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Friday, December 11, 2009

Upcoming Road Games Will Test Cleveland’s Mettle

The Cleveland Cavaliers have lost two straight games after winning four games in a row and seven of their previous eight. This is understandably disconcerting to Cleveland faithful who are worried not only about the team's prospects this season but also about how the season's outcome might affect LeBron James' decision about whether to re-sign with the Cavs next summer. However, my newest CavsNews article points out that it is a fact of NBA life that even the best teams have some clunker losses in the course of an 82 game season and that championship success does not hinge on the outcome of one or two regular season games but rather on a team's overall trend and on whether that team is properly constructed to make a serious title run (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):


Before any Cavs’ fans become overly concerned about Cleveland’s two game losing streak, it is worth remembering that in the long 82 game NBA season even the eventual NBA Champion struggles at times: almost exactly a year ago (December 9, 2008), the L.A. Lakers lost 113-101 to the Sacramento Kings, the team that finished with the worst record in the entire league (17-65). The 2007-08 NBA Champion Boston Celtics displayed remarkable resolve and defensive consistency but even they had some clunker losses: they dropped a 95-83 decision at home to the Charlotte Bobcats and also lost both ends of a home and home set to the Washington Wizards. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls never had losses like that, though, right? It is funny how the passage of time tends to make people forget things: Jordan’s 1995-96, 72-10 record-setting NBA Champions lost 104-72 to the New York Knicks--and those Knicks were hardly a powerhouse, finishing 47-35. Those Bulls also lost to the 21-61 Toronto Raptors, an expansion team. Both of those losses came before the Bulls set the regular season record for wins, so it would be incorrect to suggest that the Bulls had shut things down.

It is true that a “bad” loss—a loss to a clearly inferior team—could potentially cost a team in the battle for playoff positioning; last season after the Lakers finished one game behind the Cavaliers in the overall standings they surely rued that loss to the Kings but the Lakers ended up with homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals anyway and went on to capture the title. One complicating factor for the Cavaliers this year is that while the 2009 Lakers were the class of the West—finishing 11 games ahead of the pack—it looks like the 2010 Eastern Conference race will turn out to be a four team dogfight between the Celtics, Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. In that regard it would be a significant advantage to earn the East’s top seed not only because that team will play the weakest team in the first round but because the top seed will face the fourth seed in the second round while the number two and three teams face off in the other bracket. Assuming that Orlando stays in front of Atlanta, if Cleveland finishes first overall then the Cavs could potentially play Atlanta in the second round with homecourt advantage and then only have to beat the winner of a Boston-Orlando matchup to advance to the NBA Finals. The Hawks are a much improved team but they have yet to demonstrate that they can win on the road in the postseason, so the Cavs would surely prefer to face them in the second round as opposed to possibly having to beat Orlando and Boston in consecutive series.

All of those scenarios are purely hypothetical right now and there are two factors that are even more important than the race for playoff positioning: the overall trend for a team and the likelihood that a team is properly constructed to win a championship.

As I discussed a couple years ago, two important statistical indicators for possible championship success are point differential and defensive field goal percentage. Despite Cleveland’s slow start and the two recent losses, the Cavs rank sixth in the NBA in point differential and are tied for second in defensive field goal percentage; the Lakers ranked second and sixth respectively in those categories last season en route to winning the championship (the 2008 Celtics led the NBA in point differential and defensive field goal percentage). The Cavs have some well known problems in screen/roll coverage but they are still a top notch defensive team; just as significantly, defense has always been a focal point for Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, so it is likely that the Cavs will maintain or improve their rankings in these categories as the season progresses.

The Phoenix Suns are an excellent example of a team that is not properly constructed to win a championship; since acquiring Steve Nash they have posted two 60-plus win seasons and they won at least 54 games for four straight years but during that time they never made it to the NBA Finals. Their run and gun style can catch a lot of teams flat-footed during the regular season but in the playoffs there are no back to back games and an opponent can zero in on nullifying a team’s strengths and exposing a team’s weaknesses. When the Suns brought in Shaquille O’Neal to provide a paint presence at both ends of the court, several Suns’ players chafed at the idea of playing a slow down, defensive-oriented style, causing ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy to declare that this attitude is a “blight” on the careers of Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Grant Hill.

In contrast, the Cavs are a defensive-minded team, so the coaching staff and players welcome the addition of O’Neal because O’Neal can help them match up better against Dwight Howard and other top flight big men. LeBron James is averaging his fewest field goal attempts per game since his rookie season and his scoring average is at a four year low but he is not complaining about the ball going into O’Neal in the post; instead, James has increased his offensive efficiency (he is posting career-high shooting percentages from the field, free throw line and three point range) and he is averaging a career-high 8.2 apg, using his passing skills to create easy scoring opportunities for O’Neal in the post and for other Cavs when James or O’Neal are double-teamed.

Six of Cleveland’s next nine games are on the road, including a stretch of four games in six days that culminates in the much anticipated Christmas Day showdown with the Lakers, owners of the best record in the NBA. Road trips challenge teams to execute efficiently despite fatigue and provide an opportunity for teams to bond together. This season will not rise or fall on the outcome of any one particular regular season game—even though the game with the Lakers will obviously be treated as if the fate of the world is at stake—but this upcoming nine game run provides a good litmus test for the Cavaliers, particularly in light of the fact that the Lakers will also play six of their next nine games on the road. The Lakers’ schedule was frontloaded with a lot of home games, so this stretch will be a big test for them. If the Cavaliers play well and the Lakers stumble slightly then Cleveland could move to the top of the NBA standings by the end of the month; conversely, if the Lakers continue to roll and the Cavs fail to keep pace then the Lakers could create some real separation. Either way, what happens in the next two-three weeks will turn out to be a lot more meaningful than an overtime loss to an energized, young Memphis team or a road setback versus a scrappy, well rested Rockets team that generally beats Cleveland in Houston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Allen Iverson Ends Short-Lived Retirement

"I know I can play and I'm going to prove that."--Allen Iverson, 12/3/09 press conference.

Allen Iverson ended perhaps the shortest retirement in sports history by scoring 11 points, dishing off six assists and grabbing five rebounds in his second coming as a Philadelphia 76er but the 76ers lost to the Denver Nuggets 93-83. Chauncey Billups led the Nuggets with 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, helping to overcome a sluggish 14 point, 5-21 shooting performance from Carmelo Anthony, who failed to score 20 points for the first time this season. Andre Iguodala topped the Sixers with 31 points but that was not nearly enough to overcome Denver's ability to draw fouls and make free throws. Billups made all 11 of his free throws as the Nuggets shot 24-26 from the free throw line, compared to just 8-9 free throw shooting by the Sixers.

Iverson's relatively modest statistics were actually pretty good for someone who has not played in an NBA game in a month and it is worth noting that he had the second best plus/minus number for the 76ers (-1, trailing only Iguodala's +1); in other words, the Nuggets did most of their damage when Iverson was not on the court. The Sixers built a 10 point lead in the first half, were up 44-41 at halftime and were ahead 65-61 when Iverson went to the bench with 37.7 seconds remaining in the third quarter. When Iverson returned at the 9:08 mark in the fourth quarter the Nuggets led 72-65 and the Sixers were not able to gain any ground the rest of the way.

The game's outcome is hardly surprising; the Sixers were 5-15 prior to Iverson's arrival and had lost nine straight games. In fact, the Sixers have yet to win more than 41 games in a season since jettisoning Iverson early in the 2006-07 campaign; with Iverson onboard, they won at least 43 games in five of the seven full seasons prior to that and posted a .561 winning percentage (equivalent to 46 wins in an 82 game season) during the lockout shortened 1999 season, Iverson's third year in the league.

The real story is not the result of one game but the tremendous battering that Iverson's image has taken in the past year or so: in the 2007-08 season, then-Nugget Iverson ranked first in the NBA in minutes (41.8 mpg), third in the NBA in scoring (26.4 ppg), eighth in the NBA in steals (2.0 spg) and ninth in the NBA in assists (7.1 apg) for a team that won 50 games in the tough Western Conference--but since that time he has been traded by Denver and essentially banished by Detroit before fleeing Memphis early this season after playing just three games. In the blink of an eye--and without suffering a serious injury or any tangible loss of his physical skills--Iverson went from being one of the most prolific players in the league to persona non grata, someone who even the most woeful teams in the league expressed no public interest in signing. Are we really supposed to believe that Iverson could not help the Nets, Knicks or some of the league's other cellar dwellers? A lot of teams are putting all of their eggs in the proverbial LeBron James basket and it will be really interesting to see how their fans react when James does not sign with any of those teams and their fans realize that they have been sold a bill of goods.

Supposedly, Iverson's unwillingness to come off of the bench scared away most of his potential suitors but--as Iverson mentioned in his recent interview with John Thompson--prior to Iverson's arrival in Detroit there had never been a question about whether or not Iverson should be a starter. Then the Pistons inexplicably decided that Rodney Stuckey simply has to be a starter, so they sent Iverson to the bench (Stuckey has started all 20 games for the Pistons this year and near the season's quarter pole the Pistons are on pace to post their worst record since 2000-01). Iverson told Thompson that he would be willing to come off of the bench if someone beat him out for the starting spot by outplaying him and if "I know in my heart that that player is better than me. I wouldn't have (a) problem if (a coach told me) 'This guy right here outplayed you. He's a better player than you. He's the starter'...Why would I have a problem with that? Just like guys got to accept when I start over them--but they know when they look in the mirror and ask themselves 'Are you better than Allen Iverson? Should you be starting over Allen Iverson?' They know the answer."

Any intelligent, informed basketball observer--for instance, Jeff Van Gundy--understands that the Pistons bungled the Iverson situation; I would go further and say that the Pistons actually damaged Iverson's reputation around the league (not that this was their intention or goal per se). Uninformed basketball observers--such as "stat guru" Dave Berri*--leaped at the opportunity to pile on to Iverson; last season had barely gotten underway and the Pistons had not yet re-signed Antonio McDyess (who was traded to Denver in the Iverson deal but then let go by the Nuggets) but Berri immediately declared that the Pistons were heading into a downward spiral that was entirely Iverson's fault. The Pistons did in fact have a subpar season but there were many factors involved, including a coaching change that did not work, injuries to key players, McDyess' absence for a month--and the bizarre way that the Pistons seemed to do everything possible to minimize Iverson's effectiveness, as opposed to playing an uptempo, wide open style that would have taken advantage of Iverson's ability to create open shots for himself and others; after all, Pistons President Joe Dumars publicly stated that he traded Billups and McDyess for Iverson precisely because Iverson could add a dimension to Detroit's offense that Billups did not provide. Why acquire Iverson and make that statement if you have no intention of taking advantage of Iverson's skill set strengths? Was Dumars' grand plan really simply to acquire salary cap space to spend on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva? Don't expect to see that Stuckey-Gordon-Villanueva "nucleus" in the NBA Finals any time soon.

Whether or not you like Iverson, he has earned respect because of his productivity and because of how hard he plays. The reason that Berri's articles about Iverson are so detestable and the reason that I respond so forcefully to them is that it seems like Berri--a nobody in his primary field, someone whose work assuredly will not stand the test of time--is trying to make a name for himself as an NBA "stat guru" at Iverson's expense, bamboozling the general public with mathematical gimmickry that the average person is not equipped to debunk; most people do not have much formal mathematical training, so they are reluctant to challenge an economist when he spouts off about what the "numbers" supposedly say, though intelligent people understand that Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis and that, as I wrote earlier this year, "Basketball statistical analysts do not yet have all of the necessary data to completely 'model' the sport, nor do they fully understand how to use the data that they have."

Watch Iverson play for the rest of this season, look back at old footage of Iverson--like this nearly nine minute (!) compilation of dunks by the diminutive guard--consider Iverson's high rankings in pro basketball history in categories like scoring average, steals and minutes played and then decide for yourself whether my perspective or Berri's perspective best represents what you honestly think and feel about Iverson's place in basketball history: do you believe "no sensible person can deny that he is not only one of the greatest 'little men' (six feet and under) in pro basketball history but one of the greatest players of all-time, period" or do you believe "Iverson--across his entire career--has been slightly below average"?

*--One of the great mysteries of the universe (or least the basketball universe) is why ESPN's Henry Abbott has seemingly made it his personal mission to heavily promote Berri's half baked basketball ideology; even other "stat gurus" are extremely skeptical about Berri's methodologies, yet Abbott incessantly links to Berri as if Berri has discovered the Holy Grail of basketball analysis. ESPN employs its own "stat guru"--John Hollinger, who has sometimes crossed swords with Berri--and even though Abbott also links to Hollinger it seems like Abbott does so out of duty more than belief, whereas Abbott seems determined to lift Berri--a minor figure in his chosen field (Berri is an associate economics professor at that bastion of economic theory, Southern Utah University)--into prominence in the basketball world.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:16 AM

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