Archives For December 2004

On Tap: The Sacramento Kings

 —  December 16, 2004

Looking for positives as the Lakers head into Sacramento for the second game of a tough road trip, I came back to this: The Lakers are worth more than the Kings.

According to Forbes magazine, the Lakers are the most valuable franchise in the NBA, worth $510 million. That is 14% more than last year (easily outpacing inflation, in case you were worried about Dr. Buss’ lifestyle). For the record, the New York Knicks are second at $494 million, followed by Dallas ($374 million), Houston ($369 million) and Chicago ($368 million).

Actually,on the court the Lakers should be somewhat optimistic coming into the game in Sacramento — the last time these two teams met, the day after Thanksgiving, the Lakers hung close and lost by just three. Since then the Lakers have improved as a team. Well, as long as you throw out that game a couple of nights ago.

That last loss to Sacramento featured some of the Lakers recurring problems this season. Start with the fact Los Angeles led by three with 1:19 left in the game, then gave up a 7-1 run to lose. Or, you can look at the turnovers — the Lakers had 12, Sacramento 8 (for the season, the Lakers average 3 turnovers a game more than their opponents). Figuring that Sacramento scores an average of 1.08 points per possession and the Lakers 1.07, the four more turnovers than Kings last time around accounts for an eight-point swing.

Sacramento gets great play out of its starting five, a group that has an impressive eFG% of 51.8% and bests the team it is out against 61% of the time. (Compare that to the Lakers, whose starting five have an eFG% of 49.4% and best their opponents 35.2% of the time.)

Last time these two met, the Lakers inside duo of Lamar Odom and Chris Mihm did a good job offsetting the inside play of Chris Webber and Brad Miller, which when you look at the Kings PER by position is where they are getting the best play on offense. The Lakers actually outscored the Kings in the paint, 44 to 38.

What hurt the Lakers (and many other teams) was not being able to stop the King’s small forward Peja Stojakovic, who led the Kings with 26. Defensively, the three is the position the Lakers give up the most points against, an oPER of 18.7. Also, don’t forget the Kings have Mike Bibby and we counter with Chucky Atkins, not a matchup in our favor.

Last time these two teams met, Brian Cook had a then-season-high 15 points of the bench, and Jumaine Jones added 10. Kobe had a game high 40, but took only 17 shots from the field. What he did do was draw fouls — Kobe was 15 of 19 from the free throw line.

After the ugliness of two nights ago, I’m not sure what to expect from these Lakers. If they shake it off and get a win (or even come close), it would be a sign that this team really is maturing and improving. We shall see.

What Are Those Numbers?

 —  December 15, 2004

Not long ago, Dean Oliver, author of a watershed basketball numbers book, “Basketball on Paper,” was hired as a consultant with the Seattle Supersonics. The move was reminiscent of Bill James — a man who had for decades been thinking outside the baseball box — becoming a Red Sox consultant.

I throw that out there not to point out the obvious winning trends in both places, but rather to point out that the use of detailed, relatively complex statistics to measure player performance is something becoming part of the sports establishment. Baseball’s new wave of statistics (well, a bunch go way back to Branch Rickey, but that’s a story for another day) started coming into the light when the book “Moneyball” came out and shot up the best sellers list.

The new wave of basketball stats are not nearly as well known — PER has not come near the level of OPS — but their day is coming. And, if I and some other bloggers can push that envelope along, all the better.

My use of those stats in this blog has led to a host of questions to me (well, host may be an overstatement) along the lines of “what is going on here?”. So, following is a series of definitions of the stats you’ll see here most, with links to longer definitions and equations. (If that’s your thing, start here.)

First, one more thought. In the same way that baseball statistics are valid because of the number of trials — a starting major leaguer gets more than 500 at bats per season, for example — basketball stats are also valid. There are 82 games a season and that means most teams have upwards of 7,400 offensive possessions per season. A star player like Kobe Bryant may take upwards of 1,100 shot per season (1,178 last year) but even a role player, such as Chris Mihm last season in Boston, will take hundreds (381). The volume is there to make valid analysis.

PER, or Player Efficiency Rating. This statistic is one you’ll see a lot and comes from NBA stat guru John Hollinger, who has his own site and puts out a Basketball Prospectus book every season. I’ll let him explain PER (from his site):

The formula, which I call the Player Efficiency Rating (PER), adds the good (made shots, steals, assists, rebounds, blocked shots, free throws), and subtracts the bad (missed shots, turnovers, fouls) by assigning a point value to each item (I arrive at the point values in a fairly tortuous way, and that’s one of the parts I’m saving for the book). The rating for each player is then adjusted to a per-minute basis (so that, for example, you can compare subs with starters in the frequent ‘he should start ahead of so-and-so’ debates), and also adjusted for the team’s pace. In the end, one number sums up the players’ accomplishments (the statistical ones, anyway) for that season. I’ve set it up so that the league average, every season, is 15.00, which produces sort of a handy reference guide:

A Year For the Ages: 35.0
Runaway MVP Candidate: 30.0
Strong MVP Candidate: 27.5
Weak MVP Candidate: 25.0
Bona fide All-Star: 22.5
Borderline All-Star: 20.0
Solid 2nd option: 18.0
3rd Banana: 16.5
Pretty good player: 15.0
In the rotation: 13.0
Scrounging for minutes: 11.0
Definitely renting: 9.0
On next plane to Yakima: 5.0

PER is a very good measure of what a player contributes offensively, and that can also be extrapolated to what a team gets from a position on the floor. I think the best evidence of how well PER works is to see who is at the top of the list this year, so far:

NAME………… PER
Tim Duncan…… 30.51
Kevin Garnett… 30.32
Dirk Nowitzki… 30.05
Amare Stoudemire 29.14
Dwyane Wade….. 26.82
LeBron James…. 26.40

Kobe leads the Lakers with a PER of 23.7, a number held down by his shooting percentage and turnovers.

oPER or Opponents Player Efficiency Ratings. This is the same as PER, but done to whomever a player is guarding to give you an idea of the defensive performance of a player.

This is a flawed system when applied to one player because of zone coverages, switch offs and the rest of the way defense is played in the NBA. That said, it does work to give you a general idea of what a player is doing.

However, oPER it works pretty well when applied to a position. For example, the Lakers this year are allowing an oPER of 10.9 against opponents shooting guards, well below the league average of 15. However, they are getting burned at the three (18.9) and the four (18). This basically matches up with what we see — Kobe (playing 88% of the Laker minutes) is shutting down two guards, but inside the Lakers are no match defensively.

eFG% or Effective Field Goal Percentage. The problem with basic/traditional field goal percentage, particularly when talking about guards, is that it counts a made three-pointer the same as a made two pointer — the equivalent of a football stat that counted touchdowns and field goals as the same. Clearly those are not worth the same amount, and neigher is a two=ponter and a three-pointer in basketball — a three-pointer is worth 50% more on the scoreboard. So eFG% gives players that bonus (50%) for making the more difficult shot (the equation can be seen as eFG% = (2PM + 1.5*3PM) / FGA or eFG% = (FGM + 3PM/2)/FGA).

It’s not a perfect measure, but it gives you a better idea of how a player is really shooting, if they are taking a number of three pointers.

eFG% can also be applied to how well a player or team is doing defensively.

Roland Rating. This one is a measure of a players value to his team and is easy to find at 82 Games. The explanation:

The best gauge of a player’s worth to a specific team comes from looking at the difference in how the team plays with the player on court versus performance with the player off court. The on court +/- number represents the team’s net points with the player on the floor per 48 minutes, while the off court number is the team’s net with the player off the floor per 48 minutes. The Roland Rating is the difference between the two, with a positive number indicating the team has played better with the player than without.

For example, so far this season Kobe leads the Lakers with +21.2 followed by Jumaine Jones (+16.2) and Brian Cook (+5.6). What’s interesting is that with Kobe on the court (averaged out for 48 minutes) the Lakers are only +2.3, but with him off they are -18.9.

Points Per Possession. I haven’t used this too much yet, but it’s a favorite of basketball sabermetrics people, so you will as the season wears on. It is just what it sounds like — the average points per possession a player or team gets. This is always worked out to an averave of 100 possessions. A thought from 82 Games:

An accepted formula for calculating possessions amounts to Field Goal Attempts minus Offensive Rebounds plus Turnovers plus Free Throw line trips earned. We believe there is some inherent unfairness in this scheme on many levels (i.e. a bad pass costs you, an assist gets you nothing…or giving free possessions to prodigious no-shoot offensive rebounders).

Top Five-Man Floor Units: This uses the +/- system applied to various five-man units, and how they perform against the five-man units they are out against. Part of this is to create a percentage that is the number of times (out of 100) they have bested the opposing five.

There are other stats out there, applied to passing and the like, but lets save those for another day.

Sleepwalking in Seattle

 —  December 15, 2004

Bill Parcells has a saying, “You are what your record says you are.”

The Lakers are a 12-9 basketball team, one that cannot compete with the top five teams in the West (we are 0-5 against Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio and Sacramento — and we haven’t seen Minnesota yet, but I’ll count them in the group). That may well be 0-6 after Thursday night. The Lakers are a fighting-for-a-playoff team with some obvious holes.

The Sonics gave us a shocking reminder of that. Last night’s loss in Seattle felt like one big step backwards after a weekend where we stated to feel good about out team. Everything the Lakers seem to have started to do right, they did wrong — and got thrashed for it.

First, the Sonics exposed the Lakers poor rotation on perimeter defense (as have the Suns and others before), leading to too many open shots for a good-shooting team. Defensive rotation is a hard thing to point to statistically, but one glaring season stat on Lakers defense is obvious — when Laker opponents score 100 points or more, the Lakers are 0-8, when the Lakers hold opponents under 100 they are 12-1.

Another magic number for the Lakers seems to be 21. As in 21 assists. When they reach that plateau they are 9-3, when they don’t they are 3-6. Put more simply, when the Lakers spread the floor and share the ball they do better — also evidenced by the fact Kobe averages 19.7 shots per game in Laker wins and 23.3 in Laker losses. Last night it was all isolation plays for the Lakers, and just 12 assists.

There were plenty of other problems: Lamar Odom returned to his invisible man imitation; bench play was lacking (only Jumaine Jones showed energy); Chucky Atkins was the guy getting open looks in the first half but had an off night; Tierre Brown came in and shot as bad as Atkins; etc…

Lets not take anything away from the Sonics, they are for real. Not only can they shoot — we knew that — but they played aggressive, smart defense, holding the Lakers to 39.5% shooting (oddly, at the end of the first half the Lakers were 1 of 11 from shots right of the key, outside the lane). But don’t just take my word or your eyes for it — one of the best in depth basketball analyzation sites on the web, Hoops Analyst, did an excellent piece where it was pointed out the Sonics are not a flash in the pan.

They’re success has happened more because they seem to have found solutions to their problems than because of players who are on an early season tear. There’s nothing dramatic here. The improvement in rebounding and turnover differential is good for probably around 6-7 points, while the additional free throws are good for another 4-5. Add in the improved defense and you have a team that’s contending.

(As a side note, a similar analysis of Phoenix said that the wheels will come off that bandwagon. These breakdowns are well worth the read.)

That game hurt because I thought there was progress, but when the Lakers were confronted with a real challenge bad habits came out like an alcoholic at the company Christmas Party. Maybe things will be different in Sacramento, but my optimism has faded. Did everyone else feel as kicked in the gut as I did?

Update: If you want to read more on the Suns and Sonics start, Knickerblogger (the best NBA blogger, for my money) gets into the act today.

It’s Gotta Be The Shoes

 —  December 14, 2004

Kobe has specially made Nike shoes, Air Zoom Huarache 2K5 in purple and gold, that will be unwrapped for the Christmas Day game. Starting in March, you will be able to buy and wear them yourself.

Just don’t expect Nike to advertise that fact.

Though still on the hook for a five-year, $40 million endorsement deal with Kobe Bryant, Nike has no plans to aggressively market the embattled Lakers guard, despite plans for Bryant to debut a new shoe on Christmas, according to multiple industry sources contacted by ESPN.com.

More than Mitch Kupchak regrets that two-year, $3 million a year deal with Slava right about now, Nike regrets its deal with Kobe. He was arrested when the ink was barely dry on the deal, forcing Nike to backpedal. The lack of a conviction meant Nike was locked into a deal, but they had no idea what to do with Kobe.

The PR issues surrounding his arrest could have been overcome if Kobe were an endearing figure playing on a title contender. But he’s not. Kobe is an aloof personality who often comes off as cold and practiced in interviews, and with the recent changes in the team has gained the reputation as a manipulator. Personally I like his interview style, he seems cerebral, but that doesn’t play that well for many in this country. Maybe he’s different if you’re sitting having a beer with him, but on camera he’s not warm (in the same way Shaq can be) and that hurts his cause.

Time may change all this for Kobe. Three years from now, if his legal problems are far in the rear-view mirror and the Lakers are winning, Kobe may be very marketable. America is a very forgiving country (unless you are Bill Buckner in Boston). But for now, Kobe is collecting easy checks from Nike.

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By the way, if you aren’t familiar with him, let me say up front that Darren Rovell is one of the best things on the ESPN site. The “global leader’s” news about the Lakers, Dodgers and other pro and college teams is good, but you can find better elsewhere. What is hard to find are good specialty writers, such as sports business writers, and Rovell is as good as is currently going.

On Tap: The Seattle Supersonics

 —  December 14, 2004

In a change of pace for our game preview, rather than me trying to explain the amazing start for Seattle I found someone who follows the team daily:

Howdy, Lakers fans. I’m Paul from Supersonicsoul.com. With Kobe and the Gang set to face the shockingly super Sonics Tuesday night, Kurt was wondering if I could lend some insight into the mind-boggling start Seattle has gotten off to.

Well, I can’t.

In all honesty, I’m as perplexed as you. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the Sonics would be over .500 at this point in the season, let alone have the second best record in the NBA. In fact, the whole reason we started Supersonicsoul was to have a place for long-suffering Sonics fans to commiserate over the lousiness of our once great team. Now, the Sonics are one of the hottest teams around, and we’re stuck with a box full of unworn “Sund Sucks” t-shirts.

So, what’s the dealio? How did the Sonics, who were picked by nearly every publication in America to be the worst team in the NBA, suddenly become one it’s best?

There are a lot of obvious factors, of course: the super-natural shooting of Ray Allen, the immergence of Rashard Lewis (finally!), the surprisingly non-sucky play of Luke “Frodo” Ridnour.

The MVP of the team so far, though, has to be Danny Fortson. Yes, the journeyman forward we got in exchange for Calvin Booth last summer has added a desperately needed toughness to the wallflower Sonics. Every great team needs an enforcer, and the Sonics haven’t had one since Frank Brickowski. While Fortson’s Rodman-esque antics can grow tiresome at times, there’s no way the Sonics would be in first place without him.

The question is, of course, will the Sonics still be in first place at the end of the season? Maybe not, but for now, this long-suffering Sonics fan is going to enjoy the ride while it lasts.

This was part of an exchange program for bloggers, my post one the Lakers so far is up for Sonics fans.