A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Archive for October 2010

2010-11 NBA Predictions: The Championship

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Since this blog starting out pretty much at the beginning of the basketball season, I’ll spare the world an exhaustive look at each team in the league, and just answer the big question:  Whose left standing at the end?

We’re largely seeing a debate between Miami and the Lakers, with the occasional shout out to the CelticsThe GM’s took gave a strong majority to the Lakers.  The ESPN writers had the Lakers and Heat in a dead, well, heat.  The debate between those two teams itself is drawing people to meta-analysis, which if you know me, you know I can’t stay out of.

Silver Screen and Roll wrote an article essentially saying that this difference of opinion is about the war over advanced stats.  Stat geeks vs old school guys.  He points out that the GMs are mostly old school, and then breaks down the ESPN writers based on their affiliation with modern stats.  He then caps it all of preparing us for a potential Armageddon where we can definitively say who was right or wrong because now LeBron doesn’t have weak teammates as an excuse for losing out to Kobe’s Lakers.

Alright so, I’ve got a variety of problems  with this but he does have some interesting thinking here that isn’t entirely wrong.  The correlation between stat geeks and picking the Heat is real.  The big problem is though, that I don’t think the correlation is due to stat geeks simply assuming that you can combine great players and automatically have a good team.  Rather, I’d say that this is more about how the two sides think generally. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Matt Johnson

October 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm

2010-11 NBA Predictions: Executive of the Year

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Uh, well, Pat Riley.

Obviously, I’m not going out on much of a limb here.  Hard to even imagine what would make him not win since even if the team has some struggles, everyone knows that every other GM in the league was jealous of Riley did this summer.  I think the more interesting thing to ponder is the effect that Miami Thrice will have on Riley’s legacy.  If this team goes on to win multiple championships, then I think Riles will have a strong case for having the greatest non-playing career in NBA history…other than Red Auerbach’s career of course.

The obvious debate will be between Riles and Phil Jackson.  As it stands, I think most would agree Jackson has the edge.  11 rings will do that for a fellow.  Let’s face it though, Jackson’s really only down one thing really, really well – and he’s been able to do it 11 times because of the players he’s been able to work with.  I’m sure some will object to that statement, citing that Jackson’s had to make a variety of adjustments to the triangle, and his ability to placate raging egos is second to none, and they’ve got a fair point – but compare what he’s done to the versatility Riles has shown:

  1. Coach of the Showtime Lakers.  I realize he didn’t start Showtime, but in some ways that makes it all the more impressive.  Where the previous coach had failed to satisfy the demanding star Magic Johnson, Riley succeed, and did so not as a lenient player’s coach but as a demander taskmaster, despite never having been a head coach before.
  2. Coach of the hardnosed Knicks.  He goes from the finesse razzle dazzle of LA, and immediately converts the Knicks to the pinnacle of thugball, creating some of the most effective defenses in NBA history, proving he can not only architect, but architect in a direction not influenced by his previous tenure.
  3. Coach & GM for the Heat.  He’s been the mastermind here for 15 years, and we’ve now seen him:
    1. Move the team from 32 to 62 wins within two years of him starting as coach.
    2. Maintain a strong record in ’00-01 despite the lost of his star Alonzo Mourning.
    3. Rebuild the team based on the young talent of Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Dwyane Wade.  Wade of course being the crown jewel, and one of the smartest draft choices of all time.
    4. Take advantage of the Lakers turmoil to bring Shaquille O’Neal in and help the Heat claim their first title.
    5. Manage to find a sucker to take Shaq away before he started hurting the club too much.
    6. And now the acquisition of LeBron James and Chris Bosh.  The majority of GMs in the league were scheming for years to acquire one of these guys, and Riley manages to acquire both, with the help of his old draft pick Wade.

It’s a breathtaking career, and if it gets capped by a dynasty, only that old curmudgeon with the cigar can claim to have done something similar.

Written by Matt Johnson

October 27, 2010 at 10:01 pm

2010-11 NBA Predictions: Coach of the Year

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Given that I’ve lumped this in with the previous two awards, and what you know about the history of this award, you might be expecting another rant here, but I’ll spare you.  It’s true that the list of COY winners doesn’t correlate much at all with the how coaches are actually rated as extraordinary, and that’s a problem for the award’s credibility and importance, but the issue here lies in the difficulty of evaluating coaches in a one year time span.

No one doubts that Phil Jackson’s a great coach, but if he retired tomorrow, I doubt many would expect the Lakers to suffer greatly.  That’s not a problem with Phil’s coaching, but just the nature of coaching in general.  While coaches can have day to day impact with discipline, chemistry, and adjustments, the big impact is in building the great system not maintaining it.

Voters recognize this, and thus are always seeking to credit a coach for a great positive change that isn’t due to obvious new advantages in player talent on the team.  In other words, the COY in any given year is probably the guy whose team was considered least likely to achieve the success they did.  This makes predicting the COY winner about the most brutal prediction you can try to do because the ideal COY candidate is someone whose candidacy was completely unpredictable.

I’m going to split the difference here with my prediction.  I’m expecting a strong year from the Utah Jazz despite the loss of Boozer, and I think that turnover will be enough to shine some light on the job done by Jerry Sloan.  Also working into Sloan’s favor will be the fact that he’s already considered a legend, he has more tenure than any other coach in the league by a country mile, and he’s never won the award before.  It won’t work out if for him if a true ideal candidate really emerges, but here’s hoping he finally get this recognition we all know he deserves.

Written by Matt Johnson

October 26, 2010 at 8:48 pm

2010-11 NBA Predictions: 6th Man of the Year

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I used the phrase “borderline irrationality” before, but there’s nothing borderline about this award.  Case in point:  Manu Ginobili finished a distant 4th in the voting last year.  He qualified as 6th man based on the NBA definition, and he’s was far superior than anyone else who qualified, so why wasn’t he a lock to win this award?  With the Most Improved Player award you can at least point to the Kevin Durants of the world missing out because they’re already getting plenty of accolade love elsewhere, and the award was design to give a shout out to someone who wouldn’t ordinarily get one.

6th man of the year?  Look, there is no 5th man or 7th man of the year award.  The award exists specifically to reward players who are good enough to be a starter, but who are sacrificing to help their team.  You want to honor that sacrifice, then you certainly don’t ignore players who are “too good” here.  You can’t even use the argument that Ginobili’s getting other awards instead because he didn’t get ANY awards last year.  No All-NBA, or All-Star spot for this guy, specifically because of his sacrifice, and he can’t even get this lousy award?  Now to paint a more full picture:

1)      Ginobili has won the award before, and that’s probably factoring in here – but that just begs the question of why voters don’t want to vote for him a second time.

2)      Ginobili is in that role, partly because his style of play makes him suite to play less minutes that a real superstar would play, so calling it a “sacrifice” is debatable in his case in particular – but it would make zero sense for a voter to use that fact to not vote for Ginobili.

Ending the rant – where does that leave us?  Well, if Ginobili were slated to be a 6th man against this year, I’d get stubborn and make him my pick while at the same time saying I didn’t expect him to get the award.  At this point though, the evidence I see has him starting, so I’ll try for an honest to god prediction.

The guy I see right now, who is on a great team, is getting good minutes, and is riding a wave of Shane Battier-esque role player buzz is…

JJ Redick

He’s gone through quite the transition from hated Dukie to the guy people praise while find new ways to hate Vince Carter.  Redick’s solid play during Orlando’s deep playoff run helped make him a prized free agent this off-season.  The Magic though didn’t want to let Redick go, and so he stays in the same role that suited him so well previously.    He’ll never become a star in this role, but he just might get an increasing amount of positive attention.

2010-11 NBA Predictions: Most Improved Player

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We now move from the perfectly reasonable awards, to those that are borderline irrational.  Last year Kevin Durant went from non-all-star to finishing 2nd in MVP voting.  It’s possibly the most improvement I have ever seen any player do in one year, and he didn’t win the MIP.  Instead, Aaron Brooks won the award – a guy who if you look at per minute numbers, it’s not clear if he even improved over the previous year.  Such is life with the NBA’s MIP:  If Brooks had actually improved like Durant had, he probably doesn’t win this award, because he wins other more prestigious awards instead.

I’m afraid that I’m not bold enough to predict who will show the goldilocks improvement the voters are looking for, so I’ll just go with the guy I think is most likely to see a massive and positive change in estimation among the basketigentsia:  Kevin Love.

Now, should Love emerge as a strong candidate for the MIP, there’s bound to be some naysayers who say that by his per minute numbers, he didn’t improve that much.  This will likely be a reasonable position, as I wouldn’t be picking Love here if he hadn’t already appeared to do so much in the little time Coach Rambis and GM Kahn have let him play.  However there’s still far from a consensus that Love can really be a star player.  Timberwolf fans I’ve talked to over the off-season often seemed more excited about acquiring Michael Beasley than about Love.  Then there’s the matter that Love couldn’t seem to get any playing time on Coach K’s USA team at the Worlds competition this summer despite putting up better per minute numbers than anyone but Durant.

There’s more to basketball than box score stats.  I know that, and I’ll preach to that.  If Coach K has a dog, I’m sure that dog knows more about basketball than I do simply because of osmosis.  I’ll put myself out there and admit openly, I don’t see why Love’s stats are fool’s gold.  I understand he’s not a great defender, and that’s not a trivial matter, but I’ve watched this guy since he was at UCLA and to me he’s not simply adequate intangibles, but great intangibles.  I think he can be a star in this league, and I expect that this year he’ll do well enough to get in the all-star conversation, probably only falling short because the rest of his team is so bad.


Written by Matt Johnson

October 26, 2010 at 12:47 am

2010-11 NBA Predictions: DPOY

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The Defensive Player of the Year is the most straight forward of the awards.  Despite the fact that defensive accolades in general tend have rather comical results, the DPOY tends to be pretty reasonable each year.  Dwight Howard has won the last two DPOYs, and there’s really no reason to think he’ll stop winning it any time soon unless he faces a serious injury.  He fits the bill for what everyone is looking for in a defensive player:  A big guy with the athleticism to rebound like a mad man, and the coordination to block a lot of shots.  He’s not perfect, but that just means he’s got room to improve to make his winning of future DPOYs all the more of a given.

I’ll give a shout out to two other guys though:

Andrew Bogut came alive as a defensive threat last year, actually out blocking Howard down the stretch, and helping turn the Bucks into an elite defensive team.  I think we’re all a bit shocked to see him develop this ability 5 years into his NBA career, and we all have doubts about his ability to improve further, but Bogut is definitely a man to watch going into this season.

Rajon Rondo.  I say the name, and I have my doubts that I’ll personally ever see him as DPOY worthy.  First and foremost, defense is a big man’s game, and point guard is the least valuable, and least effective defensive position in the NBA.  Part of that is the specifics of the modern game, with ball handling and passing skills so high, and the referee’s whistle so frequent, it’s becoming impossible to stop a great point guard on offense.  However, it’s been the case ever since the blocked shot came to prominence that nothing else gives offenses nightmares the same way.

My god though, does Rajon makes some spectacular plays.  He was without question the guy you wanted to watch in last year’s playoffs.  If Boston has a fantastic year led by a fantastic defense, and Kevin Garnett doesn’t suck too much of the credit away, Rondo could start getting some serious buzz for this award even if Howard doesn’t fall off.

2010-11 NBA Predictions: ROY

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This is a tougher award to judge than I think anyone realizes.  Here’s the thing, if you asked most people how they judge the ROY compared to the MVP, I think they’d probably say they think about them similarly.  The MVP of the rookies if you will.  However, if you actually look at ROY’s from a +/- perspective, you start seeing some major problems.

Now let me elaborate for those of you not as stat-obsessed as I am.  +/- statistics simply measure how well how many points more than your opponent are scored while you’re on the court versus when you aren’t on the court.  It’s something that came from hockey, but in the last decade basketball statisticians have really taken it to the next level.

Analyze +/- data, and what you’ll find that pretty much any guy considered a strong candidate for the MVP does really well in the stat.  However, if you apply the same stat to ROY candidates, you’ll find chaos, and if you think about it, that makes perfect sense.  Rookies typically are not guys who completely turn around their team so much as they are guys considered to have great upside that the team decides to build around.  They’ve earned their primacy based on future value rather than present value.

If you don’t believe me, let’s consider LeBron James as a rookie.  Read the rest of this entry »

2010-11 NBA Predictions: MVP

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The chic pick right now is to pick against the two-time defending MVP LeBron James , despite the fact that he’s just 25 years old and went to a team with an even better supporting cast.  In the recent NBA GM’s poll, Kevin Durant was the consensus pick to win followed by Kobe Bryant, with LeBron and Dwight Howard receiving one vote a piece.  The statistically minded Houston Rocket GM Daryl Morey came out of the closet as the lone guy who picked LeBron, which helps further position Morey as the lone voice of reason amongst all the riff raff.

Are the GMs crazy?  Nope, their rejection of LeBron here is quite savvy, with the key reason being this is about who will win the MVP, not about who will actually contribute the most value to his team.  Before you get worked up about MVP voters being irrational fools punishing LeBron for leaving Cleveland – it’s really not about that at all. Read the rest of this entry »

The Problem(s) with the NBA

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Below are the major problems I see with the NBA right now.  I’m including issues of all kinds here, so don’t take this simply as a list of things David Stern has done wrong.

Fouls and Referees

No sport generates the quantity of fan frustration due to referee calls that basketball does.  Take any close game that matters, you probably have fans from both sides saying the refs were against them.  This results in allegations of the games being fixed by the powers that be, and in general gives some fans the belief that basketball is not fair.  Many of these fans still seem to follow the game (which I’ve never understood), but I’m sure some abandon the sport.

This is a problem for the sport, but it’s really not anyone’s fault.  Beyond that, I would argue that the problems here are minor compared to some other sports.  Take soccer, there you actually have 0-0 single elimination World Cup games decided by whether the referee gives a penalty kick or not.  The amount of controversial and/or blown calls in basketball is very high compared to other sports, but because each basket counts for so little, the effect of a blown call is much less powerful than in a lot of sports.  Good luck trying to convince everyone of that though.

The biggest problem with fouls that I see with the NBA, and basketball in general, is that there are so many of them, and every single one of them makes the game less fun to watch.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Matt Johnson

October 22, 2010 at 9:10 pm

What I love about the game of basketball

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While I am a sports nut across the board, it’s not a coincidence that this blog is starting at the start of basketball season.  Basketball’s my favorite sport, and obviously I’m far from alone.  Being one of the Big 3 sports in the US says there’s something special about the sport, but when you also consider that basketball has translated better worldwide than football or baseball, and that normal people actually play more basketball than those other sports, it becomes more impressive.

To me the coolest factoid about basketball though is simply that it’s often the favorite sport of professional athletes in OTHER sports.  Joe Montana prefers basketball to football for crying out loud.

What makes the sport so great?

Well I’ll start with the practical.  All you need is a ball and a hoop and you’ve got a game.  In the city there are courts everywhere, and elsewhere you can put up a hoop over garage/barn/whatever without too much difficulty.  Other sports don’t have that flexibility to them.  Soccer’s great if you’ve got some space to work with, but not so good in the city.  Baseball can technically be adapted to stripped down version in the city, but you’re always in danger of losing that ball and then the game’s over.  Football?  Don’t be ridiculous.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Matt Johnson

October 22, 2010 at 7:45 am

Posted in Basketball

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