Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

December 9, 2010

One-and-done’s a really small bargaining chip

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:01 am

If you’re a college hoops fan you’re used to the sport’s most central issues being weighed and indeed decided as peripheral matters. For instance in 2010 conferences have been busily expanding and realigning with nary a thought given to basketball. Cases in point: Apparently the Pac-10 and Big Ten actually wanted Colorado and Nebraska, respectively, to join their conferences. I’m serious, they did. Clearly this is a strange, alien, and wholly hoops-blind world.

In a similar fashion the fate of one-and-done’s about to be decided in a strange, alien, and wholly college-blind world called the NBA, where the Players Association and the owners are widely expected to wage all-out war over the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Yesterday at ESPN.com Chris Broussard reported that the Players Association will seek to eliminate one-and-done, aiming for a return to the days when the nation’s top prospects could go directly from high school to the NBA.

I have no doubt the players are sincere in their desire to do away with one-and-done. I just think there will be other matters that are far more contentious and weighty — namely the presence or absence of a “hard” salary cap. Conversely something as trifling as the league’s eligibility requirements will be an afterthought, tossed in at the end of negotiations as a concession to whichever side has lost out on the more substantial matters.

Be that as it may, we’re in for months of rollicking good punditry on one-and-done, kind of like that whole 96-team tournament expansion scare last season. Very well, what follows is my punditry on this here topic. If I’m doing this right I’m done already.

First, put everything you read on one-and-done through my handy screening device.
My one-of-a-kind screening mechanism weeds out all the hackery with a simple two-pronged test. Now we can proceed to the matter at hand!

Just because one-and-done’s “central” doesn’t mean it matters all that much.
Did you spend the late 1990s and early 2000s wailing and moaning that you didn’t get to see Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Amar’e Stoudemire, and LeBron James play collegiately? Neither did I. Sure, it was fun seeing John Wall at Kentucky, just like it was nice to watch Kevin Durant at Texas, Kevin Love at UCLA, and Michael Beasley at Kansas State. But we don’t miss what we can’t see. One-and-done is “central” to college hoops because it goes a long way toward defining who the stars will be. Still, whether we’re speaking of one-and-done, two-and-through (are you spending this season wailing and moaning that you don’t get to see Wall as a sophomore?), or even players going straight from high school to the NBA, there will always be stars in college hoops. Always.

That being said, this is important for college coaches — even if they don’t know it.
From the book a couple years ago:

Allowing high school seniors to enter the NBA draft means that college coaches will unavoidably waste time on prospects that will eventually bypass college entirely to go pro. Worse, those coaches will waste time on prospects that will commit to their program, scare other prospects at the same position away, and then jump to the pros, leaving the coach with a gaping hole at that position. College coaches don’t want to waste time and they don’t want gaping holes.

Too bad for coaches the right thing is for one-and-done to go away.
It’s nothing to stage a hunger strike over, of course. We’re talking about two very similar outcomes for a handful of insanely blessed players, where both outcomes (being a huge star as a freshman, being a smaller star in the NBA initially but getting paid) are highly desirable. But, if you care to raise the question, yeah, one-and-done should go away:

It needs to go away because for a very tiny minority of the most elite 18-year-old prospects, the NBA really is the proper place for them to play. To force them to wait a year not only leads to all kinds of messy mishaps, it’s also, well, wrong.

Basically whatever emerges from the NBA’s negotiating fracas is fine with me, as long as it doesn’t expand the NCAA tournament somehow.

Email: johngasaway@basketballprospectus.com; Twitter: @JohnGasaway 

December 8, 2010

The Replacements

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:55 am

There was a common theme to the two games I focused my viewing attention on Tuesday night. In Dallas’ triumph over Golden State and Portland’s victory against Phoenix, both winning teams relied heavily on an unexpected hero stepping into the lineup.

The Mavericks had to replace starting center Tyson Chandler–one of this season’s most pleasant surprises to date–when a stomach illness kept him out of the lineup. Dallas has a veteran backup in Brendan Haywood, no stranger to the starting lineup, but Haywood was on the bench down the stretch. Instead, Rick Carlisle went with Ian Mahinmi, the French curiosity the Mavericks signed away from San Antonio over the summer.

We raved about Mahinmi’s D-League performance in this year’s Pro Basketball Prospectus. That’s about all we’ve had to go on, since Mahinmi had played 226 minutes in his entire five-year NBA career entering Tuesday night. Given a chance to play, Mahinmi showed what the fuss was about, providing Dallas 21 strong minutes off the bench. Mahinmi posted a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds, seven of them on the offensive end. He showed some post skill, knocking down a hook and reaching the foul line 10 times (making eight). A legit 7-footer, Mahinmi is also a defensive presence.

Alas, with Chandler likely to return shortly, we might have seen the last of Mahinmi for a while. He’s buried behind two capable veteran centers, so it’s going to take an injury or a trade for Mahinmi to get his chance. That’s not the case for Patty Mills, who sparked the Blazers Tuesday off the bench.

Mills saw extended minutes because Andre Miller was suspended by the league for ramming the Clippers’ Blake Griffin on Sunday night, snapping a streak of 632 consecutive games played. Nate McMillan started Nicolas Batum in place of Miller, going without a true point guard, but Mills got the early call when Batum picked up two quick fouls. The Aussie ended up playing 29 points, including a chunk of crunch time. Mills scored nine points and handed out seven assists, giving the Portland offense some missing life. Mills showed especially good chemistry with Rudy Fernandez. The two have become close friends, and Mills looked for Fernandez, who scored 11 points–nine of them attributable to Mills passes.

It’s unlikely that Mills will play such a large role in the future, but the backup spot behind Miller is wide open. Mills made a strong case Tuesday that he deserves an extended trial in the position and might just fill it.

December 6, 2010

Mid-Major Currency Exchange: Turnovers for Rebounds in the Age of Butler

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kyle Whelliston @ 3:43 pm

I recall a very intangible, non-statistical, tempo-full feeling in Lucas Oil Stadium with 3:15 remaining in the 2010 National Championship contest between Duke and Butler. Even though the Blue Devils were only ahead by five points at 60-55, it just didn’t feel possible that the Bulldogs would be able to both close the two-possession gap and then win. It felt like a giant invisible wet blanket descending down upon the partisan local crowd. Some combination of Mystique and Aura, Big Game Experience and officiating was going to do Butler in, everybody just knew it.

With the December 4 title game rematch in New Jersey, that feeling returned about two months before tip-off. New Butler, however, acquitted itself surprisingly well on Saturday. Brad Stevens’ team put in 30 minutes of Old Butler play against No. 1-ranked Duke before allowing lots of Matt Howard foul trouble, a 9-0 run, and a series of easy jump shots. After losing by 12, the 2010-11 Bulldogs are 4-3 to begin this season, as opposed to 5-2 after seven games last year. That one extra loss is magnified and expanded thanks to the increased national notoriety, but it’s a different team with a different statistical profile. For one,Butler has already given up more than a point per possession thrice, something the Bulldogs did only nine times in 38 games a year ago. Duke enjoyed 1.1 PPP efficiency on Saturday, a thoroughly un-Butler yield.

Whatever the Bulldogs do in the Horizon League and beyond in 2011 will be predicated on defense. If the national runner-ups allow 46 percent of two-pointers and 30 percent of threes to fall — as happened last season — they’ll be in decent elimination shape by March. (Current numbers: 48 percent and 28 percent.) Defense increases the margin of error for the offense, and Butler has not finished in the national top 100 in shooting percentage since the 2005-06 season. But what really made the difference during The Run, and endeared the team to millions of unaffiliated fans, was the way they did everything else. Take, for example, that team’s final win: the 52-50 national semifinal victory over Michigan State. Butler shot just 31 percent, got outrebounded, but turned the ball over eight times fewer than the Spartans did.

The key gap between mid-majors and the power elite is, unsurprisingly, money. Duke, for instance, spends $13.9 million on its men’s basketball operations (as per the U.S. Department of Postsecondary Education), while Butler spends $1.7 million annually. One way that a team like the Bulldogs can narrow that gap, and avoid from getting beaten elevenfold on the court, is to enter the currency exchange market. The rebound and the turnover have had floating values since long before the gold standard was abolished, and as colleague John Gasaway noted in a fine essay in this year’s dead-tree Prospectus, the “Incredible Shrinking Turnover” costs major-conference teams 1.28 points per incidence, on average. For small-conference teams who can’t really afford boards, reverse-hoarding turnovers is just good economic sense.

Butler 2009-10 finished with a pedestrian rebounding percentage of 51.3 (157th in Division I), and turned the ball over 18 percent of the time. Over March and April, the Bulldogs’ cough rate dipped to 15.9 percent. With primary rebounding threat Howard’s hind end perpetually attached to the bench by fouls, the Formula became ultimately important.

Butler 2010-11 is putting up similar ratios (55.9 percent rebound rate, 18.3 percent turnover rate), so the internal numbers are pretty solid. It’s far, far too early to panic about this team’s chances for another impressive postseason run. The defense is showing plenty of signs that its wounds will heal. It is not too early, however, to take a look at some other small-conference teams that fit the low-shooting, high-defense, turnovers-for-rebounds formula that the Bulldogs used to come just short of history.

Hampton (7-1, 1-0 MEAC) — The Pirates’ season opened on Nov. 15 with a seven-point loss at Wake Forest (they were down by three with 30 seconds left) that included a very Butler Formula-like structure: 31 percent shooting, minus-5 on rebounds, minus-10 in the turnovers column. Hampton has won every game since, a series that includes a roadie at George Washington (by 11), and neutral-court victories against Boston University (51-50) and blood rival Howard (67-55 at Madison Square Garden in the MEAC’s Big Apple Classic). Edward Joyner, Jr.’s team is one of the worst shooting squads in America (37.2 percent), but has a field goal defense of 32.9 percent (second nationally) to make up for it. The boardwork is pretty bad too (44.8 percent reb-rate), but that’s countervailed by a turnover rate of 16.1 percent. And as of press time, Hampton is seven points from a perfect record.

Virginia Commonwealth (5-2, 1-0 Colonial) — The Rams rarely shoot straight (43.8 percent) and are No. 293 in rebound rate (47 percent), but don’t turn it over (16.6 percent turnover rate) and force opponents into coughs on 23 percent of possessions. Add it all up, and Shaka Smart’s post-Larry Sanders squad has beaten two teams from the Big Six (Wake Forest and UCLA), and have lost their two drops by a combined six points to power-conference sides (Tennessee and South Florida). VCU, along with Old Dominion, is inspiring talk of a two-bid CAA, something that hasn’t happened since 2007.

South Dakota State (6-1, 0-1 Summit League) — This is the seventh year of D-I existence for the Jackrabbits, and the program has never posted an overall winning record, but Scott Nagy’s team has finally figured out how to hang. Before a Summit preview over the weekend against North Dakota State (an 82-75 loss), South Dakota State was just as undefeated as the SDSU out there in the Mountain West. And for a recent transitional, double-digit wins over Iowa and Nevada certainly aren’t cheap. The profile: 51.7 percent rebounding rate, 44.2 percent shooting percentage, .88 points allowed per possession… and a staggering 13.2 percent turn rate, the second best figure in the country (Brigham Young, 12.5).

Of successful teams that have turned the ball over 18 percent of the time or less, shoot 45 percent or worse, allow less than a point per possession and rebound at a rate of 55 percent or less, there are a couple of honorable mentions: Loyola of Chicago (7-2, 0-2 Horizon) and San Jose State (5-2, 0-0 WAC). Also, for what it’s worth, this formula fits BYU, Purdue, Texas and Syracuse as well.

Why Carolina’s so dad-gum interesting

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 8:34 am

Imagine that tomorrow space aliens landed from the planet, uh, Tempo-Freedonia. DirecTV and your live-streaming websites don’t reach their tiny distant planet, but as of October 2009 or so they started receiving text-based internet goodies. So all that the aliens know about college hoops is what they read on Basketball Prospectus, glean from Tuesday Truths, and learn from kenpom.com.

Our alien friends would be utterly baffled and bewildered, trying to figure out why in the world the earthlings all seem so interested in North Carolina. To judge by the number of press credentials granted and by the fact that this was the first game this season that CBS televised nationally, the Tar Heels’ 75-73 win over Kentucky in Chapel Hill on Saturday was a very important happening. 

But was it? Our alien visitors would point not only to last year’s 5-11 record in the ACC, but also to what we’ve seen thus far this season. Over the course of 299 possessions in four games against major-conference competition (neutral-site losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt, a road loss to Illinois, and Saturday’s win at home over UK), UNC’s been outscored by 0.07 points per trip. Moreover, the trouble for Carolina is again on offense, just like it was last year. In those four games the Tar Heels have recorded just 0.92 points per possession. (In ACC play last year Duke scored 1.12.) No other team in the country could possibly attract this level of attention while scoring so few points.

Yes, we earthlings say, but this is North Carolina we’re talking about. Just look at them. A lot of these players are going to be in the NBA very soon.

Well, for what it’s worth you can mark me down as all-earthling. (Mom will be relieved.) I find Carolina downright fascinating, though perhaps not for the same reasons that drew CBS to Chapel Hill this weekend. 

Abandon all hope, ye who recruit one-and-done small forwards
A lot of these players are going to be in the NBA very soon, including freshman Harrison Barnes. The problem for Carolina is that right now Barnes’ draft stock looks like a much safer bet than his ability to provide correspondingly impressive assistance to the Tar Heels in 2010-11.

Indeed the recent history of recruits named the number one small forward in the US in any given year, as was Barnes last year, has not been stellar in terms of college performance. Before Barnes it was Lance Stephenson, and before Stephenson it was DeMar DeRozan. I don’t doubt that all of the above will be fine professional players, but compared to all those glittering and highly-polished freshman point guards we’re used to seeing, it would appear that the 18- to 19-year-old small forward is very much a work in progress — even if his body-type is already NBA-approved. Neither Stephenson nor DeRozan was able to provide their college team (Cincinnati and USC, respectively) with much in the way of rebounding or perimeter accuracy, though DeRozan was at least proficient inside the arc.

I’m not saying Barnes’ freshman season is doomed because of the position that recruiting evaluators listed him under. (To date he’s made 32 percent of his threes and 36 percent of his twos while functioning more or less as one Amigo in the offense alongside Tyler Zeller and John Henson.) I am saying it’s entirely possible that “NBA potential” and “ability to dominate collegiately as a freshman” are not identical quantities, though perhaps recruit rankings assume that they are.

The dad-gum fascinating John Henson (cont.)
If you number ESPN Insider or Basketball Prospectus Premium (or both) among your subscriptions, you’ve already heard me say this about Henson:

It’s highly unusual — in fact if there’s a precedent I can’t think of it — for a very slightly built McDonald’s All-American billed as a versatile scorer to emerge as perhaps his team’s premier defender. But that is more or less what has taken place with Henson.

Delete “more or less.” That is exactly what has taken place. Henson’s been an absolute freak on D, blocking 11 percent of opponents’ twos and rebounding 27 percent of those same opponents’ misses during his minutes — and he’s recorded both of those remarkable numbers without fouling. Having Henson on the floor makes North Carolina a much better team defensively.

Actually, having Henson on the court makes Roy Williams‘ team better in a lot of ways. The sophomore’s been excellent on the offensive glass, pulling down 16 percent of his team’s misses while he’s on the floor, and he’s even been sound from the field, hitting 53 percent of his twos. But, as you may have heard, he’s shooting just 35 percent from the line, a fact rich in coaching implications. One might think Williams would seriously consider having Henson simply box out under the rim on offense on the weak side Joey Dorsey-style, lest he somehow actually touch the ball in a setting where he might be put on the line. Conversely, one would suppose 35 percent FT shooting makes what should be an extremely tough match-up for opposing coaches — having to guard two players the size of Zeller and Henson — much easier. After all, how tall do you have to be to foul Henson?

Outstanding recruiting’s been a constant at North Carolina under Williams, but only in the past 13 months have we seen on-court performance, somehow, come uncoupled from that particular constant. Earthlings know those two quantities will again be brought together, the only question being when. From my chair the only question’s still an open question, even after a two-point win at home over Kentucky.   

Email: johngasaway@basketballprospectus.com; Twitter: @JohnGasaway

December 2, 2010

New Guide to NBA History

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:47 am

Timing is a funny thing. Remember when a pair of movies were made about the late distance runner Steve Prefontaine within two years? Or when competing books covering the life of Pete Maravich were released months apart? What about those subjects compelled two separate groups to begin work on their projects so close together?

On the surface, it felt like we had something similar with NBA history when FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History dropped in late October, precisely a year after the publication of Bill SimmonsThe Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy.* (Full disclosure: FD ringleader Bethlehem Shoals is a fellow member of the SSSBDA, a good friend and was a major contributor to the editing of the most recent Pro Basketball Prospectus.)

In this case, the oddity isn’t really so much why the subject deserved two looks–60-some years of the NBA’s existence provide plenty of subject matter to explore–but why nobody ever really approached the league’s history in such an all-encompassing manner before last fall. The Book of Basketball filled that void. So too does The Undisputed Guide. Fortunately, the very different styles with which Simmons and the FreeDarko collective approached the topic mean there is relatively little overlap between the two books.

Where The Book of Basketball sought to provide readers an overview of the greatest players and teams in league history, you’ll find no rankings in The Undisputed Guide–save, of course, for star ratings for each of the books written by members of the 1970s Knicks.

In typical FreeDarko fashion, The Undisputed Guide sacrifices comprehensiveness in favor of taking a deep dive on a handful of subjects for each decade. The big stars get FD treatment, but so too does Penny Hardaway because of what Nike’s advertising campaign starring Lil’ Penny said about the way shoe companies made basketball stars and vice versa.

That’s typical of the FD approach, which could be considered NBA philosophy. As much as focusing on what happened and why over the course of the league’s history, The Undisputed Guide concerns itself with what players and events meant to the future of the NBA and the larger cultural landscape. As such, the league’s actual origins get more play here. The essay on the barnstorming teams that took professional basketball national at a time when organized leagues were strictly regional in scope is one of The Undisputed Guide‘s highlights.

While The Book of Basketball was often a starting point for arguments or debates about the league’s history, The Undisputed Guide touches off deeper discussion. How were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton a product of and representative of the U.S. in the 1970s? To what extent is the Michael Jordan narrative built on revisionist history?Was Allen Iverson really responsible for bringing hip-hop to the NBA?

One mild disappointment is that a historical setting does not lend itself as well to the statistical tidbits that Silverbird 5000 contributed to each essay in FreeDarko’s first effort, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. However, he was able to get creative on topics like quantifying the increase in hair (facial and otherwise) during the 1970s or a comprehensive breakdown of player fights over the last 30 years drawn from Google News.

As with The Macrophenomenal Almanac, readers come for the writing and stay for Jacob Weinstein‘s illustrations. The print of Jordan literally overshadowing his 1990s peers, based on Fernando Medina‘s famous photo of Jordan’s championship-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, might just tell the story of the decade better than words ever could.

I closed last year’s Book of Basketball review by concluding that Simmons’ offering should be “a key part of any serious NBA fan’s library.” The Undisputed Guide may not be quite as universal in its appeal, but for FD readers and anyone who likes to think critically about the game, it neatly complements The Book of Basketball to provide two great options for learning about the NBA’s history.

* Oddly, you know where the Maravich/Prefontaine timing is discussed? In The Book of Basketball.

PORTLAND READERS

Shoals will be at Powell’s Books this Friday at 7:30 p.m. to read from The Undisputed Guide and answer questions. His last visit to Powell’s was a great time, and I’m looking forward to attending again this time around.

Email: kpelton@basketballprospectus.com; Twitter: @kpelton

December 1, 2010

Best Illinois team since 2006, not 2005

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:52 am

After Minnesota‘s ostentatiously extreme collapse on defense against Virginia on Monday night dug the Big Ten into an 0-1 hole, the conference staged an impressive comeback last night and now leads the ACC/Big Ten Challenge by a 4-2 margin. Wins by Illinois (at home over North Carolina), Ohio State (at Florida State), and Northwestern (at home over Georgia Tech) were expected. The victory posted by putatively rebuilding Michigan at Clemson was more of a surprise. And Wake Forest‘s three-point win at home over Iowa falls under the heading of a toss-up.

Tonight the Big Ten needs just two wins to secure its second consecutive (and second ever) Challenge cup or crown or horcrux or whatever it is exactly that passes between Jim Delany and John Swofford. Maybe Wisconsin, which lost to Notre Dame by seven in Orlando on Sunday, will parlay that Kohl Center magic into a win over an impressively athletic NC State team that’ll be playing without Tracy Smith. Maybe Penn State can defend its home court against Maryland. Or, who knows, maybe a Michigan-style surprise can be sprung by Indiana (at Boston College), Purdue (at Virginia Tech), or even Michigan State (at Duke–though to be sure that would be one tall order). On the one hand the Big Ten could have this thing in the bag by 9:30 Eastern if the Badgers and Hoosiers both win. On the other hand it could go right down to the wire with the outcome being decided in Cameron Indoor sometime close to midnight.

As we settle in for what promises to be a really good night of hoops, though, I have an edict to issue. (No, it’s not about rebound margin. Relax.) Henceforth everyone will stop saying that this year’s 7-1 Illinois team is the best Illini squad we’ve seen since the 2005 Final Four team led by Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head. That may turn out to be the case, but we’re not there yet. First Bruce Weber‘s team has to show it’s as good as the now-forgotten 2006 team, one that appeared to be gliding toward a Sweet 16 showdown with Connecticut until a ferocious case of the yips midway through the second half of its second-round game against Brandon Roy and Washington sealed its doom.

Let’s look at some recent history in Champaign:

From sublime to supine  
Illinois per-possession scoring margin, Big Ten games only

       Margin
2005   +0.24
2006   +0.10
2007   +0.03
2008    0.00
2009   +0.05
2010   -0.01

The 2005 team was clearly one of the most dominant major-conference teams of the decade. The paradox of really dominant teams, though, is that they screw up how we perceive other teams. And, sure enough, that dominant Illinois team inflicted tremendous perceptual damage upon both Michigan State in 2005 and indeed the Illini themselves in 2006.

In 2005 the Spartans had Paul Davis, Alan Anderson, Mo Ager, Shannon Brown, and as-yet unassertive freshman Drew Neitzel. Viewed purely on their own merits they were unquestionably one of the best five teams the Big Ten has produced in recent years, outscoring the conference by a notably robust 0.18 points per trip. Their only problem was that they had this once-in-a-generation thing called Illinois 2005 in their league. Everyone, up to and including Tom Izzo, was always yelling at that MSU team for alleged underperformance (they went 13-3), lack of “toughness,” etc. It was all very strange and, except for the part where State lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to Iowa, it was pretty much all Illinois’ fault.

Fast forward to 2006 and the same exact yelling was visited upon the Illini themselves. Williams and Head (and Roger Powell) were gone, but Dee Brown was still there. So what was the problem? In fact that 2006 group was a really good team. Not great by any means, but really good. Illinois fans this season should dance in the streets if Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and company are able to outscore the Big Ten by 0.10 points per trip. It will mean the Illini have clear NCAA second-weekend potential, something they’ve clearly lacked since 2006.    

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