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July 28, 2010

What Northwestern really needs

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 8:29 am

The news that Kevin Coble won’t be returning to Northwestern for a final season of eligibility after rehabilitating his injured foot may seem like just another bad break for a program that, infamously, has never been to the NCAA tournament. Well, Coble’s decision ain’t good news for the Wildcats, that’s for sure.

Still, I can’t help feeling there’s something of a misunderstanding afoot (har!). Last year in Big Ten play without Coble, NU was already as good on offense as they can reasonably expect to be. Which is to say they were excellent, significantly better than Final Four-bound and oh-so-scary Michigan State, to name one. When your historically star-crossed team is exactly one standard deviation better than your conference on offense, a single player who’s not named LeBron is not going to make a big difference for you on that side of the ball. Gravity is pulling in the opposite direction.

Coble or no Coble, Bill Carmody‘s first order of business this coming season was always going to be a word that is missing entirely from this write-up. That word is defense, as in trying to get his team to play some. The English language is simply unable to capture what Northwestern did on that side of the ball last year, so a labored analogy will have to suffice. What Mel Gibson is to political correctness, the Cats were to D in 2010. To parrot a point already made by The Only Colors, if Carmody can get his team to force some misses inside the arc, grab some defensive boards, and, especially, cut down on their astoundingly frequent Big-12-level hacking, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the name Kevin Coble is forgotten.         

July 20, 2010

Blazers Stay Analytical

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 8:23 pm

When the Portland Trail Blazers fired Kevin Pritchard as general manager last month, one possible outcome was undoing the progress the team had made in becoming a leader in embracing APBRmetrics. Under Pritchard, Portland emphasized statistical analysis the last two seasons, bringing one of the largest crews of any team to last year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

In hiring Rich Cho from the Oklahoma City Thunder as Pritchard’s replacement, the Blazers maintained that same course. In fact, in a sign of the times, Cho’s faculty with numbers–he was an engineer at Boeing before going back to law school to try to pursue a career in sports–was touted as one of the strongest arguments in favor of hiring him. From Jason Quick’s account in The Oregonian:

A day after the Vegas meeting, Cho flew to Helsinki for a face-to-face meeting with (Paul) Allen. Coach Nate McMillan, who was a coach in Seattle while Cho was breaking into the league, said he could guess Cho and Allen would bond.

“I think Mr. Allen is a stat guy, a numbers guy,” McMillan said. “It’s how he looks at things — he wants to see numbers, stats, and Rich has all of that. That’s how Rich determines a lot of things.”

Cho was a key player as the then-Seattle SuperSonics front office became an early leader in applying statistical analysis within the NBA, a development I wrote about for the team’s website. Benjamin Golliver of Blazersedge–who first broke the hiring on Twitter–pressed him for more on his philosophy yesterday.

Cho has been touted as a statistically-inclined executive so I prodded him a little bit about how he makes advanced statistical analysis work for him on the basketball side. “We kind of look at analytics as three pieces: one is player evaluation, the other is self-analysis and how are we doing as a team, and then third it’s the coaching and strategic aspect.”  Does he have a proprietary formula or is he using information that’s available to the general public? “For the most part APBRmetrics people are familiar with the [stats I use.] But it’s more than just those types of things. Other non-traditional things like shot charts and things like that.”

In related: The ever expanding Sloan Conference has grown into a two-day affair. Co-chair and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently tweeted to save the date for March 4-5, 2011, again in Boston.

July 16, 2010

Follow-Up on Long Term Contracts

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:07 pm

Good e-mail in my inbox this morning from a curious reader in response to today’s piece.

Anyway, given the multiple ways that players’ performance over long contracts were sorted, I was disappointed to not see a distinction of age. Obviously we know what results are expected, but I still think it might be nice to see whether the data really bear out that oldsters on 5-year contracts drop the most. Also it could be interesting to compare these numbers to their WARP (or Win% as per-minute might make more sense) of the season before the contract or extension was signed. More interesting data!

When it comes to age, the results might not be as dramatic as you’d expect. Naturally, teams are already pricing age in to some extent or another; none of the players who got these long contracts was older than 30, and more of them were younger than 27 (which I used as my cut-off) than older.

Type       Yr1    Yr2    Yr3    Yr4    Yr5

Old       2284   1931   2118   1465   1042
Young     2105   1804   1884   1541   1270

Type       Yr1    Yr2    Yr3    Yr4    Yr5

Old        5.0    3.1    3.2    1.8    1.8
Young      2.7    1.0    2.1    1.3    1.1

For both groups, three years appears to be the point at which they decline. In terms of minutes, it is a little more dramatic for the older cohort, but they were still more valuable in years four and five of the contract and substantially better in years one-three. This suggests to me that the risk is not solely in terms of age, but also the randomness of injuries (the two players more substantially affected, Darius Miles and Bobby Simmons, were both fairly young when they signed) and the assumption that young players will develop well.

As to the other question, in the year before becoming free agents, these players averaged 4.7 WARP. Naturally, this was better by a notable margin than they performed even in the first year of their long-term contracts (3.7 WARP). If we go back two years (for everyone but Damien Wilkins, who was a rookie before getting his new deal), that average drops to 2.4 WARP. A lot of these players were signed after career years, and here age is probably more relevant. For young guys like Carlos Boozer and Joe Johnson, their development heralded a new level of play. When older players like Simmons and Brian Cardinal “broke out,” it was really largely a fluke. Buyer beware.

July 12, 2010

Sure, bracketing 68 teams is tough…but this is dumb

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 5:27 pm

Today the NCAA announced that the new 68-team format will feature a first round comprised of the last four at-large teams on the one hand and the lowest four seeds in the entire field on the other. In other words, it’s a compromise. If you fear “compromise” and “NCAA tournament” appearing together, I’m right there with you.

There’s no elegant way to bracket a 68-team field, of course, but the most just way to bracket any sized field is simply from top to bottom. In this case that would have meant that the eight lowest-seeded teams would have played each other in play-in games, with the four winners progressing to the field of 64. Instead, the NCAA has chosen to force four at-larges to now win seven games. (And before you automatically assume “at-large” is synonymous with “major-conference” bear in mind George Mason was one of the last at-larges admitted to the field in 2006.)

I realize many pundits are fine with this today, but wait until they see it in action with actual team names inserted into these brackets. Inevitably a five-seed will lose to a 12 that emerged from a play-in game and we’ll hear all the usual talk about the “advantage” and “momentum” the 12 had from playing already. And as for talk of 10-seeds being in play-in games, mark me down as absolutely terrified. I’m already on the record as thinking that tournament seeding has far too little to do with reality. (And note that today’s decision only raises the stakes that will be riding on a team’s seed.)

Now, if you’re talking about a team seeded as high as a 10, there’s a good chance that said team is way better than the selection committee could have realized. To require a team that good to win an extra game while every year the 64th-best team in the field is guaranteed a comparatively easy six-win path is antithetical to what’s made the NCAA tournament the best postseason spectacle in major American team sports. We’ve trusted the tournament’s outcomes precisely to the extent that the courts have been neutral, the brackets have been balanced, and the opportunities have been equal.  

Don’t get me wrong. A 68-team field with a funky hybrid play-in round is ten times better than a 96-team field. But today was a mistake and, worse, it was entirely avoidable.

July 9, 2010

Top Trios

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:30 pm

A reader was curious which trios in modern NBA history have ranked best by combined WARP. Here’s the top 10:

Year   Team  WARP   Best         Second       Third

1992   CHI   54.3   Jordan       Pippen       Grant
1987   BOS   47.4   Bird         McHale       Parish
1997   UTA   47.3   Malone       Stockton     Hornacek
2005   PHX   47.1   Marion       Stoudemire   Nash
1996   CHI   47.0   Jordan       Pippen       Kukoc
1991   CHI   47.0   Jordan       Pippen       Grant
1994   UTA   46.8   Stockton     Malone       Hornacek
1995   UTA   46.1   Stockton     Malone       Hornacek
1996   UTA   44.8   Malone       Stockton     Hornacek
2004   MIN   44.8   Garnett      Cassell      Hoiberg

Only once in the last 30 years has a group of three players on the same team combined for more than 50 WARP. Last season, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh totaled 57.8. As discussed in my analysis of the Heat, that number will likely come down due to diminishing returns, but this still has a chance to be one of the best trios in recent memory.

In truth, most of these groups were really great duos with a solid third man. This is especially true of Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell; Fred Hoiberg contributed just 3.6 WARP to their cause. Just two of the top 10 trios (the 1991-92 Bulls and 2004-05 Suns) saw three players total better than 10 WARP.

As far as team success, only the Bulls trios won the championships. Two more teams (the 1986-87 Celtics and 1996-97 Jazz) reached the NBA Finals before losing, while most of these trios were eliminated in the conference finals. One notably exception: the 1994-95 Jazz, which was upset by Houston in the opening round.

July 8, 2010

You Are Not LeBron James

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 11:34 pm

LeBron James is currently the least popular–or at least most loathed–player in the NBA, and I suspect it would be difficult to explain this to someone like my grandmother who knows little about basketball.

A superstar player decided to take less money and sacrifice individual glory to try to win championships, but it’s not OK because he’s not having to work hard enough to win them, so they don’t count as much.

To announce his decision, he created a special TV program that wound up generating millions of dollars he donated to the Boys & Girls Club, but he’s a bad person because it was egotistical.

It’s funny that James has attracted more wrath than players who have committed crimes or hurt others in a way James’ emotional cut to the city of Cleveland never could. There are a lot of terrible things that happen in the world each day, and I’m not in the business of telling people which ones they should bother lamenting. At the same time, I think it’s interesting in that it seems to be a window into the minds of those criticizing James. While they could never imagine themselves being criminals, even in an alternate reality as a star athlete, they could see themselves as having to decide where to sign as a free agent, and they’re certain they would handle the whole thing differently than James.

To some extent, James was doomed all along. If he stayed with the Cavaliers, he would have been criticized for letting the process drag out this long. If he went to New York, it meant he cared more about money than winning. Signing with the Bulls would have meant being criticized as a lesser Michael Jordan, and as we’ve seen joining a super-team in Miami means James is bowling with the assistance of bumpers.

If you want to question the way James handled the process, and how it treated Cleveland fans, I certainly think that’s your right, even if I don’t completely agree. I can’t imagine in a scenario where James came out and said at the beginning of the process that he was ruling out the Cavaliers that someone would have written, ‘Yeah, that sucks for Cleveland, but at least the process wasn’t dragged out.’ There is no right way to leave your hometown team as a superstar athlete. At the same time, there’s no defending The Decision special, which had to be a nightmare for Cavaliers fans, some of whom were callously shown on national television right after a shot of joyous Heat fans.

Call “The Decision” overwrought, self-indulgent or not compelling as television, but don’t criticize the actual decision itself. I don’t think that’s our place. This is probably the most important decision of LeBron James’ life, and he gets the chance to make it based on whatever set of criteria he so chooses. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s the right pioneers like Oscar Robertson and Curt Flood sacrificed a great deal to earn. It’s also the same opportunity to choose the right situation for us that you and I, as at-will employees, have all the time.

As much as I feel for the people of Cleveland, they don’t automatically get to be part of the choice. It came off poorly, but I agreed with James when he said he had to make the best decision for himself. This is another example of athletes being held to wildly different standards than we would hold ourselves. Would you stay at a job you hated for years just because you felt it wasn’t right to leave your co-workers?

Would I have made the same decision as James? Probably not. Would you? It doesn’t matter, because you are not LeBron James.

Coming tomorrow morning: Thoughts on the basketball ramifications of James going to Miami.

The Cost of a Win

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:07 pm

One area where Basketball Prospectus is admittedly far behind our baseball brethren is the financial side of the NBA. Certainly, we understand the salary-cap implications of moves, which often drive NBA trades. As far as turning performance into dollars, however, there’s a lot more work to be done. I’ve been relying mostly on this study I did a few years back in considering free agency, but that takes more of a post-hoc look at the issue (if a team is going to buy a win in free agency, how much will it cost?) than something that can be used to evaluate contracts.

There’s more work to be done on the issue, but enter Tom Haberstroh, who used our WARP statistic to evaluate the contracts signed thus far and the market as a whole on Hardwood Paroxysm, finding a going rate of $2.23 million for one WARP, a substantial increase from last summer’s price ($1.49 million per WARP).

But there’s still plenty of time for the Grand Opening excitement to calm and the price will likely slide a bit.  The other capped max contracts have yet to be handed out (Wade, LeBron, and Bosh) and their contracts will actually drive the going rate downward since they’re not paid on the free market.  The near $1 million premium may drop down to $500K or $250K by the end of summer.

By the way, Haberstroh is using the older version of WARP, which is still available on our player pages (unfortunately, a server move has kept me from being able to update them as of yet). If you go by WARP 2, as I have in all my analysis of free agency, Steve Blake and Chris Duhon in particular look like better values.

While you’re at HP, I’d recommend scrolling over to read Matt Moore‘s epic thank you post, which clocks in at a mere 46 paragraphs. The hardest-working man in hoop blog business is joining CBSSports.com’s new NBA blog, NBA Facts & Rumors.

July 2, 2010

TMZ: NCAA investigating Kentucky

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

This morning TMZ posted a report saying that the NCAA is looking into possible dealings between Kentucky players and professional agents: “According to a source who was interviewed by an NCAA investigator, the agency is interested in at least four players–two current and two who were just drafted by NBA teams.”

In March TMZ reported a story involving then-Oklahoma freshman Tiny Gallon and his relationship with agents, so the website–which usually concerns itself with people who are much better-looking than college basketball players–does at least have a notch in this particular belt already. Still, Jeff Eisenberg at Yahoo! Sports finds the UK story “flimsier” than the Gallon yarn. At this point I would prefer the term “thinly-sourced.” Thinly-sourced stories can turn out to be true, of course, but it does mean we’re still in the basic “Say what?” phase. Cool the torches and pitchforks just yet.  

Fortunately we don’t need to sit and puzzle about TMZ’s source. The University of Kentucky is a taxpayer-supported institution, and if they’ve received a Notice of Inquiry or (a much more substantial) Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, that pdf is on someone’s taxpayer-supported computer. The truth is just a Freedom of Information Act request away. Go to it, Lexington/Louisville media.

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