Friday, December 10, 2010

Tribute to the G-Man

Click here for a tribute video for my Dad's 2,000th game call.

Delusions in scouting. Best point guard debate. Efficiency matters.

A hot debate in the basketball world right now is taking place daily. Who is the best point guard in the NBA? I've heard some touting Deron Williams, while others prefer Chris Paul (pictured at right). Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, and Derrick Rose usually get a mention, and now Russell Westbrook is also getting some love from media members who work the NBA beat.

Those of you who read this space with any frequency know that we like to make our decisions on such topics by being, what Len Elmore refers to as, 'data informed' - which is opposed to 'data driven'. 

Some talent scouts forgo numbers altogether and opt to opine with just a 'feel', or gut reaction. The problem with any gut reaction in evaluating players is that we all, as humans, have emotions attached. Our eyes trick us. Our hearts lead us astray. ...Let me explain.

Visual delusion comes about in evaluation when a scout sees a player with outstanding athleticism and flash. High jumping players, explosive players, or players with Curly Neal ball-handling skills vault to the head of too many "big boards" simply because some scouts are reading too much into what their eyes easily see. 

It is easy to fall prey to the high-flying player who ALMOST pulls off the traffic dunk that "would've blown the roof off". Instead - he blows the dunk. Inevitably there is a long rebound which leads to a fast break for the opposition. That is a net of minus four points. ...I despise that. Yet there would surely be witnesses who stated they "loved the player's explosion" and "his ability to attack the rim". 

There were smart people who saw highlights of USC's ridiculously explosive dunk machine - Harold Miner (pictured at left) - and they assumed he was going to be a star. Some called him the next Michael Jordan

Yi Jianlian was drafted two positions before Joakim Noah in the 2007 NBA Draft. Scouts were correct in only one regard. Yi IS more athletic when it comes to a sprint race or a jumping contest. But of course there are no sprint races or high-jump bars in basketball. And we can all agree now that Noah - due to his basketball skills, toughness and grit - is the far superior player. 

There are scouts and smart people right now that have the gall to call dribbling wizard Kalin Lucas, of Michigan State, the best point guard in the Big Ten. Nevermind that Lucas presently has 25 assisted baskets and only one less turnover. Nevermind that Lucas seems incapable of finishing any play that involves him getting to the rim. He makes million dollar moves with his ball handling to penetrate the paint but the result is often not worth a dime.

My only guess is that those who argue of favor of Lucas have either not seen DeMetri McCamey (Illinois), Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin), and E'Twaun Moore (Purdue) - OR - those Lucas fans are suffering from the "herd mentality". If one ESPN analyst says "Kalin Lucas is the best point guard in the Big Ten" it is bound to be repeated by those who actually have not subjected themselves to watching an entire Wisconsin game. 

ASIDE: Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams play slow-ball. They are calculated and it honestly takes self-discipline for any hoops fan to get excited about seeing them play. I force myself to watch. And in so doing I have discovered that Taylor can coolly run a team AND make shots. 

As John Wooden so famously stated, "Never confuse activity for achievement." And I would add from Chuck D of Public Enemy, "Don't Believe the Hype!". 

If it is not our vision fooling us then it is our hearts that get in the way. When an underachiever achieves - our hearts feel good for the underachiever. Human nature kicks in and suddenly the less efficient player that works hard and scraps is getting more minutes from the coach. Now - in no way - am I saying that hard work and scrappiness is a bad thing or that it should not be rewarded.

I AM SAYING that often - coaches and scouts go too far with their love for an underdog (pictured at left). A decent example locally would be Darnell Jackson of the Sacramento Kings. He was not expected to make the team this season. But anyone who watched him play in the preseason - I'm sure - would think that Jackson overachieved. He knocked down a face up jumper here and there. He set effective screens. He dove on the floor. He scrapped and worked hard - and next thing you know - Darnell Jackson made the final roster for the 2010-11 season. 

Our hearts felt (feel) good about Jackson. But without data to inform us - it would be easy to over-value Jackson's worth. The 'data informed' know that Jackson has major holes in his game. He turns the ball over more than four times per assist. He is a poor free throw shooter (64% career) and most importantly he presently sports a .342 efficiency rating (EFR) which would have ranked 78th of the 85 Power Forwards that played enough minutes to be eligible in last season's final regular season stat audit. 

That Jackson has actually taken away minutes at various times this year from better, more efficient (yet less enthusiastic) players in Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, and Carl Landry is, to me, an example of an evaluation based too much on heart. I don't dislike Jackson at all. I just have a hard time believing he should have played over 20 minutes in three games already this season. 

In my evaluations of players - I've begun asking myself - "Do I feel like I have to root for this player to make the NBA or get minutes?". If the answer is yes - I'm immediately looking deeper at data to see if there is justification for him being in the NBA. You can keep ONE guy that you root for on the end of the bench (Jeremy Lin) but never more than one. 

Adding to our delusion, there is the 24 hour sports news cycle that we live in. ESPN (ABC) and CBS are the current homes for college basketball and the teams they feature are exposed more than teams in smaller conferences. And it is not just their actual games being played that are responsible for the exposure. Trust me on this one. I work in television. What makes the "air" is what is good for the network. 

In other words, if two plays are equally spectacular - but one occurred on a Saturday by a New Mexico State player - and the other happened during an ESPN televised Saturday game by a Big East, Villanova player, - the exposure advantage goes to the `Nova kid. His play will be seen repeatedly on nationally televised ESPN Sports Center, and on ESPN2, and ESPN-U. Sports talk shows such as PTI, Around the Horn, and the horrid Sports Nation will add fuel to the fire. ESPN Radio will chat up the player and talk glowingly of his highlight. 

The "build-up" occurs because there will be another game coming up on ESPN with the same Villanova player in it. It makes sense for ESPN to promote the players who play in the conferences that the network has contracts with. Meanwhile - the New Mexico State player likely gets no love outside of his region. 

The more we observe a player and allow his game to seep into our consciousness the easier it is to be comfortable with that player. Again, human nature. If player A is slightly better than player B but the scout saw player B play more often, and be seemingly constantly on National TV, chances are that the scout will gravitate toward the player he is more familiar with even when the data says to do otherwise.

And don't forget ESPN's presence on the internet. Chad Ford infamously helped a nation believe in 2003 that Darko Milicic should have been drafted before Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade

If Landry Fields (current New York Knicks rookie sensation - pictured at left) played in the Big East rather than the Pac 10 last season, I would argue that he would have likely been a more well known commodity and he would have never slipped to pick 39 in the 2010 NBA Draft.  His team, Stanford, didn't make the NCAA Tournament and his exposure was simply not on par with lesser players who balled in the SEC, ACC, or Big East. 

This media monopoly of the airwaves should NEVER be underestimated. It affects even the smartest of scouts who simply cannot isolate themselves enough to avoid the hype machine   known as ESPN that infiltrates any sports fan's life. 

The Efficiency Rating (EFR) is my slice of undeniable truth. However, the statistical formula that is so often referenced here has holes too. It is pure science. Points scored, plus assists, plus steals, plus rebounds, plus blocked shots minus missed field goals, minus missed free throws, minus turnovers - all divided by the number of minutes played. ... Strictly numbers.

Much like a hoe, the EFR is a tool.
The EFR is simply one part (a very BIG part) of the "tools" needed be 'data informed'. I believe in it because in 26 years of studying it - the EFR rarely fails. The most efficient teams win way more often than they lose. The EFR looks across a variety of measurable stats and levels the playing field between players who have played more minutes than others.  Perhaps the biggest key to the success of the EFR as a measuring tool lies in the use of figuring in turnovers and missed free throws which are simply overlooked too often in evaluation of players.

Efficiency isn't everything. Because the NBA and NCAA do not count, for example, charges taken, as a statistical category - the EFR has that proven positive attribute left out of the equation. The EFR does not allow for winning intangibles such as enthusiasm, professionalism, or willingness to be coached. The EFR does not account for solid, non-gambling defense, or the pass that leads to the pass that gets the assist.

ASIDE: For the record, we did add 'charges drawn' to the EFR formula once just to see how much it would raise a player's efficiency. Using Anderson Varejao's league leading standard in 2006-07 of one charge taken every 23 minutes, we were able to estimate that by season's end - a league-leading caliber charge taker, could raise his EFR by about .030. 

The EFR is not perfect. That is where a "feel" or plain old common sense has to be part of the process in evaluation. And there is no substitute for watching games. It is the combo of EFR and detailed, focused observation of games that leads to more accurate scouting.

Again - I want to stress that I love players with "heart". I love players that hustle. I want good guys on my team. That stated, the words of club owner Billy Sparks (pictured at left) in Purple Rain must be heeded. "This is a bid-ness! And you can't be too far gone to see that."

So give me players with the skill, talent, efficiency and athleticism it takes to produce WINS. The opposition can have the high jumper that rarely gets assists, or the "defensive specialist" that can't score to save his life. The other team can have that "point guard" that shoots with a full shot clock before making one pass. 

Which brings us back to the current debate about the best point guard in the NBA. (You thought I forgot?). The efficiency rating sees it this way:

#1 Chris Paul .741
#2 Steve Nash .684
#3 Russell Westbrook .672
#4 Deron Williams .659
#5 Stephen Curry .619
#6 Derrick Rose .585
#7 Rajon Rondo .576
#8 Tony Parker .570
#9 Raymond Felton .565
#10 Jameer Nelson .564

With EFR not being the end all, be all - we apply some "feel" and common sense to the above top-ten list. Paul's lead in EFR is so big that I can't justify saying another player's intangibles make him worthy of being ranked higher than Paul. So I'll go with Paul as the best in the NBA right now. 

Russell Westbrook drives by Jordan Farmar. 
But while the EFR list has Nash at #2 - common sense tells me that Nash is not a great defender, and he also misses a game here and there to protect his health because he is older than most other NBA PG's. Russell Westbrook is close to Nash in EFR and he is a GREAT defender with no limitations on his total minutes. So I'll take Westbrook as the current #2. Deron Williams, I think, vaults over Nash as well at this point for similar reasons. 

The point of all this rambling is that there is no one specific set of statistics that will ever give you a definitive answer when evaluating players. Likewise - a scout should never go totally on feel without using data as a tool to help. 

The best talent evaluators are the scouts that can combine science and common sense and balance the media hype with a dose of reality through close, focused observation. 

...And that is today's word. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

NBA efficiency audit one month in

We just finished the stat audit for the first four weeks of the 2010-11 NBA season. The top nine by efficiency rating at each  position are considered "A Gamers". 

Point Guards:

Chris Paul - NO .768
Tony Parker - SA .662
Russell Westbrook - OKC .662
Steve Nash - PHX .653
Derrick Rose - CHI .602
Rajon Rondo - BOS .583
Deron Williams - UTA .579
Devin Harris - NJ .575
Raymond Felton - NYK .570

Shooting Guards: 

Kobe Bryant - LAL .696
Manu Ginobili - SA .615
Steph Curry - GSW .587
Monta Ellis - GSW .582
Kevin Martin - HOU .565
Shannon Brown - LAL .562
Dwyane Wade - MIA .532
Danny Granger - IND .521
Landry Fields - NYK .511

Small Forwards: 

Carmelo Anthony - DEN .666
LeBron James - MIA .644
Matt Barnes - LAL .639
Kevin Durant - OKC .555
Paul Pierce - BOS .549
Michael Beasley - MIN .546
Rudy Gay - MEM .545
Wilson Chandler - NYK .534
Thaddeus Young - PHI .524

Power Forwards:

Luis Scola - HOU .716
Kevin Love - MIN .714
Amir Johnson - TOR .675
Paul Millsap - UTA .675
Tyrus Thomas - CHA. .668
Lamar Odom - LAL .655
Josh Smith - ATL .652
Dirk Nowitzki - DAL .643
Zach Randolph - MEM .605


Pau Gasol - LAL .835
Al Horford - ATL .789
Dwight Howard - ORL .714
Roy Hibbert - IND .695
Tim Duncan - SA .669
Joakim Noah - CHI .641
Amar'e Stoudemire - NYK .633
Tyson Chandler - DAL .599
JaVale McGee - WA. .590

Monday, November 15, 2010

JT ain't no 3.

We finished our last racing assignment of the year  - which means until mid January it is all basketball and music over here. ...Of course, I’ve been watching as much hoop as I can get away with while still doing my racing gigs professionally; I just haven’t been blogging about it. I do “Tweet” with regularity so if you are one of the three or four people who reads this space and you want to keep up with my most timely thoughts—you can follow me on twitter. The account name is @BasslineSpin.

Where to start? Well - nothing has boiled by blood pressure like the Sacramento Kings inability to correctly use their personnel and establish some sort of dependable rotation. I lost my Twitter cool when Sac began trying Jason Thompson (pictured) at Small Forward. At times, JT was on the floor with Center Samuel Dalembert, and Power Forward Darnell Jackson.

There are but a handful of rules in the NBA that I see as unbreakable truths. One is that your “THREE-man”, or SF must have the ability to either shoot the three-point shot or be capable of taking his man off the dribble to make a play. Jason Thompson does neither. He is 1-18 from beyond the arc for his career. As for playmaking, JT has more turnovers than assists, and his ball-handling is nothing you ever want to see more than two dribbles (if that) of. True, there are a few SF’s in the NBA that he CAN match up with defensively. But I will continue to maintain that WINNERS make the opposition match up with them—not the other way around.

It is particularly troubling to me that Thompson has been forced into this situation because after an off-season of hard work that saw him improve his upper body strength—I really believed (and still do believe) that JT could help this Kings team if given a steady diet of minutes at PF or C. The monkey wrench in this deal (aside from the questionable coaching) is Darnell Jackson, who has played well at times. Jackson “forced” the Kings coaches to find him some minutes which, I can only imagine, was the impetus for the JT position juggling.

But that is no excuse. Thompson simply NEVER, EVER should have been trotted out at SF. What happens from a floor spacing standpoint, when a non-threat from the perimeter plays SF, is you wind up with a clogged middle. Defenders do not need to worry about running all the way out to the three point line - so they smartly cheat toward the middle of the floor.

Having a clogged middle is especially bad for Sacramento. Tyreke Evans’ game (and most backcourt scorer’s games) is largely dependent on dribble-driving through the paint. The baffling part is that I know the Kings coaches HAVE TO KNOW THIS. So why did they play JT at SF?

The Kings margin for error relative to the rest of the NBA is still very small. Teams with losing records cannot have hiccups while experimenting. ...Which leads me to this… A big NBA fallacy is the thought that a “good” defender deserves playing time even though that same player is not offensively gifted.

The truth is that very few defenders are so “good” that their presence overcomes their offensive liabilities. There is a scoreboard which must be lit up with scor-ING to win a game.  Antoine Wright is a “safe player”. He defends his man and he doesn’t turn the ball over. We know this from his historical data. He’s played over 5,700 minutes in his career. What we also know is that he is not and most likely never will be efficient. It is my belief he is the current poster-child for what I just described above; a “good” defensive player that simply isn’t so good of a defender that it makes up for the stuff he can’t or won’t do on offense.

Efficiency always matters. The Kings are not at a level where they can afford to play one guy out of position and then give minutes to a guy like Wright, and expect anything but a five game losing streak.

To go further into nitpicking - Sacramento still has backcourt issues - and front court scorer Carl Landry has underachieved. Landry is not getting to the free throw line enough, and in my opinion, he has settled for his fall-away jumper too often. 

Beno Udrih and Evans should play until they drop dead based on their only backups being Luther Head, Wright, and Pooh Jeter. Apparently the coaches do not trust Jeter enough to play him. Jeter’s preseason numbers didn't do anything to help the staff believe he is ready for real NBA minutes.

Head might be okay as a 'fifth guard type backup' at Shooting Guard but his body dictates that bigger SG’s will always give him problems.  Head should not be looked at as a PG. Just because his body type says PG - that doesn’t mean his skill set agrees. Wright, ...I’m not sure should even be in the NBA. I still don’t really buy Evans as a PG. So that means Sac has Udrih as the only PG option. 

Francisco Garcia has spent time playing SG but that is not his natural spot. A good SG should be able to take someone off the dribble and create a shot on his own. "Cisco" excels more at spot shooting. He is a SF that DOES stretch the defense.  Garcia has outplayed Omri Casspi to date.

Bottom line. My fix for the Kings: play Udrih and Evans all that you can (or go get a real backup PG). Start Garcia at SF, with Thompson, and Dalembert up front. Landry has always seemed most comfy coming off the bench—so bring him in as the first sub for JT. DeMarcus Cousins spells Dalembert. I’d give Casspi the nod as Garcia’s backup, and Head (as the roster stands) would get a handful of minutes backing up at SG. If there is any experimenting done - I wouldn't mind seeing Casspi given a shot at SG. He moves well and his offensive aggression is sorely needed. He has proven he can’t guard a SF like Michael Beasley so maybe Casspi’s length, against the generally smaller players at SG, would be a better fit.

I too like what Jackson has brought to the table early in the season. He does simple things within his ability. But he too has holes in his game. He struggles as a free throw shooter, is just an average rebounder for his position, and he gets an assist about once every ten days. All that said - he is not (in my opinion) better than Thompson, Dalembert, Cousins, or Landry. So Jackson should probably just be getting minutes when the team needs a spark. If the Kings really believe Jackson is an answer going forward - then they should try to trade one of their BIGS to get that backup Point Guard that they need so badly.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Canada sour on Turkoglu. Last chance for Atkins?

”Brother Hedo” is no bro to Toronto fans. This I’ve gathered in reading scattered articles from Toronto area publishers. The general consensus seems to be that Hedo Turkoglu (pictured with Alvin Gentry and Lon Babby) was disappointing during his one season stint in Raptor-land. My thought is that Hedo was exactly what he is. He’s a nice wing player. He’s not an all-star. It seems to me that Toronto fans saw Turkoglu excel during the Playoffs when he was with Orlando in 2008-09, and they over-inflated his projected worth. We had Hedo ranked 26th at his position last year which would mean he is a “lower tier” starter at this stage of his career. Turkoglu, who was tabbed “Brother Hedo” by Chris Webber when he first arrived in the USA as a Kings rookie, is now the property of the Phoenix Suns.

Chucky Atkins - the 36 year-old NBA veteran is also in Phoenix. However - unlike Turkoglu, Atkins has no guarantees. As it stands - Atkins is the fifth point guard on the Suns training camp depth chart. In front of Atkins are starter Steve Nash, and his backup Goran Dragic. Undrafted rookie Matt Janning landed a partially guaranteed two-year deal as the third PG, and Zabian Dowdell is the fourth floor general. That means this could be the end of the NBA line for Atkins. We ranked Atkins 80th at his position in 2009-10.

Former brick-laying free throw shooter Chris Dudley is running to be the Governor of Oregon. Dudley is repping the Republican party.

The D-League announced it will change goaltending rules for the 2010-11 season. Serving as a crash-test-dummy for the NBA, the D-League is switching to the international take on goaltending—meaning you can swipe at the ball while it is on the rim. This is REALLY incredibly dumb to me. Why confuse the big men who are trying to reach the NBA with a rule that is in direct contrast with the NBA’s interpretation? The rules should be the same in the minors as in the big show.

In Philadelphia, Doug Collins has former Duke assistant and Missouri head coach Quin Snyder (pictured at left) on his staff. I was surprised at Snyder’s flame-out at Mizzou but I still believe he is the kind of guy with the drive to one day be a head coach in the NBA.

While on the topic… my favorite NBA coaching candidate is Milwaukee assistant Kelvin Sampson.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

By Christmas Mississippi State could be jolly

Mississippi State finally has clarity on the status of their two studs that may be NBA material. Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney  (pictured at right) will miss the opening 16 and 9 games respectively. Bost is a point guard that has terrific speed and vision but his shot selection is suspect. He is probably a long shot for the Association. Sidney is a BIG (6’10” 270+) that will almost assuredly be the NBA when he decides to come (as long as he keeps his weight under control). I know it is a long way away—but circle your calendar for the Bulldogs to suddenly be better to the fifteenth power when Sidney returns to their lineup in mid-December. Bost and Sidney drew the ire of the NCAA for reasons that honestly I don’t care to expand on. I hate that stuff.  (You can read more about why Bost and Sidney were suspended here).

While we are quickly on the topic of college hoops ‘dynamic duos’, here is a quick rundown of our favorite pairs with regard to future NBA success. 1. Duke’s Kyrie Irving (pictured at left) and Kyle Singler. 2. Georgia’s Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. 3. North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes, and Reggie Bullock. 4. Texas’ Tristan Thompson, and Jordan Hamilton. 5. Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn and Perry Jones III. 6. Florida’s Patric Young and Chandler Parsons. 7. BYU’s Jimmer Freddette and Jackson Emery. 8. Marquette’s Jimmy Butler, and Joseph Fulce.

Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague has a little brother that may well run Kentucky’s offense in 2010-11. Marquis Teague has tough shoes to fill not only following his big brother in basketball but also being the PG that succeeds John Wall for “big blue”.

Shaquille O’Neal said this of the Miami Heat, “They got a great 1-2.” Apparently The Big Celtic is not a fan of Chris Bosh.

Elton Brand took up cycling during the summer, which coupled with a better diet led to a loss of ten lbs. Brand and the Doug Collins coached Sixers intrigue me. The Sixers made two trades I didn’t like. I’m not a big Spencer Hawes fan, and I thought that newly acquired Craig Brackins was among the most overrated draft picks in June. What I like about the Sixers is their Team USA baller Andre Iguodala (pictured at right), the underrated and still relatively unheralded Lou Williams, and BIG Marreese Speights. Rookie Evan Turner will hopefully look better than he did in Summer League - where he was mostly ineffective.

I thought it was interesting to hear that the Knicks have their players wearing a device that tracks their activity level during practice sessions. The device measures how often you jump, run, jog, sprint, walk, etc… Slacking by vets just got a little tougher to pull off.