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Monday, November 03, 2008

Will Iverson Provide a Championship Answer for Detroit?

Before this season began, did you believe that the Detroit Pistons had a very good chance to win the Eastern Conference? Did you think that the Denver Nuggets could even make the playoffs in the Western Conference, let alone advance past the first round? If you answered "yes" to either of those questions then you are apparently more optimistic than the general managers of those franchises: the 2008-09 season is not even a week old and those teams have agreed to swap All-Star guards, with Detroit sending 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb to Denver for 2001 regular season MVP Allen Iverson.

Iverson and Billups are obviously the headliners in this deal. As for McDyess, he is a former All-Star (2001) and All-NBA Third Team player (1999) but at this stage of his career he is a good but not great player; he was included in the deal primarily to make the financial numbers work (Iverson makes more than $10 million per year more than Billups so by NBA salary cap rules they cannot be traded straight up for each other). The middle portion of McDyess' career was wrecked by injuries but he played in all 82 games in 2006 and 2007 and only missed four games last year. He has developed an effective midrange jumper and is still a solid rebounder. He could potentially provide much needed frontcourt depth for Denver but it has been reported that he only wants to play for Detroit and will be seeking a buyout from the Nuggets; he could very well reach a settlement with Denver and end up right back in Detroit.

The Pistons are trying to squeeze out one more title with their veteran core while still retaining the ability to reload with young players without taking a huge step backwards; the Nuggets have finally realized that their mixture simply is not working and that they have to restructure their roster in order to be a viable Western Conference contender--but it is reasonable to wonder if this particular restructuring really represents a tangible improvement of the team's short term or long term prospects.

Coach Larry Brown led Detroit's core group of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton to an NBA title in 2004 and an NBA Finals appearance in 2005. Since Brown's departure after the 2005 season, the Pistons have made three straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances but have not returned to the NBA Finals. Ben Wallace signed with the Chicago Bulls after the 2006 campaign, leaving a hole in the middle of Detroit's interior defense that has yet to be filled. This summer, Joe Dumars replaced Coach Flip Saunders with assistant coach Michael Curry, so it is interesting that before Curry even had a chance to try to win a title with the remains of the 2004-05 core Dumars made such a drastic personnel change.

There are two primary reasons that the Pistons have not been back to the Finals:

(1) Flip Saunders is a very knowledgeable and solid NBA coach but he is not of the same caliber as Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who is the only coach to win an NCAA championship (Kansas, 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit, 2004). More importantly, Detroit's players never respected Saunders the way that they respected Brown, so in tight situations each player had a tendency to do what he thought was right instead of the whole group following Saunders' lead. Brown emphasized defense and "playing the right way," while Saunders emphasized his so-called "liberation offense" and did not demand as much from the players as Brown did.

(2) Detroit's defensive dominance depended to a great extent on having Ben Wallace lurking in the paint as a weakside shotblocker. Rasheed Wallace was a secondary shotblocker and having those two players patrolling the lane allowed Prince, Billups and Hamilton to play very aggressive perimeter defense. The absence of Ben Wallace had a chain reaction effect: Rasheed Wallace was now asked to do more defensively and then someone else had to step in to fill his previous role. The problem is that Rasheed Wallace is simply not as good at Ben Wallace's role as Ben Wallace was and none of Rasheed Wallace's replacements could fill his role, so the domino effect was a serious weakening of Detroit's defense. Did this show up in regular season numbers? Not necessarily, because the Pistons can beat a lot of teams in the NBA based on talent alone. However, in the playoffs against elite teams it became obvious that the Pistons were not as good as they had been in 2004 and 2005. LeBron James drove down the lane repeatedly in the 2007 playoffs versus Detroit without Ben Wallace present as a deterrent. The 2008 Boston Celtics dominated the Pistons in the paint in the Eastern Conference Finals. Is Detroit's goal to perform well in the regular season in a bunch of statistical metrics of defense or to be able to consistently get stops against elite teams in the playoffs?

A third, lesser problem for the Pistons is that the decline in their defense placed a bigger strain on their offense. The "liberation offense" was supposed to be the answer for that but throughout Saunders' tenure the Pistons went through key stretches in playoff games when they struggled to score or even get off good shots. Brown's Pistons may not have been an offensive juggernaut but they were a lot better defensively than Saunders' teams and when they really needed a score they could rely on Brown to call one of their precision offensive sets that they would execute very efficiently. Saunders gave his players the freedom to do what they wanted offensively but this just led to lack of discipline and poor execution.

It remains to be seen how much of an upgrade--if any--Coach Curry will be over Coach Saunders. McDyess started 78 games for the Pistons last year, so by shipping him out Dumars is showing great confidence that young big men like Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson are ready to be significant contributors. It is highly unlikely that the Pistons will be able to replicate the suffocating defense that they played when the two Wallaces guarded the paint.

So, what all of this means is that the Pistons are hoping that their defense will not slip any further and that Iverson's ability to create shots for himself and for his teammates will result in fewer offensive droughts come playoff time. Billups earned the nickname "Mr. Big Shot" during the Pistons' glory years but he seems to have slowed down a bit in recent seasons. He is a solid playmaker but not really someone who breaks down defenders off of the dribble. In contrast, Iverson is a dynamic offensive player who has not only averaged at least 26 ppg for the past 10 seasons but has also averaged 6.3 apg during his career, nearly a full assist per game more than Billups has averaged. Iverson is perceived as a ball hog but he is a skilled, creative passer and he has proven that he is willing to give up the ball--for example, in game seven of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals versus Toronto, Iverson had a playoff career-high 16 assists in an 88-87 Philadelphia victory. Earlier in that series, Iverson had several huge scoring games--including a pair of 50-plus point outbursts--but that game seven passing display showed that he is willing and able to make teams pay for double-teaming him. The Pistons have several players who are capable of making open shots, so down the stretch in games opposing teams will now have to choose between guarding Iverson one on one or trapping him and hoping that Iverson's teammates do not convert their open opportunities. Billups has never really been a player who has to be double-teamed--except maybe on the post in certain matchups--and that is one reason that the Pistons' offense has bogged down in crucial late moments of playoff games.

Iverson is more than a year older than Billups but Iverson "seems" younger and fresher. I have repeatedly said that Iverson is the most amazing athlete that I have ever seen in person--he is not the greatest basketball player I have ever seen but for someone who is very charitably listed at 6-0, 165 to be as productive as he has in the NBA is truly amazing. Iverson has led the NBA in mpg seven times, including a 41.8 mpg average last year. Only Wilt Chamberlain (nine times) has led the NBA in mpg more often than Iverson and Chamberlain was more than a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Iverson. Iverson's shot selection and shooting percentages offend both fans and "stat gurus" but he is durable, he is a productive scorer and passer and in 2001 he proved that he can be the best player on an NBA Finalist.

Chemistry and complacency are also factors here. In recent years, the Pistons have played as though they think that they are entitled to receiving a free pass back to the NBA Finals. Say what you will about Iverson but he competes and plays hard every night. Perhaps this shakeup will help the Pistons to regain the edge--and edginess--that they have been missing.

OK, you are thinking, that all sounds good but what if this doesn't work? What if the Pistons again fail to make it to the NBA Finals? Any time a trade is made it is important to consider the financial ramifications. Iverson is in the final year of his contract. That means that the Pistons will try to make one title run with this group but if this does not work out for whatever reason then they can let Iverson walk and thus gain a lot of salary cap flexibility; the Pistons could therefore potentially make a run at signing LeBron James and/or other free agents. The funny thing is that it seems like half the teams in the league are dreaming that they can make a run at LeBron James but Dumars understands that even if he cannot sign James he could still use the salary cap space to add a legitimate franchise player to build around.

I know that the "stat gurus" will love this deal for Denver; they consider Iverson to be vastly overrated and therefore will say that the Nuggets won this trade from a talent standpoint even if McDyess is cut loose. I admire and respect Billups' game and what he has accomplished in the NBA. He is a better one on one defender than Iverson and by virtue of his body type Billups can play a more physical game than Iverson--but Iverson is a more dynamic and explosive player and therefore a more difficult challenge for opposing teams to guard. While it is true that Iverson's departure will give Carmelo Anthony and other players more opportunities to shoot, it is not clear exactly how this will make Denver a significantly better team. Denver's problems largely reside at the defensive end of the court. Simply replacing Iverson with Billups will not make that much difference defensively, especially since the Nuggets previously lost the services of Marcus Camby. If Anthony can now challenge LeBron James for the scoring title and J.R. Smith increases his scoring average to 20 ppg will Denver be markedly improved?

It is not clear what exactly Denver's plan is. If the Nuggets had retained Iverson's services for one more year then they could have let him walk and received the same salary cap benefit that the Pistons now have the opportunity to get next summer. The Nuggets certainly are not going to win a title with Billups this year and they probably will not even make the playoffs. So what is the point of giving the Pistons the chance to acquire more salary cap space in exchange for receiving Billups' contract, which runs through 2011 with a team option for 2012? I don't understand how this trade either helps the Nuggets win now nor how it will help them build a team that can win in the future. Even if the Nuggets far exceed any reasonable expectations and win one playoff series this year, is that worth losing the salary cap flexibility that Iverson's expiring contract provided? The Nuggets need a bona fide young star to pair with Anthony and they need to develop a team-wide understanding of the importance of defense.

Both teams are taking a risk but that is true of any deal: players can always get hurt, lose motivation or not mesh with their new teammates. The upside for Detroit is the possibility that Iverson will add a new dynamic offensively that will enable the Pistons to return to the Finals; failing that, the team will now have the salary cap flexibility to add a young star. The risk/reward balance for Detroit is pretty good. The upside for Denver is the possbility that Billups' better man to man defense against point guards is worth a few wins and that the other players will be happier and more productive because they will inherit Iverson's shot attempts but even in the best case scenario it is hard to picture Denver advancing past the first round. So what happens after this year? The downside for Denver is that it is entirely possible that the team will not perform better at all or will not improve enough to even make the playoffs. The risk/reward balance for Denver is not very good at all.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:52 PM


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At Monday, November 03, 2008 8:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dave!
It's been a while. How was your offseason?

I love this trade for Detroit.
AI's defensive shortcomings will not be an issue. While he can be abused by the PGs in the west, he doesn't have nearly as much problems in the east.
Guards with shaky handles are vulnerable to AI's quick hands(Mo Williams).
East PGs with steady handles are often non-scorers (Miller, Rondo).
Solid PGs like Calderon and Arenas are a class below CP3, Nash, Parker, Williams, Kidd.
This trade would have made sense for the Nuggets if they had kept Camby. In Billups and Melo, they have 2 legitimate post threats, and while one of them posts up, there will always be elite shooters.
Billups' size and strength also boosts their perimeter defense. This trade goes in the opposite direction of the Camby trade.

I think the league should really do something about stupid trades for capspace deals. If you were a Nuggets season holder, how would you feel if your team gave away Camby for a second round pick? Ridiculous!
And that whole McDyess going back to Detroit thing just has to stop... Playing in the NBA is a privilege. No millionaire should whine about where he plays.


At Monday, November 03, 2008 8:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good article. We share very similar views on this trade.

It could either be good for Detroit or very good for Detroit, depending on how Iverson works out.

As for Denver, I don't get it. Why give away Camby when they're just gonna acquire Billups? If the former was a financial decision, then why do the latter?

At Monday, November 03, 2008 9:46:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I have to agree that Denver's reason for doing this trade is hard to figure. Personally I think Billups will make them a better team for 3 reasons:

1. He is a better defender than Iverson and that is the area the Nuggets are trying to get better at.
2. As a natural point guard he allows JR Smith to start at the 2 and Anthony Carter to come off the bench, thus creating a more balanced team.
3. His outside shooting (along with that of Smith) should create more space in the post for Carmelo, who will also benefit from Billups' pass-first approach.

With all that being said, those improvements - if they do take place - probably won't be enough to move the Nuggets up the pecking order in the murderer's row that is the Western conference, and certainly won't make them a title contender. Wasn't Camby traded because Stan Kroenke wasn't willing to pay big money for early playoff exits? This move seems at odds with that policy.

As for the Pistons, this seems like a win-win deal from their perspective. The best-case scenario is that AI proves to be the go-to guy that puts them over the top at long last. If he bombs, they let him and Rasheed Wallace walk and shave over $35M off their salary cap. Then they can chase a marquis free agent (Carlos Boozer?) or 2 and rebuild around their core of Stuckey, Hamilton, and Prince.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 1:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Good to hear from you. My offseason was good. I enjoyed watching the Olympics, particularly Team USA's basketball team winning the gold medal.

As I indicated in the post, I also like the deal for Detroit, even if the Pistons don't go any farther this season than they did last year; the salary cap space will be useful in that case.

Denver's moves don't make much sense, whether taken individually or looked at collectively.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 3:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


While it is true that Billups does some things better than Iverson does, it is also true that Iverson does some things better than Billups--namely create scoring opportunities off of the dribble for himself and his teammates. I'm not convinced that Billups' advantages over Iverson outweigh the disadvantages nor am I convinced that Denver will play better as a net result of those differences.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 3:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree. It will be interesting to see how Denver's management "spins" this deal to sell it to the public.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 5:27:00 AM, Anonymous JL said...

Having watched the Nuggets closely for the last 3 years, I can tell you that the biggest advantage to having Chauncey on the floor is his shooting. Denver's biggest problem - they don't have anyone that can break a zone defense. Last year the Nuggets struggled mightily against the zone - so much so that Iverson (a career 31% 3pt shooter) and Eduardo Najera were jacking up three pointers on a regular basis. By trading Iverson, JR Smith (an elite 3 point shooter) and now Chauncey Billups will be able to spread the floor and punish any zone defense.

There's also the reality that Carmelo must be doubled. If the Nuggets can move the ball, they will find an open man.

The defensive and leadership benefits are significant as well.

My guess is that the Nuggets make the playoffs this season behind the shooting and leadership of Chauncey Billups. As for the logic of dumping Camby...that's another matter.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 6:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


How often do you suppose that teams played zone defenses against Denver? NBA teams use zones as a change of pace or to defend against inbounds plays but no NBA team uses a zone as its primary defense. I agree that it is important to have players who can make outside shots but not to beat zone defenses.

The Nuggets ranked second in the league in scoring last season and sixth in overall field goal percentage. Yes, they only ranked 19th in three point shooting percentage but that hardly held them back from scoring. Last year, Iverson shot .345 from three point range, Najera shot .361 from three point range and Billups shot .401 from three point range (Billups shot .345 from three point range in 2007 and is a career .385 three point shooter).

I thought that the Nuggets should have been playing Iverson and Smith together all along; in my Lindy's preview about Denver last year I said that pairing Iverson with another small guard is not a good idea. So, Denver didn't have to trade Iverson to get Smith in the lineup; the Nuggets could have just put Smith in the lineup with Iverson.

Perhaps Denver will derive some leadership benefits but the loss of Camby outweighs any defensive benefits that Billups adds.

I didn't think that the Nuggets would make the playoffs before the trade and I still don't think that they will make the playoffs. What's worse, they are now not positioned as well to add players next offseason as they would have been if they had kept Iverson and let his contract expire.

I don't see how the addition of Billups will change how teams defend Melo. If anything, Iverson probably attracts more double teams than Billups, so it is possible that Melo will be double teamed more now, not less.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 7:23:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

I think that this trade makes the Nuggets a better team and a legitimate playoff candidate, as they now have a much more balanced team with a better distribution of roles.

However, I don't like this trade for Denver because it does not improve them significantly enough to compensate for the major hit they get salary-wise. As Dwyer wrote, after they re-sign Kleiza they are in luxury tax territory for a roster that does not make them contenders. They are essentially stuck.

The Pistons are anything but. They now have a chance to try something new (when it was clear that they had slipped behind Celtics and Cavs), and if it doesn't work it does not matter as they will have tons of cap space in the near future. A win-win situation.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 12:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - I think doing some four factors analysis could sharpen your anslysis.

The Nuggets did score a lot of points but they played at an extremely fast pace. Overall, they had only the 11th best offense in the league, and were actually better on defense as we discussed previously.

Yes, they were 6th in fg%. Much more importantly though, they were 9th in efg%, which accounts for three point shooting. They were just 21st in offensive rebounding, surprising with Camby on the team. And were second in ft/fga percentage a major source of efficiency. They were decent on turnovers, finishing ninth.

My take on this trade? Billups is a lot better than Iverson. A lot better. To go with WP48, Billups was over .300 last year, and Iverson was only at .134. Billups is three times better than the average point guard, while Iverson isn't that much above average for a shooting guard.

This trade improves Denver quite a bit. I don't think JR Smith is all that great, although I have him on a fantasy team, but he has shown the potential to be a much more efficient scorer than Iverson, having posted ts%'s of 58.5 and 60% in the last two years.

I agree the Nuggets would have been much better off if they had kept Camby. With Billups, Anthony, and Camby, they would have had the legitimate title shot that they thought Iverson would have provided. But it's still a good move basketball wise.

And for Detroit, it clears up a ton of cap space. I agree with the general verdict, good trade all around.


At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 12:42:00 PM, Anonymous JL said...

While you're right about the zone usually being a change-of-pace defense, the fact remains that teams would cheat off of Nuggets perimeter players in order to clog the paint (see both the Nuggets/Spurs playoff series). This would cause Melo to move his game outside (where he's less efficient), and it would often lead to poor shot selection. My example was intended to illustrate the Nuggets outside shooting issues. Still, the zone came up quite a bit when Denver played A.I., Carter, Melo, Camby, and K-Mart. That's four out of 5 players not known for their shooting. Did you watch all the games too? :-)

I disagree that Denver could have played A.I. and J.R. side by side. JR isn't a capable enough ball handler - when he's pressured he shoots. Iverson plays better without the ball. Besides, neither of them defends. Karl chose to play Anthony Carter alongside A.I. most of the year and I think it was the best choice.

Your point about Camby and the Nuggets defense is irrelevant - he was gone before this trade was made. Those are two separate issues. The fact is, with Iverson gone and Billups in charge, Denver's defense is better now than it was 3 days ago. In terms of playoffs, the Nuggets lack of perimeter defense has been their undoing. Camby's abilities to block shots never made up for A.I. and Melo and their inability to play on the ball defense. Adding Billups will likely alleviate some of that problem.

Your final point about Iverson drawing more double teams than Billups is most certainly true, but not at all relevant. Iverson's double teams usually didn't come until he was within 18-20' of the basket. Considering that Melo is most efficient in roughly the same space, it wasn't hard for A.I.'s defenders to rotate to Melo when the ball moved. Now, when Melo is doubled (or tripled), J.R. and Chauncey can both make defenses pay. Melo is still going to be doubled like he was last season, but this year San Antonio won't be able to dare Denver's 1 and 2 guards to take outside shots.

There's one other defensive benefit - moving A.I. will lead to more time for Dahntay Jones at the 2 spot. He's not going to set the world on fire, but his ability to get to the rim combined with his tough defense will be a boost. Anthony Carter and Billups will also be paired up at times, with Carter defending the point (something he does well). This move is a big improvement in terms of perimeter defense.

I still say playoffs, but in the West it's anyone's guess.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 3:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Perhaps there will be a "better distribution of roles" if Karl elects to start Smith alongside Billups but he could have started Smith alongside Iverson--and if Smith starts then the Nuggets lose some bench firepower; most of the better teams like to have some scoring punch coming off of the bench.

I don't think that the Nuggets will make the playoffs but even if they do, so what? They will be an eighth seed and get bounced in the first round. That is not a good enough reason to give up the salary cap flexibility of Iverson's expiring contract.

I agree that the deal is a "win-win" for Detroit.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 5:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Of course, I did not watch all of Denver's games--I am covering the entire league, not just one team. However, I have seen all of their playoff games and many of their regular season games.

As I previously said, I never agreed with playing Carter and Iverson together.

Granted, K-Mart is not a great shooter but most teams do not rely on their power forward to make jump shots. Camby--who obviously is no longer on the team--is a reliable shooter from the top of the key.

The problem with the Nuggets on offense was not so much a lack of shooters as a lack of ball movement. There is no law that says that a player can only shoot three pointers or layups; if the ball is reversed crisply, then someone will be open and that player can eschew the three pointer, take an escape dribble or two and shoot a shot that is within his range.

My point about Camby is certainly relevant--what is the Nuggets' plan? Getting rid of Camby implies cost cutting/rebuilding but getting rid of Iverson's expiring contract hinders the rebuilding process (though it does cut costs in the short term). It would make more basketball sense to bring in Billups if the team had retained Camby; then there would be the makings of a defensive lineup. Billups alone will not even make up for Camby's absence, let alone transform the entire team's defense.

The reason that it was not hard for teams to defend Iverson and Melo is because of the lack of ball movement that I described above. Of course, with Billups taking fewer shots than Iverson did Melo will likely increase his FGAs but we'll have to see if that leads to an increase in his FG%.

Somehow, I doubt that this deal was made with the idea of freeing up minutes for Dahntay Jones; if he is playing more than 10-15 mpg then Denver definitely is not a playoff caliber team.

I will be surprised if Denver makes the playoffs in the West; they will need for some of the teams that are in front of them to experience some serious injury problems.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 5:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Do you believe that you and/or the numbers you are citing have a better understanding of Denver's strengths/weaknesses than Coach George Karl does? Actually, I suppose you probably do believe that. Coach Karl has repeatedly said that his primary focus this season in training camp was to improve his team's defensive execution.

How does being 9th in efg% make the case that Denver is not a good offensive team? Isn't ninth out of 30 teams pretty good, particularly for a team that did not make the playoffs?

I clearly indicated in the post that I realize that most "stat gurus" value Billups far more than Iverson and will therefore deem this to be a very good deal for Denver. We'll see how this plays out on the court and, just as importantly, we'll see where these franchises are in two to three years once the financial ramifications of the trade play out; that is the aspect that the "stat gurus" are ignoring: this deal puts Detroit in a much better salary cap position next summer.

Smith is a talented player but he is also an immature head case whose on court performance often falls short of his potential.

Melo, Billups and Camby is hardly a championship contending nucleus but would have been better than what the Nuggets have now; Nene is a solid player when healthy but the Nuggets have little frontcourt depth now.

This is a good deal for Detroit but it is difficult to see what Denver has gained.

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 8:11:00 PM, Anonymous Fj-3 (Philippines) said...

As always, great article. You're some sort of genius at this, ESPN, FOX Sports, or any major sports network or site should seriously pick you up by now. I've been an avid reader for long now and I can't say enough about how I can get the best commentaries and analysis this side of espn.

You sweep us away, and this was exactly the breakdown I was looking for and you covered enough about the things I thought and not thought about this trade and as you are, you stayed reasonable enough to step back and recognize the imperfections in your arguments. Thanks again for the nice read, for free! =)

At Tuesday, November 04, 2008 8:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for your kind words.

Wouldn't it be something if my analysis were published on a large enough platform that a wide audience could readily compare it to what is published at the sites you mentioned? The growing audience that regularly reads 20 Second Timeout understands that this site provides unique content; you probably have noticed that even the comments section here often contains better content than the articles at some of the big sites!

I know that I could drive traffic to the first "big box" site that regularly picks up my work and away from that site's competitors but my opinion about that is irrelevant until at least one editor at one of those sites has enough vision to realize this.

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 2:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do sometimes wonder if George Karl understands offensive and defensive efficiency. He should, since he went to North Carolina. Berri had a long post addressing just that question.

My point would be that the Nuggets were not a top 10 offensive team, which they would have been if they were 6th in efg. I have made the point before and we had a long argument about it, but the Nuggets were better on defense than offense last year.

However, I am not surprised that Karl has the Nugs focused on defense. With Camby gone, they are going to have to work hard at it.

I don't know what the thinking of the Denver management is. Perhaps they looked at the class of 09 and figured they were better off paying Billups. I doubt, even at his age, they will be able to find a player of his caliber in free agency next year. The bottom line is that when you are paying one of the most productive point guards in the nba 11 million or whatever it is, you aren't making a big mistake.

I don't think any stat guru would disagree that this is a good trade for the Pistons. But there is value in actually have a winning team also, which I think is one of the things the Nuggets are mindful of.

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 5:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous (Owen, I presume):

I suppose we will simply have to agree to disagree about the relative strength of Denver's offense and defense. I think that an assessment offered last season by Kenny Smith is closest to the truth: the Nuggets played selfishly at both ends of the court, not sharing the ball on offense and not helping each other out on defense. Their inefficiencies at one end of the court affected their performance at the other end of the court: bad shots lead to poor court balance and a lack of defensive stops makes it harder to get easy baskets (particularly against the top teams).

The Pistons are presumably looking at letting Iverson go after one year--unless they win the title--and using the salary cap space to pursue Chris Bosh or even LeBron James. Would you rather have Billups than either of those guys? I have no way of knowing whether Detroit and/or Denver could truly lure those guys just by creating the requisite cap space but I am not impressed by what the Nuggets will be able to accomplish with a Melo-Billups-Nene-Smith nucleus. Maybe there is some secret part of Denver's plan that has yet to be revealed but it will have to be awfully good to make all of this make sense.

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 12:42:00 PM, Blogger DowJones said...

hey Dave, nice to see your analysis of this trade. Most of my concerns have already been mentioned in other people's comments, however there's one point which I would respectfully disagree with your analysis.

You mentioned that the billups trade does nothing to help the denver in terms of getting them out of salary hell...however the billups trade combined with the McDyess buyout (or waiving of some minor players) should put the nuggets out of luxury tax territory or at least reduce their luxury tax. The Denver Owner's stated goal, from the beginning of the season, has always been to get under the luxury tax NOT not field a competitive team. Furthermore, your analysis mentioned that denver, with iverson's contract coming off the book, would be able to make a splash in the FA market. I believe that assumption is completely wrong seeing how even without iverson, the nuggets will still be over the salary cap and thus can only use their MLE and their massive trade exception--neither of which would likely net them a better player than billups. Therefore, instead of losing iverson to nothing and knowing that iverson was NOT working out in denver, the nugget brass did probably the most sensible thing by unloading him for a better fit for their system and the best pg available on the market while at the same time saving the owner money without sacrificing their short term future of getting into the playoffs (the next 2 years, since the 4th yr is team option, billups is effectively an expiring contract in when he enters his 3rd yr).

Finally, the only reason AI's expiring is so enticing for detriot is because of the fact that rasheed is also coming off the books at the end of the season. If the pistons does not make it out of the east this season i would garansheed that neither will be resigned and that's the only way the pistons will have 20 mil+ in cap space.

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 1:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is a great trade for Detroit, no question, unless they do something really dumb and resign Iverson.

Here is my point re Denver. Even with Iverson coming off the books, they wouldn't have had enough cap space available to sign anything more than an MLE next year. That at least is what my cap guru friend tells me. That is how far they are over the cap.

Which puts things in a new light, right?

The Nuggets aren't getting screwed by the Billups contract. There is no opportunity cost here. They were getting screwed by the crazy contracts they have on Nene and K-Mart, and the max contract on Carmelo that really doesn't represent value. The Billups contract doesn't change anything really. It's more of an acceptance of facts as they are on the ground.

in 2010, they still wouldn't have had the cap space to compete for one of the major free agents. They only will have the money available in 2011, when the Billups contract rolls off.

That at least is my understanding of it. The Nuggets made their peace with their cap problems and did a deal which makes them as competitive as possible for the next few years. Basically, they said, since we can't sign a player who makes us a championship contender in the next two years anyway, let's try to win as many games as we can and put a product out on the court that our fans can be proud of.

Who knows, maybe some of the 2010 free agents don't opt out and the Nuggets can scoop them up in 2011.


At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 4:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dow Jones:

Upon further review, you are correct that if Denver had kept Iverson the Nuggets would still not have the same salary cap flexibility that Detroit will now enjoy because Denver is already over the salary cap; as you said, next year the Pistons can also take Sheed off of the books, while the Nuggets do not have another large expiring contract so even if they had kept Iverson they would not be able to create as much cap space as Detroit can.

So, it is correct to say that in a short term sense the Nuggets have somewhat improved their financial situation. However, it is still not clear what their plan is to actually build a legit contender. I don't think that they will even make the playoffs with their current roster.

Instead of acquiring a declining Billups who will be on the payroll for several more years I think that they would have been better off to keep Iverson and then get his contract off the books or else trade him for some younger assets. In the East, Denver might be a decent playoff team but in the West the Lakers, Hornets, Rockets, Jazz, Mavs, Suns and Spurs (when healthy) are clearly better and I think that Portland is better as well.

We do completely agree that Denver is primarily considering short term financial issues and not trying to build the best possible team.

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 5:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I indicated in my response to Dow Jones, upon further review your cap guru friend is correct.

You are also right that their previous contract mistakes have played a major role in creating Denver's current mess.

What does not make sense to me is that the owner knew that he was going over the cap when he originally signed all of those deals. If he did not want to be over the cap then he shouldn't have paid out so much money to all of those players. Now that he has suddenly decided to watch his pennies the Nuggets have no realistic chance to contend for the next few years and will most likely struggle even to make the playoffs. He may be happy to save money but I doubt that the fans are thrilled and I'm certain that the coach does not like this too much--Coach Karl will likely not still be on the job by the time Denver has a chance to contend for a title.

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 6:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What does not make sense to me is that the owner knew that he was going over the cap when he originally signed all of those deals."

Yeah, well, Stan Kroenke is in real estate. It's very possible he had a change of heart on these matters recently.

Perhaps if I weren't a Knicks fan, those kind of brutal blunders (KMart, Nene) would be more surprising. But it makes perfect sense based on my experience with the NBA. :-)


At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 10:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I guess everything comes back to the economy sooner or later...

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 10:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Also, just for the record, I would have never signed K-Mart or Nene to such bloated deals. I don't think that one needs to use stat analysis to figure out that both players are grossly overpaid.

The Iverson-Billups deal may make some sense financially for Denver in light of their other errors but my main point in the post is that I do not understand Denver's overall plan in terms of putting together a strong team. Frankly, there does not seem to be such a plan. Perhaps Kroenke is just trying to soften the blow from his financial losses in other areas.

At Wednesday, November 05, 2008 10:49:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

David, I love the site and I agree with most of your analysis on this trade and on "stat gurus" usefulness (or lack thereof) to basketball, but this following argument drove me a little crazy:

"Do you believe that you and/or the numbers you are citing have a better understanding of Denver's strengths/weaknesses than Coach George Karl does?"

10 or 15 years ago, the same derision could have been directed at Bill James (some hick from Kansas) or Billy Beane (washed up ex-player) offering their views about MLB teams' player decisions. But obviously James & Bean knew what they were doing, and most likely *did* know more about those teams' players than did certain managers.

That said, having long read your side, I understand your statement there within the larger context of your argument against over-reliance on stat heads. Baseball lends itself to repeated 1 v 1 interactions with a closed set of outcomes (ball or strike; hit, walk, out, etc etc) that can be mathematically analyzed and evaluated with ease. Basketball statistics occur in a very different, fluid 5v5 environment. Further, as you documented, certain stats (assists) are often incorrectly awarded. Likewise, true "value added" actions (like a "hockey" assist, the key pass leading to the final pass to the scorer, or good off the ball movement or screen-setting, or pressure defense/shoot-alteration short of a block, etc) go entirely uncalculated. But coaches, who see their players day in, day out in practice, can definitely evaluate these kinds of less-measurable attributes.

Anyhow, I am, as I believe you are too, a fan of analysis mixing observation with stats (and I love SABRmetrics in baseball), and I thought the nature of your argument to Owen deserved a bit more expansion/clarification, lest it unduly alienate other mixed-analysis folks.

Keep up the good work!

At Thursday, November 06, 2008 5:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your "expansion/clarification" of my comment to Owen is right on the money. I would not have questioned Bill James or Beane then or now because they are analyzing, as you put it, "repeated 1 v 1 interactions with a closed set of outcomes." It should be obvious that there is great value to charting such actions and looking for patterns. Even the old school managers used to do this on a much less sophisticated level (looking at matchups between certain pitchers and hitters, etc.) but James et. al took this to a whole new level of sophistication.

However, basketball is a much more complex sport to quantify than baseball. I don't think that George Karl is perfect or that he is even the best coach in the NBA but he has won close to 900 regular season NBA games so he deserves a certain degree of respect; at the very least, I think he knows whether his team is better offensively or defensively--and regardless of how anybody puts certain numbers together, the reality is that last year Denver was better offensively than defensively, although the Nuggets were flawed at both ends of the court.

As you surmised, I am a proponent of what you called "mixed-analysis"--combining informed observations with stats.

It should be noted that Owen is a proponent of David Berri's Wages of Wins approach; the accuracy of that approach is questioned by many other "stats gurus." One of Berri's fundamental beliefs is not only is it not necessary to watch basketball games to understand them but in some ways watching the games hinders understanding. Dean Oliver, Hollinger, Rosenbaum and Roland Beech do not believe that, nor do I. Occasionally, Berri and I reach the same conclusions by coincidence but because Berri has full faith in his numbers--and only his numbers, not anyone else's--but no faith in observation he often comes up with bizarre, even laughable conclusions, such as Andrew Bynum being more valuable to the Lakers than Kobe Bryant or Dennis Rodman being more productive per 48 minutes than Michael Jordan.

At Thursday, November 06, 2008 4:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - I watch the games. DB watches the games, (although less so these days since he is writing his second book.) I spent an hour poring over Knicks tape trying to understand why my man DLee has struggled so badly in the last two games.

You, maybe even more than me, are a fundamentalist on the stat issue. I worry it might hold you back in your promising career as a sports journalist. I have league pass, I watch a ton of games. And I have noticed you hear a lot of commentators incorporating "stat guru" thinking. It's a big change when you have a commentator noting that it was a "great night from Kevin Martin, who has scored 32 points on just 18 shots." People are definitely coming around to the view that efficiency counts for a great deal in basketball. You hear people quoting per minute statistics, you hear people talking about how amazing it is that Lebron has hit 28-31 fts in the last two games.

Which of course is an issue you highlighted recently, you were definitely on the ball with that.

To me, you could take things to the next level by mixing both the fine grained analysis that 20 Second readers know and love ( i.e. a description of watching Lebron practice his ft's) with a touch of stats. Obviously, you have your style. What I am talking about is simply a complement that could strengthen your analysis. In the piece on Lebron. Like saying for instance, that if Lebron had hit 81.5% of his free throws last year, his ts% would have jumped from 54.6% last year to 59%, a huge improvement. Maybe its just me but that to me would strengthen your analysis without compromising the strengths of your writing in the slightest, which is getting at the details of how those stats are produced in the first place.

Also, re the Nuggets, you should understand that when you say that the Nuggets were better offensively than defensively last year, it's not just Berri you are arguing with. It's Pelton, Oliver, Hollinger and Beech. They would all disagree with you. Keep in mind that there really is no controversy about statistics at the team level amongst the major thinkers in basketball statistics. Everyone believes offensive and defensive efficiency are the most useful analytical tools, everyone agrees that ts% is the most important raw summary statistic, everyone agrees that four factor analysis tells you what is going on with a team better than just "looking."

It's only when you translate things to the individual level and try to divide credit amongst players that things get complicated amongst the stat gurus.

Honestly, I can respect that you don't think stats don't paint a very accurate picture of an individual player's worth. That's fair enough, although obviously I don't agree. But I wouldn't paint yourself into a corner as being against advanced team level statistics. Obviously, your bread and butter is something completely different, it's a fine grained approach where you tease out the little details, as opposed to a 20,000 foot statistical approach. But using the latter selectively could help you round out your style.

I think Kelly Dwyer is doing some interesting things with this actually, his Behind the Box Score is using the insights of advanced statistics without being too heavyhanded, and there is no Wins Produced in sight.


At Thursday, November 06, 2008 5:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My point does not concern how many games you or Berri watch; I disagree with the fundamental premise that watching games is a hindrance to understanding them and I don't see how much truth can come out of a thought process that begins with such a faulty premise.

I often mention efficiency in my posts, indicating how many shots it took for a player to amass his point total. I don't consider myself some kind of "fundamentalist" on the issue of stat analysis. I simply disagree with the premise that crunching numbers is superior to watching games with an intelligent eye (the latter phrase is important; watching a game is not the same as watching a game with an understanding of what each team and each player is trying to do and what each team/player actually did).

I suppose that I could include a numerical description of exactly how many points LeBron potentially costs his team by shooting roughly .700 from the FT line instead of .800 or better but my take has more to do with how this skill set weakness impacts how elite teams guard LeBron. There are a lot of people and websites that are crunching numbers but no one is providing the kind of analysis that I am providing. I think my readers are more interested in understanding how LeBron's poor free throw shooting affects the other team's defensive strategies--and what may be technically wrong with his ft stroke--then knowing precisely how many points LeBron may have cost his team or what his true shooting percentage would be if he shot a higher free throw percentage.

If the numbers say that Denver was better defensively than offensively but Denver's coach and most basketball analysts think otherwise then where does that leave us? It is possible that the coach and the analysts know nothing about basketball. It is possible that the numbers are flawed in some way. It is possible that the numbers have to be reinterpreted in a larger context. I vote for the third conclusion. As I indicated in our previous discussion, the Nuggets ran up some impressive looking margins of victory against poor teams. What interests me is how Denver performed against the better teams. What I saw when I watched Denver last year was a team that had an indifferent attitude toward defense and a lot of players who were out of position. Melo is a horrible defender and he sets the tone for the team. For stat analysis to be useful and meaningful it has to provide information that either enlightens the public and/or helps a team's management improve their team. Saying that Denver was better defensively than offensively last year is not enlightening nor would that conclusion be particularly helpful to Denver's management.

At Thursday, November 06, 2008 6:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alright, leave Lebron's foul shooting to the statheads. I am going to try to write a post on that in a bit.

I understand that what interests you, is different. If Lebron were to shoot 80%+ for the next 20 games, it would probably be more important to you how that forces opposing teams to adjust by fouling less. To me, that is definitely less important than the fact his team would be scoring 1 point more per game and become much harder to beat at the end of games. Basketball statistics are different from baseball statistics, somewhat. But ft% is a baseball statistic, it's totally independent and only depends on the player, not on his teammates.

To be perfectly honest, if Lebron could shoot 83.5% from the line like MJ, that would vault him into the ranks of the all-time elite players. It's pretty much the only thing holding him back.

That is antithetical to the way you look at things I know. But basketball is both art and science. The numbers count, especially the foul shooting numbers. To put it your way, for a high usage player, its one of the most important skill sets you can have, much more important than the ability to hit a mid range jumper. I will take a PF who can draw a foul and who can shoot 82% from the line any day over a guy who shoots 65% but can stretch the floor with a fairly accurate 16 footer.

As for watching the games, look, no one can watch all the games. No one can even watch all of one game. I watch every Knicks game, and try to watch as many as I can, but last night was a nightmare, with 8 games going on at once.

Stats are there to tell you what happened when you weren't watching, and they are on average a very accurate record of what happened.

And just one thought. You always talk about incorrectly credited assists and hockey assists. Think about how often a point guard makes a dazzling pass, only to see the other player get fouled before scoring. No assist.

See, look at me, another arrow for your quiver....

At Friday, November 07, 2008 6:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous (Owen, I presume):

I have written an article that will be published soon that compares LeBron's free throw shooting to that of other high flying, well rounded players through the years. I'm not sure if the article addresses the factors that interest/concern you (the article was written and submitted before we began this exchange).

I agree with you that FT% is a baseball-like statistic. You may also recall that I have frequently cited Rick Barry's contention that FT% is the only legit stat; he insists that every other stat either can be manipulated in some way or is deceptive in some fashion (I've addressed the manipulation of assists and similar problems take place with rebounds, blocked shots and steals; Barry does not trust FG% because it does not indicate a player's shooting range).

I agree with you that if LeBron improved his FT% to above .800 that it would vault his entire game to another level. As I have said repeatedly, the main reason that I still rate Kobe ahead of LeBron is Kobe's superiority as a shooter (FT + midrange + three pointers, with FT and midrange being the most significant).

I agree that stats can be useful and you surely notice that I reference a lot of stats in my articles--but I use stats to buttress or support a point, not as definitive or sole proof.

As for dazzling passes that don't become assists because the recipient messes up, that problem plagued Pistol Pete for a significant part of his career. It also happened to Kobe during the dark Kwame/Smush days, until Jackson finally said to Kobe to stop passing so much and start scoring 40+ points so that the Lakers would at least have a shot to win some games. Assists are a tool for evaluating passing ability but they don't tell the whole story. What impresses me about the passing ability of players like LeBron, Paul, Nash, T-Mac and Kobe is not their assist totals but the fact that those guys can all make various kinds of passes under tremendous duress. Van Gundy repeatedly emphasizes that T-Mac is one of the best passers in the league and during last year's playoffs Hubie Brown talked about Kobe's passing ability and how great he is as a decision maker. It is not necessary to see every minute of every game that a player plays to learn about these nuances; you have to watch a lot of games with understanding over a period of time and you also have to consider what informed observers (like JVG, Hubie, etc.) think, either by listening to them on TV or, if one is fortunate enough, talking to them in person.


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