Monthly Archives: January 2012

Why Clutch Is Dumb (Isn’t Why You Think)

Photo by Tesla314 via Flickr

“They have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings. It includes ‘momentum,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘seeing the ball well,’ ‘slumps,’ ‘guts,’ ‘clutch ability,’ being ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ ‘not being aggressive’ and my all time favorite the ‘intangibles.’ By such concepts, the baseball man gains a feeling of control over a universe that swings him up and down and tosses him from side to side like a yoyo in a high wind.” – Bill James 

via The King of Human Error |Vanity Fair

There are certain words and phrases in the general sports lexicon of which I am not a fan. That Bill James quote includes most of them; though it’s a quote ostensibly about baseball, I find many of the particular superstitions applicable to many sports.

The one I most often encounter of late – and the one that draws my ire as a result – is “clutch.” I can abide the word as a definition of a situation.* I can definitely see the possibility that different players have different reactions to pressure situations, though those are likely the outliers.

*4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.

What irks me is the idea that a player is either clutch or not clutch. It’s usually redundant, for one; of course a great player is clutch! They perform well in most every situation during the course of a game. Being the closer in a tight matchup is simply par for the course. The chance of observing a single failure increases, of course, when observing a single play or a short stretch, but that’s simply the nature of probability. Those who perform well overall will likely perform well in specific instances, too, good players are clutch at all times, generally.

That bleeds into the issue of small sample size; even an entire career’s worth of clutch minutes might not suffice to draw an accurate conclusion. Take LeBron James, for instance. Excluding his rookie season (because 82games.com was being finicky and not allowing me to look at the data for that season), James has played 1,170 clutch minutes in the regular season for his career through Monday night. He averages 40 minutes per game, though, so that represents a sample size smaller than 30 normal games for James. Deciding that he’s not clutch because of fewer than 1,200 minutes – or worse, from a couple 5-minute long stints in two or three games – would be like proclaiming a champion after 30 games, regardless of what the data says about his clutch play.

And per that pesky Bill James quote, clutch simply seems to be one of those fun narrative nominatives to describe the patterns we want to see in random variance. Allowing for the potential of increased defensive effort and refined coaching strategies, performance in the clutch will regress to the player’s mean over a large enough sample size for the vast majority of players. Again, we’ll look at LeBron – and a handy chart of his career scoring numbers in the clutch:

82games.com doesn't make 3-point shooting data readily available before 2007-08.

LeBron’s numbers are a bit worse than his career averages, especially when you include his performance so far this year. That just further enhances how few minutes clutch discussions entail; 44 minutes of lackluster play from James in 2011-12 is enough to drag down his shooting percentage by .5%. Just 10 more made field goals and James would be a better field goal shooter in the clutch than he is on average, instead of being slightly below his career norm. If 10 shots that went in had popped out instead, he’d be a sub-46% shooter in the clutch, and people would point out that he can’t get it done when it matters most.

The overall story, however, is that LeBron shoots the ball a lot in clutch situations and does so right around his career average rate. When he misses, it’s as random as a second-quarter jumper that fails to go down or a no-call on a drive down the lane in the middle of a blow out. There’s no larger pattern there, simply circumstance and luck.

That’s simply my belief, though, and I have been wrong many, many times. Maybe there’s a reason for the things that happen in a close game beyond the offense, defenses, coaching and random bounces of a ball. Maybe the variance in LeBron’s play comes from somewhere else and being clutch (or a choker) really is a thing. Perhaps I’m wrong and LeBron’s misses in big moments aren’t merely random but are instead part of bigger failings in his nature as a human being and as a basketball player. Perhaps some players step up and others shrink when the lights are brightest.

Even if that were the case, I’d still take issue with using the word clutch on a basic level, because it’s lazy. It sells short the splendor. Assume that a “clutch gene” exists and expresses itself through a “toughness-and-heart-of-a-champion hormone” that’s secreted by the Michael Jordan gland in varying levels of different players’ bodies. To simply stop there is to discount the wonder of that expression and the virtuosity that unfolds. These are world class athletes doing a hundred different things better than anyone else on the planet. Some run offenses like conductors; others rain daggers from on high, tearing twine and hearts in twain. And still the unheralded gum of the works of the prior, taking pride in mischievously laying waste the best laid plans of coaches and isolation heroes.

Calling Kobe Bryant “a cold-blooded clutch killer” is fun and alliterative, but it’s no comparison to pinpointing what that entails – his ability to get inside a defender’s head and know how they’ll defend him and, by extension, his teammates; the infinite confidence to ignore mismatches or trust in his teammates as he sees fit; and the skill and acuity to often succeed against greatly stacked odds. We’ve all seen an opponent set the perfect trap for Kobe, only for it to end in another Lakers victory.

Conversely, saying LeBron James is a choker is the the low-hanging fruit of root problems. James has turned the ball over in big situations, and he’s disappeared down the stretch on several occasions. If LeBron really is a choker as so many want to say, especially in the big pictures, then those moments are truly spectacular and deserve more than a simple wave of the hand and derisive meme hastily applied. James’ career clutch performance is roughly equal to his performance out of the clutch; when things don’t fall in line, it’s worth taking a minute to stop and appreciate what that means and the rarity of the situation.

To believe in the concept of clutch is a fine idea, and admirable to me; just because I’m a cynic doesn’t mean I necessarily encourage you to be.

I do wish that you’ll consider using more than one word to describe these moments caught in time. It doesn’t do justice to the spectacle. When you lump in all the great and awful things that players do in clutch situations, you take away the unique facets of each one and diminish their impact and luster. A clutch performance and the players who create them is simply more fun when you remember them each individually instead of forcing them into a genre.

Lion Face/Lemon Face 1-30-12: The Birth Of Kendrick Perkins Face

You might need to update your exercise, Affleck and Damon, but let’s see what you’ve got.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmTtchbUuOQ

Lion Face: Vince Cart

Sorry. I wanted to talk about how a certain shooting guard went off for 21 points last night, but the website literally forced me to post this video before I could do anything else:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PssgD_euUv8

Which leads to this inevitability:

Kendrick Perkins Face: Kendrick Perkins

Good on you, KenPerk, for attempting to stop that. But you are not Perkley, the Shammgodly combination of Charles Oakley and Ken Perkins that exists in my imagination. You are mortal, and Blake Griffin can do that to you.

Lion Face: Derrick Rose

No big deal. 35 points on 20 field goal attempts, eight assists, three blocks. Apparently Rose thinks obliterating entire teams is more fun than obliterating one scowling player.

Kendrick Perkins Face: the Orlando Magic

Two things here, Orlando. First, the league was a lot more fun when it seemed like you were a good team capable of challenging the Heat and Bulls in the playoffs if everything went your way. I don’t want to overreact to a handful of games, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now, but knock it off. Immediately.

Second, your little quarter-season swoon made it a lot harder to defend the Sixers as a legitimate team (whatever that phrase means; it’s the question people ask all the time). Getting a win against the Magic meant something two weeks ago. Now? Not so much.

Lion Face: Chris Paul

Blake Griffin played well, too; let the video above stand as testament to everything he did last night. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the game that CP3 had as well. 26 points and 14 assists? Yeah, you’re getting a Lion Face.

Kendrick Perkins Face: James Harden

Part of the reason Paul went off the way he did was the absence of Thabo Sefolosha, due to a foot injury. Harden started in Thabo’s place and provided little of his signature offensive creativity and playmaking. Without Sefolosha’s perimeter defense, the Thunder were depending on ThunderBeard coming through on the offensive end, at least. Failure to do so resulted in the following:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMSHvgaUWc8

Lion Face:LeBron James

The Hornets put up a good fight, but the Heat can take a lot of damage before coming back and putting an opponent out of their misery. It helps when your nominal small forward can tie for the game-high in points scored, assists dished and rebounds grabbed – and have it come away as a disappointment, because he fell two assists shy of a triple-double.

The poor, poor Heat.

Kendrick Perkins Face: Blazers guards

Jamal Crawford had the best performance of anyone in Portland’s backcourt against the Jazz. Yeah, that Jamal Crawford.

Or maybe it was Raymond Felton; after all, Crawford outscored Felton, but he also had way more turnovers and fewer assists.

Felton might have performed better than Crawford last night, so at least the Blazers have that going for them. Oh, and they have LaMarcus Aldridge, which is definitely nice. Focus on that, Blazers fans. Ignore the trainwreck in the backcourt. It’ll get better, I promise. I hope.

Lion Face: Michael Beasley

34 points for Michael Beasley last night, and he only missed four total shots – because apparently we live in a universe where that’s a thing that happens.

Kendrick Perkins Face: Grizzlies starters

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ije7d6xckSs

The Memphis starters were 14-for-46 from the field as a group and couldn’t keep Kawhi Leonard off of the offensive glass. The scoring woes for the Grizzlies continued, to the point that the Spurs shot just 40% from the field themselves and still managed a double-digit victory.

15 Footer 1-31-12: Danny Granger is Really Confident, You Guys

Almost every team is involved in some kind of streak – winning, losing, road trip, home stand – at this point in this compressed season. Most are suffering from a lack of rest and practice time. Almost all are relying on their instincts at this point.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUbKALOIf6E

Vengeance! (Celtics at Cavaliers, 7:00 PM EST)

Oh, these Celtics. Just when they thought they were going to close out the Cavs and continue clawing up the ladder in the Eastern Conference, Kyrie Irving decides it’d be more fun to send everything into chaos. Now Boston has the opportunity to exact revenge, except the end result would still be a .500 record.

That’s probably a fairly accurate representation of revenge, though; even if you manage to even the score, everything around you is still awful.

We should all be so delusional (Nets at Pacers, 7:00 PM EST)

Indiana has a 13-6 record, good for 5th best in the Eastern Conference. They’re a pleasant surprise, undoubtedly, but they probably don’t have title aspirations, right?

Danny Granger would disagree with that sentiment.

“It is a lot of fun to win and be one of the top teams right now,” Granger said. “We are playing together and that is the biggest thing. We have so much talent now. We are in position to really contend for the East.”

I love that Granger believes that. I can’t even be sarcastic about it; if only we were all so confident and, possibly, insane, the world might be a better place.

Simplify the equation (Hawks at Raptors, 7:00 PM EST)

Andrea Bargnani is out again for Toronto, and Leandro Barbosa will be a game-time decision. As a result, the Raptors will rely once again on DeMar DeRozan on offense. DeRozan’s performance with Bargnani out of the lineup has been volatile – five decent-to-good games, five awful games. His best bet seems to be simplifying his game, attacking the rim and trying to draw fouls.

The same can be said for Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, who has stepped his play up of late to help keep the Hawks playing well without Al Horford. Teague’s assist numbers are down in the last few games, but he’s scoring more and turning the ball over less. Atlanta is best served when he reacts to the defense instead of trying to force a decision and holding the ball even half a second too long.

Commiseration at MSG (Pistons at Knicks, 7:30 PM EST)

This game makes me sad – for Amar’e Stoudemire; for the fanbases; but mostly for the game of basketball. The Knicks have lost nine of their last 10, and Carmelo Anthony is a game-time decision tonight against the Pistons.

New York’s offensive woes are well documented, but Detroit’s are nothing to scoff at; the team is shooting less than 40% in their recent five-game losing streak. Get ready for the possibility of some ugly, ugly basketball.

Of course, if you were preparing to tune into a Pistons-Knicks game, you were already prepared for that.

End one streak, continue another. …wait, what? (Nuggets at Grizzlies, 8:00 PM EST, NBA TV)

The Nuggets had their overall winning streak snapped, but they’ve still won five straight on the road heading into Memphis. The Grizzlies have their own streak, too; after climbing to a respectable 10-6, Memphis dropped 4 straight to fall back to .500. And Ty Lawson will be back for Denver, taking a large part of the load off of the struggling Arron Afflalo.

Memphis better figure out what ails them on the offensive end, or the Nuggets are going to empty the bench on them. With a team as deep as Denver, that’s a terrifying thought.

The west coast game you’ll definitely be watching (isn’t this one) (Kings at Warriors, 10:30 PM EST)

Keith Smart gets his revenge game against the Warriors team that fired him after he led them to a 10-game improvement! Stephen Curry looks healthy and back to his awesome self!

That’s all I got for this game, guys. Watch this instead:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHrygsvvQ48

…not that this one’s much better (Bobcats at Lakers, 10:30 PM EST)

D.J. Augustin is still out, but the Bobcats might get Gerald Henderson, D.J. White and Reggie Williams back. That should give them a much needed bump on the offensive end, but Charlotte is an awful, awful team, and the Lakers are playing their last home game before they go on road trip that takes them away from Staples Center until Valentine’s Day. This should be an easy win for Los Angeles.

That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised by a close game heading into the fourth quarter. I don’t think it’s likely, by any means; but struggling to put away the Bobcats would be so Lakers.

15-Footer 1-30-12: Top That

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQ00laVt62c]

After a fantastic batch of games yesterday, tonight’s slate has a lot to live up to.

Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers (7:00 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UaDrXfzkZ8]

The Magic seem like they are just seconds away from completely imploding right now. They’re fresh off losing 4 out of their last 5 games and the schedule doesn’t get much easier in the next few weeks. Philadelphia, meanwhile, is also about to kick off a ludicrously hard stretch of schedule. Their next seven games are against the Magic, Bulls, Heat, Hawks, Lakers, Spurs and Clippers.

Chicago Bulls at Washington Wizards (7:00 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15TnJvtDZ-8]

In the first of a bunch of really fun point guard match-ups of the night, Derrick Rose’s Bulls meet John Wall’s sorry band of Wizardry. Chicago enters after having lost a heartbreaker to the Heat yesterday, and they’ll undoubtedly be looking to get back on track against one of the worst teams in the league. Chicago had a chance to steal a win out from under the Heat down the stretch, but Rose missed two crucial free throws and a leaner late and they Heat prevailed.

New Orleans Hornets at Miami Heat (7:30 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMmjeVlYQzA]

This is one of the most lopsided match-ups of the season and should be a blowout victory for the Heat. There’s some letdown potential after their emotional victory over the Bulls yesterday, but I expect they’ll take care of business.

Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets (8:00 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gok6-8Toqu8]

The second of our awesome point guard match-ups features rookie sensation Ricky Rubio against the ever-improving Kyle Lowry. Of course, Rubio has a fun friend to play with in Kevin Love, and Lowry gets to spin it with Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Samuel Dalembert, Chandler Parsons and others. Minnesota played the Lakers tough last night, but they’ll be looking for more than moral victories against Houston. Rick Adelman’s got these guys playing hard and tough and they think they can beat anybody. They’re a lot better than they had any business being coming into the year.

Detroit Pistons at Milwaukee Bucks (8:00 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjUniaY8RlQ]

Blehhhhhh. #FreeGregMonroe. #GetHealthyBogut. #BuyCaptainJack’sAlbum

San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies (8:00 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUvviSlzUN0]

The Spurs are coming off a crazy loss against the defending-champion Mavericks yesterday in which their starters didn’t step on the floor for the final 19:44 except for an 11 second stint by Kawhi Leonard. Gary Neal, James Anderson, Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter played all but 11 seconds and turned a 16-point deficit into a 1-point loss. Tonight, they try to avenge their first round loss to the Grizzlies and their starters will be fresh despite being on the second night of a back-to-back. Memphis has lost 3 in a row after their comeback victory over the Warriors last week and will be looking to get back on track.

Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MULyPpbResc&feature=fvst]

In a point guard match-up that will be different than what was expected coming into the season, we get the patient, calculated deliveries of Steve Nash against the blur-quick dashes to the hoop of Rodrique Beaubois. Beaubois is really coming into his own lately in relief of the injured and ineffective Jason Kidd and he’s got 47 points and 19 assists over the last three games. Also intriguing will be how Dirk Nowitzki rebounds from an ineffective first game in his return from an injury. The three-point range of Phoenix’s power forwards will test Dirk’s ability to close out shooters as well.

Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz (9:00 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_0aQY68fTo]

This game’s got the elite power forward match-up of the evening: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Paul Millsap. Both are beasting from mid-range this season. Portland put on a hugely impressive performance against the Suns in their last game, holding them to just 71 points. Marcus Camby had 0 points and 20 rebounds in the game. Utah has lost 3 of their last 5 after winning 8 of their previous 9.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers (10:30 PM EST)

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxAhyN3kbSo]

The last of our marquee point guard match-ups is probably the best. Chris Paul. Russell Westbrook. What makes this one best is the quality of their teammates. Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are all noteworthy in their own right. The Clippers will try to attack the Thunder defense with their potent pick-and-roll attack with shooters like Billups and Butler leaking in behind the action. Durant, Westbrook and Harden will create all kinds of shots from crazy angles. Perkins, Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan will be blocking shots like nobody’s business.  This should be one of the funnest games of the entire season.

Lion Face/Lemon Face 1-29-12: The Ugliest Game That You Ever Did See

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmTtchbUuOQ&feature=player_embedded]

Lion Face: NBA Schedule-Makers

What a great slate of games they gave us yesterday.

Lion Face: LeBron James

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvjjEtjwKHE&feature=youtu.be]

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xb_oAs-5dGg&feature=youtu.be]

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnWvOazx3aY&feature=youtu.be]

For most of the day, LeBron had “one of those games” where he just had everything working for him. He was ferociously throwing down dunks all over the place, getting to the line and generally controlling the flow of the game. He made several highlight reel plays, as you can see above, and he was pretty much rolling. Then came the disastrous last few minutes where he had one of the weirdest turnovers I’ve ever seen, bricked a colossally forced fade-away 20-footer and missed a pair of what should have been game icing free throws. When it was all over though, he still had 31 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and a win over the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference. And he rode his bike to the game, too.

Lemon Face: Dwyane Wade

Wade struggled from the field all day and finished 4-for-16 for 15 points. He seemed to be forcing the issue entirely too much, and looking for contact that never came on many of his drives. He made up for that in the first half with 7 assists, but didn’t have any after half-time. It was not Wade’s best day, to say the least.

Lion Face: Derrick Rose

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WczFzpwiwGo&feature=youtu.be]

Though he went just 11-for-28 from the field, Rose put on an extremely impressive offensive display. He was the first player this season to crack the 30-point barrier against the Heat and even though they were crowding the lane in order to better challenge Rose’s floaters and runners, he still managed to make a few “HOW IN THE WORLD DID THAT GO IN????” type shots. He, too, bricked a couple of free throws down the stretch, but he didn’t really deserve to be at the line in the first place because he didn’t get fouled. Ball don’t lie. Rose also kicked in 6 rebounds and 6 assists and took 14 trips to the line.

Lemon Face: The officiating at the end of the Bulls/Heat Game

Good lord that was some terrible refereeing. They botched the Rose call, called Wade out of bounds when he wasn’t and subsequently couldn’t figure out how to proceed the play from there and let Rose get away with a charge on his game-tying attempt. And this was all just in the last 30 or 40 seconds. It was not pretty.

Lemon Face: Carlos Boozer

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5FOe-qEo78]

When your son is at the game chanting, “Let’s Go Heat!” and you’re not on the Heat, you get a Lemon Face. Every time.

Lion Face: Pacers’ bench

Indiana got 42 of their 106 points from non-starters, let by George Hill’s 16 points on 9 shots. Hill also chipped in with 6 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal, and he was a +16 in 25 minutes. Every one of their bench guys scored except for Lance Stephenson. Lou Amundson made all 4 of his shots and grabbed 5 rebounds. Tyler Hansbrough had 7 points and 5 boards and was a +17 in 21 minutes. Meanwhile, the Magic bench scored just 16 total points and every player had a negative plus/minus except for Von Wafer, who was even in 3 minutes.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4lS7wjkBwY]

Lemon Face: Orlando Magic

This team is pretty much self-destructing. They’ve now lost 4 out of their last 5 including two at home. Dwight Howard is talking about how changes need to be made. Stan Van Gundy is dropping truth bombs. And all of a sudden, the Magic can’t score. They’ve failed to crack 95 points in each of their 4 losses in the last 5 after doing so in 6 of their previous 8 games. They have a rough patch of schedule coming up as well, as they travel to Philly before hosting Washington and Cleveland, head to Indiana for a night and then the Clippers, Heat and Hawks at home. This is all in the next 12 days. Yikes.

Lion Face: Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers

The Cavs scored the last 12 points over the final 4:24 of the game and secured a 1 point win over the Celtics. Irving had 8 fourth-quarter points and the game-winner. The kid is legit, and the only reason he’s not a runaway Rookie of the Year favorite is the Ricky Rubio hype machine. Irving’s not just a future star, he’s a present one. Recognize.

Lemon Face: Overtime in the Spurs-Mavs game

That was super-ugly.

Lion Face: Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Gary Neal, James Anderson and Matt Bonner

This lineup entered the game with 2:44 to go in the third quarter and played together for all but 11 seconds for the remainder of the game. They were +15 in that stretch, 16-point deficit into a miraculous near-win. If Green had let go of a shot about 0.0001 earlier at the end of regulation, the “near” wouldn’t be necessary. It was so bizarre to see Tim Duncan and Tony Parker sitting on the bench for the entire fourth quarter and overtime, but these guys earned the right to be out there with their play.

Lion Face: Vince Carter and Jason Terry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was Vince Carter’s best game in so long that I can’t even pick out a specific game to reference as his last really good game. He had 21 points on 8-for-15 from the field in 31 minutes, and also added 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steal and 1 block in his 31 minutes of play. He played good defense (!) down the stretch and smothered the ball on the game’s last possession. Bravo. As for Terry, he was a cold-blooded killer. Included in his 34 points were the game-tying jumper in regulation and the game-winner in overtime. He was 14-for-23 from the floor and carried the primary scoring load as Dirk Nowitzki struggled in his return from injury.

Lemon Face: Timberwolves other than Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley

Love, Pekovic and Beasley were a combined 25-for-45, or 55.5%, from the field and they also collectively grabbed 34 of the Wolves’ 52 rebounds. On the other hand, Wesley Johnson, Luke Ridnour, Ricky Rubio, Brad Miller, Martell Webster, Wayne Ellington, Anthony Randolph and Derrick Williams combined to shoot 15-for-59, or 25.4%.

Lion Face: Kobe Bryant

Passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the Lakers’ all-time leader in field goals made, scoring on 14 of his 29 field goals en route 35 points in a 5 point win over the Timberwolves. He also snatched more rebounds – 14 – than Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined. He hit 5 threes and several preposterously difficult runners in the lane, including one late in the game to seal the victory.

Lion Face: Chauncey Billups

In his first game back in Denver after being sent to the Knicks last February, Chauncey poured in 32 points on just 20 shots. He hit 6 threes and had a pretty awesome and-one in the fourth.

Deep Pivot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When I came in the league, I had to go through Alonzo Mourning, Arvydas Sabonis, Kevin Duckworth, Rik Smits. Now I can’t name any other centers besides Kendrick Perkins and Andrew Bynum. Who else is there? That’s it.”

Via Shaq: Dwight Howard has no competition at center

Sorry, Mr. O’Neal, but I have to take issue with this statement. I’m going to set aside the fact that Shaq left out the three best centers of his era (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing) when describing who he had to go through when he came into the NBA and instead concentrate on his assertion that the only three centers in the league today are Dwight Howard, Kendrick Perkins and Andrew Bynum.

To wit, there are currently 34 centers that have appeared in at least 10 games and have averaged at least 20 minutes per game this season. According to HoopData, the average PER of those centers is 17.07, up from 15.99 last season and higher than any of the last five years. Only 11 of those 34 players have a sub-15.00 (league average) PER, and six of them (Derrick Favors, Brendan Haywood, Marcus Camby, Joel Anthony, Jermaine O’Neal and Perkins) are players whose primary contributions like post defense and coordinating defensive rotations aren’t included in PER’s valuations.

Season

Average PER

2006-07 15.65
2007-08 15.94
2008-09 16.93
2009-10 16.32
2010-11 15.99
2011-12 17.07

 

As you can see, this mark is the highest since the 2008-09 season and the upward spike has broken a two-year downward trend. In the 2008-09 season the center position still boasted Shaq, Yao Ming, Rasheed Wallace, Greg Oden, Brad Miller, Amar’e Stoudemire, Marcus Camby and Tim Duncan playing at a high level. Over the last three years those guys have either retired (Shaq, Yao, Wallace), succumbed to injuries (Oden), changed positions (Stoudemire is now a full-time power forward) or lost a great deal of their effectiveness due to age and minutes (Miller, Camby, Duncan).

Rising in their place, though, is a new crop of young, extremely talented pivots. The average age of the 34 centers that have appeared in at least 10 games and averaged at least 20 minutes per game is 26.9. Only six of those 34 centers – Haywood, Camby, O’Neal, Samuel Dalembert, Tyson Chandler and Tim Duncan – are 30 or older.

Thirteen of them are young enough that they should be in the league for at least the next decade barring injuries. Howard, Favors, Bynum, Greg Monroe, Spencer Hawes, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Tiago Splitter, JaVale McGee, DeAndre Jordan, Ian Mahinmi, Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah are each 27 or younger.

This isn’t just mentioning youth for youth’s sake either, as the young guns are a large part of the cream rising toward the top. Of the top 10 centers in PER, Dalembert – 8th – is the elder statesman at 30 years old. The other nine – Howard, Monroe, Hawes, Bynum, Hibbert, Gasol, Andrea Bargnani, Al Jefferson and Marcin Gortat – are all 27 or younger.

Howard, though, is clearly the king of the castle. Only Camby, Bynum and Dalembert are within even six points of his league-leading 24.3 total rebound rate, only Tyson Chandler is within 2.5 Win Shares, and though he’s second in points per game, the injured Andrea Bargnani is first and the next closest guy to Howard’s 19.9 is Al Jefferson at 17.9. He also doubles as the league’s best and most intimidating defensive player.

While it may be true that Howard is leaps and bounds ahead of the next best center in the game in terms of impact on both sides of the court, the notion that the center position is lacking in depth couldn’t be more off base. For the first time in years, the pivot has some serious talent. Rather than traditional, back-to-the-basket centers that were around when Shaq was the most dominant player in the league, these players sport varied and versatile offensive repertoires. Some like to face their man up and take a jumper or attack off the dribble, others prefer to work out of the pick-and-roll, while still others are primarily defensive stoppers. Either way, the center position is providing more value to teams than any time in the last few years.

The Lowdown: Kevin Johnson

Photo by Hogue News

Whom does KJ remind you of? He can penetrate like Magic. He’s as quick with the ball as Stockton. He’s as good with his left hand from close-in as Larry Bird. His attitude is part Mailman Malone, part pit bull. He has dunked over a pair of All-Star centers—7’4″ Mark Eaton of Utah and 7-foot Kevin Duckworth of the Portland Trail Blazers…Beyond that, says teammate Tom Chambers, KJ “has the quickest first step I’ve ever seen.”

Via KJ!

Years Active: 1988 – 2000

Career Stats: 17.9 ppg, 9.1 apg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 spg, 49.3% FG, 84.1% FT

Accolades: 3x All-Star (1990-’91, ’94), 4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1989-’91, ’94), All-NBA 3rd Team (1992), 1989 Most Improved Player

Over the past decade it’s become fairly commonplace to see a diminutive point guard rise up amongst the lowpost trees to deliver a slam. Derrick Rose, Steve Francis and Russell Westbrook are some prime examples, but they’re exploits don’t hold the revelatory power that Kevin Johnson’s assaults had in the late 1980s.

Short players had certainly been dunking for a while. Buffalo Brave Randy Smith in the 70s and Johnson’s contemporary Spud Webb come to mind, but Johnson’s frequency of slams was at a then-unparalleled  level. But don’t let the dunks fool you. KJ was a superb point guard. He could dish the ball with expertise and run an offense like a floor general should.

Prior to Steve Nash’s run in the desert, Kevin Johnson held the mantle as most recognized and lovable Suns player. Rightfully earned too, considering he played 11 seasons and almost 700 games with the club. However, Kevin Johnson’s NBA sojourn began as a Cleveland Cavalier.

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Paroxysmal Pursuit: The Best Draft Class Since the ABA/NBA Merger

photo by Nebraska Farm Boy via Flickr

This week’s wonderful, glorious and super fantastic Pursuit was inspired, as usual, by that great water cooler in the cyber sky, Twitter. Like any enjoyable conversation, you’re not entirely sure how it got started or how you encountered the subject. Well, on Friday afternoon, someone said something. Then someone else chirped. Then another person dropped a nugget of wisdom. And this went on for hours or maybe minutes, I don’t remember… but finally this tweet popped up:

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/Quentin315/status/163059705957195776"]

And hard to argue with that. The popular opinion is that the 1984 draft class is indeed the best ever. Hard to argue considering that Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, John Stockton and Charles Barkley were the highlight members and guys like Kevin Willis, Alvin Robertson, Michael Cage, Otis Thorpe and Sam Perkins are afterthoughts.

However, we here at Paroxysmal Pursuit are not in the business of kowtowing to popular opinion. Instead we look at the cold hard facts and then shrug shoulders as to what they mean. So the task at hand is to discover with Cold Hard Facts, which draft class is the best ever… or at least the best since the ABA and NBA merged prior to the 1976 draft.

So, why the merger cutoff?

Because the best, singular analysis I could think of to judge the draft classes was win shares. The dual existence of the NBA and ABA wreaks havoc with a universal look at the stat between 1967 and 1976. Perhaps in the future I will separately look at those classes. As for the drafts prior to the ABA/NBA dual, they too deserve a specialized look in the future. Hooray, sequels!

Also, in the interest of fairness, there was a second cutoff with the 2002 draft class. I deemed that classes thereafter haven’t had the time to fully blossom and let history be a Cold Hard Judge of their merit via win shares.

Finally, the win share totals for each draft class were calculated by adding up the 25 highest totals from each class.

 

Historical Timeline

10 Lowest Win Shares

10 Highest Win Shares

Paroxysmal Notes of Interest

Well, well, well. Turns out the 1984 Draft class may not be the best ever!

OK, I still think it is, but looking at the Cold Hard Facts does show that the subsequent 1985 Draft was bloated with talent and the 1987 Draft not that far behind as well. Some of the members of the 1985 class include Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Terry Porter, Detlef Schrempf, Charles Oakley, Chris Mullin and Joe Dumars. 1987 churned out David Robinson, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis.

So in a four year span, the NBA was injected with tremendous talent from the blockbuster 1984, 1985 and 1987 draft classes and also added Jeff Hornacek, Dennis Rodman, Mark Price, Ron Harper and Brad Daugherty from the below-average 1986 draft (which suffered from the loss of Len Bias, Arvydas Sabonis waiting a decade to join the league, the drug addiction of Roy Tarpley and the injuries to Daugherty).

So if you’re wondering why the mid-80s to mid-90s NBA was spectacular, there’s your reason and it could have been even more awesome if the 1986 Draft had held together better.

The 2nd Wave

You’ll notice a second node of talent injection to the NBA: 1995-1999.

The ’96 Draft is often cited as the 2nd best following the ’84 class. By win shares, it’s third overall, which means it’s certainly no joke with playes like Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Jermaine O’Neal, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Peja Stojakovic and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The 1995, ’98 and ’99 Drafts further fueled the league by adding Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand, Manu Ginobili, Lamar Odom and Rip Hamilton.

Mirroring the mid-80s injection, there was a slight dud year in 1997, but even then the league still got Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady and  Chauncey Billups.

The Doldrums

You’ve seen the good, now it’s time for the bad: the late 80s/early 90s and the early 2000s. To make this eyesore digestible, check out the following table!

Draft Span Average Win Shares
2000-02 767.4
1995-99 1170.4
1988-94 956.5
1984-87 1349.1

 

Admittedly, the 2000-02 range will continue to add win shares over the coming years, but not enough to remove its putrid stench. It’ll be a miracle for them catch the mediocre stretch from 1988-94. This is to be expected though when Kwame Brown (bust), Kenyon Martin (middling) and Yao Ming (bless his oft-injured heart), are the #1 picks. Even with his bad legs, Yao is still the 2nd-highest win shares contributor to the 2002 draft class. Only Amar’e is higher. Just a disappointing draft all around.

1988-94 suffered from the bust syndrome (Pervis Ellison) and bad luck injuries (Larry Johnson, Grant Hill, Alonzo Mourning, Penny Hardaway, Danny Manning), but even the successes weren’t all that successful, relatively speaking (Chris Webber, Glenn Robinson, Shawn Kemp). Only Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd really were able to shirk the bad vibes and reach all-time status. Just a generally depressing time for basketball. So many promising stars that never quite reached their full potential.

Rollercoaster Ride

Lastly, there’s the curious late 70s and early 80s period where the drafts alternated between boom and bust. See for yourself:

Draft Win Shares
1976 844.9
1977 1173.6
1978 933
1979 1071.5
1980 775.4
1981 1134.4
1982 944.1
1983 1034

 

What should be noted here is that the 1980 draft was historically awful. When Joe Barry Carroll is the #1 pick, bad things are bound to happen. Kevin McHale is the only draftee of the class to gain over 100 win shares for a career and Kiki Vandeweghe was 2nd with 75.6. I love Mike Gminski, but when he ends up having the 3rd best career for a draft class, that class stunk.

But let’s end this bad boy on a high note: the hidden gems of the 1981 and 1977 drafts. The 1981 draft featured five players who are really, really good but juuust a smidgen below Hall of Fame caliber but I love them so I think they should be in anyway: Buck Williams, Larry Nance, Tom Chambers, Rolando Blackman, and Mark Aguirre.

Add in Isiah Thomas on the Hall of Fame side and Danny Ainge, Eddie Johnson, Kelly Tripucka and Orlando Woolridge on the excellent role player side and you got yourself a helluva draft… and a stew.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sr2PlqXw03Y&feature=related w=400 h=300]

Finally, the colossal 1977 draft. Defying the odds and truculence of Kent Benson being the #1 pick, this class was a sight to behold with Jack Sikma, Marques Johnson, Cedric Maxwell, Walter Davis, Tree Rollins, James Edwards, Otis Birdsong, Norm Nixon, Robert Reid, (that other) Eddie Johnson, Greg Ballard and Brad Davis.

And the cherry on top of that class? None other than Bernard King.

Nice. Very Nice.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNxL1KaJMtU w=600 h=400]

15 Footer 1/29/12: Let the Bustin’ Begin

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Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat (3:30pm EST)

Busted Up: Luol Deng

Earlier in the week, Deng had intimated he might be ready for this showdown between the two best teams in the East. It was a classic example of  an athlete foolishly embracing the warrior complex. Luol just needs to sit his butt down for a bit and let his torn wrist ligament heal. Sounds like he may have got the message:

Luol Deng said on the Bulls.com pregame show that he thinks he will be out another week, at least, which makes him unlikely to play Sunday at Miami.

Unless “another week” elapses in a few hours time, Luol ain’t suitin’ up. Nonetheless, an enjoyable game should be had by all and hopefully Dwyane Wade gets to dunkin’ like he did on Friday night.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXaf6hdwpcc w=400 h=300]

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics (6pm EST)

Bustin’ Loose: Mickael Pietrus

Now in his 9th season, Pietrus is enjoying his best season his days in Golden State. His ppg are the 2nd highest of his career and his three point percentage of 42.2% is easily the best of his career. Most importantly, his play has allowed Boston to mothball Sasha Pavlovic. Merely moving from a “shouldn’t be in the league” player to an average player is a huge step up for any rotation.

The sample size is small in this adolescent season, but Pietrus is operating with 117 : 102 offensive to defensive rating. Pavlovic meanwhile is a worrisome 80 : 97. As I said, a huge step up.

Toronto Raptors vs. New Jersey Nets (6pm EST)

Bustin’ Loose: Jordan Farmar

Don’t look now, but everyone’s favorite agriculturally-themed basketball player is having one hell of a season for a backup point guard. This is easily turning into his best campaign ever. He’s averaging 10 points and 3.3 assists in a mere 20 minutes per game thanks to his sizzling shooting: 47% FG, 45% 3PT, and 90% FT. All of those are career highs. As is his PER of 19.5, which is all-star level. Most striking of all is that Farmar has managed to reach parity with his offensive and defensive ratings, both at 113. His career average is 103 : 108.

Indiana Pacers vs. Orlando Magic (6pm EST)

Busted Up: Dwight Howard

Now, Mr. Howard was practically the only Magic player to show up for Friday’s embarrassing loss to the New Orleans Hornets, but his choice words after the game leave much to be desired:

“It hurts me to get out there and play your hardest. I expect everybody to play the same. I’m not calling anybody out by no means because we all have to get better … but if you don’t want to be out there, don’t dress up.

Truthfully, the Magic needed to be called out after that hideous performance against New Orleans and the collapse against Boston,  but there a couple things wrong with Dwight’s message. Firstly, he’s asked to be traded. It’s hard to be galvanized by a man who no longer wants to be on your team. Despite being the best player for years now in Orlando, Dwight’s moral authority here is undercut by the constant chirping about trades and needing a better PG and etc., etc.

Secondly, if you’re calling out your teammates, don’t say you’re not calling them out. Publicly going on at length about the shortcomings your mates have exhibited  is indeed a “call out”. Passive aggressiveness isn’t going to make matters better. How does the phrase go… privately scold, publicly praise… something like that. I don’t quite remember.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks (6:30pm EST)

Busted Up: Jason Kidd

Father time has caught up with Kidd and it is not pretty. I jokingly said on Twitter that Kidd may be the 1st player to literally average a 5/5/5 for the season. With his abysmal shooting he may not be able to keep his scoring average above 4, though. His percentages are just shockingly bad, even for a traditionally terrible shooter like himself. An eye-gouging 28% FG, a tortuous 25.8% from downtown and a pleasant 80% from the charity stripe, which is pretty much moot since he takes 0.3 FTs a game.

The FT attempts are easily a career-low, which tells you he isn’t penetrating anymore. And the percentage of his shots that are three pointers is simply astounding. 84.6% of Jason Kidd’s shot attempts have been from three-point range. That’s just… wow. Even 3-specialists like Anthony Morrow, Steve Kerr and James Jones have never let 3s take up that much of their offense. And they all hit for a much higher percentage than Kidd’s 25.8%.

At least Jason is still grabbing 1.6 steals a game. Bright side.

 Atlanta Hawks vs. New Orleans Hornets (7pm EST)

Bustin’ Loose: Jason Smith

With Captain Caveman being shelved until a proper trade suitor can be found, Jason Smith is looking at a lot of minutes at PF and C to sop up. Generally, this season he has shown to be a capable steward of the position. 8.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in 20 minutes a night. In his last 5 games, he has turned up the heat a tad with 9.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 1.4 bpg while bringing 55% shooting from the field. He’s not turning into Buck Williams anytime soon, but Smith is more ably rounding out the defensive and offensive ends. Like Farmar above, he’s been finally able to reach parity with his offensive and defensive ratings (101) after a career of being a net negative on the court.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (7pm EST)

Busted Up: Devin Ebanks

He’s no Kevin Eubanks

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Los Angeles Clippers vs. Denver Nuggets (8pm EST)

Bustin’ Loose: Danilo Gallinari

Just got paid $42 million and in is drawing rave reviews in comparison to Carmelo Anthony. Just to stir the pot: Gallo gets 1.5 points per shot taken, Melo 1.18. Gallo must be listening to Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers non-stop with that kind of way out production.

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The 15 Footer: Leftovers!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1RlqsajIfA

Tomorrow’s slate of games might be the best of the entire season, but that doesn’t mean Saturday night’s less stellar matchups should be treated like cold leftovers. Cold pizza is food all the same, and occasionally delicious.

Detroit Pistons at Philadelphia 76ers (7:00 PM EST)

Spencer Hawes is supposed to return to play tonight, and all is once again right in the NBA world. It doesn’t matter that the Pistons are involved in this game, and that every quarter is likely to slow the very passage of time. The game won’t be played at the oft-empty Pistons’ arena, and Spencer Hawes is back!

Washington Wizards at Charlotte Bobcats (7:00 PM EST)

Two of the teams in the Anthony Davis’ Sweepstakes face off in a terrible, likely depressing matchup. Usually I say something like, “The only reason you should watch this game is if you really love one of these teams.” In this case, I won’t even make that qualifier. This brand of bad basketball could seriously threaten one’s love of the game.

New York Knicks at Houston Rockets (8:00 PM EST)

Soon enough, online thesauruses will include the word “Knicks” as a synonym for “desperate”. Despite the possible problem-alleviating of Baron Davis on the horizon, the Knicks find themselves with a paltry 7-12 record, an injured star, and an aging star struggling mightily early on in the season. The Knicks need a good performance from Amar’e to win this game, but that thought has held true often for the Knicks lately, and to no avail. On the Rockets’ side of things, Kyle Lowry will look to rebound from his shooting woes, and Chandler Parsons will probably do something awesome.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GFsFGlbiBg

Los Angeles Lakers at Milwaukee Bucks (8:30 PM EST)

The Bucks consistently have a habit of forcing teams to play down to their slow, debilitating level. This results in slow, ugly, and close games, regardless of personnel. It usually won’t be a fun 84-80, but the score will remain close nonetheless. I expect no different tonight.

Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns (9:00 PM EST)

Fresh off a dismal performance against the Blazers that involved a 38-point loss, a 20-rebound performance from Marcus Camby, and a heightened number of calls for a Steve Nash trade, the Suns look to appear less abysmal in the face of a hard-charging Grizzlies’ team. That won’t be an easy task, given the Grizzlies’ impressive performance in recent weeks and the Suns’ dearth of good players. Of course, this could be Sebastian Telfair’s chance to finally shock the world, a la Luke Babbitt:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2pLjleHYzI

Luke Babbitt: Basketball Hero?

Sacramento Kings at Utah Jazz (9:00 PM EST)

The Kings are a team easily defined, characterized by youth, individual play, and a lack of distribution. In contrast, the Jazz might be the most nebulous team in the league. Namely, the question remains whether their strong starts was a product of schedule or chance. Today, they’re playoff contenders. Months from now, they could make a pick in the draft lottery. These are the games good teams tend to win, against ill-fitting and lottery-bound squads. The surprising momentum of the Jazz has tempered off in recent games. This opponent affords them the chance to regain some of that lost momentum.