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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wilt Chamberlain: The Numbers Don't Lie

Many of the things asserted by basketball "stat gurus" offend my ears (and mind) more than the sound of long fingernails scraping a chalkboard but one piece of nonsense that particularly bothers me is when a "stat guru" attempts to "normalize" one player's numbers to supposedly determine how that player would have performed in a different era. For instance, a popular "stat guru" declaration is that Michael Jordan's 37.1 ppg average in the 1986-87 season--when "adjusted" for pace--is actually superior to Wilt Chamberlain's record-shattering 50.4 ppg average in the 1961-62 season. There are many problems with this deceptively simple comparison:

1) There is no way to accurately "adjust" for the relative competition that Chamberlain and Jordan faced; Chamberlain played in a smaller league with less players per team, so it could be argued that he played against tougher competition, the very best of the best--but Jordan played in an era with superior knowledge about nutrition and training and he faced players from a greater number of countries thanks to basketball's global expansion so perhaps Jordan played against tougher competition. A good case could be made for either side of this argument but the point is that no one knows for sure what the correct answer is. Another related issue is the question of whether the very best athletes in the world were more likely to play pro basketball (as opposed to another sport or as opposed to seeking out another occupation entirely) in the 1960s or in the 1980s; there is plenty of room for intriguing speculation about this but no way to draw definitive conclusions.

2) Regardless of whether or not 37.1 ppg scored at a slower pace is mathematically equivalent to 50.4 ppg scored at a faster pace, human beings are not machines; making extra field goals and extra free throws over the course of an 80 or 82 game season requires a tremendous expenditure of energy and increases the likelihood of fatigue and/or injury. In other words, the fact that Jordan scored 37.1 ppg at a slower pace tells us nothing about his capability to score 50.4 ppg at a faster pace, even without factoring in possible differences in competition level and definite differences in diet, nutrition, scheduling and travel arrangements.

3) The NBA has been around for six decades and during that time pace has gone up and down but no one has even come close to doing what Wilt Chamberlain did statistically--not just in scoring but also in rebounding and even in terms of passing from the center position (Chamberlain is the only center to lead the league in assists). If pace were the only factor affecting individual scoring averages then one would assume that in higher pace eras someone else would have at least come close to matching Chamberlain but, while Chamberlain exceeded 40 ppg in four different seasons, no other player has even come close to averaging 40 ppg in one season.

There is a big difference between saying that Jordan's 37.1 ppg is proportionally greater than Chamberlain's 50.4 ppg based on pace and definitively asserting that Jordan's 1986-87 scoring feat was greater than Chamberlain's--but basketball "stat gurus" have no qualms about making extraordinary claims without providing extraordinary proof, which is the very opposite of the approach that authentic scientists and researchers take; that is why physicists are still running experiments to test Einstein's Theory of Relativity--arguably the most successful and influential theory in history--while many "stat gurus" refuse to even acknowledge that basic box score data is flawed and that therefore the so-called "advanced basketball statistics" are skewed even if the "advanced" formulas are sound (which is far from a proven proposition).

In my pro basketball Pantheon I did not attempt to rank players from different eras but simply selected the 10 players who excelled when compared to the players from their own eras; how much a player dominates his own time is a significant indication of true greatness. Fran Blinebury's recent Wilt Chamberlain tribute notes that Chamberlain dominated his peers in breathtaking fashion (in reference to the first point in the passage quoted below from Blinebury's article, it is worth noting that Blinebury's larger point is correct even though he failed to mention that Elgin Baylor averaged 38.3 ppg in 48 games in 1961-62):

• Consider that after Wilt's 50.4 mark for the 1961-62 season, the second-highest scoring averaged in NBA history by a player not named Chamberlain was Michael Jordan's 37.1 in 1986-87. That makes Wilt's number 36 percent higher than Jordan.

• The highest batting average for a season in Major League Baseball over the past 70 years was George Brett's .390 in 1980. To exceed Brett by 36 percent, a batter would have to hit .530.

• The all-time single season rushing record in the NFL is 2,105 yards by Eric Dickerson in 1984. To exceed Dickerson by 36 percent a runner would have to gain 2,863 yards.

• The NHL single-season record for goals is 92 by Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82. To exceed Gretzky by Chamberlain's pace, a skater would have to pump in 125 goals.

The truth is, in American sports, only Babe Ruth transcended and transformed his sport like Chamberlain.

Pace alone is not an adequate explanation for how far Chamberlain's records are ahead of not just what any other pro basketball players have accomplished but also how much more dominant his performances are than the record-setting performances of all-time greats in other sports.

Oscar Robertson recently penned an eloquent plea urging that the NBA's great history--including the incredible 1961-62 season in which Chamberlain averaged 50.4 ppg and Robertson averaged a triple double--should be remembered and celebrated. I wholeheartedly echo Robertson's complaints and laments and I am proud of the opportunities I have had to interview Robertson and other greats of the game. Robertson is right that it is important not just that NBA history be told but that it be told by competent people; my contribution to that effort is displayed in the right hand sidebar of this website and I truly hope that someday my hard work and dedication to preserving and telling these stories will reach the widest possible audience, supplanting the gossip and nonsense that poses as journalism today at far too many magazines and websites.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:19 PM


Monday, December 26, 2011

Comments and Notes About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader

I watched every minute of every game of the NBA's season-opening Christmas Day quintupleheader and thus in a span of roughly 13 hours I saw one third of the league's teams perform. Most of what I observed confirmed what I already thought about these 10 teams but the most important thing to understand about those five games--and about the analysis in this article--is that this was just opening day: no one won the championship on Sunday and no one got eliminated from the playoffs.

Rather than writing five exhaustive game recaps in my typical style--which could easily have pushed this article past the 10,000 word mark--I decided to restrict myself to making several bullet point comments/notes about each contest, focusing on themes that I expect to be relevant for the entire season and not just one day.

Game One: New York Knicks 106, Boston Celtics 104

1) During TNT's pre-game show, Charles Barkley dismissed the Knicks as a team that is "soft as tissue paper" even with the addition of Tyson Chandler.

2) After the Knicks pushed the Celtics around and built a 17 point first half lead, Boston Coach Doc Rivers chastised his players during a timeout by saying that they were all playing too "soft" and that they could never win a basketball game by playing this way but then he encouraged them by predicting that if they played with more force they had enough time to get right back in the game.

3) True to Rivers' prediction, the Celtics tied the game midway through the third quarter and eventually built a 10 point lead.

4) TNT commentator Steve Kerr made a very perceptive comment about new Boston forward Chris Wilcox, noting that players who have always been on losing teams must learn winning habits, including how to practice correctly (Wilcox had mentioned that he was exhausted after his first Boston practice, the implication being that his previous teams did not practice with the same intensity). Casual sports fans--and even many so-called "experts"--do not understand to what extent games are actually won during practice; practice is where correct habits are formed and where players learn how to execute various scenarios so that they are prepared for whatever may happen during a game. One classic NFL example of this is the contrast between a well-coached team like the New England Patriots--the masters of situational football--and a bungling team like the Cleveland Browns, a squad that consistently fails to properly execute in even the most basic situations; New England Coach Bill Belichick trains his players to be ready for any possible situation but I shudder to think what Cleveland's various coaches have been doing in practice since 1999 (the Patriots routinely drive the length of the field in a two minute drill and score touchdowns, while the Browns cannot figure out how to score from their opponent's five yard line with almost a minute left on the clock).

5) The Celtics look--and act--like a much less physically imposing team without Kendrick Perkins and Shaquille O'Neal.

6) Kerr observed that with newly acquired Tyson Chandler playing center on offense the Knicks have shifted Amare Stoudemire to power forward, which means that Stoudemire now has to deal with a cluttered lane as opposed to having a free run through the paint as a mobile center diving to the hoop after a screen/roll action. Kerr is not convinced that the skill sets of New York's starting frontcourt players are completely complementary--Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony both have a tendency to be ball-stoppers--though he believes that if the players are willing to adapt and to sacrifice individual statistics then they can make things work.

7) After the Celtics made their big run to build a 10 point third quarter lead, Anthony took over in the fourth quarter by scoring 17 of New York's 27 points.

8) Future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce did not play because of a foot injury and the Celtics particularly felt his absence down the stretch; Ray Allen is primarily a catch and shoot player at this stage of his career, while Kevin Garnett has never been a great back to the basket player and often seems hesitant to take late game shots in close contests. Garnett ultimately missed a potentially tying jumper at the buzzer.

9) When Philadelphia Coach Doug Collins was a commentator he often said that it is significant to see how a team reacts to winning a game; he does not believe that a team should get too excited about a regular season win and if he had been commentating about this game I am sure that he would have noted with interest that New York's players celebrated like they had won the championship even though all they did was win one home game against a shorthanded team.

Game Two: Miami Heat 105, Dallas Mavericks 94

1) Many of the statistics from this game are meaningless or at least very deceptive; the Heat completely dominated the vast majority of the game even though the final margin was a "respectable" 11 and thus a lot of players from both squads padded their individual numbers in what amounted to--in Marv Albert's patented phrase--"extensive garbage time."

2) The Mavericks did not bring back six players from their 2011 championship team--including key playoff contributors Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea--and it is very evident that after an abbreviated preseason the team lacks continuity.

3) Clip and save this for future reference: ESPN/ABA commentator Jeff Van Gundy--who last season predicted that the Heat would win 75 games--declared that not only is Miami the "clear favorite" to win the 2012 championship but that if he were betting he would take Miami over the field (for some perspective, that kind of wager would have been a losing proposition in golf even back when Tiger Woods was clearly the most dominant player in the sport).

4) The Heat treated this like it was game seven of the NBA Finals, while the Mavericks treated this like it was game three of an eight game preseason. To cite just one example, the Heat outscored the Mavericks 18-0 in points in the paint in the first quarter.

5) If you want to know why it is fully justifiable to say that LeBron James quit during key moments of the 2011 NBA Finals just like he quit versus Boston in game five of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals then all you need to do is contrast the tremendous energy and effort of James' performance versus Dallas on Sunday with the lackadaisical, disinterested and lethargic way that he played in the aforementioned playoff games. On Sunday, James literally flew all over the court on offense and defense, involving himself in every aspect of the game as a postup scorer, a driver, a pullup jump shooter, a passer, a rebounder and an active defender: that is what an engaged, attentive James looks like--that is what James looks like when he is trying really hard to dominate a game. James finished with 37 points (a Miami franchise record for a season opener), 10 rebounds and six assists. No one in his right mind can say that this version of James even vaguely resembled the James who disappeared against Dallas in 2011 and against Boston in 2010. I don't know why James' effort level waxes and wanes to such an extraordinary degree--I have never observed this characteristic in such a talented player--but it is inarguable and indisputable that he simply did not put forth anything close to maximum effort in some of the most important games of his career: in short, he quit.

6) When you trade a good player to a major rival you either A) don't think that this player is particularly valuable (or at least no longer worth his contract), B) have another deal in the works or C) are stupid. The L.A. Lakers traded Lamar Odom, their third best player, to the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and only received a draft pick and a trade exception in return. Odom won the 2011 Sixth Man of the Year Award but he disappeared in the playoffs and then pouted after the Lakers tried to trade him in the infamously voided Chris Paul deal. After Odom indicated that he did not want to stay with the Lakers anymore, the team all but jumped at the chance to get rid of his nearly $9 million/year contract. The Lakers are apparently willing to get by with Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy filling Odom's slot unless/until the Lakers find a way to acquire Dwight Howard. Meanwhile, Odom hardly had a huge impact in his Dallas debut: Odom shot 1-6 from the field in 13 minutes before being ejected after receiving two technical fouls. Odom thrived in L.A. as the third option diving to the hoop with the defense focused on Kobe Bryant and (to a lesser extent) Pau Gasol and Odom has always been a good rebounder but I suspect that his minutes, his per minute production (except possibly his rebounding) and his field goal percentage will all decline this season.

Game Three: Chicago Bulls 88, L.A. Lakers 87

1) I have made it clear in several articles over the past few months that I don't think it is realistic for the Lakers or their fans to expect Kobe Bryant to just carry his team with individual scoring pyrotechnics the way that he did a few years ago but it is important to understand that the reason for this is not that Bryant's skill set and/or productivity have declined but rather that his body has accumulated too much mileage to accommodate that kind of workload over an entire season. Last season, Coach Phil Jackson limited Bryant to 33.9 mpg (his lowest average since 1997-98, his second NBA season) and permitted him to skip most practices just to preserve Bryant's chronically sore right knee--but when Bryant was on the court he was extremely productive and efficient: Bryant's .451 field goal percentage was just a tick below his career norm, he averaged his most points per minute since 2006-07 (the year that he won his second consecutive scoring title while averaging 40.8 mpg) while also averaging more rebounds per minute and more assists per minute than he had since he won the 2007-08 regular season MVP. The problem is not (yet) that Bryant cannot get the job done at an MVP level but rather that to keep his body from falling apart he can only perform at an elite level under controlled circumstances (i.e., limited game minutes combined with limited practice time) and this puts the Lakers under duress (to borrow one of Jackson's pet phrases): the "extra" time that Bryant is not on the court requires Pau Gasol to serve as a number one option, while the practice time that Bryant misses results in less intense practices and less overall team continuity.

2) Bryant led the Lakers with a game-high 28 points and a game-high six assists while contributing seven rebounds and shooting a very solid 11-23 (.478) from the field in 35 minutes. Chicago's prize offseason acquisition Richard Hamilton got into foul trouble trying to guard Bryant and only scored six points in 23 minutes. The main negative about Bryant's performance is that he was charged with a game-high eight turnovers; some of those miscues may be attributable to the torn ligament in his right (dominant) hand but, whatever the reason, it is very unusual for Bryant to have that many turnovers (even though he has battled various finger ailments for the past several seasons): Bryant only had one game (out of 82) with at least eight turnovers in the 2010-11 season and just three such games (out of 73) in the 2009-10 season; in 2008-09 he played all 82 games with a single game high of six turnovers (twice).

3) The Bulls built an early lead but the Lakers clamped down defensively in the third quarter and seemed to have the game in control after Bryant's layup put them up 82-71 with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Bulls then went on a quick 6-0 run but Bryant drew a double team and assisted on a Steve Blake three pointer to push the margin to 85-77 with just a little over two minutes remaining. As Hubie Brown noted during the telecast, Bryant consistently made good decisions when the Bulls trapped him and this resulted in good scoring opportunities for the Lakers. While some "stat gurus" periodically suggest that Bryant is not the Lakers' most valuable player, Bulls' Coach Tom Thibodeau apparently disagrees because he repeatedly sent multiple defenders at Bryant while single covering Gasol. After Luol Deng made a pair of free throws, Bryant drew a trap and passed to a cutting Josh McRoberts (who essentially took over Lamar Odom's minutes and produced six points and eight rebounds), who then fed Gasol under the hoop. Ronnie Brewer fouled Gasol and Gasol missed both free throws, thus failing to give the Lakers a three possession lead. The Bulls then cut the lead to four before another good Bryant pass out of a trap led to a scoring opportunity for McRoberts--but McRoberts also missed two free throws. The Lakers retained possession after the second miss and Bryant's turnaround baseline jumper over a double team put them up 87-81 with less than a minute remaining. That should have been the dagger but Gasol helped the Bulls slice that lead in half by fouling Deng, resulting in a three point play. After Bryant missed a jumper he was called for a questionable loose ball foul against Deng (it looked like Deng just slipped) and Deng canned both free throws. All the Lakers had to do with 20 seconds left was successfully inbound the ball, make two free throws and get one defensive stop. Bryant received the inbounds pass but instead of immediately fouling the Bulls trapped him to try to get a steal; Bryant attempted to evade the trap by passing the ball to Gasol but Gasol let Deng slip in front of him and steal the ball. Derrick Rose then isolated against Derek Fisher, drove into the lane and made a gorgeous runner over Gasol's outstretched arms. After a final timeout, Bryant received the inbounds pass with just under five seconds left, drove to the hoop and lofted a short runner that Deng blocked as time expired.

4) In hindsight, it is easy to say that Bryant should have just held on to the ball and waited to be fouled but there is some logic to passing the ball in that situation: this runs more time off of the clock and should lessen the possibility of a steal or a tie-up. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Gasol did not very aggressively go after the ball, which hit him in both hands before Deng wrestled it away. After the game, Bryant simply said that he and Gasol had miscommunicated, while Lakers Coach Mike Brown said that he was not sure why Bryant had passed the ball but that he had assumed that Bryant would hold on to the ball, get fouled and make both free throws.

5) Hubie Brown said that Pau Gasol should play from the foul line down and stop shooting so many outside shots, particularly while he is playing center with Andrew Bynum out of the lineup (Bynum has been suspended by the NBA for five games--reduced to four because of the shortened season--as a result of the cheap shot that he delivered to J.J. Barea during last season's playoffs). Gasol finished with 14 points and eight rebounds in 38 minutes while shooting 6-14 from the field; those numbers are not terrible but they are also not quite good enough considering his role on the team: the Lakers need for Gasol to be a 20-10 performer while shooting better than .500 from the field.

5) After the game, ESPN/ABC commentator Jon Barry wondered why the Lakers assigned Derek Fisher to guard Rose on the fateful final possession. If Barry had actually watched the game with understanding then he would have realized that Fisher was inserted in the game because the Lakers had possession with a one point lead and Fisher is a good free throw shooter; since the Bulls did not call timeout after Deng's steal the Lakers did not have a chance to substitute for Fisher and simply had to scramble to match up. I am not surprised when Bill Simmons or Mike Wilbon say nonsensical things about the NBA but Barry played in the league and his father Rick is a Hall of Famer so it is mind-boggling how frequently he is completely off target with his comments.

6) Although most of the postgame focus will undoubtedly be on the Lakers' shaky execution in the final few minutes, the larger story is how much Coach Brown has improved the Lakers' defense in a very short period of time. Despite replacing Bynum and Odom in the frontcourt rotation with new arrivals McRoberts and Troy Murphy, the Lakers not only outrebounded the Bulls but they also limited them to .404 field goal shooting overall and held them to 32 second half points. Keep in mind that the Bulls had the best record in the NBA in 2010-11, while the last time we saw the Lakers in a meaningful game their defense looked horrendous as the Dallas Mavericks dethroned the two-time defending champions with a humiliating sweep. If Coach Brown can help the Lakers to maintain this kind of defensive intensity for the whole season--and if Kobe Bryant does not sustain any more injuries--then the Lakers have a chance to be better than I expected them to be. I fully expected Coach Brown to improve the Lakers' defense but I did not expect the improvement to show up this soon or to be evident with both Bynum (temporarily) and Odom (permanently) out of the lineup; only time will tell if the Lakers can continue to play defense at a high level during this compressed season.

Game Four: Oklahoma City Thunder 97, Orlando Magic 89

1) The addition of Kendrick Perkins enables the Thunder to use a lot of single coverage on Dwight Howard and thus shut down the Magic's perimeter players (much like the Celtics used to do when Perkins played for them). Howard finished with just 11 points on 4-12 field goal shooting (though he did have a game-high 15 rebounds) and the Magic shot just 8-28 (.286) from three point range.

2) Other than three-time Defensive Player of the Year Howard, the Magic lack good defenders.

3) The likelihood that Howard will choose to re-sign with this ragtag Orlando team is extremely low (despite Howard's conflicting public statements that are most likely an attempt on his part to avoid the vilification that LeBron James received for the "Decision") so the Magic better take the best available deal for Howard as soon as possible. I am baffled by commentator Doris Burke's assertion that if the Magic wait then they will receive better offers; Howard can leave as a free agent next summer, so the Magic's leverage decreases the closer we get to the trade deadline (Howard can essentially scuttle any trade by making it clear that he won't re-sign with his new team, so the Magic can only trade him if they send him to a team that he wants to stay with long term).

4) Kevin Durant led the Thunder with a game-high 30 points on 11-19 field goal shooting. He has come a long way from his rookie season when P.J. Carlesimo foolishly played Durant out of position at shooting guard. Regardless of what some uninformed people say, positional designations matter.

Game Five: L.A. Clippers 105, Golden State Warriors 86

1) The Clippers are trying to become a legit contender and I think that the Warriors have a chance to fight for a playoff berth but both teams must prove that they can execute in the half court offensively and defensively. "Lob City" will only take the Clippers so far, while Golden State's "random" offense (as new Coach Mark Jackson calls it) will not consistently get the job done against plus-.500 teams.

2) Both teams looked ragged in the first half. Neither of the Warriors' high scoring guards (Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry) could get going, while the Clippers' Chris Paul shot just 1-6 from the field and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan combined for one defensive rebound, a statistic that is incomprehensible for two big guys who can jump through the roof.

3) Paul finally took over in the fourth quarter by dribbling the shot clock down for three straight possessions before nailing long jumpers. That looks good when it works--Paul's ability to handle the ball combined with his passing skills and shooting touch are reminiscent of Isiah Thomas--but there are not many championship contenders who rely primarily on a six foot guard dribbling for 20 seconds before shooting perimeter shots; Thomas certainly hit his share of clutch jumpers but his primary modus operandi was to get to the hoop.

4) The Clipppers seem to have a glut of guards who are too small to log heavy minutes at the shooting guard slot but they do not have anyone who is really qualified to be a full-time starting shooting guard; I don't believe that Chauncey Billups can last a whole season playing 38 minutes as the starting shooting guard, while Mo Williams and Randy Foye are talented players who will not see much action as long as Paul and Billups are starting. It seems obvious that someone--most likely Williams--should be traded for a shooting guard to ease the point guard glut and enable Billups to just play spot minutes at shooting guard. Also, while too much should not be read into one game, the Clippers' shot distribution was odd: Billups took a game-high 19 attempts--including 10 from three point range--while Blake Griffin took 18 shots and Paul took 12 shots. Billups needs to shoot less often and more accurately (he shot three of 10 from three point range and three of nine inside the arc).

5) Although the Clippers still have some kinks to work out, the addition of Paul is obviously a major upgrade as long as he can stay healthy. Jeff Van Gundy made an excellent observation about Paul: "If your best player defends and passes your whole team will follow suit."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 AM