Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Defensive Basketball Writing Challenge

Inspired by this Henry Abbott post, here goes my attempt at writing the "game story" for last night's Lakers-Thunder game beatdown from a defensive perspective.

Lakers Use Stifling Defense To Take Series Lead

Andrew Bynum and the Los Angeles Lakers turned up the defensive intensity for Game 5, and it showed. Their demolition of the Thunder was based on two simple principles, protecting the paint and defending in transition, executed to perfection.

Whenever the Thunder tried taking the ball inside they were stymied, first by the defense of Bynum, who closed off the paint and prevented any Thunder big men from consistently getting good post position, and second by the Lakers strategy of packing the paint with three or four players (including 7 footers Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom, along with defensive standouts Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant), giving the Thunder no room to operate.

This strategy may have backfired if the referees had called this game uncharacteristically tight, but the zebras opted to let the teams play, especially in the first half, only sending players to the line when there was particularly egregious contact.

Because of the Lakers' dominance in the paint, in the half court the smaller Thunder were forced into settling for outside jumpshots, their kryptonite. Making matters worse, their only dangerous jump shooter, Kevin Durant, was bothered all night by the stellar defense of Artest, who gave Durant no room to operate, a strategy which worked excellently when combined with the Lakers' successful efforts to protect the paint.

The second key to the Lakers triumph was their transition defense. The Lakers used their exceptional length and athleticism to disrupt and derail the Thunder attack. Oklahoma City roasted Los Angeles in transition in Game 4, but the Lakers were ready for it in Game 5, hustling back on every play, and not allowing an uncontested transition basket while the game was competitive.

Once the Lakers were hustling back on every play, they used their superior length to get into the passing lanes, making life hell for Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who finished with eight turnovers. Even when the Thunder made it to the basket, the Lakers were still able to block, contest, and alter shots, turning what should have been easy scoring opportunities into fast breaks headed the other way. Deprived of baskets in transition and in the paint, the Thunder were forced to rely on contested jump shots, seldom a winning formula.

On the other side of the ball, the Thunder gave a good effort, but couldn't stop the Laker offense. They generally played very good defense at the point of attack, but the Lakers were making an extra pass or two on every possession, and the Thunder's rotations couldn't keep up, leading to easy lay-ups for Gasol, Artest, and company. However, even if OKC's rotations had been crisper, they would still have been in trouble as Bynum and Gasol were able to get excellent position in the low post against Nenad Kristic and Jeff Green whenever they wanted, leading to easy baskets of the assisted and put-back varieties.

The only man able to contain the Laker bigs at all was Thunder center Nick Collison, who played for a ten minute stretch in the late first quarter and early second quarter. Collison, the only member of the Thunder to draw a charge on Tuesday, replaced Kristic at center and was able to keep the Lakers guards from penetrating at will, as well as preventing Bynum from setting up shop in front of the basket. This forced the Lakers to settle for more jumpers. Not coincidentally, this stretch of the ballgame was mildly competitive, the Thunder only losing 21-18. However, once Kristic returned to the game, the lay-up line resumed, en route to the trouncing.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Shaq and Stock

I feel confident in saying that at least 95% of basketball fans think that Shaquille O'Neal was a better basketball player than John Stockton. I think Shaquille O'Neal was a better player than John Stockton. But why do I think that? I never saw Stockton or O'Neal play night in and night out during their primes. Is it because of reputation? That doesn't seem like a good enough reason. What about the statistical case? If Shaq was definitely the superior player, he should have superior stats, right?

As you can guess, I didn't pick these players out of the blue. I was reading this post the other day [ed note-I wrote most of this about a month ago, let it sit, then finished it today], and I noticed that O'Neal and Stockton had identical WS%-the statistic that was being used to rank players. Win Shares are one of two popular "player rating systems", PER being the other. But why are player rating systems necessary? What's wrong with regular stats?

Shaq and Stockton are the perfect couple to illustrate the problem. For example, consider the question "which player created more points on offense?" The player who scores 25 points with 3 assists or the player who scores 15 points with 12 assists (per 36 career averages)? Well, if we assume that each assist led to a two point basket, Shaq is responsible for creating 31 points, and Stockton has created 39. But it's not that simple. On an assist, sometimes it is a spectacular pass that leads to an easy score and sometimes a pass leads to a contested jumper that the shooter knocks down. So, let's say that assists are worth less than two points. To be arbitrary, let's count an assist as "one point, assuming we have good reasons for doing so. Then, Shaq has created 28 points and Stockton has created 27. But wait! What about great passes leading to fouls? Which player had a greater % of their shots assisted? Not to mention rebounds, defense, etc.

Win Shares and PER purport to address a lot of these concerns by providing proper weightings, and for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume they do a good, if not perfect, job of resolving many of these problems. So how do they stack up? Before I get to those numbers, I want to bring up the issue of playing time.

Stockton played 19 seasons, Shaq is finishing up his 18th season. Stockton was more durable than Shaq, playing in 1504 games compared to Shaq's 1170. Shaq played more minutes a game, 35 instead of 32. At their peaks, Stockton played 39 minutes a game and Shaq played 40. Overall, Stockton played 47,764 minutes compared to Shaq's 41,166. Both players played 3,000 minutes 3 times, although Stockton played 2,800 minutes 10 times compared to 5 for Shaq.

Stockton leads Shaq in total Win Shares 208-179. Per 82 games, that works out to 12.6 WS for Shaq and 11.3 for Stockton. Per season, that is 10.0 for Shaq and 10.9 for Stockton. Per minute, as we've established, they are exactly the same. Which is preferable? I don't know.

Who was better at their best? Well, Shaq's best was 18.6 Win Shares, while Stockton's best was 15.6. On the other hand, Stockton finished in the top 10 in Win Shares 11 times, compared to 7 for Shaq. Shaq posted at least 13 Win Shares 6 times (probably would be 7 if not for the lockout), while Stockton did so 9 times. Which is preferable? I don't know.

What about PER? In that category, Shaq trumps Stockton 26.6 to 21.8. The advantage was 30.6 to 23.9 at their peaks. Based on this stats, Shaq was clearly the better player. So why don't I write the Win Shares results off as a fluke and tout them as evidence that Shaq was the better player? Because most of PER's known "shortcomings" are in areas that would probably benefit Stockton, like durability and defense (except for steals and blocks, I think). In addition, either PER systemically underrates point guards, or Win Shares overrates point guards. Paul, Magic, Oscar, Frazier, and Billups, the other top PGs by this method, all rank much higher in WS% than in PER. In addition, there are only three point guards in the PER top 50, suggesting that PER may undervalue point guards.

So much for statistics. On balance, the statistics seem to indicate that Shaq is the better player, given his scoring, rebounding, and PER, but there are good reasons to doubt that the statistics actually indicate that, including the uncertain relationship of points and assists, Win Shares, and PER's point guard issues.

But I suspect most fans don't think Shaq is a better player because 25 points and 11 rebounds is that much more impressive than 15 points and 12 assists. It is because Shaq was more dominating. At his best, Shaq could dominate the game like Wilt. We remember him overpowering other players en route to four titles. If he took nights off, or coasted during the regular season, or didn't do the little things when it didn't matter, it wasn't important. After all, he won an MVP, deserved at least one more, and won 4 titles. In Shaq's best season, 2000, he averaged 31 and 15 in the playoffs en route to a championship (although only shooting .456 from the line in those games, and I'm sure I don't have to mention the Portland series). In Stockton's best season, 1989, he averaged 27 points and 14 assists (4 steals, 2 blocks!, 4 turnovers, .601 TS%) while the Jazz were swept in the first round by the seventh seed Golden State Warriors, a series in which 4 of the 6 Jazz players who saw substantial minutes, Thurl Bailey, Bob Hansen, Mark Eaton, and Darrell Griffith, combined for negative Win Shares.

And yet, it is not hard to see how it could have been different, through no fault of Shaq's. If it wasn't for Dick Bavetta and Bennett Salvatore, Shaq would "only" have 2 championships, and Stockton's Jazz had the misfortune of running into Jordan's Bulls when they were at their strongest. And is it fair to blame Stockton for Hakeem Olajuwon destroying the Jazz? No more so than blaming Shaq for failing to contain Chauncey Billups.

I could go on talking about the lack of dominant centers in the early aughts, and the importance of the new hand check rules, but I'm sure you get the point. Why am I writing this? I think I have two reasons; the first being to test the limits of what "total value" box score statistics can tell us. We know that Shaq was better, but there's a (fairly strong) statistical case to be made that Stockton was his equal. On the other hand, I am writing this post as a challenge to our subjective memories. Of course we remember Shaq as the better player, but so many of those memories are based on contingencies outside of Shaq's control: if Portland makes their free throws, if the Lakers and Heat don't get those favorable calls, how is Shaq remembered? Is he remembered as he should be, the most dominating big man of the past dozen years, or is he remembered as the guy who dominated statistically, but missed his free throws, destroyed his team's chemistry, and got dominated by Hakeem? I don't know, but it's worth remembering that many of these subjective reflections are based on extraneous events, and that is where statistics can help us see the larger picture.

So, who is the better player? As a fan, I would say Shaq, as he was better at his peak, which I value over longevity, and yet remarkably durable. And yet, if I were a GM lucky enough to pick between Shaq and Stockton, knowing what I know now, I have to wonder, "Are the half dozen years I get from Shaq before he forces his way out of town really more valuable than the twenty I'll get from Stockton?" In that case, we have a situation in which Shaq is more valuable, but Stockton is more valuable to his organization, and I don't know how to quantify or qualify that.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Shallow Thought Of The Day, Vol VII

One of the memes floating around this year's playoffs has been that this is Dirk Nowitzki's best chance to win a title. But I'm not sure this is accurate. The first reason is that I am pessimistic about this group's ability to win a title. Every team that has won a championship in recent memory has done so with great defense or two stars (usually both). This Dallas team has neither.

The second reason is that I think they have a better shot next year, or in 2012, because of Rodrigue Beaubois and some advantageous contracts. If Beaubois continues to improve, and gets 30-35 minutes a game, he could become the excellent second option that the Mavs need. They have Dampier's valuable contract to deal this summer, as well as Butler's expiring to add pieces. If they get a good return on those players, and if Marion can remain a good defender, then a starting five of Kidd-Beaubois-Marion-Nowitzki-Haywood (with Terry, the Dampier and Butler bounties, and Rookie X off the bench) would be improved defensively (with Beaubois guarding the quick guards that destroy the Mavs now) and offensively.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Playoff Preview

I should be posting more regularly soon & etc. But for now, here's the official Waiting For Groza playoff preview. Who will win the championship? Who knows? But here's what we do know.

-The Lakers will win a game they should have lost due to poor officiating.
-The Jazz will be eliminated by a team below them in the Hollinger Power Rankings.
-The shrieking of Celtics fans over the calls Dwayne Wade gets will be audible from outer space.
-Cavs-Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Book it.
-And if you watch too much NBA coverage over the next two months, you will start believing that the success of failure of the Cavs will determine whether the city will transform into the New Jerusalem or if the Cuyahoga River will be transformed into the gates of Hell (again).

But if there's one thing to remind yourself of before these playoffs, it's that, despite what many analysts will tell you, the vagaries of fate in a close game are not the true measure of a man's worth as a basketball player or a human being. And even if the Lakers win a championship, despite not trying during the regular season, those 82 games still have meaning, as there is more to the game of basketball than the team that stands victorious after two months of work sprinkled with luck and occasional horrific officiating. So, when the Suns or Bucks get knocked out, let us remember them for the seasons they had, not the ring that eluded them. Because if basketball is about disappointment for 97% of the players, coaches, and fans, then we are doing something wrong.