Monthly Archives: March 2010

Let’s Talk Cake: I Am Smarter Than Zach Harper And Jared Wade (Or “The Thunder Are Good. Duh.”)

Oh, foolish boys. How you should know better.

You see, rounds about November of this year, the Thunder looked pretty good! You were seeing some of the things that got them to where they are now. I felt really good about that team with the way Westbrook was playing, their defense, Jeff Green, and that feller they call Durantula.

But Jared Wade and Zach Harper? Not. So. Much.

We got into a Twitter debate about the team, with Harper particularly mouthing off about how there’s no way they would make the playoffs. “Too young!” he cried. They asked how many wins they would need to make the playoffs. I said 46. They laughed. No way. And then the bet happened. I would love to link you to it, but Twitter doesn’t index searches that far back. The bet?

“If the Thunder make the playoffs, I’ll buy you a cake.” The other cosigned this. I said no way, because the West was so tough, they could win 46 games and not make the playoffs. The agreement? If the Thunder win 46 games, they buy me a cake.

The Thunder have 45 wins and face Boston tonight.

We’re officially on CakeWatch.

Now, I’d originally stipulated that if I won the cake bet, they’d have to buy me a cake in the shape of Greg Oden’s fractured patella, not to drive the stake into Oden’s career or the hearts of Blazers fans over the decision to draft Oden over Durant, but simply to punish Harper for this. Paroxi-wife naturally threw a fit, being the sensitive soul that she is, so instead, WHEN, not IF the Thunder win that 46th game, they will be having a cake made for me in this shape: DURANTULA!

I will naturally be videotaping the cake and the eating thereof and posting it on here.

Do not trifle with me mortals, you know not what you do.

It’s cake time. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon. Very soon.

Never mess with the big dog, because the big dog is always right.

NBA Playoffs: Be They Horsemen Or Mere Messengers?

First off: ROTFLMAO.

Okay, now that we’ve got late 90’s AIM chat words out of the way, let’s talk Dallas.

Did you know the Mavs are 14-11 against the top ten teams in Net Points? That’s a pretty good number. Of course, Utah and Blazer fans are pointing to their individual records against the Mavs (a combined 1-5), saying they BEG for a seven game series with Dallas. You know what I say? Be careful what you wish for.

There are three types of Western playoff teams this year. One team with considerable confidence that they will be playing in the Finals, because they are the best of their conference, and arguably the best in the league. You know them. There are teams just trying to find answers to some things. This includes Utah, who looked terrific in 2007, horrible in 08 and 09, and amazing this year, but still need to be able to knock off a big time opponent in the playoffs. It includes OKC obviously, trying to get a feel of their ceiling, since they haven’t hit it yet. It includes Portland, who, geez, what are they trying to do? Validate KP’s moves? Just not have the injuries render this a complete disaster? Make some sort of Kamikaze run to the Finals? I have no idea. And honestly, I don’t think they do either. And the Suns fall into this group, simply from a “Who knows?” perspective. The Suns are fascinating in that they know they’re a good team, know they can be a great team, but know full well the odds are not with them to win a championship.

Then there’s the last group, obviously San Antonio, Denver, and Dallas. Each have expectations. Denver legitimately expects to be in a Game Seven with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. They think they are that good. They’re in coast mode right now, and you can tell, they’re just not tuned like they have been. It’s a theme common to this category of teams, but one which the Spurs cannot afford the luxury of. They have to try and make a run, to catch fire at the right time and salvage this configuration. They’re like a rocket which keeps having its booster go out.

And then, of course, there’s Dallas. Not thought to be a contender in preseason. Generally speaking, this team has been considered out of it since the Warriors loss in 07. That series fractured the franchise’s legitimacy for a lot of people. But take a moment and recognize the talent on this team. Jason Kidd is shooting well from the arc, for God’s sake. Shawn Marion is arguably their fourth best player, and he’s been fantastic at both ends! They have two huge, veteran centers they can throw at people! They have worlds and worlds of playoff experience, a cool and steady point guard, a former MVP, a sixth man of the year award winner, and a rookie who dropped 40 points the other night! You say they can’t play defense? That’s a myth. They play a style which creates opportunities for the opponent, agreed. But in the west, only LA, San Antonio, Utah, and OKC have been better defensively. But then, those same statistics also say several teams have been better than Dallas offensively.

Every contender looks at its shortcomings and plays the “we’ll be ready for the playoffs” card. And I’m certainly there with the Mavs. I’ve seen Nowitzki step up too many times, see the roster which is more diverse and has higher central points, and recognize that this team was pretty damn good last year. That Denver series was closer than it appeared to the naked eye.

A Utah-Dallas series I think will probably say a lot, and in all honesty, I think it’s a toss-up. I like Dallas’ centers versus Okur and Millsap, but I like Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews and Price versus Kidd, Butler, and Jub-Jub/Roddy Buckets. I like AK versus Shawn Marion in all sorts of ways for both sides. So then it’ll come down to Carlos Boozer versus Dirk Nowitzki.

That should be entertaining as all get out. Now if only no one comes in and crashes the party…

Tim Duncan’s Free Fall

Tim Duncan’s brilliant career went parallel with my formative years.  My first pimple, my first shave, my junior and senior prom, the day my family brought home our Bichon Frise.  I  grew up with Tim, and even though he’s led a life hidden from the starlight he deserves, I feel like I knew him.

Duncan was the first, truly great player in my life whose entire career I was able to monitor. The Gillete shaving cream commercials with David Robinson, and the Inside Stuff “Twin Towers” magazine cover.  He was supposed to be the savior of my Boston Celtics; the great franchise’s next dominant icon.  Instead he went to a Spurs team that already boasted a hall-of-fame center. I knew, at the age of 9, that San Antonio’s acquisition of Tim Duncan was borderline unethical, but with his ceiling no stronger than a spider’s web, the situation intrigued me.

Not only was he unstoppable on the block, but he was able to directly make his teammates better as a brilliant passer from the high post. All of a sudden, San Antonio, Texas became a hotbed for serviceable, but aging players looking to set sail on their careers with a championship ring. Guys like Steve Smith, Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry, Robert Horry, Glenn Robinson and Michael Finley were coming far and wide to play with Tim Duncan.

Once Jordan retired it was his league.  The NBA was just beginning to enter an era of individual importance filled with eight and nine figure contracts, attention seeking rap albums, movie deals and overwhelming body art.  Duncan defied all of that while standing out as basketball’s best player, making his teammates better, banking shot after shot off the left side of the backboard.

Like most people who play the game of basketball—whether it be on a black top where a foul requires blood shed as evidence or in an old man rec league—the way they play reflects who they are inside. This in no way is a discussion involving skill level, instead it’s all about diving on the floor or blocking out a teammate’s man who managed to get loose. President Obama wasn’t allowed a second date with Michelle until he showed her brother Craig what kind of man he was. The two didn’t cavort over dinner or gab over 18 at a nearby public coarse. They played basketball.  A wordless game, aside from groans, grunts, and the occasional obscenity, that can tell one all he needs to know about an opponent or teammate. Tim Duncan epitomizes this philosophy.  He was quiet.  He was methodical.  He did what he wanted, when he wanted and his game literally talked for him. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I’d bet a good sum that despite all the money he makes, Duncan doesn’t live a lavish lifestyle. Why have 17 cars when one or two will do the job?  Why spin and fade-away when a simple shot off the glass counts for just as many points?

With 14 seconds remaining and the Spurs up by 2 in a recent contest against Oklahoma City, Duncan set a high pick for Ginobli who drove left towards the basket. Duncan simultaneously rolled to the hoop, caught a pass from Manu about four feet from the basket.  Instead of taking two steps and setting himself up for a game clinching dunk, Duncan flipped a finger roll at the front of the rim.  Thunder center Serge Ibaka thanked Tim for the gift, then ceremoniously slammed the basketball off the backboard.  The Thunder recovered with a chance to win the game.

To watch Duncan play right now is heartbreaking. It’s (almost) like staring at an old picture of a polio stricken Roosevelt, curbed to his wheelchair. Or, for a more athletically appropriate analogy: Willie Mays batting .211 in 66 games as a 42-year-old New York Met, Michael Jordan overshooting the rim on a dunk attempt while in Washington or Pedro Martinez donning a Phillies cap for one last hurrah in Yankees Stadium.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, “Tim Duncan made only 2 of 11 field goals, 18 percent, in the Spurs loss on March 24. It’s the third time in his last 19 games that Duncan had made less than 20 percent of his shots from the floor, something he did only six times in 947 games to that point in his career.”

Not one to overreact with a small sampling of statistics, but when those stats disparage a player who’s great claim to fame has been remarkable consistency, then it’s at the very least worth noting.

If this is the end for Tim, I just want to say thank you.  Throughout your career you personified a style of play that can only be described as professional perfection and in doing so, served as a role-model for thousands of young basketball players striving for success. You’re a first-ballot hall-of-famer and could go down as the greatest power forward to ever play (even if center was always a more suitable label). Thanks to outstanding defensive play, your career, more likely than not, should last at least four more seasons barring injury.  But the Tim Duncan who could throw a team on his back is gone forever, and it’s truly a sad thing to see.

Most Valuable Column – March

It’s nearly playoff time, which means that the MVP Race should be sorting itself out.

And to some degree, it is. While there’s a few players whose stats make a nice case, it’s really only down to a few. And then, the MVP really comes down to just what MVP means.

Still, the race has opened up maybe just a little. As such, I’ve broken it down into groups. The players on the outside track, those who are either just shy of being the MVP or are starting to fall out of the race. Then there’s the inside track, those who are – or should be – in the actual discussion.

What is that discussion, though?

In the past decade – from the 1999-2000 season until last season – no MVP winner had a PER of less then 22.0, or less then 10.9 Win Shares (both marks belong to Steve Nash, interestingly enough).

But on average, the MVP winner has a PER of 26.8 and 15.7 Win Shares.

A quick explanation before I jump in. PER takes skills like accurate shooting, offensive rebounding, turnovers and more adjusted for pace; Offensive Percentage takes what’s known as the four factors – offensive rebounds, turnovers, the ability to draw fouls and such – and gets a look at how many points per possession a player got. One relies heavily on more defensive abilities like rebounding, blocks, etc., while the other looks at how well a player can shoot or pass effectively.

Outside Track

What does it mean to be on the outside track? For my purposes, these are two players who maybe deserve mention as possible MVP candidates, but aren’t the MVP. Maybe they deserve to be on the ballot or maybe they’re falling away from the pack but aren’t out. They’re the players who make their team better, but don’t make that team great.

Chris Bosh, F, Toronto Raptors

8.7 Win Shares (<20th in NBA), 24.6 PER (fifth in NBA)

Why is Bosh so far back? Wasn’t it less then a month ago I had him a lot deeper? And not too long before that I called him a longshot to actually be named the MVP? In the immortal words of Mike LaFontaine, “Whaaa Happened?”

I don’t know exactly what happened, but it has something to do with injury a while back. Since returning, Bosh’s play has been a tad more erratic, a little less good then it was before the season. He’s driving less to the basket and settling for jump shots. Since he came back on March 7, the Raptors have gone 4-9, losing to teams like Golden State, Philadelphia and Sacramento.

When Bosh came back – March 7, against the Sixers – he had a quiet 12-point, 12-rebound game. The Raptors lost 114-101. That was the start of a five-game skid for the Raps, who also lost games to the Lakers, Sacramento, Portland and Golden State. In that stretch, Bosh averaged 20 points and eight rebounds. Still, Bosh is having a career year: per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 26 points and just under 11 rebounds, both career highs. His PER is also a career high.

But this isn’t a look at his numbers, this is a look at his advanced stats. His PER had dropped from the last time I wrote about him, from 26.3 (then fourth in the NBA) to 24.6 (fifth). He also has an Offensive Rating of 116, putting him behind Andrei Kirilenko, Jose Calderon and JJ Reddick. What these mean is that his MVP stock is dropping; he isn’t playing as efficiently and his offensive presence isn’t as strong as it was before the all-star break. For example: since the All-Star break, Bosh had scored more then 25 points once, when he scored 36 in a win over the Nets. He had 28 games with 25 or more before the break.

These both play into his Win Shares. At the end of February, Bosh had 8.4 WS, sixth in the NBA. In a month, it’s only scantly improved to 8.7 and has dropped out of the NBA’s top 20. His window at a MVP trophy has basically shut.

Dwayne Wade, G, Miami Heat

28.1 PER (2nd in NBA), 11.8 Win Shares (4th in NBA)

Wade has not really been a trendy name in MVP talk, nor has he been part of an exceptionally great team. But he’s a big part of a Heat team that’s a playoff lock and no slouch – on Sunday, they mounted an 11-point fourth quarter comeback to beat the Raptors, in large part thanks to Wade. He played over 42 minutes, had 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists and led both sides in +/-. Not bad.

Yes, Wade’s still leading the Heat in scoring, minutes played, assists and steals, as he should. He’s not even that far back in rebounds. Per 36 minutes, he’s averaging 26.3 points on .471 shooting, 4.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists.

His play is a pretty big reason why the Heat have been so good going into the postseason. In the month of March they’ve only lost three games, two of them by eight points or less, and are have won eight of the last ten. This is a team that’s found it’s stride.

That stretch has contributed to some good stats for Wade, too: He has an offensive rating of 112 and a PER of 28.1, second in the NBA. His PER has actually risen a bit in the past month in a period where most player’s PER starts to drop. Likewise, his WS have improved too: he’s at 11.8, fourth in the NBA and an improvment of 3.2 wins. He’s moved up a spot, too.

Why should he be MVP? Well, how many other guards would be able to help their team as much as Wade helps the Heat? If he were replaced by somebody else – let’s say Jose Calderon  – are the Heat still in playoff contention? I’d argue that no, they’re not. I’m not sure I’d vote for Wade over some of the players below, but I think he’s worth having in the discussion.

Inside Track

As the name would suggest, the inside track players have the inside track to the MVP award. There’s a favorite, yes, but these are the players who don’t just deserve to be on the ballot but maybe a vote or two. They’re showing that not only are they among the best players in the NBA, but they’re making their team among the best in the league.

Dwight Howard, C, Orlando Magic

24.2 PER (6th in NBA), 12.1 Win Shares (3rd in NBA)

It’s getting hard to overlook the Magic. They’re the second team in the East to clinch a playoff spot and their Simple Rating System score – a measure of how much better the Magic are then their opponents – is second highest in the NBA. In both respects, they’re only just behind the Cavs.

And a lot of this goes to Howard. Of course he’s leading the team in points, blocks and rebounds and free throw attempts. But he’s started all 74 games this season and played nearly 2600 minutes, even with all the punishment he takes down low (and one doesn’t lead the NBA in free throw attempts without taking a lot of punishment). Besides getting to line more then anybody else, he’s leading the NBA in rebounds and blocks.

His advanced numbers continue make a good case for Howard. His PER is sixth in the NBA at 24.2. His Win Shares are third-highest, at 12.1. As you’ll recall from above, those are pretty close to average for a MVP.

But his resume goes a little deeper then that. He leads the NBA in True Shooting Per Cent, a stat that weighs total shooting efficiency, free throws and otherwise. If you’re a believer that defense wins titles, remember that Howard leads the NBA in Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Rating, a look at points allowed per 100 possessions.

One could certainly make a far worse choice for MVP.

Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City Thunder

25.5 PER (3rd in NBA), 13.8 Win Shares (2nd in NBA)

The Thunder are basically one of the most exciting teams in basketball right now, in large part thanks to Durant, who may be the best pure scorer in the NBA. He’s leading the league in points, is right behind LeBron in field goals and has made the most free throws in the NBA. So why are the Thunder still only one game ahead of San Antonio and the eighth seed in the NBA?

As a commenter pointed out last time, he it’s not so much that he’s carrying the team as it how he doesn’t have a second banana on the Thunder. That’s a good point.

Take the Thunder’s loss to the San Antonio on the 22nd. Durant went off for 45 points and eight boards, but only had three other players score more then 10 points (and none with more then 16). It’s a bit of a problem for the Thunder. They have other players who step up every so often – Westbrook, for instance, has had a couple of 30-point, 12 or more assist games – but nobody is able to do it on a regular basis.

The Thunder are hardly alone in that respect. Toronto doesn’t have a true second either – sometime’s it’s Bosh, sometimes it’s Hedo. Once it was Sonny Weems. Most teams don’t usually have somebody else who can score like their star on a regular basis, so it’s hardly a knock against the Thunder.

Still, in spite of this, Durant is blossoming. In the past month, his PER has slightly increased to 25.5 while his Offensive Rating is 116, both of which show how important he is to his team’s offense. His Win Shares have gone up too, to 13.8, second in the NBA. Consider how often Durant can get to the line, too: only LeBron gets to the line as often as Durant.

At this point, playing in a small market doesn’t hurt his chances either. When Bill Simmons is doing a running diary of a Monday night game featuring your team – and calls him his favorite non-Celtic player – you’ve probably arrived as a viable MVP candidate.

The Favorite

LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers

31.7 PER (first in NBA), 18.3 Win Shares (first in NBA)

The other day, Shaq called LeBron the MVP. I can’t say I’d argue.

He’s leading the league in PER and Win Shares, by a good margin in both. His Cavs are the best team in the NBA right now and were the first team to clinch their division. If you look at the average numbers for a MVP, James has already passed both of them. Really, what more can I argue for his case? That he’s tied for the league lead in point per game? That he’s got his highest shooting percentage ever? That he’s already set a career high for assists and points per 36 minutes? That he’s the only player to be in the top 10 for Offensive Rating and PER – meaning that he’s excelling in two different regards.

How about a look at his advanced numbers. Since the end of last month, his Win Shares have increased, while his PER has stayed above 31; in the past 20 seasons, only Michael Jordan had a PER that high.

There’s a few things one can take away from James. At a glance, his team looks very good – there are four regulars with a PER of 15 or more. Of the Cavs starters and sixth man (the five with the most starts and the player with the most minutes not on the starters), the average PER is 18.54.

That average is higher then that of any other MVP candidate’s team (for reference Orlando’s average is 16.78; the Thunder’s is 16.65, Miami’s is 17.57 and Toronto’s is 16.77). How much of that is due to James? Certainly some of it is… but he’s only one player. His contribution to the Cavs can’t be that much larger then Durant’s is to the Thunder. If anything it shows how much a player like Wade or Bosh mean to their team – they’re the only player on each of those teams has a PER significantly higher then that average.

Then again, another way to look at those averages is that James makes his team that much better. That’s also another way to define what the MVP is, isn’t it?

SPURS: Burn Down the Forest, Not the Trees

There was a time where the most apt metaphor to describe the San Antonio Spurs was the three-legged stool. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were completely symbiotic, facilitating each others’ games in a way that other teams of co-superstars could only dream. It was a team where the offense and defense were engineered perfectly to the talents of the personnel and the expected environment of the post-season, and I don’t know if you heard, but it kind of worked. They won a ton of games, a few championships, and are/were a damn dynasty if I have to go to my grave repeating it. That model marked San Antonio as one of the two most successful franchises this decade, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they deserve to top that list or merely be second best.

Needless to say, that’s changed a bit. The Spurs are no longer a fixture at the top of the Western Conference standings, and “the Big Three” as we knew them are dead. Duncan aged and slowed, Ginobili had entered a new phase of his career, and Tony Parker looked to be taking on a bigger scoring role before regressing this season and succumbing to injury. Nothing anyone does or says will revive the model that was and worked, and it’s become very apparent that all of the Richard Jeffersons in the world won’t breathe new life into a system that is now defunct.

Now, the Spurs are not dead. But the three-star system that relied on Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan to bring out the brilliance in one another as equally important parts? Like a doornail. It’s rotting, maggoty (I don’t think I mean Maggette), and frankly starting to smell a bit ripe. The fact that Ginobili has absolutely taken over since Parker’s injury isn’t a mistake or a mirage. With Duncan and Parker’s respective declines, the first due to age and the latter to injury, Manu is simply being given the proper outlet to do what he’s always been capable of doing, even if the system never properly called for it. Ginobili has had his rough patches, sure, and there were times both this season and last where he didn’t exactly look himself. But this is the man who could have and should have been doing more for the San Antonio Spurs, and finally is. The answer wasn’t importing RJ, but figuring out what on Earth went wrong with how the Spurs were utilizing Manu Ginobili, what ailed him, and why the product wasn’t the same as it used to be. Even the great Gregg Popovich comes up short from time to time, and though some have chalked up the Spurs’ drop-off to the inevitabilities of age, I don’t think that tells the whole story.

Manu may not be the spitting image of the player he was five years ago, but to say that he isn’t talented enough to be a top player in this league or that he lacks the flair that once made him a must-watch is absurd. I think that’s been made pretty apparent by his decision to completely dominate the month of March. However, his recent tear has done two very interesting things:

  1. Manu’s ability to run the San Antonio offense without Parker is improving his value as a free agent.
  2. Manu’s ability to run the San Antonio offense without Parker is proving his value as a Spur.

Now we’re getting somewhere. The Spurs are in a tough spot because they need to move forward without moving backward. Trying to replicate the Parker-Ginobili-Duncan model by replacing Ginobili is just foolish; not only does SanAn’s cap situation not allow for it (unless they convinced some other team to a bizarre sign-and-trade swap that has way too many moving parts to even consider), but the combination that Pop and Buford struck gold with was equal parts basketball genius and luck. Who could have predicted the evolutionary paths of both Parker and Ginobili? Duncan’s been a can’t-miss player from the start, but I don’t think anyone within the Spurs organization could have properly appraised the other two pillars of Spurdom. After all, even great scouting teams have to happen upon some luck once in awhile rather than make their own. Yet the more important element of Pop and Buford’s design — or really, of the luck involved — is how well the pieces fit. The Big Three complemented each other in a way few cores really can, and the only reason the Spurs have been so successful for so long is because of the synergy that those stars forged together. It’s incredibly specific and won’t be re-created by plugging in another name where Ginobili’s once was.

As I said before, the Big Three design in San Antonio is deceased, and to drag it out any further would only halt the Spurs’ potential progress. Don’t misunderstand my meaning here, though; just because the model is dead does not mean that the players themselves are done as a viable core. Perhaps the balance of the offense simply needs to shift in a way that better accommodates the change in effectiveness of the Spurs in question; a healthy Parker is capable of carrying an offense, and has developed a diverse enough game to be the primary offensive option for a team. Manu would be a crucial part of that offensive framework, though, as a team relying on a scoring playmaker like Parker would be best served with a player alongside him who can do more of the same…even if he accomplishes that “same” in a completely different way. Consider this the Joe Johnson model, where a team can find offensive effectiveness by relying on two players in the backcourt who are “combo guards” in some respects. Manu may not be thought of as a point guard, but he’s shown during Parker’s injury that he’s capable of fulfilling that role within half-court sets. Parker may not be thought of as a shooting guard, but is the purest example of a championship-level point that relies mostly on his ability to score. Obviously Pop wouldn’t dive into Mike Woodson’s isolation-heavy offense which makes the Joe Johnson comparison almost invalid on principle, but from a more abstract perspective, it makes sense.

So by Manu proving that he is, more or less, still Manu, he’s shown just how essential he is to what the Spurs look to accomplish. I shouldn’t need to tell you that when Ginobili plays, he tends to do some pretty amazing things in terms of individual plays and on a game-wide scale. When he doesn’t play, the Spurs tend to do some pretty crazy things. Like lose to the Nets. Manu’s resurgence simultaneously tears him in two separate directions, both as a valuable commodity and upcoming free agent and an integral part of the Spurs’ present and near-future. Such a development may be pretty obvious if the aforementioned free agent was, say, a 24 year-old emerging star, but for a 32 year-old shooting guard thought to be stumbling toward mediocrity? It’s a bit more rare. That’s because Ginobili isn’t just proving that he’s still producing at a high level, but proving that he might be completely irreplaceable for a Spurs team not looking to waste what precious years Tim Duncan has left. San Antonio might not have the time to twiddle their thumbs until Richard Jefferson’s contract expires, but luckily for them, he’ll be renamed “Richard Jefferson’s expiring contract” next season.

Moving Jefferson is going to be the key. The drop-off in the Spurs’ core may not be enough to justify blowing it all up, but it certainly doesn’t mean that they can be surrounded by a batch of random role players anymore. The fourth best player can’t be a DeJuan Blair, an Antonio McDyess, or this year’s Richard Jefferson. They need something better, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For all of the talk about two stars or three stars winning championships, a group of productive role players can be just as important. The Celtics wouldn’t have gone all the way without Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, and the dynasty Lakers would have had trouble without guys like Derek Fisher or Robert Horry. I’m not saying these players were absolutely essential to the degree of a Duncan or a Garnett or an O’Neal, but they’re an important part of the championship puzzle and without them the picture is incomplete. That’s where the Spurs of the future need to depart from the mold of the past. It’s what they’ve tried to do but couldn’t with RJ, and it’s the path they need to keep pursuing if they’re going to stay competitive.

Believe it or not, Jefferson could actually be worth something on the open market next year…or not. It all depends on how the ongoing labor negotiations proceed or more importantly, how they’re perceived. If owners and managers around the league anticipate a lengthy lockout (lasting more than one season), RJ’s deal will be worth less than those that expire in 2012. In that case, teams will be trading for a year of production and then will be off the hook for at least a fraction of the following season (if not more). If, however, the negotiations progress to the point where managers don’t anticipate 2011-2012 to be lost entirely, contracts like Jefferson’s would be quite valuable. Especially so for any franchise looking to take advantage of the new, likely more favorable contract terms of the upcoming CBA. That could put a lot of small market clubs in the bidding for Jefferson’s expiring deal, particularly those looking for a reboot.

But before San Antonio can look to move Jefferson, they have to retain Manu Ginobili. Otherwise they call it a day, surrender their ability to compete for a playoff spot next season, and have a go of it post-lockout. You could hardly blame the Spurs if they did, but what message does that send to Parker, who is sure to attract interest as a free agent in 2011? I know there’s a lot of trust between the Spurs’ management and their principals, but that has always come with a well-constructed plan and a commitment to winning. You have to believe the plan will still be there as long as Popovich and Buford are, but what of the commitment to winning when wins aren’t so easy to come by? When the Spurs are looking at a team next year that features Duncan, Parker, Jefferson, McDyess, Blair, and who? Will George Hill’s natural progress be enough to fill the void at shooting guard? Not bloody likely. Internal improvements aren’t going to save the day if Ginobili isn’t around, and losing him turns Parker into a bit of a wild card.

While San Antonio’s salary situation is actually quite flexible on paper (the only committed salary in 2012-2013 goes to Blair and likely Hill, and the only additional players on contract through 2011-2012 are Duncan, McDyess, and possibly Malik Hairston), their reality is a bit more complex. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that Duncan doesn’t want to play for a losing club. Even if he’s the farthest thing from a troublemaker, that could be a problem. I don’t see him rousing rabble, but the only way the Spurs can approach their plans for the future with any certainty as to whether Duncan is a part of that future is to hold on to Parker and Ginobili. It all starts this summer, and though clinging to the past hardly seems like the best way to usher in a new era, the safest bet for San Antonio might be to proceed with a similar roster but a renovated approach.

NBA Playoffs: In Which I Make A Completely Absurd Argument For The Fun Of It

One of the things Greg Popovich has talked about extensively is the imperative of avoiding that eighth seed, of not ending up in a tussle with LA in the first round. It’s a fairly easy idea. Try and avoid the best team as long as possible, hope someone else does the dirty work for you, hope they get tired, hope they get banged up, go as far as you can, get as much playoff money as you can, stay away from the big, bad Lakers.

And pardon me if I sound like Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums (“What this book presupposes is… “What if he didn’t?”), but I do keep having the same thought.

Isn’t it better to get LA sooner rather than later?

via NBA Playoffs: If the Lakers are inevitable, do you want them early or late? – ProBasketballTalk – Basketball – NBC Sports.

It came to me when I was yapping at Graydon on the phone on the way home. The Spurs, fresh off a big win over the Cavs, had him feeling jaunty. He had mentioned in a previous, more morose call that he would rather lose to the Lakers in a seven game blaze of glory than to a “lesser” team, just exposing the team as a failure. Losing to LA is unfortunate, losing to anyone else is a failure.

So I offered up the idea, hey, what if you wind up as 8th seed? Pound ‘em in game one, then let them have Game Two, get overconfident, then go balls out to take three and four, setting up an elimination game in LA for game 5.

It’s a complicated idea, and not a very intuitive one. Why give up on the playoff money, and the chance that someone else pulls the upset, or that Kobe’s finger breaks again?

But the money is negligible. What team has a better shot than your team? And Kobe would play through being stabbed through the chest with a gigantic spear. (“He’s listed as day to day with complete organ trauma.”)

Anyway, you can read more about it at PBT above.

One final note. The West is a gauntlet, any way you shake it. It’s going to be a nightmare. You don’t get LA in your bracket (2-3-6-7 seeds)? You’re looking at two of these: Denver, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, OKC, Portland, San Antonio. You have to beat two either way, right? But in this scenario, you beat the Lakers. And from then on out? You’re unbeatable. Because you will not face a tougher challenge than what you did in the first round.

The biggest hill isn’t the one you want when you’ve been through the mud and swamps and gone 3/4 of the route. It’s something you want to look back at and say “Where I’m at now isn’t nearly as bad as that.”

Manu Has Sold Me: Ginobili Hits Insane 3rd Quarter Buzzer Beater Shot Video

You gotta understand, I loathed the little Argentinian bastard. To a devoted fan of SSOL, Ginobili was the biggest enemy there could be. The constant move to his left. The constant second guessing yourself of whether he’s athletic or not. And the flops. Oh, man, the flops.

So it was difficult to appreciate him, even as he was slicing and dicing his way to championships, a central part of one of the most successful teams of the last decade. And when his health started to go last year, I thought that was it. He was done. Age had caught up with him and lack of athleticism would spell his demise into sad role player shell of his former self. I went so far as to make a bet with Graydon that Ginobili wouldn’t score 30 or more in a game this season. AND I WAS SOBER.

Yeah, that didn’t work out.

But for some reason, maybe it’s the struggles the Spurs are having, no longer the dominant irritant, maybe it’s the new identity of the Spurs, a little less rigid, a little less successful, a little more interesting, if a little lower in the winning percentage department. Maybe it’s just like my realization last year that “Holy crap, Dirk Nowitzki isn’t just “Oh, yeah, he’s good, yada yada yada, not as good as people say he is,” he’s really good. Because that’s what I’ve seen this year with Ginobili. He, more than anyone, including Duncan and Pop, has willed the Spurs to wins by any means necessary. I’ve seen him use the lefty. I’ve seen him hit from the outside. I’ve even seen him use the penetration dribble, hesitation at the elbow, burst to the rack move that’s Parker’s favorite, as if Ginobili has it on loan.

I’ve seen him distribute, driving and kicking with the best of them. I’ve seen him defend, that nagging, irritant, “Oh, hey surprise! You’re in a corner trap and you didn’t even know it!” defense. The Durant block. Man, the Durant block.

And last night, in an abject beatdown of the Celtics, who had just started to get their feet under them, in Boston, Ginobili hit something that finally made it click. I’m a Manu fan. Which means he’ll probably break his ankle in four places in two days. But man, he’s done too much for his career, even if I’ve spent most of it hoping he slips on a banana peel and gets bent. He hit this shot that was so good, I just dropped my sandwich. That is not a euphemism. And I love sandwiches. It was insane. It was ridiculous.

Dude just…

Aw, hell. Watch.

And that’s how you make a convert.

It’s easy to say that’s a dog shot. But how many do we see a year? Some guys in the league? They can do this. They can hit leaning, running, one-handed, fading mid-court shots as the clock expires. And he could do it for the win, he could do it in a preseason game. He could do it in summer league. Manu’s a machine, and I’m glad I get to watch the end of his career with an appreciation for a guy that is as singularly unique in style, performance, and ability as anyone in league history.

Long live GINOBILI!

Witnessing Confidence, Validation and Candor

Let me give you a brief story about when my opinion of Kobe Bryant changed.

I used to hate the guy. Couldn’t stand him. It had nothing really to do with him ripping the heart out of my team or butting heads with Shaq in any way. There was just something about him. The arrogance was too much for me. If he scored 40 points, I’d bash his shot selection and his lack of gumption for wanting to share the ball. He was a “ball hog” and a “detriment to his team.”

To be honest with you, this completely stemmed because he was too much like Michael Jordan. Whether you want to admit it or not, this guy is basically Jordan. He’s not as good and never has been or will be. But he’s a clone of Jordan in the same way that the Sleazy Steve from Multiplicity was a clone of regular Steve. It’s all of the worst qualities in basically the same package.

I was protective of Michael Jordan at the time. He was clearly the greatest and we weren’t going to be seeing much of him for the rest of our lives. We had to remember the moments he gave us and try to keep them in the proper perspective. We had to protect the legacy he gave us to guard. And when Kobe came into the league, moved on from the rookie airballs against the Jazz and started learning how to destroy everybody on the court, I (like many others) got defensive.

When he won titles, it was because of Shaq. When he scored a ton of points, it was because he was selfish. When he got assists, it was because he was trying to trick us into thinking he was a team player. Whatever the accomplishment was that he just met, I had an excuse for it. But then it all changed.

He scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. I still remember getting the text from my friend (and Lakers fan), Chris, telling me that he finished with 81. I figured it was a typo or Chris was trying to brag about his burgeoning NBA 2K skills. It was neither. Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a regular season professional basketball game against a professional basketball team. At that point, I had nothing to say about him that didn’t gush with respect. It was like a switch had been flipped in my mind and every previous bit of hatred for the guy had never existed. I was sold on Kobe Bryant.

The bravado and arrogance that rubbed me in all of the wrong ways and none of the fun ways was merely an acute sense of confidence. Maybe that’s just a fancy way of saying he’s arrogant as all hell but I was able to justify it in my mind as plain old confidence. He didn’t want to pass in clutch situations because he didn’t trust his teammates. People viewed that as him being the anti-christ but it was completely legit. If you’re the best player in the world, why would you pass the ball if you have the best chance at making the shot? I got it finally and it was the 81-point game that solidified it for me. The confidence had been proven to be valid. And I guess all along, that’s what I needed from Kobe to accept what he did on the court.

It doesn’t mean that since that day I’ve agreed with everything he’s done. It’s probably far from it. But I didn’t loathe him anymore. I respected and feared him. I didn’t care about the person or the motives. I just wanted to see him play basketball and appreciate it.

And that’s what I want from my superstars now. I want the attitude that should come with the skills.

When I saw Vin Diesel on The Tonight Show (in what had to be one of his first appearances on the show), I was completely disappointed. I knew next to nothing about Vin. I knew he was playing bad-ass characters. I knew he played jerks and bullies. But what I didn’t know that he was the type of guy who would tell people to go for their dreams in real life. That wasn’t who I wanted him to be. I wanted him to tell me that he was better than me. I wanted him to walk past me on the street and think nothing of me if I needed help. I wanted him to show he was better than me if that was the image he portrayed in his everyday job. I didn’t get that. I got a wuss and I was disenchanted with him immediately.

That’s where I’ve been with LeBron James for much of his career. You could tell he was going to eventually be the best player in the league (not all-time).

He was a freight train like Sterling Sharpe.

But he was always cultivating his image. He had a plan to justify the insane amount of hype bestowed upon him as a teenager. He was going to become a billionaire athlete. He was going to become a global icon. He was going to be a one-man business model. And all of that is fine. It’s what we’ve heard him talk about before and what others have said about him. But the problem for me was it was the first thing on his mind.

It wasn’t basketball and it wasn’t winning. Now are those assumptions I made about him? Most likely, yes. But they were still vibes that he gave off that a lot of people received from him, whether they were true or not. That’s been my issue with him. He talks a lot in the media but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him actually say anything. He’s well groomed for dealing with the press. He speaks in clichés and smart marketing strategies. That’s not what I want in my superstars.

But what he said yesterday… THIS is what I want in my superstars.

This is what I wanted from LeBron all along. This is what I wanted from Vin Diesel on The Tonight Show. This is what I always got from Michael Jordan because he was so good at doing the marketing thing while reminding everybody that you couldn’t beat him.

I want that arrogance. I want that supreme confidence. I want LeBron to admit he can do whatever the hell he wants on a basketball court. Could he average a triple double? Look at his numbers; he’s pretty much doing it already in the month of March (28.4 points, 8.8 assists, 8.2 rebounds). Could he win the next 10 scoring titles if that was his wish? Yes, and there aren’t enough Kevin Durant jumpers to convince me otherwise.

I love that I saw that from LeBron. I love that he was candid in a REAL way and not in some packaged, laminated product he was trying to push onto me.

This is in a sense validation of what I see from him on a nightly basis. He IS that good and more importantly, he knows it and I’ve wanted to know that he knows it. Re-watch the final 10 seconds of that clip again. It gave me chills in the same way that his performance against the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals did. I love the certainty.

LeBron showed me what I’ve wanted from him all along. And I’m ready to change my opinion on what I think of him.

NBA HD: The Sustainability of Shooting

I get lost in shot location data.  And I mean that in a good way.

I have been amusing myself with the shot location tables at Hoopdata all season and yet, I feel as though I’ve barely played around with it.  It still has that new car smell.

For instance, I noticed yesterday that Beno Udrih is shooting 71.8 percent on layups this season.  That’s on par with Steve Nash as the best conversion rate among point guards and worlds better than the average point guard (56.8 FG%).  I mean, Beno’s mark is literally double that of Derek Fisher (34.4 FG%, worst in NBA) .  Did this come out of no where or has Beno always been automatic in the lane like this?  I ventured over to his player page and discovered that he was a 53.7 percent shooter in his previous three seasons from this same area.  Evidently, this is a new development for the Slovenian but the fact alone lacked context.  What I mean is, how often do point guards experience a surge in their ability to finish at the rim? Is a 55 percent finisher always a 55 percent finisher? Clearly not in the case of Mr. Udrih but what’s the going rate?  And aside from finishing at the rim, do long jumpers maintain their ability to shoot long jumpers year in and year out?

Armed with my finest excavating tools, I dug in.  At Hoopdata, we have four seasons worth of shot location information dating back to the 2006-07 season.  For the uninitiated, we separate the shooting repertoire into 5 zones: at rim (layups, dunks, and tip-ins), short (<10 feet), mid (10-15 feet), long (16-23 feet), and three-pointers.  Since I was interested in the shooting abilities, I wanted to track the year-to-year field goal percentages for players.  But we don’t want to expose ourselves to the dangers of small sample sizes so if a player wanted his season to be submitted into the study, I required him to shoot 50 attempts in the zone.  If he did that, he’s welcome to the party.

For this study, the statistic of choice is correlation, how strongly one number is related to another.  If a player shoots well from 3-pointers, we assume that they will tend to shoot well from 3-point land the following season, unless that player’s name is Jannero Pargo.  We’ve never dabbled in 2-point land since the box score doesn’t differentiate between a slam dunk and a 22-footer.  Luckily, by using play-by-play data we can begin to explore the uncharted area.  Welcome to the New World.

After breaking down the numbers, I found that shooters in this sample had a stronger year-to-year correlation in at rim shots than 3-point shots.  In other words, the ability to finish at the rim (as measured by at rim FG percentage) is more strongly linked year-to-year than 3-point field goal percentage.  In fact, the correlation coefficient for the 671 player season tandems in the sample was +.61 which, depending on which statistics resource you consult, is widely regarded as a strong relationship (stronger closer to +-1, weaker closer to 0).   Here’s a graph depicting the year-to-year relationship for at rim percentage:

We already knew there was a strong year-to-year correlation (r = +.610) but perhaps it helps to conceptualize this visually.  You can see how much an outlier Beno Udrih’s year is as it’s separated from the pack at the trendline.  It’s not quite the biggest difference year-to-year but it’s close.  I’ve provided the trendline equation as well as the r-squared value for those who are interested.

Putting Beno and his at-rim percentage, let’s move further away from the basket and look at the relationship of short shots (less than 10 feet but not including at rim shots).

This relationship isn’t nearly as closely knit as the layup version.  For this area, the correlation was just +.200 which is a pretty weak, although it isn’t a completely random association.  Judging by the r-squared value, a player’s short field goal percentage only explains about four percent of the variance in the next year’s success rate.

This shot location typically contains long hook shots, floaters, runners, and short jumpers which aren’t high percentage shots and success rates tend to vary due to the number of shot varieties.  Andrew Bogut takes by far the most short shots in the league (6.0 per game) and even he can only convert at 44.0 percent which is slightly below the league norm.  Perhaps we love a player with a great floater because of the high difficulty and general inconsistency.  Additionally, the more scattered distribution might be a result of the relatively low frequency of shots from this area.  Remember though, to be admitted into this highly exclusive study, the player must have shot 50 shots in the area in both years to be included.

How about those shots that are taken between 10 and 15 feet away from the hoop? Are they consistent year-to-year like layups? Let’s take a look.

If you have a sharp eye, you can tell that the mid range shot is more repeatable shot than those in the <10 feet range, but not quite as strongly linked as shots at the basket.  With a correlation coefficient of +.371, we can interpret this as a moderate positive relationship.  Few players excel at the mid range shot and most of the time, it’s secondary in preference.  You can see on the graph that a 50+ percent campaign isn’t a guarantee for an encore in the following year.  On the flipside, a poor year doesn’t mean the end of the world.  Consider that Ben Gordon has shot 60.3 percent this year from 10-15 feet despite shooting just 35.9 percent last year in Chicago.  You can see him all alone at the top straddling directly below the “FG” in the chart title.

So, the mid range isn’t as correlated year to year as at rim shots but it’s stronger than short shots.  What about the least efficient shot in the game, the long two?

Interestingly enough, the long two doesn’t show as much predictability as the mid-range or at rim shots.  With a correlation of .333, the long two is not only inefficient but it’s also inconsistent year-to-year when looking at this sample of 571 observations.  As Howard Beck of the New York Times noted earlier this year, David Lee improved his long jumper greatly since last year and currently, the Knicks center is shooting at an impressive 45.6 percent from 16-23 feet.

Let’s step behind the line and look at 3-pointers.  This study has probably already been done since 3-point data has long been available before but I’ll replicate it here for comparative purposes.

This chart illustrates the effective field goal percentage of 3-point shots, which isn’t the same measurement as the other shots (the data in the set were measured by eFG% for threes).  The correlation here was +.394 which stands as a moderate relationship.  General Managers would benefit from teasing out the true talents from 3-point range and avoid the wild fluctuations.  Remember Corey Maggette’s 57.6 eFG% from 3-point range in his contract year in Los Angeles? Yeah, he’s one of the outliers (he shot 38.0 eFG% in the following year in Golden State and 36.6 percent this year).  The 3-point shooter the Warriors thought they signed hasn’t arrived quite yet.

So why do this stuff? Projection systems have long used 2-point, 3-point inputs and historical similarity comparisons to predict field goal percentage and thus points per game for every player.  Dividing the inputs into smaller buckets can glean more information on true shot ability.  We observed a very weak correlation for short (<10 ft) shots in their year-to-year relationship so if a player enjoys a remarkable year from less than 10 feet, we can regress that more to the mean.  For example, Derrick Rose this year is shooting 58.2 percent (78-134) from short range, which is a massive improvement from his 47.0 percent mark last season.  Will he be able to repeat that performance next year?  Looking at the <10 feet graph above, there are plenty of players that regressed back to more normal levels in the following year.  That’s something to consider.  If we were to solely look at Derrick Rose’s two-point game, we would miss this important piece of information.

You might be wondering the relationships of different types of players. For example, since big men dunk more, wouldn’t they have a higher correlation than point guards who rely for the most part on runners and layups in traffic?  Returning to Derrick Rose, how do short shots correlate for point guards? Well, I’m glad you asked.  I broke down each shot location zone into 5 smaller parts: point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards, and centers.  I don’t normally like to limit myself to the traditional positions but it served as a way to analyze further into subsets.

Click your zone of choice below to see the five bite-sized graphs.

At RimShortMidLongThrees

If you just want the correlations, I’ve provided the table below for your perusal.