being trapped he must quickly and accurately read the situation--the score, the time left on the shot clock, who is open--and decide whether to split the trap, shoot before it gets there or pass to a teammate. If the great player passes the ball, then it is up to his teammates to be productive and to use the resulting four on three advantage to score. In addition to playing too slow at times versus Golden State in last year's playoffs, Dallas also did not make the Warriors pay for putting two and sometimes three people on Nowitzki and that same hesitation was evident by Hassell on this particular play.

Dallas won this game but Barkley and Kenny Smith correctly noted that the margin for error was small, that Jackson may have made a difference and that the Warriors were one open Davis three pointer from possibly sending the game to overtime. Reggie Miller brought up the old cliche about styles making fights but in this case it is very true; Dallas is very uncomfortable doing what it needs to do to beat Golden State. Think of it this way: in a wide open, up and down game with a lot of three point shots, who do you think is going to shoot more accurately in the long run, Dirk Nowitzki or Baron Davis? Dallas should welcome the opportunity to turn the game into a shooting contest between those two players--not to mention the fact that Terry, Stackhouse, Howard and Harris also are more than capable of outshooting their Golden State counterparts.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 AM

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Bulls Idle Pistons to Capture Their First Win of the Season

Tyrus Thomas had a team-high 19 points and a career-high 14 rebounds as the Chicago Bulls beat the Detroit Pistons 97-93 to claim their first win of the season. Luol Deng added 17 points, while Kirk Hinrich shot poorly from the field (eight points on 3-11 shooting) but had a game-high 14 assists. Rasheed Wallace had a game-high 36 points, his most as a Piston and just six off of his career-high; he also tied Antonio McDyess with a team-high nine rebounds. The plus/minus stats told an interesting story, as journeyman Bulls forward had a game-high +10 mark. Coach Scott Skiles has said that Smith has been the team's most valuable player so far--admittedly not much of a distinction on a team that was 0-4 prior to this game--and Smith contributed 13 points and four rebounds, shooting 6-11 from the field. On the other hand, Bulls starting center Ben Wallace had a team-worst -8 plus/minus number; he finished with six points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes and did not play at all in the fourth quarter.

The Bulls outscored the Pistons 42-26 in the paint and outrebounded them 47-36. Those numbers tell part of the story of perhaps the most interesting subplot from this game, the battle between Chicago's young frontcourt players (Thomas, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni, Joakim Noah)--with the aforementioned help from the veteran Smith and some early contributions from Ben Wallace--versus Detroit's veteran frontcourt of Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Tayshaun Prince. Detroit did not re-sign Chris Webber, so Rasheed Wallace has shifted from forward to center this year, while McDyess has moved from being a reserve to taking Wallace's starting forward spot; both players rely more now on their wiles than their athleticism, which provided an intriguing contrast with Thomas and Noah, who are long on energy and hustle but short on experience. Detroit will have a good regular season record this year just based on muscle memory alone because the team has several current or former All-Stars but it is hard to understand why people seem to think that this team is better equipped to advance to the Finals than the last couple Detroit squads that fell short of that goal. Chicago matches up very well with this team, Cleveland beat Detroit four straight times in last year's playoffs and Boston has obviously looked very strong in the early going.

TNT's Charles Barkley and other analysts keep harping on the theme that the problem with the Bulls is that they rely too much on the jump shot but I don't think that is entirely correct. It is true that the Bulls do not have a stud postup player but when they are running their offense crisply they get a lot of dribble penetration to the hoop, leading either to layups or to open jumpers when the defense reacts to the dribbler. All good offenses attack the paint; having a great postup player is certainly a good way to do so, but relentless drive and kick dribble penetration can also be effective. As noted above, the Bulls owned a decisive advantage in points in the paint in this game even though they very seldom ran their offense through a post player.

The Bulls' slow start has attracted a lot of attention, partially because there were some high expectations for this team and partially because the Bulls have been mentioned prominently in trade rumors about Kobe Bryant. Chicago has been a slow starting team for the past several years and there is no reason to think that the Bulls will not have 50 or so wins by the end of the season. That is not to say that the early losses were not important--Chicago finished one game behind Cleveland last year and got a much tougher playoff seeding, so every game obviously can turn out to be vital by season's end--but every NBA team goes through a lull at some point; the Bulls just tend to go through theirs early.

There is always a lot of overreaction at the start of each NBA season but the only way to gauge if a team is really going to be as good or as bad as its early record suggests is to actually watch the team play and try to figure out why it is winning or losing more than people expected. Some teams start out with more difficult schedules or with a key player or two missing and those kinds of things even out over the course of the season. Other teams are, in Dennis Green's already immortal words, who we thought they were--San Antonio, Dallas, Houston are going to be good, while Portland, Minnesota, Seattle are going to struggle. Chicago and Detroit, as this game suggested, are very evenly matched and will both easily be Eastern Conference playoff teams, despite the sky is falling rhetoric that has been coming out of the Windy City in recent days.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

LeBron's Triple Double Not Enough, Jazz Nip Cavs on Deron Williams' Layup

LeBron James had 32 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, three steals and two blocked shots but Deron Williams stole the show with a last second layup that lifted his Utah Jazz to a 103-101 home victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Seconds earlier, James nailed a three pointer to tie the score at 101 but Williams received the inbounds pass, jetted upcourt past the entire Cavs' team and scored the winning basket with 1.3 seconds left. Paul Millsap scored a team-high 24 points, while Carlos Boozer had 23 points and 12 rebounds. Williams did not shoot well (4-12 from the field) and committed eight turnovers but he still managed to score 15 points and distribute 12 assists. Sasha Pavlovic had a season-high 17 points--all in the first half--most of which came as a result of great passes from James. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 18 points and 14 rebounds.

Utah led for most of the game but never by more than nine points. People who believe that Cleveland is going to miss the playoffs gravely underestimate this team. Playing without Larry Hughes and despite Pavlovic still getting rid of some rust after his holdout, Cleveland battled hard throughout the game in one of the toughest road environments in the NBA. The Cavaliers rely on James' brilliance plus collective efforts defensively and on the glass; that three pronged formula ensures that on most nights the Cavs will at least have a chance to win. Once Pavlovic rounds into form and Hughes gets healthy (which has admittedly been a dicey proposition in recent years) the Cavs will be fine; if they can work holdout Anderson Varejao into the mix soon enough then they could very well post a better record than they did last season but even if he does not come back this team will be better than most people seem to think.

James shot just 12-27 from the field and 7-15 from the free throw line but his floor game was impeccable as he posted his 11th career triple double, achieving the feat midway through the third quarter. As ESPN's Hubie Brown put it, "He and Kobe Bryant do not take possessions off. They are 48 minutes of horror show (for the other team)." ESPN ran a graphic that showed that James (27.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.0 apg) and Bryant (31.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.4 apg) were the only two players who averaged at least 27 ppg, 5 rpg and 5 apg last season.

In this game we saw plenty of the great James and also a little of the not so great James. He has a commanding, overpowering physical presence and yet he also plays with great finesse; James' court vision is remarkable and he delivers his passes on time and on target. James' two weaknesses are his defense and his outside shooting. It is evident that he is working hard to improve his defense; James is very active at that end of the court and is not out of position as often as he used to be. With his physical tools, James is certainly capable of becoming an All-Defensive Team player if he puts his mind to it the way that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant did early in their careers.

The FIBA Americas tournament supposedly showed the results of the extra work that James has done on his outside shot but I suspect that his gaudy field goal percentage in that event had a lot to do with the shorter three point line and the fact that the players guarding him were completely overmatched. James' free throw shooting in this young NBA season is worse than ever and his jump shot is still very erratic. He seemingly has the ability to get to the hoop virtually at will, so his field goal percentage does not always reflect how badly he is shooting from outside of the paint; James can miss four jumpers in a row and then bull his way to the hoop for four layups or dunks. The problem is that those four jumpers were wasted possessions, particularly because he shoots too many off balance fadeaways early in the shot clock. James must either develop a more reliable jump shot or stop shooting so many low percentage jumpers early in the shot clock. Also, there is also no reason that a player with his talents should ever shoot less than .750 from the free throw line. Considering how many fouls he draws, he could easily add one or two ppg to his average just by improving in this area. The Cavs would not have been in the game without James' rebounding, passing and ability to score in the paint but they could possibly have won the game if James had made a couple more jumpers or a few more free throws. I don't have a problem per se with a great player shooting early in the shot clock; great players usually get double-teamed late in the clock, so sometimes the best shot they are going to get is the first one that becomes available. However, James does not have a reliable jumper like Bryant does. Bryant also generally does not fade away on his jumper and even when he does his body is more on balance; James shoots way too many off balance fadeaways and stepback jumpers from 20 feet and out. Those look great when they go in but a player with his size, speed and ballhandling ability should not settle for such a low percentage shot.

San Antonio showed in last year's Finals that a great team that is dedicated to executing a sound defensive game plan can force James into shooting a low percentage and committing a lot of turnovers. In order to become the best player in the game--a realistic goal for James--he must attack the weaknesses in his arsenal as relentlessly as Jordan and Bryant did early in their careers.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:08 AM

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Doesn't Miami's Championship Season Seem Like it Happened 10 Years Ago?

The Miami Heat won the NBA championship in the summer of 2006 but doesn't that seem like it happened a long, long time ago? Since then, the Heat got embarrassed by the Chicago Bulls on ring night to start the 2007 season and swept by the Bulls in the playoffs to close the 2007 season--and Miami has not won a game since then. In fact, the Heat have lost the last 17 times that they stepped on the court: the final two regular season games in 2007, the four game sweep by the Bulls, seven preseason games and the first four games of this season, the latest defeat being an 88-78 loss on Wednesday night to the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili had a game-high 25 points, plus seven assists and seven rebounds. Tony Parker added 23 points and eight assists, while Tim Duncan had a quiet night (12 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one blocked shot). Shaquille O'Neal scored a season-high 17 points for the second game in a row but he shot just 6-13 from the field and had only three rebounds in 31 minutes. Ricky Davis had 14 points, also shooting 6-13 from the field. Smush Parker emerged from Coach Pat Riley's doghouse to play 27 minutes but his four points on 2-9 shooting coupled with his unwillingness to run the offense the way that Riley wants it to be run suggest that he will have some more DNP-CDs in the near future.

Dwyane Wade may be returning to action soon for the Heat, so ESPN's Jon Barry says that Miami fans should not worry because Dallas started out 0-4 last year and still won 67 games. Earth to Jon Barry: the Mavericks had the league's MVP (Dirk Nowitzki), a rising young All-Star (Josh Howard), one of the NBA's top sixth men (Jerry Stackhouse) and talented point guards Jason Terry and Devin Harris plus several excellent role players. Meanwhile, Riley is so desperate to add athleticism to his roster that this offseason he brought in Davis and Parker, two players who have little interest in playing defense and even less interest in adhering to the structure of Riley's offense. I have a better chance of dunking from the free throw line than Miami does of winning 67 games this year; it will take a Herculean effort out of Wade to carry this team to a 41-41 record.

Other than a brief flashback moment when he caught a lob and dunked on Fabricio Oberto, O'Neal seems to have little lift or lateral mobility. Moves that used to end in resounding dunks now result in layup attempts, some of which O'Neal misses. His defense, rarely a strong suit, now consists primarily of committing hard fouls against driving opponents (or simply watching them stroll to the hoop). In fairness to O'Neal, it should be mentioned that it seems like the only player on the roster who knows how to correctly feed the post is Penny Hardaway. Sadly, Hardaway seems to have even less explosiveness left than O'Neal does, although he put up a solid stat line (eight points, four rebounds, five assists, three steals) simply by using his veteran wiles to make up for what he has lost physically. If Hardaway's body can hold up to the workload, he should get some of Davis' or Parker's minutes simply because he actually understands how to play winning basketball and the offense runs more smoothly when he handles the ball. As Barry correctly noted, "The pass to the post is a lost art in the NBA." Maybe that is why the only player on the Heat who can do it correctly had been out of the league for two years.

The Spurs looked bored and sluggish in the first half. Miami's only hope, as assistant coach Bob McAdoo admitted to ESPN's Lisa Salters at halftime, is to slow the game down and muck things up. San Antonio only led 39-38 at halftime. Tony Parker had 12 points on 5-7 shooting but he told Salters that it would be his responsibility to speed the game up in the second half and to get Tim Duncan (eight points on 2-7 shooting) more involved. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich sought to provide a second half spark by starting Ginobili in place of Michael Finley and that move paid immediate dividends as Ginobili scored 12 points in the third quarter, helping the Spurs to go up by as many as 15 points.

One thing that Davis can do is score, as he showed by putting up nine points in less than three minutes late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter, helping Miami trim the lead to 65-60. After that, the Spurs quickly pushed the margin back to 15 and led by at least eight points the rest of the way. Miami's players either don't know how to feed O'Neal in the post or are disinterested in doing so. The interesting thing is that, other than a brief complaint after the first game of the season, O'Neal is not raising much of a fuss in public about this. Perhaps he has mellowed, perhaps he is resigned to his fate or perhaps he realizes that he does not have the ability to get off 20 good shot attempts a night. However, even though O'Neal can no longer score like he used to it still makes sense to at least start the halfcourt offense by passing him the ball. That forces the defense to react and could create some better shot opportunities for the perimeter players; O'Neal is a willing and effective passer out of the post and could still be of some value in that role.

Anyone who thinks that Wade can singlehandedly save Miami should consider a couple things. One, Wade may not be full healthy when he returns and he certainly will be rusty, so the Heat are not getting back the player who was the 2006 Finals MVP; that player may not show up until after the All-Star break, if at all, this season. Two, the Heat's record with Wade last year was 27-24 and their record without him was 17-14; his presence alone did not have much impact on the team's record (which highlights how remarkable it is that Kobe Bryant almost singlehandedly carried an even more injury depleted Lakers team to a playoff berth in the deeper Western Conference). The Heat had a 19-22 record when O'Neal returned to action after missing most of the first half of the season and then went 23-13 in the games that he played in the rest of the way. In other words, what salvaged the Heat's regular season last year was not Wade but rather the play of a relatively healthy and in shape O'Neal down the stretch--but watching him lumber up and down the court now, the O'Neal who can change the game in that fashion seems like an even more distant memory than Miami's championship.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Smush Parker "Struggling" in Miami--Who Knew?

Last season, I mentioned more than once (for instance, here and here, where I quoted Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, who called Parker "an undrafted D-League point guard") that a lot of the Lakers' problems stemmed from the fact that they had arguably the worst starting point guard in the NBA, Smush Parker. The reason I kept bringing up Parker is that, for some reason, some people thought that Kobe Bryant, who went on a scoring tear in the second half of the season that has not been seen since Wilt Chamberlain played, was holding the Lakers back. The reality is that anyone who watched even a few Lakers games could pretty quickly see that the Lakers were having more difficulties with their erratic point guard than their All-NBA shooting guard.

After Phil Jackson benched Parker in the playoffs I assumed that Parker's next destination would be the NBA Development League. I was very surprised when Parker was Miami's main offseason free agent acquisition. In my Eastern Conference Preview, I wrote, "if Parker plays major minutes he will be worth five more losses in the standings." Honestly, I was truly astounded that a championship coach like Riley would want any part of a guy like Parker. Apparently, it only took Riley one regular season game to see the light. Asked about why Parker has gotten two DNP-CDs (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision) since the season opener, Riley simply said that Parker has not played well enough. Parker met with Riley on Tuesday and he relayed to reporters what Riley told him: "He said he didn't like the way I was running the point, running the offense." Undrafted second year guard Chris Quinn has moved ahead of Parker in the rotation and the latest brainstorm in Miami is to shift Parker to shooting guard, where he is third on the depth chart behind Ricky Davis and rookie Daequan Cook; Parker is not likely to get too many minutes there, either, especially when Dwyane Wade comes back. Here is Parker's take on the position change: "I'm a point guard at heart, but he's playing me at (shooting guard). I just have to reboot my system."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:03 PM

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Three-mendous: Peja's Long Range Bombing Destroys Lakers

Peja Stojakovic scored 36 points and Chris Paul had 19 points and a franchise-record 21 assists as the New Orleans Hornets improved to 4-0 with a 118-104 road win over the L.A. Lakers, who dropped to 2-2. Stojakovic set a franchise-record and a personal best by making 10 three pointers, two off of the NBA record that is shared by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall. David West did solid work in the paint for the Hornets (22 points, eight rebounds) and even showed his range by stepping out to make a couple three pointers. Bryant finished with 28 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three blocked shots, shooting 11-20 from the field. Ronny Turiaf added 15 points and seven rebounds as the starting center, while Andrew Bynum came off of the bench to contribute eight points and a game-high 13 rebounds. The biggest problem for the Lakers in this game is that they repeatedly left Stojakovic open to double-team Paul when Paul drove into the lane. Lakers analyst Stu Lantz stated the obvious: you cannot give uncontested looks to a pure shooter like Stojakovic. The flip side of that is that Paul is not a great shooter (7-18 in this game), so his defender should be laying off of him and forcing him to shoot jump shots. As Lantz said after the game, the Lakers made a lot of mental errors during this game. Another thing that handicapped the Lakers is that Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Maurice Evans--three of their top eight rotation players--were on the inactive list.

Early in the game, Bryant drove to the hoop from the right wing, got to the rim but after shot blocker Tyson Chandler slid over Bryant attempted a wraparound pass to Chris Mihm that went out of bounds. "That's alright," said Lantz. "Obviously, you don't like any turnovers but if you're going to have them, have them be that kind where you're trying to help one of your teammates." Another reason that this was a "good" turnover is that the ball went out of bounds, so the Hornets had to inbound the ball and attack against a set defense. This is exactly the kind of thing I meant when I talked about how statistical analysis of basketball only captures some of the "what" and none of the "how": you can chart a player's shooting percentage or turnover rate but those numbers don't tell you if the player creates his own shots or spots up, nor do they tell you if he is a careless ballhandler, a non-ballhandler who is simply sloppy with the ball on the few occasions that he gets it or a playmaker who handles the ball a lot and makes a lot of productive plays as a scorer and/or distributor.

Bryant did a lot of passing early in the game as the Hornets sprinted out to an 18-8 lead. Bryant did not attempt a field goal or free throw until there was 3:29 left in the first quarter, when his jumper pulled the Lakers to within 22-17. Just before that, Melvin Ely pushed Turiaf to get an offensive rebound but Bryant flew in out of nowhere to block his layup. If he has a chance, Bryant seems to be trying to block shots lefthanded due to his right wrist injury but this was a bang-bang play and Bryant had to use his right hand. Early in the season, Bryant is spending a lot of time in the paint, helping out on the boards and blocking shots; this is something that I anticipated during the preseason when I suggested that Bryant may rue losing so much weight during the offseason because the team's depleted frontcourt sans Odom will need some help from him on the boards.

Bryant finished the first quarter with four points on 2-3 shooting and the Lakers trailed 32-22. Jordan Farmar scored the Lakers' last three points by making a jumper and a free throw after Bobby Jackson fouled him right before time expired. Paul had six assists in the quarter, all of them in the first 5:44.

The Lakers' second unit made a good run early in the second period, cutting the Hornets' lead to 36-32 but New Orleans rebuilt the margin to 44-35. Bryant then returned to action after sitting out for the first part of the quarter. He made a hard baseline drive, missed a contested layup but got the offensive rebound and scored just before the 24 second clock expired. Then he made a jumper to cut the lead to 44-39. The teams traded baskets for the next few minutes. With 2:21 remaining, Bryant drove to the middle from the left wing and then whipped a gorgeous off the dribble pass to Turiaf, whose two handed dunk cut the New Orleans lead to 51-47. Later, a double-teamed Bryant lobbed a crosscourt pass to Walton, who buried a three pointer to make the score 55-52 New Orleans. With nine seconds left in the half, Bryant suckered Paul into fouling him behind the three point line and then he drained all three free throws, trimming the Hornets' lead to 57-55 at the half. Bryant had 11 points (4-7 field goal shooting, 3-3 free throw shooting), five rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots, while Paul had eight points and seven assists for the Hornets.

The Lakers went up 68-63 by the 7:55 mark in the third quarter and still led 72-68 with 5:19 remaining; Bryant contributed four points and four assists in the first 6:41 of the period. Then the Hornets used a 10-3 run to take a 78-75 lead. Bryant converted a three point play to tie the score at 78, but the Hornets used an 11-2 burst to go up 89-80 heading into the fourth quarter. Stojakovic scored 17 points in the period, shooting 5-7 from three point range as the Lakers inexplicably left him wide open several times.

The Lakers' bench cut the Hornets' lead to 91-87 early in the fourth quarter. Bryant returned to the game at the 6:59 mark with the Lakers trailing 96-89. He hit a three pointer to get the Lakers to within 100-94 but they never got closer than that the rest of the way as the Hornets drained three three pointers in the final 3:06. The Lakers executed their offense poorly down the stretch and also had numerous defensive breakdowns.

***Notes***

Hornets Coach Byron Scott was Bryant's teammate when Bryant first came into the league and Scott knew right from the beginning that Bryant was cut from a different kind of cloth than most NBA players: "Kobe was the one who was in the back of the bus reading Time Magazine. He wasn't reading the sports pages. So you could tell from a mental standpoint that he was a little bit farther ahead than an 18-year-old, and he already had goals and knew what he wanted to do. He point-blank told be one day when I asked him 'How do you want to be perceived in this league?' he said, 'I want to be the best player in this league.' I think he's been able to accomplish that goal."

This is not the first time that Scott has expressed such sentiments about Bryant. Last season, Scott offered this recollection of Bryant's early years in the league: "He and I would sit down and talk about the '80s teams, the championship teams we had. [Bryant] wanted to know how good we were, what did it take for us to win, why were we so successful. All the questions that are normally asked by guys that are 20-something, not 18. I would expect an 18-year-old to ask where do we party, how are the girls in L.A. He didn't care about that. He just wasn't a regular 18-year-old kid. I knew that. He was very mature, already had in his mind pretty much what he wanted to accomplish. I remember we did an interview together in his rookie year. I called Kobe over and told the guys doing the show, 'You see this kid? He's going to be the best player in the league.' Three or four years later, I thought he was. To this day I still do...He has the competitive edge just like Magic [Johnson]. Whatever it was going to take to win, he was going to get it done."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:29 AM

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

ESPN's Chad Ford Takes Aim At Kobe Bryant's Trade Value

It has been public knowledge for several months that Kobe Bryant would like to be traded and Lakers owner Jerry Buss has publicly acknowledged that he is willing to deal the two-time defending NBA scoring champion. So why is Bryant still a Laker? ESPN's Chad Ford asserts "Bryant's trade value isn't nearly as high as he or the Lakers would like to think." Ford lists four reasons that this is the case. Let's take a closer look at each one:

1) "Does Kobe have too much mileage?"

Ford's case: Bryant is only 29 but, because he came to the NBA straight out of high school and has been involved in many extended postseason runs, Bryant has played a total of 33,462 regular season and playoff minutes. Ford also mentions that Bryant has had a couple arthroscopic knee surgeries and he points out that Bryant is nearing the age when Michael Jordan retired for the first time, adding that when Jordan came back (nearly two years later) he was not quite the high flyer that he had been.

Why Ford's case is not built Ford tough: The arthroscopic surgery issue is a red herring. Nowadays, unless a more problematic condition is discovered during the procedure, this amounts to little more than a car getting a tuneup. Last year's surgery had such a bad effect on Bryant that he put up
the highest post-All-Star Game scoring average in the past 43 years. If I were building a team from scratch then I agree with the NBA GMs who would take LeBron James over anyone. However, a team that trades for Bryant now is not planning on building from scratch; the Chicago Bulls or Dallas Mavericks--two teams that have been mentioned in the Bryant sweepstakes, though both currently deny that they are actively pursuing a deal--are trying to win right now. Bryant figures to remain the NBA's best player long enough to help either team to pursue that goal.

I have a rule of thumb: I distrust general conclusions made by people who cannot get their facts straight. Yes, anyone can make a mistake but if you have basic information wrong then I tend to suspect that you are either very sloppy or you have such an agenda that you won't allow facts to get in the way. Ford asserts that Bryant has played more regular season and playoff minutes than Allen Iverson; in fact, coming into this season Iverson has played 34,248 combined minutes, nearly 1000 more than Bryant. The Bryant-Iverson comparison is flawed for another, more fundamental reason: Bryant is much bigger physically than Iverson and therefore better able to withstand pounding. Most of the NBA players who have had the longest careers (other than freak of nature John Stockton) are big guys. Michael Jordan, who is roughly the same size as Bryant, proved that he could play at an MVP level in his mid-thirties and at a better than average level even in his forties. Bryant, like Jordan, is a conditioning fanatic, so there is every reason to believe that he has at least three to four high level seasons left and another few decent seasons after that if he is willing to continue to play during his declining years.

2) "Is Kobe really the best player in the NBA?"

Ford's case: Ford relies largely on John Hollinger's PER and Roland Beech's adjusted plus/minus to make the argument that Bryant is not really the best player in the NBA.

Why Ford's case is not built Ford tough: Ford notes at the start of his piece that he talked to several "NBA sources" about Bryant and later in the article he acknowledges that Bryant is widely considered to be the best player in the NBA--then he completely disregards expert opinion in favor of relying exclusively on the verdict of some statistical systems. It should be noted that those same systems ranked two-time MVP Steve Nash lower than Bryant last season. (NOTE: in an earlier version of this post I suggested that Beech did not intend for adjusted plus/minus to be used to compare players who played for different teams but the reality is that he made that statement about his on court/off court data, not adjusted plus/minus, proving that I should have reread my article titled "Defining the Value of a Superstar," which correctly cites the Beech quote).

Obviously, calling one player the best player in the NBA is a subjective judgment; a good case could be made for perhaps a half dozen players. Nevertheless, there are very good reasons that NBA players, coaches and GMs generally say that Bryant is the best player in the NBA. Many of these reasons were on very public display when Bryant led Team USA to the gold medal in the FIBA Americas tournament.

3) "Is Kobe a winner?"

Ford's case: Ford acknowledges that Bryant has won three championships but then descends into practicing psychoanalysis without a psychiatry degree, writing "The best-selling book Leadership and Self-Deception explains that leaders try to develop people who are even more capable and creative than they are. They are constantly in the process of creating future leaders. They are more interested in results than credit. Certainly Bryant wants to win. But he wants to win his way, according to many who have followed his career. And when you break it down, that translates to this attitude: I would rather lose my way than win your way. Bryant wants to win, but he also wants the most shots. He wants to be a great hero, not a great teammate or leader. He wants the credit." Ford concludes by saying that if LeBron James were available for a trade that it would not take months to get a deal done like it has for Bryant; to Ford, this proves that James is considered more of a winner than Bryant.

Why Ford's case is not built Ford tough: This is by far Ford's weakest argument. A careful reader will note that it consists entirely of speculation that is not supported by any facts, so let's supply the facts that Ford chose to ignore: Bryant was the leading playmaker on three championship teams, making the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. One of those years he was in the top five in MVP voting. How can anyone watch the impact that Bryant had on Team USA--when he was clearly not trying to be a "great hero" or lead the team in scoring--and still believe that Bryant is not a winner?

As for the Bryant-James comparison, there are more questions about James' killer instinct than Bryant's. James is not yet a lockdown defender and at times he seems too passive on offense. One reason that James may be a more desirable acquisition now--if that is in fact the case; Ford did not prove that--is the age factor.

4) "Is Kobe worth it?"

Ford's case: Ford finally gets around to noting how difficult it is logistically to make a trade for Bryant due to Bryant's unique contract. A team would have to give up so much to get Bryant that there might not be enough left to make a title run. Ford concludes, "Most GMs prefer to stick with the status quo. Taking risks invites scrutiny from the media and fans, and tends to hasten a GM's dismissal, many feel. Doing nothing is simply safer."

Why Ford's case is not built Ford tough: Actually, this is the one valid point that Ford makes. The real reason that it is difficult to trade for Bryant is the unique contract he has, which Ford finally mentions at the end of his article--this should have been the first point. Bryant has a no-trade clause and a trade kicker; not only can he reject any deal but a team would have to give up so much (in personnel and contracts) to get him that there might not be enough left to make his new team any better than the Lakers are now. That, and not Ford's psychobabble, is the real reason that Bryant has not yet been traded. The reality is that Bryant is worth trading for if his new team can arrange to deal away primarily young players while keeping enough of a core intact for Bryant to lead the team on a title run.

Clarification: In my recent post comparing Gilbert Arenas to Chad Johnson, I quoted a passage from Arenas' NBA.com blog, appending the comment "yes, I left the typos uncorrected." I was not being sarcastic; I just wanted to make it clear that I was quoting the text exactly as it appeared. Dave McMenamin, who is Arenas' ghostwriter, emailed me to say that the word "droff" is not a typo but rather a shorthand term that Arenas uses to mean "drop off."

posted by David Friedman @ 6:51 PM

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Watching Games Versus Crunching Numbers

In many sports, including basketball, there is an ongoing debate between those who believe that players and teams are best evaluated by trained individuals watching the games versus those who believe that players and teams are best evaluated purely by crunching numbers. There are extremists on both sides--people who claim that the observation process is worthless because it is too subjective are pitted against those who have no interest in looking at statistics. The most reasonable approach is to combine observations--either one's own or those provided by qualified people (such as scouts)--with pertinent statistics. That still leaves two questions: what are the most important things to observe when watching a game and which are the most important statistics to consider? Many of my articles have dealt with the subject of how to watch/evaluate players, including my two part "Scout's Eye View of the Game" series (click here for Part I and here for Part II), so this post will focus on how to most effectively incorporate statistics into the overall evaluation process.

During a recent telecast, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy explained which statistics he looked at first after a game when he was coaching: 1) true shooting percentage (which takes into account a player's field goal, three point and free throw shooting); 2) rebound percentage; 3) turnovers; 4) free throws made. On the other hand, Van Gundy said that fast break points and points in the paint are two statistics that he considers to be overrated; he noted that he does not like the way that fast break points are compiled but did not give a reason for rejecting the value of the points in the paint statistic. It is important to keep in mind that Van Gundy's list has more to do with evaluating his team's performance as a whole than ranking players individually. That said, his approach is solid. Even most people who are not in the "numbers" camp should be able to understand that raw field goal percentage is not a very meaningful statistic because it does not take into account the extra point from each three pointer nor does it give a player credit for drawing fouls and making free throws. Rebound percentage is more precise than total rebounds, which can be affected by pace considerations and how many shots are missed in a given game. Most coaches try to limit their team's turnovers to less than 15 per game, while free throws made can be a good indicator of a team's aggressiveness.

By considering the four factors that he listed, Van Gundy can quickly determine how well both teams shot the ball, how effectively they rebounded missed shots, how well they protected the ball and how aggressively they played. This is a good quick and dirty method for examining his team's performances in several vital areas. I am a little surprised that Van Gundy did not mention defensive field goal percentage, although perhaps he includes that in true shooting percentage (by looking at the true shooting percentage of the opposing team). Gregg Popovich and coaches on his "coaching tree" (like Cleveland's Mike Brown, who has ex-Popovich assistant Hank Egan on his staff) are among the many coaches who place a lot of emphasis on defensive field goal percentage.

While Van Gundy's system is a good way to look at a team's performance, I am not sure how useful it is to evaluate the performances of individual players for two reasons.

First, a team's overall true shooting percentage is important but individual true shooting percentages are not created equally because players have different roles; some players are called upon to create shots for themselves and their teammates, other players are spot up shooters and other players hardly shoot at all. If a player hardly shoots at all because he is primarily a rebounder, defender and/or screener, then his shooting percentage is not of primary importance (which is not to say that a coach does not want him to shoot well). Spot up shooters should have excellent true shooting percentages because they are spoon-fed the ball when they are wide open; on the other hand, just because a spot up shooter like Jason Kapono shoots better than a creator like Kobe Bryant we should not conclude that Kapono is more "efficient" than Bryant. Kapono is not asked to score 30 ppg and it is not likely that he could do so for an extended period of time; if all Bryant did was spot up and shoot wide open shots then his shooting percentage would go up but his value as a player would decrease because he would not be as productive as his skills enable him to be. Therefore, players should be compared to players who have similar roles (not necessarily even guys who are listed as playing the same position)

Second, while it is important that a team commit less than 15 turnovers per game, not all individual turnovers are equally bad--yes, they all are part of the team's total, but just like different players have different shooting responsibilities it is also true that different players have different ballhandling responsibilities. Most teams have one or two players who do the lion's share of the ballhandling and it is inevitable that they will commit some turnovers just because of how often the ball is in their hands. That is why some of the greatest players of all-time--like Magic Johnson--appear prominently in the record books in the turnover category. Of course it would be preferable if a player committed no turnovers or at least had very few such miscues but that is not realistic, so a great player's turnovers have to be considered in the context of his overall production. That does not mean that I am a big fan of looking at assist/turnover ratio, which I consider to be an artificial statistic because not all good passes become assists and not all turnovers are the result of bad passes. If a player is a very productive scorer and/or playmaker then he most likely will commit three to four turnovers a game; sure, if he could be productive with fewer turnovers that would be great but I would not cut Magic Johnson because he turned the ball over a lot. What should raise a red flag is if a player who does not handle the ball that frequently commits a lot of turnovers. If a team is fortunate enough to have a Magic Johnson, then most of its other players should not be committing many turnovers because he will do most of the ballhandling while the other players will benefit from receiving the ball in their best scoring areas. In other words, if a player like Magic Johnson commits three, four or even five turnovers that is not a big deal but if players who do not handle the ball that frequently are also committing that many turnovers then the team's total turnovers will be well above 15 and that will be a problem.

Another thing that is important to understand is that some kinds of turnovers are more damaging than others. For instance, if a player loses the ball because he dribbled into traffic or if he throws a bad pass that is stolen then the opposing team will have an excellent opportunity to score a fast break basket. However, an offensive foul or a ball that is dribbled or thrown out of bounds is like a made basket (without the two or three points of course) in the sense that the other team has to inbound the ball and try to score against a team's set defense (the offensive foul could be a problem of a different kind if it results in someone fouling out but right now we are looking specifically at the turnover issue). Last season, the players who committed the most turnovers were Dwight Howard, Eddy Curry, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Andre Iguodala, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Ben Gordon, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas. Iverson is often criticized for his turnovers but he scores a lot and distributes a lot of assists; the same is true of everyone else on that list except for three players: Howard and Curry commit far too many turnovers for players who have few ballhandling responsibilities, while Gordon is a jump shooter who does not have playmaking responsibilities and is not as productive overall as the other perimeter players on the list. Again, the issue is not assist/turnover ratio but rather the ratio of overall production to turnovers. Let's look at two of the NBA's best players, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. In 2006-07, Bryant committed 255 turnovers and Nash committed 287 turnovers but they committed their turnovers in very different ways. Bryant is a scorer who frequently slashes to the hoop, so--according to 82Games.com--he had 26 offensive fouls, 109 bad passes, 119 ballhandling turnovers and one miscellaneous turnover, while Nash had 11 offensive fouls, 223 bad passes, 53 ballhandling turnovers and one miscellaneous turnover. Both players committed turnovers at an acceptable rate considering their overall production and both players committed the kinds of turnovers that one would expect them to commit based on their roles.

This discussion of the limitations inherent in trying to evaluate individual players based on their shooting percentages and turnover rates illustrates the two main drawbacks with evaluating players primarily by statistics: numbers can only tell you some of the "what" and none of the "how"; numbers are useful for finding out who shoots the ball with the most accuracy or who had the most turnovers but only by observation can one provide the necessary context to understand what those numbers really mean. Another limitation of statistics is that they cannot capture in a meaningful, consistent way intangibles such as Bruce Bowen's man to man defense. Bowen does not get many steals or blocked shots yet he is universally recognized as the best perimeter defender in the NBA and, despite pedestrian statistics in most categories, is a starter for the NBA Champion Spurs. Yes, plus/minus data can give you a glimpse into Bowen's worth in a general way but no number or set of numbers really gives a clear description of exactly why he is so valuable.

I don't consider one statistic or one statistical system to be a "Holy Grail" in terms of individual player evaluation. I firmly believe that you have to look at a player's total profile: how he actually looks in games (in person if possible, otherwise on video) is one part of the picture, to be supplemented by his total statistical production. Some players are very dominant in one category but not so exceptional in most others (super rebounder Dennis Rodman is the classic example of this), while other players are productive across the board (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James are two examples of this). Watching a player perform is the only way to completely know what he does and how he does it; then you can look at his numbers compared to the numbers put up by other players who play the same position.

None of this means that I am against using statistics or even that I am against people trying to create a "Holy Grail" composite number that truly provides an accurate way to rate players--but until such a method is developed the best way to evaluate players will remain the tried and true approach of combining first hand observation with the judicious use of all available statistics. One excellent thing that has happened in recent years is the development of new ways of looking at players' statistical contributions, such as plus/minus (how well a player's team did while he was on the court) and adjusted plus/minus (the adjustment involves factoring in the contributions of the other nine players on the court to determine if the player in question really had a major impact or if he was basically an innocent bystander while others did the lion's share of the work).

posted by David Friedman @ 3:05 AM

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are not having Commitment Issues

When I first saw the Phil Jackson quote questioning Kobe Bryant's commitment to the team I thought that it was one of the silliest things that I had read in quite some time--but in case anyone actually took that nonsense seriously, Bryant is making sure that his actions completely refute it. First he scored 45 points in a close loss to a strong Houston team in the season opener. Then he had a double-double and a game-high +27 plus/minus rating as the Lakers routed last year's Pacific Division champion Phoenix Suns. On Sunday night, Bryant scored a game-high 33 points on 13-19 shooting as the Lakers beat the Utah Jazz 119-109. Bryant's plus/minus rating of +13 was second only to Andrew Bynum's +14 rating (Bynum shot 6-7 from the field and had 15 points and nine rebounds in just 19 minutes). Bryant also had five rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots; the latter of those two rejections was a highlight reel play: Andrei Kirilenko stole the ball from Luke Walton and made a beeline for the hoop to throw down a two handed dunk only to have Bryant deliver an emphatic left handed rejection to maintain a 98-91 Lakers lead with 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Bryant takes a lot of pride in making that kind of defensive play: "I really, really enjoy that challenge, because it's a mano-a-mano type of thing where somebody challenges you to meet you at the rim. When you have that type of situation, they see that you're not going to take a charge because you're just lining them up. So they know they have to either go over the top of you or go through you. I saw him coming down on the wing, and I just tried to time it and get up there and see if I could catch him. I timed it pretty well."

Bryant helped to seal the win by scoring six points in the last 4:30 of the game. Keep in mind that Bryant is doing all of these things despite dealing with a balky right wrist. New/old Laker Derek Fisher struggled from the field (3-11) versus Utah but shot 13-14 from the free throw line, finishing with 19 points and five assists. Fisher is far from being an All-Star but his toughness and savvy make him a huge upgrade over the departed Smush Parker (who got his second consecutive Did Not Play-Coach's Decision on Sunday as his Heat fell to 0-3). Keep in mind that the Lakers are enjoying this early success without their second best player, the injured Lamar Odom. What these wins over Phoenix and Utah show is that Bryant does not need tons of help to lead a team to victory; he needs productive, focused efforts from the other starters plus some energy from the bench. Bynum and Jordan Farmar (12 points in 17 minutes) provided the latter against Utah. Bryant's commitment is not the issue in Lakerland and Fisher will give you everything he's got every night. If guys like Bynum and Farmar--plus Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and Odom when he returns--can provide some kind of consistent production then the Lakers can be a dangerous team. We saw that at the start of last season when the Lakers were a top four team in the West before Bynum hit the proverbial wall and several other frontcourt players went down with various injuries.

It should be obvious what the next "big" mainstream media story about the Lakers will be: how Phil Jackson cleverly motivated Bryant by publicly questioning his commitment. If you expect any "expert" or "analyst"--other than Hubie Brown, who steadfastly refused to buy into any nonsense about Bryant not playing hard--to say that Jackson's statement was inaccurate and that Jackson should not have said it then you don't understand how the media works. Simple facts like Bryant's statistics and wins by the Lakers can never, ever be allowed to get in the way of the "larger story," which in this case is that Bryant will (allegedly) pout until he is traded, thereby becoming a distraction to the team. If the Lakers win 15 games in a row, that story still cannot be abandoned; the wrinkle of Jackson as the master motivator who nipped Bryant's pouting in the bud will simply be grafted on to the main narrative. If you watch and listen closely enough, you will notice that many members of the media employ this technique in stories about matters more significant than NBA games but that is a story for another day.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Saturday's NBA Games

The 2007-08 season is just five days old, so it is far too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but even now it is becoming apparent that some teams are better than expected (most notably Indiana), some teams are worse than expected (Chicago jumps out here) and many teams are who we thought they were, for better or worse (San Antonio, Houston, Toronto on the good side, Sacramento, Memphis, Portland, Seattle, Miami, Washington on the not so good side).

It is worth mentioning again that Dallas started out 0-4 last year and finished with a 67-15 record. On the other hand, if your favorite team starts out 0-4 and does not have the reigning MVP, another All-Star and a deep bench then it is much more likely headed to the Draft Lottery than to the playoffs. Speaking of the Draft Lottery, at least one of last year's Eastern Conference playoff teams will make an unwanted trip to Secaucus assuming that Boston is a playoff team this year--and that provides a perfect segue to our first recap: say hello to the 0-3 Washington Wizards.

The Score: Orlando 94, Washington 82

The Key Stat: Gilbert Arenas scored just 10 points on 5-15 shooting, including 0-4 from three point range. He had six assists, three rebounds and two steals but did not attempt a free throw, committed six turnovers and had a -11 plus/minus rating (the other four Wizards starters actually had even worse ratings).

The Bottom Line: In recent years, the Wizards played lackluster defense and were soft inside. Now they have also turned into the gang that can't shoot straight. After setting an NBA record by missing all 16 of their three point shots on Friday, they went 6-23 from downtown versus Orlando. Perhaps Washington fans can take solace in watching last year's video of Arenas beating DeShawn Stevenson in a shooting contest--OK, maybe not. Of course, the more significant long term story here is the 2-1 Magic, who have Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu making enough perimeter shots to open up the middle for Dwight Howard. In a stunning development--well, not really--J.J. Redick has yet to start a game and did not even play versus the Wizards. The player who David Thorpe assured us "could become a starter for a playoff team" has shot 0-3 from the field so far in 13 minutes of action.

The Score: Indiana 121, Memphis 111

The Key Stat: Jim O'Brien loves the three point shot but his Pacers made just four of 18 attempts; the other thing that he stresses is playing good defense and Indiana came through in that regard, forcing 27 turnovers and converting them into 36 points.

The Bottom Line: The Pacers could be the surprise team in the East this year. Memphis has serious point guard issues and is very soft defensively.

The Score: Houston 89, Portland 80

The Key Stat: Call rookie power forward Luis Scola "Mr. Intangible": he had eight points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes but posted a team best +15 plus/minus rating. He is a smart, tough player and will do even better after he gets fully acclimated to the NBA game.

The Bottom Line: Yao Ming (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Tracy McGrady (20 points, six assists) still fuel Houston but the two main Rockets now have some reliable boosters. Portland looked strong on opening night versus San Antonio but, as I cautioned in my recap of that game, "it remains to be seen if the Trail Blazers will play at this level on a consistent basis." What we've seen since then are two more losses that give us a good indication that the young Blazers will be a very up and down team this year.

The Score: Utah 133, Golden State 110

The Key Stat: Golden State is sixth in the NBA in scoring (106.7 ppg) and 30th (i.e., dead last) in points allowed (123.3 ppg).

The Bottom Line: During last year's playoffs, I provided the recipe to beat Golden State: "While it makes sense to slow the game down against Phoenix and pound the Suns to death in the paint--a strategy that almost worked even for the woefully undermanned Lakers in the 2006 playoffs--Golden State plays much more tenacious and scrappy halfcourt defense; the way to beat the Warriors is to run with them, wear them out and rely on the fact that your team cannot possibly have worse shot selection or shoot a lower percentage than the Warriors do. If the Mavericks would have run with the Warriors for the whole series then Dirk Nowitzki could have averaged about 30 ppg and Dallas would have won the series. If you don't believe that, just go back and look at the scores of the games that Golden State won and lost in this year's playoffs. Utah's Game Five win is, by far, the lowest scoring game that Golden State lost and the Jazz won more by attrition than anything else; the Warriors did not make a field goal in the last 3:39 of the game, exhausted after five games of running up and down the court with the Jazz and battling them in the paint. Golden State does not play good transition defense and uses a short rotation, so it makes no sense to slow the game down and fight against their octopus-like halfcourt defense." I also made this observation in reference to game five of the Utah-Golden State series: "Midway through the game, I realized exactly who the Warriors resemble: a team composed of five Gilbert Arenas clones--not in physical appearance, of course, but in style of play. Arenas shoots from anywhere at any time and when he is hot everything is beautiful. Of course, sooner or later bad shot selection catches up with you."

The Score: Milwaukee 78, Chicago 72

The Key Stat: Ben Wallace is averaging 4.3 ppg and 3.7 rpg. If he's done then the Bulls may be, too. His scoring average is not important but if he cannot provide rebounding and defense then youngsters Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah will have to step up quickly or the Bulls will just be living and dying--mostly dying--with their jump-shooting offense.

The Bottom Line: Chicago's identity is based on playing hard and playing smart. So far, the Bulls are doing neither. Have all the Kobe Bryant trade rumors and the unsettled contract situations of key players worn this team down? At this point, one must say that those things have been a factor. There is enough good, young talent on the roster to turn things around, so I'm not writing the Bulls off just yet. Rookie Yi Jianian had 16 points and eight rebounds in by far the best performance of his young career. This was Milwaukee's first win in three games and the Bulls look worse than the Bears right now, so I'm not ready to jump on the Bucks' bandwagon, if one in fact exists. Michael Redd is averaging 24.3 ppg but shooting just .407 from the field and .231 from three point range. The Bucks have more talent than they did last year but so do several other teams in the East, so that might not translate into an improved record for Milwaukee.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM

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