Sunday, June 12, 2011

Island Of Misfit Mavs

As Dallas improves to 68-18 with their two best players (Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler) in the lineup, and the country is forced to ponder the question, who is the more unlikely champion, J.J. Barea or DeShawn Stevenson, I thought I'd briefly trace the history of the various parts of this Mavs juggernaut, as it is a "who's who" of teams that fell just short of a championship, or were notable in some other way. If an NBA championship is supposed to bring "redemption", than this team redeemed a lot of people.

Nine years after the 2002 WCF, Peja Stojakovic is an NBA champion.

Eight years after the 2003 Finals, and ten after being traded for Stephon Marbury, its own type of infamy, Jason Kidd is an NBA champion.

Six years after the Malice At The Palace, Rick Carlisle is an NBA champion.

Five years after the 2006 Finals, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are NBA champions.

Four years after Amar'e got suspended for leaving the bench, Shawn Marion is an NBA champion.

Four years after being swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Arenas' last good year, DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood (and Caron Butler) are NBA champions.

One year after being dumped by the Charlotte Bobcats* for cap relief, Tyson Chandler is the second best player on an NBA champion.

And somehow, someway, amazingly, Brian Cardinal is an NBA champion.

Cardinal jokes aside, this Mavs team has so many players who have been a part of so many interesting, fun, and important teams over the past decade, it's great to see so many of them finally win a championship.

It's been a fantastic 2011 for the NBA, here's to a great 2012. Hopefully, we'll get one.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why is Dallas "Clutch"?

Inspired by this post at The Painted Area.

In my Finals preview, I noted that [Dallas'] ability to space the floor and pass also means they are one of the only teams in the league whose crunch time offense is something other than an ugly ISO into a packed lane. But are there any other reasons Dallas has been so good in the clutch?

I don't think those players (Dallas' crunchtime lineup of Kidd/Terry/Marion/Nowitzki/Chandler) are intangibly "clutch", but have the skills to be better in clutch time basketball. Now, If you think about it, clutch time basketball is different from regular basketball. What are these differences?

1) More leeway is given to defensive players, especially in the area of "touch fouls."

Kidd and Marion are two of the best in the league at getting away with these types of plays, which helps the Mavs immensely.

2) Because of this, teams generally transition to a "give the ball to our best perimeter guy and hope he makes a play" offense. In 2011, it's really difficult to get the ball to your low post scorer in the final minute of the game in good position. (This is why Hedo Turkoglu was so important in 2009)

Dallas' zone, especially when anchored by Tyson Chandler, is frighteningly effective against this type of offense. Carlisle deserves a lot of credit here I think.

3) On the other hand, because of Dirk and Terry, Dallas has the personnel to run their normal offense extremely effectively during late game situations.

When Dirk gets the ball at the elbow, unlike guys like LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Rose, or Anthony, you can't stop the drive, and hope he misses a clean 17 foot fadeaway. If you play him tight, he's skilled enough to drive past his defender and/or draw the foul. If you double Dirk, he can reliably find Terry (or anyone, one of the advantages of being 7 feet tall is that it opens up passing lanes that almost none of the other crunch time perimeter scorers in the league have). Now, you have the guard who can hit the open three, the midrange shot, or find the open man with the ball, and the defense is already out of position because of the double team. Now Terry can get an open shot, find Kidd on the second pass for an open three, or get the ball back to Dirk if the defense adjusts. And, Dallas has an athletic 7-1 finisher hanging around the rim the whole time, and Kidd, Terry, and Nowitzki are all good enough passers to lob him an alley-oop.

The defensive advantages are obviously somewhat new, starting with the arrival of Kidd, but the Dirk-Terry dynamic has been happening for years. Dallas is uniquely effective in these situations because their two best offensive players are at their most dangerous doing what the other 29 teams have to be forced into doing at the end of the game.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

NBA Finals Preview

Both of these teams are better than you think.

Dallas? Don't let their overall record and point differential fool you. They have gone 64-16 with Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler in the lineup. They also won both regular season games against the Heat. Their ability to space the floor and pass also means they are one of the only teams in the league whose crunch time offense is something other than an ugly ISO into a packed lane.

Miami? After losing to Dallas on November 27th, they have gone 61-19. More impressively, they have gone 27-6 in their last 33 games, a 67 win pace, and looked better than Dallas in the conference finals. And Udonis Haslem, their 4th best player, is finally becoming healthy. And they have the best player in the series.

I think Miami is the favorite, but it should be an interesting series.

Monday, May 9, 2011

NBA Draft Mockery 1.0

As more and more teams see their seasons end, and the slightly disturbing spectacle known as the "draft process" kicks into full gear, I find myself engrossed, in all the word's various possible meanings. Due possibly to the uncertainty concerning the existence of next year's NBA season, or the gods of basketball frowning on '92 babies, this year's draft has been described in terms like "historically weak".

This being a blog at least nominally focused on the history of the NBA, I'd be remiss in not mentioning the granddaddy of weak drafts, 2000. That was the draft in which Kenyon Martin was the best player taken. The best of the rest from that draft class was Michael Redd, Hedo Turkoglu, Mike Miller, and Jamal Crawford. For those concerned about the lack of poetry emanating from NBA circles, though, the draft was considerably more successful.

Which brings us to this year's draft. What follows is what I would do in each (lottery) team's situation, not what I think each team will do.

#1 MIN: Kyrie Irving, PG. Another point guard? The top two prospects right now are Irving, a point guard, and Derrick Williams, who looks like a more efficient Michael Beasley. Whichever pick they end up with, I wouldn't be surprised to see them choose an international big, probably Enes Kanter or Jonas Valanciunas. As for Irving, he's the closest thing to a sure bet in this draft, even if he doesn't have elite potential.
#2 CLE: Derrick Williams, PF. Cleveland needs everything, so they'll go for BPA here. I suspect Williams will mostly play at SF in the NBA, giving a team an efficient 20 and 7 with mediocre defense.
#3 TOR: Enes Kanter, C. Somewhat of an unknown quantity, but according to all reports, he's a polished scorer and all around player, by the standards of 18 year old centers. He won't be great, but Kanter and Ed Davis would give Toronto a frontcourt notable for something other than jump shots.
#4 WAS: Bismack Biyombo, PF. The player I'm highest on in this draft. His backstory reads uncomfortably like a sports movie, but watching him on YouTube it's hard not to get excited. He looks like an NBA player, he has DPOY potential, excellent intangibles, and he's playing excellently in the ACB as a raw 18 year old, a league featuring much tougher competition than the NCAA.
#5 SAC: Jonas Valanciunas, C. It seems like the Kings have talented young players at every position, they just need to figure out how to play together. At this point, with no elite talents on the board, the best option might be to take a Euro who won't be ready to come over for a couple years, when the Kings hopefully won't be developing eight players at once.
#6 UTA: Kemba Walker, PG. They've had good luck drafting point guards in the past, and Devin Harris' fate seems to involve being repeatedly unseated by a better, more famous replacement. Who am I to argue with fate? If Walker improves in the NBA like he did in college, he could be the next Terrell Brandon. I'm a bit leery of guys who weren't great until their junior year, though.
#7 DET: Kawhi Leonard, SF. Another team that needs everything. Leonard won't be a great scorer, but he can play defense, rebound, and slash.
#8 CLE: Brandon Knight, PG. Well, Cleveland desperately needs a guard that can create his own shot. I'm not sure what to think of Knight. He could be anywhere from CJ Watson to Chauncey Billups, depending on how much he improves.
#9 CHA: Marcus Morris, PF. The Bobcats need players who can put the ball in the basket competently, and Morris seems a decent bet to put together a steady string of 16 and 8 seasons with average defense.
#10 MIL: Alec Burks, SG. I think the Bucks are a scorer away winning games in the playoffs again. Burks is the best two guard in the draft, damning with faint praise as that may be.
#11 GSW: Jan Vesely, SF. He's big, athletic, exciting, and has questions concerning rebounding and man to man defense. Moving along...
#12 UTA: Jimmer Fredette, SG. Couldn't resist. The Jazz actually could use a bench gunner, FWIW. Davis Bertans (SF), the latest Peja clone, is a possibility here.
#13 PHO: Kenneth Faried, PF. An undersized four who can play defense, rebound like crazy, and run the floor? Seems like a good fit for the Suns.
#14 HOU: Chris Singleton, SF. He might be the best perimeter defender in the draft. If he can develop into a reliable catch and shoot three point shooter, which he showed flashes of in college, he could be an intriguing player.

If I had to pick one team to trade up, it would be Houston moving up for Biyombo, although that's really nothing more than a gut feeling. The Kings at #5 seem like a likely candidate to move down, those teams like to trade together, the Rockets have assets, and they desperately needs an interior presence/shot blocker.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

So, The Mavs Are Pretty Good

In the wake of the Dallas Mavericks' deconstruction of the Los Angeles Lakers comes the inevitable question, should we have seen their victory coming?

I can claim no prognosticative powers here. I didn't think Dallas would lose to the Blazers, but that was due more to pessimism about Portland than optimism concerning the Mavericks. I didn't think the Mavericks had much of a chance against Los Angeles, and even tweeted, when the playoffs began, about the easy road the Lakers had to the Western Conference Finals. Why was I so wrong? I think there were three main factors.

The first factor was that I underestimated how good Dallas is. I saw a team that went 57-25 with a plus 4.2 point differential, which is good, but hardly elite. However, if you eliminate games missed by Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler, Dallas' two best players (JET's heroics nonwithstanding), that record becomes 52-13 with a point differential over 6, which is "best in the Western Conference" territory.

The second factor was that I bought into the Laker narrative. Sure, they had plenty of weaknesses, and they struggled against a weak Hornets team, but they could turn it on when they wanted to, right? I thought they were just too big and too talented to lose this way. It turns out that they were until they weren't. Like the Spurs-Suns sweep of last year, this series is a reminder of how relying on established narratives can become lazy and inaccurate without asking if the reasons behind those narratives are still valid, in this case L.A's particular matchup advantages that Dallas was able to neutralize.

The third factor was the matchups, and I have said in the past that Dallas matches up well against the Lakers, but I didn't realize just how true that was. The Lakers' biggest weakness has always been small, quick guards, and their biggest strength has been imposing size and skill up front. Dallas was uniquely poised to take advantage, with Jason Terry and J.J. Barea shredding their perimeter defense, and their own trio of 7 footers (Chandler, Nowitzki, Haywood) neutralizing the Lakers' biggest strength.

On the other side, Dallas' biggest weakness the past few years has been, like L.A., quick guards. Exhibit A was their loss to San Antonio last year in the playoff series that briefly fooled people into thinking George Hill was a potential star. The Lakers (or the Blazers, for that matter) had no one who could exploit this weakness. Bryant's game is built around guile and precision instead of speed, making him the one type of good player Jason Kidd can still guard, and Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, and Shannon Brown provide the Mavericks with three of the only NBA players Terry or Barea can guard without looking atrocious.

Why did the Lakers get to the NBA Finals three straight years? One of the biggest reasons was that it was extremely difficult to score inside against them, and when an opponent takes your most efficient shot away from you, disaster often ensues. Fortunately for them, the Mavericks' biggest strength has been scoring from the outside, which they were able to do with ease against the Lakers' lackluster perimeter defense.

Oh, and for some reason Pau Gasol played terribly. Otherwise this series goes 6 or 7, maybe with the Lakers winning anyway.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Alien Clone Ghost NBA Team, etc

After listening to the most recent Disciples Of Clyde podcast a couple days ago, I was motivated to put together my own Alien Clone Ghost NBA Team to save the human race. For those not inclined to click on the link, the idea is to put together the best NBA team possible.

9 Man Rotation
C: '92 David Robinson
PF: '65 Bill Russell ('03 Tim Duncan)
SF: '92 Scottie Pippen ('77 Bobby Jones)
SG: '91 Michael Jordan ('07 Manu Ginobili)
PG: '70 Walt Frazier ('88 John Stockton)

Injury Replacements: '04 Kevin Garnett, '83 Sidney Moncrief, '08 Chris Paul.

Coach: Bill Russell
Assistants: Phil Jackson, Tex Winter

Various Notes and Justifications

I tried to put together a team on which (1) everybody can play defense, (2) could match up against anybody, and (3) wouldn't have too many chemistry issues (you don't want Oscar, Jordan, Kobe, and Wilt in the same lineup for obvious reasons). The team would primarily run the triangle when the starting lineup was in, though there would be a decent amount of pick and rolls (especially when Stockton was playing). They could run just about anything, though.

Matchups explain why, for example, I chose Duncan over Garnett. Russell and Robinson together pretty much duplicate Garnett's skills (elite defense, passing, stretching the defense), while there wasn't another player on the roster with Duncan's low post skills. If I had gone with Kareem instead of Robinson, I would have chosen Garnett as the 6th man. I didn't choose Kareem mainly because I thought he was more of a ballstopper than Robinson, and would clog Jordan, Pippen, and Frazier's driving lanes (especially with Russell having no jump shot).

All of the starters would normally play 30-35 minutes. Duncan, the 6th man, would get about 30 minutes. Based on matchups, Stockton would play between 20-30 minutes, Ginobili 15-25, and Jones 5-15.

This roster assumes current NBA rules. If, for example, the team was playing without a three point line, I'd substitute Moncrief for Ginobili. If the team was playing without the handcheck rules, I might substitute a forward for one of the quick guards.

[EDIT 5/8/11-In retrospect, I'd probably substitute Nowitzki for Jones, and switch his minutes with Ginobili. This team could use another three point shooter, and that move would add arguably the most effective shooter in NBA history and a 7 footer who can play small forward at the cost of another defender off the bench. I think the rest of the team would be able to make up for it, though.]

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Revisionist History: ReDraft 2006

Players drafted in 2006 are finishing their fifth season in the NBA, which leads me to wonder, if we knew in 2006 what we know now, how would the 2006 draft, one of the weakest in recent memory, have looked?

#1: Toronto Raptors (27-55). Coming into the draft, Toronto's best players were Chris Bosh, who had averaged 23 and 9 the year before despite being only 21, veteran guards Mike James and Morris Peterson, who would leave that summer as free agents, and rookie Charlie Villanueva, who would be flipped for T.J. Ford two days after the draft. They decided to draft skilled international big man Andrea Bargnani, who has shown he can score, but does little else.

Despite the fact that others in the draft will have better careers, I think the best choice for Toronto would have been Brandon Roy (6th). He would have given the Raptors an elite wing to team with Bosh for a few seasons, and the team's inevitable winning would have made it easier to convince Bosh to stick around and other good players to join the Raptors (always difficult) so that Roy's eventual injury problems wouldn't have been crippling. Of course, this scenario is risky, and based on the premise that Toronto's management wouldn't give Roy a max contract and let Bosh go anyway. If you want a safer pick, then Toronto should have taken Rajon Rondo.

#2: Chicago Bulls (41-41). Chicago's future looked bright, with 23 year old Tyson Chandler, 20 year old Luol Deng, and 22 year old Ben Gordon all having played big roles the previous year. Kirk Hinrich (25) and Andres Nocioni (26) were also solid, and the team was hoping to add a star with the pick they had fleeced from the Knicks. Then they decided to trade down on draft day, draft Tyrus Thomas, and trade Tyson Chandler for P.J. Brown. It worked out okay in 2007, thanks to the acquisition of Ben Wallace and breakout seasons from Deng and Gordon, but in 2008 they only won 33 games. Of course, they picked Joakim Noah with another Knicks picked, lucked into Derrick Rose, signed Carlos Boozer, and held onto Deng, so everything worked out great in the end.

But, knowing their situation in 2006, what should they have done? Draft LaMarcus Aldridge (2nd), probably the best player available in the draft.

#3: Charlotte Bobcats (26-56). Their best player was Gerald Wallace (23), and they also had rookie Raymond Felton, promising center Emeka Okafor, and an uninspiring collection of veteran role players. And they picked Adam Morrison.

Who should they have picked? The BPA at this point is probably Rajon Rondo (21st), and in retrospect Charlotte should have taken him. Sure, there would be issues with putting him and Felton on the court at the same time, but when the cupboard is that bare, you need talent, not fit.

#4: Portland Trail Blazers (21-61). They had Zach Randolph, coming off a terrible season, and...Steve Blake and Joel Pryzbilla? Portland hit gold in this draft, somehow turning Tyrus Thomas, Victor Khryapa, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, and Trent Plaisted into LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy. The next season they got rid of Randolph.

What should they have done? Exactly what they did, except perhaps giving Roy less money. But if Chicago wouldn't trade, and with Aldridge, Rondo, and Roy gone, the best players available are Paul Millsap (who replicates Randolph), Rudy Gay, and Kyle Lowry. They would probably take Gay (8th), but none of the options are really what you'd expect from the 4th pick in the draft.

#5: Atlanta Hawks (26-56). The young Hawks had Joe Johnson, Al Harrington, Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, and Zaza Pachulia. Harrington was the old man at 25, and this team with a thousand wings really needed a point guard. Instead, they drafted a 6-9 forward that busted, and was traded for Mike Bibby.

What should they have done? Taken Kyle Lowry (24th). Someone to direct the offense that could actually defend and penetrate would have made these recent Hawks even better.

#6: Minnesota Timberwolves (33-49). I think Kevin Garnett won those 33 games by himself. Minnesota needed everything. So, they decided to draft and trade Brandon Roy for Randy Foye. That did not turn out so well. 2007 would be Garnett's last in Minnesota, the Al Jefferson show bombed, and now it's Kevin Love's turn to be a great power forward on a bad team.

What should they have done? Best player available, especially with Garnett having one foot out the door. The best player left is Paul Millsap (47th).

#7: Boston Celtics (33-49) or Portland Trailblazers (21-61). This is kind of complicated. Boston essentially traded this pick to Portland for Sebastian Telfair, who swapped spots with Minnesota. To complete the circle, Minnesota and Boston had swapped Ricky Davis and Wally Szczerbiak a few months before.

Whichever team was picking, Boston or Portland (or Minnesota), the best player available was Ronnie Brewer (14th). Brewer turned out to be better than Telfair, so maybe Boston doesn't make that trade (though I don't know how that affects future cap space).

#8: Houston Rockets (34-48). The Rockets drafted Rudy Gay, and shipped him to Memphis for Shane Battier.

Needless to say, the Rockets would gladly trade anybody still available at this point for Shane Battier. Let's say, J.J. Redick (11th).

#9: Golden State Warriors (34-48). The year before their upset of Dallas in the playoffs, the Warriors, led by Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy, and Baron Davis, chose Patrick O'Bryant, who didn't do anything in the NBA.

If they had this pick back? I'm not sure if he's the BPA, but Andrea Bargnani (1st) seems like he was born to be a Warrior.

#10: Seattle Supersonics (35-47). Remember them? This team led by Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Luke Ridnour chose Mouhamed Sene, and international big man who barely played in the NBA.

Who should they have taken? Thabo Sefolosha (13th). Funny how things sometimes work out.

#11: Orlando Magic (36-46). Back when Dwight Howard was still figuring things out (but still good), and Tony Battie was their fourth best player, the Magic chose J.J. Redick, a good pick in retrospect.

Now, the best player left would be, imo, Tyrus Thomas, but on the chance that Stan Van Gundy might kill him, the Magic draft Boobie Gibson (42nd).

#12: New Orleans/Oklahoma City Thunder (38-44). The Hornets finished near .500 thanks to the rookie Chris Paul and David West. The Hornets drafted Hilton Armstrong with their pick, but in this redraft, get Tyrus Thomas (4th).

#13: Philadelphia 76ers (38-44): As we approach the end of the lottery, there are only a couple players left from this draft that have done anything in the NBA, and the 76ers take Randy Foye (7th).

#14: Utah Jazz (41-41): Jordan Farmar (26th) is a good backup point guard for Deron Williams.

#1 TOR: Brandon Roy
#2 CHI (to POR?): LaMarcus Aldridge
#3 CHA: Rajon Rondo
#4 POR (to CHI?): Rudy Gay
#5 ATL: Kyle Lowry
#6 MIN (to POR?): Paul Millsap
#7 BOS (to POR? to MIN?): Ronnie Brewer
#8 HOU (to MEM?): J.J. Redick
#9 GSW: Andrea Bargnani
#10 SEA: Thabo Sefolosha
#11 ORL: Daniel Gibson
#12 NOK: Tyrus Thomas
#13 PHI: Randy Foye
#14 UTA: Jordan Farmar

Friday, April 1, 2011

Historical Comparables: DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins has had a tumultuous rookie season, to say the least. The player many considered to be the most talented of the 2010 draft class has put up some impressive numbers; 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists per 36 minutes, but also some less than stellar stats, including a .428 FG%, and over 4 turnovers and 5 fouls per 36 minutes. I was interested to see what happened to similar players. Did they cut down on their mistakes, or flameout despite some initial gaudy stats?

Cousins has a usage rate over 27% and a rebound rate over 17%, meaning he can create shots and rebound at a high level in the NBA. What other NBA rookies have shown similar abilities, say, a usage rate over 24% and a rebound rate over 15%? The result? Fourteen other players have accomplished this feat while playing significant minutes. If you don't want to click on the list, they are David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal, Blake Griffin, Terry Cummings, Arvydas Sabonis, Alonzo Mourning, Elton Brand, Clark Kellogg, Ralph Sampson, Christian Laettner, Cliff "not Clifford" Robinson, and Karl Malone. Before you become too optimistic, it should be noted that Karl Malone was the only one of these players to approach Cousins' inefficiency. Lest you become too pessimistic, Karl Malone was nearly as inefficient as Cousins in his rookie year.

But this list is hardly fair. Who would honestly compare the 31 year old international superstar Arvydas Sabonis to a kid coming out after his freshman year? It's not just Sabonis, either. Robinson was 24, and the list is filled with polished four year players like Laettner, Bird, and Sampson. What about a cut off by age? Cousins is 20 this year. What does the list look like if we change the qualification to 21 or younger? The list becomes 2 Shaq seasons, 2 Elton Brand seasons, 2 Cliff "not Clifford" Robinson seasons, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Terry Cummings, Clark Kellogg, and Antoine Walker. Again, Cousins' 2010 was easily the least efficient season in the sample (yes, Virgina, less efficient than Antoine Walker).

That's the good. What about the bad? This time, I looked for players 21 or under that had a turnover percentage over 16 (Cousins is at 18.2%), a field goal percentage under 46%, more than 4.5 fouls per 36 minutes, and a rebounding rate above 12 to weed out the smaller players not really comparable to Cousins. This resulted in a surprisingly small list. The only other player to play more than 1100 minutes (Cousins has played over 2000 this year) while fitting that criteria is Danny Fortson. Other players who, in limited minutes, fit the criteria were Erick Dampier, DeSagana Diop, and Andray Blatche.

What have we learned? That in the past 30 years of the NBA, when all of the stats I have been sorting by have been tracked, DeMarcus Cousins is unique. There really aren't any players like him. His best comparables are probably Danny Fortson, Antoine Walker, Karl Malone, and Cliff Robinson. Players don't put up the kind of numbers Cousins had if they aren't any good. On the other hand, if they do certain things as badly as Cousins has, they don't stay on the court very long. He's already practically a 20-10-3 guy. If he cuts down on the mistakes*, he's an all-star. If he can't, he's a less valuable offensive player than Bruce Bowen ever was. Unfortunately, considering the organization he's with, that kind of improvement seems unlikely in the short term.**

*i.e., make fewer bad passes, show better awareness on defense, and take more shots closer to the basket.
**I think the only player in recent memory to improve after going to the Kings has been Beno Udrih, for some strange reason.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Goliath Always Wins: Alpha Dogs

Every team has a best player. Every team has a leading scorer. Every team has a best offensive player. Every team has a best defender. The identity of any one of these players cannot be deduced solely from the identity of any one of the other identities. For example, consider the 2011 New Orleans Hornets. Their best player is Chris Paul. Their leading scorer is David West. Their best offensive player is Chris Paul. Their best defender is (arguably) Emeka Okafor. Yet, it is impossible to logically reach any of those identities by knowing any of the other identities. A team's leading scorer is often its best offensive player, but not always. A team's best offensive player is often the team's best player, but not always. For example, Corey Maggette is a better offensive player than Andrew Bogut, but Bogut is still the Bucks' best player.

What other variables do we need to know in order to better determine who the "best" offensive player, defender, or overall player on a team is? To name a few, rebounding, passing, shooting efficiency, man defense, steals, blocked shots, altered shots, team defense, fouling, and screen setting. The distribution of talent in the NBA being what it is, figuring out the identity of the best player on a team is usually not that difficult, but there are always exceptions. These exceptions generally occur when a team has no very good players, like this year's Kings squad, or multiple good players like the 2010 Denver Nuggets, whose best player was either Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, or Nene, depending on the metric used. With all of these uncertain variables, how can we determine which player contributes most to the team winning?

Some of the issues concerning finding the best player are reminiscent of the issues concerning finding the best team. The best team is the one that wins, the one that controls the game. In the same way, it is expected that the best player is the one that contributes most to winning, and is the one that controls the game. This brings us to Alpha Dogs.

The Alpha Dog is the player that holds the most control over the game, the player that has the biggest positive impact of anybody on the floor. In the mythology's most unsophisticated form, his team will triumph because he will win the game for them. As we have already seen, there are a plethora of ways players can impact the game. Typically, the Alpha Dog is defined by his role on offense, which is taking the ball and scoring, as that is how teams win. This is an easy way to solve the "problem" laid out in the first two paragraphs. It is acknowledged that there is value in aspects of the game other than scoring, and the players who excel in these areas are called "role players". Every championship team has them, but they are not nearly as important as the Alpha Dog.

You may quibble with the assertions laid out in the previous paragraph, but I don't think it is disputable that for whoever believes in the Alpha Dog/Role Player dichotomy, the most important skill a basketball player can possess is to be able to create shots for himself. When looked at in this way, some of the Alpha Dog mythology starts to fall apart. The major problem with the mythology is that many skills result in more or better shots being taken for a team besides the ability to drive or create an open fadeaway jumper. What are some of those skills? Good passing, forcing a missed shot, forcing a turnover, grabbing a rebound, setting a good pick, etc.

The reason often given for the prioritizing of this particular skill is that it is most valuable late in games when it is more difficult to run a set offense. In these situations, the advantage often goes to skilled swingmen who can create their own shots. These are the players generally considered Alpha Dogs. Now, it is very likely that these types of players have an advantage in these situations. Still, all that means is that when one is constructing a team, having a wing player that can create his own shot is a priority. That does not necessarily outweigh everything else that happens on the basketball court.

An easy example of a situation in which the best player and the player filling the role of Alpha Dog are different players is the 2009 Orlando Magic with Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu. Looking at that team, it seems silly to suggest that Turkoglu was the Magic's best player because he was the best at creating shots in the final minute. It seems silly to suggest that he exerted more control over the game than Dwight Howard.

Another, more controversial, example is the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant is not a bad all-around player, but his greatest skill lies in taking, and sometimes making, shots that nobody else would even attempt. He scores a lot of points and the ball is usually in his hands. On the other hand, Pau Gasol is a decent scorer, but most of his contributions come in the areas of rebounding, passing, defense, and missing a lower percentage of his shots than his teammates, including Bryant. To the casual observer, it sure looks like Bryant's the one controlling the game because he's the one with the ball, but are the ways Gasol creates extra shots just as important, if less obvious?

By asking these questions, it should be obvious that I am casting doubts on the Alpha Dog/Role Player dichotomy. But I want to continue to use it to explore issues of winning and teambuilding. Next time: is there something special about winners?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Just Hibernating

I'll be back in a few months, probably.