Tag Archives: steve nash

Time To Make The Sausage

There aren’t many certainties in today’s NBA, but beginning the month of May with MVP controversy is one thing you can always count on. There are no standardized qualifications for becoming the league’s official Most Valuable Player, and that creates a huge amount of inherent wiggle room, allowing voters to weigh different criteria in whatever way they see fit. That loose flexibility was shoved into the spotlight yesterday when Boston Globe columnist, Gary Washburn, revealed himself to be the lone voter who didn’t put LeBron James at the top of his ballot. Washburn went with Carmelo Anthony, and made his case public as part of yesterday’s announcement.

LeBron had an absolutely dominant season and it’s nigh impossible to find any reliable statistical metric by which he wasn’t the most productive player in the league this season. Washburn actually seemed to agree, and his argument was that although Anthony may not have been the better player, he was more important to his team. I’m not here to argue the merits of Washburn’s argument. But I would like to point out that this is an extreme example of separation between decision-making based on the power of statistics and the power of narrative. LeBron’s season presents some incredibly compelling storylines as well, but while there’s little space to argue against his statistical case, there’s plenty of room to argue about stories.

I don’t mean to imply that Washburn’s choice is somehow immature or incorrect because he gave more weight to the narrative elements of Anthony’s case. Stories are part of basketball; how we watch it, understand it, talk about it, and certainly how the media covers it. Stories are important and have always been a part of how the MVP award is decided. My own experiences as a basketball fan and amateur analyst are a constant balancing act between the narrative and the numeric. It’s an indelicate art and the line between the two moves constantly. One of the questions that the whole Washburn rigamarole raised for me was, exactly where that line falls for MVP voters in the aggregate. How much of MVP voting is based on statistics, literal or implied, and how much is based on a compelling story?

Narrative is an extremely complex idea to measure, but tracking the statistical case for MVP candidates is a little more straightforward. I began at Basketball-Reference’s Award Page, looking at the players who have received MVP votes over the last 10 seasons. Basketball-Reference is nice enough to include a limited statistical profile right alongside each player. The listed categories are age, games played, minutes per game, points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, blocks per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, Win Shares and win shares per 48 minutes. My intuition is that any MVP voter who does include statistics in their decision making probably doesn’t look much further than these categories, and so they seemed like a reasonable place to start.

The one category which is conspicuously absent from a voting perspective is team win percentage, which I added. The other changes I made were dropping total Win Shares, keeping just the per 48 minute version, and converting total games played to percentage of games played, adjusting for the lockout shortened season. I then regressed those categories onto the share of total possible points that each player received from the voters. The result was an R^2 value of 0.516, which means just over half the variation in MVP voting can be explained by players’ performance in those categories I mentioned above.

While that explains a significant block of variability, it still leaves nearly half of the story untold. That 0.484 is where the narrative comes in. The results of the regression analysis also include an equation by which you can project the share of possible MVP voting points a player should have received, based on those numbers. I did that for each of the top five vote-getters from those 10 seasons and put them in to this Tableau Visualization, along with the actual share of MVP vote they received.

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You can play around and sort by year, looking at how each race shook out. The higher a player is on the vertical axis the more compelling their statistical case was. I’m making an assumption here, but the implication is that the difference between a player’s projected share and their actual share represents the power of their narrative. Player’s who fall low on the vertical axis, but far to the right on the horizontal axis would appear to be the ones with the most compelling narratives.

I put this visualization together for you to draw your own conclusions, but I’ll share I few seasons I found particularly interesting.

2013

2013 MVP

This was a year where the narrative component of the MVP voting went hand-in-hand with the statistical rationale. LeBron and Durant had big statistical edges and it was clearly reflected in the results. But those numbers also fell in with the storyline of two dominant stars elevating their games and leading their teams to a new level. I also thought it was interesting how much of a difference narrative made in the case of Carmelo Anthony. We already discussed how his story swayed Gary Washburn, but he apparently wasn’t the only one. Anthony finished third in this year’s voting despite a weaker statistical component to his case than either LeBron, Durant, Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul.

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2011

2011

This was one of the most memorable MVP votes for me and really exemplified the divide between analytic-minded decision makers, who advocated for Dwight Howard, and those drawn to the compelling one-against-the-world narrative of Derrick Rose’s season. In the end the award went to Rose, by a healthy margin. Amazingly, the regression equation seems to indicate that LeBron had a much stronger statistical case than either Rose or Howard, despite finishing third. This is a case where the negative narrative of the Heat’s ‘front-running’ and the ‘post-Decision’ backlash probably kept LeBron out of the top two spots.

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2008

2008

2008 was another fascinating year in terms of balancing narrative and production. There was a lot of push for Chris Paul who jumped several levels in production, leading the New Orleans Hornets’ to the second-best record in the Western Conference, along with building the most compelling statistical resume of the candidates. In the end he lost out to Kobe Bryant, who trumped Paul’s narrative with a career of dominance, that had at that point been unrecognized with an MVP award. Kevin Garnett finished third for his work in coalescing the Big Three in Boston and leading the Celtics to the best record in the league. LeBron James finished fourth, with the second-most compelling statistical resume but no enticing story to attach it to.

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2006

2006

This is another infamous award season. It was Nash’s second consecutive MVP, despite being the worst for the Nash-D’Antoni Suns, both in terms of wins and offensive efficiency. But it was a remarkable and, at the time, almost unbelievable duplication of what they had done in their first season together. This was especially true when you consider that Amare Stoudemire played just three games all season long. That the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ philosophy was able to sustain into a second season and prove a viable offensive strategy that wouldn’t dissipate once it was “figured out” by NBA defenses was the narrative that drove Nash to this award. LeBron finished second in the voting, but he was one of three players, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Chauncey Billups who had a more compelling statistical case.

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People on both sides of the narrative-numerical divide often seem to get their hackles up around the MVP Award, depending on which side prevails in a given year. While middle ground we currently walk always leaves someone frustrated, it’s by far preferable to the alternative. There is a place for logic and reason in the NBA and no one would be satisfied by a world where postseason awards were handed willy-nilly with no verifiable, objective reasoning to support those decisions. At the same time, making decisions with a formula only denies our human instinct to create, tell and consume stories. It may be a bumpy ride, but you can enjoy the MVP award both for what it is and for what it is not.

Skipping To The End

Photo via markdodds on Flickr

I haven’t written about Steve Nash often in the last few years, but in the few times I have, it’s disturbing how often the pieces read like eulogies. Fair or not, in discussing Nash’s legacy amid the decay of the once-peerless Phoenix Suns offense, and in writing about Consigliere, Nash’s venture in marketing consultancy, I’ve effectively been laying out pillows and cardboard for the inevitable fall.  I’ve subconsciously been anticipating the death of his NBA playing career mainly because I couldn’t imagine how distraught I’d be if I allowed that kind of reality to catch me by surprise.

Though Nash’s retirement may not be an immediate concern, in this stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, we are almost assuredly witnessing the death of the Steve Nash we’ve known for the past decade. And no matter how many times I attempt to coax myself with “He deserves to play on a contender” and “Playing with the Lakers could extend his NBA longevity”, there aren’t enough pillows to cushion this blow.

I found out about the trade sitting next to the pool at my brother’s July 4 party evacuating the imprisoned flesh of sea snails from their shells with a safety pin. The act is laborious; the toothsome morsels are so small the mind barely recognizes them as food, and because of their size, there is so little room for error digging the meat out, keeping it skewered onto the pin while dipping it into a sauce before finally bringing it toward your mouth. It’s not too stressful of a process until you realize you’ll have to do it at least another 30 times to whet your appetite. It’s tasty (if you’re into that kind of eating), but by the end of it, you’re only half enjoying it. The other half is wondering if there’s a market for sea snail eating as a sport.

My brother’s house had become a site of life-changing news seemingly delivered as to not make a sound. Exactly one year before, my brother proposed to his longtime girlfriend under a sky of fireworks. Had he waited a few minutes, maybe we all would’ve known. Instead, he chose to do it at the climax of the fireworks display (his backyard has a clear and unobstructed view of the city’s annual show). Both sets of parents were present, but her side of the family had no idea what had gone on. He had to walk over and inform them a few minutes after. Not that it mattered much. It was a formality – a semicolon preparing for what has seemed like a half-century in the making. This weekend’s ceremony will deliver the long-awaited period. Then a new sentence, a new paragraph, a new chapter.

I wonder now just as I wondered in July and two Julys ago: What will change?

Steve Nash was traded to the freaking Lakers and I had no connection to the internet, no exposure to the outrage that was surely overflowing Twitter and other outlets at the time. My source was one of my brother’s friends, whom I overheard while flipping the carne asada.  There was joyous tableside discussion from the Lakers fans at the table (all of them) claiming this was just the beginning – obviously referring to Dwight Howard’s imminent arrival. How right they would be. I wanted to chime in and offer my thoughts on what just happened. I suppose I did. I rattled off all the words you’d expect to hear in Steve Nash discussions: “pick and roll”, “shooting”, “infinitely better than Ramon Sessions, even if Nash came into training camp with half of his body paralyzed”.

But it didn’t fully register at the time. Hell, it won’t fully register until he plays the first exhibition game in those downright alien yellow jerseys. My favorite player of all time is playing for the team and the fans I’ve spent my entire life defending myself against.

I’m happy for Steve. I’m worried.

For the second consecutive year, Erik Spoelstra wants the Miami Heat to play faster. It all stemmed from Spoelstra piecing together some tactics from the Oregon Ducks’ college football playbook into his own. And if it played any role in last year’s championship, then it’d be wise to amp it up (Though, if one were to compare the two teams’ most magnetic stars, who would win in an efficiency contest: LeBron James or De’Anthony Thomas?).  With the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis mirroring the Suns’ acquisitions of Raja Bell and Tim Thomas – two players integral to the Suns’ 2005-06 Western Conference Finals berth  – the Heat can take Run ‘N Fun to the heights it was supposed to reach in Nash’s time. Of course, the difference is Miami having the sense to know when to slow all the way down, and having a truly elite defense to do so.

Perhaps playing with the Flying Death Machine would’ve been an apt way to go out. There was surely no shortage of rumors suggesting such. It would’ve been a gesture to sign the prophet, the uptempo revivalist of the new millennium, but an unnecessary one. For Spoelstra, blitzkrieg is just something in the toolbox. For Nash, it was a way of life he fought to maintain. The Heat may be committed to the run, but it’s a strategy, not a backbone. Nash’s ability and conviction made the uptempo attack a lifegiving entity.

Los Angeles is a far more unlikely situation for Nash, given the prior history and the systems in place. But part of the allure in ring chasing for past superstars is the challenge of adaptation — to learn new tricks as an old dog, or at least perform the old ones in a slightly different order. Any team with Nash figures to feature the pick and roll prominently, especially with one of the best finishers in the league. In that sense, some things regarding Nash won’t change. But percentages, at least in terms of possession splits, will.

The drastic change will come in Nash not getting the ball back if nothing is in place. With four dominant offensive options, the control that has come to define Nash’s game will diminish. He may initiate the offense, but if opportunity collapses and the offense resets, he most likely won’t be the one pressing the button. Mike Brown calls Nash the quarterback leading a new system, and it’s true. Yet, even that sounds like a demotion when he’s been his own system for the past seven years.

It’s difficult to expect anything less than improvement with Nash on the Lakers. Barring injury, the worst case scenario would be similar to Gary Payton’s one-year stint with the Lakers in 2003-04, a suitable precedent to Nash’s situation. Still, all things considered, Payton had a pretty decent year considering his strengths weren’t completely aligned with the team’s needs. Nash comes in essentially as a miracle elixir, curing much of the team’s woes in one fell swoop. He is immediately the team’s best shooter and facilitator, and a leader capable of standing up to Kobe’s gruffness. While his ceiling is lowered somewhat because of the system and other limiting factors (the miracle of Nash isn’t going to cure Bryant’s insatiable appetite for isolation jumpers), his floor is much higher than Payton’s. At worst, he is a spot-up shooting cog in a championship-caliber machine. Even then, it’s an enviable position.

Even then, it’s crushing.

In a few days I’ll be standing awkwardly along with the other groomsmen watching my brother formally enter a new stage in life, wondering where the years have gone. In a month or so, it’ll happen all over again as I watch Nash run the offense alongside honest-to-goodness all-stars again. I should join in the celebration; I should mourn the passing of an era. I don’t know what I should do, and I just wish I knew the precise moment in life when feelings started getting so convoluted all the time.

This is more of a beginning than an end, and I’m excited to see the impact Steve Nash has on this Lakers offense. But the excitement I have isn’t as pure as the first day of sixth grade when I told my English teacher that my name was Danny Chau and Steve Nash was my favorite basketball player because he’s smart and an amazing shooter. The joy that I had back then didn’t make me anxious. And it didn’t come with the foresight of knowing he won’t be in the league for much longer.

This is all a psych-out, a way to preempt the shock of: 1) Steve Nash in a Lakers jersey. 2) Any significant signs of decay in his physical abilities. 3) Nash potentially hoisting the trophy over his head as a Laker, effectively rewriting his legacy and belittling the impact of his days as a Phoenix Sun.  Somewhere in this coil of conflicting thoughts and fears is something pure; something I’ve always believed. No other player has had such a grip on my imagination. If the next three years serve as the final chapter, all I can do is heave a sigh and wish him the best.

Indelible Infirmity

My Old Basketball

In the fourteen days since the gong was rung on official free agency, player movement has been considerable and constant. Among the new multi-year contracts inked in the past two weeks, nine have gone to players who will be over the age of 35 by the time next season begins. This includes Jason Terry, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Tim Duncan. Two others, Antawn Jamison and Chauncey Billups have agreed to one year contracts. Nazr Mohammed is also reportedly close to signing with the Bulls, and a handful of others in that age bracket, like Raja Bell, are still available and could feasibly receive multi-year deals as well.

Those players I’ve mentioned above have, for the most part, been very productive for an extended period of time. In the context of professional basketball, they’re also all eligible for the senior citizen’s discount. I’ll admit, I find it somewhat confusing to hear the Celtics have signed Terry to a three-year deal, given that it was 16 years ago that I watched him win a National Championship with the Arizona Wildcats.  Focusing just on career production, the contracts Terry and his cohorts have received this summer seem perfectly reasonable. But when you consider their age and injury histories, some of the logic and reason seems to leak out of those multi-year deals.

However, there is a commonly held idea which is bringing comfort to fans in many NBA cities. That idea, a favorite talking point of Bill Simmons, is that advancements in nutrition and physical training are allowing players to extend the productive segments of their careers in a way they never have before. Three of the players Simmons mentions most often – Duncan, Nash, Garnett – are all in that group that received multi-year extensions this summer.

That group of over-35 players has obviously continued to produce and win games, or they simply wouldn’t have had multi-year offers available to them. But is this phenomenon of older stars extending their careers and maintaining productivity truly something new? Are older players really more productive than they have been in the past?

On an individual basis, it turns out that new ground is not being broken. I used Win Shares as a measure of productivity and looked at the best individual seasons from the last 30 years, for players over the age of 35. Just 10 of the top 40 individual seasons occurred during the last decade. The only individual season from the last decade to makes the top 10 was Karl Malone’s 11.1 Win Shares in 2002-2003, at age 39.

This is also not a case where the heroic efforts of a few have skewed the sample in favor of the past.  Malone, David Robinson, John Stockton, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Artis Gilmore, Detlef Schrempf, Reggie Miller, Robert Parish, Dikembe Mutombo, Moses Malone, Dennis Rodman, Sam Perkins, Arvydas Sabonis, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Alex English, Bob Lanier, Horace Grant, Jeff Hornacek, Hakeem Olajuwon, Anthony Mason, Dale Ellis and Dan Issel all had seasons over the age of 35 where they produced at least 6.0 Win Shares. All of those seasons occurred in the first two-thirds of our 30 year sample. To put that level of production in context, in 2010-2011, 6.0 Win Shares would have placed a player into, roughly, the top 15% of NBA players in terms of productivity.

Although many over-35 players have had incredibly productive seasons in the past, how has that age bracket fared as a group, historically and over the past few seasons? Sticking with Win Shares as a measure of productivity, I calculated the total Win Shares produced by players over the age of 35, in each of the last 30 NBA seasons. The totals for both strike-shortened seasons are 82 game projections based on the games that were actually played.

While things have certainly been trending upward over the past few seasons, the over-35s are haven’t even approached the total productivity of the six year stretch they had from 1997 to 2003. That era saw the career twilights of Malone, Stockton, Robinson, Miller, Drexler, Barkley and Olajuwon; all Hall of Famers who remained incredibly productive as they aged. 

Adding another layer of information we can to look at how many over-35 players it took to produce those incredible Win Share totals.

The spike in Win Shares, both recently and during the 97-03 stretch, was also accompanied by an increase in the number over-35 players in the league. The number of over-35 players has been trending upward in each of the last three seasons but still rests below the apex of that previous stretch. The height of success for older players in the NBA, both in the number of roster spots they held and the number of wins they produced occurred almost 15 years ago. It’s also interesting that the number of older players steadily declined, along with overall productivity, for an eight year span from 2001 to 2009. This would seem to be the time period that most of those new advances in the science of athletic performance would have been making their way into the world of professional basketball.

The next step is to look at the average Win Shares produced by those players. This average is now graphed on the second vertical axis.

The average line is somewhat misleading. The peak of this graph came in the early 80s when there were just a handful of players over-35, one of whom was the single-handed average-skewer, Kareem Abdul-Jabar. The average Win Shares per season of players over-35 had a resurgence in the late 2000s roughly equal to the 97-03 time period, but it has actually fallen each of the last two seasons.

One more measure to look at for further clarification is Variance. This is a measures of the variation in Win Shares, each season, from the least productive player to the most productive player. The higher the variance, the bigger the difference was between best and worst. This is also graphed on the secondary axis.

There is one curiosity I’d like to point out. In no way do I mean this as an accusation, but I found it incredibly interesting that the height of productivity among older players in the NBA, matches up almost precisely with the height of steroid use in Major League Baseball. As I mentioned above that time span also saw the simultaneous aging of numerous Hall of Famers. Nevertheless, there is something eerie about the symmetry. Unfortunately, we may never know how that piece fits into this puzzle.

Although the over-35 players of the last few seasons have not been nearly as productive overall as previous groups, there is definitely an interesting pattern at work which may reveal some of the impacts those advances in nutrition and physical training have had.   The number of over-35 players has been increasing over the four seasons, although their average productivity has remained somewhat flat. The variance has also, essentially, been flat or declining the past four seasons. The pattern then is a move to the middle. A mostly flat trend in the average, coupled with a decline in variance means the average is being carried by players in the middle range of productivity. There are fewer terrific players, but fewer awful ones as well. The fact that there are increasingly more players in that age bracket means we are seeing more and more moderately productive players extending their careers.

There is certainly a bubble of Hall of Fame quality players continuing to produce at terrific levels. However, this has happened before. Fifteen years ago it happened because a cluster of supremely talented players were moving through the chronology of their careers at the same time. The incredible longevity of Duncan, Nash and Garnett may have as much to do with their individual greatness as it does with technological advancements that allow them to take better care of their bodies. However, the moderately successful longevity of players like Jason Terry, Nazr Mohammed, Vince Carter, Antonio McDyess, Brad Miller and Marcus Camby may be where we are seeing the true effects of modern science.

The advancements in nutrition and physical training are all about preventing the erosion of skills. Players like Nash, Duncan and Garnett, who are supremely talented in multiple aspects of the game and play with a deep understanding of the nuances of basketball, will be able to survive and thrive even as some of their skills degrade. However, stopping that skill erosion for a player like Terry who really only does on or two things on the court, may be the difference between being in the league or sitting on their couch at home. The players who have less to lose seem to be benefiting more from holding on to what they have.

Understanding Advanced Stats: Shedding Light On Lineups

Continuing the quest to bridge the gap, another edition in the Hardwood Paroxysm series of Understanding Advanced Stats

Often we see fans and media alike speculating that a certain player tweak in a lineup could make the team better overall. How can we know, or how can we support this assertion properly without watching it actually play out?

The first thing I’m going to want to know is how these players match up in efficiency differential, measuring the difference between what they score on offense to what they give up on defense. Let’s pick on the Suns today.

On hoopstats.com we find Marcin Gortat ranked as the sixth-best center in the NBA at eff diff with a +21.0 on the season and Channing Frye the 28th-best in the category at a +12.7 (click on the “Full” lists located at the bottom of each category).

It would seem like Frye would put up enough points on a regular basis to supplement that potent pick-and-roll from Gortat to make the Suns frontcourt fairly highly ranked. By clicking on “Top Frontcourts, Full Frontcourt Rankings,” then column heading “Pts” to sort results automatically we see that indeed the Suns have the 11th-highest scoring frontcourt in the league.

But we have a problem. The Phoenix Suns, while scoring plenty also seem to be giving up too much on defense when we find they’re one of only two frontcourts in the top 15 in scoring that also carry a negative eff diff of -2.4. This means they’re allowing more points collectively from the power forward and center positions than they’re putting up.

Of course, this is collectively, as a team, so we can’t simply pin it on one or two guys and call ‘em out on Twitter for sucking at defense. There’s also second and third unit personnel that contribute to these overall results, even if the bulk of it is on the ones that garner the bulk of the PT.

Since both starters in the Suns’ frontcourt carry a positive eff diff it’s likely the backups causing the team’s overall rating to drop into the red. BasketballValue holds virtually endless sortable tools that take us a step deeper into our quest to uncover the truth of the matter. Here we can see each individual’s long-term effect on the team’s overall ORtg and DRtg (offensive and defensive rating, which you should understand already if you’ve been following along with the series. Because you have, right? Right?!) On and Off the court.

Over at 82Games we can see simple +/- ratings for our target players, Gortat, Frye, and their backups Robin Lopez, Markief Morris, and occasionally Hakim Warrick.

 

Sortable “Simple Ratings”

 

While we never advocate reliance on ‘overall rating’ type metrics for players since we believe that “fit” within a team’s roster and coaching schemes, financial considerations and other factors play a considerable part in player evaluation, it can be useful to gauge quickly how a player stacks up in certain statistical categories.

The main components of the ‘Simple Ratings’ are a production measure (a variant of John Hollinger’s PER rating) for a player’s own stats versus the counterpart player on the other team while he is on the court, as well as a simple on court/off court plus minus. This rating is actually more of a placeholder until the more sophisticated analysis we produce is made public, but still offers a good fast read on player performance.

By clicking on “5-Man Units” we are able to go more in-depth, glean insight into who does and doesn’t work together better on the court both on offense and defense. These are laid out by position from point guard to center, left to right. For these next few images, remember, sample sizes.

Legend:

  • Min = the total minutes the unit was on the floor.
  • Off = the unit’s points per possession.
  • Def = the unit’s points per possession allowed.
  • +/- = the team net points for the unit.
  • W = number of games a unit outscored its opponents while on the court.
  • L = number of games a unit was outscored by its opponents while on the court.
  • Win% = the winning percentage for the unit based on Wins versus Losses.

 

The first result (1) is basically a control we’ll measure the rest of the lineups against since it’s the most used by a lot, the starters who play the bulk of the minutes.  We find that as Morris is subbed in for Frye as rotational substitutions begin to take place that the defense gets better, pretty good in fact, giving up an estimated 0.97 points-per-possession, but somehow, as Ronnie Price is subsequently subbed in for Jared Dudley anything gained by the starting unit is suddenly lost.

Popping over to Price’s page we can see the top 20 5-man units he’s been used in.

Looking at result lines 1-5 we see that it’s not so much Ronnie Price himself destroying the productivity of the lineup, but where head coach Alvin Gentry has played him. Price at the point with any lineup of bigs isn’t so bad, it’s whenever Gentry has opted to play Price in the backcourt opposite Nash that things go to hell in handbasket.

Price is a little guy at the 2 by NBA standards, listed at a generous 6’2″ soaking wet (trust me, he’s not), leaving him at a disadvantage as a defender aside from his slippery quickness and freakish bursts of energy that net a few passing lane pick pockets, so putting him next to Steve Nash leaves undue pressure on the Suns bigs to make up for unheeded penetration by the opposition.

As the bigs are forced to rotate over to help, opposing players penetrating have a plethora of options inside a few feet out in which to convert an easy attempt. The big men on the floor are then penalized as a whole for a defensive breakdown on the perimeter they could truthfully do little about if the opposing offense is in any way the least bit competent at decision-making.

While Price, Shannon Brown, Morris, Warrick, and Lopez all individually carry season-long minuses in simple +/- rating, something interesting emerges when we revisit the most-used lineups.

This group actually plays very well together as a backup unit with a collective positive +/- and competent offensive and defensive PPP ratings.

The moral of the story here is that Alvin Gentry should never, everrrrrr, play Ronnie Price in the same backcourt as Steve Nash. Unless he doesn’t like winning.

 

"We got him, Alvin. You want we should put him in a locker?"

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Sebastian Telfair would like a word with you.

Sort the Suns’ best and worst On-Off Court defenders. Go ahead. You could use the practice.

 

Understanding Advanced Stats: Not All Stats Are Created Equal

Continuing the quest to bridge the gap, another edition in the Hardwood Paroxysm series of Understanding Advanced Stats

A new statistical category rarely makes it’s way into the mainstream, the box score. But that’s what +/- did relatively recently. This easily misunderstood stat can be useful if cited properly. Sadly, it gets misused more often than not.

Really transcendent players tend to have overall pluses simply because they are that good, but in the normal course of events really good players can often end up with a negative or about even +/-. This is due to teammates, not an individual, in most cases. One cannot simply look at a box score and assume that because a particular player had a negative +/- that they had a poor game; they may have won their matchup fairly handily, but if most of the teammates he was on the floor with at the time had a bad game it reflects poorly on everyone.

+/- is best used a couple of ways that we’ll explore here, in large sample sizes, in lineups, and in individual matchups, but only if you are looking specifically at that matchup alone and not in the context of a box score.

Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns have had a rough year (even though they have found a rhythm of late).  The standard box score from a recent close loss to the Golden State Warriors leaves Nash looking like he got smoked, even though we know he’s one of those transcendent players with the sixth-best season-long +/- as of March 6.

Nash’s opponents’ box score tells us little more about what really happened except that Curry had a nice, if short stint.

 

From these stats it would appear that Robinson outplayed Nash. Let’s look closer, at PopcornMachine‘s Game Flow from that particular tilt. Note: If you mouse-over a particular player’s stint you get specifics. I’ve Photoshopped in several players’ stints in order to be more succinct

What we find is that it wasn’t so much that Curry was really good, or Nash really bad, as that David Lee had a spectacular first quarter stint. Curry wouldn’t play again after the first Q. Go ahead and mouse over the rest of Nash’s, and Curry’s replacement, Nate Robinson’s, stints  to get a better feel for how the game unfolded in the backcourt.

Alternately,  before we move on, you can check the stint by the man who’s job it was to be guarding Lee, assuming Gentry had the Suns playing man-D, Channing Frye (something you can confirm by checking mySynergySports or watching a replay). Frye would finish the game at a mere -1, so you can see how one can be deceived by a simple box score +/- stat, when in fact Frye was largely responsible for the early big deficit that Nash and Co. spent the rest of the game making up. The standard box may have you believing that Lee and Frye got in a personal shootout, however, by checking the PopcornMachine box score, and clicking on the specific players, we find that Frye got hot himself later in the contest helping to redeem that heinous first Q and rebound his game-long +/-.

Is what Curry did in his matchup with Nash this night usual? Click that last link and we can get a clue to that by using BasketballReference’s Head2Head Finder found under the Play Index tab.

In looking at the game flow, that graphed line between the two teams, we see that as the flow began to favor Nash and the Suns in the second half, Warriors coach Mark Jackson began experimenting with lineups to try and slow the comeback roll.

As we close this session, you can get a head start on a future post by checking at 82Games to see how these two teams’ lineups have stacked up playing together on the season, another of the fruitful and less suspect uses of the +/- stat.

In closing I would caution you to always be wary of small sample size numbers all by themselves. Until next time, happy advanced statting.

 

 

The Lost Season: Boris Diaw, 05-06

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRJNUueNoao&feature=BFa&list=PL2A8E6EC888408C7A&index=33]

With the threat of a shortened or even cancelled season upon us, there is very little we can do other than watch U19 tournaments or read books to restore a shred of basketball into our lives. What we can do, though, is reminisce over other “lost” seasons. Seasons which saw players or teams achieve extraordinary things that go beyond titles or awards, only to fade back into the background one year later. Here we will bring the tale of these lost seasons, the ones that touched us on a personal level, the ones we will never forget, though history itself might. we start with the story of Boris Diaw, and his magical 2005-2006 showing.

Steve Nash is a 2 time MVP, one of the greatest point guards ever, and the operating force on what most people would concur were the funnest offenses of all time. And yet somehow, though if you ask him he’s certain to tell you he doesn’t want to, he may be even better as a martyr.

Everybody and everything has taken a shot at Steve Nash throughout his unique NBA career. Mark Cuban passing up on re-signing him because Erick Dampier was just too attractive to gloss over. Joe Johnson breaking his face in the 2005 playoffs. Amar’e Stoudemire’s microfracture surgery in 2006. Tony Parker’s head, Robert Horry’s hip, and Stu Jackson’s gavel in 2007. Duncan’s 3 pointer in 2008. Shaq’s primadonna routine to go with Terry Porter’s Terry Porter routine in 2009. Kobe Bryant airballing a shot straight to Ron Artest’s hands in 2010. Hedo Turkoglu. Vince Carter. 3 different all-star players – Johnson, Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion – all separately deciding that for whatever reason, getting the ball wherever they want it and whenever they want it just wasn’t fun. Robert Sarver selling away draft picks, players, and childrens’ souls. The list goes on and on.

But through all the dirty blows, the infuriating stupidity, and yes – the bad luck – nobody did more to harm Steve Nash’s NBA career than Boris Diaw.

The Arrival

July of 2005. The Phoenix Suns are coming off a 62 win season, one that netted Mike D’Antoni a Coach of the Year award, Steve Nash his first MVP, and brought back joyous, offensive minded basketball to the forefront of the league. Momentum is at its peak, legions of fans have gathered behind them, and yet – the San Antonio Spurs knocked them out of the playoffs in 5 games, and still loom in the background. To deal with this robotic behemoth, sharpshooter Quentin Richardson is sent to New York for Kurt Thomas, giving Phoenix a defensive big man who can match up with Finals MVP Tim Duncan. A promising line-up of Nash, Johnson, Marion, Stoudemire and Thomas – 3 all-stars, a defensive anchor, and an up-and-coming, all-around 24 year old in Johnson, who is coming off a season of 17 points per game with 47% shooting from 3 – completes a picture as bright as the Arizona sun.

Only Johnson wants out.

With the bright lights promising roster opportunity to be the number 1 option on a terrible team proving too tempting to resist, Joe asks the Phoenix Suns not to match the 5 year, 72 million offer the Atlanta Hawks offered him in restricted free agency. Phoenix is almost saved by Atlanta’s minority owner Steve Belkin, but a judge steps in, sending Johnson in a sign-and-trade deal to Lotteryville, Georgia. The Suns save face with two future first round picks (which would eventually become Rajon Rondo, sold off to Boston, and Robin Lopez), and a French guard from the end of the bench named Boris Diaw.

The Preamble

Over his first two NBA seasons, Boris Diaw neglected to show any indication that he was, indeed, an NBA player. Fitting perfectly with the profile of the early 2000s international draftee, Diaw was nabbed with the 21st pick of the 2003 draft with a rare combination of natural size and European-honed skill. Diaw was supposed to be a 6’9” guard who could handle the ball, set up his teammates, rebound when asked, and be back in time for tea.

Instead, he took the international draftee stigma one step further and was awful. Shots were missed. Turnovers were turned over. Instead of providing the passing-shooting-guard to Jason Terry’s shooting-point-guard, Diaw played a bench role, and played it miserably. 25 minutes a game in his rookie year became 18 the next, and when Phoenix asked for the disappointing Frenchman as a throw in in the Joe Johnson trade, the Hawks were more than happy to abide.

Phoenix had supposedly liked Diaw ever since the 2003 draft, and were intending to use him as part of an ensemble cast to replace Johnson. The newly signed Raja Bell would fill in the starting 2 shooter/perimeter stopper role. Leandro Barbosa, then still on the upward curve of his career arc, would be the team’s secondary ball handler. Jim Jackson and James Jones had the alliteration corner all covered. And Diaw? Diaw would hopefully give them a little bit of everything in as many minutes as he would be able to play without becoming a liability. For the Mike D’Antoni definition of depth, this was enough.

And then Amare (pre-apostrophe! Man, those were the days) had microfracture surgery.

The Breakthrough

Amare’s injury changed everything. From a team with hopeful depth in the backcourt, no depth in the frontcourt, and a 3 star launching pad that rivaled any trio in the league outside of San Antonio, the Suns were diminished to “Steve Nash runs the show, Shawn Marion does everything else, and dear lord that’s all we have”. When a murderer’s row of an early schedule sent the Suns stumbling to a 4-5 start to their season, it seemed as if the magical Seven Seconds or Less campaign was a distant memory.

But as all this was happening, something else, something bigger had just taken place.

Boris Diaw decided that he’s a passing savant.

It started with a 5 assist performance against the Lakers in the second game of the season. Then it was 6 against Utah. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, an 11-9-11 implosion in a loss to the still-good-but-no-longer-great Sacramento Kings. 6 the next game. Then 5. Then 7. The sort of assists that just didn’t belong at the fingertips of a 6’9” player, not in their sheer volume, and especially not in their quality. On a team with only one creator – even a historically great one like Steve Nash – playing Diaw just enough for him not to become a liability was both no longer a limitation, and no longer an option.

On November 23rd, one night after defeating the Toronto Raptors to get their record back to .500, the Phoenix Suns faced the Houston Rockets. Houston was in a moribund state, without star Tracy McGrady, starting the likes of Luther Head, Ryan Bowen, David Wesley and Juwan Howard next to Yao Ming. The Suns, on the other hand, were starting Boris Diaw.

Phoenix won 100-88, the second in a 9 game win streak. Boris Diaw had 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists.

Starting Small Forward, Backup Point Guard, Backup Center

Diaw’s elite passing game was his newfound claim to fame, but even in its brilliance, this was hardly the work of a one-trick pony. During his inaugural month of Sundom, Diaw indeed averaged a whopping 5.8 assists in just under 29 minutes per game, but his impact was felt virtually everywhere. Those assists came with 6.3 rebounds, 10.5 points on 53% shooting, and solid defensive work. More importantly, the Steve Nash Magic Show had given Diaw a nasty streak that he never displayed off the bench in Atlanta, aggressively looking to score and distribute instead of lurking in the background, hoping he isn’t subbed back out for the likes of Dion Glover.

As the games drew on by, fluke talk was dying out and sheer amazement was emboldening its stand. But Diaw wasn’t done. On a team with so little depth everywhere, and specifically in the frontcourt, a 6’9” player who does virtually everything couldn’t be laid to waste solely in the backcourt.

When he was given the starting job for good that night against Houston, Diaw was registered as a small forward, a minor shift from his previous shooting guard billing. But as Diaw’s game grew stronger, Phoenix’s desperate need for size grew as well. The shift to backup power forward – those 8 or so minutes in which Marion was catching his breath – was seamless. Then came yet another bump, this time as Kurt Thomas’ backup at the 5. One has to imagine that even D’Antoni himself had to be skeptical as to how far this could be stretched, and yet, there Diaw was, manning the pivot, and there were the Suns, winning basketball games.

Prior to the 2003 draft, Diaw was projected as an outlier at shooting guard. Now he was an outlier on virtually every level, bordering on ridiculous. The man legitimately played 5 positions, starting smack dab in the middle at the 3, sprinkling in some 1, seasoning with 5, spending time in between when necessary, his long reach giving other starters a hand both as Nash’s secondary ball handler and as Thomas’ paint dwelling companion.

February 2006. The Suns are 36-17, coming off a win against the Paul-Pierce-and-garbage Boston Celtics, when it is announced that Kurt Thomas has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot. Normally, one would have to plug his backup center into the starting line-up. Except the Suns’ backup center already started at small forward. Not anymore.

When Kurt Thomas was ruled out and Boris Diaw officially became a starting NBA center, the Suns were riding a 5 game winning streak. They extended it to 11, finishing the season with a Kurt-less 18-11 run, and grabbing the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Steve Nash, still the architect, still the master, wins his second straight MVP award (to the chagrin of many, and we’re not having this discussion here). Diaw, who finished the season averaging 13.3 points on 56.4% true shooting, 6.9 boards, and 6.2 assists a night, wins the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, in one of the easiest votes that the ridiculous award has ever had (with apologies to David West, who had an incredible breakout campaign, and teamed up with a rookie Chris Paul and fellow waiver wire pickup Diaw to single-handedly win me my fantasy league).

But in the playoffs, you need to have size, right? Diaw just can’t be a playoff center, right? Right?

The Peak

In the first round, the Suns faced a Lakers squad with very little frontcourt strength. Lamar Odom was never truly an inside presence, Kwame Brown was starting at center and still every bit the laughing stock. But Phil Jackson saw a weakness, and exploited it. Kwame and Lamar routinely got the ball against Phoenix’s 6’9” and 6’7” starting big men, and with Kobe Bryant at his peak, it was very nearly enough. The Suns had to become just the 9thteam to come back from a 3-1 playoff series deficit, and withstand a 50 point game from Bryant in an overtime Game 6, just to get to the next round. Yet another 7 game series against a Los Angeles squad followed, this time against the one hit wonder Elton Brand-Sam Cassell Clipper team, and again, the Suns prevailed, barely.

In both series, the Suns – and Diaw as their center – were severely outrebounded. Diaw posted 5.8 boards a night in the playoffs, understandable for a former small forward but disappointing for a center, and while his scoring increased and his passing remained every bit as crisp, the Suns were exhausted and outmatched entering their Western Conference Finals match-up with the Dallas Mavericks. Heck, they needed the Daniel Ewing debacle to take place, and a miraculous resurgence from February free agent pick up Tim Thomas, just to get past the Clippers. Tim Thomas! THE CLIPPERS!

May 24th. The 2006 conference Finals tip off in a raucous American Airlines Arena in Dallas, the result of the Mavericks somehow being the conference’s 4thseed with it’s second best record. The Mavs have just defeated the defending champs, with the deciding Game 7 taking place in San Antonio. Dirk is at what was then the top of his game. Avery Johnson is still a coaching mastermind. Josh Howard is still relevant.

Steve Nash was his usual brilliant self, dominating the game from start to finish, going off for 27 points and 16 assists, including one of the ballsiest 3 pointers ever seen in the playoffs, down 7, with 2:14 left on the game clock, 19 left on the shot clock, and absolutely nobody set to take the rebound. But we’ve seen Steve Nash do these things on this stage before.

Boris Diaw, however, had done something he was not supposed to do. Guarded by a combination of the lumbering Erick Dampier, the too slow Dirk, and the comatose Keith Van Horn, Diaw obliterated all that was in his path. Off pick and rolls, in isolations, from the elbow, from the post. Nobody on earth could stop Boris Diaw that night. With 5 seconds left in the game and the Suns down 1, Diaw received an inbounds pass from Tim Thomas in the right block, his back to the basket, Jerry Stackhouse all over him. Diaw power dribbled to the middle, spun towards the baseline, sent Stackhouse flying in the air, and calmly netted the 6 foot jumper to seal the deal. Those were his 33rd and 34th points of the night, to go with 6 rebounds and a surprisingly meager 2 assists (though with Nash getting 16, they were hard to come by).

5 games later, the shorthanded Suns eventually saw their demise at the hands of the Mavericks, but Boris Diaw had cemented his status as a force to be reckoned with. 24.2 points on 52% shooting (76% from the line), to go with 8.5 boards and 1.7 blocks a night left basketball fans wondering whether Diaw could actually play center on a regularly sized team, on a regular basis. His assists had suffered throughout the series – just 3.2 a game to go with 3.3 turnovers – but that was what we already knew Diaw could do. It was the rest that he had to prove, and he had. Diaw was given a 5 year, 45 million contract extension before he could even taste free agency. For the Diaw we saw against Dallas, this was an absolute steal.

The Downfall

The 2006-2007 Suns campaign once again projected to be a promising one. Amare was back. Kurt Thomas was healthy. The Nash/Marion/Diaw nucleus remained, bolstered by Bell and Barbosa. And indeed, the campaign was a relative success, with a hard fought and controversial exit at the hands of the same old Spurs, in a de-facto NBA Finals that just happened to be a second round series.

But Diaw was never the same. With Stoudemire back on board, he struggled in a dimished role as the 3rdoffensive option. His production dropped in almost every way possible, and his mood soured. The fragile child from his first two NBA seasons emerged once again, and whether this was the result of guaranteed money or a supposed lack of trust from the coaching staff was irrelevant. One year later, he was traded to Charlotte, where doing-it-all was replaced with lethargy and munchies. Athleticism turned into girth, the player who played all 5 positions became a slow-footed power forward, and short of a desperate run to a 7thseed in 2010 and a bunch of fat jokes on online chats during the 2010 World Championships, Boris Diaw never got anywhere ever again.

It’s easy to dismiss Diaw’s 05-06 campaign as a flash in a pan that was later converted for the making of pastries (do you even use a pan to make pastries? The metaphor worked too well to check), yet another one of Steve Nash/D’Antoni ball’s many creations. Let us not forget, says this theory, as Diaw was doing his thing, Tim Thomas was playing himself into a 4 year 24 million contract just mere feet away. But that would be selling Diaw short. So much of what Diaw did was independent of Nash and the mustachioed mastermind. Diaw was handling the ball when Nash wasn’t, creating for his teammates while the immortal Canadian was lying down near the bench or spotting up in the corner. Diaw was just as instrumental to the success of the Suns’ offense as they were to his.

Where Transcendence Lies

In a game where size plays such a huge factor in everything that occurs, that size often leads us to very direct definitions. Big men do this, little men do that. Put all these roles together and you got yourself a team. When boundaries are crossed, we feel that evil is afoot, and our standards are raised impossibly high. Andrea Bargnani may not be a star, but if he were 6 inches shorter, his style of play would be understandable. Once he broke out of the predetermined mold, he is deemed incompetent until he achieves success.

As the game evolved, however, we’ve seen those boundaries crossed more and more, and that same success has started to arive as well. And when the supposedly impure hybrid becomes an unmitigated winner, we praise them. Michael Jordan was a guard who took the above-the-rim game up a notch, and when it left him, he mastered the post. Dirk Nowitzki led a fringe contender to a championship by being an unstoppable scorer from absolutely everywhere, though traditionally his range would end at around 15 feet and his jumpers would only fall when flat-footed.

Amazing plays are amazing plays, no matter who they come from. It’s what makes us love basketball. Blake Griffin hanging in the air long enough to complete an entire game of Monopoly set on a Russian man’s scalp, or Jason Terry inexplicably succeeding at throwing an orange ball into a round hoop from 30 feet away with a 6’8”, 270 pounder draped all over him in the waning moments of a Finals game, make our jaws drop in awe and our hearts bless Dr. Naismith again and again.

But true greatness lies in these hybrids. My personal basketball fetish is the passing big man. I cheer and I yell and the endorphins flow like crazy when I see a superhuman dunk or a fadeaway taken at a 45 degree angle, but nothing compares to seeing a guy like Al Horford or Pau Gasol place a perfectly constructed bounce pass right in the grasp of a moving target. For others, it’s the diminutive Derrick Rose driving into the paint, where giants roam and pain is guaranteed, only to flip the ball to the edge of the backboard, where it gains a spin that leads it straight into the hoop.

Just as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were two of the greatest players of all time as one-in-a-generation-that-just-happened-to-be-two-in-the-same-generation passers and team players working within bodies that were built for other skills, just as Lebron James separates himself from today’s field with his elite ability to see the game and find his teammates while working from Karl Malone’s body, so was Boris Diaw.

Obviously, Diaw was not at the level of these legends – he was more of a Lamar Odom, falling just barely short of physical specimen, but with skills that ranged all over the basketball map, skills that promised the world, leaving us yearning for so much more. While the Larrys and the Magics and the Lebrons have transcendence oozing from every pore, the Borises and Lamars are transcendent for their uniqueness, perhaps resonating with us in an even greater way, until they inevitably disappoint.

There will never be another Boris Diaw. That is why it pains us so that we got to see the original and only version show its true form for just a 7 month period. And as we watch the diminished shell of what was once greatness labor around in a Charlotte uniform (or wherever, post-lockout), and we see a rare glimpse of what was with a nice alley-oop to Bismack Biyombo (hopefully) or brilliantly finding a wide open Tyrus Thomas for a clanged 20 footer (hopefully not), we must remember that this was the true Boris Diaw. The one who let Steve Nash down, the one who let us all down, but not before taking to a basketball court and tantalizing our minds with things that shouldn’t be possible.

On Steve Nash And Assumptions

Photo via Rain City Girl on Flickr

Assumptions are a funny thing. They invade the mind, spawn and manifest themselves in ways that affect our thought process in manners beyond our scope of comprehension. Our day to day existence is very much impacted whether we know it or not. A bad experience as a child can alter the way we perceive things later in life. A faulty product leaves us believing the worst about the company as a whole. Assumptions aren’t always a bad thing they simply alter our acuity, often shifting perception, with the variable being the size of the scale.

Perhaps one of the most widespread assumptions as they pertain to professional sports – and one that has traditionally proven to be accurate – is that advancement in age results in a drop-off in production. Sooner or later, every athlete in every sport hits that wall. Shots don’t fall like they used to, the familiar spring in the legs is evanescent and the bumps linger longer than they used to. We simply assume that once our stars start creeping closer to 40 that it’s all over, whether or not they age gracefully or leave us cringing, they start fading to black.

What happens when they don’t get that memo? The Celtics Big 3 continue to produce at a high level despite being on the down slope of their playing days and have been lauded for it – rightfully so. Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki remain among the NBA’s most revered players even being past their expected primes (though Dirk at 32 is still technically there). How is it then, with this crop of aging superstars still very much dominating the league’s spotlight that Steve Nash – in the midst of arguably his best season ever from a statistical standpoint – has managed to fade from the discussion of best active point guards?

With all due respect to Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, et al, Nash’s production at the ripe age of 37 makes him the most impressive floor general still lacing them up. Playing for a Suns team that is a shell of the thrilling Phoenix teams of a few years ago, the modern day Godfather of the pick and roll is “quietly” putting together a line of 16 points and 11 assists while shooting nearly 51% from the floor and 38% beyond the arc. His per-36 numbers are right up there with his best seasons during his prime and his assist numbers have never been better. The sage veteran ranks in the top ten among all point guards in scoring, assists, field-goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage and yet isn’t good enough to make the All-Star team.

Some may call it the passing of the torch to a new generation of point guards, I call is subconscious ageism. Our image of Nash’s greatness is so convoluted with what we perceive him to be rather than what he is, that in the midst of another brilliant season in the expected twilight of his career, he is lost in a sea of youthful exuberance and explosiveness at the point guard position. We’re blinded by our own assumptions of one of the game’s great playmakers.

What we’re seeing has never been done before and like so many new and unfamiliar entities that we encounter, we misjudge what is in front of us. In this “Golden Age of the Point Guard” we’re blessed to witness explosive, young players equally as capable of dolling out 15 assists as they are of completing jaw dropping forays to the rim. Nash’s beautiful gift of playing angles and seeing passing lanes that no one else does is overshadowed by individuals who simply obliterate the geometry of the game. But above all else, Nash simply isn’t falling in line with our preconceived notions of an aging point guard.

It’s acceptable for Ray Allen to remain a marquee individual because we all know the jumper is the last thing to go. Kobe is one of the fiercest competitors of his or any generation, so he can will himself to the basket until he is 50 for all we care. But for Nash, playing a position that requires speed, athleticism and the latest trend a 36-inch vertical, he manages to stay elite in a world that assumes otherwise.

The greatest hope for every fan is that their favorite stars can play forever, but the mortality of their greatness is constantly present in our understanding of them. We watch because we know what is, won’t always be. Yet somehow, Nash has managed to outlive our predestined conceptualization of his career, but rather than pay witness to this remarkable aberration, the public’s state of mind forges on to the latest and greatest.

Maybe it’s time to take a step back.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Steve Nash

In today’s Have Ball, Will Travel, we have the elusive double-whammy. Two demonstrations of the enforcement of the traveling rule, one correct and one incorrect, coming from Tuesday night’s game between the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trailblazers.

This first clip is an easy non-call, and the officiating crew judged it correctly. In most casual basketball circles, this would surely be called a travel; the “can’t stand up with the ball” rule is a pretty popular, but in this case incorrect, interpretation of the traveling rule. I’m not exactly sure if this particular rule has evolved over time or if it’s always been misunderstood, but in today’s NBA (and at least as far back as a few years ago, based on the clips used for the NBA Video Rulebook), it’s perfectly legitimate to stand up with the ball, establish a pivot foot, and go about your business.

Now, here’s where things get tricky. Players receiving the ball on the move frequently get a ridiculous free pass on traveling calls, but here the official calls the play tightly…and incorrectly. Here’s the language used in the rulebook:

A player who receives the ball while he is progressing must release the ball to start his dribble before his second step.

The first step occurs when a foot, or both feet, touch the floor after gaining control of the ball. The second step occurs after the first step when the other foot touches the floor, or both feet touch the floor simultaneously.

Alright, pretty straightforward there. Nash clearly receives the ball on the move, though in his usual side gallop rather than a full sprint. If you look carefully, both of Nash’s feet are planted when he gains possession of the ball; it’s hard to see because of his shuffle, but if you watch the movement and angle of his feet, it’s clear that neither one should count as an established step. That makes the plant of Nash’s right foot his “first step” as defined by the rule.

Nash’s “second step” is an insanely close call, but he does indeed release the ball before his second step occurs, as the rule demands. I’ve freeze-framed the video where the ball is out of Nash’s hands while his other foot (which will eventually take that second step) is still in the air. Hard to blame the official for not being able to see that insane bit of detail, but in this case that level of precision would have been necessary to make the correct non-call.

Thanks to Monsieurs Sebastian Pruiti and Henry Abbott for recommending these plays.

Conference Finals Lakers-Suns Game 2 Recap: Pau Gasol Is The Best Big Man In The NBA

As I watched a blowout disguise itself as a close game Wednesday night, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the job that Pau Gasol was doing all over the floor.

Two years ago when the Los Angeles Lakers traded Marc Gasol, something called a Kwame Brown that people claim was once the number one pick of the NBA Draft, and a first round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol, people were infuriated at the fact that the Lakers could be given such a heist of talent. It’s almost like the Memphis Grizzlies had been cultivating this prized crop and the Lakers swooped in to harvest when nobody was looking. Some of called for a conspiracy while others just thought it was Chris Wallace doing Chris Wallace type things.

The uproar was sort of weird because even though Pau Gasol was clearly a talented All-Star capable of getting a defunct franchise into the playoffs most years, it wasn’t like the Spaniard was one of the top players in the NBA. Perhaps, we all knew something that none of us actually recognized yet. Putting Pau Gasol second fiddle to someone like Kobe Bryant is like telling MacGyver to screw the dental floss, flashlight and Pop Rocks and just handing him over Batman’s utility belt.

Now that Phil Jackson and Kobe have been able to integrate Gasol into the system all while winning a championship and letting him earn some true playoff chops, we’re all starting to see the fallout of this trade. Pau Gasol has simply become the best big man in the game today.

Yes, there are plenty of cases to be had for Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, and of course Johan Petro (insert Matt Moore joke about Greg Oden here too while you’re at it). And all of those guys are really good. Dirk is a wiz on the offensive end of the floor. KG and Duncan still have a lot left in the tank as they adapt to injuries and old age. Dwight Howard is getting better all the time while filling the role as best defensive big man in the league. But Pau Gasol has the ability to truly dominate in the playoffs game after game after game.

After a very solid 21-point performance in Game One, Gasol came out in Game Two and decided to put a hurting on Amare Stoudemire and company. Even with defensive stalwarts like Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett trying to defend him, I don’t think there’s any real way to stop Gasol on offense. He’s simply too good and has too many weapons at his disposal. So put him in front of someone like Channing Frye or Amare Stoudemire and he’s going to feast on human flesh like Hannibal Lecter.

He’s constantly showing new parts of his repertoire as a sort of tease of the dominance he could exude if he had to carry a team every night in the Association:

He can turn around over his left shoulder and shoot a should-be impossible fadeaway for any other big man on the planet like he did in the middle of the first quarter against the Suns.

He can flash to the middle of a zone, catch a quick pass in the paint and instantly toss up a little runner before the defense can react like he did towards the end of the first quarter before Robin Lopez could react.

He can turn over his left shoulder and put up the right-handed hook in the middle of the paint or he can go over his right shoulder after drop-stepping to the baseline and shooting a left hook that is impossible to block.

He catches the ball in traffic on lobs over the top when he’s being fronted and keeps the ball high to make a layup opportunity extremely easy for him.

And he moves so well without the ball that he’s like a big man version of Richard Hamilton.

In the fourth quarter against the Suns in Game Two, he utilized pretty much every weapon he owns. He scored 14 points in a game in which the Suns had come roaring back in the third quarter to tie it going into the fourth quarter. He made five of his seven shots in the period and four of his six free throw attempts. The only times he was stopped in the period were on a missed jumper just below the free throw line and a left-handed hook shot away from a double team in which it looked like he got fouled by Amare.

I can’t think of a more perfect big man to have on just about any team with his ability to score from all over, defend with great length inside, rebound at a high rate and move the ball around the halfcourt like a point guard. Unfortunately for the Suns, they have to face him and they don’t have an answer for him.

NBA Playoffs Lakers vs. Suns Game 1 Recap – Lamar Odom Does His Thing Like We All Knew He Should/Would/Could

There are plenty of things to talk about in Game One of a Lakers blowing out of the Phoenix Suns.

Kobe Bryant went off in a very scary way for Suns fans.

David Arquette somehow became the post-game story.

Andrew Bynum’s knee was tested and rested.

Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown not only looked like NBA players throughout most of their time on the court but they actually looked like they were ready to help this Lakers team hoist up a 16th banner.

And Pau Gasol proved that he’s most likely the deadliest post player in the NBA.

However, none of that was as important as the playoff sighting of Lamar Odom. We all know the enigmatic tale of Lamar Odom. More so than most NBA players, Lamar Odom was a child prodigy the likes of which we’ve rarely seen. He was a power forward with the skills of a point guard. He wasn’t Magic Johnson by any means but he certainly was capable of shattering any proverbial mold set before him so that he could make a new one in his likeness.

After bouncing around high schools and colleges, Odom found his way into the NBA by being selected fourth in the 1999 NBA Draft. Unfortunately for him, he was picked by the Clippers and destined to be one constant conundrum wrapped in an enigma trapped in one of those super hard Sudokus. He showed flashes of brilliance in which he’d dominate guys like Kevin Garnett even though he had a far inferior team, while trying to balance the delicate building of a team of lottery picks and hope.

Fast-forward 10 years and he’s still as confusing as ever. Any time you start analyzing the Lakers roster and what they’re capable of with any NBA fan, you’re bound to come across the “what if” question concerning Lamar Odom. What if he maximized his talent and potential? What if he was motivated every time on the floor? What if he actually tried to Power Bar his way to the moon?

Lamar Odom has always been the NBA equivalent of The Riddler. He might as well be wearing an ambiguous green jump suit with question marks all over. Or should the jumpsuit be forum blue and gold?

Even though Lamar has been lauded as a shoulda-woulda-coulda over the past decade, the Lakers success has never been truly contingent on him showing up to play. Yes, the Lakers are a better team when he’s playing well but they’re also a better team when Kobe is taking smart shots, Pau Gasol is obliterating the concept of post defense and Andrew Bynum is being a big lug of a man that is impossible to keep away from the rim.

Against the Suns in Game One, Lamar Odom continued his career-long eradication of the Phoenix Suns. He’s played 827 games in the NBA (including playoffs) and racked up averages of 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 35.8 minutes per game while shooting 46.5% from the field. But when he’s faced the Suns as a member of the Lakers, he’s taken his game to a whole other level.

In 32 career games against the Suns while playing in a Lakers uniform, Lamar Odom has upped his averages to 16.4 points, 11.7 rebounds and 38.3 minutes per game while shooting 48.3% from the field. Monday night, he posed the exact same problem for the Suns that everyone hoped would be a constant threat during his entire NBA career.

Lamar Odom finished with a spectacular line of 19 points and 19 rebounds off the bench in just 31 minutes of play. But it wasn’t the line he posted as much as it was the way he posted it. Seven of those rebounds came on the offensive boards. He feasted inside with 7/10 on his shots around the rim (Hoopdata). Simply put, the Phoenix Suns see a perfect weapon in Odom for what they do and have to watch while he has his way with them.

When Lamar Odom is on the court against the Suns, he’s able to slip into any spot on the floor that he needs. He can stay back and take long jumpers, even if they are a horrific shot for him to be taking. But most of all, he’s going to dive into the lane and create havoc against a Suns defense that still can’t defend the paint. I know we all like to think this Suns team is improved defensively in some way but regardless of what stats you want to use, when Amare and Frye are on the floor together you’re just not going to be able to match the length of a guy like Odom.

The Suns are designed to one thing and one thing only – that’s score a ton of points. When the tempo was high at the beginning of the game, it looked like the Lakers were going to have a real contest in front of them. Maybe it wasn’t going to be the same heart-pounding threat that the Thunder were in the first round but it wasn’t going to be far from it either. With Odom on the court, the tempo is no longer an option. He controls the boards and if he controls the boards then he controls the tempo of the game. He can get back on defense, end the Suns possession if they miss and get the momentum going the Lakers way.

We’re not necessarily sure that he’s going to show up and do this again in Game Two because that’s just not what he guarantees on a basketball court. He leaves us guessing, which adds to the drama of the NBA playoffs.

The confusion adds to not only his mystique but the Lakers mystique as well.