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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Southwest Division Blogger Previews

On October 6, I posted links to the first batch of blogger team previews: the Atlantic Division. Here is part two, consisting of previews of the Southwest Division:

Dallas Mavericks
Jake Kerr: Mavs Moneyball

Houston Rockets
grungedave and UofTOrange: The Dream Shake

Memphis Grizzlies
Joshua Coleman: 3 Shades of Blue

New Orleans Hornets
Rohan: At the Hive
ticktock6 & mW: Hornets Hype
Ryan Schwan & Ron Hitley: Hornets247.com

San Antonio Spurs
Graydon Gordian: 48 Minutes of Hell

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:40 PM


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Phil Jackson on Lamar Odom: "He's Not Playing Basketball"

Am I overreacting by suggesting that the biggest issue facing the L.A. Lakers this season is finding the proper role for Lamar Odom? Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson is less than thrilled with what he has seen from Odom thus far:

"I just got through telling him that this is really basketball now. He looks like he's either curling or doing some other kind of sport. He's not playing basketball. The first shot he took (in the first preseason game, a 99-90 loss to the Jazz) was a three-pointer in the middle of the third quarter? That was pretty interesting."

Jackson also hinted that the experiment of having Odom handling the ball out front instead of Kobe Bryant or Derek Fisher--a disaster in the making--may mercifully be over.

Assistant Coach Kurt Rambis, who was the acting Coach during the preseason game, said that Odom's performance was "fair to middling, maybe poor" and added that Odom "didn't seem focused out there." Rambis also noted that even if Odom does OK on the offensive end of the court there is also the issue of him being able to defend smaller, quicker wing players.

As I said in June, moving Odom to a wing position is not going to work. Assuming that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are healthy and productive they will start at power forward and center respectively and Odom will have to come off of the bench. If he cannot handle that mentally or perform up to his usual standards while not being a starter and having his minutes reduced somewhat then the Lakers will have to seriously look at trading him, preferably for a legitimate starting small forward.

The complicating factor in all of this is that the Lakers still have to determine for sure exactly what they have in Bynum. There are still reasons to be concerned about his conditioning and he has yet to prove that he can play at a high level for a full season--that does not mean that I don't think that he can do so but he still has to prove that he can. The Lakers don't want to trade Odom for a small forward and then have Bynum come up with an injury or go through a slump.

Meanwhile, though, with Bynum, Gasol and Odom all currently healthy and available, Jackson faces the delicate, awkward task of putting together the most effective player rotation while at the same time not turning Odom--who is in a contract year and does not want to come off of the bench--into a disgruntled distraction. Make no mistake, the Odom situation is the number one concern for the Lakers right now. The coaching staff realizes this, even if many analysts, fans and casual observers do not.

Can the Lakers still win 55-60 games even if this situation festers throughout the season? Yes, they can, because they have the best player in the NBA and the best coach, plus they have a very good second option in Gasol. However, if this problem is not resolved during the season it could be their undoing in the playoffs, when the importance of every game and every possession becomes heightened. Just think back to the 2000-01 Portland Trail Blazers; they did not have an MVP-caliber player like Bryant but 1-12 their roster was deeper and more talented than the current Lakers' roster is. In fact, their roster was too deep and it was overstocked at certain positions, particularly power forward. The front office foolishly accentuated that problem by acquiring yet another forward--Detlef Schrempf--down the stretch, a move that merely exacerbated the problem of allocating minutes so that everyone would be happy while at the same time not disrupting the team's rhythm on the court. The year before, the Blazers came within one bad fourth quarter of making it to the NBA Finals but in 2001--after starting out 27-10, including a 10 game winning streak--they faded badly down the stretch and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers' current problem with Odom is not nearly as severe--and the Lakers do not have as many head cases as the Blazers did--but the Lakers do need to get everyone settled into their roles well before the stretch drive of the regular season and certainly before the playoffs begin.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 PM


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Jazz Outlast Lakers 99-90 in Andrew Bynum's Return to Action

The Utah Jazz defeated the L.A Lakers 99-90 in the preseason opener for both teams. The game was played at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California and broadcast by NBA TV, which picked up the local L.A. Lakers feed featuring play by play announcer Joel Meyers and color commentator Stu Lantz (due to some kind of unexplained glitch, the only audio for the first couple minutes of the game consisted of the sounds on the court and P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter). Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap led the Jazz with 13 points each, while Deron Williams had 11 points and a game-high eight assists. Andrew Bynum, playing competitively for the first time since January, led both teams with 15 points and eight rebounds. Jordan Farmar also scored 15 points. Kobe Bryant had eight points, five rebounds and five assists while playing 24 minutes; he played the entire first and third quarters while sitting out the second and fourth quarters. Trevor Ariza played very actively at both ends of the court, contributing 10 points and five rebounds.

The Lakers moved Lamar Odom all over the court as they begin the season-long process of trying to find the proper role for him now that Bynum has returned to health but the only category Odom led the Lakers in was fouls committed (five). Odom finished with five points, five rebounds and three assists. The vision of him handling the ball at the top of the key instead of Bryant or Derek Fisher cannot be comforting to Lakers' fans but even more disconcerting is the vision of him chasing small forward shooters like Kyle Korver off of screens. Odom's best attribute is his ability to rebound and that was the one thing that he did well despite being shifted around to multiple positions. Pau Gasol got off to a good start--making his first three shots from the field--but after a hack by Mehmet Okur opened up a cut in Gasol's lip he left the game and did not return.

Both teams were shorthanded. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was not at the game due to some swelling in his legs, possibly caused by an allergic reaction to medication that he is taking. It is unclear when he will return to the bench. Jazz All-Star Carlos Boozer sat out to rest a sore left hamstring and Matt Harpring did not play because he is still recovering from ankle surgery. Laker reserves Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton did not play due to minor injuries that will not likely sideline them for a significant period of time.

Although it is widely expected that Bynum and Gasol will both start, Bynum began this game on the bench as the Lakers opened with a lineup of Gasol, Odom and Trevor Ariza up front, with Bryant and Fisher in the backcourt. Nominally, Odom is the power forward in that lineup but on the Lakers' first possession, Odom handled the ball out front, while Bryant posted on the left block. After Bryant was double-teamed, he fed Gasol, who buried an open jumper from the right baseline.

On defense, Odom guarded center Okur, Gasol checked power forward Millsap and Trevor Ariza matched up with small forward C.J. Miles. Odom picked up two quick fouls--a silly loose ball foul right after he was stripped of the ball on a drive and a hack when Millsap drove to the hoop. Acting Head Coach Kurt Rambis kept Odom in the game anyway. The score was tied at 10 when Bynum made his first appearance at the 6:55 mark after Gasol had to leave the game due to the blood rule. The first time he touched the ball, Bynum drained a foul line jumper. Bynum's second touch came after he set a screen for Bryant on the left wing and both defenders collapsed on Bryant, who whipped a pass to a cutting Bynum. Bynum took one dribble and tried to make a power move but Okur swatted his shot out of bounds. Not long after that, Bynum caught the ball on the left block versus Okur and drained a nice turnaround jumper. Then Bynum received the ball from Bryant in the middle of the lane, hit another turnaround jumper and drew a foul on Millsap. Bynum completed the three point play by making the free throw.

Shortly after that, Vladimir Radmanovic checked in for Odom and promptly ruined an opportunity for an easy layup by fumbling a Bryant pass out of bounds. The ball hit him in both hands. Bryant put some pace on it but, as Lantz said, "You've got to catch that one." A few possessions later, Bynum got his first dunk of the game after Fisher lost the ball, dove to the court, recovered possession and flipped a no look lob pass over his head to Bynum right in front of the rim.

The Lakers shot 75% from the field and led 26-19 at the end of the first quarter despite committing nine turnovers. Bynum scored nine points on 4-6 shooting and had four rebounds. Bryant did not look for his shot much but made his presence felt as a playmaker (four assists) and on defense, including a sensational left handed blocked shot that wiped out a sure layup for Jarron Collins.

It was very interesting and telling to see Bynum posting up in the second quarter when Bryant was not in the game. Without Bryant attracting defensive attention, perimeter defenders feel free to sag into the paint and dig for the ball. Bynum does not have sufficient court awareness to deal with this just yet, so the first time this happened he had the ball stripped right out of his hands. The next time Bynum caught the ball on the block, he reacted to the double-team by hastily throwing up a weak shot that clanged off of the rim. Bynum is a talented player with a lot of the proverbial upside but what many people don't recognize or understand is that when he is on the court with Bryant he gets to play one on one--or often one on none after a screen/roll play--and that is a whole different scenario than having to create his own shot when the defense does not have to be concerned about Bryant.

After a sloppy second quarter contested largely by reserve players from both teams, the Lakers led 42-40 at halftime.

Bryant gambled for a steal and gave up a backdoor layup to Brewer on the opening possession of the second half but then Bryant quickly answered with a jumper after using a nice jab step to create some space. The Lakers' court balance and transition defense were very poor in the third quarter, resulting in a lot of fast break dunks for the Jazz.

Lantz really liked Ariza's activity and early in the third quarter Lantz made an excellent observation: "Kobe looks for his teammates but you can only look for teammates who are moving without the ball. Trevor Ariza is always slashing, trying to get to the paint. You make that kind of movement and you are going to find yourself in position to get easy opportunities."

Bynum did not do much in the third quarter but on one possession he faced up Okur at the free throw line extended and made a nice drive, finishing strongly with his left hand, to put the Lakers up 57-56. However, the Jazz closed the quarter with a 20-12 run.

Like the second quarter, the fourth quarter was largely contested by reserve players from both teams. Bynum reentered the game with 5:51 remaining. He immediately caught the ball deep in the paint and made a left handed hook over Kevin Lyde, a 28 year old undrafted free agent rookie who has played four seasons in the NBDL. However, on the next possession we once again saw the difference in Bynum's game when Bryant is not on the court: Bynum caught the ball in the midpost area and was stripped of the ball by a guard (Ronnie Price) digging down. "That one's on Andrew," Lantz explained. "He made a commitment to that particular move without reading the defense first, reading where the weakside was, reading if a double-team was coming." Lantz could have added that when Bryant is in the game, such reads are much simpler because the double-team is likely not coming at all, so Bynum can simply go to work against his defender.

Anyone who thinks that Bynum is a franchise-level player right now simply does not understand the game; he may develop into such a player but thus far in Bynum's brief career a lot of his offensive production has come as a byproduct of the defensive attention that Bryant attracts. That is not a bad thing nor is stating this meant to be a criticism of Bynum; at least Bynum can take advantage of such situations, unlike Kwame Brown. Rather, this is a criticism of fans and "stat gurus" alike who overstate Bynum's value. There is a big difference between Bynum's potential and his value right now--right now, Bynum is valuable for his rebounding, shotblocking and ability to finish in the paint, not because he is a franchise-level player.

That said, Bynum made a nice adjustment the next time he caught the ball, making a quick move against Lyde before the double-team could arrive and drawing a foul. Bynum made both free throws to cut Utah's lead to 95-86. On the next possession, Bynum held on to the ball longer, but the Jazz did not double-team him. Bynum attempted a turnaround jumper that Lyde blocked.

After the game, Bynum offered a very candid and realistic answer when asked if he was happy with his performance: "Nah, it was decent. I think I can do better. I need to do better."

This game did not really answer the questions about the Lakers' player rotations because we still have yet to see Gasol and Bynum on the court together, let alone seeing Gasol, Bynum and Odom in action at the same time. Ariza looked very good and if he can play like that consistently he really should be the starting small forward. The Jazz were shorthanded as well but they obviously have a nice group of young, athletic players--Millsap, Brewer, Miles--to complement the Williams-Boozer duo. Okur had a solid game in limited action and although Andrei Kirilenko had a quiet night his versatitility and his ability to defend multiple positions make him very valuable.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM


Monday, October 06, 2008

Atlantic Division Blogger Previews

CelticsBlog is once again coordinating a project for NBA bloggers to write team previews and collectively link to each other's work. The Atlantic Division previews have all been posted, with the remaining divisions to follow shortly:

Boston Celtics
Jeff Clark: CelticsBlog.com
Jim Weeks: Green Bandwagon
FLCeltsFan: LOY's Place
John Karalis: Red's Army
Dustin Chapman: Celtics 24/7

New Jersey Nets
Dennis Velasco: About Basketball

New York Knicks
Joey: Straight Bangin'
Seth Rosenthal: Posting and Toasting

Philadelphia 76ers
Dannie & Pete: Recliner GM
Jon Burkett: Passion and Pride

Toronto Raptors
Franchise: RaptorsHQ.com
Ryan McNeill: Hoops Addict
Cuzzy: Cuzoogle

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:55 PM


ProBasketballNews.com Relaunch Kicks off With a Look at Basketball Statistical Analysis

I am pleased to report that Sam Amico's fine website ProBasketballNews.com is alive again after taking a hiatus during the offseason. I will be contributing original content to PBN.com on a regular basis but for the site relaunch we decided to run a piece that first appeared at 20 Second Timeout recently, namely my explanation of why most current forms of basketball statistical analysis should not properly considered to be a science:

Sorry, Stats Analysis Not a Science (2/11/09 Note: PBN recently relaunched again and the 10/6/08 article link was destroyed, so I have reconfigured this link to simply go back to the original 20 Second Timeout post).

I don't expect that people who are making good money peddling their formulas and evaluations will stop doing so just because I have pointed out the flaws in their methodologies but it would be nice if someone who has the resources to do so would at least look into the way that certain statistics are kept, most notably assists. Wouldn't you like to know how many of Chris Paul's league-leading 925 assists last season were really assists under rule book definitions? I don't mean to single out Paul but as regular visitors to this site already know, during last year's playoffs when I was writing a recap for the Hornets' 101-82 game one victory over the Spurs I noticed some irregularities between the official play by play data regarding Paul's assists and what I had observed while watching the game. When I went back to the tape and reviewed those plays I found that several of them were improperly scored and the same thing was true when I examined a subsequent Hornets playoff game. Frankly, I find it disturbing that no prominent figures in the stats analysis community have made any kind of public response to my findings; it's as if they don't care whether or not the basic data that they are plugging into their formulas is accurate. As an example of why this is important (beyond the obvious reason that using faulty basic data leads to errors in the final stats formulas), a lot of people assert that Chris Paul "made" David West into an All-Star. No one would dispute that West benefits from playing alongside a great point guard but the reality--as I demonstrated in the two posts mentioned above and as anyone who watches Hornets' games with an educated eye understands--is that West is a phenomenally skilled player who creates a lot of his own offense because he can post up, shoot face up jumpers or face up a defender and drive to the hoop. However, when scorekeepers award Paul assists on a large number of West field goals for which Paul did not really deserve assists this not only skews Paul's rating in various stat systems but it also gives a false impression regarding West's game/skill set.

I don't have the resources (or time) to track every one of Paul's assists from last season--let alone every assist awarded in the NBA--but surely someone at one of the big media conglomerates (or one of these academics who does nothing but crunch NBA numbers all day) has the wherewithal to really study this. Instead of claiming to provide accurate player ratings for every single player in the NBA, it would be nice if one or more of these "stat gurus" actually found out how reliable the basic data is in the first place. Of course, it is highly unlikely that anybody will ever do this, for several reasons:

1) There is no money to be made in conducting such research and, indeed, if the basic data is proven to be faulty to a significant extent then some of these guys could stand to lose money because their prior work--or at least the some of the conclusions that they drew about players--would be discredited to a certain degree.

2) It would take a lot of time to do this research properly.

3) Many of these "stat gurus" probably do not even know how to properly score an assist and thus they would not be qualified to do this research in the first place!

Of course, none of this will stop the "stat gurus" from breathlessly telling us two weeks after the season started the "exact" ratings for every player in the NBA, all while making snide remarks about the GMs, coaches and scouts who make their livings doing proper, in depth player analysis.

As former NBA head coach Eric Musselman recently discussed, there are certain abilities and traits--for instance, performing well in "clutch situations"--that can only be discovered and properly evaluated by watching players perform, preferably in person:

To find these players, you have to put down the stat sheet and go into the gyms of the world and talk with them. Meet them. Look into their eyes. Most of all, you have to watch them perform under certain conditions. Seeing it on film is one thing, but seeing it up close and in person will give you a much better idea of their "clutchness." When talking with those who have "it," you'll know. You can sense it.

Clutch is an attitude, a mind-set. Without a doubt, it's something we're born with--an inherited quality. I've seen it in 10-year-old kids. How they carry themselves when a (Little League) game is on the line. It's remarkable.

I saw it in high school and in college. And I've seen it coaching in the pros--both at the minor league and NBA level.

But you can't find it on a stat sheet. Two players could have identical stat lines and one has "it" and the other doesn't.

I know that most "stat gurus" swear up and down that "clutch play" does not exist--but anyone who has competed at a meaningful level in anything knows that there is such a thing as performing well in the clutch, whether that consists of elevating one's own game under pressure or simply not having one's performance/efficiency/awareness in such situations decline as much as other people's performance/efficiency/awareness declines. The bottom line is that when the outcome of the game is in doubt, some guys want the ball and some guys don't, even if they say that they do; you can see it at any level: some players make sure that the ball winds up in their hands, while other guys come off of the screen just a tick slower than usual to make sure that the ball is not passed to them. Before Michael Jordan hit "the Shot" to beat Cleveland, he had to elude two defenders just to receive the inbounds pass; plenty of other players would have just given up and said afterwards that they would have loved to take the shot but they simply could not get open.

Statistical analysis of the sport of basketball is a wonderful idea in theory, provided that the people who are doing the analysis--and the people who are using the final product of the analysis--understand the exact nature and limitations of these numbers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM