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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0

A little over a month ago, I wrote about a New York Times article that discussed how the Houston Rockets use basketball statistical analysis to make personnel decisions and game plans. As I indicated in my article, I respect the approach taken by Houston General Manager Daryl Morey because "Morey appears to understand the limits of a purely mathematical approach to the game and thus uses numbers to confirm what his eyes tell him--and vice versa. This is a completely different approach from the one taken by far too many stat gurus who are so enamored with their formulas that they dismiss the importance of actually watching games--perhaps because they are in fact not truly capable of watching basketball games with any real understanding of what is happening on the court." That is why I was surprised that Morey later asserted that the New York Times article focused on defending Bryant and not LeBron James because--in Morey's opinion--James is the best player in the NBA and there allegedly is not an effective game plan to use against James; the first part of Morey's statement is debatable and the second part is clearly wrong. To take the latter point first, on Friday night Orlando demonstrated once again that if you wall off the paint and force James to shoot midrange jumpers he can be held to a subpar (7-20 in this case) shooting night--and that was not a coincidence or a one time thing: as I have noted repeatedly, elite defensive teams (Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals, Celtics in 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals) consistently employ that game plan against James. James has improved his three point shooting and free throw shooting this year but his midrange game is still erratic at best; he is so good at getting to the hoop one tends not to notice this flaw until James meets greater defensive resistance.

As for Morey's contention that James is the best player in the NBA, I said last year that it was close between Bryant and James but that I gave the edge to Bryant. This year, it has again been close--contrary to what you may have heard--but since the All-Star break I thought that James had pulled slightly ahead. However, there is a reason that I don't believe in making definitive statements about close contests before those contests are over. It seemed like James and the Cavs had the league's best record all sewn up but now they have dropped two games in a row, enabling the Lakers to pull to within one game of the Cavs (and the Lakers own the tiebreak thanks to sweeping the season series).

Although I respect Morey's overall approach to statistics as described in the New York Times article, we need to completely put to rest the ideas that Shane Battier is some kind of Kobe Bryant stopper and that "advanced" statistics have given the Rockets an advantage versus Bryant. Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).

On Friday, Bryant scored 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting (including 4-6 from three point range) and he had a game-high seven assists in a 93-81 win over Houston. This season versus the Rockets, Bryant typically set up his teammates for the first three quarters and then went off in the fourth quarter--he averaged just over 11 ppg in the fourth quarter versus the Rockets, while shooting nearly .700 (that is not a misprint) from the field. In other words, he basically showed that even though Houston is an excellent defensive team that can alternate two great one on one defenders (Shane Battier and Ron Artest) on him, Bryant can score whenever and wherever he wants versus the Rockets. During the ESPN telecast of Friday's game, Mark Jackson repeatedly noted that a large percentage of the Lakers' offense was a direct result of Bryant's presence--not just the plays on which he earned assists, but also plays when he was double-teamed and thus created an open shot for a teammate just by virtue of his presence and the defensive attention that he demands. At one point early in the game, Bryant had only shot 1-3 from the field but the Rockets were still double teaming him because he is so dangerous and that is a major reason why Pau Gasol's field goal percentage has skyrocketed from around .500 to well over .560 since becoming Bryant's teammate. So much is said about various players making their teammates better but not nearly enough credit is given to Bryant for the huge impact he has had on Gasol's game.

The last time the Lakers played the Rockets, Bryant dropped 37 points on Houston, including 31 in the second half (on 11-17 field goal shooting) and 18 in the final 4:13. For some reason, Artest decided in the waning moments of that game to tell Bryant that he could lock him down, whereupon Bryant heartily laughed and retorted, "You're a standup comedian now." I don't know if Artest is really that great of a comedian but the notion that the Rockets have discovered how to stop Bryant is definitely a joke.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 AM


Friday, April 03, 2009

This Year RoY Should be Spelled R-O-S-E

No rookie averaged 20 ppg or made the All-Star team this season but Derrick Rose has been consistently productive from day one and his Chicago Bulls are in contention for a playoff berth. Point guard is generally considered to be the toughest position for a young NBA player to learn, which makes Rose's smooth transition to the NBA even more impressive.

Here is an analysis of the performances of this year's top rookies:

It is very difficult for a rookie to make an impact in the NBA, either individually or in terms of helping his team to substantially improve. Only two rookies have made the All-Star team since 1998, Tim Duncan (1998) and Yao Ming (2003). Since 2000, only four rookies have averaged at least 20 ppg (Elton Brand, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant). The last Rookie of the Year whose team made the playoffs is Amare Stoudemire (2003), who was a distant third in scoring (13.5 ppg) for the Phoenix Suns.

This season has not broken any of those patterns: no rookie made the All-Star team and no rookie is averaging 20 ppg. We cannot yet say whether or not the Rookie of the Year will play in the playoffs, because we do not know who the Rookie of the Year will be nor do we know the final playoff seedings. However, the fact that only one of the top Rookie of the Year candidates has his team in contention for a playoff berth certainly speaks in his favor; Derrick Rose has responded very well to the pressure of being the No. 1 overall draft pick and playing for his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, who currently hold a 1.5 game lead over Charlotte for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth. Rose is averaging 16.6 ppg, 6.2 apg and 3.9 rpg while putting up very solid shooting numbers from the field (.470) and the free-throw line (.791). His three-point shooting percentage is terrible (.235) but he is attempting less than one three-pointer per game, so he understands that he should not be firing away from long distance until he improves his accuracy.

Rose ranks 10th in the NBA in minutes played, which is a very impressive statistic for a young point guard: that shows that he has not hit the "rookie wall" mentally or physically and that his coach trusts him to be the team's leader at all times. Rose ranks first among all rookies in assists and second in scoring. He has been a very consistent performer, both in terms of his month to month production and by posting nearly identical scoring, rebounding and assist averages at home and on the road. Point guard is generally considered to be the toughest position for a young NBA player to learn but Rose has immediately emerged as a very solid contributor for a Bulls team that -- with six games remaining -- has already won three more games than they did last season.

O.J. Mayo averaged 23.1 ppg on .480 field goal shooting in November to unofficially take the early lead in the Rookie of the Year race but his numbers have dropped off dramatically since that time; in March he scored 14.7 ppg on .430 field goal shooting. Mayo is not a great rebounder, passer or defender, so his value mainly consists of how much -- and how efficiently -- he scores. While some people touted him as the most "NBA ready" rookie, I was a little less optimistic after I saw him play in the Summer League, when I offered this early assessment: "Mayo has the tools to be a good NBA scorer but it remains to be seen if he will be an impact player overall -- let alone a superstar -- or if he will primarily be a guy who, as the saying goes, "gets buckets.'" Mayo still leads all rookies in scoring (18.3 ppg) and his three point and free throw percentages (.375 and .876 respectively) are good but the Memphis Grizzlies are just as terrible this year with him as they were last year without him.

When Kevin McHale traded Mayo's draft rights as part of a deal to acquire Kevin Love, some critics made the predictable jokes referring to McHale's track record as Minnesota's General Manager and suggested that he had made a boneheaded move. It is unfortunate that snide comments are passed off as intelligent basketball analysis but the problem is that too many of the so-called experts do not have the foggiest idea about how to watch a player and actually form an intelligent opinion about whether or not he can play, so they shift the issue to a tired, old familiar storyline. I am not going to defend McHale's record because it has nothing to do with the real issue in this context, which is whether or not Love can play.

After I watched Love play in the Summer League, I wrote, "Regardless of the superficial impression that Love's movement creates, he knows how to play the game. He sets screens, makes the correct passes and goes to the glass aggressively at both ends of the court. Love seems to intuitively understand where he is supposed to go, like in one sequence when (teammate Pooh) Jeter drove, drew the defense and Love faded to the perimeter a la Bill Laimbeer, catching a pass and without hesitation drilling a jumper from just behind the college three-point line...In his first NBA action, Love displayed better than advertised mobility, willingness to attack the glass at both ends of the court and a good understanding of how to play offensively in terms of setting screens, making passes and operating in the paint. He made some 'rookie mistakes,' particularly defensively, but most of the things that he did wrong are correctable errors as opposed to fundamental problems with his game/skill set."

Love has surprised a lot of people who did not pay attention to the skill set that he displayed during the Summer League and he is averaging 11.2 ppg and 9.0 rpg (first among rookies, 10th in the league) while shooting .466 from the field and .787 from the free throw line. Love has really played well since the All-Star break, averaging 14.9 ppg and 9.5 rpg while increasing his shooting percentages to .487 and .803 respectively.

Mayo is arguably not even the best rookie on his own team: Marc Gasol is averaging 11.7 ppg (seventh among rookies) and 7.4 rpg (third among rookies) while shooting .532 from the field. While Mayo has been fading fast, Gasol has increased his production across the board since the All-Star break (13.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, .552 field goal shooting).

Brook Lopez has provided a solid inside presence for a New Jersey team that stayed on the fringes of the battle for the eighth playoff spot in the East until recently sliding backwards in the standings. He is averaging 12.9 ppg (sixth among rookies) and 7.9 rpg (second among rookies) while shooting .528 from the field. He ranks 10th in the NBA in total offensive rebounds and ninth in the league in blocked shots.

Two explosive rookie guards have emerged in the latter portion of the season. Eric Gordon of the L.A. Clippers is averaging 18.8 ppg on .458 field goal shooting since the All-Star break. Overall, though, Gordon is scoring 15.7 ppg (tied for third among rookies) for a team that has the second worst winning percentage in the West and the worst winning percentage for the franchise since 1999-00 -- remember, we're talking about the Clippers here! That just does not look like a Rookie of the Year resume, particularly in contrast to what Rose has accomplished.

The Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook is averaging 17.3 ppg since the All-Star break but he is only shooting .395 from the field during that time. For the season, he is averaging 15.7 ppg (tied with Gordon for third among rookies) and 5.1 apg (second among rookies) for a team that started slowly but now has a marginally better winning percentage than last year.

Mayo's early scoring exploits probably left a lingering impression that will garner him some Rookie of the Year votes but Rose is the most deserving candidate. It will be interesting to see if the voters are savvy enough to appreciate the non-flashy but quite substantive contributions being made by Gasol, Love and Lopez.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:45 AM


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Flow," Basketball and Prince

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied a phenomenon that he calls "flow": "The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as 'being in the zone,' religious mystics as being in 'ecstasy,' artists and musicians as 'aesthetic rapture.'"

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James experience "flow" when they play basketball at a higher level than anyone else currently does--not that they are the only players who experience "flow" but they are quintessential examples of it, whether you want to cite Bryant's 81 point game or James' 48 point outburst in game five versus the Pistons in 2007. When you watch someone who is the best at his craft perform you feel like that person is doing something that he was born to do, though of course it takes an enormous amount of "effortful study" to achieve what looks like effortless greatness. Tiger Woods stalking his prey on the back nine is another great example of "flow," as was Bobby Fischer slaying top grandmasters as if they were children.

In the classic Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever," Edith Keeler, who does not know that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are from the future but suspects that they are not who they say they are, says to Kirk and Spock that they seem to be "out of place" in her world. Spock asks her where she "would estimate we belong" and she replies, "You--at his side, as if you've always been there and always will." Keeler's words--"as if you've always been there and always will"--are an apt description of the "flow" experience, of someone doing exactly what he enjoys doing and was meant to do; Kirk and Spock made a perfect team, as Keeler noted when she observed that even when Spock did not address Kirk as "Captain" it was as if he had said it. Although Scottie Pippen proved to be a fine soloist in 1994--finishing third in MVP voting--after Michael Jordan temporarily retired, when Pippen played alongside Jordan it seemed as if he had "always been there and always will" be there because their games and skill sets blended so perfectly.

Actually, that Star Trek episode is also an example of "flow" in the sense that it was based on a masterfully crafted, award winning screenplay by Harlan Ellison, a screenplay that Ellison proudly proclaimed was so well written that even though he disagreed with changes that the show's producers made to his story they still could not destroy it (a great writer's ego is no less magnificent than the ego of a great athlete). Ellison's story powerfully examined the themes of destiny, friendship, loyalty and the danger of being ahead of one's time; Keeler envisioned a world of peace and cooperation but her pacifist views--if enacted into government policy at the time of the rise of Hitler--could have led to a victory for the Nazis (in one version of history portrayed in that episode, she led a pacifist movement that delayed America's entry into World War II, providing the Nazis enough time to develop the atomic bomb and conquer the world). As Spock said to Kirk, "She was right, but at the wrong time."

I have always enjoyed following the careers of performers who are able to achieve a "flow" state, particularly when they overcome or circumvent traditional norms. For instance, George Lucas used the money and influence that he gained from making "American Graffiti" to get the backing to film "Star Wars" and then he earned enough from "Star Wars" to achieve complete freedom from the Hollywood studio system, whereupon he removed himself from the mainstream bureaucracy of the film world and created his movies on his terms. Needless to say, most people do not have the necessary vision, courage and persistence to pull that off.

Prince has accomplished a similar feat in the music industry. He went from being a wunderkind at Warner Brothers who wrote, produced, delivered vocals and performed on an astounding variety of musical instruments to being a completely independent artist who dictates his own terms to record labels and distributors. Along the way, he received scorn for scrawling the word "slave" on his face and changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol but there was a method to his seeming madness: Warner Brothers wanted to control when and how he would distribute his music, while the incredibly prolific Prince simply wanted to release everything to the public as soon as he created it, whether or not this supposedly oversaturated the market. Since Warner Brothers owned his name (in a performing sense), Prince felt like a "slave" because he could not put his music out as Prince--so he circumvented the system with his "name change" until his Warner Brothers contract expired, whereupon he reclaimed his name and took total control over his music. Now he releases his music whenever and however he wants to, including his Planet Earth CD that he arranged to be given away with a newspaper in Great Britain in order to promote a series of concerts; in one fell swoop, Prince made a small fortune (he was paid in advance by the newspaper), sold out most of his appearances instantly and irritated Sony BMG, the corporate giant that was supposed to distribute the CD to retailers: for a nonconformist genius, it is hard to imagine a better day than that!

Prince's new three CD set titled LOtUSFLOW3R dropped on Sunday exclusively at Target and he promoted it by performing for three straight nights last week on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno." For his finale on Friday, Prince sang "Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful." I know that Prince is a big hoops fan and I swear that one verse of that song is supposed to represent what Kobe Bryant was thinking a few years back when he played with Kwame Brown: "I just can't recall what the ---- I was thinking when I threw you the ball/It hit three bystanders after you touched it/Now they want to sue me." Of course, Prince did not utter the "----" part because he has transitioned into a no profanity stage of his career after becoming notorious for some of his raunchy lyrics; it is interesting to observe the evolution of his efforts to balance the spiritual and carnal aspects of his personality, particularly because so many artists have struggled greatly with that dichotomy.

Prince dictated the format of his "Tonight Show" appearance, mainly that he would not be interviewed but instead would go straight into his performance after a brief introduction by Leno. The coolest thing about Prince--other than the amazing width and breadth of his musical talent--is that he has forged a path that enables him to uncompromisingly create his art and to share it with the world on his terms. If he does not want to sit on a couch and banter with a talk show host about banal topics then he simply won't do it; Prince knows that he is talented enough to merit being on the "Tonight Show" doing what he does best and he will not compromise anything to get what he deserves. You can bet that Prince would not have lost any sleep if the show's producers had rejected his terms; he simply would have gone ahead with his other plans and it would have been their loss, not his.

A lyric from Prince's new song "Ol' Skool Company" not only sums up the sad state of the music business but also is an apt description of the sad state of the writing business as well: "The songs we sang used to mean something/Now every other one's just mean." Prince often laments the state of the world and the state of the music business but he is not just some cranky old guy talking about the good old days--he still possesses the full range of his talents and when he brags about producing real music by real musicians that is not false bravado.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:16 PM


Numbers Adding Up Quite Nicely for Cavs

Like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant before him, LeBron James has relentlessly tackled the few weaknesses in his game; less than a month ago I referred to what I called James' "short 'to do list'" coming into this season, namely to improve his free throw shooting, his defense and his perimeter shot. James has made great strides in the first two areas and has made progress with this three point shooting, though his midrange jumper still needs some work.

James' individual improvement, the addition of All-Star Mo Williams and the great defense played on a nightly basis by a deep, talented roster have enabled the Cavs to transform what was once a close race for the number one overall seed into a decided runaway, as I explain in my newest article for CavsNews.com (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The most important number for the Cavs is their league leading 61-13 record, a mark that all but assures that they will have home court advantage throughout this year’s playoffs (barring an unimaginable collapse in the final eight games). However, there are some other numbers that are also quite impressive and that bode well for the team as LeBron James and company attempt to reach the NBA Finals for the second time in three years and try to win the franchise’s first championship (not to mention Cleveland’s first major professional sports title since the Browns ruled the NFL in 1964).

The Cavs own a 36-1 home record, so if they win their last four games at the Q they will tie the mark for the best home record in NBA history, set by the NBA Champion Boston Celtics in 1986. In those 37 home games, the Cavs have outscored their opponents by 14.3 ppg and held them to .414 field goal shooting. Although some pundits question Cleveland’s ability to win on the road in the playoffs—they apparently are unaware of LeBron James’ game five exploits versus Detroit in 2007 or the fact that in the past three years the Cavs have won 10 road playoff games—the Cavs own the league’s third best road record (25-12), ranking just behind the Lakers and Magic in that category. The Cavs are certainly capable of winning at least one road game in any playoff series, which would mean that their opponents would then have to beat the Cavs twice at the Q in order to advance.

The Lakers held the top spot in the NBA for longer than any other team this season but the Cavs roared past them by going 16-1 in March, tying the league record for most wins in a calendar month. The Cavs are currently riding a 13 game winning streak, the longest in franchise history. While the Cavs are peaking heading into the playoffs, last year’s NBA Finalists are not doing nearly as well. The Lakers went 10-5 in March, though to be fair it must be noted that they played 11 games on the road, closing out the month with the first six games of a season-long seven game East Coast swing. The injury-riddled Celtics went 9-7 in March; it is not clear when defensive anchor Kevin Garnett will be fully healthy and the Celtics hardly strengthened their bench by signing point guard Stephon Marbury, who has averaged just 3.2 ppg on .314 field goal shooting since joining the team. Although the Orlando Magic are certainly closing the season on a strong note (12-2 in March, including their current six game winning streak), considering their lack of deep playoff experience it is difficult to believe that they would beat the Cavs in a seven game series.

The Cavs lead the NBA in points allowed (90.9 ppg) and point differential (9.4 ppg) while ranking a close second to the Celtics in defensive field goal percentage (.429). LeBron James attracts a lot of media attention for his scoring and passing—and he fully deserves the praise that he is receiving—but many people are missing the important fact that the Cavs are a dominant defensive team. Of course, James plays a big role in Cleveland’s defense, ranking second on the team in blocked shots and sixth in the league in steals. Those numbers only tell part of the story, though; like many young players, when James first came into the league, he did not understand how to play effective defense either in a one on one sense or from a team defensive standpoint—but now he understands both concepts very well, he accepts the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player on key possessions and he sets a tone that makes it clear to everyone on the team that defense is a top priority. He certainly deserves to be placed on the All-Defensive Team this season.

Last month, I wrote that LeBron James "had a short 'to do list' prior to this season." He has obviously made great strides on defense and he is shooting a career-high .770 from the free throw line. The third item on the list was his perimeter shooting. James is shooting .336 from three point range this year, the second best percentage of his career, but after hovering around the .300 mark until January he shot .400 from long distance in February and .386 in March. At this point, his three point shooting is adequate and certainly seems to be continuing to improve. The one and only weakness remaining in his game is his midrange shot. As I mentioned in the above article, the NBA.com “Hot Spots” charts list red hot, lukewarm and cold zones; James’ only hot zone is still the paint, while he is cold in the midrange areas immediately on either side of the paint. He is actually cold on the entire right side of the court, which may be partially the result of a smaller sample size since he shoots much more frequently from the left side of the court and the top of the key area.

The defensive game plan for elite teams in a seven game series versus Cleveland will continue to be to build a wall around the paint to keep James out and thus try to force him to shoot contested two point jump shots in the midrange area. If James can either make a reasonable percentage of those shots and/or wear down the opposing team by bulling his way into the paint despite their best efforts to contain him, then there is likely no way to beat the Cavs in a playoff series, because they have proven that they will rebound and defend on a nightly basis and their role players have demonstrated that they can consistently be at least adequately productive. Also, the important addition of Mo Williams means that the Cavs have an All-Star level player who can create shots for himself and others; he is a very accurate outside shooter, so his presence will force the defense to spread out and make it much more difficult to keep James out of the paint.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 PM


Kobe Bryant on Designing Shoes, Winning Championships

Kobe Bryant made some very interesting statements in recent interviews with Sole Collector magazine and USA TODAY.

The Sole Collector interview focuses on Bryant's role in designing the Zoom Kobe IV, his newest Nike shoe. I'm not a "shoe guru" but I think that Michael Jordan was probably the first basketball player who really got involved in the design process of his signature shoes (as opposed to simply cashing the checks for putting his name on them and doing some advertisements, which is what I believe that most players prior to Jordan did). However, my understanding is that Jordan's input had at least as much--if not more--to do with the look and style of the shoe as it did with the actual functioning of the shoe. In contrast, Bryant is completely focused on how well his shoe functions; when asked "How much importance do you place on your shoe looking good in a casual settting?" Bryant replies, "Actually, none. That's never even something that's crossed my brain. This shoe I personally wanted to play in. Whether it (works) well off the court or not, is really irrelevant to me at the time." Bryant also says, "When it comes to the color schemes, I tell the designers, 'You guys just go have a good time and knock yourselves out.'"

Interviewer Nick DePaula writes, "Rarely has an athlete been so involved in the back story of his shoes, calling out specific inspirations and needs in his footwear as he looks to improve not only the playability of his shoes every year, but also his performance on the basketball court as he seeks out an NBA championship every season. His sneakers are a crucial component to that quest. It was at Kobe's request that the Zoom Kobe IV be made as a low-top in order to help with his range of motion, help reduce weight and also help the shoes become part of him, ridding him of any worry or distraction that might prevent him from making that lightning-quick first step as he splits a pair of defenders and heads right towards the rim. He also has been closely involved in the development of every one of his shoes, and it's his attention to detail and close working relationship with Nike Designer Eric Avar that allow the two to continue to push the envelope of design and the boundaries of performance."

Bryant lists two reasons why he wanted his new shoe to be a low-top: "One is, I wanted the foot to move comfortably. I felt like hi-tops at times can be a little bit restricting of your movement. Also, I wanted to decrease weight. I wanted to cut the shoe (in height), make it lighter, make it sleeker, and we were able to accomplish both of those things."

Bryant played soccer growing up in Italy. Of course, soccer players play in low-tops all of the time, so Bryant has never bought the idea that you have to wear hi-tops to play basketball: "I just wanted to have better range and flexibility within the ankle and be able to move and cut and not feel like that movement is restricted. I think how the soccer background came into play is understanding how much stress you put on your ankles and how hard you play the game. In soccer, you can still wear low-tops, and they put more stress on their ankles than we do, but they can still wear low-tops. So I think you need a confidence to be able to push the boundaries a little bit."

Matt Nurse, a Senior Researcher at the Nike Sports Research Lab, confirms Bryant's belief that playing basketball in low-tops is no more risky for the ankles than playing in hi-tops. Nurse says that ankle injuries are inevitable if you play basketball long enough and that neither taping the ankles nor wearing hi-tops offers any additional protection; according to Nurse, the only thing scientifically proven to offer some protection is strengthening the ankles by using a training device called a "wobble board" (presumably, analogous strengthening techniques would also help but the point is that the way that the ankle is structurally put together renders it very difficult to protect the ankle via external wrappings).

Bryant's design idea for the shoe was actually inspired in part from a scene in one of the Spiderman movies: "It's that scene in the movie where he's trying to pry it (the suit) off of him and he can't get it off of him because now it's part of him. And that's how I want the shoe to be. I want the shoe to be part of my foot. I don't want it to be separate. I don't want it to be my foot and the shoe. I want the shoe and the foot to mesh together."

Bryant was wearing Zoom Kobe I shoes when he had his famous 81 point game versus Toronto. The Zoom Kobe I had a different design philosophy than the new Zoom Kobe IV, as Bryant explains: "Well, with the Zoom I, what I wanted to do was I wanted to have more cushioning. It was a season where I was coming off of some knee injuries and some things like that. So, we actually sacrificed some weight with this shoe for a lot more cushioning. As soon as you put that shoe on, you are going to see that it has a lot more cushion. A lot of power forwards and a lot of players that are bigger in stature enjoyed those shoes more than some of the others because it had a lot more cushion in them. Coming off of that shoe, I wanted to get back to the lighter-weight stuff."

As for his state of mind during the 81 point game, Bryant recalls, "I was just in--it was almost like a trance, where you're just relaxing and you're playing and everything is just flowing. You put a lot of work into the offseason, and everything is just clicking."

Everyone knows the burning desire that Bryant has to win more NBA titles but he has said that nothing tops winning the Olympic gold medal and Bryant stands by that statement: "Winning an Olympic gold is second to none and it's the most special moment you'll have as an athlete. Being on that stage and representing your country, there's just no greater honor." That is the way that most if not all athletes from outside of the United States feel about Olympic and FIBA competition but few American basketball players have expressed that sentiment so forcefully, let alone backed it up with such a scintillating clutch performance in the gold medal game.

Bryant has long been weary of answering questions about the time that he spent playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal but this is what he told USA TODAY's Chris Colston: "I hear people say, 'Kobe has to prove he can win a title without Shaq.' Personally, I don't think that's true. The people who say Shaq would've won (the three championships from 2000 to 2002) without me, they're crazy. Those who think I would've won without him are crazy. That we both would've won without Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Horace Grant? Those people are crazy...I just want to just win it again. That's all I want. We were so close last year."

The Lakers went 10-5 in March but the Cleveland Cavaliers surpassed them in the race for the number one overall record in the league by going 16-1 in March, tying the NBA record for most victories in a calendar month. Getting home court advantage throughout the playoffs was one of the Lakers' preseason goals but Bryant is not fazed by the possibility of having to win on the road in the postseason: "In my years of experience, if you're going to be a champion, you should win on the road anywhere. The better team is going to advance, no matter where you play." While the Cavs have the best home record (36-1) in the NBA--and if they win out they will tie the 1986 Celtics for the best home record in one season in NBA history--it is worth remembering that the Lakers have the best road record (27-11) in the league this season and that they are the only visiting team to defeat the Cavs in Quicken Loans Arena this year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:11 AM


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

If the Some of the Numbers are Bogus Then How "Advanced" are "Advanced Stats"?

I have always enjoyed crunching numbers and looking at sports statistics, so I certainly am not some kind of anti-stat Luddite. I am not opposed to using basketball statistics, whether they are "archaic" box score-style stats or the so-called "advanced" stats that have been touted by various "stat gurus"; what I am opposed to is the misuse of basketball statistics, when people either rely too heavily on numbers at the expense of actually watching games and/or do not understand the significance/meaning of certain statistics.

Most of the so-called "advanced stats" are based on taking box score numbers--points, shooting percentages, rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots, turnovers--and assigning particular weights to each category and/or converting per game numbers into per minute numbers that are adjusted for "pace" (one exception to this is plus/minus, which simply tracks the point differential when a player is on the court and compares it to the point differential when he is not on the court). It should be obvious that even if the weighting formulas are perfect--which they most certainly are not--the "advanced" stats are only as reliable as the basic data that they use. Even excluding the possibility of deliberate bias and/or incompetence on the part of scorekeepers, it should be obvious that assists, steals, blocked shots, turnovers and rebounds are all somewhat subjective in nature, so no player's box score statistics are 100% accurate. That is one reason that I criticize the way that so many "stat gurus" present their player rankings without any mention of a margin for error. Of course, the reason that "stat gurus" shy away from doing this is that they have no way of calculating a margin for error because they don't have a way to quantify how reliable the boxscore numbers may be, nor do they want to seriously consider the possibility that the weightings that they assign to those numbers may be less than perfect; if your "stat guru" competitor does not provide a margin for error but you do then in the court of public opinion you may appear to be less authoritative. I have no doubt that many teams use statistical analysis to some degree when making various decisions but you can bet that the data that they are using is more complete--and more focused on team comparisons as opposed to individual player rankings--than the information that various "stat gurus" are peddling on the open market in various books/websites. Also, many "stat gurus" seem to have thinly veiled agendas pertaining to how the game "should" be played, which kinds of players (guards or big men, rebounders or scorers, "high volume" players who are not "efficient" or "low volume" player who are "efficient," etc.) are most valuable and how competent (or, to be more precise, incompetent) they consider NBA GMs, coaches and scouts to be.

I have done several posts in which I provided detailed, play by play analysis of scorekeeping errors regarding assists. The last time that I charted assists in this fashion, 14 of the 16 assists credited to Chris Paul and Tony Parker fit the rulebook definition of an assist*. The Spurs lost 90-86 in New Orleans on Sunday night and those two players once again combined for 16 official assists (nine for Paul, seven for Parker). Here is how I would have scored those 16 plays:

Chris Paul's Nine Assists

1: David West jump shot, 9:01 1st q: Correct; this was a bit of a borderline play but I will give Paul the benefit of the doubt. West caught the ball, made a slight jab step and then went right up with the shot. It was not a straightforward catch and shoot but only about two-three seconds elapsed between the catch and the shot going up.

2: David West fadeaway jump shot, 5:22 1st q: Correct; this was also a bit of a borderline play where I am giving Paul the benefit of the doubt. West caught the ball on the left block and shot a turnaround jumper over Drew Gooden. West did not put on a whole low post clinic prior to the shot--as I have seen him do on some plays that were scored as assists for Paul (see next entry)--and he did go up for the shot pretty quickly after receiving the ball but it is hard to argue that the pass created the shot in the way that an alley oop lob or a drive and kick pass does. If this kind of pass is regularly scored as an assist then virtually every pass into the post--indeed, every pass preceding a successful shot attempt--would have to be deemed to be an assist.

3: David West jump shot, 4:41 1st q: Incorrect; this play is an egregious example of why I started charting assists in the first place and why I am inclined to consider this stat to be devalued to the point of almost being meaningless. Paul passed the ball to West at the top of the key at the 4:48 mark. West made a jab step with his right leg, then he pump faked, then he took one dribble and made a hard drive to his right before stopping and spinning to his left. The assist should already be well off the table by now but there is more. After coming to a stop, West pump faked again, did the "up" part of an up and under move but faded backwards instead of under, launching a one handed, high arcing shot over Drew Gooden. As Mike Tirico said, West"goes through the full arsenal of moves." Hubie Brown added, "That was a very pretty move. He gave Gooden at least three different moves off a jab step series and then caught him on a reverse move." Brown should have passed that comment along in a note to the official scorekeeper, because when a shot is preceded by enough post moves to be featured as a clip on an instructional video, there is no possible way that an assist should be awarded. You know what Chris Paul was doing while West was channeling Kevin McHale? He was standing well behind the three point line, watching, just like I was at home. The next time ESPN declares that Paul has broken an assist record set by Oscar Robertson, please remember this play.

4: David West jump shot, 4:21 1st q: Correct; after a screen/roll play, Paul fed West for a catch and shoot jumper.

5: Antonio Daniels three pointer, 1:59 2nd q: Correct; Paul posted up (!), drew a double team and kicked the ball out to Daniels for a catch and shoot. This is a perfect example of what an assist should be: Paul created a scoring opportunity for a teammate by drawing the double team and then he delivered the pass to the open man.

6: Julian Wright layup, 6:46 3rd q: Correct; Paul drove to the hoop, drew multiple defenders and passed to a cutting Wright, who scored a layup and was fouled, converting the three point play. This is another great example of an assist, because Paul created the scoring opportunity as opposed to simply making the last pass before a shot was attempted.

7: Julian Wright jump shot, 6:22 3rd q: Correct; once again, Paul attracted the defense and passed to Wright, who this time nailed a catch and shoot jumper. The difference between this play and assists one and two--which I consider to be correct but borderline--is that on the previous plays West was more closely guarded and had to do at least a little work prior to shooting (but he did make an immediate or close to immediate reaction to shoot and he did not put on a low post or perimeter footwork clinic) while on this play Wright simply caught and shot. The other nice aspect of this play is that Wright was open specifically because Paul attracted the attention of multiple defenders.

8: Julian Wright dunk, 6:42 4th q: Correct; Paul drew the defense and lofted a perfect alley oop to Wright, who was cutting to the hoop from the weak side. Wright pointed up in the air to signal to Paul, jumped off of two feet from just outside the restricted area and threw down a nice dunk.

9: David West jump shot, :38 4th q: Correct; this was a straightforward catch and shoot play.

Tony Parker's Seven Assists

1: Drew Gooden jump shot, 6:44 1st q: Incorrect; Gooden caught the ball on the right block at the 6:49 mark. He turned to face up his defender, made a strong drive and delivered what Hubie Brown called "a tough shot" over Hilton Armstrong. The issue is not the number of dribbles or time elapsed per se, but the fact that the assist had little to do with actually creating the scoring opportunity; it is not supposed to be the case that the pass immediately preceding a made basket is automatically deemed to be an assist.

2: Drew Gooden hook shot, 4:21 1st q: Incorrect; Gooden caught the ball on the wing, faked out a defender who was closing in on him, took two dribbles, turned 3/4 away from another defender and made a jump hook. Gooden created the shot with his one on one skills.

3: Manu Ginobili three pointer, :02 1st q: Correct; Parker drew the defense and passed to Ginobili, who immediately drained the shot.

4: Michael Finley three pointer, 5:57 3rd q: Correct; Parker drew the defense and passed to Finley, who nailed a three pointer with the shot clock running down.

5: Tim Duncan hook shot, 5:33 4th q: Correct; this is another borderline play. Parker caught the ball behind the three point line off of a back tap and fired a pass into Duncan in the paint. Duncan gathered himself with a quick dribble and a slight fake and then made a hook shot. I don't like the fact that Duncan made a bit of a one on one move before the shot but the whole sequence happened quickly and would not have been possible without Parker's bullet feed. I consider this play to be a judgment call. A "strict constructionist" might argue against awarding an assist because Duncan played a part in creating the shot but the nature of the pass--a quick feed deep into the post in heavy traffic--and the fact that it was a bang, bang play makes the awarding of an assist OK from my perspective. In contrast, if Duncan had performed multiple fakes and moves then I would be opposed to awarding an assist--even though it was a great pass--because in that case it could no longer be argued that the pass really created the scoring opportunity.

6: Matt Bonner three pointer, 3:40 4th q: Correct; just like assists three and four, this was a straightforward catch and shoot play.

7: Michael Finley three pointer, :17 4th q: Correct; this was another catch and shoot play.

Out of 16 assists credited to these two great point guards, 10 were unquestionably correct, three were unquestionably wrong and I have classified three as correct but borderline. I don't have a big issue with the borderline plays and I realize that there is some subjectivity inherent in this aspect of scorekeeping (even though there are some hard and fast rules outlining exactly what is and is not an assist) but the third assist awarded to Paul is indescribably bad scorekeeping by any standard. If the NBA is going to go back and take away one borderline rebound from LeBron James to nullify his triple double versus the Knicks then the league should certainly strike that assist from the record books.

It is worth noting that in this game Parker benefited more often than Paul did even though the game was played in New Orleans. I don't think that there is an NBA conspiracy or a New Orleans conspiracy involved with how assists are officially tracked; for whatever reason, scorekeepers are awarding assists more liberally than the rulebook says that they should. This would tend to favor players who are primarily playmakers--like Paul--but that does not mean that there is a deliberate effort to favor one player in particular. I have focused on Paul because he is the league leader, so I know that if I track him for a whole game that there will probably be a lot of plays to consider; in this post and my previous one on this subject, I also charted Parker as a "control" to see if only Paul is being credited with dubious assists.

I have now charted assists for Chris Paul in two playoff games and three regular season games; in the last two regular season games that I examined, I also charted Tony Parker's assists. The overall count in those five games shows that Paul was officially credited with 55 assists but that only 42 of those assists fit the rulebook definition (and those 42 include some borderline plays). In the two games in which I tracked Parker's assists, he was credited with 11 assists but should only have been credited with eight. The sample size with Parker is obviously small but I think that 55 official assists for Paul is a diverse enough sample of plays from which to draw at least a preliminary conclusion that he is being credited with too many assists. Paul is averaging just a shade under 11 apg this season but if he is consistently being credited with too many assists at the rate that I have observed in this sampling then he is actually averaging about 8.4 apg. If what I have charted reflects a season or career long trend then this is quite significant. Again, as I stated above, I don't think that the NBA or the Hornets are necessarily deliberately doing this but any bending of the scorekeeping rules regarding assists will obviously benefit playmakers more than other players. During the whole LeBron James triple double controversy, the NBA claimed that it regularly reviews game films and adjusts statistics that are improperly awarded; this certainly should not have been news to James, because the NBA had previously taken a triple double away from him due to a questionable assist (April 1, 2006 versus Miami). If it is true that the NBA so thoroughly supervises all of its scorekeeping (and not just games involving triple doubles) then assist number three for Chris Paul from this game simply has to be rescinded.

I should not even have to add this last paragraph, but it is almost certain that someone will read this post and conclude that I either (1) don't watch Chris Paul enough to appreciate his greatness and/or (2) I "hate" Chris Paul. Last summer, I ranked Paul as the best point guard in the NBA and put Parker fourth on my list; my charting of bogus assists does not lower my opinion of either player, because I don't rank players based solely on numbers. The reason that I am charting assists in this fashion is that I am very disappointed that the NBA and the "stat gurus" apparently do not care at all about the inaccurate and inconsistent methods used by NBA scorekeepers who produce the official assist numbers that go in the record books and form the basis of so many player ranking formulas.

*For those of you who have not read my previous posts on this subject and/or do not know what the rulebook definition of an assist is, here is a passage that was posted on NBA.com in 2002 (yes, that was seven years ago but the NBA has not announced any official changes in its scorekeeping procedures regarding assists since that time):

An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgement of the statistician, the last player's pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player's pass led to the field goal being made.

The concluding words of my December 18, 2008 post are well worth repeating here:

The rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the pass is supposed to "directly" lead to a basket. Every fake, dribble and move that the recipient makes after getting the ball makes that "direct" connection more and more tenuous. If the recipient is running down court uncontested and his teammate passes him the ball, then the number of dribbles he takes is irrelevant: he is meeting no defensive resistance and he clearly would not have scored without receiving that pass--but if a player is running down court, receives a pass, does a crossover dribble to shake one defender and then twists and turns to lay the ball up over another defender, then the pass did not really "directly" lead to the score because the scorer did most of the work. If the scorer does most of the work then the passer should not receive credit for an assist.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:22 AM