Monday, March 16, 2009

Suns and Warriors Put On a Show (And Demonstrate Why Pace Matters)

Last night the Phoenix Suns and the Golden State Warriors, two of the fastest paced teams in the NBA, were matched up against each other on national television. Because of the entertaining nature of their respective styles of basketball (the return of "7 seconds or less" matched up against Nellie-ball), I'd been looking forward to this game all last week. And when it finally came, it didn't disappoint anyone who likes seeing a ball go through a hoop. Both teams put up what in baseball are known as "crooked numbers," and after the smoke cleared, the Suns prevailed, 154-130.

(No word yet on the state of the scoreboard. Technicians are working around the clock trying to revive it. It could last be heard muttering, "There will be no rematch.")

The Suns this year have rightfully been criticized for their lack of defense. While they rank second in the NBA (trailing only the Western-conference-leading LA Lakers) in offensive efficiency, their record is only 36-31, placing them 9th in the West, trailing the Dallas Mavericks by 4 games in the hunt for the last playoff spot. This is a product of their woeful defense, which ranks 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency.

Last night, matched up against a Golden State team that plays at the fastest pace in the league, the Suns defense lived up to their dismal billing, giving up an incredible 130 points. Thank God for their offense, which scored a season-high 154 points.

But was their defense as bad as the scoreboard makes it look?

Offensive and defensive performance is generally measured purely by points scored and points allowed. At least by non-geeks. But we geeks have been asking ourselves for some time whether or not this way of measuring performance actually captures what really happened on a basketball court. Not surprisingly, our answer has been a resounding "NO!" And that's why generally, rather than talk about points scored I talk about "efficiency."

Offensive and defensive efficiency is a way of measuring performance adjusted for pace. It is, in other words, the simple recognition that basketball played at a faster pace will, all other things being equal, include more points, and basketball played at a slower pace will, all other things being equal, include fewer points. This is because, the faster the game, the more possessions. The more each team has the ball, the more chances to score. The more chances to score, the more points on the board. Pretty simple.

The Detroit Pistons are an excellent example of this. They have long been rightly regarded as a good defensive team. This year, while it has been clear that their defense has slipped a little, is no exception. They are giving up only 94.2 points per game, very low for an NBA team. So there defense has been pretty good, right?

Not really. The Pistons play at the second slowest pace in the NBA. That means, in a Pistons game, each team has the ball less times than in an average NBA game. Which means in turn that each team has fewer chances to score. Fewer chances to score leads to less points on the board, which leads to the impression that they are still an elite defensive team.

But if you look at what happens in each of the possessions, it become clear that they aren't. Their defensive efficiency for the season is 104.5. That means that they surrender 104.5 points per every 100 possessions, or roughly 1.045 points each time the other team has the ball. That isn't awful, but it isn't great either, ranking 13th in the NBA. It is middle of the pack.

The LA Lakers, by contrast, are considered an elite offensive team that struggles at times on defense. They give up 100.4 points per game, a stat cited by TV talking heads to indicate that they really need to work on that end of the floor if they want to win the title this year. And, maybe they do. Since they have the top offense in the league, defense is clearly their weakness. Their relative weakness, anyway. Because of their fast pace (they are the fifth-fastest team in the league) they surrender over 6 points per game more than the Pistons. But efficiency indicates that they are actually a better defensive team than the Pistons, ranking 6th in the league, at 102.6. That means, over the course of 100 possessions, the Lakers give up 1.9 fewer points than the Pistons.

That brings us back to the Suns-Warriors game last night. The Suns put on an absolute show, scoring 154 points. It was an incredible display. In route to their 154 points they posted an offensive efficiency of 138.12. To put that in perspective, for the season their offensive efficiency is 2nd in the NBA, at 110.4. The Lakers lead the league at 110.8. An offensive efficiency of 138.12 is every bit as incredible as 154 points. It is a truly stunning number, almost 30 points per 100 possessions better than the best season-long mark in the league.

The glow from that was dimmed a bit by the fact that they surrendered 130 points. That's 23 more points that the most allowed by any team not in Oakland last night. But was it the second-worse defensive performance of the night?

Yes. But not by as much as you might think.

Last night the Dallas Mavericks also had a hard time on the defensive end. It was, in fact, almost exactly as bad as the Suns' performance, but the extreme difference in pace obscures that.

In surrendering 130 points to the Warriors last night, the Suns posted a dismal defensive efficiency of 116.07. That's almost 5 full points per 100 possessions worse that the Sacramento Kings' rock bottom 111.1. But in surrendering 107 points to the Lakers last night the Mavs posted an almost as bad 115.05. When adjusting for pace, a 23 point difference becomes a 2 point difference. That's one missed shot away from being a tie.

How can this be?

It's simple, really. The Lakers scored their 107 points on roughly 93 possessions. That means they had the ball about 93 times, and got 107 points out of it. The Warriors, who play at the fastest pace in the NBA and were matched up against another team that likes to get out and run, by contrast, had roughly 112 possessions in route to their 130 points. They had the ball a whopping 19 more times than the Lakers, and got 23 more points out of it.

That's the difference right there.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Offensive Efficiency Tells the Story in the Kentucky-Florida Game

I've already noted how poorly the Cats' defense played against Georgia on Senior Night, and even argued that the defense that game might have been even worse than in the VMI game. To rehash that, in a game Kentucky absolutely had to win, in the charged atmosphere of Rupp on Senior Night, in a game in which one of their fatal flaws - the inability to get points out of anyone not named Jodie Meeks or Patrick Patterson - was temporarily solved, against far and away the worst offense in the SEC, Kentucky got beat by an awful Georgia team because they refused to guard anyone.

For the season Georgia had an offensive efficiency (points per possession times 100) of 92.13. Yet against Kentucky the Bulldogs managed to post an incredible mark of 115.38.

Florida, by contrast, entered their game against Kentucky yesterday leading the SEC in offensive efficiency at 112.66. Yet against a suddenly stout Kentucky defense, they managed to post an efficiency of just 91.60, worse than Georgia's dismal mark for the season, in route to a mere 60 points. You'd think, then, that a Kentucky team that holds a potent Florida offense more than 20 points off their SEC-leading season mark for offensive efficiency would get a much needed win, right? Alas Kentucky's offense managed an offensive efficiency of just 75.71.

That, simply put, is putrid.

Empty possessions hurt an offense, and so they, consequently, hurt a teams offensive efficiency rating. Empty possessions are created by two things: turnovers, and missed shots that the other team rebounds. All season long Kentucky has had a problem with turnovers, and the Florida game has been no exception. For the game I calculated that Kentucky had 70 possessions. Of those, 23, or about 33%, ended in turnovers. When you hand the ball to the other team 1 out of every 3 times you have it, you'd better hit most of your shots, or you're going to struggle to score points.

For the year Kentucky has hit a high percentage of their shots, principally a product of two very efficient scorers, Meeks and Patterson, taking most of those shots. Yesterday, however, neither Meeks nor Patterson shot well (as outlined here. Because they still took most of the shots (combining for 35 of the team's 53 field goal attempts) the team shot a relatively poor percentage, even though the rest of the team actually shot pretty well (10-18).

Consequently, the Cats scored only 53 points in 70 possessions, resulting in a dismal offensive efficiency of 75.71.

Once again, as soon as one problem is solved, another one surfaces.

Bad News for Cats Fans

And, no I'm not talking about yesterday's devastating 60-53 loss at Florida, which eliminated whatever small hope Kentucky had of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Not directly, anyway. Rather, I'm talking about a story that emerged from that game.

Jerry Tipton's game story for the Lexington Herald-Leader opens with an account of an on-court exchange between Kentucky's Jodie Meeks, the nation's fifth-leading scorer, and Florida freshman Ray Shipman:

"We (were) at the free-throw line and Meeks was like, 'My coach just told me not to shoot the ball anymore,' " Shipman told The Miami Herald after the game. "I was like, 'Your coach told you not to shoot anymore?'"

If that exchange really happened, it begs a few questions:

1. Did Billy Gillispie really tell Meeks to stop shooting?

Meeks wasn't having a great game. He finished only 6-18 from the field, 2-9 from three point range. He certainly didn't score efficiently, needing 10 more shots to get one more point (15) than Ramon Harris (14). Patrick Patterson didn't fare much better (though, with 13 rebounds and 2 blocked shots, he had a better overall game), scoring just 16 points on 7-17 shooting, with many of the misses coming at point blank range.

That said, a great deal of shooting is confidence, and Meeks isn't generally short on that. For the season he's averaging 24.7 points per game as one of two focal points of an offense that has trouble finding a third scorer. Even after two frigid games from the field, he's still getting an efficient 1.49 points per shot (even better than the nation's leading scorer, the luminescent Stephon Curry's 1.44 points per shot!). And, despite shooting just 4-16 from three point range over the last two games, he's still shooting a remarkable 40.8% from there for the season.

Watching Meeks play this season, I sometimes get frustrated with the shots he takes. If he can get even a sliver of a window, he'll let it rip, with or without rebounders in place. But the more I've watched him, the more I've had to tell myself that sometimes what looks like a bad shot really isn't a bad shot. Not, at least, for Jodie Meeks. He may be a high-volume shooter, but he's also a high efficiency shooter, and that matters a great deal more. Simply put, he makes shots, even bad shots. And so, when he's making shots, there are no such thing as bad shots.

Ask Tennessee, who he torched for 54 points on 15-22 from the field, including 10-15 from three point range. Ask Appalachian State, who he torched for 14-21 from the field, including 9-14 from three point range. Those 9 three pointers, by the way, we a school record for all of three weeks, before he hit his 10 against Tennessee. And don't forget to ask Arkansas, who lost to a Patterson-less Kentucky team when Meeks torched them for 45 points 17-24 shooting, including 7-12 from three point range.

Meeks' game has problems. He (like the rest of his team) turns the ball over far, far too often, costing his team roughly 3 possessions per game with careless ball handling. He also gambles for steals too much on defense. While his tendency to jump the passing lanes has created turnovers that lead to fast break points, it has also opened the defense up to back-door cuts that lead either to easy layups, or, if the post defenders rotate in time to challenge the shot, offensive rebounds.

But shooting the basketball isn't one of his weaknesses. And, even when his shot isn't working for him, I simply can't imagine a coach who would tell him - one of only two effective scorers on the entire team - to stop doing what he does best.

Like I said, shooting is about confidence. And what, exactly, does it do for a shooter's confidence when the coach tells him the team would be better off if he'd just stop shooting?

This isn't just bad strategy, it's bad psychology. For Kentucky to win, it needs Jodie Meeks to shoot often, and with confidence. And if coach Gillispie told him to stop shooting the ball against Florida, I can't see how that would help things.

2. Why would Meeks tell Spipman that his coach told him to stop shooting?

This is a worse sign than the alleged order not to shoot. Either Gillispie told Meeks to stop shooting, or he didn't. In either case, why would Meeks complain about that to an opponent. It doesn't help the team. It doesn't reflect well on team unity. It certainly doesn't make the coach look good. Oh, yeah, and isn't there a game going on?

Meeks' value to the team lies primarily in his ability to score. Because he is both such a high volume and a high efficiency scorer, and because Kentucky has so few other offensive options, opposing defenses have to focus a great deal of their attention on Meeks. Their first goal is to deny him the ball, and then, if he gets the ball, their second goal become to deny him a look at the basket. His scoring exploits have focused so much defensive attention on him this season that I think that some games he should be credited with an assist for every single time a teammate scores while he's on the floor, because his mere presence and the attention it attracts from the defense opens things up so much for everyone else.

But if

a.) the coach has, for whatever reason, ordered him to stop shooting, and if

b.) he has, out of frustration, anger, or for whatever other reason, told an opponent that his coach has ordered him to stop shooting,

his value to the team has been greatly diminished.

From a basketball standpoint, this doesn't make much sense. But from a psychological standpoint, the friction this incident sheds light on may be much, much worse.

Kentucky has, as John Clay points out, now lost their last 4 games, 5 out of their last 6 games, and 8 out of their last 11 games, leaving them with a very un-Kentucky record of 19-12 overall, and a lowly 8-8 in the SEC. This is, simply put, not what most of these players signed up for. That fact alone would create a great deal of stress. But incidents like the alleged exchange between Meeks and Shipman point to an even deeper level of frustration. As Clay writes:

You wonder if by now everyone isn't ground down, tired of being one error away from being yanked to the bench.

If the Cats don't particularly care for their coach, that's hardly an exclusive event. But they need to respect him, to at least believe in what he's saying. I'm not sure that's the case with this group. There are whispers that there's not a lot of love in the (locker) room, and maybe you should expect that from a team spiraling downward. Maybe not.

All I can say is that, at least from where I'm sitting (which is, it should be noted, a long way away from the Joe Craft Center, where the Wildcats practice) it looks like even the players are losing faith in coach Gillispie.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bad News for Amar'e Stoudamire and the Suns

Despite early hopes that Amar'e Stoudamire might be able to recover from surgery to repair his torn retina in time for the playoffs, it is now clear that he won't. That is a huge psychological blow for the Suns, who recently picked up Stromile Swift to help them down the stretch. It is also, no doubt, a huge psychological blow for Stoudamire, who has already come back from microfracture surgery.

But, just how much does it hurt the Suns on the basketball court?

Despite recently elevating his play (not coincidentally following the Suns' return to running like they did in the D'Antoni days), Amar'e Stoudamire was having a bad (for him, anyway) year. In fact, on Feb. 5 David Berri blamed his poor performance this year for the Suns failing to meet expectations. After evaluating the Suns' performance through the first 47 games of the season, Berri wrote:

...if Stoudemire was performing as he did last year, the Suns would be on pace to win 55 games. Such a mark would be fall short of where the Lakers are, but certainly could be good enough to challenge for second in the conference (and with the injury to Andrew Bynum, second might be good place to be in the West).

Stoudemire, though, is not performing as he did last year. Last year he posted a 0.291 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minute]. Of the 129 players who played at least 2,000 minutes in 2007-08, Stoudemire ranked 12th in WP48. So Stoudemire was an elite player.

This year his WP48 is only 0.123. This mark would have ranked 73rd last year. Again, the population of players with more than 2,000 minutes is 129. So Stoudemire’s performance this year is below average (average in that sample is 0.142). At least, below average for the players who get the most minutes.

Stoudamire's play picked up a little bit between Feb. 5 and Feb. 18, when he injured his eye. Since that improvement coincided with the firing of Terry Porter, and a return to the "7 seconds or less" offense they ran under Mike D'Antoni - an offense that fully utilizes Stoudamire's many skills - we could expect it to continue, if he were healthy.

Also, by another measure, Stoudamire, while still down considerably from last year, was not playing quite as poorly as David Berri's WP48 indicates. His PER of 20.66 is the worst he's posted since his recovery from microfracture surgery. But it is still well above average. A far cry from the elite 27.29 he posted last year, but still ahead of Steve Nash's 18.11. In fact, on the Suns Stoudamire trails only a resurgent Shaquille O'Neil's team-leading 22.61. (Shaq, by the way, ranks 4th in PER among centers, trailing Dwight Howard's 25.62, Al Jefferson's 23.14, and Yao Ming's 22.87. Tim Duncan, who is really a center masquerading as a power forward, is also ahead of Shaq, at 25.25. Still, that's not bad for an overweight 37 year-old - Happy Birthday, Shaq! - who was left for dead last season.)

In any event, down year or no, Amar'e Stoudamire was playing better this year than Stromile Swift has ever played in his career. Signing Swift may (or may not) help the Suns, but it certainly won't replace the production lost when Stoudamire went down. The news that he won't be able to return this year hurts, both from the human standpoint, and on the court.

John Hollinger on Brandon Roy

There's lot's of good stuff in this John Hollinger piece on Brandon Roy, a great young player I almost never get to watch because he plays in Portland. In it Hollinger argues that Roy may well be the seventh best player in the NBA, principally because of his versatility (he can do a little bit of everything) and his efficiency. For me, efficiency is the key. Empty possessions kill offenses, and Roy doesn't create many empty possessions.

What I mean by that is this: an empty possession is a possession in which your team doesn't score any points. They are created by missed shots on which the other team gets a rebound, and by turnovers. Players - even extraordinary talents like Allen Iverson - who take low percentage shots and have a tendency to give the ball to the other team - create empty possessions. They may accumulate good volume stats (points per game, assists per game, etc.), but those stats disguise the fact that they are hurting their team. The goal of an offensive possession is to get the team the best chance to score. A high volume, low percentage shooter, even if he scores 25 or 30 points per game, actually hurts your offensive, because he takes shots away from players who hit a higher rate of them. A player who turns the ball over at a high rate also hurts your offense, no matter how spectacular he may look in the process. That's because, simply put, if your team no longer has the ball, it can't score.

Brandon Roy is just the opposite of this. As Hollinger points out, he may not look spectacular to the naked eye, but he gets the job done. He scores efficiently, and he doesn't turn the ball over. So, when Roy is on your team, your chances of scoring on each possession have gone up.

But what most impressed me was this quote:

His game is pure craftiness -- changes of pace and direction, subtle fakes, midrange jumpers and cleanly executed finishes around the rim with either hand. It's jarring to see a player who is 24 years old play with such polish, something Roy credits to his older brother.

"He was faster, stronger, taller everything," Roy said. "The only thing I could do to beat him was to try to outsmart him. Now that I'm in the NBA, I use those same skills, because guys are bigger, faster, stronger. It's just my style. I could go up and dunk basketballs, but I just try to get to the point as fast as possible with as little energy as I have to."

There's a great deal of wisdom there. 82 games that last 48 minutes each - that's a lot of basketball. Learning how to move efficiently, how to conserve energy on each play without losing effectiveness, is crucial.

That's something I'm learning in martial arts. I have some strength, some speed, some quickness. I'm a pretty good athlete. When I first started studying kung fu, that was enough to produce some surprisingly good results sparring against people with more skill than me. But my compensating for a lack of skill by using all of my strength, all of my energy, trying to force things, came with a heavy price. First, it meant that I oversold my moves. If what I tried didn't work, I was too committed to that to have an effective counter-strategy.

That hurts in both martial arts and basketball, but not as much as this: I was wearing myself out. Working against myself. I hadn't learned how to move efficiently, how to trust my technique, my skill, rather than my strength and athleticism. (By the way, I still haven't really learned this. I'm getting better, but I'm not there yet, and may never get there.) So I would tire easily. I would also have a much greater risk of injury.

This also applies on the basketball court. In order to be effective, you obviously need to try the whole time, giving your best effort on each and every play. But your best effort is not maximum effort, if by effort you mean that which strains your muscles, burns your energy. Your best effort is your most skillful effort. It understands both that you have to be successful on this particular play, and that both the game and the season are very long.

Brandon Roy seems to have figured this out, and this bodes very well for both his future and the future of the Portland Trailblazers.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Kentucky's Senior Night Defense Worse Than VMI Game?

During last night's debacle, I shouted to anyone who would listen (and maybe a few people who wouldn't) that I hadn't seen this Kentucky team play defense this poorly since the VMI game that started this season on such a sad note.

But the case could be made that last night's defense was even worse than Kentucky's defense against the VMI team that shredded the Cats for 111 points. As I already noted, last night Georgia posted an offensive efficiency of 115.38, in route to scoring 90 points. Both the 111 points and the 118.72 offensive efficiency surrendered to VMI are more. But consider this:

As I noted earlier, Georgia is a historically bad offensive team. To rehash that point, their offensive efficiency of 92.13 is rock bottom in the SEC. They trail Auburn, who is 11th in offensive efficiency at 102.24, by more than Auburn trails Florida, first in offensive efficiency at 112.66.

VMI, by contrast, is a very good offensive team. Their offensive efficiency of 111.64 would be good for second in the SEC (though they do play a much weaker schedule). Against a Kentucky team that refused to guard them, they beat their season mark by 7.08. Georgia, one of the worst offensive teams I've ever seen, beat their season by a whopping 23.25. So maybe this was, remarkably, an even worse performance than the VMI game.

Kentucky's Senior Night Debacle

The Kentucky Wildcats suffered a very, very bad loss last night, falling to Georgia 90-85, on Senior Night, no less. Two aspects of this loss are, at first glance most galling. The first is that it was Senior Night, the last home game for the team's seniors. This year Kentucky's only senior is Jared Carter, a little used 7'2" center from Georgetown, KY. As is tradition, he started last night (though he played only four minutes for the game) - his only start for his career. Given the fans' love for both bench-warmers and native Kentuckians, it would have been nice to send Carter out in style.

The second is related to the first. Georgia was an opponent uniquely suited for sending Carter out in style. They are, to put it bluntly, a very bad team. As John Clay notes, coming into the game the Bulldogs were 11-18, and a dismal 2-12 in conference play. However, Clay writes:

But against Kentucky at Rupp, Georgia looked like Los Angeles, as in the Los Angeles Lakers. Terrence Woodbury played like Kobe Bryant, scoring 30 points. Trey Thompkins played like Andrew Bynum. There was a Pau Gasol and a Derek Fisher mixed in there somewhere, as well.

Georgia's problems this season are easy to see. They struggle to score. They just might be the worst offensive team in the SEC. Conventional statistics certainly indicate that. They rank dead last among SEC teams in points per game, at 65.5 (almost 5 points per game behind Vanderbilt, the next worse team). Another simple but slightly less conventional measure of offensive performance is points per shot. The Bulldogs also rank dead last in that, scoring a measly 1.15 points per shot this year. (By contrast, Kentucky leads the SEC in points per shot at 1.4. This means that if Kentucky and Georgia each shoot, say 50 shots in a game, Kentucky will have scored 70 points to Georgia's 57 or 58.)

Last night, however, a Georgia team that averages just over 65 points per game put up 90 on a lethargic Kentucky defense. A Georgia team that averages 1.15 points per shot scored a whopping 1.67 points per shot. To put that in some perspective, Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson are one of the most prolific and most efficient scoring combos in the history of the all-time winningest program in college basketball. Patterson gets 1.59 points per shot, one of the highest marks I've ever seen for someone who is a focal point in an offense. Meeks is not far behind, at 1.52. Last night, Georgia's entire team, by this measure, scored much more efficiently than two of the most efficient scorers in Kentucky basketball history. That's right, the gang that couldn't shoot straight shot better than Meeks and Patterson against Kentucky's defense!

You don't need advanced statistics to tell you that, for the season, Georgia is a very bad offensive team. You don't need advanced statistics to tell you, that last night, against a Kentucky team that even on Senior Night showed no interest whatsoever in guarding anyone, Georgia was a very good offensive team. However, some advanced statistics can give you some appreciation of just how bad Kentucky's defensive performance was last night. We'll get to those statistics - my calculations of offensive efficiency - in a moment. First, a frustrated rant.

All season long Kentucky has had a problem getting points from anyone other than Meeks and Patterson. It is a tribute to just how effective those two are that Kentucky's offense hasn't been historically bad. Last night, however, Kentucky had an excellent offensive game. And while some of that may be attributed to Meeks and Patterson, in that they drew most of the defensive attention, neither of them had a particularly good scoring game.

While Meeks' 23 points look good, they are more that 2 off his season average. Beyond that, he wasn't particular efficient getting them, shooting just 6-16 from the field, and a dismal 2-7 from behind the three point line. He was however, quite effective from the free throw line (as always), hitting 9-10 (right at his average). By no means a bad game - especially when you consider his free throw shooting. But on a game in which the Cats were much better than usual offensively, Meeks was a little below average for him.

Normally that fact - Cats' performance up, Meeks' performance a little down - would be explained by Patterson having a good scoring game. But it isn't this time. While he played an excellent game overall (9 rebounds, 8 blocked shots, 0 turnovers), and while he shot his free throws well (6-6), Patterson, like Meeks' had a below average (for him) offensive game, scoring just 14 points on 4-10 from the floor.

What happened, instead, was what Kentucky fans have been waiting all season for. Other players stepped up. Most notable was Michael Porter, who proved that, when point guard duties are taken from him, he actually can shoot a little. Averaging only 3.7 points per game, he finally raised his three point percentage above 30% by hitting 5-8, in route to a season high 15 points. It was only the second time this year he's been in double figures.

Ramon Harris returned to the form he saw before his frightening collision with Porter earlier this year, scoring 10 points on only 3 field goal attempts. Hitting 2 of them, including a three pointer, while also sinking 5 out of 6 free throws, will do that.

Darius Miller and Perry Stevenson were also active on the offensive end, providing the kind of scoring we should expect from two players with their skill-sets. And while Kevin Galloway didn't play particularly well, coach Gillispie's decision to play him 18 minutes at the point helped free up Michael Porter, contributing to his career game. Relieved of his ball handling duties, Porter was free to run around screens and catch and shoot.

No, the problem this time wasn't Kentucky's inability to get points. It was their inability to stop one of the worst offenses in college basketball.

The statistic I prefer to use to measure how an offense played is offensive efficiency. The formula I use is by no means perfect - there are better one's out there, which is why, when possible, I use data gathered by actual statisticians rather than crank out my own numbers in my basement. However, such advanced formulas are, for whatever reason, generally not applied to college basketball. So, to see how efficient, say, SEC offenses are, I have a pretty simple formula that does very well:

Offensive efficiency = [(Points scored)\[(FGA)+(1/2*FTA)+(TO)]-(Off Reb)]*100

This gets roughly how many points a team scores per every 100 possessions. That's a better measure of offensive performance than points per game because it adjusts for pace. A team that plays at a slower pace, and thus has fewer possessions, isn't penalized. A team that plays at a faster pace, and thus has more possessions, isn't rewarded. What matters isn't how many possessions you have, but what you do with those possessions.

Anyway, by this measure, as with the ones above, Georgia is a very, very bad offensive team. Historically bad. Their offensive efficiency is 92.13, dead last by a wide margin. To see just how bad they are, consider this:

Florida leads the SEC is offensive efficiency, at 112.66. Auburn is 11th, second to last, at 102.42. That means Georgia's offensive efficiency of 92.13 trails the next worse team by a whopping 10.29, more than the 10.24 between Florida and Auburn.

Against Kentucky last night, however, Georgia had an offensive efficiency of 115.38. That's an incredible 23.25 above their season average. For one night, against Kentucky's defense, Georgia was the best offense in the SEC.

That's some really bad defense.

Thus, even though Kentucky finally - at least for a night - solved the critical problem of how to get points from somebody not named Meeks or Patterson, they got beat by a very bad team. On Senior Night. With the defense that refused to show up.

Good thing their coach is "defensive-minded" coach, huh?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bigs Finding Homes

I've already written about teams signing or looking to sign three bigs, Joe Smith, Drew Gooden, and Stromile Swift, for the stretch run. Well, things are taking shape. Earlier today I wrote an analysis of the Suns signing Swift. Now, as I speculated here, the Cavs have inked Smith. All that's left is for the Spurs to pick up Drew Gooden, and with today's announcement that they've released Pops Mensah-Bonsu, that's looking increasingly probable.

If it weren't for his mental lapses and an injured groin, I'd say the Spurs, if and when they sign Gooden would be the biggest winner here. But in any case, it's still clear that the biggest loser is the Celtics (my favorite NBA team), who signed Mikki Moore - the least productive big available - instead of waiting for these three.

Stromile Swift to the Suns

The Suns have signed Stromile Swift for the rest of the season. Because he was waived by the Nets before March 1, he is eligible to play for them in the playoffs. But, will he be able to help them

1.) get to them playoffs, and

2.) win in the playoffs, if they get there?

The Suns are currently 34-26, which would be great if they were in the East, allowing them to compete with Atlanta (also 34-26), Miami (31-28, 2 1/2 games behind Atlanta) and, if they continue their surprising uptick, Detroit (30-29, after their improbable 3 game winning streak) for the 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they aren't in the top-heavy East. So, instead of fighting for home-court advantage, they're fighting just to get into the playoffs. As of this moment they are 2 games behind Dallas for the 8 seed in the West.

There's plenty of time to make up those two games, and other indicators point out that despite sitting behind Dallas in the standings, they are a slightly better team than the Mavs. Their point differential is +1.9, slightly better than Dallas' +1.6. They rank 9th in John Hollinger's Power Rankings, compared to Dallas' 13th. They are 3rd in the league in offensive efficiency, at 109.6, though they are a dismal 20th in defensive efficiency, at 106.6 (worse than at any point in Mike D'Antoni's tenure). Still, their efficiency differential of +3.0 is pretty good, almost a full point better than Dallas' +2.2. Thus it is no shock that Hollinger's Playoff Odds (as of this moment) give them a 66.6% chance of making the playoffs, projecting them as the 8 seed in the West.

However, as is news to no one, this hasn't exactly been the season the Suns were envisioning at the first of the year. Steve Kerr blew up a good thing, bringing in Terry Porter to challenge gifted enigma Amar'e Stoudamire and to instill a defensive mindset into the team. The slower pace player under Porter's leadership masked that, instead of improving on defense, the Suns actually played worse defense than at any point under Mike D'Antoni. So Porter was fired, essentially for doing exactly what he was asked to do, and (as could have been predicted by anyone outside the Suns' management) alienating the players in the process.

Under Alvin Gentry the Suns are back to their old running ways, but have now lost a tremendous weapon, as Stoudamire is injured and out for the rest of the year. While the loss of Stoudamire forces the Suns to go even smaller and run even more, playing into their strengths, it also calls into question their ability to be more flexible when they can't run their opponent out of the gym. Matt Barnes and Grant Hill may be matchup nightmares at the 4, but they aren't really power forwards. Neither are good rebounders or interior defenders.

Worse than that is the prospect of a playoff team having to give minutes to Louis Amundson (who even in a career year is below average - and he's far and away the best option here) Jared Dudley (an athletic but limited 3 playing out of position at the 4) and rookie Robin Lopez. Given Shaquille O'Neal's size, age, history of injuries, and propensity to pick up fouls, front court depth is an issue for the Suns. Having Barnes and/or Hill line up alongside him, with Amundson, Dudley and Lopez behind him, indicates a real need for more quality size, even for a team that wants to go small and get out and run.

So picking up Swift, a 6'10" athletic forward who could play the center spot for a team like the Suns, meets a need. But how well does it meet that need?

Swift spent the 2007-08 season first with the Memphis Grizzlies and then the New Jersey Nets. Both were bad teams. Very, very bad teams. Yet Swift averaged only 15.7 minutes with the Grizzlies, then only 14.0 minutes with the Nets. This year the Nets have been better, but it hasn't been because of Swift. Before they released him he had played in only 6 games for them, averaging just 10.7 minutes a game, and posting (in an admittedly small sample size) at PER of just 6.76. He had been an average player for most of his career, and just slightly below average the last couple of years (despite not playing a lot for bad teams). But 6.76 is simply wretched.

That said, Swift does still have some NBA skills. First, he is 6'10". That, in and of itself, gives him some value, especially for a size-challenged team like the Suns. Also - and this is what has been tantalizing people for his entire career - he has tremendous athleticism for his size. This is especially useful for a team like the Suns, who want to get out and run. If you can get size that doesn't slow you down, you don't have to sacrifice interior defense in order to crank up the pace.

Despite not being particularly strong, Swift is a good interior defender, with the length to bother shots. He's not a good rebounder, and doesn't have much of an offensive game, but his length and his athleticism could be a helpful addition to the Suns.

Worst case, he gives them a little more depth. Best case, if the Suns continue their running ways and he hasn't slowed down too much after being inactive most of the year, he's finally found a system that will play to his strengths and allow him to live up to the potential the Grizzlies saw in him in 2002 when they drafted him 2nd overall.

Another Improbable Pistons Win

Last night the Detroit Pistons beat their former point guard's new team, the Denver Nuggets, 100-95. It was their third straight win, and their third straight win against a much better team.

Before Allen Iverson (who I'm sure I've picked on too much here - as I noted yesterday, I actually like him a great deal, and love watching him play) went down with a back injury, they were in the throes of an 8 game losing streak, and, according to John Hollinger, had a less than 50% chance of even making the playoffs. That's pretty low for a team coming off an incredible run of 6 straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals.

Now, without Iverson, they've beaten Orlando, Boston, and now Denver in succession. To see how just incredible that three game run is (though let's not get too carried away, it is just three games. We're up to anyone can beat anyone on any given night, times three. Better than times two, but it could still as easily be an fluke.) let's look at the performance of these four teams (Detroit, plus the three teams they've beaten) thus far this year.

My favorite measure for team performance is efficiency differential. That is simply offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency. It is a slight adjustment to point differential. The theory behind it is roughly this: Point differential is a better measure of team performance and a better predictor of future results than won-loss record. To non-stat-geeks, that may seem weird. Isn't it obvious, say, that a team that is 3-0 is better (or, at least, has performed better) than a team that is 2-1?

Maybe. But (and we'll assume that both teams have played the same schedule, because adding strength of schedule to this would get unnecessarily complicated) what if Team A, the 3-0 team, won their first game by 1 point on a buzzer beater, won their second game by, say, 3 points, and then won their third game, again, by 1 point on another buzzer beater. That team could, with worse luck, easily be 2-1 (if one of the buzzer beaters missed) 1-2 (if both missed), or even 0-3 (if, in addition to both buzzer beaters missing, they'd also, say, missed a few free throws down the stretch). They are 3-0, and should be credited for that. The actual outcome of their three games were wins. But they owe that outcome almost as much to chance as to on-court performance.

Let's say Team B, on the other hand, lost one of those buzzer beater games. But, in addition to that, they blew out their other opponents by 25 and 30 points, respectively. Who played better over the three game stretch? The team that went 3-0 with a total point differential of +5 (or an average point differential of +1.67) or the team that went 2-1, with a total point differential of +54 (or an average point differential of +18)? It seems pretty clear to me that, in this case, the team that went 2-1 actually played better over this three game stretch than the team that went 3-0.

Efficiency differential takes this theory one step farther. It notes that not every team plays at the same pace. A team that plays at a faster pace will have more possessions, and thus probably score more points (and allow more points) than a team that plays at a slower pace. In a game with more possessions there are more points, and thus, potentially, a larger point differential. Efficiency differential thus adjusts for pace. It measures the offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive efficiency of a team (points allowed per 100 possessions), and then subtracts the later from the former.

The Detroit Pistons have been a bad team this year. Their offensive efficiency is 103.8, ranking 21st in the NBA. Their defensive efficiency is 104.8, ranking 16th in the NBA. They are, in other words, a below average offensive team and an average defensive team who actually gives up more points per 100 possessions than they score. Their efficiency differential is -1.0, projecting them to be just slightly below .500. Their record of 30-29 is just slightly above what we might expect based on their efficiency differential.

In the last three games they've played two very good teams (Orlando and Boston), and one good team (Denver). Their first opponent in this three game winning streak was the Orlando Magic. Orlando's offensive efficiency is 108.1, good for 6th in the NBA. Their defensive efficiency is even better, 3rd in the league, at 99.5. They are one of only three teams to give up fewer than one point per possession. Their efficiency differential is thus +8.6, 3rd in the league, behind only Cleveland and Boston, and ahead of the LA Lakers. They are a very good team, though they have been less good with Rafer Alston filling in for the injured Jameer Nelson. The Iverson-less Pistons beat them 93-85.

The Pistons' next opponent was the defending-champion Celtics (my favorite NBA team, by the way). While their record is one game off where it was at this time last year, their performance has been almost exactly the same. Their offensive efficiency is 108.3, 5th in the league, just ahead of the Magic. Their defensive efficiency is even better, a league-best 98.1 (just ahead of Cleveland). That gives them an efficiency differential of +10.2, second only to the Cavs. Like Orlando, Boston was playing without a key player, Kevin Garnett. But they've played surprisingly well without Garnett over the past two seasons. The Iverson-less Pistons beat them 105-95.

On to Denver. Despite their reputation as a great offensive team who has defensive problems, a look at their respective offensive and defensive efficiencies reveals how much of media narratives are driven by pace. The Nuggets have long played at one of the fastest paces in the NBA, and this year is no different. They rank 6th in pace factor, which means only 5 teams (Golden State, New York, Indiana, Phoenix, and the LA Lakers) play faster than them. Their fast pace leads to more possessions per game, which leads to more scoring opportunities, both for the Nuggets and their opponents. This masks the performance of both their offense (not as good as advertised) and their defense (not as bad as advertised).

The Nuggets surprisingly rank only 13th in offensive efficiency, scoring 106 points per every 100 possessions. This is certainly above average, but by no means great. Their defense, however, cracks the top 10, ranking 9th. They give up only 103.1 points per 100 possessions, much better than the Pistons. That gives them an efficiency differential of +2.9. That isn't great, but it is quite good, and in keeping with their 39-22 record.

Like the Pistons' previous improbable victims, however, Denver was also missing a key player, having suspend Carmelo Anthony for the game. That may not have been as big a factor as it seems, though, because Anthony is having a relatively bad year. While he leads the Nuggets in scoring, his PER is the lowest it's been since his second year in the league. The last three years he has played well enough to deserve a spot in the All Star game, a spot denied him principally because of his reputation for character issues and the glut of good forwards in the Western Conference. This year, however, it was his reputation as an outstanding player that kept him in the All Star conversation, not his play on the court. He has been above average, but by no means exceptional.

The good news for Carmelo's fans is that his drop off in production has been mostly due to missing shots. His other numbers - especially rebound-rate and assist-rate - are up slightly. He's just been missing shots. Given that he is historically a very good shooter and an efficient scorer, this may be a fluke.

Anyway, the Iverson-less Pistons beat the Carmelo Anthony-less Nuggets 100-95, despite a great game by former Piston point guard Chauncey Billups, who reminded his former team what they've been missing by scoring efficiently and not turning the ball over. Empty possessions are the enemy of any offense, and Billups, with his knack for hitting jump shots and taking care of the ball, doesn't create many of those. For the game he scored 34 points, shooting 11-19, 4-8 for three pointers and 8-8 from the free throw line.

But the Pistons, without Allen Iverson, a player who despite his many skills creates far too many empty offensive possessions, beat a superior team for the third game in a row. What does it mean? Maybe nothing. It is just three games, and each victim was without a key contributor. But it is once again undeniable that the Pistons play better without Iverson than they do with him.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What's Wrong With Allen Iverson?

I've been pretty savage in my treatment of Allen Iverson here, though I must also confess that he has long been one of my favorite players to watch. Like Pistol Pete, he is a uniquely skilled player whose game's transcendent qualities have never translated into winning basketball. Both Iverson and Marovich could get a shot off in almost any situation, regardless of what the defense does to stop it. This leads to high volume - but too often low efficiency - scoring. Such scoring is rewarded both financially and culturally. Money and accolades are heaped at players who have such an uncanny knack for putting the ball in the bucket. But it also leads to far too many empty possessions, too many missed shots, too many turnovers.

Anyway, Iverson has, for a variety of reasons, been considerably less effective this year than in seasons past. He's never posted a high Win score, but in another advanced statistical measure of player performance, PER, he's always been pretty good. In fact, last year's PER of 21.06 justified his annual All Star selection.

This year, however, with a new team, in a new system, (at 33 years old, I should add) his performance is down across the board. For years people have called on him to decrease his volume scoring to increase his scoring efficiency. Yet with the Pistons both are down, and down significantly. He's taking far fewer shots, yet making them at an even poorer rate than in the past. His usage is down, but his turnovers are up. Taking fewer shots, making a lower percentage of them, handling the ball less but turning it over at a higher rate, it is no wonder his PER has fallen almost 5 points.

And now is reporting he's seeing a specialist about his back.

This may be bad news for Iverson fans. His game has always been predicated on his ridiculous athleticism. He's very short for a basketball player, and not a great shooter. Height and shooting ability are the best predictors of longevity in basketball players, as they don't go away with age. Speed and quickness, however, do. At 33, with a bad back, with a game built around his speed, quickness, ball handling and exceptional creativity, I have to wonder how much Allen Iverson has left.

I'm rooting for him, though. And I should note that John Hollinger doesn't blame Iverson alone for his struggles or the Pistons' struggles. While it is clear that the Pistons play poorly with Iverson in the lineup, play much better without him, and that Iverson himself is having far and away the worst season of his career by any measure, it is also clear that the Pistons have been misusing him. This, coupled with their inability to recognize their most effective players and lineups, is a real problem.

Hollinger writes:

I should hasten to point out, however, that this says as much about the Pistons as it does about Iverson. He's a terrible fit as long as they want to grind out wins in the halfcourt and essentially play exactly the same way as they did with Chauncey Billups at the point, and Tuesday's meeting in Denver should only underscore that point. The Nuggets adjusted their playing style completely when Billups arrived; the Pistons didn't change at all.

As someone who - while critical of his game - has always enjoyed watching Allen Iverson play, I hope that he comes back quickly. And I also hope that when he does his team - understanding his strengths and limitations as a player - puts him in a position to both succeed and help his team.

UK-LSU Wrap-up

I know, this Rich Bozich article is a couple of days old now. But, after sitting (and standing, and getting chewed out for standing at the "wrong time," and almost getting in a fight, and watching fans throw items at other fans, and having the cops called into our section, etc.) in Rupp for the LSU game, living through the hostility and heartbreak that is Kentucky basketball at the moment, I couldn't bring myself to read anything about that game. Until this morning.

Bozich makes some good points, at least one of which I will visit in a moment. But first, amidst this climate of rampant negativity, I'd like to note a positive: The UK-LSU game was the first time I've seen Billy Gillispie make a significant in-game adjustment, and it was a great one. He not only radically changed personnel (a move that doesn't come easily for him, for whatever reason) he just as importantly adjusted his strategy.

OK, that's the good. The sole good. And coupled with it I must note that, whatever else is true of that game, it wasn't lost just at the end, but also at the beginning, when once again the Cats started with an ineffective lineup. Spotting the best team in your conference the entire first half by stubbornly refusing the play your most effective point guard is not a good way to win games.

I love Michael Porter. I love watching him play. He's a tough, hard-nosed kid. And, though the idiots in Rupp don't seem to notice, he's smart, too. He got booed twice against LSU for turning down open looks (what, because he's white he's supposed to be able to shoot?!? He's a 25% 3 pt shooter. Them ain't good odds!), but on both plays the team scored. That's smart basketball. Know yourself, know the offense, and work for the best look for your team to score.

But he's clearly less effective than Kevin Galloway. When Galloway plays, good things happen. So, of course, Galloway never plays.

More troubling than the substitution patterns seemingly set at random and the stubborn refusal (save for Saturday) to make in game adjustments is coach Gillispie's apparent lack of maturity. That brings us to Bozich's column. His willingness to toss the student athletes he's supposed to be leading under the metaphorical bus while pretending to take "full responsibility" bothers me almost as much as his abrasive in-game interviews.

As Bozich writes:

It's alarming when a team's 19-year-old center is handling the adversity of this choppy UK season with more poise than the team's 49-year-old coach.

It is counterproductive to compare and contrast Gillispie with Tubby Smith. That leads only to frustration. Yet Smith's steady hand, his recognition that a team is never as good or as bad as it is supposed to be, coupled with his conviction that neither the coach nor the players should get too up or too down, is clearly missing. This team is as emotional and unpredictable as their coach.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Gooden to the Spurs?

This should be the final basketball observation for the day. John Hollinger predicts that the Cavs will pick up Joe Smith, and the Spurs will pick up Drew Gooden. He rightly notes that Gooden would be a strange pickup for the Spurs: "The guy who's known for mental errors and has a medusa beard, signing on with the league's must buttoned-down, no-nonsense outfit?" But in many ways the move makes sense. As I've already outlined, if you look past his penchant for freelancing and his mental lapses, Gooden is the best player available - an even more productive player than Joe Smith. The Spurs have more money to throw at Gooden than any other contender, and they don't yet have the talent on their roster to reasonably expect to make a run at the Lakers for the Western Conference title.

Would signing Gooden put the Spurs over the top. I don't know about that. He's certainly an above average power forward, but by no means a great one. He does, however, provide a bit of an upgrade over Matt Bonner, at least in terms of rebounding, interior scoring, and defense. Bonner is a useful player whose excellent shooting and low turnover rate give him a PER of 16.37, slightly higher than Gooden's 15.54. But where Gooden is an excellent rebounder, Bonner is decidedly below average, getting about 3 rebounds less per 40 minutes than Gooden.

Even if Gooden couldn't beat out Bonner, he'd be a huge upgrade over Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas, and Pops Mensah-Bonsu off the bench. That would greatly improve the Spurs frontcourt depth, giving them another scorer for their front line.

Gooden, Smith, Moore, and the Celtics' Mistake

Another big the Celtics could have had instead of Mikki Moore becomes available. Much of what was said about Joe Smith applies also to Drew Gooden. Both are 6'10", and both have decent to good jump shots. Gooden is younger than Smith, obviously, and wasn't as well regarded when he came into the league, but has posted similar numbers the last few years. In fact, while he has been decidedly quirky, if anything Gooden is a more effective player than Smith, with a better scoring rate, rebound rate, and true shooting percentage (a more accurate measure of shooting effectiveness than simple FG% (FG/FGA)).

Smith, however, is a more stabalizing influence, who also has a much lower turnover rate (less than half that of Gooden). I'd take Gooden, because he can do most of what Smith does, and some things Smith can't do. He's also bigger and a better interior defender. But if you're looking for a solid pro who will hit shots off the bench and not make any waves, Smith's your man.

Mikki Moore, whom the Celtics signed when they grew tired of waiting for Gooden or Smith to become available, doesn't compare to either of these vets, both of whom perform at about league average. His PER this year is an anemic 8.56, following an almost-as-dreadful 11.67 last season.

He's not much of an offensive player, scoring only rarely, mostly at the rim (like the Cavs, the Celtics could use a big off the bench who can hit jumpers). Worse than that, he has a low rebound rate, a very high turnover rate, and is a truly awful defensive player. According to CelticsHub takes a detailed look at Marbury's defense in the Cs loss to the Pistons last night. The results (despite posting a +6 for the game in a ten point loss) weren't always pretty.

No shock here, but despite being incredibly strong (a trait that caused me to believe Marbury could guard the 2) he struggled mightily against the Pistons' bigger guards. Some of that was Doc Rivers' fault. No way a 6'2" point guard should be matched up against the 6'9" Walter Herrman. But it also points to a real potential problem with playing Marbury and House together, which keeps Marbury from taking minutes from House or Rondo.

Appreciating Joe Smith

While Joe Smith may not be the player he was supposed to be when he was the top pick in the '95 draft, he has been a very useful NBA player for 13 years now. His main skills - height, midrange shooting, and drawing charges - don't depend on age, so a 6'10" player who can shoot and plays solid defense will age very well. And Smith has done that, remaining roughly the same player in his 30s that he was in his 20s.

Consequently, now that he has been released by the Oklahoma City Thunder, smart teams are interested in acquiring him for their playoff runs.

As a Celtics fan, I wish the Cs would have held off on signing the very unproductive Mikki Moore so that they could pick him up, but they must have had some reason to believe that the Thunder weren't going to buy him out. Well, they were wrong, and he's available. So who is going to get him?

My money's on the Cavs, for two important reasons. First, as notes, they can offer him the most money, a prorated share of the midlevel exception. Second, as important, though they are arguably already the best team in the NBA, they need him more than any other contender.

The article linked to above notes their "need became greater when Ben Wallace went down Friday with a broken leg." While that's true, even before Wallace went down I'm sure the Cavs could have found minutes for Smith. That's because the two players who use most of the minutes at the four, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao, are redundant, with roughly the same skill set. Both are excellent defenders and rebounders, and are thus useful players. However, neither can shoot. At all. This allows opposing defenses to pack in around the rim, essentially guarding 5 on 4, able to help off the 4 when LeBron drives, unafraid that either Wallace or Varejao will make them pay.

Joe Smith, on the other hand, would give them a different look. It's not that he's a better player than Wallace or Varejao (his PER is slightly higher than Wallace's, slightly lower than Varejao's). It's just that he's a very different player than either of them. They excel in areas where he struggles, but he excels in areas where they struggle. And his biggest strength - hitting midrange jump shots - could be very useful for a team that would suddenly have the option of surrounding LeBron James - the league's beast driver and finisher - with four players who could make you pay for helping on drives.

Since James finishes more than 70% of his shots in the immediate basket area, you'd still want to provide help when he drives. But now, instead of helping off the offensively challenged Wallace or Varejao, you'd have a much harder choice to make. When LeBron is surrounded by shooters, which shooter do you choose to leave open to keep him from dunking on you?