Monday, December 13, 2010

Goliath Always Wins: Playoffs?!?

The following set of essays are some of my thoughts concerning the way NBA fans and writers think about the sport, particularly those aspects regarding “winners” and “champions.” First though, I want to return to the basics of how we think about these subjects, beginning with the playoffs.

Questions beget questions, often making it difficult to find a suitable starting point. The question, “does the best team usually win the championship” raises the question “how do we judge which team is best” as well as the question “why use a playoff system to determine a champion?” Both questions seem to point to an answer that would include the proposition that head to head matchups are an acceptable solution to the “problem” of determining dominance. Yet even accepting this answer, we we still want to know, “why do we want to determine a champion in the first place?” This leads into all sorts of questions about the nature of competition and competitive sports (are there any other kind of sports?).

Why is the playoff system seemingly omnipresent in professional (and even amateur) sports? One reason for its dominance is money. Ever since team owners realized that people would pay more money to see the best teams play against each other, they have tried to get the best teams in their arenas. Some proof of this theory can be seen in the success of the Harlem Globetrotters, especially in the years before black players starred in the NBA. More proof can be seen in the difference between attendance figures of your average NBA team's home games against the Lakers and the Clippers. As well as featuring quality games, a playoff system adds extra games, and the corresponding extra revenue. There's a reason the gradual trend in professional sports has been towards more games in a season, not less. It is therefore not surprising that the playoffs have assumed such a central role in the sports season when it is in the financial interests of the owners, players, and league(s) that they are so important.

None of this is to suggest that playoff series are meaningless or are not usually won by the best team. What it does show is one reason the focus on the playoffs as the ultimate test of a player (and team's) skill and worth is arbitrary. There is nothing about the game of basketball that inherently demands a playoff system. Furthermore, if one must have a playoff system, why a linear series of head to head matchups instead of a round robin type format? A round robin has the dramatic disadvantages of teams playing games after they have been eliminated, and holds the possibility of one team being eliminated in favor of a team it had defeated. On the other hand, our current system anoints the “best” team as the one that has matched up best against its opponents. Ask the 2007 Mavericks what happens to an excellent team when faced with an inferior team that matches up well against them. (Or, I would argue, the 1995 Jazz.) Whatever the case, it is difficult to make the argument that a few head to head contests provide a better measure of team quality than many games against varied competition.

But surely I would not want to claim that the playoffs do not give us any new information besides a few extra data points tacked on the end of the season. What gives the playoffs their importance? As far as I can tell, the genuine importance of the playoffs comes from the fact that the players attach greater worth to the playoffs than the regular season. What player will say that they try harder in a March game against the Clippers than in Game 7 of the NBA Finals? In extreme form, this can be seen in the success of the 2001 Lakers and 2010 Celtics, who (the popular narrative goes) sleepwalked through much of the regular season before deciding to “turn it on” during the playoffs. Finishing with a better regular season performance is not always indicative of team quality, as a comparison of last year's Hawks and Celtics would show. Of course, it is questionable whether those teams could have kept it together for a whole season even if the championship format had required them to do so. And acknowledging the reality of this added importance should not lead us to forget about the frail contingencies of matchups and streaky shooting that provide the foundation for many championships (those not of the Fo' Fo' Fo' variety). The results of the playoffs tell us much, but do not tell us all.

This perspective stands in contrast to some mainstream NBA coverage, in which the pursuit of rings has reached an obsession that would make Gollum blush with shame. The way the Miami Heat have been covered and discussed would be far different were it not so. As Kobe Bryant moves closer to winning his sixth championship, the Jordan comparisons become ever more present (and annoying). And as it becomes more unlikely that stars and superstars like Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, and Vince Carter will win an NBA title, their careers are judged accordingly. Some, like McGrady and Carter, will be judged harshly, and some, like Nash, will be seen as valiant, but never quite good enough. As long as the current narratives hold, some of these players will be remembered fondly, and won't necessarily even be underrated, but the same sense of tragedy will inevitably pervade our memories of them. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Conceding the possibility that the first championship teams may have been motivated more by their playoff bonuses than any thoughts of ephemeral immortality, it seems impossible not to recognize the impact that “championship mythology” has in the 2011 NBA. Next time, I'll talk about Alpha Dogs and role players and the hierarchical prism through which we tend to view basketball players.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Changing Things Up

I'm going to try something a bit different with this blog over the next couple months. I'll continue my "best there ever was" series in abbreviated form, but I want to try writing some longer, more thoughtful pieces. Why? To work on my writing and to look at NBA history from a different angle. Hopefully it'll be interesting, if infrequent.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Waiting For Groza Now On Twitter

Now ignored in two mediums! Seriously, I'm trying Twitter out, and I have no idea if it'll work, or if I'll like it, but I have the same reservations about this blog. Anyway, a post on NBA history will be coming tomorrow since I think I got all of the season preview stuff out of my system, and I'm hoping Twitter will provide me with an outlet for my current NBA thoughts. Also, I'll put the gadget on the sidebar tomorrow.

Thoughts on the NBA, Week One

If I were head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, my starting lineup would be Andrew Bogut/Luc Richard Mbah a Moute/Corey Maggette/Carlos Delfino/Brandon Jennings. Maggette brings something to the Bucks they didn't have last year; an ultra-efficient 20 PPG scorer that can create his own offense. Meanwhile, Drew Gooden, the Bucks' other major acquisition, has brought a little bit of scoring to go with his customary cringeworthy defense. Bogut should get healthier as the season goes on, so I'm not worried about the team's 0-2 start, but the Bucks' success was built on their defense, and while you can survive with one terrible defender, it's tough to thrive more than that. My proposed lineup has low post scoring (Bogut, Maggette), mid range scoring (Maggette), three point shooting (Delfino, Jennings), free throws (Maggette), passing (Jennings, Bogut, Delfino) interior defense (Bogut, Mbah a Moute), perimeter defense (Jennings), and speed (Jennings, Mbah a Moute).

I can't believe I'm saying this, but the Wolves have the makings of a good team. Michael Beasley has looked impressive so far, and if he can score efficiently, gives Minnesota one of the best forward tandems in the league. The other half of that tandem, Kevin Love, is probably the best rebounder in the league, and will be an All-Star if he gets enough playing time. Through the first two games, Luke Ridnour is playing as if last year's improvement was not a fluke, and they have a decent collection of role players. However, I don't know how many wins this will translate into, as Kurt Rambis doesn't want to play the team's best player (24 and 27 minutes in the first two games for Love), which is the type of thing that tends to hurt a team.

Here's hoping Stephen Curry gets healthy soon. The Warriors offense is almost unstoppable right now, especially with Monta Ellis rediscovering his efficiency. There is no way Golden State will shoot this well all season, but it's fun to watch while it lasts, and they will be one of the best shooting teams in the league. At the same time, the defense looks highly problematic. They gave up 128 points to a team starting two defensive specialists on the second night of a back to back, and their backup center is Dan Gadzuric.

Chris Paul was amazing in the Hornets opener. His line (17 points, 16 assists, 1 turnover) was impressive enough, but watching the game, it was even more impressive to see how many open shots he created for his teammates. The Hornets being the Hornets, they missed a fair amount of those wide open shots, but David West played well (9-14 from the field), and New Orleans won.

Watching their first two games, it looked like the Rockets needed two things; a point guard that could play defense, and a center that could block shots and rebound. Houston will get #1 when Kyle Lowry (whose praise I have sung on these pages before) returns this week, and they just signed Erick Dampier to give them another 7 footer to spell Yao. Also, Luis Scola and Kevin Martin are a fantastic inside-outside combination, even if they both look incredibly awkward at times.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Shallow Thought Of The Day, Vol XIII

Watching the Rockets last night, it seemed that the Trevor Ariza-Courtney Lee trade was, from the Rockets perspective, not so much about Trevor Ariza or Courtney Lee, as about Chase Budinger.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Season Preview: Southwest Divison, Flotsam, and Jetsam

And now for something completely different; a preview without shtick!

After a disappointing year in which they finished with the 4th most expected wins in the NBA (55) and lost in the second round after their second best player broke his face, the Spurs added one of the best centers in the world. As the previous sentence intends to make clear, the bar for "success" in San Antonio is a wee bit high. Predicting that the Spurs will become old and ineffective overnight has practically become a cottage industry over the last few years, but if San Antonio can get good performances once again from Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker, the young guns, led by Splitter, Blair, and Hill, are good enough to bring another championship banner back to Texas.
Projected Record: 53-29, 3rd in West.

Even if Yao only plays 1,500 minutes this year, that's a huge improvement over David Andersen. Luis Scola has developed into a 20-10 guy, Kevin Martin continues to pair high usage with high efficiency, Shane Battier is still Shane Battier, and Chase Budinger, Patrick Patterson, Kyle Lowry, Aaron Brooks, Jordan Hill and Courtney Lee is a lot of young talent. I'll be surprised if the Rockets have the same roster at the end of the year, but as it is, this team should be very good.
Projected Record: 50-32, 4th in West.

Dirk's a great player, and Beaubois and Dominique Jones have a lot of potential, but I have no faith in the rest of this team. Kidd can't stay in front of any point guard in the NBA or NBDL, Marion can't create any offense, Butler will clang an extraordinary amount of 20 footers, Terry will continue to decline, and the centers will play decent defense and provide very little offense. Could this team get to the Finals? Sure, if Carlisle plays the youngsters, and they develop faster than expected, and Donnie Nelson parlays that Mavs' many expiring contracts into another star. It's just not very likely.
Projected Record: 47-35, T-6th in West.

Chris Paul is one of the five best players in the NBA. After that, the Hornets don't have a whole lot. Jerryd Bayless, David West, and Trevor Ariza are decent players, but New Orleans has almost no depth. Still, the addition of Bayless may be enough to push the Hornets into the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff bracket.
Projected Record: 44-38: T-8th in West.

Marc Gasol (who should be even better) and Zach Randolph should be a highly effective inside tandem. O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay are also above average players who will miss a lot of shots, but also make a lot of shots. On the other hand, the point guards are dreadful, and the defense is questionable at best. Expect another ~.500 season for Memphis, which should be the peak of this team's run.
Projected Record: 42-40: 11th in West.

Finals: Heat over Lakers in 6.
MVP: Chris Paul
Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin
Scoring Champion: Kevin Durant
Rebound Champion: Kevin Love
Assist Champion: Chris Paul

Monday, October 25, 2010

Season Preview: Pacific Divison

And now, for something completely the same! More previews in limerick form!

A man from Italy called Mamba/Center of attention and drama/But how many they'll win/When age starts to kick in/Is on Pau, not Kobe's la bombas.
Projected Record: 55-27, 2nd in West.

Arriving in Phoenix is Hedo/To whom defense is as the dodo/Only Robin rebounds/Amare can't be found/But Suns say, with Nash what can't we do?
Projected Record: 43-39, 10th in West.

Twenty and five and five for Tyreke/But many wins the Kings couldn't eke/Carl Landry and Cousins/In the tough West tussling/Much havoc on offense will they wreak.
Projected Record: 36-46, 12th in West.

Forty nine victories says Schoene/If it seems crazy, please don't blame me/Curry, Ellis one and two/They'll score points, that is true/But can they stop anyone with Lee?
Projected Record: 34-48, 13th in West.

Number one Griffin unstoppable/Other Clippers not pitiable/But let us get real/Do you really feel/They will stay healthy and capable?
Projected Record: 32-50, 14th in West.

In case anyone was wondering, I think the Lakers will make the Finals, but think Portland will win more games during the season thanks to superior depth. Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion to this series!

Season Preview: Northwest Divison

In this, the Waiting For Groza season preview extravaganza, we move on to the Northwest Division. Joining me, as always, for this installment is Agnew, the megalomaniacal anthropomorphic eggplant living in my fridge. Why? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Waiting For Groza: Moving on to the Western Conference, up first in the Northwest is...
Agnew: Agnew is bored an tired an hungry an wants chicken soup an meatballs an warm jelly an a Lithuanian toothpick factory! Agnew is going home!
Waiting For Groza: Can I persuade you to stay? It's not like I know what I'm talking about, and we need a facade of reasonable analysis.
Agnew: Agnew will stay on one condition and that condition is that Agnew will preview this whole division using nothing but the form of limerick form!
Waiting For Groza: I'm probably going to regret this...

Agnew: There was a team called the Blazers/Lady Luck did them no favors/Greg, Joel, Nick, and Roy went down/Rose Garden cheers still did sound/And now they're stuffed with good players.
Projected Record: 56-26, 1st in West.

Agnew: There was a team everybody loved/To the limit the Lakers they shoved/Now with great expectations/From Durant's ministrations/To break the Plexiglass hard enough.
Projected Record: 49-33, 5th in West.

Agnew: From Stockton to Deron in Salt Lake/The winning streak has been hard to break/Replacing Carlos with Al/Might take a while to gel/By about March this mixture should take.
Projected Record: 47-35, T-6th in West.

Agnew: Carmelo, Carmelo, Carmelo/It makes Agnew sick like warm Jell-O/What about Billups and Nene/Leading the team into May/While to a new team he says "Hello".
Projected Record: 44-38, T-8th in West.

Agnew: The laughingstock of Minnesota/Placing their hopes in Love and Frodo/Some talent is there/It might not be fair/But faith in Kahn? Not one iota.
Projected Record: 21-61, 15th in West.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Season Preview: Southeast Divison

Up next, I preview the Southeast division with the assistance of Agnew, the megalomaniacal anthropomorphic eggplant living in my fridge. Why? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. (Atlantic, Central)

Waiting For Groza: I can't wait to see the Heat play, and I'm sick of hearing about them. Are you in the same boat?
Agnew: Agnew is not in a boat! Agnew is not with a goat! Agnew thinks the Heat's lack of depth will prevent them from winning 70 games! But Agnew thinks they will batter the NBA into submission in the spring, and Agnew is never, ever, never wrong!
Waiting For Groza: Wade's hamstring problems and Mike Miller's injury have certainly demonstrated how vulnerable this team is to injuries without the kind of depth that contenders like the Magic, Lakers, and Blazers can boast.
Projected Record: 65-17, 1st in East.

Waiting For Groza: It seems like we're settling into the same routine with the Orlando Magic; they'll play excellent defense, hit their threes, have the best bench in the league, win around 60 games, and hope to avoid a healthy Celtics team in the playoffs.
Agnew: The Magic fill Agnew with disgust! While the other contenders were improving their teams, hoping to win this summer's arms race, who did the Magic add? Chris Duhon! Agnew's diligent research has identified Duhon as a point guard not good enough for the Knicks! The Knicks! Agnew thinks that this is the year Vince Carter finally bounces back to MVP consideration.
Projected Record: 61-21, 2nd in East.

Waiting For Groza: Even though the Joe Johnson contract was moronic, and the Hawks struggled mightily in the playoffs, everybody's returning from a team that won 53 games, including the ubertalented Josh Smith. Without any major upgrades, this team won't contend for a championship, but should make the playoffs easily.
Agnew: You know what Agnew likes? Ripping the souls from his enemies while hearing their beloved goldfish caterwaul in the background! You know what Agnew hates? Assuming players who have just had career years will continue playing at that level! Josh Smith, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, and Jamal Crawford all had their best years ever. If you think that will happen again, Agnew has some land in Florida to sell you, even if he can't understand why anyone would want to move to Florida!
Projected Record: 46-36, 5th in East.

Waiting For Groza
: The Bobcats made the playoffs on the strength of great defense, and enough offense from Gerald Wallace and Captain Jack. After losing Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton, can they do it again? I'm not optimistic, but if D.J. Augustin or Shaun Livingston can run the offense, and the Cats find a competent center, a repeat performance is possible.
Agnew: Agnew will devastate the hopes of Bobcats fans everywhere with seven words: Nazr Mohammed, DeSagana Diop, and Kwame Brown. Is Agnew good, or what?
Projected Record: 34-48, 9th in East.

Waiting For Groza: Coming off the kind of season that gives utter chaos a bad name, Washington has added John Wall and Kirk Hinrich to play alongside Gilbert Arenas. David Kahn, thou art an amateur! If Arenas, Josh Howard, and Andray Blatche play to their potential, the Wizards could challenge for a playoff berth. Unfortunately, it's more likely that something will go horribly wrong with at least one of those players.
Agnew: The Wizards are Agnew's kind of bad team! So many players who could be good, but won't. Is this the year Yi turns the corner? Will Josh Howard bounce back? Will Andray Blatche turn into an All-Star? Will Gilbert Arenas regain his form? Will JaVale McGee become a defensive stopper? Of course not! But you can fool yourself into thinking that it could! That's real wizardry! Agnew approves!
Projected Record: 26-56, 12th in East.

Tomorrow, we move on to the West!

Season Preview: Central Divison

Atlantic preview here. Again, we are joined by the two official Waiting For Groza season preview correspondents, Agnew, the anthropomorphic eggplant that has lived in my fridge for the past three years, and Geoffrey St. Geoffrey, advance scout for the Providence Steam Rollers and Zollner Pistons.

Waiting For Groza: Last year, the Milwaukee Bucks rode Andrew Bogut and an excellent defense to a surprisingly successful season. After adding Maggette, Gooden, Larry Sanders, and Chris Douglas-Roberts, can this team build on last year's success?
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: I remember talking with Red [Auerbach] one time, and he confided, "Do you think Tommy [Heinsohn] was a great defender? How about Cooz? Ramsay? [Sam] Jones? A great defender in the pivot erases many mistakes." I still don't know what he was talking about.
Agnew: Agnew does not fear the deer! Agnew would eat the deer if Agnew had a mouth and a digestive system capable of processing venison! Agnew is never baffled, but cannot understand why Drew Gooden is on this team! Agnew would rather have Ilyasova, Mbah a Moute, and Larry Sanders, and prefers his backup centers to play defense while not sipping brandy from the skulls of their enemies!
Projected Record: 50-32, 3rd in East.

Waiting For Groza: Chicago added Carlos Boozer and several other members of the Jazz to build around Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng. This team should play defense, but it remains to be seen whether the new additions can stimulate an offense that was near the bottom of the league.
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: It is quite difficult to achieve victory when one cannot participate. That point was driven home to me when some representatives of Mr. Russo stopped by the arena one day to warn me that Dave had better "shape up" or else. That's when I learned how difficult it is to win if you cannot play, young man.
Agnew: Agnew sees a point guard that can't pass, a center that can't score, a power forward that can't stay healthy, and a shooting guard that can't create his own shot. And this team is supposed to be good? Agnew laughs at these futile hopes, which are more ridiculous than the circus which kicks the Bulls out of the United Center every year! Agnew will eat Chicago, and then will eat your city soon!
Projected Record: 45-37, 6th in East.

Waiting For Groza: Can a team built around Danny Granger, Darren Collison, and Roy Hibbert rise to mediocrity, or will the Pacers finish with a win total in the thirties for the fifth straight year?
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: Back in the thirties, I participated in an informal contest between New York collegians on break. The other team had two players who were rather bigger than anyone on our squad, and their offense consisted of throwing the ball off the backboard to themselves until it eventually fell through the hoop. Even my superior ballhandling skills could not prevent us from being trounced. Twas an unfortunate day.
Agnew: Agnew never sleeps! Except when the Pacers are around, because then Agnew knows he will not be threatened! Zzz!
Projected Record: 33-49, 10th in East.

Waiting For Groza: Now we come to the question everybody wants answered. How bad will the Cavs be without LeBron? I've seen answers ranging from mediocre to putrid. They have some promising players; Varejao, Sessions, Hickson, Mo Williams, but a lot of rebuilding to do.
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: Ah yes, the old "team losing a superstar" conundrum. Will they be a wounded tiger or a neutered tiger? And more importantly, why do I care?
Agnew: The howls of anguish emanating from Cleveland are music to the ears of Agnew, as are the howls of anguish and lamentations of the folk after Agnew lays waste to another village! Agnew thinks this team will rise again to torment the Midwest, just not this year!
Projected Record: 28-54, 11th in East.

Waiting For Groza: Finally, we come to the Detroit Pistons.
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: I can't do this anymore. It's too depressing.
Waiting For Groza: What do you mean?
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: I'm going to pretend this team doesn't exist anymore. It's less painful that way. You and Mr. Eggplant can continue.
Agnew: Agnew agrees. Agnew can't requisition the necessary spite for this team. Agnew kinda feels sorry for them. Agnew wants warm milk and cookies to make him feel better before eviscerating the Southeast like a defenseless kitten, which is also a good metaphor for the Pistons!
Projected Record: 19-63, 15th in East

Tune in next time as Agnew rejoins me in an attempt to preview the Southeast without the assistance of fictional nineteen fifties anecdotes. Same time, same channel!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Season Preview: Atlantic Divison

For the unofficial* Waiting For Groza season preview, it is my pleasure to introduce the two official Waiting For Groza season preview correspondents, Agnew, the anthropomorphic eggplant that has lived in my fridge for the past three years, and Geoffrey St. Geoffrey, advance scout for the Providence Steam Rollers and Zollner Pistons.

*Official preview not forthcoming.

[transcribed by Mrs E.E. Pifflebottom of the Tryton L. Peckham Typing Bureau, Inc. Thank you, Donny!]

Waiting For Groza: Let's start in the East, with the Atlantic Division. The Boston Celtics seem to be the overwhelming favorites here. Another year older, they probably won't win 60 games, but will be dangerous in the playoffs if KG is healthy.
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: Back in '53, when we were facing Syracuse, I remember Andy Phillip snatching a rebound and sprinting to the other end of the court trying to score. But he was the only one running. He couldn't get a shot off against Earl Lloyd, so he tried a behind the back pass which was snagged by Paul Seymour. Most of our guys were so slow that they were still down on the other end, so Syracuse couldn't get a fast break going, but Dolph hit a shot anyway. What was the question again?
Agnew: All shall fear the Celtics! Not so much as they fear Agnew, Destroyer of Worlds, but fear shall be happening nonetheless! Garnett and Rondo are crazy, and Agnew approves, but the rest of the team is old and Sheed is missing. Like Emperor Melongena, he shall be missed throughout the galaxy, for it is only through calculated insanity that this team wins!
Projected Record: 49-33, 4th in East.

Waiting For Groza: Next up, the Knicks. They turned over most of the roster, and have their most talented team since Allan Houston was a good player. An Amare led offense should be good, and they have a lot of break out candidates; Danilo Gallinari, Anthony Randolph, Toney Douglas, Timofey Mozgov, Kelenna Azubuike, and that clone of Steve Nash that D'Antoni smuggled out of Arizona. But will it be enough to mask their lack of defense?
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: I'll tell you what I think of the Knicks. Back when I was in the NBA, there was a center named Ed Macauley who started for the Boston Celtics. He was a wonderful offensive player, with all kinds of moves, and a brilliant outside shot. His teams always fell in the playoffs despite the best backcourt combination in the league. One evening, after the game, we were splitting a cab, and he got out at his apartment first, saying he'd loaned his wallet to Cooz, but would be back in a second with his half of the fare. The next morning, I woke up in the gutter, covered in vomit. What do you think of that, young man?
Agnew: Agnew is bored by this team. He hates New York, because they celebrate mediocrity. Agnew is not mediocre. Agnew blows things up! Agnew dances in the fiery ashes of his enemies' burning houses! The Knicks have erected a colorful facade to hide a beige interior. Agnew will say nothing more about this team.
Projected Record: 38-44, 7th in East.

Waiting For Groza: The New Jersey Nets went 12-70 last year, but have added Troy Murphy, Derrick Favors, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, and Jordan Farmar to replace one of the worst collections of talent ever assembled. How many games can this very different team win?
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: In the days when I was a young man, we killed Commies, and people who looked like Commies, and people who might have thought about becoming Commies! We didn't let them purchase basketball teams! The idea! Hmph.
Agnew: If you cannot destroy your enemies, which Agnew never worries about, then you should terrify them in any way you can! The 2010 Nets would have made Agnew run away, if Agnew had legs, and was not so brave and courageous and was utterly impossible to frighten! A mediocre basketball team frightens nobody. Stick to what you do best, Nets!
Projected Record: 35-47, 8th in East.

Waiting For Groza: Toronto has seemingly turned into the Island of Misfit International Ballers, with Bargnani, Calderon, Barbosa, and Kleiza playing significant roles for the Raptors this season. This team should score, but won't be able to stop anyone, unless Amir Johnson turns into Ben Wallace.
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: The Toronto Huskies didn't have a single player over 6'5 play at least half of their games, and were absolutely dreadful after Ed Sadowski, their star big man, departed 10 games into the campaign. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they say in Montreal, though I have no idea why. I don't speak German.
Agnew: The best defense is not a good offense! The best defense is to rip your opponent limb from limb while cackling gleefully! They will be disarmed, and you can score at will! If Agnew coached the Raptors, they would live up to their proud mascot, who Agnew could still destroy if he wanted to, but he doesn't! Even Agnew can be merciful! But not too much mercy! Agnew is watching you!
Projected Record: 25-57, 13th in East.

Waiting For Groza: We come to the last team in the Atlantic, the 76ers. They have some talent; Iguodala, Speights, Evan Turner, Holliday, Lou Williams, Young, but I don't really know how any of it fits together. I don't think they will be able to shoot that well, and the interior defense is suspect, to say the least. They exchanged their best rebounder and interior defender for Spencer Hawes, and their best player is on the trading block. Will Turner figure things out in his rookie year? Will Speights or Lou Williams become an All-Star? Or is this team doomed to another season with a win total in the twenties?
Geoffrey St. Geoffrey: I never understood why Syracuse moved to Philadelphia. Each place is utterly ghastly. I hated traveling to Syracuse to scout the Nationals. Dolph Schayes was brilliant, and the rest of the team would pressure you, and try to cause havoc. I could have told Mr. Zollner that without sitting a bus attempting to make it to the depot before being crushed by the glaciers on either side of it. And the fans were worse, a bunch of rowdy hooligans, who were at once obnoxious and scarce. I can understand fleeing, but why leave Hell for Tartarus?
Agnew: Agnew understands that the Sixers could have a frontcourt of Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand, and Andres Nocioni. His lips curl in disgust at the depths to which a once proud franchise has fallen until Agnew remembers that the Sixers were never proud, certainly not compared to Agnew, proudest of all the proud beings that have ever, ever been proudly prideful!
Projected Record: 23-59, 14th in East.

Come back later, or tomorrow, or next year, or something, for the rest!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Best There Ever Was: Shooting Guards 26-30

The story so far. In this ongoing series, I've been looking at the best 30 players ever at each position, and how current players match up to them. I started with point guards, and now I'm on to the shooting guards.

30: Drazen Petrovic. It is actually a coincidence that this post is coming out somewhat concurrently with Once Brothers. Petrovic didn't have as good of a career as many shooting guards not on this list, but was their equal at his best, as he showed in the NBA and international play.

An excellent shooter, Petrovic is fourth all time in three point percentage. In his final season in the NBA, Petrovic scored 22 PPG on a .605 TS%, and was named to the third team All-NBA. But his ranking here is only partially based on his short NBA career, and is heavily influenced by his performance in international play, where he led the ACB in scoring in 1989, was named MVP of the European Championship, and led Yugoslavia and Croatia to silver medals in the Olympics.

29: Gail Goodrich. The Chris Bosh to Wilt and West's LeBron and Wade, Goodrich was a 6'1 combo guard who came up with the Lakers and was taken in the expansion draft by the Suns. In 1970, he teamed with Connie Hawkins and Dick Van Arsdale to transform Phoenix into a decent team in only its second year in existence. After that season, he was traded back to L.A., where he played for several years before signing a big contract with the Jazz, and providing a demonstration on the folly of signing a 33 year old 6'1 combo guard to a big contract.

Goodrich's best season came in 1972, not coincidentally the only season those Lakers won a championship. Goodrich gave the Lakers a second guard who could handle the ball, score from everywhere on the court, and find Wilt for easy baskets. Looking at the roster, the concern would be that Goodrich's talents were redundant with West on the team, but the dual threat seemed to make the team more effective, because both were good passers, making it close to impossible to defend both of them.

28: Steve Smith. Smith was a rarity; a NBA nomad that was actually a very good player who played for very good teams. He only missed the playoffs once during his career, in his second season in the league, though he only won one title, as a role player with San Antonio. If Smith is forgotten or underrated, it is another data point in support of Bill James' observation that players who do a bit of everything well tend to be forgotten in comparison with players who have one outstanding skill. Smith never came close to leading the league in scoring, wasn't a defensive standout, and only made one All-Star team, but did everything well for about a decade on some very good teams.

27: Jason Terry. The Robin to Dirk's Batman, no matter what Josh Howard or Devin Harris enthusiasts may claim, the JET has combined accurate shooting with good passing with, well, more accurate shooting for a decade. Terry has never been considered a great player; he's not much of a defender, isn't a "number 1" scorer, and has never made an All-Star or All-NBA team. A decade's worth of efficient offense adds up, and Terry's status as the 2nd best player on a team that came thisclose to winning a championship is impressive, though I'm not sure if that's more of an argument for Terry's or Dirk's value.

26: Mitch Richmond. The "middle child" of Run TMC, both alphabetically and positionally, Richmond is the guy I think of as the prototypical "good scorer on a bad team." As befits the middle child, Richmond didn't (and doesn't) get as many accolades as Hardaway and Mullin. That said, it's difficult for me to make the case that Richmond is underrated historically. He wasn't much of an all around player, offering little but scoring and durability. Still, those are two skills that every team needs, and at his best Richmond scored 26 PPG on .454/.428/.861 shooting in 81 games, while featuring one of the prettiest jumpers ever.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Shallow Thought Of The Day, Vol XII

Magic Johnson : Anfernee Hardaway : : Michael Jordan : Latrell Sprewell

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Point Guards and Titles

Given that I've recently run a series on the best point guards ever (and will start the series on shooting guards very soon), this discussion on TrueHoop made me wonder; how difficult is it to win a championship building around a point guard? One answer is that it is difficult to build a championship roster around a star of any position, just ask Donnie Nelson or Danny Ferry.

But if your team is fortunate to land an all-time great point guard as its unquestioned best player, how can it win a championship? Here are some teams that may point toward that question's answer.

1973 Knicks. Eight man rotation: Walt Frazier/Earl Monroe/Dean Meminger/Bill Bradley/Phil Jackson/Dave DeBusschere/Jerry Lucas/Willis Reed. I wrote about this team the other day. They surrounded Walt Frazier, the best point guard in the league, with balanced scoring and excellent defense. Besides Frazier, the rest of the rotation scored between 11.3 and 17.7 points per 36 minutes. They had two other celebrated defenders in Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere, and a number of good passers. A very good team, the Knicks used defense and depth to take advantage of John Havlicek's injury to beat the Celtics before beating the Lakers in five.

1987 Lakers. Eight man rotation: Magic Johnson/Byron Scott/Michael Cooper/James Worthy/A.C. Green/Kurt Rambis/Mychal Thompson/Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Undoubtedly the best team in the league that year, LA took the best point guard ever, and surrounded him with two of the best finishers in the league, one of the best outside shooters in the league, and a collection of hard-nosed role players. Unlike the rest of the teams on this list, L.A. won by overwhelming opponents with offensive firepower.

1988 Jazz. Eight man rotation: John Stockton/Rickey Green/Bob Hansen/Thurl Bailey/Marc Iavaroni/Karl Malone/Melvin Turpin/Mark Eaton. Not the best of the Stockton-Malone Jazz squads, that would be the '97 squad*, but one on which Stockton was clearly at his best, and was easily the team's best player. Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey handled most of the scoring load, putting up a lot of points with mediocre efficiency, while Bob Hansen provided decent efficiency at low usage. Mark Eaton anchored the league's best defense, but was unbelievably awful on offense; 7 points on .457 TS% with a 1:2 AST/TO ratio. The rest of the Utah offense, along with the bench, could be charitably described as "nonexistent".

*On which Stockton was the most productive player in the playoffs, but got "Jordan-ed" in the Finals.

This team wasn't great, but they were good. Featuring the best defense in the league, they had 51 Pythagorean wins, went 29-13 over the second half of the season, and pushed the Lakers to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, falling just short of knocking off the defending (and eventual) champs mostly on the strength of a great performance by Stockton. What differentiated them from the better teams on this list? Their main failing was depth. While the Lakers and Knicks each featured a half dozen decent scorers (or better, in L.A.'s case) for Magic and Frazier to pass the ball to, the Jazz only had three other competent offensive players, and it showed, as they lacked the firepower to outlast the Lakers.

1996 Sonics. Eight man rotation: Gary Payton/Nate McMillan/Hersey Hawkins/Vincent Askew/Detlef Schrempf/Shawn Kemp/Sam Perkins/Ervin "No Magic" Johnson. The Defensive Player of the Year, Payton led a squad that finished 2nd in the league in defensive efficiency. Like the '73 Knicks, the Sonics had a great defense and balanced offense, led by Payton and Kemp. Hawkins and Schrempf provided efficient scoring, while Perkins and Askew filled in the gaps nicely. The Sonics won 64 games and lost to the Bulls in the Finals, but in most years would have been good enough to win a championship.

2003 Nets. Eight man rotation: Jason Kidd/Lucious Harris/Kerry Kittles/Richard Jefferson/Rodney Rogers/Kenyon Martin/Aaron Williams/Jason Collins. The best team in a weak East, the Nets rode a great defense (1st in the league) and balanced offense to the Finals. Kidd's passing made an offense led by Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles, and Kenyon Martin mediocre, which was enough to get the Nets to the Finals, but not enough to get them past San Antonio. The less said about the rest of the offense, the better.

2008 Hornets. Eight man rotation: Chris Paul/Jannero Pargo/Bonzi Wells/Morris Peterson/Julian Wright/Peja Stojakovic/David West/Tyson Chandler. The Hornets rode great offense from Paul and great defense from Tyson Chandler to 56 wins. David West and Peja Stojakovic were the primary recipients of Paul's largesse. However, the Hornets weren't very deep; Paul, Chandler, West, and Stojakovic accounted for the vast majority of the team's positive contributions.

What have we learned from these examples? Unless you can overwhelm your opponents with talent like the Showtime Lakers, in order to win a championship around a great point guard, here are the two major points to take away from this exercise. 1) Defense wins. Okay, I already knew this, but having a point guard that can play good defense helps quite a bit. 2) Depth is key when building around a great point guard. It was the difference between the '73 Knicks, '87 Lakers, and '96 Sonics on the one hand, and the '88 Jazz, '03 Nets, and '08 Hornets on the other hand. If I may speculate for a moment, depth may be more important for these teams because a good point guard can still run an offense well when their opponent has a good enough defense to neutralize their primary offensive sets, if the supporting cast is up to the challenge. The '73 Knicks could beat you with Monroe, Reed, Lucas, DeBusschere, etc carrying the load for a game or two. If you could take away Karl Malone* or David West, the Jazz or Hornets were done.

*Note how much adding Jeff Hornacek helped the Jazz in the playoffs (94-98).

Astute readers may notice that I did not mention the '88-'90 or the '04-'08 Pistons despite the fact that they featured excellent point guards, and won titles.* Even more astute readers may recall that those teams are usually held up as exceptions in what I am now calling "championship blueprinting". What this cursory glance of mine shows, though, is that these teams were not exceptions to the rule. Rather, by building around their star point guards with defense and depth, I think those teams experienced success that was both predictable and repeatable, once you know how to look.

*Two other teams to consider; '79 Sonics and '10 Suns. The Suns had better than expected defense and excellent depth, and overachieved considerably. The Sonics won a title, and came close on other occasions, with a balanced, if mediocre, offense, and excellent defense, of which Gus Williams was a large part.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NBA League Pass Choice, Part 2

Last time, I looked at blackouts and redundant games as two of the factors to consider when choosing which teams to watch on NBA League Pass Choice. This time, I acknowledge the obvious. I want to watch teams that are good, or are at least intriguingly bad. But which teams are those?

It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This may be true, but a lot of beholders behold somewhat similarly. In other words, there may be some people who find the Pistons or Sixers enthralling, but very few of them live outside Michigan and eastern Pennsylvania.

Socrates, a lanky swingman for Panathinaikos, once noticed that beauty and virtue tend to be found together. In the same way, winning and entertaining basketball also have a special relationship. Sure, there are some good teams that are brutal to watch. The nineties Knicks are the Michael Jordan of this category. But teams like the Heat, Magic, and Lakers are all aesthetically pleasing when they're "on." This is true as you go down the standings. The Nuggets and Jazz are more entertaining than the Pacers and Clippers.

As anyone who has watched a James Bond movie can tell you, there are exceptions to the relationship between beauty and virtue. Some of the classic femme fatales are the talented youngsters, the superstar without help, and the Warriors. This category comes down to what style of basketball and storylines you prefer. My particular poisons are young teams and teams with plenty of players I like watching for some reason (an idiosyncratic list). The Houston Rockets are the champions of the latter category, featuring Kyle Lowry, the Chuckwagon, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Yao, Shane Battier, and Chase Budinger.

Using these principles as a guiding light, what teams will I be watching too much of during the 2011 season? The Houston Rockets, who have few blackouts, a lot of intriguing players, and the talent to win 45-55 games. The Milwaukee Bucks, who also have few blackouts, will probably grab the #3 or #4 seed in the East, have a top five center, and could start Corey Maggette and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute next to each other in the kind of strategic min-maxing usually reserved for Dungeons & Dragons. The Utah Jazz, who have the fewest blackouts in my hometown of any 2010 WC playoff team, and should be entertaining. A hidden benefit of choosing these teams? Between these three, only 6 of their 25 games against the Heat, Magic and Lakers will be blacked out.

I will also be watching the OKC Thunder, despite their many TV appearances (and general overrating), mostly because of Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, and James Harden's beard. The Sacramento Kings have barely any blackouts, should be entertaining (Cousins-Landry will be a devastating combination sooner or later), and are a "young team on the rise" (phrase copyrighted by the Portland Trail Blazers, Kevin Pritchard, and Paul Allen's phalanx of attack lawyers).

The other two teams are TBD at this point. New York would be intriguing if they weren't blacked out. New Orleans has Chris Paul and not much else. The Blazers should be a great team to watch in November, but I don't know if I want to watch "The Return of Juwan Howard" come February. The Wizards will either be surprisingly good or a complete trainwreck. Either one is acceptable. I'd choose them in a heartbeat if I had faith in Gil's knee. And Toronto should have an interesting offense with Jose Calderon, Linas Kleiza, Andrea Bargnani, and Leandro Barbosa, but I don't know if watching that defense on a regular basis is medically advisable. Or maybe I'll go outside at some point this winter. Life is full of surprises, as the Blazers training staff knows.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shallow Thought Of The Day, Vol XI

Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, and Mario Chalmers is probably a better supporting cast than Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, and Delonte West. Oh yeah, Dwayne Wade helps, too.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guard Wrap, Current Players

Full List
30: Stephon Marbury
29: Jimmy Jones
28: Doc Rivers
27: Andre Miller
26: Fat Lever
25: Derek Harper
24: Calvin Murphy
23: Mookie Blaylock
22: Gus Williams
21: Anfernee Hardaway
20: Terrell Brandon
19: Sam Cassell
18: Tim Hardaway
17: Bob Davies
16: Tiny Archibald
15: Lenny Wilkens
14: Mark Price
13: Maurice Cheeks
12: Isiah Thomas
11: Terry Porter
10: Bob Cousy
9: Kevin Johnson
8: Chauncey Billups
7: Steve Nash
6: Jason Kidd
5: Gary Payton
4: Walt Frazier
3: John Stockton
2: Oscar Robertson
1: Magic Johnson

Gilbert Arenas and Tony Parker are close to cracking the top thirty. Parker needs about one more good year to knock Starbury off the list, while Agent Zero needs about two more borderline All-Star seasons. Although at this point, I'm not sure what to expect from him. Baron Davis is looking unlikely to make the list, but could make it with a late career resurgence. Deron Williams will probably end up somewhere in the teens. I think he's somewhere between Tim Hardaway and Kevin Johnson as a point guard that does everything well on offense. In terms of overall effectiveness, Rajon Rondo is somewhat similar to Maurice Cheeks, but I think he has "Jason Kidd" potential. Billups, Nash, and Kidd could flip based on the rest of their careers, but I don't think any of them will get to the top five. If he can stay healthy, Chris Paul will get to the top five, and if he can sustain his 2008+2009 performance, he has a good shot at the #1 overall ranking. At his best, he combines great ballhandling, scoring, and ballhawking as well as any point guard ever.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

NBA League Pass Choice, Part 1

For unrepentant NBA junkies, NBA League Pass is like Christmas every day for half a year. For those of us who like to at least pretend we have a day job and/or a life, there is League Pass Choice, which lets you watch seven different teams with the disclaimer that the games are subject to blackouts in the case of nationally and locally televised games. That disclaimer is important. It means that I, for example, will be unable to watch Knicks games, Nets games, ABC, ESPN, TNT, and NBA TV games. Obviously, this affects the amount of each team's games that I am able to watch.

Let me use the Boston Celtics as an example. The Celtics have 33 nationally televised games, and play 6 non nationally televised games against the Nets and Knicks. That means that I would be paying for 43 games minus the games against my other six teams that were not blacked out (since I would be getting those games anyway). That's likely another half dozen games or more that I would miss, leaving me with less than half of the Celtics schedule-most of which are the games against the league's bottom feeders. Unless I'm a Celtics fan, or really enjoy watching them play, that's not very enticing.

To give some other examples, the Miami SuperFriends have 29 nationally televised games, and 4 against my locally blacked out teams-33 total. What's more, all of their games against the Lakers, Magic, Celtics, Spurs, Thunder, and Bulls are on national TV. The Houston Rockets only have 11 nationally televised games, and 14 blacked out altogether. The Milwaukee Bucks have 15 blacked out games, while the San Antonio Spurs have 26. Looking at League Pass this way won't tell you who you should pick-the Thunder have 28 blackouts, while the Pistons only have 9 blackouts, but I'd much rather watch 50 Thunder games than 70 Pistons games-but it's helpful.

The other part of this calculation is the games your seven teams will play against each other. If I choose several teams from the same division, then there are a lot of redundant games. For instance, I could choose the Thunder, Jazz, Nuggets, and Blazers or the Thunder, Jazz, Nuggets, and Bulls. If I choose the second option, I still get to see a lot of the Blazers and I get to see more total games because there are less redundancies in the schedule.

Next time: factoring in team quality and the entertainment factor.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 1-5

5: Gary Payton. Payton has the lowest career free throw percentage of any point guard on this list, a distinction he is likely to hold until Rajon Rondo plays a few more seasons. Despite not being a very good shooter, Payton was the best point guard in the games for almost a decade, from the mid nineties through the early aughts. Probably the best defender on this list, Payton combined outstanding defense with high usage, great passing, a low amount of turnovers, and fantastic durability-if it wasn't for the '99 lockout, he would have topped 3000 minutes in nine straight seasons (95-03).

It will be interesting to see how players who peaked from 1999-2004, when the NBA went through a mini deadball era, will be remembered. The league wide decreases in offensive efficiency and pace mean that those players have less impressive stats than their predecessors and successors. The other factors that usually help a player to be remembered are team success and (generally offensive) style. Payton had a bit if both, but not enough that he's guaranteed to be remembered as one of the five best at his position, which he is.

4: Walt Frazier. Another lockdown defender, the man known as Clyde was the best guard of the seventies, and the most stylish NBA player ever. He could do everything on the court; score (efficiently), pass, rebound, and defend. Frazier is the first player on this list to have won a championship as a team's clear superstar. While Billups, Isiah Thomas, and Gus Williams all may have been the best player on their team, there were other players on each of those squads that were at or near the same level as those players. Not so on the 1973 Knicks.

By 1973, injuries had limited Willis Reed into a supporting role, and the rest of the roster was talented, but lacked a star. They did have one of the best collection of veteran role players ever assembled-Reed, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere, and Bill Bradley, along with a couple of talented backups in Dean Meminger and Phil Jackson. Still, Frazier was the only one on the team to finish in the top 20 in PER or Win Shares, a rare accomplishment on a championship team. The only players to do that since the merger have been Magic Johnson (1987), Michael Jordan (1998-Pippen*), Tim Duncan (2003), and Dwayne Wade (2006-O'Neal*).

*didn't qualify for the PER list due to injury, otherwise would have made it

3: John Stockton. The numbers, especially the assists, are almost unreal in their quantity and consistency. Nineteen years in the league. Not missing a game in seventeen of those years. Nine straight seasons leading the league in assists. Fifteen years leading the league in AST%. Sixteen straight seasons with a PER over 21. Career marks for steals and assists that won't be touched anytime soon.

Often called the best pure point guard, Stockton's the only point guard (before Chris Paul, if you believe in his defense) to combine ridiculous assist totals, excellent defense, and ultra efficient shooting, a reflection of the three attributes a good point guard is supposed to possess (court vision/passing, ballhawking, and accurate shooting).

When you play in 19 different postseasons, you are bound to have some disappointing postseasons and also some good postseasons, even if they don't result in championships. Stockton's best postseasons came almost a decade apart. The first was in 1988, when he set the record for assists and steals in a playoff series, outplaying Magic Johnson as the Jazz pushed the eventual champions to seven games. The second came in 1997, when he destroyed Matt Maloney, leading the Jazz to the Finals, where they lost to the Bulls despite Stockton's heroics (especially in Game 4).

2: Oscar Robertson. Put up great numbers thanks to playing almost every minute at a ridiculous pace, while being better than everyone else. The fast pace of the sixties, and the fact that top players played a few more minutes a game than they do now, means that his numbers aren't quite as impressive as they seem. Still, the man averaged a triple double over his first five years; something no one else has ever done (in any one season).

During his first few seasons, Oscar's Royals were near the top of the league in offense, but near the bottom in defense, as the frontcourt of Wayne Embry, Bob Boozer, and Jack Twyman was competent offensively but couldn't stop anyone. Jerry Lucas arrived in 1964, just in time for Jack Twyman to hit the "I've stopped being good" portion of his career. The Royals led the league in points scored, won 55 games and lost to the Celtics on the backs of Robertson, Lucas, and one of the worst supporting casts in the league. The next year featured more of the same, as a 48 win campaign was stopped by Wilt's Sixers. The Royals slid back into mediocrity over the next few years as Robertson slowly started to decline, Lucas never quite matched his rookie year, and the best players Cincinnati could surround them with were Adrian Smith and Happy Hairston. It was probably this experience, along with leading the fight for NBA free agency, that led Robertson to recently applaud the idea of stars teaming up to win a title, in defiance of the "alpha dog syndrome."

What made him so effective? The Big O probably had the best midrange game ever. A deadly shooter from 10-20 feet, he used his 6'5 frame to back down smaller guards, and create shots for himself, often drawing a foul in the process-there's a reason he led the league in made free throws four different times. And if the defense focused on him, he could find the open teammate with a pinpoint pass.

1: Magic Johnson. The difference between 1 and 2 on this list is very close. On the one hand, Magic was the more prolific passer, won more (with better postseason stats), and had better per minute stats. On the other hand, Robertson was the better scorer, was more dominating, and had more impressive overall stats. Ultimately, I went with Magic for the simple fact that I view Oscar's 45 minute a game seasons as an artifact of the sixties instead of an indication that he would/could play 45 minutes a game in the modern era. Maybe that's unfair.

But let's talk about Magic. The numbers are ridiculous. In 1987, he averaged 24-6-12 for a 65 win team, then averaged 22-8-12 in the championship run (with great efficiencies). 23-8-13 in 1989. A career playoff average of 20-8-12 (.595 TS%). If you like advanced stats, he finished in the top 4 in Win Shares 8 times (although strangely never in first).

I could go on for pages, but you don't need me to tell you how good Magic was. The only thought I'll leave you with is that the Showtime Lakers were the last offensive minded team* to win a title, as well as the worst defensive squad to win since the merger**. That's how good Magic made that offense.

*Of course, other teams with excellent offenses have one. Just not another team whose identity was almost solely in its offense.
**And no, the 2001 Lakers don't count. They were excellent defensively when they could be bothered to try.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Shallow Thought Of The Day, Vol X

From 2006 through 2010, Jason Collins has appeared in 280 games, logging 5448 total minutes. In that span of time, Collins has averaged 4.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, and 5.4 fouls per 36 minutes. He has shot .391/.188/.473 for a true shooting % of .420. His offensive rating over that span is 87, and his defensive rating is 107. His PER is a whopping 3.9. He is set to make over 1.2 million this year as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. Enjoy it, Jason.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Four Factors: 2005 Bulls

After Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, and Luc Longley left following the Bulls' 1998 championship run, Chicago fell on hard times. From 1999 through 2004, they won more than 23 games only once, a 30-52 season in 2003. During those years, plenty of talent cycled through Chicago, but it was usually traded away or injured before it had a chance to do much. For example, in a series of trades, the Bulls managed to turn Ron Artest, Brad Miller, Ron Mercer, and Donyell Marshall into two years of Jalen Rose and an old Antonio Davis. Then in 2005, a very young Bulls team broke through with 47 wins, looking to have a bright future. That bright future never quite materialized, but let's take a look at what that 2005 Bulls team team did well (and poorly) using Four Factors.

1.) Shooting. The Bulls were a weak shooting squad, finishing 24th in eFG%. Big men Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler were the only Bulls with more than 20 minutes a game to shoot better than the league average, and that was only because they rarely attempted shots outside of point blank range. Backup forward Othella Harrington was perhaps the team's most effective shooter, with a .512 eFG% despite two thirds of his shots being jumpers (compared to less than one third for Chandler and Curry). Among the regulars, Chris Duhon and Andres Nocioni were especially bad in this category. However, the Bulls were near the top of the league on defense, behind only the San Antonio Spurs. The credit should go to the whole team for good team defense, although Tyson Chandler and Kirk Hinrich had the best defensive reputations on the team (on which they were number one and number two in minutes played), and led the Bulls in blocks and steals.

2.) Rebounding. The Bulls were 19th in offensive rebounding and 7th in defensive rebounding. Chandler deserves most of the credit here, finishing third in the NBA in rebound percentage behind only Kevin Garnett and Ben Wallace. Forwards Nocioni, 19 year old Luol Deng, Antonio Davis, and Harrington also did decent work on the glass. Eddy Curry was particularly bad in this category, finishing with less than 7 rebounds per 36 minutes despite playing center.

3.) Turnovers. The Bulls were 8th in the league at forcing turnovers thanks to the quick hands of Kirk Hinrich and Chris Duhon, along with that team defense I mentioned earlier. The Bulls played at a faster than average pace, finished 8th in the league at forcing turnovers, and yet as a team finished only 21st in steals. This meant that Chicago forced a lot of pressure turnovers that ended possessions without any one player getting credit for the steal. That is a sign of good team defense. On the other side of the ball, the Bulls turned the ball over more than any other team in the league, which is not a sign of good team offense. Part of the problem was inexperience, with rookies Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni turning the ball over much more than they ever would again. Another part of the problem was big men with little ball handling skills (Chandler and Curry). Surprisingly*, the only one of the Bulls' top 9 players (in terms of total minutes) to post an above average turnover rate was Kirk Hinrich.

*Surprisingly because TOV% measures turnovers against shots taken, which means players with a lot of assists, who have the ball in their hands a lot, but aren't shooting, tend to look worse than they actually are by this measure.

4.) Free Throws. The Bulls were decidedly below average in this category, ranking 22nd in getting to the line and at sending opponents to the line. Once again, these were team wide problems. Tyson Chandler (especially) and Eddy Curry were the only Bulls that were very good at getting to the line. On the other end, Luol Deng was the only Bull particularly good at playing defense without fouling.

Why were the Bulls good? The most important reason seems to have been the team defense, which the stats can only tell us about indirectly. Going by traditional boxscore statistics, Tyson Chandler was really their only good player, providing excellent rebounding, blocks, and efficient scoring. The Bulls also got decent seasons from Kirk Hinrich, Eddy Curry, and a career year from reserve Othella Harrington. That does not seem like a recipe for success, and offensively it wasn't, as the Bulls finished 27th in the league in Offensive Rating. However, fantastic team defense anchored by one of the best defenders in the NBA was enough to get the Bulls the number 4 seed in the East.

Friday, September 24, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 6-10

To see the previous posts in this series click on the "the best there ever was" tag at the bottom of the post.

10: Bob Cousy. Like Isiah Thomas, Cousy is a player whose stats don't quite match his reputation. Or maybe his stats match his reputation, but his reputation doesn't match his statistical "value". Either way, his stats and his reputation agree that he was the best point guard of the fifties, the best passer in the game, and a shaky shooter.

Most of Cousy's perceived value came from his passing, and his ability to run an offense, which was excellent. Even though he was also a prolific scorer, averaging over 18 points a game for his career, he was inefficient, always shooting below 40% from the field. From what I understand, he could score in transition, but was not a good shooter. He was a good rebounder for a point guard, but wasn't much of a defender, in that respect being similar to most of the players from the pre-Russell era. In my opinion, then, he deserves to rank somewhere in between Isiah Thomas (very good passer, inefficient shooter, decent defender) and Kevin Johnson (a more efficient scorer than Thomas).

9: Kevin Johnson. I don't know if people realize how good KJ was. Of course, there's the dunk on Olajuwon which remains famous, but the early 90s Suns are remembered as the team that went to the Finals when Barkley was there. This inevitably means that it is forgotten that the Suns had won between 53 and 55 games the previous four seasons with a core of Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Tom Chambers, and Dan Majerle. KJ was the best player on that team, averaging 21 and 11 on a .587 TS% during that span.

Unfortunately, he was hampered by injuries after that stretch, playing at least 60 games just twice after his age 25 season, and he was done by age 31. Offensively, the lack of a consistent outside shot (until his last couple seasons) was his only weakness, and his passing combined with his knack for drawing fouls and finishing inside made him a scarily effective offensive player.

8: Chauncey Billups. Owner of the coveted "best player on a championship team" designation, Billups was similar to Terrell Brandon in that both players played on very slow teams, were great free throw shooters, and rarely turned the ball over. As in Brandon's case, these factors contributed to Billups' "traditional stats" understating his performance. Billups has also been an excellent three point shooter, making him a very efficient scorer despite low field goal percentages, and has been a better defender than his steals would indicate.

Another interesting feature of Billups' career is his current streak of nine straight 50 win seasons over three different teams. The Pistons and the Nuggets had both won 50 games the year before he arrived, but both teams enjoyed greater success after he arrived in town. It doesn't prove anything about his value, but the fact that his teams consistently won argues for a high ranking.

7: Steve Nash. You all know the deal. So much virtual ink has been spilled on Nash during the past five years that anything I say will be extraordinarily redundant. Coming off an age 35 season in which he averaged 17-11 on another 50-40-90 while leading the Suns to the Western Conference Finals, it is safe to say that Nash has broken the age curve. It is sufficient to say that the list of guards who have had a season with a PER of at least 20 (while qualifying for the scoring title) at the age of 35 or older is John Stockton and Steve Nash. If he can keep playing at a high level for a couple more seasons, he could climb a couple more spots on this list.

6: Jason Kidd. The man who could do everything on the basketball court but consistently hit a jump shot. Like Nash, Kidd appears to have beaten Father Time, continuing to rack up the rebounds, assists, and steals into his late thirties, while becoming a much better shooter, knocking down 42% of his threes the past two seasons. In this case, the stats don't tell the whole story. Unlike Nash, a large part of Kidd's value came from his defensive ability. Even though his craftiness still helps him force turnovers, he has slowed down to the point where he can no longer contain quick guards. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, in the 2011 Western Conference, facing a good, quick guard is a nightly occurrence. Kidd remains an effective player, and he is still capable of guarding many 2's and 3's, but he is no longer as valuable as he was several years ago, despite what his statistics may indicate.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Note On Comparing Players

In my ongoing series, The Best There Ever Was, my comment on Bob Cousy turned into its own post about some of the difficulties of comparing player from the fifties to players from the modern game.

One problem of assigning value that I alluded to in my Bob Davies comment is that the 1950s NBA was very different from the moderns NBA in ways other than lower FG%, slower pace, and other things that can be statistically normalized. For example, the 1950s NBA was dominated by big men. By any statistical measure, almost all of the best players in the league were big men; Bill Russell, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Neil Johnston, Ed Macauley, and Maurice Stokes, to name some of the best. Most of the other stars were forwards like Paul Arizin, Elgin Baylor, George Yardley, and Cliff Hagan. Really good guards were a rarity. Cousy, Bob Davies, Bill Sharman, and Bobby Wanzer (for a few seasons) were excellent, but after them there were only decent players like Gene Shue, Dick McGuire, and Slater Martin, whose stats make them look like borderline all-stars instead of borderline Hall of Famers.

Why was this? One reason was the lack of the three point shot. Without the three, defenses could easily pack the paint and dare opponents to live off the 25 foot jumper. With those baskets only counting for two points, successful attempts hurt less than they do in the modern game. This is one reason good defensive centers like Bill Russell and Nate Thurmond were more valuable in the fifties and sixties than they could be in the modern game-Russell didn't have to worry about Jerry West hitting a lot of threes. I'll return to this issue in the Bill Sharman comment of the shooting guard rankings.

Another reason was the game's physicality. Some people complain that the hand check rules have made it impossible to defend quick guards, but in the fifties every kind of defensive malfeasance was allowed and encouraged on a nightly basis. In that kind of environment, the best players were usually the biggest and strongest, rather than the most skilled. This is why Larry Foust, the epitome of a "big ox", was, statistically, better per minute than Bob Cousy.

Given the big differences between fifties, big man dominated basketball, and modern, guard centric basketball, what do I do in these ratings? I don't want to simply note that Cousy (for example) was statistically rather similar to players like Stephon Marbury and Rod Strickland, and conclude that he has been vastly overrated. On the other hand, just because he was the best point guard of his era doesn't automatically make the equal of Oscar or Magic or Stockton. So, what I've done is try to imagine how the player's game would translate to the modern game, and rate them accordingly. For example, Bob Cousy was the best passer in the game, excellent in transition, a poor shooter, and a mediocre to poor defender. In my opinion, then, he deserves to rank somewhere in between Isiah Thomas (very good passer, inefficient shooter, decent defender) and Kevin Johnson (a more efficient scorer than Thomas). Feel free to complain about the imprecision of this method in the comments :)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Four Factors: 1976 Celtics

1976 was one of the most balanced years the NBA has seen. There was a clear "best team in the league", Rick Barry's Golden State Warriors. Beyond the Warriors, there were a handful of good, but flawed, teams. There were the aging Celtics, led by Dave Cowens, who did not feature a meaningful contributor under 27. There were the anonymous Cavaliers (2nd in point differential), who were paced in points, rebounds, and assists by Jim Chones, Jim Brewer, and Jim Cleamons. There were the Unseld-Hayes Bullets, Bob McAdoo's Braves, and the Phoenix Suns, led by Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams.

As many of you probably know, the Celtics outlasted Phoenix in an exciting, if sloppy, championship series after the Suns had upset Golden State under unusual circumstances. But my question is, why were the Celtics good enough to win 50+ games and a championship? This is where Four Factors comes in. The Four Factors are shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws. Since these four categories cover every interaction that takes place on a basketball court, looking at them tells you what teams are doing better (or worse) than their opponents.

1.) Shooting. The Celtics were the 17th most accurate team in the league (by eFG%). Out of 18 teams. The good news is that they were the fifth best at stopping opponents from making shots, so they were only outshot by three percentage points. Still, one does not expect a championship contender to be outshot. There was plenty of blame to go around on this category. (The '76 Celtics had no depth, so I'll be focusing on the starters.) In a league that shot 46%, Cowens shot 47%, Havlicek, Charlie Scott, and Jo Jo White shot 45%, and Paul Silas shot 43%. Mediocre offense wasn't new for the Celtics, but by this point the field goal defense had slipped from "great" to "good".

2.) Rebounding. Here's where Boston won most of their games. The team led the league in offensive rebounding, and was a close second in defensive rebounding behind the tough, but offensively inept, Chicago Bulls, finishing well ahead of the number three New York Knicks. Cowens and Silas did most of the work here, combining for over half of Boston's total rebounds. Cowens averaged 16 a game, and Silas grabbed 13, second and fourth in the league respectively. The next highest was Charlie Scott with 4.4 a game. In fact, Silas grabbed more rebounds than Scott, Havlicek, and White combined. The Celtics also got some good rebounding out of reserve forwards Jim Ard and Steve Kuberski, but most of the credit here goes to Cowens and Silas for destroying opponents on the glass.

3.) The Celtics also compensated for their poor shooting by not turning the ball over that much, finishing fifth in that category. However, that success was outweighed by the fact that they were the worst team in the league at forcing turnovers, as might be expected from an old team. The guards were especially disappointing in this regard, getting about the same amount of steals as the 35 year old Havlicek and the center.

4.) Boston also rarely got to the foul line, finishing 13th in this category. Silas and reserve Don Nelson were the only Celtics especially good at reaching the foul line, while Jo Jo White somehow managed to take only 3.1 free throws compared to 18.2 field goal attempts per game. Boston was good at keeping opponents from reaching the free throw line, finishing third in that category. All of the starters except Charlie Scott deserve the credit here. Jo Jo White fouled the least, but Cowens and Silas' numbers are impressively low for good interior defenders.

By looking at the Four Factors, how did Boston win? Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding, and the ability of most of the team to play solid defense without fouling. That's really it. At everything else, they were anywhere from close to average to bad. But the presence of two great rebounders, along with good team defense, was enough to win another championship for Boston in lieu of any great teams.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 11-15

15: Lenny Wilkens. "Two's company, three's a crowd." The originator of this phrase was not talking about retrospective point guard rankings, but the phrase does apply. In discussing great point/combo guards from the sixties, there is an obvious top two of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West (who I have rated as a shooting guard).

After those two, Wilkens was the best point guard of the sixties. Deserving the appellation "hard-nosed", he was one of the best defensive guards of the sixties, along with Jerry West, K.C. Jones, and Al Attles. He displayed the same tenacity on the offensive end, making up for poor field goal percentages by getting to the line constantly. Also a good passer, his assist numbers were depressed early in his career because the St. Louis offense ran through Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, but when his teams needed him to create more shots on offense, he led the league in AST% three times in his mid thirties.

14: Mark Price. Steve Nash 1.0. Or is Steve Nash Mark Price 2.0? Whatever the case, Price was a diminutive (white) dead eye shooter and excellent passer for a series of Cavalier teams who were a few bad breaks away from a dynasty (see: Jordan, Michael).

In his third year in the league (1988-89), Price put up the celebrated .500/.400/.900, averaging about 19 and 8, while leading the Cavs to a 57-25 record (and we won't talk about what happened next). He was just as good the next year, before going down with an ACL injury in the fall of 1990. Amazingly, he made it back for the 1991-92 season, and maintained his high level of play for the next three seasons, albeit at reduced minutes. After that the injuries returned, kicked off by a foot injury in 1995, and he was unable to bounce back this time.

How good was he? At his best, during the six seasons from 1989 through 1994, he averaged a shade under 20 points and 9 assists per 36 minutes while shooting .487/.406/.915. Offensively, he was as good as any point guard on this list not named Magic, Oscar, Stockton, or (Suns era) Nash. However, he wasn't very good defensively, and his small amount of minutes (relative to the point guards above him) prevents me from ranking him any higher.

13: Maurice Cheeks. A point guard that did almost everything right, Cheeks showed how a point guard could be effective without putting up big numbers. He boasted a career high of 15.6 PPG (in 39 minutes) and failed to reach double digit assists in any season. However, it would be incorrect to characterize his accomplishments as "not showing up in the box score." They are there, just not immediately obvious.

The first indication that Cheeks was better than might be expected from his career average of 11 and 7 are his steals. Cheeks finished in the top 10 in the league in steals per game every year from 1979 through 1988. As might be expected, he was one of the best defensive guards in the game, making five All-Defensive teams (four first teams). Second, while he did not do a lot of scoring, he was very efficient, shooting over 52% for his career, and shooting over 50% his first nine years in the league, with a high of 57% in 1985.

While Cheeks he did not put up crazy assist totals, he was still an excellent passer, averaging between 6.4 and 9.2 assists per game every year from 1980 through 1989, without committing a lot of turnovers. Finally, Cheeks was very durable, playing at least 68 games in his first 13 seasons, and leading the league in minutes played in 1986. The combination of excellent defense, efficient scoring, good passing, and durability help explain why Cheeks was better than his career averages originally make him look.

12: Isiah Thomas. In terms of historical rankings, Thomas is undoubtedly the most controversial point guard, with some rating him as a top 5 point guard, and others placing him much lower. On the one hand, he averaged 19 points, 9 assists, and 2 steals for his career, he was a key player on two championship teams, and he did play better in the playoffs. On the other hand, he was inefficient and the Pistons' success had a lot to do with their defense, which was led by Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer.

How one values Thomas depends on how one values shot creation and "leading" a winning team versus everything else. Conventionally, the best player on a team is the player that leads that team in scoring. There are some obvious exceptions to this rule of thumb, such as Bill Russell, but by and large a team's scoring leader is considered the team's leader, especially when there is no obviously better player. In Thomas' case, he is considered the best player on back to back championship teams, putting him in elite company. But is he really?

The championship Bad Boys teams were unusual in that one could make a case for any of four players as the team's best player. There was Isiah Thomas, who led the team in scoring and assists both championship years. There was Joe Dumars, who dominated the ball less than Thomas, but was more efficient and garnered First Team All-Defensive honors each year. There was Dennis Rodman, fearsome rebounder and arguably the best defender in the league. Finally, there was Bill Laimbeer, the defensive anchor who provided efficient offense and fantastic defensive rebounding. Who was the best player on the team? I don't know, but when you have three other players that can plausibly claim to be as good as Thomas, it seems to weaken the argument that the Pistons' success shows that Thomas is a top 5 point guard.

11: Terry Porter. He played forever, and was really good at his best. That's really the argument for Porter as a great point guard. His career numbers of 12.2 PPG and 5.6 APG don't look so good, but those numbers are artificially deflated by a number of 20 minute/game seasons at ages when most of his peers on this list were retired. It does not seems fair to hold those years against Porter's durability, especially as he was effective in that part time duty. Per 36 minutes, he averaged about 16 and 7 for his career. In his best seven year stretch, 1987-1993, he averaged 17 and 8 with a true shooting of 59% in 35 minutes a game.

Although it's largely forgotten since the Blazers failed to win a championship, Porter was just as effective in the playoffs as he was in the regular season. From 1989-1992, Porter averaged 20 and 7 with a true shooting of 63% in 61 games. The Blazers reached two Finals, but fell short against the Pistons and Bulls.

The title "second best player on a Finals loser" doesn't have as much cachet as "best player on a championship team", but when you consider that in Porter's best three years, his team won 59, 63, and 57 games, losing twice in the Finals and once in the WCF, it puts his accomplishments in perspective. And while they were pretty good players, a frontcourt of Kevin Duckworth, Buck Williams, and Jerome Kersey isn't going to win 60 games without a killer backcourt. And Drexler didn't do all of it by himself.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Shallow Thought Of The Day, Vol IX

How on earth did the 1984 Knicks, with a starting lineup of Bill Cartwright, Truck Robinson, Bernard King, Rory Sparrow, and Ray Williams, lead the league in Defensive Rating?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

You Must Be Joakim!

Hopefully for the Bulls, this is just another instance of summer silly season speculation, but there are rumors flying around the internet that Chicago would be willing to part with Joakim Noah in a Carmelo Anthony deal. Here are four reasons, in no particular order, why that would be a really bad idea.

1.) Money. Noah is cheap, and Chicago will likely be able to sign him to an extension for less than max money. Anthony will command a max contract, giving Chicago much less financial flexibility.

2.) Defense. Noah is developing into a top flight defensive center, and the Bulls just brought in a top defensive coach. The combination could, with the right role players, make the Bulls a top 5 defensive team in the next couple years. On the other hand, how do you think a lineup featuring Anthony, Boozer, Rose, and journeyman center X (or maybe Omer Asik?) will fare defensively?

3.) Rebounding and passing. Noah is an elite rebounder, and one of the best passing bigs in the game. Both facets of Anthony's game are mediocre.

4.) Chemistry. My last concern is, would the Bulls run their offense through Anthony or Rose? Both players need the ball in their hands to be valuable, and while I don't doubt that Anthony would make the Bulls' offense better, my question is, would he improve it enough to justify giving away a chance at an excellent defense? Remember, the Bulls can already expect a big improvement on that side of the ball thanks to the Carlos Boozer signing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The More Things Change...What Will Morey Do Next?

Last year, the biggest concern for the Houston Rockets was, "Who will shoot the ball?" With Yao, Artest, and McGrady out at the beginning of the year, the Rockets desperately needed some of their low usage players to turn into primary scoring options-a role that Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry capably filled.

This year, the Rockets are in the exact opposite situation. Whereas last year they had no "proven scorers", this year they have four players who can put up 20 a game in Yao, Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, and Luis Scola, who averaged about 20 a game after the Carl Landry trade last year.

This is a good thing for the Rockets offense, as all four players can get their points within the offense, and it prevents opposing defenses from keying in on any one player. However, this configuration leaves Yao and Battier as the only above average defenders in the Rockets' lineup alongside their offensive surplus, making me think that they could move some of the offense for defense.

The big deal they just gave Luis Scola, along with his recent production, makes me think that he'll stay, and they seem pretty high on Kevin Martin as well. That makes Brooks the logical choice to be moved, especially as his likely replacement, Kyle Lowry, is a better passer, defender, and fits in better with their "take a million trips to the free throw line" philosophy.

The perfect fit for Aaron Brooks would be a fringe playoff team desperate for a point guard. Charlotte, which really needs an offensive option besides Wallace and Captain Jack, Memphis, which is still trying to make the Mike Conley experiment work, and Atlanta, who is relying on Mike Bibby way too much, seem like the most likely destinations.

Atlanta seems less likely than the other two, if only because they are unlikely to trade Johnson, Smith, or Horford, and none of their secondary players are particularly attractive trade bait. Charlotte's cupboard is also relatively bare after Wallace, Jackson, and Tyrus Thomas, but thanks to Erick Dampier's unguaranteed contract, a willingness to take on payroll in exchange for another playoff run could lead to a three team trade. Memphis has more assets and an unpredictable front office, but I don't see an obvious two team trade there. A three team trade would be the most likely option for either Memphis or Charlotte.

In a Brooks deal, the Rockets would probably be targeting at least one of the following; an eventual replacement for Yao, depth at point guard, and another wing if Battier's expiring contract is moved in any deal. In a hypothetical deal, Houston could send Aaron Brooks to Charlotte, Charlotte could send Dampier's contract to a team looking to shed payroll (like New Orleans or Philadelphia), and that third team could send some players to the Rockets. For example, it could look something like this.

Friday, September 3, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 16-20

20: Terrell Brandon. I know what you're thinking. Of the two talented, but often injured, point guards from the mid-nineties, you choose Brandon over Penny Hardaway? Terrell Brandon may have been less memorable, but he was just as effective. At his best, Brandon was recognized as one of the top guards in the game, making back to back All-Star Game appearances in 1996-1997, and starring on this memorable SI cover.

Brandon's 1996 is a great example of how conventional stats can understate a player's contributions. His numbers, 19 points on 47% shooting, 7 assists, 2 steals per game, are very good, but hardly "best point guard in the game" material. However, he put up those numbers on uncannily mistake-free play. He almost never missed a free throw, played good defense while never fouling, and had an extremely low turnover rate. The other major factor to consider is team context. The Cavs were the slowest team in the league with a pace factor of 82.3. The difference between the Cavs and the next slowest team in the league (Detroit), was the same as difference between Detroit (28th) and the 12th fastest team in the league (Houston).

To put it in other words, in 1996 Penny Hardaway scored more points and had more assists per game than Brandon. However, Brandon scored on a higher percentage of his team's possessions, and assisted his teammates on a higher percentage of his team's possessions, than Hardaway. Looking at his statistics this way shows how good Brandon was.

19: Sam Cassell. Sam Cassell's teams made the playoffs in 10 out of 13 seasons from 1994 through 2006. The only exceptions were a year he got traded twice, a 41 win team, and a 44 win team. Cassell has never been viewed as a star, only making one All-Star game, but he's been a consistent scorer and passer for some very good offenses for more than a decade.

As for the very good offenses, consider the 1998 Nets. Featuring a starting lineup of Cassell, Kendall Gill, Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn, and Jayson Williams, they finished 5th in the league in offense. Cassell also starred for the Ray Allen-Glenn Robinson Bucks, who were consistently one of the top offenses in the leagues. Cassell had his finest season in the coveted "only good player other than Kevin Garnett*" role. The Wolves won 58 games riding a MVP caliber season from Garnett and an excellent season from Cassell, before being derailed by an injury to Cassell in the playoffs.

*The magic of Fred Hoiberg notwithstanding.

18: Tim Hardaway. The "T" in TMC (and "Tim" in TimZo), Hardaway was everything a good point guard should be. He could run an offense, piled up assists, and scored from beyond the arc and in the lane. As a key component of some of the most exciting offenses of the nineties and some of the most effective grind it out defensive-minded teams of the nineties, he showed that he could be effective in a wide variety of situations.

If he's everything a point guard should be, why isn't he ranked with the elite point guards? Despite his success with the Heat, Hardaway was a mediocre defender, a mediocre rebounder, and he posted mediocre efficiencies. For me, this spot on the list is the Hall of Fame "bubble" (to use college basketball terminology).

17: Bob Davies. The first great point guard. Trying to evaluate him statistically is very difficult, so this ranking is based on his reputation, what statistics we have (which are good), and his status as the best player on the only team to beat Mikan's Lakers in their prime. Davies is famous for being the first pro guard to feature the behind the back dribble, and other "flashy" moves, several years before Bob Cousy.

One reason that Davies is hard to evaluate is that we don't have any statistics for him until he was 29, when he joined the BAA (which was to become the NBA the following season), which he led in assists. We know that he was a two time All-American at Seton Hall, and he was the NBL MVP in 1947. When compared to his peers, Davies probably deserves to be a little higher on this list, but I bumped him down a little bit due to uncertainty.

16: Tiny Archibald. Best known for leading the league in points and assists in 1973, Archibald put up big numbers for mediocre Kings teams and smaller numbers for much better Celtics teams. One of the most entertaining players in the league, the creative Archibald was a one man offense for a series of mediocre teams. As might be expected from a player nicknamed "Tiny", Archibald struggled with defense and rebounding, but he made up for it with sheer offensive production.

The quintessential NYC point guard, Archibald was what NBA fans hoped Starbury would become. Maybe not a great defender, but dominant on offense, electric in transition, and able to run a great team when circumstances demanded it. Unfortunately, Marbury never reached that level, further confirming the theory that the original is better than the sequel.