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Friday, March 05, 2010
Heat Victory Over Lakers Calls Into Question Assertions About Lakers' Depth
Prior to the Miami Heat's 114-111 overtime win versus the L.A. Lakers, TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith repeatedly insisted that the Lakers are so talented that they can win even if Kobe Bryant has a subpar game--and Smith added that if Bryant scores at least 28 points the Lakers are virtually a lock to win on any given night because Bryant's teammates are so good. The reality is that Smith--normally an astute analyst--and Barkley--who is sometimes astute but sometimes just seems to speak off the top of his head--both shot wide of the mark with this particular evaluation of the Lakers. Bryant scored 39 points on 15-28 field goal shooting versus Miami--including the Lakers' last six points in the fourth quarter and their first six points in overtime--but the Lakers lost to a team that Barkley continually refers to as "Michael Jackson and a bunch of Titos" because Barkley believes that Dwyane Wade (who finished with 27 points on 9-21 field goal shooting plus 14 assists and six turnovers) has to perform at an extraordinarily high level just for the Heat to be competitive. While Barkley is obviously correct that the Heat do not have a contender-quality roster, it is worth mentioning that in 2005-06 Bryant led the Lakers to a 45-37 record with Lamar Odom--who turned out to be a good sixth man for a championship team--as his second best player and Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Devean George, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook ranking third through seventh in total minutes played; just four years after Bryant led that motley crew to the NBA playoffs none of those players except for Odom is a rotation player for a playoff team. Extending Barkley's music analogy, it could said that compared to Bryant's 2006 "garage band" Dwyane Wade is surrounded by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers this year: Michael Beasley, six-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal, Udonis Haslem (starting power forward for the 2006 NBA Champion Miami Heat), Quentin Richardson, Mario Chalmers and Dorell Wright.
Including Thursday's loss, the Lakers are 22-8 (.733) when Bryant scores at least 28 points; that is virtually identical with their overall .742 winning percentage (46-16), so Smith is wrong to imply that the Lakers are such a dominant team that when Bryant meets or exceeds his scoring average the Lakers win almost every time. While much has been made of Bryant's buzzer beating shots this season--the fact that the Lakers have needed Bryant to bail them out so frequently is yet another indication that the Lakers are not as stacked as some people suggest--it is even more significant that on many occasions the Lakers have needed exceptional performances by Bryant for the entire game just to beat mediocre teams; here are some examples:
1) 12/22/09, Bryant scores a season-high 44 points on 13-27 shooting and has 11 assists as the Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors 124-118.
2) 12/15/09, Bryant scores 42 points on 15-26 shooting as the Lakers beat the Chicago Bulls 96-87.
3) 11/4/09, Bryant scores 41 points on 15-30 shooting as the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets 103-102.
4) 11/6/09, Bryant scores 41 points on 19-30 shooting as the Lakers beat the Memphis Grizzlies 114-98.
5) 11/17/09, Bryant scores 40 points on 17-29 shooting as the Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons 106-93.
Look not only at Bryant's point totals but also his shooting percentages; Bryant had to be highly productive and highly efficient for the Lakers to win those games. It is also worth noting that four of those five games happened before Bryant suffered an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his right (shooting) hand; for the first six weeks of the season, Bryant was the best player in the league and he led the Lakers to the best record in the league even though Pau Gasol missed the first 11 games (the Lakers went 8-3 without Gasol, a statistic that for some reason is not mentioned nearly as often as the Lakers' 4-1 record sans Bryant).
Not only have the Lakers quite often needed Bryant to play very well just to get by teams that are--at best--average, contrary to Smith's assertion the Lakers have only been a .500 team when Bryant struggled. Bryant has shot worse than .400 from the field in 16 games this season--13 of which took place after he suffered the aforementioned broken finger--and the Lakers went just 8-8 in those games. That sample size is more than three times larger than the sample size of the games that Bryant missed and it provides a better indicator of how the Lakers would perform long term without an efficient and productive Bryant leading the way.
The Lakers' dependence on Bryant is nothing new. Barkley, Smith and other commentators who perpetuate the myth about the Lakers' depth should have learned their lessons during last year's playoffs, when Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (30.2 ppg) and assists (5.5 apg) en route to defeating the Orlando Magic to win the NBA Championship. Bryant scored at least 35 points in six of the Lakers' 23 playoff games; the Lakers won each of those six contests but they lost two of the three playoff games in which Bryant failed to score 20 points. The Lakers relied even more heavily on Bryant in the Finals; he averaged 32.4 ppg and 7.4 apg versus the Magic, recording the fourth highest scoring average in a five game NBA Finals series (15 of the 63 NBA Finals have lasted five games). Any assertion that Bryant is not a top level playmaker can be refuted by the fact that only Jerry West, who averaged 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in the 1969 Finals, ever averaged more points and more assists in the same Finals than Bryant did.
Bryant was understandably delighted when the Lakers shipped out Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and the rights to Marc Gasol in exchange for Pau Gasol; being paired with Pau Gasol meant that Bryant no longer had to go into gun battles with "butter knives" and so far has already resulted in back to back trips to the NBA Finals, but I may be the only commentator who has repeatedly pointed out that Gasol's statistics have markedly improved since coming to the Lakers, enabling him to earn two All-Star selections plus his first All-NBA nod. Gasol had an 0-12 record in playoff games prior to teaming up with Bryant. No one ever thought of Gasol as an elite big man until Gasol had the opportunity to benefit from the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws. Bryant has helped lift Gasol from being a player who was a fringe All-Star (what else can be said about someone who made the All-Star team once in six years?) to someone who could quite possibly receive Hall of Fame consideration if he earns another three or four All-Star selections and one or two more championship rings as Bryant's sidekick; that is not to say that Gasol is as good as certain players who are already in the Hall or that he is better than some players who the Hall has shamefully snubbed but the reality is that if Gasol ends up with five or six All-Star selections and two or three championship rings then he will be perceived by many as a Hall of Fame player, particularly considering the fact that he also has a good FIBA resume.
In other words, part of the reason that so many people are raving about Bryant's supporting cast now is that playing alongside Bryant is making those guys look better! In addition to Gasol's progress, Andrew Bynum has benefited from Bryant's mentoring and Shannon Brown has gone from being an afterthought with several other teams to being a solid member of the Lakers' rotation; the reverse effect is evident with Trevor Ariza, a journeyman who became a starter on a championship team alongside Bryant and who is now once again a journeyman--and an inefficient one at that--for a non-playoff team in Houston.
Furthermore, consider the impact that Bryant had on Team USA; after repeated failures in various FIBA events, Team USA won the 2008 Olympic gold medal with Bryant taking over down the stretch in the final game versus Spain much like he repeatedly takes over down the stretch for the Lakers. When things went bad for Team USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championship versus Greece without Bryant on the roster LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony proved unable to stem the tide--the difference in 2008 was that when Spain made a run to cut Team USA's lead to 91-89 Bryant answered the bell. Bryant's impact on Team USA extends well beyond even winning the gold medal, though; it is very evident that Bryant's work ethic and practice habits set an example that has resulted in James, Wade, Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and other Team USA players elevating their overall games.
O'Neal Injury Could Imperil Cavs' Championship Hopes
We don't like to think in terms of championships being decided by injuries but one of the best regular season teams in NBA history--the 1972-73 Boston Celtics team that went 68-14--failed to win the title after Hall of Famer John Havlicek suffered a debilitating shoulder injury. While it is true that there is no guarantee that a healthy Havlicek would have led Boston to the championship that year it is worth noting that Havlicek and the Celtics went on to win two of the next three NBA titles.
The Cleveland Cavaliers rolled to the best record in the NBA prior to acquiring two-time All-Star Antawn Jamison for, essentially, nothing (assuming that Zydrunas Ilgauskas returns to Cleveland after 30 days of waiting in NBA-sanctioned purgatory). With Jamison and Ilgauskas in the fold the Cavs have four players who have made the All-Star team multiple times and they boast admirable depth at each position--but that changed when starting center Shaquille O'Neal suffered a thumb injury that will keep him out of action for six to eight weeks.
By the time O'Neal returns, the playoffs will already be well underway and the Cavs will have to scramble to get their rotation set to deal with the likes of 2008 NBA Champion Boston and/or 2009 Eastern Conference Champion Orlando. In my newest CavsNews article, I examine the challenges that Cavs Coach Mike Brown will face in the next two to three months:
Knicks Fans Pray That the Light at the End of the Tunnel is not an Oncoming Train
Not quite two months ago I asked Have the Knicks Turned the Corner? and I suggested that their next five games--four of which would be played on the road--might provide the answer. The Knicks lost four of those five games and went 4-15 in the ensuing 19 games to plummet to 20-39, the 13th best record in the 15 team Eastern Conference and the 25th best record in the 30 team NBA. Even in the moribund East the Knicks are 9 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot; if the Knicks were in the West they would be 13.5 games behind the eighth seed! The Knicks' attention to detail defensively and on the boards during a 7-3 run from late December to early January proved to be a quite temporary condition; the Knicks currently rank 22nd in point differential, 25th in points allowed, 27th in defensive field goal percentage and 29th in rebounding differential.
Last season, a Knicks' blogger and some Knicks' fans were outraged when I dared to suggest that despite all of the pro-Mike D'Antoni media hype the Knicks were not in fact any better than they were when Isiah Thomas coached the team. I compared the team's record and defensive statistics in year one of the D'Antoni era to the corresponding numbers from Thomas' first season as Knicks' coach, prompting all kinds of bleatings that I was cherrypicking numbers and that I had some kind of pernicious agenda. As I responded at that time, when D'Antoni has put up year two numbers we can compare his year two numbers with Thomas'. The Knicks still have 23 games left but here are the relevant numbers as things stand today: the 2009-10 Knicks have a .339 winning percentage, while Thomas' 2007-08 Knicks finished with a .280 winning percentage (that works out to less than a five game difference over an 82 game schedule). The 2007-08 Knicks ranked 25th in point differential, 22nd in points allowed, 28th in defensive field goal percentage and 18th in rebounding differential (i.e., Thomas' Knicks rebounded much better than D'Antoni's Knicks and were equally poor defensively). Maybe the Knicks will get hot down the stretch--or maybe their collection of rent a players will perform even worse as they count the days toward summer vacation--but as of now the numbers pretty much validate everything that I wrote about the Knicks in my 2009 article: D'Antoni's first Knicks team did not perform as well as Thomas' first Knicks team and D'Antoni's second Knicks team has gotten worse instead of improving. Fans bitterly complained about Thomas' coaching and about his roster moves but D'Antoni's coaching has not improved the team's record and David Lee--New York's most productive player by far--was drafted by Thomas, who also drafted Wilson Chandler, a promising young player who ranks second on the team in mpg and third in scoring.
Everyone knows that the Knicks have put all of their eggs in the LeBron James free agency basket but it is worth noting that nearly two full years into the post-Isiah Thomas era the Knicks have made little progress either in terms of developing a solid supporting cast or in terms of establishing a winning style of play. Why should James--or any other superstar free agent--want to come to a team that apparently has no plan other than signing one or two stars and hoping for the best? Jerry Krause once infamously stated that organizations win championships--a senseless swipe at the talents of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the other Chicago Bulls players who captured six NBA titles--but it is certainly true that organization wins championships--in other words, a franchise must be committed to doing things the right way from top to bottom in order to achieve the highest level of success. Just look at the New England Patriots, L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs for three examples of 21st century sports franchises that have owners, talent evaluators and coaches who are intelligent and dedicated. With all due respect to Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni, I don't see any championship rings on their fingers, nor do I see the slightest evidence that any kind of championship blueprint is in place in New York. At best, the Knicks are going to get the leftovers of the upcoming free agent class after James and Dwyane Wade make their decisions--perhaps Chris Bosh will leave Toronto to come to New York. Bosh is nothing to sneeze at but he is not likely to lead a team to a championship any time soon--and he certainly won't lead the Knicks to a title if David Lee and Wilson Chandler (or their salary cap friendly replacements if the Knicks do not keep them) are the best members of his supporting cast.
Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis, Part II
Russ Roberts' recent Wall Street Journal article titled Is the Dismal Science Really a Science? makes some of the same points that I have stated forcefully for several years. Roberts--who is an economics professor at George Mason University--declares that economics is not a science because "most sciences make progress. Nobody in medicine wants to bring back lead goblets. Sir Isaac Newton understood a lot about gravity. But Albert Einstein taught us more." Roberts adds, "Facts and evidence still matter" but that instead of proving or disproving theories it seems like economists are primarily just "confirming our biases." Roberts concludes, "The economy is a complex system, our data are imperfect and our models inevitably fail to account for all the interactions. The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists. Economics is a powerful tool, a lens for organizing one's thinking about the complexity of the world around us. That should be enough. We should be honest about what we know, what we don't know and what we may never know. Admitting that publicly is the first step toward respectability."
The basketball "stats gurus" who received their training as economists should take heed of Roberts' words and likewise be "honest" about the limitations of their methodologies--but, of course, that will likely never happen, because how can Dave Berri and others sell books if they admit that all they are doing is shuffling numbers on spreadsheets to confirm their biases and that evaluating basketball players and teams is a far more complex enterprise than they care to admit?
As I wrote in October 2008, Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis. The data being used by "stats gurus" is incomplete and often inaccurate. Statistics can be a "powerful tool" (in Roberts' words) to help to understand basketball but they do not provide definitive answers: the player rankings produce by Berri or John Hollinger do not represent some absolute, objective reality but merely reflect the biases and limitations inherent in the formulas that Berri and Hollinger invented.
If you are still wasting your time reading the proclamations of "stat gurus," then the next time one of these oracles speaks take note if he mentions a margin of error for his numbers, see if he explains the sample size from which he derives his calculations and monitor how he explains cause/effect relationships--i.e., it is one thing to note that a certain player's turnovers are down or his field goal percentage is up but quite another matter to explain, in the context of nine other players on the court at any given time, why that player's performance has fluctuated in a particular manner.
"A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."--Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Lecture)
"The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--Edgar Allan Poe
"In chess what counts is what you know, not whom you know. It's the way life is supposed to be, democratic and just."--Grandmaster Larry Evans
"It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence."--Tom Callahan