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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nuggets Stun Celtics by Playing Good Defense

The Denver Nuggets defeated the Boston Celtics 94-85 on Friday night, earning their first victory against a team with a winning record this season and handing the Celtics their first home loss of the year. The Nuggets were playing their third game in four nights and had looked lackadaisical at times during Thursday's 110-99 loss at Cleveland--but after Boston opened the game with an 8-0 run the Nuggets played with energy and enthusiasm, building a 15 point lead. The Celtics rallied to go back in front by the end of the third quarter but with the score tied at 84 late in the fourth quarter the Nuggets seized control by going on a 10-0 run.

Carmelo Anthony scored 18 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds, while Chauncey Billups had 18 points and a game-high seven assists; in the final 2:50, Billups had a big three point play, made a pair of free throws and had two assists, thus playing a part in every point Denver scored in that late, game-deciding outburst. Ray Allen led the Celtics with 26 points, 18 of which he scored in the first quarter. Paul Pierce added 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists, while Kevin Garnett had 16 points and nine rebounds. Eddie House scored 13 points off of the bench but the remaining seven Celtics who played combined to produce just 11 points on 4-20 field goal shooting.

Here are some comments/observations about a very interesting contest:

*ESPN's Mark Jackson referred to Boston's Ray Allen and Eddie House as "born shooters" but Jeff Van Gundy strongly disagreed, arguing that shooting is a learned skill that can only be mastered after thousands of hours of practice. Jackson said that he spent thousands of hours practicing but could never shoot as well as Reggie Miller or Ray Allen. Van Gundy responded, half jokingly, by pointing out that Jackson used his off hand too much on his shot release but that Miller and Allen shoot the ball correctly. What Van Gundy is talking about is called "effortful study" and there is a body of research that shows that, in endeavors as diverse as music, science and sports, mastery is achieved only after an individual devotes at least 10,000 hours of "effortful study" to his craft; in line with Van Gundy's quip about Jackson's shooting technique, the significant thing about "effortful study" is not simply practicing mindlessly for 10,000 hours but rather practicing proper techniques for that period of time. You can read more about this in my posts titled Clyde Drexler Explains How He Developed His Jumping Ability and Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II.

*During a timeout early in the game, Denver Coach George Karl implored his players to finish out defensive possessions by getting rebounds. Meanwhile, several disinterested players looked at the floor, the ceiling and everywhere else but at Karl. Jackson commented, "If you're going to be a great defensive team, you have to get upset when teams score on you. I don't see the Nuggets talking about it, getting upset, discussing how they're missing assignments. That's the first step to being an effective defensive team." Although the Nuggets looked like they were not paying attention to Karl, they did start doing a better job on the glass and the Nuggets finished the game with a 43-37 rebounding advantage. Plus/minus data can be "noisy" (deceptive) at times but in this game it does reflect the fact that Denver received a big boost from three bench players who posted the top plus/minus numbers in this game: Linas Kleiza (+16), Renaldo Balkman (+12) and Anthony Carter (+12).

*Boston trailed by double digits for the fifth time in six home games after only trailing by double digits three times in 41 home games last season. I've seen the Celtics in person once so far this season--the Pacers stomped them 95-79 in Indiana's home opener--and I noted at that time that the Celtics played "harder and with more focus" each of the several times that I saw them in person last season than they did against Indiana this year. It is early and at 8-2 the Celtics may very well still end up with the best record in the East, but there has undeniably been some slippage in Boston; the question is whether or not the Celtics can regain what they have lost come playoff time.

*With Denver leading 61-51 during the third quarter after being up by as many as 15 points, Jackson said, "The thing you don't realize as a young team is that this is where you win or lose ball games. It's not down the stretch--it's when you have a chance to take it (the lead) from 15 to 20 as opposed to bringing it down to 10." This is precisely what I meant in my recap of the Lakers' 106-99 victory over the Mavericks when I referred to what I called "hidden clutch" performances. "Stats gurus" define the parameters of "clutch" as consisting of things that happen "late and close," which in basketball terms usually refers to a game that is five points or closer with less than two minutes remaining--but defining "clutch" this way is like looking for your lost watch at night under the streetlight because it is dark everywhere else, even though you lost your watch on the other side of the street; just because "late and close" is easy to quantify and measure does not mean that this is the best, most accurate way to define "clutch."

*After the Nuggets went on their late 10-0 run to take control, Van Gundy said simply, "This is un-Celtic like," referring to Boston's numerous mistakes, including turnovers, poor shot selection and bad defense.

Are the Celtics in trouble? Have the Nuggets turned the corner to become a solid defensive team? One game cannot answer such questions. My educated guess is that the Celtics simply are not quite as hungry on a night in, night out basis as they were last year; after winning a title it is harder to be so hungry every second of every game. As for the Nuggets, there is no doubt that this was a big win but I would have to see sustained defensive effort on a regular basis to believe that this was anything other than an aberration in terms of their overall prospects this season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 AM


Friday, November 14, 2008

Cleveland Overcomes Sluggish First Half, Beats Denver, 110-99

The Cleveland Cavaliers trailed 61-58 at halftime but clamped down defensively in the second half and defeated the Denver Nuggets 110-99. LeBron James, who had scored 41 points in three of his previous four games, nearly missed a triple double with 22 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Mo Williams led the Cavs with 24 points, while Chauncey Billups scored a game-high 26 points in defeat. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith each contributed 18 points--and each gave up at least that many points at the other end of the court.

Neither team played well defensively in the first half. At halftime, Billups told TNT's David Aldridge that playing in Denver is completely different than playing in Detroit because the Nuggets play at such a faster pace offensively. "We try to be hard on defense," Billups added but he could barely keep a straight face as he said that, realizing that the Nuggets are anything but "hard" defensively; the "stat gurus" may try to tell you that Denver is a good defensive team but Billups is a former All-Defensive Team member who played for a top notch defensive squad in Detroit so he knows as well as anyone exactly how many shortcomings there are to Denver's defensive effort and execution--and after being in Denver for a few games he surely also realizes that the defensive problems in recent years were not solely the fault of the player for whom he was traded, Allen Iverson; if I ever wanted to smuggle contraband past the Nuggets, I would just attach it to whoever is being guarded by Anthony or Smith and then send that player on a backdoor cut--no one would ever find that player again. Getting beaten backdoor through inattention or indifference is just one Denver problem, though. One Cleveland possession from early in the third quarter provides another example of the kind of defense that Anthony plays: he jumped in the air after a Delonte West pump fake, letting West drive right past him and then Anthony compounded that mistake by making no effort to get back in the play. West was picked up in the lane by another Nugget but he passed to Mo Williams, who missed a runner that Ben Wallace tipped in. TNT's Mike Fratello rightly noted, "It starts with the defense of Carmelo Anthony. You just can't leave your feet and jump in the air because your man picks up the ball and fakes like he's going to shoot the thing. Carmelo breaks down the first position, now everybody winds up covering up for him and then you get the tip in."

Later, after Anthony made a nice cut and dunked a lob pass, Fratello pointedly said, "It's amazing, Carmelo Anthony looks lost at times at the defensive end of the floor but he never looks lost on the offensive end of the floor. He knows exactly what to do, where to be, where to go." In other words, this all comes down to concentration and effort. Anthony's defensive mistake on the play with West is not just an isolated example; Anthony has bad defensive habits and he compounds these bad habits with a lack of effort and intensity. He is Denver's best player, the putative leader on the team, and the example that he sets at that end of the court is a big reason why Denver has been so soft defensively during his career. The Nuggets have a lot of guys who talk tough and act like they are hard but the team is soft where it counts--mental focus and self discipline.

In contrast, James has improved tremendously as a defensive player. Fratello credits some of that to James' experience as a teammate of Kobe Bryant's on Team USA. Fratello mentioned that Bryant made the commitment to shut down the top perimeter player on each opposing team and Fratello concluded, "LeBron saw that. LeBron saw the commitment that Kobe was willing to make and I think that LeBron took some of that home." In fairness to James, his defense has improved each year that he has been in the league--not just this year--but there is no doubt that he and other members of Team USA certainly were influenced by the example that Bryant set. I'm sure that Nuggets' fans wish that some of Bryant's attitude, focus and intensity would have rubbed off on Anthony.

Before the third quarter began, Aldridge reported that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown called his team's defensive effort in the first half "embarrassing." The difference between Cleveland and Denver is that Denver's first half defensive effort is par for the course, while Cleveland's was an aberration: the Cavs gave up 36 points in the first quarter but their defense got more stingy as the game went on, ceding 25 points in the second quarter, 20 in the third quarter and 18 in the fourth quarter. In contrast, Denver's defense was poor throughout the game.

Some people may believe that the Nuggets came out ahead in the Billups-Allen Iverson trade but Denver's 3-0 record prior to the Cleveland game was fool's gold: a close home win against a struggling Dallas team followed by victories over the lottery bound Grizzlies and Bobcats. I didn't expect the Nuggets to make the playoffs even with Iverson and my initial thought was that the trade would not change things that much--but after watching Denver play (not just in this game but also in the previous ones) it seems distinctly possible that the Nuggets will be worse off in the short term, never mind that their long term prospects are crippled by the poor salary cap management that made the owner feel compelled to dump Marcus Camby and buy out Antonio McDyess, two players who would make the Nuggets better at both ends of the court. Billups had a big 16 point first quarter versus Cleveland but that is an aberration--that point total matched his previous season high in scoring! The Nuggets are terrible defensively and now they don't have Camby's shotblocking to wipe away some of their miscues nor do they have the threat of Iverson going off for 30 or 40 points to at least help them outscore teams that they can't shut down. How exactly is this Denver team going to win many games against good competition? Billups can't score like Iverson and it's not like he shut down his Cleveland counterparts, either, with Williams nearly matching Billups point for point and Daniel Gibson scoring 15 points off of the bench. The funny thing is that part of why Detroit got rid of Billups is that the Pistons did not think that Billups could match up well with Williams and Gibson (who torched the Pistons two years ago in the playoffs) and, at least based on this game, that seems like an astute assessment.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 AM


Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Computer Model Reproduces Data, It Does Not Provide It

In a January 17, 2003 lecture at the California Institute of Technology (a portion of which was recently reprinted by The Wall Street Journal), Michael Crichton declared:

I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses...

I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period...

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way...

To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models. Back in the days of nuclear winter, computer models were invoked to add weight to a conclusion: "These results are derived with the help of a computer model." But now large-scale computer models are seen as generating data in themselves. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world--increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality...

This fascination with computer models is something I understand very well. Richard Feynman called it a disease. I fear he is right. Because only if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen can you arrive at the complex point where the global warming debate now stands.

Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we're asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?

What does this have to do with basketball? Some people believe that the sport can be scientifically analyzed by crunching numbers a certain way--but, as Crichton notes, there is a big difference between using a computer model to "add weight to a conclusion" (or, in basketball terms, provide some information about the performance of a player or a team) and using a computer model to "provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality." If you build a computer model of box score data that values rebounding or not turning the ball over or shooting a high percentage and then rank players accordingly, that model will provide some interesting results to consider--but those results are a model; they are not reality and it is possible to tinker with the numbers to produce a another model that will produce completely different rankings. In other words, as I have repeatedly said, Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:30 AM


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cavaliers Eight Game Progress Report

The Cleveland Cavaliers have started the season 6-2, tied for the fifth best record in the league. My newest article at CavsNews.com looks at how they are performing in various categories (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The Cavs have a 6-2 record after their 99-93 win versus Milwaukee on Tuesday night. The Cavs are in first place in the Central Division, a half game ahead of Detroit; the Cavs have the third best record in the East and are tied for the fifth best record in the league. Obviously, it is still early but the Cavs look a lot better than they did last year at this time when injuries and holdouts contributed to a 4-4 start and a 10-14 record after 24 games before the team’s performance improved down the stretch. With nearly 10% of their regular season schedule completed, here is how the Cavs measure up so far in several key areas:

Defense: The Cavs rank fifth in defensive field goal percentage (.419), fifth in point differential (6.6) and are tied for sixth in points allowed (93.0). Last year, the Cavs ranked 11th in defensive field goal percentage, 16th in point differential and ninth in points allowed; those rankings are deceptively low because by the end of the season when the team was at full strength the Cavs were playing much better defense than they did in the first couple months. Still, it seems safe to say that the Cavs are a better defensive team this season than last season.

Rebounding: The Cavs are fifth in rebounding differential (4.1). Last season, the Cavs ranked first in this category with roughly the same average (4.2). Despite the numerous personnel changes made in the past year, the Cavs remain one of the best rebounding teams in the league.

Offense: The Cavs rank fifth in field goal percentage (.467) and ninth in scoring (99.6 ppg). Last season, the Cavs ranked 28th in field goal percentage (.439) and 24th in scoring (96.4 ppg). Clearly, offense is the area in which the Cavs have made the most improvement. LeBron James (see below) is performing at a very high level. Newly acquired point guard Mo Williams is shooting poorly from the field (.408) but he ranks third on the team in scoring (14.4 ppg) and his speed and ballhandling skills have helped the Cavs play at a faster pace. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (15.5 ppg, .523 field goal percentage), Delonte West (10.3 ppg, .556 field goal percentage) and Anderson Varejao (8.8 ppg, .651 field goal percentage) round out the team’s top five scorers and are each shooting very well from the field. On the other hand, Daniel Gibson (8.3 ppg, .357 field goal percentage) and Wally Szczerbiak (6.4 ppg, .429 field goal percentage) are struggling to find their long distance shooting touch.

LeBron James: James is leading the league in scoring with a 29.8 ppg average, nearly identical to the 30.0 ppg he produced last year while winning his first scoring title. James’ field goal percentage (.485) is virtually identical with last year’s number, his rebounding and steals are up slightly, while his apg average is down slightly. He is shooting a career-high .776 from the free throw line, a welcome change—if he can maintain that number throughout the season. Unfortunately, he is shooting a career-low .200 (6-30) from three point range. So far, Coach Mike Brown has been true to his plan of reducing the wear and tear on James by limiting his minutes; James is averaging a career-low 36.9 mpg, down from 40.4 mpg last season. As even a casual observer realizes, James is a remarkably productive and consistent player. His final averages this season will likely be very similar to his current averages in most categories. The two areas that most bear watching are, as usual, free throw shooting and three point shooting. In the ideal scenario, James will maintain his current free throw shooting pace while moving his three point shooting percentage above the .300 mark.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 PM


Lakers Edge Mavs, Improve to 6-0

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 27 points--including nine in a key 2:38 stretch of the fourth quarter--as the Lakers overcame a sluggish start to improve to 6-0 with a 106-99 win in Dallas. Bryant shot 10-20 from the field and 7-8 from the free throw line. Pau Gasol added 22 points and 11 rebounds and Trevor Ariza provided a huge lift off of the bench with 13 points, six rebounds, three steals and a big blocked shot late in the game. Gasol is very gifted and it is a lot of fun to watch him play. His defense against Dirk Nowitzki (14 points on 5-17 field goal shooting, eight rebounds, four turnovers) was outstanding. That said, Gasol is in a perfect situation now because as long as Bryant is in the game Gasol usually gets to play one on one, as opposed to facing the constant double teams that he encountered in Memphis. Jason Terry led the Mavericks with 21 points, while Jason Kidd had his 101st triple double (16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). Jerry Stackhouse added 17 points off of the bench. The Mavericks were without the services of Josh Howard, who has an injured wrist; Gerald Green started in his place and scored 17 points.

The Lakers took a 10-4 lead before Bryant even attempted a shot but the Mavericks answered with a 17-0 run and did not trail again unti the fourth quarter. Gasol and Andrew Bynum (11 points, 10 rebounds, 5-12 field goal shooting) missed several point blank shots and then the Lakers' poor transition defense enabled the Mavericks to retaliate with quick scores; that stretch almost looked like a replay of what happened to the Lakers in the Finals versus the Celtics. As Hubie Brown often says, when you miss a layup in the NBA the other team will generally score within a few seconds. With Dallas leading 21-10, Bryant clearly realized that the time for "facilitating" was over; in a 19 second span, he nailed a jumper off of a down screen by Lamar Odom (12 points, five rebounds, one assist, four turnovers, 5-12 field goal shooting) and converted a three point play. Shortly after that, Bryant drove to the hoop and earned two free throw attempts, sinking both to cut Dallas' lead to 23-17. The Lakers pulled to within two points soon after that and only trailed by three after Gasol fed Bryant a nice lob pass for a layup but squandered a chance to get even closer when Gasol missed a weak scoop shot after setting a screen for Bryant, rolling to the hoop and receiving a good feed from Bryant. Then Gasol and Odom committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and Bryant missed a reverse layup, helping Dallas to push the lead to 35-26 by the end of the first quarter.

The Lakers have been playing excellent defense so far this season, so giving up 35 first quarter points is a sure sign that they were not playing up to their usual standards. That is what makes this win impressive: you have to be a very good team to grind out a road win when you are not playing your very best. As a side note, I have been amused to read some of the commentary/"analysis" about the Lakers' defense this season. Do people not realize that Phil Jackson is a defensive minded coach, that his six championship teams in Chicago were terrific defensively and that the first time he joined the Lakers the biggest change he implemented was helping the team improve in one season from the bottom of the league to first in defensive field goal percentage, a key element in the Lakers winning the 2000 championship? There is a misconception that the Lakers were a bad defensive team last year but the reality--as Bryant has mentioned in several interviews--is that they were a good but inconsistent defensive team and that their defense was not up to the same standard as Boston's. It is easy to understand why the Lakers were inconsistent defensively; they actually had to play three seasons in one or, more precisely, they had three different teams during the course of the season: their first team had a Bryant-Odom-Bynum nucleus, the second team was held together by Bryant after Bynum suffered a season-ending injury and their third team had a Bryant-Gasol-Odom nucleus. Throughout the year, key players moved in and out of the lineup, which made it difficult to sustain the five men on string cohesion that is vital to playing great defense. Also, the Lakers missed Bynum's shot blocking and were not able to fully utilize the athleticism of newly acquired wing defender Trevor Ariza, who was injured for most of the season. This season, the Lakers are at full strength and the newcomers (Gasol and Ariza) had the benefit of their first full training camp under Jackson. It should be no surprise that the Lakers have improved tremendously on defense. The difference is not so much that they are using some revolutionary scheme but rather that Jackson has had the opportunity to fully utilize the individual and collective strengths of the entire roster.

Bynum is certainly playing an important role in the Lakers' success but he is not nearly as valuable as some people assert nor is he close to being a finished product as a post player. He is averaging 9.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 2.8 bpg while shooting .429 from the field. I expect his field goal percentage to markedly improve as he gets his legs fully back to game form after missing more than half of a season but the rest of his stat line will not likely change too much, other than a slight scoring increase to correspond with a better shooting percentage. Bynum's size and length are significant assets for the Lakers, particularly on defense, but he also benefits by being surrounded by good players--and a great player in Kobe Bryant. If Bynum were the best player on a lesser team then he would struggle, particularly on offense, but having Bryant on the court ensures that he will rarely face double teams in the post and will often receive passes for uncontested layups and dunks. Case in point: midway through the second quarter, Bynum set a screen for Bryant and then rolled to the hoop. Bynum's defender stayed midway between the hoop and Bryant to discourage Bryant from driving, so Bryant jumped in the air as if he was going to shoot but instead fired a bullet pass to Bynum for an easy dunk. It is foolish to speak of Bryant being a better facilitator now than in previous seasons without noting that in previous seasons if Bryant threw that pass it would have either decapitated Kwame Brown or bounced off of his hands and gone out of bounds (by the way, those of you who don't think that Bryant was the MVP in 2006 and 2007 while carrying starting center Brown and starting point guard Smush Parker to the playoffs may be interested to note that Brown is averaging 3.3 ppg for Detroit this season while Parker is not even in the league--how far do you imagine that Bryant might have taken a team with, say, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell?).

The Lakers' bench played with a lot of energy at the start of the second quarter and then Bryant, Gasol and Bynum carried the scoring load down the stretch as the Lakers pulled to within 60-54 by halftime. However, the momentum the Lakers seemed to have built did not carry over to the third quarter, as the Mavericks soon pushed their lead to 72-61. Just when it looked like Dallas might really pull away, the Lakers closed the quarter with an 11-4 run thanks to baskets by Sasha Vujacic, Bynum, Odom and Farmar and capped off by an Odom three pointer with two seconds left to make the score 79-76 Dallas.

Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Lakers took the lead after Vujacic hit a three pointer, Odom drove to the hoop and Ariza ran down an offensive rebound in the corner, drove to the hoop and threw down a two handed dunk. That play fired up the whole Lakers' team and caused Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle to immediately call a timeout. A minute later, Bryant returned to action after sitting out the tail end of the third quarter and the early moments of the final stanza. Bryant promptly scored nine points in less than three minutes to extend the Lakers' lead to 94-86. There are stats floating around that purportedly measure "clutch" performance, which is usually defined by what happens in the last two minutes of a game in which the lead is five points or less but I think that runs like the one that Bryant led in the middle of the fourth quarter could be called "hidden clutch": before Bryant went to work that game was a tossup and the Mavericks had actually outplayed the Lakers for most of the time prior to that point; since there are so many stats being tracked now I wonder what the value--in terms of increasing the probability of winning the game--is of pushing the lead from 85-81 at the 8:46 mark of the fourth quarter to 94-86 at the 6:08 mark of the fourth quarter. Someone out there should have enough "game state" data to answer that question. My hypothesis is that the ability to exert that kind of impact on a nightly basis is more valuable than hitting one or two dramatic shots in the last few minutes of a few games over the course of a season; last second shots are often low percentage, desperation heaves. Put it this way: as great as Brandon Roy's recent 30 foot game winning shot was, is that really a more valuable "skill" over the course of a season than the ability to take over a key several minute stretch of a game that was previously up for grabs? That is not to say that Bryant cannot make desperation shots--we know that he has--or that Roy cannot take over a game for a significant stretch; what I am questioning is how some "stats gurus" attempt to quantify exactly what "clutch" is. Frankly, their definition has a lot more to do with what ends up on the highlight shows than what really wins games on a nightly basis.

After Bryant's scoring burst, the Lakers made some curious--which is to say, poor--decisions. Odom missed a long jumper with plenty of time on the shot clock and then Gasol missed a short jumper. When the best player on the team really has it going it would seem to be a good idea to put the ball in his hands at least once during these late game possessions; if nothing else, that would force Dallas to double team Bryant and thus create easier shots for other players. After Dallas rebounded Gasol's miss, Kidd went coast to coast with Odom riding his hip and then Kidd scored a layup as Odom fouled him. Needless to say, Coach Jackson was less than thrilled with Odom after that sequence and he took him out of the game during the next timeout. Kidd's three point play cut the Lakers' lead to 94-89.

On the next possession, Bryant and Gasol ran the screen/roll action that has been so effective for the Lakers--except in the Finals against Boston--ever since Gasol joined the team in the middle of last season. This time, Bryant took advantage of the collapsing defense to pass to Trevor Ariza at the three point line. Ariza took one dribble, glided to the hoop with a long stride and sank a layup while drawing a foul on Nowitzki. It is very important to note that Bryant was not awarded an assist on this play, because his pass and Ariza's one dribble drive are very similar to several plays that I have seen in which Chris Paul has been awarded assists. For instance, at the 1:42 mark of the second quarter of New Orleans' 100-89 victory over Miami on Saturday, Paul passed to Morris Peterson behind the three point line. Peterson took two dribbles, possibly an extra hop and then scored a layup; he drove just as far as Ariza did--and with an extra dribble to boot--yet Paul was awarded an assist and Bryant was not despite the fact that the passer did exactly the same thing on both plays. Also, in game seven of New Orleans' playoff series versus San Antonio last season, Paul received two assists on these kinds of plays: his ninth assist came on a driving layup by Peterson at the :24 mark of the second quarter and his 12th assist came on a driving layup by Jannero Pargo at the 8:34 mark of the fourth quarter. I'm providing the exact times of these plays so that anyone who has access to tapes of these games can look up these sequences and make their own judgments. In my opinion, an assist should not have been awarded on any of the three Paul passes, nor on Bryant's pass to Ariza. However, Bryant's pass was "closest" to being a legitimate assist because Bryant created the shot by drawing a double team and Ariza only took one dribble.

All of this is important for several reasons. One, Bryant officially had one assist in this game, which leads some people to assume that he is not distributing the ball; in fact, he makes some of the same "assists" that Paul does but does not receive boxscore credit for doing so. Two, Paul is setting records left and right with assist totals that are inflated with dubious assists. Three, all of these "stat gurus" who are making allegedly definitive pronouncements and "objective" player ratings are relying on some numbers that are more fake than a three dollar bill. If there is no uniform standard for awarding assists, then this is also likely true of steals, blocked shots, turnovers and possibly other categories (rebounds can be fudged when it comes to balls that are tapped/tipped).

Again, it is amazing to me that the "stat gurus" profess to be practicing objective science and yet they apparently have absolutely no interest in the fact that the basic boxscore data that they are using is flawed; they are so quick to protest about the subjectivity and bias that they believe are inherent in the process of observing players and yet they are completely oblivious to the subjective factors involved in their basketball analysis.

Back to the game at hand, Stackhouse answered Ariza's three point play by draining a three pointer to cut the Lakers' lead to 97-92. Terry then made two free throws and Gasol countered with two free throws of his own. Stackhouse made a pair of free throws and Erick Dampier split a pair of free throws to bring Dallas to within 99-97. Bryant turned the ball over and then Ariza and Fisher missed open three pointers created when Dallas trapped Bryant but the Mavericks were not able to take advantage at the other end of the court as Stackhouse and Nowitzki each missed jumpers. Ariza made a nice defensive play by blocking a Stackhouse jumper with just one second left on the shot clock and after the ensuing inbounds pass Dallas committed a 24 second shot clock violation.

The Lakers got the ball back with :44 left in regulation. They tried to get the ball to Bryant but Stackhouse played great ball denial defense, so Fisher ended up forcing a jumper with the shot clock running down. Bryant cut to the hoop to get in offensive rebound position but Stackhouse shoved him in the back, pushing him out of bounds. No foul was called but meanwhile, Gasol slipped in unnoticed, grabbed Fisher's airball and put it in the hoop as Nowitzki committed his sixth foul. Gasol made the resulting free throw and then Fisher sealed the win in the final seconds by hitting four straight free throws.

After the game, NBA TV's Chris Webber asked Bryant if he thinks that he has matured or changed as a player as he's gotten older and, if so, in what way. Bryant answered, "The thing that I've changed to help us improve as a team is I've empowered my teammates to make decisions. What I mean by that is not try to score or make plays for everybody else all the time. You have to allow your teammates to grow, to make decisions and I think that is the biggest change I've made."

While this was a good early season test for the Lakers, they will face an even sterner challenge on Wednesday night: playing the Hornets in New Orleans in the second of back to back road games. The Lakers will need to demonstrate a lot of mental toughness and focus to beat a Hornets team that is quite eager to make a statement against last year's Western Conference champions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:06 AM


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Boston Bludgeons Detroit in the Paint: The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same

What does Boston's 88-76 victory over Detroit on Sunday tell us? This rematch of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals was just Allen Iverson's second game as a Piston, so the pundits had a field day focusing on Iverson's performance to the exclusion of everything else. Meanwhile, Antonio McDyess, who played a key role in both of Detroit's wins versus Boston in that series, is not currently on Detroit's roster but will presumably be a Piston again after clearing waivers and waiting the required 30 days to rejoin his old team. McDyess' absence exacerbated Detroit's primary problem versus Boston: the Celtics relentlessly and methodically pound the Pistons to death in the paint.

The Celtics exploited the same advantages on Sunday that they did last year versus the Pistons in both the regular season and the playoffs: rebounding and points in the paint. Those two categories are why I was able to correctly predict Boston's six game victory over Detroit in last year's playoffs; after that series concluded, I did a post summarizing why Boston won and the Celtics' inside dominance was the main factor.

Nothing has changed since that time; on Sunday, Boston enjoyed a 45-38 rebounding edge and a decisive 44-24 lead in points in the paint. Although Rasheed Wallace had 11 rebounds, he all but nullified that production by shooting 4-17 from the field, including 2-8 from three point range. The Pistons spent most of the game firing bricks from outside (.347 field goal percentage), while the Celtics rebounded those misses and shot a significantly higher percentage than Detroit (.446) because of their ability to get into the paint either on the break or in the half court set.

Iverson scored 10 points on 4-11 shooting and added a team-high four assists, though he also had a team-high four turnovers. He showed that he could penetrate Boston's defense off of the dribble and then dish to teammates for open shots but his teammates did not make many of those shots. Before any Pistons' fans wax nostalgic for Chauncey Billups, keep in mind that Billups shot .394 from the field against Boston in last year's playoffs. The Pistons are hoping that Iverson will be able to use his speed and scoring ability to prevent the offensive lulls that have plagued them in their recent playoff runs.

It could be argued that--their great regular season record notwithstanding--the Celtics did not really completely jell last season until they survived tough playoff series versus Atlanta and Cleveland. That is why no one should read too much into Iverson's statistics or Detroit's record for the next few games or even for the next month; it takes time to build chemistry and trust. It is certainly reasonable to expect that Iverson's shot attempts and shooting percentage--and Detroit's winning percentage--will increase once he becomes fully acclimated to his new team.

However, it will be a tall task (no pun intended) for Iverson to have enough impact on offense to compensate for how much Boston's bigs outplay Detroit's bigs on a consistent basis. If Iverson can score 25 ppg versus Boston on .450 field goal shooting and contribute 7 apg with a reasonably low amount of turnovers then Detroit will have a fighting chance in a seven game series--but that level of production (particularly the field goal percentage) will be very difficult for Iverson to maintain against Boston's physical, relentless defense.

That said, there is no reason to think that Detroit would have had a better chance to beat Boston this year with Billups at the helm; once Iverson and his teammates get used to each other, Iverson will give the Pistons a different, more explosive offensive look than they had last year--and in a close playoff game, Iverson's ability to score 15-20 points in the fourth quarter could prove to be the difference that swings a series. The ace in the hole for Joe Dumars is that his team still has an opportunity to contend for the championship but if things don't work out then he can get rid of Iverson and Wallace and use the resulting salary cap room to try to obtain a young superstar. What more can Pistons' fans want than the ability to be a contender this year while retaining the financial flexibility to construct a team that can be a contender for many more years?

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:04 AM


Monday, November 10, 2008

High Flyers and Free Throw Shooting

High flying Hall of Famers from Elgin Baylor to Julius Erving to Dominique Wilkins--and future Hall of Famer Michael Jordan--are remembered fondly for their sensational swooping moves to the hoop, but an important part of their greatness was that when teams fouled them those players consistently made the opposition pay by sinking their free throws. Even if they were not good shooters when they entered the NBA, the game's most renowned aerial artists generally shot .800 or better from the free throw line in their primes and finished with career free throw percentages in the high .700s or better.

Among active high flyers, Kobe Bryant's free throw shooting numbers track very similarly with Michael Jordan's, Tracy McGrady improved steadily in his early years but has strangely regressed in the past few seasons and LeBron James has not made the free three shooting improvement that Wilkins and Clyde Drexler did in their first five seasons.

My newest article for Pro Basketball News looks at the free throw shooting numbers of several high flying players who are either already in the Hall of Fame or will most likely be inducted as soon as they become eligible (2/25/09 Edit: the link to my PBN story has been disabled, so I have simply pasted the text of that article into this post):

Slam dunks are exciting plays that can whip home fans into a frenzy, turn road fans into begrudging admirers and simultaneously elevate the spirits of one’s teammates while having a deflating effect on the opposition. From a purely technical standpoint, the value of being able to dunk is that a player can take the highest percentage shot possible and thus force the defense to either foul him or get out of the way. Obviously, if a player is a great dunker but an unreliable free throw shooter the defense is definitely going to try to commit a foul before he can dunk, forcing that player to earn his points at the free throw line.

When you think of the game’s great high flyers, the image in your mind’s eye is not of two free throws being made but rather of powerful and inventive dunks being slammed on the heads of hapless, helpless defenders. However, as the accompanying chart shows, many of the game’s most accomplished and renowned aerial artists made defenses pay for fouling them by shooting well from the free throw line; each of the listed players not only flew through the air with the greatest of ease but has either already been inducted in the Hall of Fame or has put together a good enough resume that he will likely be inducted in the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible.

Although some of the NBA’s earliest players possessed good jumping ability, dunking did not become an accepted part of the game until the late 1950s/early 1960s; prior to that, leaving one’s feet was a dangerous maneuver that invited being undercut by an opposing player. Elgin Baylor was perhaps the first great NBA player who regularly played above the rim. While Baylor’s aerial feats inspired awe even among his fellow competitors, he had a fundamentally sound all-around game: he could rebound, pass and shoot. He shot .777 from the free throw line as a rookie, improved that to a career-high .837 in his fifth season and finished his career as a .780 free throw shooter. Baylor ranked in the top ten in free throw shooting percentage three times (1963-64, 67). Baylor averaged nearly nine free throw attempts per game and he made the opposition pay for fouling him.

If Baylor was the “godfather” of hang time, he had a pair of worthy successors in forwards Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving, each of whom first played in the ABA before enjoying successful NBA careers. Hawkins’ free throw shooting almost mirrors Baylor’s, as does Erving’s. In fact, there seems to be a template for the free throw shooting numbers of high flying, athletic players: they often shoot in the mid .700s as a rookie, improve into the low to mid .800s by their fifth season and then finish their careers with free throw percentages in the .780-.800 range.

Early in Dominique Wilkins’ career, his jump shot just was a means to create an opportunity for a spectacular putback dunk and his free throw shooting was equally erratic (.680 as a rookie) but he rapidly improved his shooting touch to become a solid .800 free throw shooter. After he ruptured his Achilles tendon late in his career, Wilkins even added the three point shot to his repertoire to compensate for his diminished hops. As Wilkins often mentions, he scored more than 20,000 career points and they weren’t all on dunks.

James Worthy shot almost as well from the field (.579) as the free throw line (.624) as a rookie but he quickly improved his free throw percentage to above the .750 mark and in his prime scoring years he shot close to .800 from the free throw line.

Clyde Drexler shot .728 from the free throw line as a rookie but by his fifth season he shot better than .800 and his free throw percentage stayed at or around that mark for most of the remainder of his career.

Unlike most of the high flyers, Michael Jordan was an excellent free throw shooter as a rookie (.845). For most of his career he shot in the .840-.850 range, but his career average dipped to .835 due to some lower shooting percentages that he posted during his two comebacks.

Kobe Bryant’s free throw shooting almost mirrors that of Jordan’s, the player to whom he is so often compared. Bryant started out with a good number as a rookie (.819) and has consistently shot above .830 since that time.

Tracy McGrady’s free throw shooting has followed a counterintuitive pattern. At first his numbers looked similar to those posted by Wilkins and Drexler, increasing from .712 as a rookie to .748 by year five and then peaking at .796 in year seven but since that time McGrady’s free throw shooting has gotten progressively worse, bottoming out at a career-low .684 last season.

Free throw shooting is perhaps the biggest weakness in LeBron James’ skill set (along with his midrange and three point shooting, though those skills are obviously related). James’ career percentages are following a disturbing downward trend, from .754 as a rookie to .698 in 2007, with a slight improvement to .712 last year, his fifth season. As indicated above, most of the high flying, all-around greats who preceded James hit their strides as free throw shooters by their fifth seasons. James does an outstanding job of drawing fouls and that creates free throw opportunities for his teammates by putting the Cavs in the bonus but if he does not show marked improvement in his shooting this year it is unlikely that he will become an .800 or better free throw shooter in the mold of Wilkins, Jordan and Bryant; note that except for Worthy, every player on the chart shot better from the free throw line in his fifth season than he did overall during his career.

James’ weakness as a free throw shooter is important not only in the last second shot situations that people focus on so much but also down the stretch of close games: everyone remembers the free throws or shots that are taken in the final two minutes but missed free throws during the course of a game—particularly the fourth quarters of playoff games—are also significant.

High Flyers and Free Throw Shooting

Player Rookie FT% 5th Year FT% Career FT% Career FTA/G Years Played

Elgin Baylor .777 .837 .780 8.74 1959-72
Connie Hawkins .764 .807 .779 6.74 1968-76*
Julius Erving .745 .801 .777 6.48 1972-87*
Dominique Wilkins .682 .818 .811 6.93 1983-99
James Worthy .624 .751 .769 3.44 1983-94
Clyde Drexler .728 .811 .788 5.49 1984-98
Michael Jordan .845 .850 .835 8.18 1985-93; 96-98; 02-03
Kobe Bryant .819 .853 .839 7.74 1997-
Tracy McGrady .712 .748 .747 6.38 1998-
LeBron James .754 .712 .728 8.65 2004-

* Includes ABA stats

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:57 PM


Carnival of the NBA #61 Hosted by Both Teams Played Hard

Carnival of the NBA #61 is being hosted by Both Teams Played Hard.

I submitted my analysis of the Iverson-Billups trade:

Will Iverson Provide a Championship Answer for Detroit?

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:31 PM


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Smooth All-Around Performance by Paul Lifts Hornets Over Heat

Chris Paul had 21 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and four steals as the New Orleans Hornets beat the Miami Heat 100-89, ending a two game losing streak. David West added 21 points and nine rebounds and Tyson Chandler contributed 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds as New Orleans outrebounded Miami 45-37. Dwyane Wade scored a game-high 30 points in addition to posting 10 assists and six rebounds.

Paul has opened the season with six straight games with at least 20 points and 10 assists, breaking the previous record of five set by Oscar Robertson in 1968. Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of this record. Robertson averaged an aggregate triple double for the first five years of his career, including 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg in 1961-62, the only time an NBA player has averaged a triple double for a whole season. So, Robertson did not just put up 20-10--he put up 30-10, plus 10-plus rpg, for five years. It is hard to believe that Robertson never started a season with more than five straight 20-10 games but if he had something like 35-9 plus 12 rebounds that means more than just having an arbitrarily defined 20-10 streak.

Also, there is no doubt that assists are awarded more liberally today than they previously were: in 1961-62, assists were awarded on 52.2% of made field goals, while last year assists were awarded on 58.4% of made field goals. Some people try to diminish the value of Robertson's triple doubles by saying that his numbers were inflated by the faster pace of his era but in 1962 he led the NBA with 11.4 apg while the next player (Guy Rodgers) only averaged 8.0 apg--and this was in a league in which the average team scored 118.8 ppg! If "pace" affects assist totals so much then how come only Robertson apparently benefited? Last season, the average NBA team scored 99.9 ppg but four players averaged more than 10 apg, topped by Paul's 11.6 apg. It is naive to think that assists are being scored the same way now that they were in Robertson's era and for that reason it is a bit hard to take seriously the ppg-apg "records" that Paul supposedly broke in last year's playoffs or at the start of this season. Don't get me wrong: Paul is a terrific passer and a marvelous point guard--definitely the top point guard in the NBA right now, in my opinion. His passing against the Heat was superb: Paul's third quarter alley-oop lob pass to Chandler from beyond the three point line was amazing and Paul's best feed of the game may have been a fourth quarter bounce pass that was not an assist but resulted in a free throw opportunity for Chandler.

You may recall that I tracked the scorekeeping of Paul's assists in two playoff games last season: in game one versus the Spurs, three of his seven official assists to West were clearly incorrect (Paul did not even pass to West at all on one of the plays!) and another assist was marginal at best, while in game seven Paul officially had 14 assists but he should have only been credited with nine. The Heat game was the first complete Hornets' contest that I watched this season, so I decided to once again chart Paul's assists. I used a slightly different method this time; in the playoffs I waited to see the official play by play sheet and then I went back to a tape of the game to review each officially credited assist but for the Heat game I scored Paul's assists live and then compared my results with the official play by play sheet afterwards. This way, I could evaluate not only the passes that were officially called assists but I could also see if Paul made some passes that should have been called assists but were not. By my reckoning, Paul should have been credited with 11 assists versus Miami, not 13.

I agreed completely with the official scorekeeper on Paul's first six assists but assist number seven--on a West shot at the 3:36 mark of the second quarter--strikes me as dubious at best. West and Paul tossed the ball back and forth as the Heat doubled West in the post and then West received the ball deep enough in the paint to make his move: he dribbled, spun, did an up and under, made the shot and was fouled. An assist is supposed to be awarded if the recipient makes an immediate move to score after catching the pass AND if the pass contributed significantly to scoring the goal. West did go straight into a scoring motion after the last pass from Paul but West executed several different moves before sinking the shot, so it is pretty generous to award an assist on such a play; if that is an assist, then why wouldn't an assist be awarded every time someone passes the ball to a player who eventually scores? More to the point, if that is an assist, then how valuable or meaningful of a statistic is this? It does not take much skill to stand still behind the three point line, pass to David West and watch him put on a Kevin McHale low post clinic, so in my opinion it cheapens the value of the assist statistic to equate such a pass with the high degree of difficulty passes that Paul threw that deservedly were recorded as assists.

Paul's eighth official assist is even more questionable: at the 1:42 mark of the second quarter, he passed to Morris Peterson, who then dribbled twice, possibly took an extra step and then scored a tough layup over Wade. It is technically true that an assist can be awarded on a play in which the recipient dribbles more than once but, again, an assist is supposed to indicate that a pass made a significant contribution to the score: simply being the last person to pass the ball before someone else took a shot is not sufficient. If Paul had gotten a defensive rebound and passed ahead to Peterson, who took three dribbles and scored an uncontested fast break layup that would absolutely be an assist--the number of dribbles taken is not as important as the amount of defensive resistance the shooter encounters; simply passing to a player in a half court set and watching that player create his own shot should not be awarded with an assist.

Let me reiterate that I am by no means picking on Paul; I consider him to be the best point guard in the NBA. My issue is with how assists are being recorded and my question is whether Paul is benefiting from home cooking in this regard (all three games that I have tracked were home games for Paul), whether top playmakers get the benefit of the doubt in general or if the standards for assists have simply been lowered across the board. Over the course of this season, I plan to do similar tracking of Paul's assists in a road game and I also plan to do some charting of the scorekeeping of the assists of other top playmakers.

As for Miami, the Heat are obviously immensely better than they were last year. Wade has regained his explosiveness and he once again drives relentlessly to the basket. Miami's primary offensive option is Wade dribbling around until he decides to either shoot or pass; in one late game sequence, Wade was the last Heat player to cross midcourt on offense and the other four Heat players simply stood around like little kids waiting for permission to cross the street: they did not even consider the possibility of trying to run an offensive set or create an open shot by dribble penetration. Rookie point guard Mario Chalmers has played actively on defense and he is averaging more than five apg but Wade is clearly running the show.

Rookie first round draft choice Michael Beasley is clearly the second scoring option, although he had an off game versus the Hornets (10 points on 4-13 shooting, four rebounds). Beasley is a versatile player who can shoot, rebound and pass but he needs a road map, a compass and GPS to figure out where to go and what to do defensively; at that end of the court he looks like he graduated from the Carmelo Anthony school of being out of position. Also, in a previous telecast, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy made the excellent observation that Beasley plays defense with his hands down instead of having his hands up in the passing lanes. Only time will tell if Beasley will develop greater interest and competence defensively; he clearly has the physical tools to at least be an adequate defender if he decides to do so.

Everyone else on the Heat roster is an afterthought on offense, picking up the scraps that are left over; that is certainly a strange role for four-time All-Star Shawn Marion and, considering that Marion felt unappreciated in Phoenix when he was scoring 17-20 ppg, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for him to express displeasure with how the Heat are using him, particularly since this is a contract year for him. For long stretches Marion (10 points, eight rebounds) was completely invisible and he is far too talented of a player to simply be floating around on the court without having a noticeable impact. Perhaps Marion is still adjusting to wearing the modified Phantom of the Opera mask to protect his recent facial injury but it just seems like he is a third wheel on this team: Wade monopolizes the ball and when Wade is not dribbling or shooting then either Beasley is going one on one or someone else is catching the ball and shooting from the perimeter.

Regardless of what Marion's role will turn out to be, the positives for Miami are that Wade looks like an elite player again, Beasley is a legit 18-20 ppg scorer, Chalmers is a tenacious defender and the Heat in general are playing with a lot of energy. They should certainly be able to contend for one of the last two playoff spots in the East.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 AM