New York State of Mind, Part IIMike K. of Knickerblogger vehemently disagrees with my recent article about the New York Knicks. There are many interesting issues to examine here and I will get to the basketball related ones shortly but first I want to touch on a different subject, namely who "owns" a piece of creative work? That question does not refer to copyright ownership but rather the issue of how a work is interpreted. Does a work mean what the creator says it means or once it is published does it mean whatever various readers interpret it to mean? For instance, Bruce Springsteen intended "Born in the U.S.A" to be a protest song about the suffering of Vietnam veterans but it was widely interpreted to be a patriotic anthem (not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive but the primary message that Springsteen meant to communicate is not the one that many people received). Should an artist, writer or performer explain what his art means to him or simply accept that once his art is viewed by the public it could mean many different things to different people?
Some people respond politely but briefly to criticism, some people fly off of the handle and resort to making ad hominem comments and others ignore criticism completely. I've often been advised to do the latter and at times my reluctance to do so is interpreted to mean that I enjoy confrontation, which is far from the truth; I neither enjoy confrontations nor do I shirk them but I despise ignorance and misinformation, so my desire to correct those things inevitably leads me into the fray.
In other words, I think that the article I wrote about the Knicks is pretty straightforward and anyone who is intelligent and reads it with an unbiased, open mind can see that what I said is measured and logical. Here are rebuttals to Mike K.'s specific criticisms (his comments are presented in italics):
The author, David Friedman, talks about the Knicks hot start and recent cool down. He shows D’Antoni’s current win percentage to be similar to Isiah’s first year, which I thought was odd since it’s more relevant to use the previous season. However I let it slide because Friedman promised to use “several key statistics” to prove his point.
The reason that I compared D'Antoni's first season to Thomas' first season is that D'Antoni has only been in New York for one year, so by definition no second season comparison can be made. In Thomas' first season, the Knicks improved from a .280 winning percentage to a .402 winning percentage--and then the next year they dropped right back to .280. When D'Antoni has completed a second season in New York then we can compare his two years with Thomas' two years. My point is that despite all of the buzz about the Knicks they have yet to prove that they are better than they were initially under Thomas. Sometimes coaches have a honeymoon period and then the players tune them out. Injuries and roster moves also can obviously affect the won-loss record. As I wrote in my original article, "Quick quiz: Do the Knicks have a higher winning percentage this year in Mike D'Antoni's first season with the team than they did in 2006-07, Isiah Thomas' first season as New York's coach?" I think that there is a perception that the Knicks have made a complete about face under D'Antoni. All I am saying is that it is too early to know whether or not that is really the case; I also think that it is worth noting that the Knicks have been getting worse as the season progresses, particularly on defense.
Long time KnickerBlogger readers will know that Friedman’s choice of per game stats is a poor choice of rating a team’s ability. By using per possession stats, we can see that the Knicks are currently 15th & 23rd on offense and defense respectively. This is a clear improvement from last year's team which was 23rd on offense and 29th on defense. It’s true that the rebounding has slipped, although the Knicks are better on the defensive glass. Although it’s not true that the team is worse off in shooting percentage. Using eFG we can see that last year the team had a shooting differential of -4.3%, which has risen to -1.9% under D’Antoni.
Now we get to the crux of the problem: I cited actual real world numbers--New York's winning percentage, plus the team's scoring average, points allowed average, point differential, field goal percentage differential and rebounding differential. In contrast, Mike relies on "advanced" numbers to "prove" how much better the Knicks are. The problem is that in the real world of wins and losses, the current Knicks are no better than Thomas' Knicks were in his first year--and even though this year's team is winning more games than last year's team, the Knicks rank dead last in field goal percentage differential, have gotten markedly worse on the boards and have not improved their point differential ranking much, though the raw number has improved from -6.6 to -2.6; the reason that I emphasize the importance of ranking over the raw number is that if a team's differential ranks near the bottom of the league then no matter what the raw number is that team is not going to have a good record relative to the other teams.
The author moves from talking about the Knicks to an overall indictment of D’Antoni’s style of play. He accuses the coach of “neglecting the defensive end of the court” (something that was refuted by Kevin Pelton earlier this year) and launches into a defense wins championships attack on D’Antoni. His proof is that the “[Chicago Bulls] consistently rebounded and defended well… en route to the 1996 championship the Bulls won seven of the eight playoff games in which Jordan shot .440 or worse from the field.” It’s true that those Bulls teams played great defense, but let’s not forget that they were fueled by their offense. Of their 6 championship teams, Chicago was ranked #1 on offense 4 times and #1 on defense only once.
Pelton's article about the Knicks--which was written in January, before New York's recent swoon when the Knicks have regularly given up 100-plus ppg--does not "refute" anything and I will address that in a moment but first let's get rid of the notion that he is some expert on NBA defense. Pelton claimed early in this season that the Lakers were using some kind of revolutionary new defensive scheme; the reality is that the Lakers had a favorable schedule (10 home games in their 14-1 start) and that most of their so-called "new" scheme merely represented the coaching staff's attempts to take advantage of the length/quickness of their personnel in fairly standard ways: when I asked Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons what new things the Lakers were doing defensively, he told me, "The only thing we’re doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we’re sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There’s no big secret about it; that’s what we’re trying to do: give more help when we can and we’ve been fortunate thus far." When I followed up by asking Cleamons to compare the current Lakers' defense with the 1996 Bulls championship team (for whom he was also an assistant coach), he replied, "That (Chicago) team had a certain chemistry in that they knew how to help. That’s why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don’t know how to help—when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn’t have to change up. We would have just gotten better at what we did" (emphasis added). In other words, the truth about the Lakers' defense is precisely the opposite of what Pelton wrote: the so-called "new" scheme was not some kind of defensive revolution but rather the coaching staff's attempt to organize the defensive efforts of some players who do not have great defensive instincts. As the Lakers have faced stronger teams and more road games, it has become apparent that their defense is not as great as Pelton suggested.
A couple months after my first interview with Cleamons, I caught up with him again and asked him to give a "mid-term" report card on the Lakers' defense. He said, "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."
I did not initially call Pelton out by name regarding the Lakers but merely refuted what he wrote by publishing those interviews. However, the idea that Pelton's Knicks article "refutes" what I wrote simply cannot go unanswered. The assertion--by Mike K., Pelton or anyone else--that the Knicks are either good defensively this year or simply better defensively than last year is demonstrably false and you don't need so-called "advanced" numbers to prove this. I already mentioned the Knicks' poor point differential--the raw number is better this year, but the ranking is nearly as bad. The Knicks are last in field goal percentage differential (the difference between what they shoot and what their opponents' shoot); granted, some of that has to do with their own shooting percentage but they are also 28th in defensive field goal percentage. Last year, they were last in field goal percentage differential and 28th in defensive field goal percentage. Those numbers are terrible and when you combine that with the Knicks' rebounding woes the overall defensive picture is ugly. The Knicks have also dropped from 22nd to 28th in points allowed. I know that all of the "stat gurus" will scream that per game stats are not as important as pace. It is true that the Knicks are scoring at a faster pace but they are also giving up points at a faster pace, their point differential is still deep in the red and the shooting percentage that they concede is awful. Good defensive teams strive to hold teams to under .450 shooting and the Knicks are not even close to meeting that standard.
By the way, the so-called "advanced" numbers are viewed with derision by Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, who told me that the numbers he looks at most are "Opponent’s field goal percentage, first, and then opponent’s points, second, but the opponent’s field goal percentage is a big thing for me." Realizing that "stat gurus" mock the importance of total points, I asked Coach Brown about that again and he confirmed that he looks at total opponent's points even more than differential. He wants the Cavs to hold their opponents to fewer than 90 points on sub-.400 shooting and fewer than 20 free throw attempts--to defend without fouling. He stated plainly that he is not a numbers guy overall and he said that Gregg Popovich--who he served under as an assistant coach for the 2003 champion Spurs--"is not a stat guy either." When I mentioned to Coach Brown how much Houston GM Daryl Morey relies on stats, Brown replied with the line of the year about basketball statistical analysis: "Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?" Coach Brown later added, "It’s a thing that, yes, if you use it the right way it can be helpful, but if you try to use stats too much I don’t know if it’s going to bring you a championship, at least from what I’ve experienced. We didn’t need those types of detailed stats to win a championship in San Antonio."
The bottom line about D'Antoni's Knicks defensively so far is that they give up too many points, allow opponents to shoot too good of a percentage and they get killed on the glass.
Regarding Mike K.'s comments about the 1996 Bulls, they obviously were great on offense and defense; that is why they won 72 games. The important point that far too many people neglect to understand is that the great teams play defense on a game in, game out basis and that forms their foundation, because even the best offensive players and offensive teams can have off nights. As I noted in my article, the 1996 Bulls were able to win in the playoffs even when Michael Jordan had bad shooting games. The Bulls' high offensive rankings would not have meant a thing in those playoff games without their great defense; if you shoot poorly and lose a game seven because you cannot rebound and defend, all of the "advanced" numbers in the world won't make you a champion.
The relevance of all this to the Knicks is that there is a ceiling to how good the Knicks (or any other team) can be if they do not meet certain standards defensively in terms of point differential, defensive field goal percentage and rebounding. My article Recent NBA Champions by the Numbers discusses how much championship level success correlates with outstanding performance in those categories.
You can excuse Friedman for using archaic stats, but what’s not excusable is how he cherry picks the facts to support his argument. He specifically picks Isiah’s first season to compare with D’Antoni, because the numbers are much closer (.402 to .406) than comparing D’Antoni’s improvement over last year (.280 to .406). You have to wonder if he spelled out ‘fourth’ because saying the team improved from 21st to 4th is easier to process visually. And take for example his paragraph on the Knicks where Friedman ignores one key piece of evidence: point differential. By using points per game, he shows that the Knicks have improved by 4 points over last year (from -6.6 to -2.6). However this significant change is swept under the rug with “[it's] only a few spots better than last season.” You get the feeling that Freidman made up his mind long before he checked the stats out. As a statistical sports blogger, I get a lot of readers new to the field that have a general distrust of numbers. Statistically dishonest articles like Freidman’s helps to reinforce this skepticism, and are a disservice to all sports writers.
First, I have to enjoy the irony of being lectured to about proper journalism by someone who repeatedly misspelled my name. As for the stats that I cited being "archaic," Popovich and Brown would disagree. When the NBA's top defensive coaches evaluate their teams they look at exactly the numbers that I cited about the Knicks--that is why I cited those numbers in the first place. I'm not trying to look cool to the "stat gurus"; I'm trying to explain how and why basketball games are actually won and lost. Proclaiming that the Knicks are actually good defensively or that the Lakers have a new defensive scheme may get you "street cred" (or geek cred) in certain quarters but those are demonstrably incorrect statements.
Saying that I "cherry picked" facts is also false. As I stated above, I compared D'Antoni's year one to Thomas' year one simply because D'Antoni has not yet had a year two in New York. All D'Antoni has done in his first year is a "turnaround" comparable to the one that Thomas did after Larry Brown's tenure. Maybe the Knicks will win 50 games next year and maybe they will regress to a .280 winning percentage, but we don't know now what will happen; the late season decline certainly cannot be encouraging to Knicks fans. I understand that the Knicks are trying to position themselves for the future in terms of the salary cap but if the team is lousy and does not employ the defensive minded philosophy that is proven to win championships then why would a max level player--who can get max level money from several different teams--come to New York? My article about the Knicks does not deal with hypothetical scenarios but simply details how the Knicks are performing this year.
Also, I certainly did not hide from the reader the fact that the Knicks have a better record this year than they did last year. I wrote, "Of course, Knicks' fans surely remember that in Thomas' second season as New York's coach, the team's winning percentage dropped to .280, which is exactly the winning percentage that Larry Brown had in his only season as New York's coach (in the year prior to Thomas taking over the coaching duties); the hope/expectation in New York is that the Knicks will steadily improve under D'Antoni and not regress the way that they did under Thomas but that is why the team's late season collapse should raise eyebrows: Several key statistics suggest that the Knicks are what their record says they are--a lower tier team, albeit one that now plays at a much faster pace." If I were "cherry picking" numbers then I obviously would have left out the direct reference to last year's record. The previously discussed recitation of defensive stats followed that paragraph.
The comment about spelling out "fourth" just betrays Mike K.'s ignorance of basic journalistic practices; numbers less than 10 are generally written out as words. To suggest that I chose that formulation for some nefarious reason is silly.
Obviously, my article was neither "dishonest" nor a "disservice." Those terms much more accurately apply to people who are so blinded by either their support of a particular team and/or their nearly religious faith in "advanced" numbers that they are unwilling to even entertain an alternative viewpoint. Compare how Mike K. concluded his screed with the measured tone that I used to conclude my article:
"The Knicks have not had a winning record since 2000-01. They have been bad for a long time and it may take a while before they are good again. No one should rush to judgment after D'Antoni's first season with the franchise but there are two interesting dynamics to watch with the Knicks, namely what roster changes new team president Donnie Walsh makes in the next year or two and whether or not D'Antoni is willing/able to coax a better defensive performance out of this team.
'Defense' may be a four letter word to D'Antoni but if the Knicks want to spell a certain 12 letter word --'championship'-- for the first time since 1973 then defense will have to become a part of their collective vocabulary, as should be obvious by watching the teams who currently sit atop the Eastern Conference, Cleveland and defending NBA champion Boston."
Mike K. declares that I "cherry picked" numbers in a "dishonest" attempt to tell a biased story but the reality is that I simply cited the relevant numbers regarding the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Knicks, indicated that the D'Antoni Knicks have yet to surpass the level that the Thomas Knicks reached in 2007 and suggested that the Knicks need to make personnel and philosophical changes in order to become a good team.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:03 AM