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Friday, March 09, 2012

Why Do the Lakers Squander so Many Leads and Why do They Play Poorly on the Road?

The reflexive, mainstream media answer to the title question of this article is that Kobe Bryant "is not clutch" or at least that he has "not been clutch" this season. There are two problems with that kind of thinking:

1) "Clutch" statistics inherently involve a small sample size of data that contains a variety of kinds of plays and shots that cannot just be mixed together to produce any kind of rational, coherent analysis.

2) While it is true that Kobe Bryant's overall performance on the road--which comprises a much larger sample size than just his "clutch" statistics--this season has been much worse than his overall performance at home, the Lakers' problems go deeper than Bryant's road field goal percentage.

Kevin Ding, a rare NBA beat writer who actually provides excellent analysis instead of just filing by the numbers postgame reports, recently offered his take on the Lakers' road problems:

The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder flat-out have the speed and bounce to win without refined execution--and to win for sure when they indeed do execute. We now know even better than three months ago how badly the Lakers needed at least an infusion of offensive creativity from Paul at point guard.

Lakers coach Mike Brown did craft this plan to play through big men Andrew Bynum and Gasol in the post, but Brown will admit the limitations of that approach.

"The post is the easiest place in basketball to double," Brown said.

That's why Brown is so often looking like a one-man bowling team with those constant underhand waves at Derek Fisher and Steve Blake to hurry the ball across halfcourt. The Lakers need every precious shot-clock second to set up the proper spacing, get Bryant a touch, throw the ball into the post, draw the double team, pass it back out, set up and fight for the re-post, swing the ball to the weak side to look for something there and ideally reach a fourth option on offense before the 24-second clock expires.

Doing all that is not a particularly fun way to play the game, which is a basic reason the Lakers do not do it when they're messing around instead of approaching the game in the most businesslike manner. (And if you've got a lead, is it human nature to stay businesslike or try to have some fun? Yeah, now you know why the Lakers blow so many leads.)

That cavalier attitude is what bit the Lakers in Washington, with Bynum piling up seven turnovers and Bryant jacking tough shots up before double teams arrived instead of everyone making patient passes, cutting toward space and doing the work.

Bryant has played a major role on five championship teams and he has been the Lakers' primary playmaker for the vast majority of his career. Is it logical to leap to the conclusion that his subpar road performance this season "proves" that he is a selfish gunner who is simply trying to move up the all-time scoring list or does it make more sense--based on Bryant's track record and the Lakers' anemic offense overall, as documented by Ding above--to give Bryant the benefit of the doubt and assume that Bryant is trying to do whatever he can to help the Lakers win?

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:26 PM

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Strengths and Limitations of "Advanced Basketball Statistics"

Frank Herbert's masterpiece Dune series features many themes involving politics, religion and ecology/scarcity of resources but Herbert's biggest message is that it is extremely dangerous for any society to elevate one person to hero or messiah status; Paul Muad'Dib's holy war overthrew the repressive regime of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV but then Muad'Dib's followers--blinded with messianic dreams of his supposed infallibility and drunk with their newfound power--brought forth their own brand of tyranny. What does this have to do with basketball? There is no doubt that scouting methods and player evaluation techniques in the NBA have been improved over the past few decades and that they can and should continue to be improved. Four decades ago, the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers built their roster in no small part by relying on statistics found on the back of basketball cards; obviously, that is not a very effective scouting method or even a very effective use of basketball statistics. Within the past two decades, technology has transformed NBA scouting and game preparation and executives/coaches now have access to a proliferation of statistical information that would have been impossible to gather and organize before. I am not opposed to the use of statistics--or even "advanced basketball statistics"--to evaluate basketball players individually or collectively. I am opposed to any form of thought or analysis that lacks rigor, logic and consistency. I am opposed to theories that are presented as definitive fact without any testable hypotheses. In short, I am opposed to the way that some "stat gurus" are trying to replace previous player evaluation methods with some kind of blind, unquestioning certainty that anything that appears in a spreadsheet must be treated as holy gospel: these "stat gurus" are overthrowing the "Padishah Emperor" only to go on a holy war to wipe out any beliefs about basketball that do not rigidly conform with what appears on their spreadsheets.

"Advanced basketball statistics" can be useful as a supplement to traditional box score data and to the observations of trained scouts/coaches--but some "stat gurus" (and their media sycophants) do a disservice to their cause by overstating the meaning and reliability of their data (I suspect that legitimate researchers into basketball statistics cringe every time they read one of Henry Abbott's biased, tendentious rants). Published reports indicate that the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks used data from Roland Beech about the effectiveness of various lineup combinations to help decide how to allocate minutes during their playoff run; plus/minus numbers and adjusted plus/minus numbers for various lineups can be useful information for a coach to consider, provided that the data is from a large enough sample size and that there is some other corroborating information--such as observations about mismatches generated by certain lineups--that confirm what the data suggests. In Dallas' case, plus/minus information apparently confirmed what could also be seen visually: Dallas' playoff opponents had trouble matching up with J.J. Barea's speed and quickness. However, that data neither proved nor disproved that Barea is an All-Star caliber player or even that he is a better overall player than the players whose minutes he took; the data merely suggested that, paired with four other particular Dallas players, Barea helped Dallas to exploit certain matchup advantages against various lineups being used by opposing teams.

The problem--the tipping point where the necessary revolution overthrowing the old Emperor transforms into a bloody holy war--is when "stat gurus" who have proprietary numbers that they have created and used to sell books/articles start loudly and repeatedly proclaiming that they can precisely rank every individual player in the NBA and that their rankings are absolutely correct and completely objective while all other rankings (including those by other competing "stat gurus") are the products of sheer ignorance. Scientists who are conducting legitimate research consistently use cautious, guarded language, while "stat gurus" are often bombastic and tend to make wild, unverifiable claims about the accuracy of their formulas; Albert Einstein's theories led to the creation of technological marvels ranging from the atom bomb to GPS and yet researchers are still running experiments to verify his predictions. In contrast, many "stat gurus" devise their own personal interpretations of which box score numbers are most important in order to create "advanced basketball statistics" that have no designated margin for error and no framework providing ways to prove or disprove their validity. How naive do you have to be to think that a basketball player's value can absolutely and precisely be calculated to the tenth or hundredth of a point? You would think that these "stat gurus" would be concerned about the demonstrated fallibility of boxscore numbers but far too many "stat gurus" close their eyes and pretend that the basic assist, steal and blocked shot numbers that they plug into their precious "advanced" formulas are completely accurate.

The basketball "stat gurus" are trying to follow in the footsteps of Bill James and the other baseball numbers crunchers who have transformed our understanding of that sport but basketball and baseball are fundamentally different games from an analytical standpoint; it would perhaps be only a slight exaggeration to say that baseball is like checkers while basketball is like chess: computers have "solved" checkers but, even though computers have become quite proficient at playing chess, computers have not come close to "solving" chess. Similarly, baseball's number crunchers have made some valuable observations about how to properly analyze that sport but basketball's "stat gurus" are lagging far behind because their task is much more complicated: baseball consists of discrete actions that can be accurately separated and measured--pitcher throws the ball, batter hits the ball, fielder catches the ball, etc.--while basketball consists of 10 players simultaneously doing a variety of things, many of which cannot be measured.

Phil Birnbaum has worked extensively with baseball statistics but after thoroughly studying "advanced basketball statistics" he concluded that they are not particularly reliable:

You know all those player evaluation statistics in basketball, like "Wins Produced," "Player Evaluation Rating," and so forth? I don't think they work. I've been thinking about it, and I don't think I trust any of them enough put much faith in their results.

That's the opposite of how I feel about baseball. For baseball, if the sportswriter consensus is that player A is an excellent offensive player, but it turns out his OPS is a mediocre .700, I'm going to trust OPS. But, for basketball, if the sportswriters say a guy's good, but his "Wins Produced" is just average, I might be inclined to trust the sportswriters.

I don't think the stats work well enough to be useful.


Nick Collison is a perfect example of what Birnbaum is talking about. Collison is a plus/minus superstar but does that mean that he is an All-Star or All-NBA caliber player? No, but it could mean any number of other things:

1) Collison very effectively fills a limited role on a team that has two All-NBA players (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) plus a third high quality player (James Harden) who provide scoring and shot creation.

2) Collison is much more effective than other players on his team who play his position, so when he enters the game his team does better than it does with him off of the court.

3) Collison is not better than the other power forwards on his team but he has more of a matchup advantage against the reserve players he competes against than other Thunder power forwards have against the opposing power forwards who they face.

4) Collision's gaudy plus/minus numbers merely reflect a lot of noise due to an insufficiently large sample size of minutes.

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, all that matters is that lineups that include Collison are very productive; "advanced basketball statistics" can be helpful for the Thunder in terms of identifying that trend and thus confirming what the coaching staff likely already had figured out by watching the games--but "stat gurus" or media members who try to extend the use of plus/minus data from one tool that can help the coaching staff to configure a playing rotation to some kind of absolute player rating system are asking far more of the data that it can rightfully be expected to provide. Plus/minus data can be noisy and is much more applicable within a team setting than applied on a league basis; at best, Collison's numbers just suggest that he can be an effective member of certain five man rotations for the Thunder--but those numbers do not prove that he is a better player than a power forward on a different team who has lower plus/minus numbers.

Last year I cited Ken Pomeroy's research about the limitations of plus/minus statistics; Pomeroy concluded, "It's true plus-minus captures everything that's happening, but that includes a whole lot of random things that lead to a hoop or a stop. Things that have nothing to do with the ability of the player you want to analyze. In basketball analysis, we should be filtering out randomness, not embracing it." In my article I added the following analysis:

Pomeroy notes that because the professional season is much longer than the college season there may be "limited use" for adjusted plus/minus in the NBA but even in that case one probably needs at least two full seasons of data to make any meaningful evaluations; in other words, most of the stat-based articles (about "clutch performance," player ratings, MVP rankings, etc.) that are popping up like dandelions in an untended yard are using data sets that are far too small to form the basis for sweeping, definitive conclusions (I realize that not all of these articles are using plus/minus or advanced plus/minus data but there is even less reason to trust the accuracy of Berri's numbers or Hollinger's numbers--both of which are based on subjective formulas that can be tweaked to reach whatever conclusions the author desires--then there is to trust plus/minus data that truly is objective in some sense even if it is only potentially meaningful when the data set is very large).

As Birnbaum mentioned, similar limitations apply to the seemingly endless number of highly touted player rating systems that have popped up in recent years. A recent article suggested that Kevin Garnett's value was not properly appreciated until some "stat gurus" created numbers that proved how effective he is. Kevin Garnett was drafted straight out of high school and shortly after that he received the biggest contract in NBA history at that time, a contract so huge that it helped lead to the 1999 lockout; Garnett was a highly valued commodity many years before "stat gurus" started touting his worth. More to the point, while the "stat gurus" declared that he was the best player in the NBA during the mid-2000s the reality that we have seen since the Boston Celtics formed their "Big Three" is that Garnett has a tremendous impact defensively and he is valuable as a screener/passer offensively but he and his teams are most effective when he is surrounded by multiple perimeter players who can create their own shots and create shots for others. Garnett's lone deep playoff run in Minnesota came when he teamed up with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell and his playoff runs in Boston have been aided by the offensive skills of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Regardless of what the "stat gurus" think that their numbers show, Garnett is not a dominant player in the same way that Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant have been dominant players for multiple championship teams--and despite having at least three future Hall of Famers, the Celtics won exactly one title since Garnett arrived and they do not seem likely to add to that total. In that same time period, Kobe Bryant won two championships paired with a player who had earned one All-Star selection (and had not won a single playoff game) prior to joining the Lakers and Dirk Nowitzki won a championship paired with an aging future Hall of Famer plus a cast of good role players--and Nowitzki's squad beat the "stat guru" dream team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Before the "stat gurus" get too proud of themselves for allegedly discovering Kevin Garnett they might want to try to explain why the James-Wade combination has not been nearly as dominant as they predicted it would be.

Roland Beech has done some nice research about game-winning shots but, unfortunately, a lot of people borrow his data without bothering to consider his conclusion: "Ultimately though while this kind of thing is fun, it's not to my mind particularly meaningful, other than indicating that the league as a whole could probably get more efficient in 'end game' possessions...one easy place to start might be to try and be less predictable! It's nice to have a go-to guy, but when the other team knows without much doubt that a certain guy is getting the ball, it is going to be a lot easier to defend!" Beech is right on target that this data is both "fun" and "not...particularly meaningful" though I think that he is a bit harsh regarding the alleged lack of efficiency on "end game" possessions; he fails to consider two very important points: (1) since this is a small sample size the shooting percentages are disproportionately skewed downward by desperation heaves, broken plays, etc.; (2) it is very difficult to score against a set NBA defense and it is even more difficult to do so when your time is extremely limited, particularly if you need a three pointer just to tie. When the time is limited why would a coach design a play for someone other than his best player? Anyway, most people have no idea how plays work in the first place; no NBA coach is just giving the ball to one guy and saying, "Shoot it" (unless there is only enough time to catch and shoot): you give the ball to your best player because he is most capable of creating his own shot, creating a shot for someone else if he gets trapped and making free throws if he is fouled. You don't want to give the ball to someone who cannot dribble or who cannot get a shot off or who is a bad free throw shooter. When role players hit big shots it is usually after the team's best player created an opening--but if you give the ball to the role player first then you are asking him to do something he is not comfortable doing. If "stat gurus" think that "clutch shooting" percentages are low now just imagine what those percentages would look like if coaches started drawing up plays for non-ballhandlers to catch the ball at the top of the key with five seconds remaining.

I have consistently maintained that Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots; I have never pretended to know or even care which NBA player is the best at making last second shots--but I am perplexed that so many "stat gurus" (other than Beech) think that this is an important topic to investigate ("stat gurus" famously do not believe in the so-called "hot hand" so there is no reason for them to believe that a player will perform much differently in some arbitrarily defined "clutch" moment than at any other time); I am also amazed at the lack of intellectual rigor displayed by the conclusions that have been loudly and repeatedly stated in some quarters about this issue. Setting aside for a moment the fact that "clutch shots" have not been universally defined in terms of time remaining/score differential, regardless of how such shots are categorized they comprise just a tiny, unrepresentative portion of a player's total shot attempts--and within that small subset of "clutch shots" there are in fact many different kinds of shots that cannot reasonably be lumped together. For instance, consider two "clutch shots" that Kobe Bryant recently attempted; near the end of the fourth quarter versus Detroit, Bryant received the ball outside the three point line in the top of the key area, took two strong dribbles and drained a midrange pullup jumper to send the game into overtime; near the end of overtime, with the Lakers trailing by three and the Pistons possibly ready to foul rather than permit a three point attempt, Bryant caught the ball well behind the three point line and quickly fired a shot that missed. If you are a "stat guru" measuring "clutch shots" then you lump in Bryant's desperation three pointer with his two dribble pullup, combine it with some half court shots and other miscellaneous attempts taken against a variety of defenses with differing amounts of time on the clock and then you produce one field goal percentage that supposedly provides a definitive measurement of Bryant's "clutchness." Does anyone measure the "clutchness" of NFL quarterbacks by looking at their completion percentages on "Hail Mary" passes? This stuff is so foolish that I cannot believe that it is a topic for supposedly serious discussion; the problems with sample size are so obvious that it should be readily apparent that "clutch shot" data is, at best, a fun, frivolous stat to consider lightly, and not something that is worthy of in depth debate. If someone nails a lucky half court shot does that prove that he is "clutch"? The reality is that most shots taken in the final few seconds against a set defense are inherently low percentage shots--but it should not be surprising to anyone that in the same game Bryant calmly nailed a two dribble pullup (a shot that is a normal part of his repertoire) and then missed a twisting, rushed, long three point attempt; anyone who combines those two attempts into one "clutch shooting percentage" and takes that number seriously is an idiot.

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Further Reading:

The Counterfeit Currency of David Berri's Wages of Wins

Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis

Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis, Part II

Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis, Part III

The Difference Between Measuring Defense in Basketball and Baseball

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 AM

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Kevin Ding Provides Insight Regarding the Challenges that Kobe Bryant has Overcome

After scoring 20 points on 6-13 field goal shooting in the first half versus Washington on Wednesday night and helping the L.A. Lakers build a 64-49 halftime lead, Kobe Bryant lost his shooting touch in the second half; Bryant shot just 3-18 from the field and the hapless Wizards stormed back to post just their ninth win in 38 games this season. The Lakers are currently in fifth place in the Western Conference standings, which may surprise the oddsmakers who ranked the Lakers as one of the league's top five teams but it does not surprise anyone who read my Western Conference Preview: I picked the Lakers to finish sixth in the West and predicted that they would be more reliant than ever on Bryant's scoring and playmaking even though a player of Bryant's age who has logged so much mileage should be having his role reduced (to preserve him for the postseason) instead of being relentlessly driven at top speed until his wheels fall off. Bryant is leading the NBA in scoring, ranks among the league leaders in minutes played and he has produced some sizzling performances this season but he is also an aging player who has not missed a game despite suffering a torn ligament in his shooting wrist, a broken nose and a concussion.

If Bryant were not showing some signs of fatigue by this point in the lockout-compressed season then he would be superhuman--but instead of focusing on what Bryant has overcome and how his efforts have kept a mediocre Lakers team afloat, many members of the media choose instead to endlessly critique his shot selection; they are apparently unwilling or unable to realize that you cannot run a championship caliber offense through a soft Pau Gasol or an Andrew Bynum who still has a limited post game. However, it is refreshing that at least one person who watches Bryant up close on a regular basis is capable of providing an objective perspective about Bryant's performance this season. Do yourself a favor and check out Kevin Ding's article titled Masked Kobe's clearest message: persevere. Ding describes not just what Bryant has accomplished this season but also how Bryant's determination to play through injuries fueled the Lakers' run to the 2008 Finals and thus set up their back to back championships in 2009 and 2010.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:47 AM

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Comparing the Nash Effect with the Bryant Effect

ESPN recently ran a graphic depicting how various players achieved career-highs in a particular statistical category while playing alongside Steve Nash in Phoenix. Steve Nash is a great point guard and there is no doubt that his teammates have benefited from his playmaking and from the way that his shooting skills space the floor. I very much dislike the cliche about Making Your Teammates Better; what great players actually do is create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well. Nash certainly creates such openings and opportunities but it is also important to remember that he has hardly been surrounded by a bunch of scrubs during most of his Phoenix career; three of the players listed in ESPN's graphic made the All-Star team before and/or after playing with Nash (Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson).

We are often told that Nash and Chris Paul are among the best in the NBA at this nebulous skill of "making teammates better" but while it is undeniable that Nash and Paul are great players it is also true that their impact on their teammates is a bit exaggerated at times while the impact of other great players who are not point guards is diminished. Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal anchored 10 of the 14 post-Michael Jordan NBA championship teams while Nash and Paul have combined to produce exactly zero championships yet we rarely hear discussions about how much Bryant, Duncan and O'Neal "make their teammates better."

Obviously, listing a player's name followed by one accomplishment is hardly a very scientific way to prove that Nash, Paul or anyone else "made that player better"; that is why I have done so many lengthy, in depth articles explaining the impact that various great players have on their teams but, just as a fun exercise, I thought it would be interesting to make a list about Bryant that is similar in structure and content to the list that ESPN made about Nash:
  1. Pau Gasol earned one All-Star appearance in seven seasons with Memphis (and never won a single playoff game or made the All-NBA team), but he made both the All-Star and All-NBA teams in each of his first three seasons playing alongside Bryant. Gasol also set single season career highs in field goal percentage and rebounding.
  2. Lamar Odom established career highs in field goal percentage (2011) and rebounding (2008) as a Laker and he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2011--but this season in Dallas he is averaging career lows across the board and was actually briefly assigned to the D League before the Mavs reconsidered. I always have said that Odom is a good player who has been vastly overrated by some commentators but even I never imagined that after leaving the Lakers he would barely be a functional NBA player. For many years we have heard that Odom would start for most teams in the NBA and that he should have made the All-Star team multiple times but now the reality--the truth that I have consistently stated--is becoming starkly apparent: Odom benefited tremendously from being the third option on the Lakers with Bryant receiving most of the defense's attention and Odom was only the Lakers' third option because the team was not particularly deep in the first place. The Mavericks dumped several players from their championship team in order to save cap space for next summer and Odom still cannot work his way into the team's rotation, let alone the starting lineup. Of course, if Odom were still a Laker he would be one of their main options because the Lakers have lacked depth for years, not just this season when the rest of the world suddenly woke up and figured out that the Lakers have a subpar bench (and subpar starters at both small forward and point guard).
  3. Shannon Brown barely got off the bench during his first three NBA seasons but he set career highs in field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage as a Laker. This season in Phoenix (where he is now Nash's teammate) Brown's minutes are comparable to his minutes in L.A. but his shooting percentages from all three ranges (FG%, 3FG%, FT%) have all dropped precipitously.
  4. Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic set his single season career highs in FG% and 3FG% as a Laker but his productivity declined in New Jersey and he is no longer in the NBA (he plays for a team in Turkey).
  5. Smush Parker started 162 of 164 games during the 2006 and 2007 seasons for the Lakers, establishing career highs across the board as the Lakers made two playoff appearances. Parker signed with Miami in the summer of 2007 and has since appeared in just 28 NBA games, starting two of them; for the past several years he has bounced around the D League and lower level foreign leagues.
  6. Kwame Brown started 91 games in two and a half seasons with the Lakers. He set his single season career high in FG% in 2007. The Lakers traded Brown in the Pau Gasol deal and since 2008 Brown has been an undistinguished performer for three teams and he has participated in just three playoff games after playing in 12 playoff games during his two full seasons as a Laker.
  7. Vladimir Radmanovic set his career high in field goal percentage in 2008 as a Laker and he started 115 games during two and a half seasons with the team. He has started just 32 games since the Lakers traded him during the 2008-09 season and most of his key numbers have declined.
There are two ways of looking at the "Nash Effect"; one is that it is clear that a lot of the players who Nash "affected" were/are pretty good on their own (Johnson, Marion, Stoudemire)--and the other is that if Nash's "effect" is so great then one would expect evidence of a corresponding "effect" in his absence (unless he were replaced by an equally "effective" player), which is why it is so intriguing that the Dallas Mavericks replaced Nash with Jason Terry without missing a beat. In fact, two years after Nash's departure Terry was the second leading scorer on a Dallas team that advanced to the NBA Finals and the next season Terry was the second leading scorer on a Dallas team that went 67-15. Last season, Terry was the second leading scorer on a Dallas team that won the NBA championship and he often outdueled LeBron James in the fourth quarter during the NBA Finals. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of this aspect of the "Nash Effect"; in fact, I have yet to see anyone even acknowledge the "Nash Effect" in terms of Dallas' success after Nash's departure.

Is it more surprising that the Suns had good teams (yet failed to even reach the NBA Finals once) while stocked with talent at multiple positions or that the Lakers made back to back playoff appearances in the stacked Western Conference with Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Vladimir Radmanovic starting a significant number of games? No member of that trio has been an important contributor to a playoff team since departing L.A. Everyone realizes that the Lakers' bench is terrible this season but--based on how former Laker reserves have performed since leaving the team--it seems as though whatever success the Lakers' bench players experienced in prior seasons had less to do with their individual talent and more to do with the talent around them (namely Bryant); Odom, Brown and the others had some of their finest moments when they played alongside Bryant and benefited from the extra defensive attention he attracted.

Other than Caron Butler--a young, improving player who had one injury riddled season with the Lakers (during which he still managed to post career highs at the time in scoring, FG% and rebounding) before becoming an All-Star in Washington--and possibly Jordan Farmar (who struggled in his first post-L.A. campaign but has played very solidly in 30 games as a New Jersey reserve this season) it is difficult to think of anyone who has played significantly better without Bryant than he did with Bryant; interestingly, that is not true of LeBron James, who can list a host of All-Star teammates who performed better without him as a teammate than they did with him--including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Antawn Jamison. Zydrunas Ilgauskas made the All-Star team once in five injury-riddled seasons prior to James' arrival in Cleveland and then made it once in eight seasons playing alongside James in Cleveland and Miami. Ilgauskas was 28 and healthier than he had ever been before when James became a Cav, unlike Shaquille O'Neal and Ben Wallace--we can give James a pass for not helping those aging former All-Stars to produce career-high numbers. Mo Williams earned his only All-Star appearance thus far as James' teammate but that 2009 season was not actually the best season of Williams' career; he was more productive prior to playing with James and he has been very productive this season as a Clipper (must be the "Paul Effect").

For many years--until he started winning championships--the knock against Michael Jordan was that, unlike Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, he did not "make his teammates better," a charge that Jordan angrily dismissed by declaring that you cannot make chicken salad out of chicken (you know what). I don't know if Bryant can make chicken salad out of chicken (you know what) but for two seasons he led his team to the playoffs with scrubs starting at the sport's two historically most important positions (point guard and center) and with a bench manned by guys who have not exactly covered themselves in glory since leaving L.A. so maybe Bryant can indeed turn manure into something that is edible. It will be interesting to see if James and Wade--long the darlings of the "stat guru" set--can manage to win a championship when paired with a perennial All-Star big man (Chris Bosh). James is not being asked to make chicken salad out of chicken (you know what); he is just being asked not to mess up the chicken in the fourth quarter when the outcome of the game is in doubt!

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:11 AM

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Monday, March 05, 2012

Deron Williams Did Not Set Nets' Single Game Scoring Record

On Saturday night, Deron Williams scored a career-high 57 points in New Jersey's 104-101 victory at Charlotte. That is the most points an NBA player has scored in a game since Kobe Bryant dropped 61 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden--but, contrary to what you may have read or heard, Williams did not break the Nets' franchise single game scoring record. The Nets franchise began in the ABA in 1967 when they were known as the New Jersey Americans. After the 1967-68 season they changed their name to the New York Nets and after the 1976-77 season they changed their name to the New Jersey Nets. During nine ABA seasons the Nets won two ABA titles (1974 and 1976) and that second championship run featured one of the greatest single series performances in pro basketball history as Julius Erving led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) in the 1976 ABA Finals. During the previous season, Erving scored a career-high 63 points in a 176-166 quadruple overtime loss to the San Diego Conquistadors, one of the 48 regular season games in which Erving scored at least 40 points during his ABA/NBA career.

Erving still holds the Nets' single game scoring record as surely as Joe Namath's 4007 passing yards in 1967 for the then-AFL New York Jets remains the Jets' single season record in that category. Unfortunately, the NBA has been engaged in Orwellian-style historical revisionism for decades; James Silas once lamented to me that the Spurs' record book does not acknowledge that he scored more than 10,000 points in his career even though the team gave him a commemorative ball at the time that he reached that milestone achievement. Silas mentioned this to me several years ago, so I just checked the Spurs' 2012 Media Guide online to see if anything as changed but in the former players section the Media Guide inexplicably does not include Silas' first season with the franchise--when he scored 1071 points for the team then known as the Dallas Chaparrals--and it segregates Silas's ABA Spurs points from his NBA Spurs points without listing a combined total (there is a section of the Media Guide that briefly discusses the Spurs' ABA history and lists the team's ABA statistics but that history and those numbers are artificially separated from the rest of the team's statistics and history).

No matter how much the NBA, the Elias Sports Bureau and complicit media outlets try to deny the real history the truth cannot and should not be buried: ABA statistics exist and they should be fully acknowledged by the NBA just like the NFL fully acknowledges AFL statistics. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is finally recognizing ABA legends like Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore so the next step is for the NBA and its four former ABA franchises (Pacers, Nets, Nuggets and Spurs) to proudly and fully acknowledge ABA history and ABA statistics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:05 AM

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Who Looks Like Half a Man Now?

Whenever the Miami Heat struggled last season, critics mocked the team's "Big Three" by calling them "Two and a Half Men"--charging that Chris Bosh was not worthy of being considered a full man (in terms of basketball star power) like his teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. This season, the Heat are 8-1 sans Wade, 1-0 sans James--and 1-2 sans Bosh, who has missed the last three games after the passing of his grandmother. Last season, the Heat went 4-2 sans Wade, 1-2 sans James and 3-2 sans Bosh, so thus far in the "Big Three" era the Heat are 12-3 sans Wade, 2-2 sans James and 4-4 sans Bosh (interesting historical note: when Wade got hurt during the 2006-07 season, I correctly predicted that the Heat would not miss Wade nearly as much as many pundits were suggesting and the Heat went 16-7 while Wade recuperated but then lost the first game when he came back before being swept in the first round of the playoffs).

Clearly, these are small sample sizes that fail to take into account strength of opposition, home/road splits and other important factors but when you consider Bosh's pre-Miami body of work--five All-Star selections, one All-NBA selection, three 20-10 seasons (including 24.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg, both career-high figures, in his final season with Toronto)--it should be apparent that he is a very valuable player and a key component of Miami's team. Earlier this season I imagined what it would be like if ESPN's chief basketball blogger wrote about LeBron James and the Heat the way that he writes about Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers; the funny thing about that satire is not just the way that it mocks how the biased and/or simple minded take statistics out of context to support their most cherished beliefs but the fact that there is actually more truth to the idea that the Heat need to figure out how to better take advantage of Bosh's proven skills than there is truth to the assertion that Kobe Bryant does not fully utilize Pau Gasol--a one-time All-Star who became a perennial All-Star and won two titles as Bryant's sidekick--and Andrew Bynum, an injury prone role player who did not stay healthy or consistently play at a high level until this season. Before enraged Bynum fans--or Jim Buss, Bynum's greatest advocate in the Lakers' organization and perhaps the only person other than Shaquille O'Neal who would favorably compare Bynum to Dwight Howard--fire off scathing reactions to that last sentence, please remember that during the Lakers' back to back championship runs Bynum averaged 6.3 ppg and 3.7 rpg in the 2009 playoffs and then averaged 8.6 ppg and 6.9 rpg in the 2010 playoffs; for comparison purposes, Luc Longley averaged 8.3 ppg/4.6 rpg, 6.5 ppg/4.4 rpg and 7.9 ppg/5.0 rpg in the playoffs during the Chicago Bulls' 1996-98 three-peat. I wonder if ESPN's chief basketball blogger believes that Michael Jordan was a selfish gunner because he did not pass the ball more frequently to Longley?

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:30 AM

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