20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Kobe Bryant: "A Straight-A Student Who Still Goes to all the Extra Study Sessions"

ESPN's Mark Jackson sometimes refers to "fake hustle," meaning that an athlete does something to make it look like he is trying hard but it's all for show. That is what I think of most of the time when I see coaches ranting, raving and screaming on the sidelines. Think about it: how often do you see truly great coaches do that? John Wooden used to sit placidly on the bench with a rolled up program in his hands. Phil Jackson sometimes seems to be looking at his fingernails more than the game. A cynic might say that those guys had/have the horses, so they don't need to say or do much--but someone who really understands the game knows that the most important coaching is done behind the scenes in practice while preparing the players for the games. Once the game begins, it is up to the players to utilize what the coach has taught them. If the players are not adequately prepared before the game, there is not too much that can be said to them during the game to make up for that.

The reality is that most games--not just basketball games but any kind of games--are won before they begin, at least when the opponents are fairly evenly matched from a talent standpoint; the players/teams that are better prepared and better focused are most likely going to win.

That is why this L.A. Times story about Kobe Bryant's disciplined preparation habits is so meaningful: Bryant's edge over other top players is not solely based on athleticism or flashy plays or hype; it is based on studying the strengths and weaknesses of opposing players and applying that knowledge to gain an advantage during games. You really should read the whole article but in case you don't, here are three quotes about how Kobe Bryant uses video study to prepare for games:

1) "Hands down, he's the biggest video fiend we've ever had," said Chris Bodaken, the Lakers' director of video services. "I didn't know if it was possible to be more competitive than Magic was, but I think he might be. It carries over into his preparation, and this is part of that."

2) "It's a blueprint," said Bryant, an eight-time member of the NBA all-defensive team. "So if something goes down, it's not something you haven't seen before. Everybody's got tendencies. If he scores 40 on Monday, he's going to try to do it on Tuesday. You've got to take him out of his spots. That's the key."

3) When the Lakers hired Phil Jackson in 1999, Bryant was tipped off that his new coach sometimes asked video coordinators to edit random on-screen words into video packages viewed by the entire team before practice. Jackson would then ask a particular player which word just flashed on the screen, the equivalent of a pop quiz for multi-millionaire athletes.

"I remember mentioning that to Kobe once and he just laughed," Bodaken said. "The concept of not watching something on film was so foreign to him."

So, the next time you see Bryant charge into the paint to grab a key offensive rebound versus a bigger opponent or jump into the passing lane to snare a key steal or position himself to prevent a top scorer from making his favorite move in crunch time, you will understand and appreciate that such plays are the product of dedicated study. In a league full of elite athletes, it is very difficult to gain an edge and the slightest advantage is very important, much like a tenth of a second difference is huge in an Olympic sprint; knowledge is power and the best athletes are very knowledgeable, at least regarding the intricacies of their craft. The lasting image that I will always have of Dennis Rodman is not his hairstyle or tattoos but the fact that when he joined the Bulls he studied the arc of each of his teammates' shots so that he would know how to position himself for offensive rebound opportunities. Rodman also studied a lot of tape of opposing players, though he reportedly would turn the VCR off if members of the media came into the locker room; he had his own reasons for developing and maintaining a certain kind of reputation/image but any of his coaches will tell you that his basketball IQ was off the charts. Rodman may have acted like the court jester but he was a veritable Einstein in high tops and he understood rebounding angles like Euclid knew geometry.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 AM


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Kobe New and Improved or Just More Appreciated?

Golden State Coach Don Nelson recently said that Kobe Bryant "is not just the best player in the league but probably the best leader."

Broderick Turner of the L.A. Times reports that Nelson had some additional comments about Bryant:

He allows these guys to do their thing and be successful and encourages them. He makes them even better than they are by playing alongside of him. He truly makes everybody better when he's on the floor with them.

And you couldn't say that five years ago. But now you can say it. That's why he's such a complete player. When coaches look at players, we look at them a little bit differently. Do they make their surrounding teammates better? The answer with him is yes, yes, yes.

Coaches and scouts watch game film to break down player and team tendencies, so they know exactly who is creating scoring opportunities and defensive stops and who is dependent on someone else to create scoring opportunities and cover up defensive mistakes; statistics tell (some) of what happened in a basketball game but do not explain how it happened.

Bryant was understandably pleased when someone told him about Nelson's remarks: "That means a lot, because that's always been a big knock toward my game. To hear that coming from him, it means a lot. It means I'm doing the right thing." However, Bryant does not agree with the notion that five years ago he did not make teammates better:

I think my role changed so people looked for me to do that. When Shaq was here, people think that he got a lot of easy baskets because he was Shaq. I was feeding all of those. It's not something that's new to me. I think just the perception of me having a different role has brought to the forefront what I'm doing for everybody else. It's tough to say you made Shaq better. I just think on this team it gets a little more enhanced. It's because of the spotlight. 'This is Kobe's team.' So now everybody is looking at my leadership and what am I doing. The team we had before, I was still a leader...It was more on the lower level, more undercover. Now, you have the spotlight, so people look at that. This is not something that's new to me, to be honest. I think it's just the attention that people paid to it is a lot greater now than it was then.

Numbers don't tell the whole story and assists are a subjective statistic but it is worth noting that Bryant led the Lakers in assists per game (apg) in the regular season and the playoffs during each of their three championship seasons (2000, 2001, 2002). Ironically, even though Bryant is receiving more praise than ever for being a team leader and willing passer, he has had several seasons in which his apg averages exceeded the numbers he posted last season (5.4 apg) and this season (4.2 apg in 30 games); Bryant's career-high is the 6.0 apg he averaged in 2004-05. The reality is that Bryant has been a willing and able playmaker for quite some time; assist averages have a lot to do with scorekeeping and the placement of the players on the court (Bryant often creates shots by drawing double teams but does not get assists on those plays because he makes the first pass out of the trap, not the final pass before the shot). The only way to truly understand Bryant's role as a playmaker (or anyone else's role as a playmaker) is to watch the Lakers play and see how he creates open shots for himself and his teammates.

The ironic thing is that it is almost an annual rite of passage for someone to declare that we are witnessing a "new" Kobe Bryant who is now a willing passer; that may have been a legitimate story angle in 2000, when Bryant led the Lakers in assists for the first time, but it is old news now.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:04 AM


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Allen Iverson and the Wages of Wins

The Wages of Wins Journal (WoW) is a popular sports statistics site based on a book titled Wages of Wins; WoW is frequently cited by mainstream media sources, including best selling writer Malcolm Gladwell and Henry Abbott's popular True Hoop blog (Abbott has also provided links to several of my articles, both from 20 Second Timeout and other publications). While I disagree with the methodologies and conclusions of many "stat gurus," I particularly find fault with WoW, starting with the basic premise of WoW creator Dave Berri that not only can basketball (and other sports) be understood without even watching the games but that watching the games biases the viewer because he is more likely to be influenced by a few spectacular-looking plays at the cost of losing sight of the larger picture. Competent NBA executives, coaches and scouts don't watch games in the way that Berri describes and it is insulting to imply otherwise; I believe that to understand NBA basketball you first must watch games with understanding and only then can you utilize certain statistical tools to add nuance and detail to what you observed--but the numbers can never take the place of watching games with understanding.

Berri's statistical system is based on calculating "wins produced"; he claims to be able to determine exactly how many of a team's wins each player "produced." This approach has led to some "interesting" conclusions: Berri applied his metric to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won a record 72 regular season games en route to capturing the NBA championship and he concluded (page 144 of Wages of Wins), "Per 48 minutes played, Rodman's productivity even eclipsed Jordan. Rodman's WP48 of 0.415 was four times the production offered by an average player in the NBA and even surpassed the 0.386 WP48 posted by Jordan."

Dennis Rodman was a great player, a Hall of Fame caliber player (though he will likely not be inducted for reasons that have nothing to do with his basketball accomplishments)--but to suggest that on a per minute basis Rodman was more productive than Jordan is silly. Why does WoW make such a silly contention? WoW places a very high value on rebounding, a lower value on scoring and completely disregards the value of being able to create a shot (for oneself or for one's teammates); this also explains how Berri could assert--using the same metric that crowned Rodman over Jordan--that early in the 2007-08 season Andrew Bynum was more productive on a per minute basis than Kobe Bryant. The reality, then and now, is that Andrew Bynum is a young big man who has a lot of talent but he is still developing into someone who can be a productive player on a consistent basis; there are very good reasons why L.A. Coach Phil Jackson has tried to lower the public's expectations about Bynum and why Jackson has often benched Bynum down the stretch in games. Of course, Berri would likely assert that he simply understands the real value of NBA players better than Jackson and other NBA decision makers do; don't laugh, because that is not a sarcastic comment: Berri truly believes that by NOT watching NBA games he can more completely understand them than NBA lifers do, which makes almost as little sense as saying that by not working out you can attain the same level of physical fitness of a world class athlete who works out regularly.

Allen Iverson is one of WoW's favorite targets. On page 136 of Wages of Wins, Berri wrote, "At the end of the day, by some numbers Iverson is truly great. By other numbers, though, he is very far below the average player. When you summarize the great and the not-so-great into one metric, the net value of Iverson during his career is a bit below the average NBA player" (p. 136). Iverson's style of play and off court dramas are not everyone's cup of tea but to assert that overall he is "a bit below the average NBA player" is delusional.

Naturally, it would not be very good for the credibility of WoW if Iverson does well individually or if he leads his team to a successful season. Therefore, WoW frequently contains articles "proving" that Iverson is responsible for many of his team's losses and very few of their wins. I've done posts about the flaws of WoW (including one titled The Counterfeit Currency of David Berri's Wages of Wins) but the system is so obviously misguided that I eventually lost interest in even discussing it; however, a recent WoW post about Allen Iverson is so tendentious that I not only rebutted it but I did so at their site:

Really the Answer is Iverson

In the above post, WoW asserts that Iverson is the main reason that the Detroit Pistons struggled a bit after trading Chauncey Billups to Denver in exchange for Iverson and Antonio McDyess. As I noted in my comment at WoW, McDyess is not a mere throw-in with this deal; he was Detroit's leading rebounder last season by a wide margin and without his services the Pistons plummeted from near the top of the league in rebounding differential to near the bottom. The loss of McDyess' paint presence is a major reason that the Pistons did not win at their usual rate, not anything that Iverson did. By NBA rule, the Pistons could not re-sign McDyess for a month but now he is back with the team and Detroit is doing quite well, riding a four game winning streak that includes a victory last night over Orlando, ending the Magic's seven game winning streak.

It is horribly biased and just downright sloppy to purportedly analyze the impact that a trade has had on a team without even mentioning one of the key components in that deal (McDyess); just because Denver had no intention of keeping McDyess (due to their own roster and salary cap considerations) does not mean that he lacks value--far from it. This is what bothers me about WoW and other "stat gurus": they pretend to be engaging in a scientific, objective evaluation of basketball but once their precious systems make certain conclusions about player values then they feel duty bound to slant their articles to make it seem as though they have found the "Holy Grail" of basketball stat analysis. The formulas are considered to be error-free, so any difference between what the formulas say and what happens in the real world is the result of you believing what your "lying eyes" tell you. WoW stated that Iverson is a "below average" player, the Pistons struggled a bit after the trade, therefore WoW decided that this would be a perfect time to do a post reminding the world that for some time WoW has boldly gone against conventional wisdom with its rating of Iverson; data about McDyess does not fit into this "higher truth" and therefore is completely ignored.

I was disgusted after I read this WoW post and this has nothing to do with being a fan of a particular player or team; I really don't care how many games Detroit or Denver win this year and I don't think that Iverson is the best player in the NBA (though he certainly is well above average). What bothers me is that this post is either very poorly thought through or else deliberately deceptive--and although I think that WoW is misguided I don't think that they are stupid, so deliberately deceptive gets my vote. Basically, the post is the basketball equivalent of propaganda, like one of those political attack ads (by either party) that very selectively chooses information in order to not just make the opposition look bad but to completely distort the very essence of what that person is.

In my comments in the discussion thread after the WoW post, I made several of the above points and then offered three predictions:

1) By the end of this season, Denver will drop from second in the West (where the Nuggets were when the post was published) to a battle for the eighth-ninth spots; I expect the Nuggets to fall just short of making the playoffs, despite all of this overheated talk about a "new" Denver team and the ludicrous assertions in some quarters that Billups should be the MVP (which makes as little sense as crowning Gilbert Arenas an MVP candidate a few years ago when the Wizards were in first place in the East for a minute and a half but clearly were not the best team in the East, much like this year's Nuggets are clearly not an elite team in the West).

2) By the end of the season, Detroit will be battling Orlando for the third spot in the East.

3) Denver will struggle to beat plus-.500 teams, which is the main reason that I expect the Nuggets to plummet in the standings (they had been feasting on weak teams in the immediate aftermath of the trade).

There is still a long way to go, but the Pistons are 9-3 this season with McDyess in the lineup (two of those victories happened prior to the trade). Meanwhile, the Nuggets have gone 3-5 in their last eight games, including four losses by at least nine points versus plus-.500 teams; the Hawks drilled them 109-91 last night.

You can rest assured that whatever happens down the stretch, WoW will not budge from their engraved in stone conclusion that Iverson is a "below average player." If the Pistons drop off the map, it will be all his fault (according to WoW); if the Pistons perform along the lines that I expect, WoW will suddenly "discover" McDyess or someone else who will get credit for the wins, leaving Iverson to take the blame for the early losses. As for Denver, the story will be very similar but in reverse, because Billups scores well in WoW's metric: Billups will get credit for Denver's wins, someone else will get the blame for the losses.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM


Monday, December 29, 2008

Carnival of the NBA #62 Hosted by Hoops Addict

Carnival of the NBA #62 is being hosted by Hoops Addict.

I submitted my recap/analysis of the Lakers/Celtics game:

Bryant Leads the Way as Lakers End Celtics' 19 Game Winning Streak

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:20 PM


Golden State Coach Don Nelson on Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 31 points on 9-15 field goal shooting and had a game-high four steals as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors 130-113 on Sunday. Golden State Coach Don Nelson, who won five championships while playing for the Boston Celtics and has earned three Coach of the Year awards, believes that the Lakers are the best team in the NBA and he explained the primary reason that the Lakers enjoy that status:

"Kobe now has a grasp on the game like no other player and he controls it when he wants to. He makes the players alongside him succeed and he is a real leader out there. He has the whole package going for him; he is not just the best player in the league but probably the best leader. He could get 50 any time, I'm sure."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM