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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mission Accomplished: Pistons, Cavs Avoid Injuries in Season Finale

Detroit beat Cleveland 84-74 at Quicken Loans Arena in the season finale for both teams. The outcome of this game had no possible effect on playoff positioning for either team and after the game Detroit Coach Flip Saunders succinctly summarized the objective in such contests: "I think both teams accomplished what they needed to accomplish--they came out pretty healthy." Toward that end, LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas did not play at all and most of the key rotation players for both teams played significantly fewer minutes than usual. The Pistons' starting five played for the entire first quarter but then took the rest of the night off; they did not exactly seem fully committed in their efforts, as each player made just one field goal and they combined to shoot 5-20 from the field as the Cavaliers took a 21-13 lead. The Cavaliers started two regular starters (Ben Wallace and Delonte West) alongside three players who usually come off of the bench: Anderson Varejao, Wally Szczerbiak and Damon Jones. Szczerbiak finished with a game-high 18 points, Varejao had four points and eight rebounds in just under 20 minutes of action and Jones shot 1-12 from the field, scoring four points. The Cavaliers led for most of the game but the Pistons outscored them 28-15 in the fourth quarter as the final stanza turned into the Walter Herrmann show, as the Argentine forward scored eight points on 3-3 field goal shooting. He finished with 11 points. Arron Afflalo led Detroit with 15 points, adding eight rebounds and four assists. The Detroit bench outscored the Cleveland bench 71-32; part of that had to do with Cleveland using three bench players as starters but this also reflects how much overall depth the Pistons have. That depth could be very useful in the playoffs but it should be remembered that in crucial postseason games starters tend to play more than 40 minutes unless they are injured or get in foul trouble.

Although one game is obviously a very small sample size, one thing that stands out in the boxscore is Jones' shooting performance; not only did he miss 11 of 12 shots but he also missed all four of his three point field goal attempts. For the season he shot .407 from three point range, ranking among the league leaders. There is a very good reason that he shot so poorly in this game and this reason illustrates why basketball can never be completely understood by simply crunching numbers blindly without actually watching games and understanding the interactions between various players. During the MVP discussion we hear a lot of talk about the relative strengths of the supporting casts of the various contenders. A distinction should be made between good players who benefit from playing alongside MVP-level players versus role players who are heavily dependent on an MVP-level player to create open shots for them. For instance, Ilgauskas has been an All-Star center in previous years, so whether or not he plays alongside James he would be productive, though obviously James' passing skills and ability to draw double-teams help Ilgauskas out. On the other hand, Damon Jones simply cannot consistently create a good open shot for himself at the NBA level; most of his misses versus Detroit came after he tried to free himself using off the dribble moves. Jones' high three point field goal percentage during the course of the season is a credit to his skill at making open jumpers but without James to draw the defense Jones would not be a very productive player. It should be obvious how this reasoning applies to the MVP discussion: when people speak of the strength of various supporting casts based purely on the statistics those players produced it is important to know which players are capable of creating their own shots and which players put up good numbers precisely because they played alongside an MVP-level player. To cite an obvious example, Andrew Bynum certainly deserves credit for improving his skills and he played a role in the Lakers' 25-11 start--but a substantial portion of his offense consisted of diving to the hoop and catching passes for easy dunks, taking advantage of openings in the defense that were created because the opposing team was trapping Kobe Bryant. Bynum has only just begun to develop a back to the basket post game. In contrast, Pau Gasol is a good player who benefits from the defensive coverage that Bryant receives but Gasol is also capable of creating his own shot and on occasion he draws extra defensive coverage as well. New Orleans has a similar big man duo with David West and Tyson Chandler; West is an All-Star who benefits from playing with Chris Paul but he also can create his own offense, while Chandler is very dependent on receiving lob passes and taking advantage of openings created when the defense is forced to cover Paul, West or the sharpshooting Peja Stojakovic. Of course, a big difference between West/Chandler and Bynum/Gasol is that West/Chandler have not only played together longer but they have been healthy for the vast majority of the season, while Bynum and Gasol have yet to take the court together and probably will not do so until next season.

Anyone who just crunches numbers without understanding the context in which they were produced will be apt to reach false conclusions about how well certain players will perform in various situations. A given player may score and shoot at one level while playing alongside Bryant, James or Paul but not be able to replicate those performances in other situations. In other words, such a player's numbers say more about Bryant, James or Paul than they do about the true strength of a given supporting cast--unless of course one is comparing a supporting cast of players who are able to be productive while playing alongside superstars to a supporting cast that is not even able to be productive in such a favorable circumstance (the names Kwame Brown and Smush Parker should come readily to mind here).

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Notes From Courtside:

Last year, the Cavs designated the home finale "Fan Appreciation Night" and gave away more than $500,000 worth of prizes to the fans while also providing free massages and a large cake for the writers and photographers. The Cavs did the same thing on Wednesday--and they increased the total value of the prizes awarded to over $1,000,000, including a 2008 Kia Spectra 5, an hhgregg home entertainment system and a free year of Time Warner HDTV cable. The shoes and jerseys worn by the Cavaliers versus the Pistons were also given away to fans. The fans clearly appreciate what they are seeing from the Cavaliers throughout the season, because Cleveland set franchise records for sellouts (33) and average attendance (20,465).

***

LeBron James won his first scoring title, averaging exactly 30.0 ppg, scoring 2250 points in 75 games. James has averaged at least 27 ppg, six apg and six rpg for four straight seasons, a feat only accomplished by Oscar Robertson, who achieved those levels in the first eight seasons of his career.

***

I previously mentioned that the Cavs keep track of "hockey assists." A "hockey assist" is a pass that leads to a pass that is counted in the boxscore as an assist. Prior to the Detroit game, James led the team with 175 hockey assists, Ilgauskas ranked second with 97 and Daniel Gibson ranked third with 75. On a per minute basis, West leads the team with .06 hockey assists per minute, with James and Gibson just behind him. West, who joined the team after a midseason trade, has notched 46 hockey assists as a Cavalier.

***

During Cleveland Coach Mike Brown's pregame standup I asked him this question: "This season you are scoring about the same number of points that you did last year but you are giving up about three more points per game defensively. What do you think are the main reasons that the defense is not quite where it was last season?"

Coach Brown replied, "We spent a little bit more time on the offensive end of the floor, trying to tweak some things. We didn't pay as much attention to the defensive end of the floor. In a nutshell that is probably it. I could continue to tell you that our weakside (defense) was not as good, our pick and roll defense was not as good, we gave up too many middle drives this year--some technical things that we did not do as well."

The extra attention devoted to offense could explain why the defense slipped a little bit but one natural followup would be to ask why there was not a corresponding increase in offensive efficiency. However, I think that the obvious answer to that one is the roster instability caused by injuries and the big midseason trade, so instead I asked this followup question: "Going into the playoffs, is that emphasis going to switch because there will be fewer possessions each game?"

Coach Brown answered, "If you look at where we started defensively in the first couple months of the season and where we are now, I think that in the past couple months we have been emphasizing defense more and I think that we have gone from 20-something in both categories to around 10th in both categories now, in terms of opponents' field goal percentage and points allowed. So that is something that we have emphasized for a while but not at the beginning of the season."

Cleveland finished the season ranked ninth in ppg allowed and 11th in opponents' field goal percentage.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:18 AM

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2 Comments:

At Thursday, April 17, 2008 9:06:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I was expecting you to be a little upset at the teams' choice to rest their players to avoid injuries (as you were with some football teams this year).

I agree completely with your characterization of good players vs. role players. I think way too many people overlook the fact that most of the players on the Lakers who they are so impressed with nowadays can't create a shot to save their lives.

 
At Thursday, April 17, 2008 10:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I was not thrilled with the lineups that both teams put out there--and that game was just a horrid mess to watch, which is something that I rarely think or say about an NBA game--but I already said my piece on the subject of resting players when the issue reared its head during the football season. LeBron has been battling a back problem for weeks, so I can understand sitting him for a game. There is a big difference between resting a player for an entire game--like the Cavs did with LeBron and the Spurs recently did with Ginobili--and the Colts letting Reggie Wayne set a bunch of records and then "resting" him when he was not nursing an injury in the first place. That was what irritated me about the Colts--they were healthy enough to pursue records but not healthy enough to try to win the game and then they did not even use all of their timeouts at the end of the game. That was just bush league, no matter what Dungy or anyone else says about it.

I was surprised to see Ben Wallace out there, though, because he also has a back problem. The Pistons' starters looked disinterested and it will be interesting to see how well they ramp things up in the playoffs. In my opinion, the Pistons have underachieved--relative to the talent level on the squad--since Larry Brown departed.

David Aldridge recently wrote about resting players and how it rips off the ticket buyers. I suppose that I could have touched on the issue again in this post--or linked to Aldridge's article--but it was already lengthy anyway and I really wanted to emphasize the point about role players. Some people may say that I make everything about Kobe but anyone who actually carefully reads what I wrote will realize that I am referring to MVP-level players in general, which is why I mentioned Kobe, LeBron and CP3, the three leaders (in my opinion) in the MVP race this season. I often disagree with the way that their supporting casts are characterized and that was one of the main thoughts that I had while watching Jones struggling to get off a shot against Detroit's reserves.

 

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