Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

December 18, 2008

Pay Pitt the Compliment of Accuracy

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:25 am

Pitt clubbed Siena 79-66 last night in Pittsburgh and, as the saying goes, it wasn’t that close. Only some heroics from the visitors after the last TV timeout made the final score appear this respectable. In truth the Panthers put an eight-point game out of reach with an 11-0 run coming out of halftime.

That may sound like just another garden variety non-conference tune-up for an elite team playing at home. Keep in mind, though, that the Saints are the preseason MAAC favorites and return the bulk of the minutes from a team that thumped Vanderbilt by 21 points in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament.

Pitt was notably unimpressed, as DeJuan Blair did his best Sean-May-in-2005 impression and recorded a 21-16 dub-dub on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. It must have been frustrating for Siena to see Blair’s reaction to their aggressive and textbook double-teams: he would simply shoot–and score–over them.

The 6-7 Blair is commonly portrayed as a round mound of rebound but in truth that’s just part of his arsenal. He shoots often and effectively, making 64 percent of his twos thus far, albeit against uneven competition. Most strikingly, he plays the 5 yet records steals at a higher rate than any of his teammates. Blair stands out, and that’s not easy to do on a team with featured-scorer Sam Young and assist-hoarding point guard Levance Fields. This is an outstanding offense, one that ranked among the top three in the Big East last year and looks just as efficient this year.

So please explain to me why so many people, most especially last night’s announcers, still insist on viewing Pitt as an all-defense no-offense team? (“Sometimes it seems like they expend so much effort on defense they have trouble scoring.”) One of the things about sports that really interests me is the incorrigibly durable power of branding seen within its precincts. Highly-paid MBAs would kill for their companies’ detergents or razors to possess the same kind of talismanic hold on perceptions that college basketball teams exhibit.

Take Pitt. I don’t mean the team I’ve just described, necessarily. I mean “Pitt,” the brand. What comes to mind? Rugged, physical teams, players from NYC, Carl Krauser, grind it out, tough D, annual success in the Big East tournament, etc.

Make no mistake, that perception was earned, not fabricated. As it happens, however, it no longer accords with reality….

Big East Defense, 2008 (conference games only, points allowed per possession)

  1. Louisville (0.91)
  2. Georgetown (0.92)
  3. Marquette (0.98)
  4. West Virginia (0.99)
  5. Villanova (1.00)
  6. Syracuse (1.02)
  7. St. John’s (1.02)
  8. Connecticut (1.02)
  9. Cincinnati (1.03)
  10. Notre Dame (1.04)
  11. Pitt (1.05)
  12. Rutgers (1.05)
  13. Providence (1.08)
  14. Seton Hall (1.09)
  15. South Florida (1.09)
  16. DePaul (1.12)

Last year Pitt’s D was equivalent to that played by Rutgers, and inferior to Cincinnati’s or St. John’s. Big East opponents made a lot of twos against this physical and athletic but nevertheless not very tall defense. If the Panthers are a rugged defensive team, so are the Scarlet Knights, to say nothing of the Bearcats and the Johnnies.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I’m on the record as saying this offense can win Jamie Dixon a lot of games. Let’s just be sure we give credit where it’s due. Doing so may well require that we adjust the Pitt “brand” that we carry around in our minds.

December 15, 2008

Sixth Coaching Change: Theus Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:44 pm

The other expected NBA coaching domino has fallen, with the Sacramento Kings reportedly firing Reggie Theus and replacing him on an interim basis with Kenny Natt. Assistant Chuck Person is also out as part of the transition. This one had been rumored for some time, so no big surprise, but seriously this is getting ridiculous. This is twice as many coaches as have been fired before the New Year at any point in the last two decades. (Hey, what if someone wrote a column about that? Wouldn’t that be great!)

One thing I didn’t mention in today’s column is that teams seem more reluctant now to go outside the organization for an interim (or even full-time) replacement. Every team that has made a change this year has promoted from within, two teams from the front office instead of from the coaching staff. There are some good candidates out there, including Avery Johnson and Flip Saunders as well as some of the guys already fired this year, so I’m not sure why that is. The Kings have yet to announce wether Natt will finish out the season or whether he is truly an interim head coach.

As for Theus, I’m not sure what to think. Given their talent, the Kings have played about as could reasonably be expected the last year-plus. Theus’ work developing the youngsters has been a mixed bag, with Spencer Hawes coming along nicely but Jason Thompson’s minutes dwindling. The biggest strike against Theus, I think, has been ably detailed by SactownRoyalty’s Tom Ziller (whose continuing coverage of this change you should surely be reading). Theus never established a style or a cohesive philosophy during his time at the helm in Sacramento, and I think that made it easier for Geoff Petrie and company to make this change.

Xavier Breezes, Gonzaga Sneezes

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:59 am

Xavier now stands at 9-0 after Saturday night’s 76-66 win at crosstown rival Cincinnati. True, it hasn’t been a cakewalk to 9-0–see for example the OT win on a neutral floor against a Virginia Tech team that now stands at 6-4–and therein, perhaps, looms a lesson. The Musketeers project to be a team that will win without exactly blowing worthy opponents off the floor, due to an offense that thus far is only fair and that relies heavily (and, to date, successfully) on free throws. At the same time it’s hard to envision Sean Miller‘s team being blown out by anyone, no matter how worthy, thanks to an outstanding defense.

Say one thing for these Musketeers, they certainly know how to get to the line. So far on the young season they’ve attempted no less than 319 free throws. Compare that to their 433 field-goal attempts and you’ll find that Miller’s team is shooting very nearly three free throws for every four shots from the field. Translation: this offense is better at scoring points than it is at pleasing your eyes. Xavier earns their freebies, of course, with a style that attacks the paint and probes for gaps and mismatches in the defense. Still, inevitably there will come a day when even that style isn’t awarded 35 free throws. For instance if you’re playing, oh, I don’t know, Duke this Saturday. When that day comes, turning the ball over on 23 percent of your possessions, as has Xavier this year, will be a much more damaging proposition.

That being said, Derrick Brown is off to a really nice start. While carrying as much of the load on offense as the more perimeter-oriented B.J. Raymond, Brown functions as a true inside-outside threat, having made 57 percent of his twos and 42 percent of his threes. And, of course, Brown gets to the line quite often.

He’s also part of an excellent defense, one that defends the paint without relying on a single spectacular shot-blocker staying out of foul trouble. (Make no mistake, freshman seven-footer Kenny Frease can swat away some shots. Alas, the young lad is a work in progress on offense and his minutes are limited accordingly.) The Musketeers’ opponents this year have scored just 0.87 points per trip, a stellar number built in large part on an almost Memphis-like ability to block shots without fouling. Miller and his team will have a wonderful opportunity to showcase all of the above against the Blue Devils this weekend in East Rutherford, N.J.

A wonderful opportunity was all Arizona needed on Sunday evening to announce to the hoops world: Yes, we know we’ve provided some rollicking good soap opera of late, but we’re still here. The Wildcats took down previously undefeated Gonzaga 69-64 in Phoenix.

The ‘Cats boldly went where no team has gone before against the Bulldogs this season: across the point-per-trip barrier, recording their 69 points in a 64-possession game. Other opponents have hit seven threes against Mark Few‘s team but on this day Arizona needed just 10 attempts to do so. That, and a plus-10 advantage in free throw attempts, was enough for a win in which interim coach Russ Pennell‘s team did most of its damage in the game’s first 30 minutes. The Wildcats’ Nic Wise was just 5-of-14 from the field but he was 4-of-6 on his threes, while teammate Jordan Hill scored 22. Arizona is not deep but give credit where it’s due: they played a marvelous and wholly fearless game.

Meanwhile the Zags’ Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo, and Micah Downs were a combined 5-of-22. Austin Daye had a weird looking line: 22 points and five blocks but only three boards in 36 minutes unblighted by foul trouble. The weirdness was rooted in Daye’s defensive assignment. Few had the foul-prone sophomore guarding the utterly benign Jamelle Horne–and Horne stayed busy setting screens out top, far from the glass

Just last week I was elevating Gonzaga to potential second-fiddle status behind North Carolina. Their body of work is still outstanding, and indeed the Bulldogs could still assume that role this season. But theirs is a unique situation in terms of lobbying for the best seed in the NCAA tournament. Like Memphis, whom they’ll play in Spokane on February 7, Gonzaga has to earn more of their style points outside the conference season than does your garden variety high-seed from the “power” conference. Playing Connecticut would of course be huge for any team, but for the Bulldogs this Saturday’s game in Seattle against the Huskies looms especially large. The same can be said of the Zags’ appointment with Tennessee in Knoxville on January 7 and their aforementioned game against the Tigers. Gonzaga only gets so many bites at the impress-the-committee apple.  

December 13, 2008

Fifth Coaching Change: Cheeks Canned

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:24 pm

Really? Really!? Really?!?!? This is just getting ridiculous. If you were an NBA head coach on opening night – 46 days ago, off the top of my head – there is now a one in six chance you would no longer be coaching that team.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the latest team to join the coaching carousel, apparently firing Philly legend Maurice Cheeks. As recently as the end of last season, Cheeks seemed in good standing after a surprise playoff run. But that, along with the addition of Elton Brand, raised expectations (nowhere more so than on this site, with SCHOENE suggesting the Sixers were a legitimate contender to win not only the East but the whole thing) and Philadelphia has really struggled this season.

What has done the 76ers in is a lack of outside shooting, along with the difficulty of integrating Brand into the lineup. Philadelphia is defending well, but ranks a dismal 28th in the NBA in Offensive Rating. Even with the shooting woes, that kind of performance is inexcusable given the track record of the 76ers’ starters.

The baffling part of this move is Cheeks’ reported interim replacement – Tony DiLeo, Philadelphia’s senior vice president and assistant general manager. Like new Washington head man Ed Tapscott, DiLeo has been in the front office for a lengthy period. He has no apparent head coaching experience in the U.S. (DiLeo did coach in West Germany in the 1980s, and the fact that it was still West Germany at the time emphasizes how long ago this was).

You’ll sometimes see a situation like this when a team is out of contention and wants a member of the front office to evaluate the players and play young guys (Kevin Pritchard‘s stint on the bench in Portland preceding Nate McMillan has now been almost forgotten, while Tony Barone in Memphis is another example). That doesn’t seem to be the case, as the 76ers still have plenty of time to make a run at the postseason. Philly’s interim options were limited, but I’m surprised that the team apparently won’t bring someone more experienced in from the outside.

December 12, 2008

Lakers’ D: A Problem, Not a Disaster

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:30 am

Having finished playing some hoops myself, I caught the second half of Wednesday night’s Lakers-Suns matchup, televised on ESPN. The Lakers won, moving to 18-3 on the season, but from the way commentators Dave Pasch and Mark Jackson talked throughout the second half, you’d have figured the Lakers were headed to the lottery.

Don’t get me wrong: the Lakers have issues, as reflected by a pair of losses to second-division teams in the last six games. Namely, Los Angeles’ defense, so stout when I wrote about it early in the season, has regressed dramatically since then. This is most easily shown graphically. Here are the Lakers’ game-by-game and cumulative Defensive Ratings over the course of the season:
It’s no coincidence that the Lakers’ four best defensive outings came within the first five games of the season. Meanwhile, the Lakers have allowed at least 110 points per 100 possessions six times in the last eight games, having previously done so just once all year (the loss to Detroit, natch). While offenses improve over the course of the season, that can’t come close to accounting for the entire difference between the defense we saw from the Lakers early in the season and what we’ve seen lately.

What we have here is a combination of two factors, I think. One is that teams have scouted the Lakers’ strong-side trap and have learned how to attack it. The other is that the Lakers have had limited practice time to make the necessary adjustments (an assessment Phil Jackson himself apparently made to the ESPN crew before the game).

Look, there’s a reason nobody has run a defense this aggressive in the league in a decade. It’s not easy, and when it’s not working the result is a lot of open shots like the Lakers have surrendered lately. It’s possible they may have to chalk this up as a failed experiment at some point and go back to a more conventional style. Another option would be to retain the strong-side trap as one look to be mixed in with a conventional defense.

That said, while we probably got too excited about the Lakers’ strong start (consider me guilty as charged), nor is the team as bad off as it appears right now. One of Jackson’s hallmarks as a coach is his willingness to let his team flounder at times as a teaching tool, and to some extent we may be seeing just that. The Lakers don’t need to be an elite defensive team right now; they need to reach that level in May and June, and one way or another this stretch will help Jackson determine whether the strong-side trap can be a part of that.

What really irked me about the commentary from Pasch and Jackson (and even Lakers legend Magic Johnson, during his in-game interview with sideline reporter Nancy Lieberman) is the notion that this rough patch defensively is indicative of some inherent shortcoming of this Lakers squad, that it doesn’t have a quote-unquote “defensive mentality.” At one point, they called the Lakers out for rarely practicing defense, which–without putting too fine a point on it–is pretty much exactly opposite what was reported by the people who actually covered the team during training camp. It’s an example of the worst of sports coverage in terms of drawing a conclusion and picking facts to support it instead of coming to a conclusion based on the facts.

Even last year, without the benefit of full seasons from Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum, the oft-maligned Lakers defense ranked fifth in the league on a per-possession basis. There was room for improvement, which is why the coaching staff tried something very new this year, but the notion that this team only wants to outscore the opposition flies in the face of the objective reality.

While recognizing that the Lakers have some major issues on D, let’s not make them out to be more than they are or read more into them than what is there.

December 11, 2008

A Clear Number 2 May Be Emerging….

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:31 pm

You may have heard that North Carolina is pretty good this year. I in fact think UNC’s an “overwhelming favorite” to win the national championship.

Very well. Who else is out there? Which team figures to take the floor against the Heels in April at Ford Field?

It’s only December, I know. But I submit to you that this is one impressive start to a season:

  • Played five consecutive power-conference opponents, going 5-0.
  • None of the games were at home–four were neutral-site and one was a true road game.
  • Outscored the five opponents by 0.22 points per possession.
  • Held these same five opponents to 27 percent three-point shooting, 39 percent two-point shooting, and 0.85 points per trip. (To put these numbers in perspective, they’re analogous to what Memphis did last year to C-USA opponents.)

If anyone outside of Chapel Hill has put together a more impressive resume this year, I am yet to see it.

The team I’m describing here is, no surprise, Gonzaga, which has dispatched Oklahoma State, Maryland, Tennessee, Indiana, and, late last night, Washington State (in Pullman) with remarkably little angst or visible discomfort. Only the Volunteers came close to scoring a point per trip, thanks to a veritable orgy of offensive rebounds (27 to be precise) secured in the vacuum left by Austin Daye‘s foul trouble. (Keep an eye on this. Daye has been foul-prone and the ‘Zags need him on the floor. Gonzaga is long, yes, but as it happens Daye is their only defensive rebounder.)

This kind of start to a season leads me to speculate that Mark Few‘s team just might be the best that Division I can come up with this year in the way of a speed bump for Carolina. Fortunately, I may not have to resort to mere speculation much longer on this front….

First things first. The ‘Zags have to take care of business Sunday against Arizona on a pseudo-neutral floor in Phoenix. You may have temporarily lost sight of the Wildcats, assuming that with all their recent coaching soap opera they’ve lost a step. Maybe so. Then again they still have Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill in uniform. Not to mention 6-2 ‘Zona is precisely four points away from being undefeated this season. As absurd as it is to say of a Pac-10 team playing in front of a supportive crowd against a WCC foe: they should be able to at least hold their own.

Then if Gonzaga makes it past Arizona (and Texas Southern next Thursday), all could be in readiness for the showdown to determine the best team in the country not named “North Carolina.” I’m of course talking about the December 20 game between the Bulldogs and Connecticut at KeyArena in Seattle. For their part the Huskies will first have to take care of Stony Brook on Monday. (Hey, don’t sell the SUNY system short in match-ups against Big East competition. After all, Binghamton beat Rutgers.)

Yes, if fate cooperates, December 20 should bring us everything we need for a true Speed Bump Classic, one that will determine the presumptive number 2–at least until further events shine that light elsewhere. Circle the calendar. 

December 10, 2008

Richardson to Phoenix?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 8:12 pm is reporting that the Phoenix Suns have acquired Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and a future second-round pick from Charlotte in exchange for Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary … interesting. More analysis to come.

NBA Three-Team Trade

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:34 pm

The 2008-09 season’s second deal was completed Wednesday, with the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets and Washington Wizards teaming up to exchange three players and two picks.

  • Memphis reacquires the conditional first-round pick dealt to Washington for Juan Carlos Navarro, while sending out Javaris Crittenton and a 2015 second-round pick or a token amount of cash.
  • New Orleans swapped Mike James for Antonio Daniels, getting the pick/cash from Memphis as well.
  • Washington essentially completed a pair of separate deals that needed to be combined for cap purposes. One is Daniels for James; the other is Crittenton for the Memphis pick.

I’m likely going to take a more detailed look at this deal this evening for tomorrow, but my initial impression is that it is a huge, huge win for the Hornets. They get a credible backup for Chris Paul, which had been the team’s biggest shortcoming in the early going. Meanwhile, the rationale behind the move seems a bit murkier for Memphis and Washington. The Wizards paid a relatively high cost to acquire a mid-range prospect, while the Grizzlies might not benefit as much from this deal as it would appear when you consider the conditions on the pick they get back.

For more, I suggest the analysis of the Behind the Arc Grizzlies blog, which offers some perspective from Memphis GM Chris Wallace.

December 9, 2008

Rose Garden Report: Portland-Orlando

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 11:39 pm

Hello from Portland, where the Trail Blazers and the Magic are set to tip off momentarily. The big story before tonight’s game is that Portland swingman Martell Webster experienced “acute pain” in his left foot during his return to the lineup Sunday in Toronto and will be sidelined. Webster had missed the first month-plus of the season after surgery to repair a stress fracture in the foot on Oct. 9. Webster is expected to miss another four weeks.

The news isn’t terrible for the Blazers, who have hardly missed Webster with rookie Nicolas Batum playing very well as a starter. You definitely feel for Webster, who was excited to get back on the floor and now faces another long rehab process. We’ll see if this proves a setback to his development.

As for the game, the big story is Greg Oden’s first matchup with Dwight Howard. Portland won 106-99 in Orlando earlier this season while Oden was still sidelined. We’ll keep an eye on that matchup as well as the league’s second-best offense (the Blazers) against its fourth-best defense (the Magic).

Orlando 29, Portland 25 (end first): Ragged start for the Blazers tonight. Greg Oden struggled with the matchup against Dwight Howard and hampered Portland at both ends before being replaced by Joel Przybilla. Howard has nine points and is finishing with his left hand. I don’t think I’ve seen that from him before. The Magic has gotten a lift from Tony Battie, who has seven points off the bench.

I was half-watching Minnesota and Utah on League Pass, with Mehmet Okur’s late runner handing the Timberwolves yet another devastating loss. These kinds of tough defeats may even out in the end, but they do a number psychologically. Kevin McHale did some good things with his rotation, but his end-game work left much to be desired. Minnesota wasn’t able to get the ball inbounds down one with 1.7 seconds left on the clock. Ouch.

Orlando 49, Minnesota 48 (halftime): I observed late in the first half that the Blazers hadn’t gotten a run yet. It came just before halftime, briefly giving Portland its first lead before Hedo Turkoglu finished the half with a score that gives the Magic a one-point advantage at the midway mark. It’s probably less than a coincidence that the run came after Dwight Howard headed to the locker room. No word yet as to why.

This has been a slowdown affair with about 44 possessions apiece. Both of these teams like to execute in the half court. As a result, the defenses haven’t been quite as stout as it would appear from the score. Still, the Magic has done a good job of running the Blazers off the free-throw line and forcing them to take virtually nothing but twos.

Orlando 81, Portland 80 (end third): That the Blazers are in this game defies logic. This is the first game back after a long road trip for Portland, and it seems to be playing out along the lines of the old NBA adage that this situation is basically like the last game of the trip. The Blazers look sluggish and a beat off tonight. For example, the usually-reliable Brandon Roy missed three of his six free-throw attempts in the third. At the other end, the Magic knocked down six of 10 three-point attempts in the period. Yet somehow, the Blazers are within the same one-point margin as halftime on the strength of a 7-0 quarter-ending run. The crowd has been waiting all night for something to cheer, and now they have gotten it.

The stereotypical plotline for this kind of game has the Blazers pulling away behind the home crowd. However, Orlando has been one of the league’s best road teams the last two years, so don’t expect the Magic to go away.

Orlando 109, Portland 108 (final): A game that defied expectations at pretty much every turn did not fail to do so at the finish. The Blazers appeared to have things well in hand, leading 108-100 with a couple minutes left on the strength of great fourth quarters from Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. But Portland failed to execute down the stretch and the Magic’s sharpshooting did the Blazers in. Orlando hit three threes for a 9-0 game-ending run. The last was Hedo Turkoglu dribbling into the game-winner off glass with 0.3 seconds left on the clock as the Magic played for the win on the road.

Orlando finished with 14 three-pointers, and in a low-possession game like this those are absolute daggers. The Blazers were phenomenally efficient on offense in the second half, yet couldn’t keep up because they were trading twos for threes. The Magic isn’t at the level of the East’s elite duo of Cleveland and Boston, but no one is going to want to play them in the playoffs because of their style and Dwight Howard.

This occurred to me on the long drive home: This has to be the first night in NBA history where two guys from Turkey (Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur) hit game-winners.

December 8, 2008

Fourth Coaching Change: McHale Replaces Wittman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 5:18 pm

At this point, one could sustain an entire blog simply by keeping track of the NBA’s coaching changes during the early portion of the 2008-09 season. Monday brought our fourth dismissal, with Minnesota’s Randy Wittman the victim. The surprise is not that Wittman was fired but that he will be replaced by Kevin McHale and that McHale will relinquish his position as vice president of basketball operations in order to focus on coaching.

This all raises a lot of questions, some of which may be answered shortly when we hear more from McHale and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. It’s no secret that Minnesota has been grooming former player Fred Hoiberg, currently the team’s assistant GM, to ultimately take over for McHale. Will this be Hoiberg’s chance? Will McHale ride off into the sunset after serving as coach? Does he plan to continue coaching beyond this season?

McHale has been maligned for his player personnel work, and fairly so. However, there is enough talent on this Minnesota roster–particularly on the offensive end–that SCHOENE saw the Timberwolves on the fringe of the playoff picture. In part, Wittman was victimized by bad luck early in the season. Even that can’t explain how poorly Minnesota has played or the failure to develop the team’s young draft picks. Wittman’s two tours of coaching duty have done little to demonstrate that he has a positive impact on his teams as a head coach.

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