Category Archives: Basketball

First Hurrah Could Be The Hawks’ Last

The biggest story of the first round of the NBA playoffs is that of the eighth-seeded, 37 win Atlanta Hawks taking the vaunted Boston Celtics and their “Parquet Posse” to the brink of elimination.

Getty Images

Getty Images

To many, I suppose, it seems that the Hawks have a bright future. They have had the undesirable fate of owning hundreds of ping pong balls in recent lotteries, and those years of suffering have finally seemed to come to fruition. Bibby, Johnson, Smith, Williams, and Horford, with Childress off the bench is a nice group of youthful players. Looking to the past, some teams that this Hawks squad resembles are the 04-05 Bulls, the 02-03 Clippers, or the 93-94 Warriors and Nuggets. Each of these teams, of course, is known not for their lasting success but instead for short-lived excitement followed closely by disappointment.

Without getting into too much statistical detail, as my loyal readers seem to be decidedly against that, I want to explore quickly why these promising teams, built through high draft picks, tend to elude lasting success.

The consensus, it seems, is when you have a top draft pick you need to take the best player available. This mindset is especially apparent in the first third of the first round. Teams owning these picks are primarily the worst teams in the league, and so they need not worry about fitting the right pieces but instead getting the best possible prospect. Naturally, teams encounter problems when they find themselves selecting from these lofty positions year after year. Shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards are consistently the most available prospects, so if a team were to own a near-top ten pick for four consecutive years, choosing the best player available they would find themselves with an imbalanced rotation.

The Clippers for example, spent several years with four of their most promising players best suited for small forward – Maggette, Richardson, Odom, and Miles. The team improved when they finally traded in potential for performance. They selected Chris Kaman, the steady yet unspectacular junior from Central Michigan and traded athletically gifted Miles for a proven point guard in Andre Miller. Most importantly though, they allowed the Bulls to develop second overall pick Tyson Chandler, and in return for their troubles recieved second year player Elton Brand. For the first time in a long time the Clippers became a legitimate team, taking the Suns to a seventh game in the second round of the 2006 NBA playoffs.

The Clippers are now a good team because they have a stable roster with a group of players that all know their roles. Brand is their go to guy in the paint, Kaman is their scrappy big man, Maggette is their slasher, Mobley is their shooter. They have a bench featuring defensive specialist Quentin Ross, and added promising Al Thornton. If Shaun Livingston can return to health and continue his development the Clips will be a tough team, even in the loaded West where the model of stability and a well-balanced roster, the San Antonio Spurs, reign supreme.

Similar analysis can be presented for the recent Bulls, or the 93-94 Warriors and Nuggets. The Bulls have primarily drafted small guards (Duhon, Gordon, Heinrich) who deserve playing time but cannot match-up defensively with most other teams, or athletic but unpolished bigs (Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, and Tyson Chandler). Three of the four best Warriors in 93-94 were swingmen: Latrell Sprewell, Billy Owens, and Chris Mullin. Run-TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin) was the hallmark of previous unsuccessful Warrior squads despite featuring three players averaging at least 20 points per game in 90-91. Once again without clearly defined roles, the team would never be good. Having three perimeter players all performing the same basketball function – scoring – is a recipe for disaster.

The 93-94 Nuggets and the famous image of Dikembe Mutumbo lying flat on the Key Arena floor crying from pure jubilation, left a lasting impression on many a basketball fan in their first round upset of the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics.

Nine of the 13 players that saw at least 100 minutes of action for that Nuggets team, were 24 years of age or fewer, and no player had reached their thirties. Three of their four best players, Reggie Williams, Bryant Stith, and LaPhonso Ellis all played shooting guard or small forward, and they drafted Jalen Rose and Rodney Rogers – two more small forwards. Despite the excitement generated by that stunning postseason upset, the Nuggets would spend just one more year at .500 before sinking increasingly close to, and eventually past, the 50-loss plateau.

Obviously, none of this bodes well for the Hawks. They have spent years drafting power forwards (Marvin Williams, Shelden Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford), and like the aforementioned Nuggets have accumulated a young roster with nine players age 24 or younger. Now they have a legitimate go to guy in Johnson, and they wisely acquired veteran non-forward talent in Mike Bibby, but they stilllack the balanced roster that marks a good team. They often play three players (Horford, Williams, and Smith) who share similar skillsets and roles. The Hawks would do well to acquire a back to the basket threat in the Elton Brand mold, to ensure a better balanced roster. That is the thread between all four of these teams: they were exciting and young, but couldn’t sustain success without a scorer in the post, and without players that have varied roles. Eight teams remain in the 2008 NBA playoffs, two of them have otherworldly talents (Lebron and Kobe) and the remaining six feature starting lineups with: two big men, one who is primarily a scorer, the other a scrappy rebounder, one wing that shoots and one that slashes (one of those two players is probably the team’s perimeter defensive stopper as well), and a good point guard.

Now that the Hawks have somewhat of a foundation, it’s important that they find a way to balance their roster. Though the Hawks’ building process could be severely hindered as the Suns have their 2008 first pick, Hawks fans everywhere can at least take some joy in that their team won’t be taking another athletic, unpolished forward.

So Long C-Webb

This is not just a basketball blog. I promise. There’s a post about pitchers coming soon, and I have one in mind about the NHL standings. But for now, I want to wish Chris Webber well upon retirement. He’s definately one of my favorite athletes ever – he combined swagger, intellect, and emotion so well off the court the same way he combined size, skill, and athleticism so well on the court. There aren’t many true, post-playing big men, that could handle the ball and pass as well as he could. Two articles/links that speak more to his career than anything I could write:

1. J.A Adande on Webber

2.  

-Abfus

Statistics for MVP

I was scanning through TrueHoop two days ago when I saw something that appaled me:

“Amare Stoudemire’s claim to MVP status can be supported by points per possession. He’s very close to 1.2 PPP, which is right there among the best rates ever recorded. And, as much as he says no one is mentioning him as a candidate, check this out: the blogosphere had your back last week, Mr. Stoudemire.”

He May Look Like a Candidate Here, But Don’t Support Amare for MVP

If you read the article that Henry Abbott linked to (at section F sports) you’ll notice it dismisses Stoudemire’s weak defensive play as something that could potentially derail his MVP case. In my opinion, this is completely ridiculous. The REASON the Suns have yet to make it out of the Western Conference finals during the Steve Nash era, is because they struggle defending the low post in slow-paced, half-court, playoff games. The whole reason Steve Kerr decided to uproot the run-and-gun model that had won the Suns an average of 59 games over the previous three years and trade for Shaquille O’Neal was presicely because he believed that to get over the final hump he needed that interior presence. It’s impossible to view Stoudemire as an MVP candidate, let alone the team MVP, when his biggest weakness is the reason for the team’s struggles and restructuring. Still, Stoudemire’s resume, according to Section F, can be made with the following statistical analysis.

– 3rd in PER (behind James and Paul)
– 2nd in the league according to Yahoo’s fantasy stats
– 4th according to ESPN’s fantasy player rater (doesn’t include turnovers)
– 3rd in points per 48 minutes (6th overall)
– 4th in field goal percentage
– 6th in blocks per game (as mentioned above)
– 1st in efficiency rating per 48 minutes (3rd overall)

Sure this is an impressive list. But it takes just one stat to dispel some of the value in Stoudemire’s rankings in these categories. Pace. The Pace statistic is defined differently if you look at Basketball-Reference and Hollinger’s Team Stats (you need to be an ESPN insider for some of these Hollinger links), but nevertheless it’s a measure of how many possessions a team uses. Lo and behold, the Suns have the fourth highest Pace in the NBA. So, it should come as no surprise – because remember, even though he is no MVP candidate, he still is a good player – that Amare is the benieficiary of high fantasy stats, and many points per 48 minuts. According to Hollinger, the Suns get 99.5 possessions per game. This is nearly eight more possessions than Chris Paul’s Hornets and seven more than Lebron James’ Cavs have – two true MVP candidates, respectively. Please don’t argue that Stoudemire is one of the reasons his team has so many additional possessions because he is in fact only a statistically avererage offensive rebounder at best for a big man in the NBA, so he is not responsible. Finally, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Amare’s FG% is so high, after all, he has Nash feeding him inside for easy buckets off of the pick-and-roll and in transition.

Speaking of Hollinger, you’ll notice his PER is mentioned often on ESPN.com and in throughout the web in evaluating players. I side with Dave Berri of the Wages of Wins Journal in saying that PER is not a good measure. Berri’s reasoning can be found in the previous link, but a simple explanation is that players can raise their Player Efficiency Rating by scoring a lot of points without shooting a particularly high percentage. Thus, should Rajon Rondo start hoisting up jumpers and hitting at a 40% rate, he would begin to improve his PER even though he is only scoring more because he is shooting more. These additional shots would actually hurt the Celtics, because he would be taking shots that would normally go to more efficient scorers such as KG, Pierce and Allen. This obviously does not affect Amare because he is such a high percentage shooter, but the fact that PER can rank him ahead of clearly superior talents, Duncan and KG, big men that obviously contribute more to their team’s winning cause, lets me know that PER is practically worth dumping.

Almost 700 words in, I’m not first going to fully examine sports history in this post. The reason I posted this in Stutter Step, a blog whose stated goal is to look at current events through the lens of history, is the to examine the importance of statistics. Obviously, it’s an easy way to evaluate a player, and especially one that you’ve never seen play, but it is crucial that we look at the right statistics and keep them in perspectives. For example, when I look at basketball players I make sure that after points, assists and rebounds, I take a look at turnovers, offensive rebounding, and steals. These stats help measure how a player affected the number of possessions his team had, and more possessions lead to more opportunities to score. I also like shooting percentages because they help determine whether a player is using these possessions efficiently. If a player takes 30 shots to score 25 points, he was probably better off passing to teammates or finding other ways to help his team win.

Finally, I like to take a look at the league the player was playing in and the teammates with whom he played. For example, Oscar Robertson’s famed 1961-62 season where he averaged a triple-double is EXTREMELY impressive, but keep in mind that shooting percentages were abysmal in that era, but the pace was faster and so accumulating points, rebounds and assists was somewhat easier (teams averaged about 5000 missed shots over the course of the season, whereas today that number is cut in half). On the other hand, Joe Morgan’s 27 jacks in 1976 don’t seem so amazing now, but check out how many HRs other second basemen hit during that era, and it’s easier to see how amazing that season was without even mentioning the .444 OBP, 111 RBIs or the 60 steals he gathered. That’s why as a sports fan you have to love the availability of sites like Basketball-Reference.com and Baseball-Reference.com.

-Abfus

Chairman Yao vs. The Dunking Dutchman

In the light of the Rocket’s recent win streak, and the devastating (or perhaps not?) injury to their center, I’ve been thinking about Yao Ming a little bit lately. One thing I’ve always found interesting about those absurdly tall (7-2 and taller) NBA centers, is that they are always compared to one another. It seems you can’t hear the name Shawn Bradley, without also hearing Gheorghe Muresan or Manute Bol. Naturally, when Yao Ming’s name arises so too do the names of these aforementioned players.

Though listed at just two inches shorter than the likes of Bradley and Ming, 7-4 Rik Smits seems to get overlooked in this conversation. Perhaps not absurly tall enough to be classified with the giants noted above, and certainly not dominant enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Hakeem, Walton, Ewing, or Moses, Smits’ place in history is forsaken.

Rik Smits was drafted out of Marist College by the Pacers as the second overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft after Kansas’ Danny Manning. The blonde, floppy-haired Smits was crucial to the Pacers playoff runs in the mid-to-late 90s. He played second banana to sharp-shooting Reggie Miller, and most significantly for the purpose of this post, had a silky mid-range jumper, was a solid passer, and perfected the high-post to the point that other big men were uncomfortable defending him, but he was just tall and good enough in the low-post so that you couldn’t stick your power forward on him. Ignore the blonde hair, and the “playoff runs” and re-read that skillset, and Smits could easily be confused for Yao.

yao-ming.jpg

NBAE/Getty Images

All stats per 36 min. for comparison sake Points Reb Ast Blocks Turnovers FG%
Yao Ming’s 6th Season, Age 27 (2007-2008 ) 21.3 10.5 2.3 2 3.2 0.507
Rik Smits’ 6th Season, Age 27 (1993-1994) 20.9 8.2 2.7 1.4 2.6 0.534

Yao, the first pick of the 2002 NBA Draft, has mastered the high post. The 2007-2008 Rockets run ran their offense through Yao; solid perimeter shooting and backdoor cutting in Adelman’s spread motion offense helped afford Yao some space to conduct the team’s offense and his own offense. When that didn’t work the Rockets just gave T-Mac the ball, just as the Pacers did with Reggie a decade earlier.

Both players shot at high percentages thanks to the combination of a good mid range shot, and their abilities around the basket; both players average in the low 20s in points per 36 minutes, and though Yao has shown a better propensity to grab a rebound and block a shot through this point in his career, I’d say that both players are disappointingly soft, considering their size and skill. Add some toughness to the size, skill, and smarts that made scouts drool over these players in the first place, and you would get two legitimate hall-of-famers.

What Smits loses in rebounding and shot blocking he makes up for in his playoff play throughout his years with the Pacers. The Pacers of Smits’ prime were built similarly to this season’s Rockets, in the sense that both teams are focused on a shooting guard and a center, and are surrounded by quality players at point (in Mark Jackson, and the emerging Rafer Alston), do-it-all defensive minded forwards (Battier, and Derrick McKey), and a plethora of tough but skilled power forwards. The difference, of course, is that the Pacers were consistent contenders in the East, while Yao has yet to make it out of the first-round of the playoffs in the West. This, despite the fact that Smits consistently faced Ewing, Shaq, Mourning, and other defensive giants throughout those playoff runs, while Yao had only the tail end of Shaq’s prime and a slew of great power forwards playing center to match up against thus far in his career.

Though overshadowed by Reggie’s yearly playoff heroics, Smits played very well in the playoffs and would give the rival New York Knicks fits in the playoffs. And while Yao’s Rockets can play better without their center on the floor because they (read: T-Mac) take advantage of the extra open space, Smits presence and passing ability were crucial in freeing up Reggie and McKey for shots and easy layups. Perhaps that’s the greatest indictment of Yao – stick him on a team whose best player belongs on the open floor, and he’s taking up space. Had you stuck him on the 1995 Pacers though, he might be the guy that would have put them over the top as he could have matched Smits ability to enable Reggie while dominating the interior with his similarly wide array of post moves, and his additional bulk to perhaps deter the Center-driven league of the 90s. Stick the slightly less assertive Smits on the Rockets and perhaps they don’t feel inhibited by his presence, and can combine the best of Tracy McGrady’s skill on the open court with Smits’ 88 inches of skill.

 What conclusion am I drawing here? I’m saying that part of Yao’s problem is that he’s just good enough (a slightly better rebounder, scorer, and shot blocker than Smits) to consider him a possible franchise player. Pair him with an other-worldly talent, Tracy McGrady (thanks to freedarko.com for the link to the story), and you have a guy whose taking up a little too much space, and prohibits the team from playing its inherent, and successful, style. (Here’s another linkshowing through plus-minus that the Rockets actually might be better without Yao). However, leave him on a team without T-Mac and its difficult to imagine giving Yao the ball when you need a bucket in the dying seconds of close games. Smits, on the other hand, is entrenched firmly as a complimentary piece, and is therefore easier to build around. Combine that with his tendency to hit the big shot, and you have a player – though slightly worse – that perhaps fits in an organization’s plans better than the more talented Yao Ming.

-Abfus