Monday, March 28, 2011

The Real Impact Of The "Heat Effect" On The NBA's MVP Race

There is a handful of things I know. I know that the selection of the NBA’s MVP is anything but a perfect science. For starters, the pool of eligible voters consists entirely of members of the mainstream media, many of whom, while knowledgeable on the game, have been slow (if not totally unwilling) to add advanced statistics to their player evaluation processes. Additionally, most have likely spent no more than a few hours watching each of the top candidates, with a majority of that viewing coming in the players’ national television appearances- the easiest and most convenient to find.

I also know that Derrick Rose is not definitively the best candidate for the 2010-11 NBA MVP award that he’s likely to receive in the coming weeks. However, another nugget of wisdom to which I am privy- obtained through 25+ years of NBA fandom and tens of thousands of hours logged watching games- is that Rose is probably going to win the award, in no small part because he feels like this season’s MVP. And while there are compelling cases to be made for a number of other candidates, I am fine with that.

For starters, Rose is essentially unguardable. Earlier in the season, on ESPN’s NBA Today podcast, Ryen Russillo aptly compared Rose to NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders- no one looks remotely comfortable guarding him, most defenders instinctively backpedal as he approaches (problematic not only because of his blinding speed, but also the improved range on his jump shot), he finds creases where there appear to be none and humiliates multiple defenders with a single electrifying move. With the exceptions of Russell Westbrook, Monta Ellis and John Wall, no one in the NBA comes close to Rose’s combination of speed, quickness and ballhandling.

Statistically he’s been fantastic as well. Not perfect (as many in the advanced statistical community are more than willing to point out), but excellent. He’s averaging 24.9 points (7th in the NBA; .2 ppg behind Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony), 7.9 assists (10th) and 4.2 rebounds in just under 38 minutes per game.

You into them newfangled, advanced metrics? Rose stacks up well there too. According to
Hoopdata, in terms of Adjusted PER (APER), Rose’s 25.88 mark (up from 19.98 a year ago) trails only those of LeBron James (28.34), Chris Paul (26.92), Dwyane Wade (26.73), Dwight Howard (26.56) and Russell Westbrook (26.53). Among point guards that play at least 30 minutes per game, only Brandon Jennings (12.36) and D.J. Augustin (12.92) turn the ball over less frequently per 100 possessions than does Rose (12.93). That his Assist Rate (29.48) pales in comparison to his PG peers and his 32.36 Usage Rate is tops at his position speaks to the incredibly heavy reliance of the Bulls’ offense on Rose.

Throw in the fact that, while the Chicago Bulls entered the season with greater expectations than in years past, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a preseason prediction (mine included) that included the term “title contender.” And yet, here they are, with wins in 53 of their first 72 games (despite their second best player missing 23 games and their third best missing 31), including 9 of their last 10, a two-game lead over the Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and emerging as a sexy pick to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June- with the 22 year-old Rose as their undisputed leader. Toss all of that into the hopper, add in a few signature national TV performances (36 on 11-19 in a 1/8 win over Boston; 42, on 18-28, plus 8 assists against the Spurs on 2/17; and 30 with 10 assists in Tuesday night’s thumping of the Hawks) and you end up with a bandwagon that’s got more momentum than a train in some movie I never saw, of which Denzel Washington would like to disavow all knowledge.

The reality of the situation is that the MVP voting typically shakes out in favor of the best (usually offensive) player on a top-5 team, preferably one that’s exceeded expectations, and (most importantly, given the voting process) captured the mainstream media's collective heart. Given this, Derrick Rose, the feel-good breakout star of this season fits the bill. Sure, the greatest performance of this NBA season has belonged (again) to a certain transcendent talent whose relocation tactics left something to be desired, but still...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

20 Questions From The Association - Mad In March

Is it just me, or…

Is it not the least bit shocking that Donald Sterling is a bigger fan of cancer than he is the health of his own employees?

Should the Knicks have gotten more in return for Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler?

If we ignore his lazy defensive rotation on the play and the forearm shiver that could have led to a broken hip for Michael Beasley, is Andrew Bynum's suspension- representing two games in which he will not get hurt heading into the playoffs- a minor blessing for the Lakers?

As a good teammate, great finisher, elite athlete and arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, has Andre Iguodala dispelled the notion that he's grossly overpaid?

Is it mean-spirited to point out that this season (40-30 with 12 games left) is probably the best return the Hawks are going to get on their max-money investment in Joe Johnson?

Based on what we’ve seen in March, is it unlikely that in the June draft, there will be 19 better NBA prospects than Kemba Walker?

Is not enough being made of the fact that Dwight Howard has put together five straight games of 22-15+ (24.6 ppg, 16.8 rpg, 63.5% FG over that stretch), including 25-18+ twice, and that his worst game of the month was a 13-21 with four assists and two blocks in a three-point loss?

By "out-Tyrekeing" (21.29 APER, 22.2 ppg, 59.1% TS%, making 2.7 of 3.7 shots per game "at the rim" in 10 games) Tyreke Evans in Sacramento, is Marcus Thornton (unrestricted on July 1) playing his way into the top tier of the free agent class of 2011?

Does the fact that a 20-50 team (the Toronto Raptors) has not yet been mathematically eliminated from from the Eastern Conference playoff "race" make a stronger case for contraction than any money-losing owner ever could?

Rather than focusing on the awkward path JaVale McGee took to arrive at his triple-double, might our time have been better spent celebrating the fact that the recently-deceased Manute Bol recorded 6 career 12+-block games?

Is there no excuse for three professional basketball teams (Timberwolves, Wizards, Cavs) to each have just one victory within the division at this stage of the season?

Would an injured Nate Robinson be about as big a help to the Boston Celtics as a healthy Jeff Green (10.59 APER, 30.8% 3-pt, 5.7% Total Rebound Rate, 3.13% Assist Rate, 10.44% Turnover Rate) has been thus far?

In claiming that Carmelo Anthony "makes those around him better," were people referring to his effect on whomever he's guarding?

With Rudy Gay on the shelf for the remainder of the season, are the Memphis Grizzlies a prime candidate to be overlooked heading into the playoffs- and make someone pay for it?

Are the Houston Rockets- sitting two games behind those Grizzlies for the West's final playoff spot- probably wishing they'd turned Yao Ming's $17.6 million expiring deal into some (any!) on-court help for the stretch run?

Do the Phoenix Suns have the air of a once-gorgeous woman that still looks good from a distance (the logo, the jerseys, the home crown, top-10 in both pace and Offensive Efficiency), but on closer inspection is really showing the effects of age (Nash's unstable groin) and subpar plastic surgery (Vince Carter, Josh Childress, Aaron Brooks)?

Should the Timberwolves be in less of a hurry (99.7 possessions/48 minutes; 1st in the NBA) to play some really bad basketball (24th in Offensive Efficiency, 25th in True Shooting % and a league-worst 15 turnovers per 100 possessions)?

Despite perennially being a team that doesn't awaken before mid-March and currently sitting just half a game behind the Celtics and the Bulls for the league's second-best record, has this been an especially "ho-hum" Lakers regular season?

Even with the offensive contributions they're currently getting from Peja Stojakovic and Rodrigue Beaubois, are the Mavericks going to regret not turning Caron Butler's expiring contract into another frontcourt defender (they've fallen from top-12 in Defensive Efficiency to 17th, and are in the bottom five since Butler got hurt) and able-bodied scorer?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chris Paul's Been Knocked Back In Time- Let's Keep Him There

In the days leading up to the NBA’s All-Star break, I suggested that Chris Paul’s surgically repaired left knee was responsible for the alarmingly passive and erratic play we’d been seeing from the world’s best point guard. In that article, I suggested that Paul might benefit from setting aside his pride and toughness, taking a seat for a while, and providing his knee with a period of rest and recovery. Needless to say, Paul- an assassin at the point in the mold of Isiah Thomas- has little interest in taking a step back while his team battles for playoff position.

More recently, in a fantastic piece published on ESPN's TrueHoop, Ryan Schwan- one of the best Hornets observers that we have in this league (yeah, I just went Hubie Brown on you)- of Hornets247 discussed the possibility that the Chris Paul we'd come to love and count on may not be returning, and that perhaps we should reassess our expectations of him- from the "next Isiah Thomas" to the "next John Stockton." In the piece, Schwan laments the deterioration of Paul's legendary first step and suggests that the Hornets' superstar, despite still being just 25 years of age, may need to rely less on athleticism, and more on guile and his off-the-charts basketball IQ, as his career moves forward.

Apparently Chris Paul does not take kindly to the eulogizing of his greatness- even when it's drenched in empathy. Either that or he needed to be smacked back to 2009.

Now, it’s not often that you hear the case in favor of severe head trauma. However, this week, after watching Chris Paul's evisceration of the Sacramento Kings (33 points, 13-21 FG, 7 rebounds 15 assists, 5 steals, two turnovers), followed up by individually brilliant performances against the Denver Nuggets (27, on 9-16 FG, 5 rebounds 10 assists and SEVEN steals, albeit in a loss) and Phoenix Suns (26-5-9, with three steals), I would like to personally shake the hand of his concussion.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Life Of Mo

A funny thing happened during Mo Williams’ ascent to NBA stardom. Somewhere along the line (I’m saying the 2009 postseason), the plucky, persevering underdog- y’know, the guy that sports fans love above all others- morphed into one of the league’s least likable players. This change in perception is due in no small part to his confidence, aggressiveness and assertiveness- the very qualities that had originally made him popular and allowed the 47th pick in the 2003 draft to succeed in the first place.

While I’ve never been what you would call a “Mo Williams fan,” for a significant chunk of the last two seasons, I’ve defended him, sometimes rather heatedly, to the doorman of my apartment building (insert snob joke here), who’s not one to keep his disdain a secret, and has yet to pass up an opportunity to take a proverbial bat to Mo’s head.

More, recently, last Friday night, as a matter of fact, while in Newark watching Blake Griffin’s only visit of 2010-11 to Prudential Center, my wife- the most casual of NBA observers and someone who’s genuinely saddened any time a player is booed- and I had the following exchange:

Wife: Hey, who’s the Clippers’ guy with the red headband.

Me: That’s Mo Williams. They just got him a couple of weeks ago. He’s not bad.

Wife: He’s a ballhog. I don’t like him and his teammates don’t seem to either. (A fourth quarter dead ball in which Williams tried to get his teammates to huddle up and only got two willing participants supports this theory)

While my pro-Mo stance had weakened considerably of late, especially in the aftermath of his trade to the Clippers, it wasn’t until this moment that I came to a realization. I too truly dislike Mo Williams. More accurately- given the fact that I’ve never met the man- I dislike him, rather intensely, as a basketball player. Why? Let’s sum it up in less than 280 characters. In prepping for this piece, I searched my Twitter history for any Mo-related tweets, of which I found three. The first stated “Say what you will about Baron Davis, but dude understood how to get the ball to his bigs. Mo Williams has NO sense of timing on his passes,” while the other two, more concisely, and almost identically declare that Mo “needs to understand his place on the NBA food chain.”

Monday, March 7, 2011

Making The Most Of Your Time

Though we often tend to resist it, human beings exist in a state of perpetual evolution. As we grow, simplistic notions that shaped our perception of the world are called into question and- thanks to an ever-expanding base of knowledge and wisdom that is gained only available via experience- replaced by more sophisticated ideas. Not unlike many people, much of my youth was spent making bold, declarative statements, based on little more than my less-than-humble opinion. One such statement whose virtue I never tired of extolling- presumably coined by one of the great thinkers of our time, at that bastion of modern philosophy, the novelty t-shirt shop- was “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

With the benefit of greater life experience, not to mention the realization that accumulating the most toys is probably really tough, my point of view has evolved. No longer is the value of the time spent on this spinning rock inextricably linked to one’s tally of cash and cars. As much as it helps with the down payment, money alone will not ensure a happy or rewarding existence. Continuously learning and expanding you knowledge and understanding of topics that most interest you... that's the good shit right there!

In basketball, as in life, it’s important that we measure success not only by statistics accumulated in one’s time on the floor, but also in terms of how well this time is spent. Not all 30-point performances are created equal. Taken out of historical context, 1961-62 is arguably the greatest statistical season in NBA history. Bill Russell’s 18.9 points and 23.6 rebounds per game were good enough to earn him the league MVP, but not a spot on the All-NBA First Team. That’s the season in which Wilt Chamberlain famously put up 50.4 points (and 25.7 rebounds, which is sometimes glossed over) per game and Oscar Robertson averaged a ridiculous 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. So whacky were the numbers in 1961-62 that Walt Bellamy’s 31.6-point, 19-rebound rookie year effort, Jerry West’s 30.8-7.9-5.4 and Elgin Baylor’s 38.3-18.6 (in just 48 games; he was an Army Reservist, called into active duty during the season, and only granted a weekend pass, meaning he could only take part in games played on weekends. He’d join the Lakers wherever they happened to be each weekend, before returning to Washington State.) have been reduced to afterthoughts.

What these raw numbers ignore, however, is the fact that half a century later, 1961-62 represents the NBA’s highwater mark for uptempo play. Although they played a schedule that consisted of two fewer games than the league’s current 82 and shot a lesser percentage from the field (42.6%, v. 46.1%), compared with 2009-10, the average NBA team in 1961-62 attempted 28.6% more shots (8,619, v. 6,700), scored 18.3% more points (118.8 per game, v. 100.4) and grabbed a staggering 67% more rebounds (5,713, v. 3,421). Despite the appearance of an offensive boom, NBAers in 1961-62 only made more shots because they took A LOT more shot, and grabbed an obscene number of rebounds because they weren’t all that good at making the shots they were taking.