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February 20, 2009

Stoudemire Out Eight Weeks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 9:05 pm

That sound you just heard was hopes crashing in Phoenix. The Suns will lose All-Star forward Amar’e Stoudemire for approximately the next eight weeks after Stoudemire underwent surgery for a partially-detached retina. Obviously, the timing could have been better. Stoudemire suffered the injury days after Phoenix decided to keep him and make a run the rest of the way after replacing Terry Porter with Alvin Gentry on the sidelines.

Even taking into account the level of opposition (a squad decimated by injuries and Zach Randolph‘s misguided anger), the Suns putting up 140 points in back-to-back wins over the Clippers Tuesday and Wednesday had to be considered a sign they were ready to make some noise over the final two months. Stoudemire–who scored 42 points Wednesday in the game where he was poked in the eye and injured–was an enormous part of that. Without him for an extended period, I don’t see how Phoenix can make the playoffs.

If the Suns are going to stay competitive, it’s by going small. I’d like to see power forward manned by a combination of Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley and Grant Hill over the next two months. That opens up playing time for the perimeter trio of Steve NashLeandro BarbosaJason Richardson I suggested earlier this week ought to see more action under Gentry. Barbosa got the start Tuesday with Richardson suspended and scored 24 points; Wednesday, that group played 10 effective minutes together. During their Tuesday podcast, John Hollinger and Bill Simmons piggybacked off that idea and made the comparison to the 2006-07 Warriors, who had Richardson and Barnes. Nash fills the Baron Davis role and Barbosa plays Monta Ellis. Especially when Shaquille O’Neal is not in the game, that could be an effective up-tempo lineup for Phoenix. Alas, it would have been completed by Stoudemire’s ability to run the floor as the center. Sigh.

Creighton Surges with Altman’s Funky Rotation

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:22 pm

Just 27 days ago, Creighton lost at home by 12 to Drake, dropping the Bluejays to 5-4 in the Missouri Valley. When you can’t win a home game against the sixth-best team in your ten-team conference, you’re not likely to make much noise during the remainder of the season.

Alas, the unlikely has occurred. Dana Altman‘s team has won seven in a row while outscoring opponents by 0.19 points per trip. That margin compares quite favorably with what teams like Pitt (0.17), Oklahoma (0.16), and North Carolina (0.15) have done within their respective leagues this year. That’s not a direct comparison, of course: different conferences, different durations, etc. Still, the Bluejays have indeed been on fire.

The post-Drake transformation has been visible on both sides of the ball (Justin Carter and Kenny Lawson are helping their team get more defensive boards), but it’s been particularly evident on offense, where Creighton’s been absolutely merciless in riddling opponents with made shots from all over the court. When you make 55 percent of your twos and 41 percent of your threes, as the Jays have during this streak, you’re going to win some games. 

Not surprisingly, Creighton’s big two of P’Allen Stinnett and Booker Woodfox are recording their fair share of makes during this tear. Stinnett’s three-point shooting looks decidedly middling on paper (34 percent this year, 32 last year), but look closer. Since December 30 he’s been hitting 40 percent of his treys. And Woodfox only happens to be one of the most effective, if little noted, sources of offense in the nation: a pure shooter (89 percent at the line, 49 percent on his threes) who can operate inside the arc yet never turns the ball over.

Woodfox actually put up stellar numbers last year as a reserve averaging 17 minutes a game, and in the book I was notably incredulous: “He is Altman’s most effective player on offense and I trust this year he’ll not only start but, more important, get more than 17 minutes a game.” (Dude, lighten up.) Well, Altman quite obviously bought the book, read that passage, slapped his forehead, and exclaimed, “This Gasaway guy is brilliant!” I know it played out that way because Woodfox is now a starter. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Funny thing is, Woodfox is still averaging less than 25 minutes and is yet to play more than 30 minutes in a game this season. Same thing with Stinnett, mostly. Altman apparently forgot about him once and accidentally left him in for 39 minutes (during an overtime win against Southern Illinois), but for the year Stinnett’s averaging just 26 minutes per contest.

This rotation would lead you to think Altman’s team does the 40-minutes-of-hell thing. The Bluejays are indeed the fastest-paced team (66 possessions per 40 minutes in-conference) in a slow-paced league (63 trips per 40 on average), but they’re certainly no Missouri, nor do they exert themselves unduly to create opponent turnovers. No, it’s just a deep-into-the-bench rotation brought to a “normal” style. Such is not unprecedented, of course. Tom Izzo, for one, used a similar distribution of minutes at Michigan State with his Final Four team in 2005. 

And, who knows, maybe this has kept the Bluejays as fresh as daisies in late February while opposing starting fives are beginning to droop. (Of course that doesn’t explain why Creighton was so mediocre through much of January.) But it will be really interesting to see what happens when Altman’s team starts to play season-dispositive minutes next month–definitely in the MVC tournament and quite possibly in the NCAA tourney. In theory, unless you’re bringing Kobe himself off the bench, you let your Woodfox play.   

TA Correction

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:41 am

In the confusion this afternoon over the details of as-yet unannounced trades, I made a mistake in my Transaction Analysis. I had Adonal Foyle and Mike Wilks going to Houston; actually they go to Memphis. This has a minor impact on the analysis for the Rockets and the Grizzlies. It is very good news for Houston, which did not in fact have to cut any players, and means Memphis saves slightly less money this season.

My apologies for the error.

February 19, 2009

Basketball’s Future Stars

Filed under: Uncategorized — Anthony Macri @ 11:30 pm

In the midst of all the trade deadline action in the NBA and the conference play homestretch in college hoops, the next wave of basketball stars were announced on Wednesday evening.  The 2009 McDonald’s All American Teams (men’s and women’s) will take the floor in Miami, Florida on April 1.

Much like this year’s upcoming NBA Draft class, the 2009 senior high school class is a little thin in pure star power.  For everything it lacks in raw talent, however, it does possess some depth.  The ACC will be the biggest beneficiary of that depth, as nine of this year’s group will play in that conference next year.  The Big East grabbed five players, and the Big 12 has received commitments from four.

The rich get richer in Tar Heel country, as North Carolina has four new All-Americans to add to its stable next year.

The real depth of this class is in its crop of forwards.  The Class of 2009 has great length (next year, the Class of 2010 sports tremendous talent in its guards), and viewers of this year’s McDonald’s game will see plenty of action above the rim.

While this class has no real stand-out can’t-miss prospects, there are a few intriguing talents for college and pro basketball fans to keep an eye on.  Among them:

Xavier Henry – a 6’6 guard/forward, Henry has shown the propensity to get better every single year.  He is also tough as nails and super-competitive.  Memphis got a good one with him.

DeMarcus Cousins – a 6’10 forward/center, Cousins is a bit of a throwback in that he is willing and able to bang near the rim, and has great touch at the basket.  He can be an elite low-post scorer.  Undecided on a college.

Wally Judge – a 6’8 swingman, Judge may not have a ‘pure’ position.  In the end, he will be a three man in the Rudy Gay mold – and that is great news for Kansas State fans.  Could be a hidden gem and the eventual standout of the class.

Dante Taylor – a 6’8 power forward, Taylor is a rebounding machine who finishes well above the rim.  He is ferocious around the tin and will be a great fill-in for the players leaving Pittsburgh this year.  Runs the floor well.

Abdul Gaddy – a 6’3 point guard, Gaddy plays the game the right way.  He attacks with balance and makes great decisions, the consummate modern point guard.  Not yet a great scorer, he will want to add strength when he gets to Washington.  Could be fun to watch with the right seasoning down the line.

The game will be played on April 1st, 2009 and is televised live on ESPN at 8:00pm.

Instant Deadline Reaction

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 5:07 pm

It’s been a half-hour since the NBA’s trade deadline, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re done. Often, teams will agree to trades just before the deadline, but news of them won’t trickle out for some time thereafter. If anything important breaks, I’ll update. I’ll save most of the minor trades for a comprehensive transaction analysis that should be up by the early evening, but there are two deals worth reacting to at the moment.

The first is the day’s biggest trade, a three-team swap that gives the Orlando Magic a starting point guard (Rafer Alston), sees Houston make a challenge trade of point guards (Alston for Kyle Lowry) and provides the Grizzlies with a first-round pick and possibly some other minor assets. Without knowing the exact particulars and working under the framework provided by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, my thoughts.

Sometimes, when I look at the numbers, even I am surprised. I did not realize how inefficient a shooter Alston had been over the course of his career as a starter. I figured his True Shooting Percentage (48.4 percent this year) was way off from his recent marks, but alas he was at 49.2 percent even last season. So I’m starting wonder not so much why the Rockets would move Alston as why they kept him as a starter for so long. Alston has been a pretty solid defender for Houston as part of top defensive teams. At 32, it’s easy to imagine he’s beginning to slip at that end (I haven’t seen him enough this year to say anything definative) and the Rockets wanting to get value for him while they can.

What puzzles me from Orlando’s end is why the Magic didn’t want to simply make a straight-up deal with the Grizzlies. Lowry would have been a better fit to the extent that he could have backed up a healthy Jameer Nelson next season, while Alston presumably would want to be traded again this summer. Otis Smith has shown a tendency to heavily favor veteran players, which worked in Alston’s favor. The concerns I’ve aired aside, obviously Alston is a huge upgrade over Anthony Johnson the rest of the way. Orlando could have held on to the third seed even standing pat, but given the team’s difficulty scoring consistently since Nelson’s injury, the Magic might have gone into the opening round of the playoffs as an underdog with Johnson at the point. Making this deal dramatically improves Orlando’s chances of winning a series, even if it still leaves the Magic a tier below Boston and Cleveland in the East.

The Rockets get much younger at the point, with Lowry and Aaron Brooks splitting minutes. The big hit to Houston is in terms of shooting, because Alston is a threat from three-point range (80-of-230 from beyond the arc this season) and Lowry (17-of-69) is not. Alston fit nicely alongside Tracy McGrady as someone who was dangerous without the ball in his hands. Now that McGrady is out, Lowry’s ability to get to the basket and run the pick-and-roll is more useful to the Rockets. They got that out of Brooks, but only by sacrificing defense because of Brooks’ small stature. Lowry gives them more creativity at the point to go along with the defense they were getting from Alston.

The other deal worth talking about in basketball terms is Chris Wilcox going to New York. Mike D’Antoni has made no secret of his admiration for Wilcox. I remember him talking extensively on the subject late in the 2005-06 season, when Wilcox was enjoying a great run for the Sonics after a mid-season deal from the L.A. Clippers. D’Antoni told a group of us that the Suns had tried to acquire Wilcox, but couldn’t work things out with the Clippers.
“He’s a heck of a player,” D’Antoni said. “He runs and he fits our style.”

The obvious comparison in terms of strengths and weaknesses is to D’Antoni’s old big man, Amar’e Stoudemire. While Wilcox isn’t quite at that level, it’s easy to see him being very effective for the Knicks if they can find playing time for him up front along with Al Harrington and David Lee.

Illinois is River Phoenix

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:40 am

Michigan State may struggle at “putting the ball in the basket,” but at least they’re able to, you know, put the ball in the basket on occasion. Illinois, conversely, scored 33 points in a 56-possession game last night, losing to Penn State 38-33 in Champaign.

Clocking in at just 0.59 points per trip, the Illini’s evening ranks, it need hardly be said, as the single most futile outing posted by any major-conference offense in league play this year. (Though Georgia‘s come close on three occasions and Maryland came really close with that performance at Duke.) To lose at home to a team that scores 38 points–there are no words.

Except perhaps these: Edvard Munch-level horror.  

Chandler Deal Rescinded

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:56 am

Well, so much for all that. After all our analysis of yesterday’s New Orleans-Oklahoma City trade, the deal was rescinded Wednesday night when the Hornets announced that Tyson Chandler did not pass his physical with the Thunder. No details have yet emerged as to why Chandler failed–and, knowing the OKC front office, I wouldn’t expect anything to come out on or off the record–but it raises some interesting questions about why New Orleans traded Chandler in the first place and the severity of his injured ankle.

So it’s back to the drawing board for both teams. The Hornets presumably will find it nearly impossible to move Chandler, and are back in their previous luxury-tax predicament. Do they try desperately to move Morris Peterson or James Posey in the next 16 hours? Meanwhile, Oklahoma City again has two expiring contracts burning a hole in their pocket.

The real winner here could be the Boston Celtics. I just got finished doing a radio hit in Boston explaining how bad the Smith deal was in terms of keeping Smith from being waived or bought out after the deadline. Now that’s back in play and the Celtics could get the veteran big man they’ve desired.

(Sidenote: How many trades in recent memory can you remember that were undone by a failed physical? I can think of the trade that would have sent Sean Elliott (failed–kidney disease) to Houston for Robert Horry and Matt Bullard. That worked out great for the Rockets, who won two championships with Horry. Meanwhile, Detroit traded Elliott back to San Antonio for pennies on the dollar. Also, there was a deal that would have sent Danny Fortson to Toronto for Alvin Williams (failed-knees) and Sean Marks back in 2000. Williams’ career came to an end not long thereafter. Oftentimes those physicals are correct. Remember the Nets decided not to sign Shareef Abdur-Rahim as a free agent when he failed his physical because of his knee, which also proved a career-ending injury. So look out, Tyson Chandler.)

February 18, 2009

CHI-POR-SAC Deal

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 7:06 pm

First reported by NBA.com’s David Aldridge and elaborated upon elsewhere, it appears the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings have completed a deal, with an undercard between the Kings and the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Bulls send out  Drew Gooden, Andres Nocioni, Michael Ruffin and Cedric Simmons, bringing back Brad Miller and John Salmons from Sacramento. The Kings will get Nocioni and the expiring contracts of Gooden, Simmons and Portland’s Ike Diogu. Portland sends out Diogu plus cash (to Sacramento) and gets Ruffin. With the help of three great blogs covering these teams (Blog-A-Bull, Sactown Royalty and Blazer’s Edge), as well as the redoubtable Sam Amick, let’s work through this deal.
We’d heard talk of Chicago adding salary in a potential Amar’e Stoudemire deal (those talks presumably dying before this deal came to fruitition), but I’m surprised to see the Bulls take on the contracts of Miller and Ruffin in an attempt to win now and next season. Miller, going into his second tour of duty in Chicago, gives the team a legitimate center and creates what should be a solid three-man frontcourt rotation with Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah (and, hopefully, means the last of rotation minutes for Aaron Gray). Salmons steps into Nocioni’s spot behind and alongside Luol Deng, probably cutting into Thabo Sefolosha‘s playing time as well.

The net result is to boost the Bulls’ chances of catching Milwaukee for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The worry is that by adding a little over $10 million in salary for next season, Chicago will probably be unable to re-sign Ben Gordon without going into luxury-tax territory. Miller’s deal expires in the summer of 2010, while Salmons’ contract is a year shorter than Nocioni’s and slightly less lucrative.

Sacramento gets cap relief, pure and simple, saving the $10 million the Bulls add. Miller and Salmons are attractive enough as players that you would have hoped the Kings could have gotten a first-round pick out of this kind of deal. The alternative of holding on to them and continuing to struggle was extremely unattractive, however. The future frontcourt of Shock (Jason Thompson) and (Spencer) Hawes can now take over in Sacramento, with the Kings likely to finish with the worst record in the Western Conference after dealing two starters.

The Blazers’ position in all of this is slightly more nebulous. Dealing Diogu saves them money against the luxury tax, while they’ve also created a trade exception that could be put to use in the next 21 hours. We’ll see what, if anything, Kevin Pritchard has up his sleeve between now and tomorrow’s deadline.

Michigan State is Joaquin Phoenix

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:16 pm

Purdue scored 46 points in the second half last night and beat Michigan State 72-54 in West Lafayette. The Spartans arrived at Keady Court 20-4 and ranked in the top five nationally. They left a couple hours later as mysterious as ever.  

The mystery is not entirely their fault. A really good team proves itself against really good competition, and here the Big Ten has failed State. The conference as a whole is much better than last year, but there’s no team good enough to make you say, “Wow! The Spartans beat X.” The Boilermakers and Illinois, for example, are cut from the same Gene Keady cloth: motion, an abiding obsession with ball-reversal, pugnacious man-to-man D, etc. All of the above is fine, of course, it’s just that these two particular versions of that cloth happen to be really limited on offense. Check it out:

Plenty of good teams–any dangerous ones? 
Through games of February 17, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                                    Opp.
                     Pace    PPP    PPP      EM
1.  Michigan St.     63.6    1.08   0.95   +0.13
2.  Purdue           63.0    1.00   0.92   +0.08
3.  Wisconsin        58.2    1.08   1.00   +0.08
4.  Illinois         61.0    1.00   0.93   +0.07
5.  Ohio St.         63.1    1.05   1.01   +0.04
6.  Minnesota        63.4    0.98   0.98    0.00
7.  Penn St.         61.2    1.01   1.05   -0.04
8.  Michigan         61.0    0.98   1.02   -0.04
9.  Northwestern     61.0    1.02   1.08   -0.06
10. Iowa             57.4    0.98   1.09   -0.11
11. Indiana          64.3    0.92   1.10   -0.18

Michigan State is not alone in the mystery they engender. I’m not sure Oklahoma is really as good as the number 1 ranking they’re likely about to receive. I’m not sure LSU is quite as mediocre as their number 24 ranking would suggest. In all three cases the basic perceptual challenge is that there’s no good in-conference benchmark readily available.

Still another weird facet presented by the Spartans is much more basic. They’re not very good at putting the ball in the basket, are they? Bit of a worry; it is after all the nominal object of the sport. The average Big Ten team has shot better from the field during league play than Michigan State has. In fact both Iowa and Northwestern have shot better from the field in-conference than Michigan State has.

Raymar Morgan‘s lingering illness certainly hasn’t helped matters. (He’s played 17 minutes in the month of February.) Nor has the fact that shots taken in the old days by Drew Neitzel (52.5 effective FG percentage last year) are now being taken by Kalin Lucas (42.5 eFG this year, including last night’s game). The sophomore is both an outstanding point guard and a capable perimeter threat, but he makes just 38 percent of his twos. More to the point, he has taken way more twos than any other Spartan. 

MSU has compensated for this by being absolute monsters of the offensive glass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s exactly what you should do if your team doesn’t shoot very well and Tom Izzo deserves full credit for having his team at 20-5 and at the top of the Big Ten. But March tends to find the opponent for you that can dampen your offensive rebounding. There better be a Plan B.

The Spartans hope to follow in the footsteps of teams like Stanford and Villanova, who proved last year that you can at least reach the Sweet 16 without being able to throw the ball into the ocean from a rowboat. The Cardinal did it with an ostentatiously punitive defense built around 14 feet of NBA-bound Lopez brothers. The 12-seed Wildcats beat Clemson and Siena, basked in a week of unexpected attention, and then were euthanized compassionately but unmistakably by eventual national champion Kansas.

Izzo’s team has talent and depth, more of both than any other team in the Big Ten. That’s the point: when we see the Spartans oddly unresponsive, as they were in West Lafyette last night, we know they’re capable of more. Maybe Morgan will get some good chicken soup and get back on the floor. His team could use him. 

Microfracture for McGrady

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:50 am

What a month for injuries in the NBA. It continued this evening, with Tracy McGrady telling ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that he will undergo microfracture surgery on his troublesome left knee. When I heard last week that McGrady was considering shutting it down for this season, microfracture was my suspicion.

Microfracture research has been one of my pet projects, and in general I feel that the “danger,” so to speak, of the surgery is overrated. The research shows that microfracture treatment has gradually become much more successful in the NBA. However, I think we can draw a distinction between situations like Greg Oden‘s or Amar’e Stoudemire‘s where a defect is discovered somewhat randomly or as the result of specific trauma to knee cartilage and situations like this one where microfracture is something of “a desperation heave” (as Will Carroll put it) after a long period of difficulty with the knee.

As I wrote about Oden entering this season, the research also shows that patience is a key to coming back from a microfracture. The Rockets would be prudent to not count on having McGrady at the start of next season; if he can get back, that’s a blessing. McGrady himself must be careful not to jump the gun on his rehab because of his desire to get back and prove himself healthy before he hits the open market as a free agent in the summer of 2010.

So where does Houston go from here? The biggest downside might be ruling out a rumored trade with the New Jersey Nets that would have swapped McGrady for a healthy, productive Vince Carter. Even a hobbled McGrady is certainly still a better scorer than his replacements (Von Wafer and Brent Barry), but his defensive shortcomings are such that the Rockets have been no better or worse with McGrady in the lineup this season (per 82games.com).

Houston has experience with this sort of thing before, having ripped off a near-record winning streak last year while losing Yao Ming for the season. To overcome the loss of McGrady, the Rockets will need to become stingier on defense. So far, Houston is a surprising eighth in the league defensively. That’s a little bit of a fluke–the difference between them and fourth-place Philadelphia is negligible–but the Rockets are nowhere near the NBA’s elite at the defensive end, the space they’ve inhabited in recent seasons. The defense is liable to improve with Ron Artest and Shane Battier healthy and in the lineup together on the wings. If they defend as Daryl Morey envisions, Houston can compete even without its star player.

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