Archive for March, 2008

Guest Post: Hengst Rant #1

March 31, 2008

“Now I Remember Why I Hate Shaq”
By “Teenage” Hengst

When the 07-08 season began, I was feeling an unprecedented feeling of goodwill and empathy for Shaq. He was stuck on a bumbling Heat squad with a hobbled Dwyane Wade and was going through a divorce. It probably was not a fun time to be Shaq, and I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His recent behavior, though, has helped to jog my memory of why he sucks.

First off, that snubbing of Tim Duncan’s outstretched hand in that Spurs-Suns game a few weeks ago was just ridiculous. Everyone knows he did it on purpose and what’s more, I’m fairly confident that he’s jealous of Duncan. Its just petty. But what really galls me is this trash he’s throwing at his former teammates in Miami. How small is Shaq that he’s kicking Chris Quinn when he’s down? I mean, we can debate Pat Riley’s culpability in all of this, and I agree with Shaq that Riley’s definitely bailed on this team at least as much as Shaq has. But show some gratitude, Shaq. You were dealt to a great situation and now you’re throwing barbs at Ricky Davis?

Why does the entire NBA media just give him a pass on this crap when he consistently shows himself to be this petty?

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The Curry-Up Offense

March 30, 2008

Quick observation from the Davidson game: Doesn’t it look like they’re using the same formula as the Rockets minus Yao? So far it’s been really solid team defense — they’ve somehow deployed multiple white guys to slow down Kansas’ athletes in the first half — paired with a freakish scorer who can efficiently chew up a ton of offensive possessions. Not surprising then that both rely on consistent high-level point guard play. Rafer’s lucky run of competence fueled the Rockets’ streak; Davidson’s PG, Jason Richards, leads the NCAA in assists at 8.1/game.

Kansas might want to think about doing their best single coverage on Curry and trying to dominate the defensive glass. That’s a pretty effective way to smoke the Rockets. Then again, watching Curry, he might actually be a better pure scorer than McGrady. Holy crap, can this kid shoot.

Texas Plight

March 30, 2008

Memphis just crushed Texas, but it wasn’t really an embarrassment for the Horns. Memphis took us out of our game from the tip, and Derrick Rose can flat out ball. All that said, what really killed Texas’ comeback mojo was a damn banked-in three-pointer. Ah, well.

That game alone has to put Rose in the conversation for the number one pick this June. I didn’t think anyone could challenge Beasley, but then I’d never seen Rose in action. He’s huge for a PG, remarkably under control, and simply an incredible athlete. For an NBA team, imagine a Deron Williams-Monta Ellis mashup. I’m not sure there’s anyone like him in the League right now.

As for Texas, it was the first time we looked out-manned all season. Memphis threw out an legitimately NBA-size line-up, and it got to our guard play. D.J. Augustine had another stinker in a tournament loss, but unlike last year it wasn’t a total mental meltdown. Today it just looked like Memphis was in his head when he tried to finish at the rim, and he missed a lot of shots he normally makes. Abrams inability to get anything going also really hurt Augustine, who I think is destined to be a really great setup man in the NBA. He’s probably just a little too small to also be a prime-time scorer in the Chris Paul mold. If he ends up being the fourth PG (that mock has him going to the Raptors!) taken in the draft, some team’s going to get a steal.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Sports Bigamy

March 28, 2008

Last weekend my buddy Sean and I went to pick our seats for our Warriors season tickets. (I have to admit, even as a die-hard Spurs fan: games at Oracle are way more fun than games at the AT&T Center.) In the process, I picked up a very useful piece of information: how Craigslist ticket scams work.

Turns out that the process of forwarding tickets to a friend, buyer, etc., is all controlled through the Warriors website. As a ticket holder, you can log on and do stuff like print your tickets in case your forget your paper copy, but it’s also the only way you can forward tickets to another email address. The trick is, as soon as you forward tickets to someone, the paper version that you received before the season immediately becomes invalid.

So if I understood the sales guy right, getting tickets forwarded to you from the Warriors automated service — and not from a personal email account — is the safest way to buy tickets off Craigslist. (The sales rep, of course, said that no one should ever buy tickets off Craigslist.)

The scam is that someone could sell their paper ticket in advance, send it to the buyer, and then forward the tickets to another email address the scammer has set up. Only the forwarded tickets will work at the door. And the guy that shows up with legitimate, glossy season tickets won’t be able to get in. This apparently happened a lot during last year’s playoffs.

As for our seats, they were almost a disaster: We arrived early at Select-a-Seat day to see what was available. Open seats are marked with white covers, we’re told. Walking through a curtain leading on the upper deck — center court, a view of the entire arena — we were both wondering how far we could stretch our salaries to get us closer to the court. To our horror, the seats were a sea of blue. Only a few dozen white seats. None in the lower bowl. None in the first five rows of the upper deck.

“This suuuuuuucks,” Sean muttered as we circled the arena. It got so bad that we started looking at decent single seats that were reasonably close together — maybe just a row apart or something.

What saved us was when we looked at the prices and targeted some cheap corner seats. Turns out, you can get a pretty nice view of the court from one of the corners, about nine rows back (Section 205, if you ever go to Oracle). The seats were actually affordable — as much as nosebleeds at a Spurs game — and we found out that this summer there will be an Upgrade Day when we can see what opens up after some current ticket holders opt not to renew.

So all was not lost. We’re officially season ticket holders and, God willing, locked in for playoff tickets this year. And as a nice little bonus, we got to watch West Virginia beat Duke on the Jumbotron as we filled out paperwork. Count it.

God, Derek Fisher Sucks

March 25, 2008

Last night referee Bob Delaney ruined an incredible game between the Warriors and Lakers with a phantom offensive foul, which he was goaded into by a Derek Fisher flop. In case you missed it: Warriors down 2 with the ball, sideline out of bounds, 4 seconds left in OT. During the out-of-bounds play, Fisher trips, falls down, and drags Monta Ellis to the ground with him, and somehow Delaney — overcome by the spirit of Joey Crawford — jumps in and whistles Monta for the foul. Game Lakers. Longer recap here, video here.

There’s not much more to say about the call, infuriating as it was, other than “Fuck the Lakers and fuck the refs” (fans’ reaction) or “It is what it is, I don’t want to get fined” (players’ and coaches’ refrain). What is hard to figure here is why Derek Fisher’s bullshit always gets a pass. The guy’s been the league’s premier flopper dating back to the Kobe-Shaq era, and no one ever says a thing about it, except Don Nelson: “I don’t know why [Delaney] would call something like that,” he said after the game. “Especially [for] a flopper. Usually they just ignore all that stuff.”

Which is why it’s so baffling that Fisher keeps getting these calls — from impossible-to-believe stuff like this to letting him get away with more sliding charges than Duke UCLA. That a ref could ever see Fisher fall to the ground and give him the benefit of the doubt is simply hard to believe. It’s actually gotten to the point where Fisher wasn’t even trying to sell it and got the call — he was quoted after the game saying the take-down should have been a no-call.

Why? Seriously, why? It’s not like his coattail-riding game is a joy to watch. Is it because he’s known as a decent guy off the court? Is it just because he’s on the Lakers and ABC is fully aroused by the hype? Is Stern calling this in like the 2006 Finals? What’s going on here? The refs aren’t dumb, they rewatch the games, they know how often he’s duped them. WHY? Screw it, I said it:

West Coast bias.

The MVP Algorithm

March 21, 2008

The other night Reid and I found a pretty cool sports bar here in SF with League Pass and got into the standard MVP discussion with the bartender: Lebron, Kobe, or Paul. We all know the arguments for and against, and they’re all both valid and yet still unconvincing. So wouldn’t the voting have to come down to what happens down the stretch? Something like this:

IF Lakers win the West

THEN Kobe = MVP

ELSEIF Hornets win the West

THEN Paul = MVP

ELSEIF The Lakers hang close enough to justify Kobe’s career-achievement award

THEN Kobe = MVP

ELSEIF Both N.O. and L.A. fade down the stretch

THEN Lebron and his ridiculous 31-8-7.5-1.8-1 stat line = MVP

Seems about right. Tracy McGrady left out of the discussion intentionally. The bartender was a die-hard from Houston and he didn’t even bring it up. Screw the Rockets, their offense is bunk.

An Open Letter to Rafer Alston

March 21, 2008

Dear Rafer,

You’re just not that good. Quit talking so much. (I can’t believe Bobby Jackson’s double-cluth, desperation three was the winning margin against the Warriors.)

Sincerely,

The Blogjammin’ Team

P.S. — See also the recent Hollinger article where Chris Paul embarrasses you: “Tracy McGrady is a great player. If I was Rafer Alston, I’d probably ride his coattails too,” Paul said. There’s more.

An Open Letter to Bruce Bowen

March 16, 2008

To: BruBo

From: A life-long Spurs fan

Re: That Chris Paul cheap shot

You know what? I’ve had it with this trash. My brother and I go to Vegas for a few days, miss the game, and come back to find that not only did you get embarrassed by 25 (and cost Grady 20 bucks), but you pulled out more lame-ass, indefensible bullshit. We Spurs fans defended you for years and loved it when you set off whiny stars like Vince Carter. But we don’t even want to try justify this crap, which keeps happening more frequently. Just stop. We’d rather lose than watch this desperate attempt to make up for those steps you’ve lost.

You deserved to get suspended. It should’ve been longer. Hell, at this point, I wish we hadn’t signed you to that extension. Now I just hope we draft Brandon Rush so he can take all your minutes next year.

Sincerely,
Wright

The Efficiency Obsession

March 10, 2008

As basketball statistics get more sophisticated, and everyone from bloggers to broadcasters focus on efficiency, it’s surprising that the work of Dean Oliver doesn’t get more attention. Authors with bigger web presences, namely Hollinger and Berri, overshadow Oliver and his book, Basketball on Paper. But it talks at length about how teams are put together, whereas it feels like a lot of current statistical discussion concentrates solely on evaluating individual players’ performance*.

In particular, Oliver devotes an entire chapter to an aspect of basketball that is critical to team offensive output, but is often obscured by focusing on individual stats: the fact that NBA superstars sometimes help their teams by performing less efficiently. More and more I see analysts and commentators praise individual efficiency as the golden standard, but Oliver presents evidence that we don’t want to get carried away and make it our sole focus.

They key is usage rate, which is the percent of a team’s possessions a player uses when on the court. The stats show that, for all players, as he uses more possessions, his efficiency decreases. How much that efficiency decreases and at what usage rate we see significant declines vary from player to player. What defines a superstar, in Oliver’s statistical analysis, is that he can shoulder a larger proportion of a team’s possessions with only a relatively small drop in efficiency. Meanwhile, the opposite is also true: players perform more efficiently when they are asked to use fewer of their team’s possessions. As a result, the greater burden on the superstar means that supporting players maintain low usage rates, allowing them to operate closer to their peak efficiency. By balancing usage rates and the varying offensive ratings of the five players on the court, a team can achieve optimal offensive output for the personnel.

The concept is a little counter-intuitive, but powerful. By looking at offensive efficiency in tandem with usage rate, stat nerds like myself get a more nuanced picture of a player’s output. Other metrics, such P.E.R., Win Score, etc., use a single number to measure performance, which is good for ranking players but not as good for understanding how team’s perform. Oliver’s measure of individual offensive efficiency, which he calls offensive rating, has the added benefit of being expressed in the same terms as team efficiency: points scored per 100 possessions (for a super-quick primer on these stats, see the second footnote**). It is more informative, at least to me, to see that LeBron‘s offensive rating is 117 (very good) and his usage rate is 34% (remarkably high, leading the league this year). This is especially true when comparing LeBron to a good role player like Carl Landry, whose offensive rating is 135 (still crazy-high for a guy who doesn’t shoot 3’s and sucks at FT’s) but whose usage rate is only 19%. Those stats are more descriptive to me than saying Lebron has a PER of 30.6 while Landry’s is 23.8, even though PER incorporates usage rate. It relates the individual to the team better.

Let’s take an example from Oliver’s book: the 2002 Lakers. That year L.A.’s starting lineup of Shaq, Kobe, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and Rick Fox had a very solid offensive rating of 114.

  • Kobe — individual offensive rating: 114 / usage rate: 30%
  • Shaq — 117 / 30%
  • Fisher — 115 / 16%
  • Horry — 114 / 14%
  • Fox — 108 / 10%

Through a measure that Oliver calls “skill curves,” the details of which are best left to another post, he demonstrates that if you change the distribution of how this lineup uses possessions, it significantly affects team performance.

  • Kobe — 116 / 25%
  • Shaq — 121 / 25%
  • Fisher — 90 / 20%
  • Horry — 93 / 17%
  • Fox — 107 / 13%

With that usage distribution, the lineup’s offensive rating falls to 107 — a substantial drop. The important thing here is that Shaq and Kobe are playing more efficient basketball, but it’s actually hurting their team. Because Fisher and Horry’s offensive rating drops off so sharply with only a slight increase in usage, the entire team suffers when Shaq and Kobe don’t carry more of the burden.

Here’s the crazy thing about Oliver’s example: By looking at Rick Fox’s performance as a member of the Celtics, when he had a higher usage rate, Oliver extrapolates that Fox’s mediocre efficiency holds steady even with extra possessions. So keeping Shaq and Kobe at 25%, if the Lakers just bumped Fox to an 18% usage rate instead of burdening Fisher and Horry, their offensive rating would bounce back to a respectable 112. In this scenario, as Oliver points out, Fox acts a buffer, ensuring that Fisher and Horry can keep their usage rate down even if Shaq and Kobe are having trouble getting their shot off for some reason. The Lakers actually benefit from having a less efficient player in that lineup.

The implications of everything above are huge. For one, it gives a very clear sense of how having good teammates in supporting roles makes a superstar better and vice-versa. Second, it gives us a better way of deciding what adjustments teams should make if they’re struggling. Third, it punches a gaping hole in the seemingly provocative argument that players like Allen Iverson are overvalued — an argument that Dave Berri used to attract The New Yorker‘s interest and sell a lot of books. A.I.’s high usage rate and modest efficiency weren’t ideal, but it was better for the team than dumping more possessions on the likes of Eric Snow. The flip side, of course, is that Oliver can also use his stats to show that Pistons-era Jerry Stackhouse really did shoot too damn much.

Finally, it provides a slightly better mechanism for predicting how players will perform on new teams or in new roles. I say slightly, because the big problem with Oliver’s analysis is limited data. There simply weren’t enough games when Kobe used less than 20% of team possessions or when Derek Fisher used over 25% to say with confidence how the Lakers would have performed if those players switched roles. Oliver admits that his numbers may not have the down-to-the-decimal precision we want, but even in their imprecision they manage to provide a more accurate picture of team performance.


* Hollinger’s most recent article, a breakdown of the Suns since the Shaq trade, is actually an exception. I think it’s one of the more informative pieces he’s written, and it doesn’t mention P.E.R. once. Too bad it’s now doomed to Insider irrelevance.

**Leaving aside the details of the math, all efficiency stats follow vaguely the same process. (1) The statistician first acknowledges that point differential is a better predictor of a team’s ability than actual win-loss record. (2) The statistician controls for differences in pace between teams by looking at the numbers on a per-possession basis. The differential is usually expressed as points scored/allowed per 100 possessions, which is both easy to understand and fairly close to the average NBA game. (3) The statistician devises his own way to break down the stats at our disposal to assign how much each one contributes to points scored/allowed. This is where the statisticians diverge, as each one has his own unique method of assigning value to the stats at hand. Debating the merits of each method would take many blog posts to cover. (4) A lot of stat guys then devise another layer of abstraction in the hopes of simplifying their calculations. That is, they try to format their numbers in such a way that they reflect, say, a share of that team’s wins (e.g., Win Score) or the player’s performance relative to the rest of the league (e.g., PER). (5) If the statistician is worth a damn, he reminds the reader that basketball statistics fail to capture a ton of what happens on the court — everything from setting screens to rotating properly on defense to that elusive “chemistry” good teams thrive on.

Stephen A.’s Rants of Wisdom #2

March 8, 2008

Long’s huge on the internet.