Sunday, March 30, 2008

Connect Four

Forgive the pun, but I had to take a quick break from writing about the NBA to celebrate a breakthrough for office pools everywhere. You see, I decided to run a fairly simple matrix for this year's picks, since I hadn't seen enough hoops. I threw up my bracket in the comments section of a previous post and have been amazed to see it all come to fruition as if I had that sports almanac from Back to the Future II.

The matrix spit out the following for the best five teams in the country:

1. Kansas
2. Memphis
3. North Carolina
4. Davidson

I couldn't pick Davidson, because the Wildcats were in Kansas' region, so I had no choice but to put the top seeds through. Now they are all in the Final Four.

But it goes beyond that.

24 out of 32 correct in the first round, including Davidson (over Gonzaga), Western Kentucky (over Drake), and Kansas State (over USC).

14 out of 16 correct in the second round, with misses only on Marquette (against Stanford), and Clemson (they were knocked out by Nova.

7 out of 8 correct in the Elite Eight, with the only miss coming on Louisville (against Tennessee).

And, of course, 4 out of 4 in the Final Four.

Needless to say, it is better than I normally do.

The bad news? I couldn't resist letting my own opinions and emotions get in the way. I felt that UCLA depended too much on luck so I went with Xavier (the #6 overall team). I couldn't quite pull the trigger on Davidson in one of my brackets so I put Wisconsin (#7) through to the Elite Eight. Even though Memphis was a clear favorite in the South, I hedged by bet by tabbing Texas in a few pools.

So instead of having one of the great brackets of our time, I have my usual hit-or-miss affair. Sure, it's enough to have me in the running in a few pools (the ones where I went with Memphis over Texas), but it's not the stuff of legends.

The good news? I've still got my new formula and there's always next year.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Quiet Storm

Last night was a monster session of hoops, both NBA and collegiate. I had four games locked and loaded on my double tuner, HD DVR, and so when I got home from work, I just went to town. But nothing much happened that stood out as a "big" story. Seriously, check out the slate of games:

- North Carolina walloped Washington State (much to my co-worker Pete's chagrin - keep your head up, Pete). No surprise there, considering the Heels are playing like UNLV circa 1990 right now.

- Xavier topped West Virginia in an overtime thriller. This was a great game and produced B.J. Raymond's epic OT performance and equally epic celebration, but there isn't much for me to talk about on my NBA blog (other than the fact that Xavier's Josh Duncan reminds me A LOT of Carlos Boozer).

- Louisville won easily, but I didn't get to see much of that one.

- UCLA won again despite not playing particularly well, which makes this no different from their previous 12 tournament victories from 2006-2008. (Seriously, is there any team in the history of college basketball as lucky as Ben Howland's bunch? I know that you create your own luck and that their tenacious defense is a large part of that, but that A&M game really took the cake.)

- Denver overcame a 15-point deficit to run Dallas off the floor in a key Western Conference game, which would have been noteworthy except that it is beyond obvious that Dallas should NOT HAVE RUN WITH DENVER, as pointed out in the previous post. How obtuse can a team be?

- Golden State also overcame a significant early deficit to crush Portland, and here, finally, we get some "news we can use."

That's because Matt Barnes just came back from the dead a la Tony Almeda. Barnes has been mired in the slump of all slumps for this entire season as he has struggled to deal with the death of his mother. But last night, against Portland, he looked like the Matt Barnes of old, scoring 8 points, grabbing 8 boards, and hitting a couple of big three pointers.

It wasn't a particularly massive stat line (although not at all bad, for 19 minutes of playing time), but the way he was bouncing around and shooting the ball with confidence suggests he might be back to his old self and back in Nellie's good graces.

All of which is terribly important, because a healthy and effective Barnes is the difference between the Warriors being a fun, overmatched team and a legit threat in the playoffs. He's tall enough to give them an additional post defender while retaining their ability to spread the floor on offense, and he's one of their most instinctive finishers on the fast break. Not only that, but he's one of those glue guys that seems to come up big in the biggest moments. Each of those traits will be paramount in helping G-State duplicate or top last season's success.

Everyone assumes the Warriors' ceiling is "win one series, give another team trouble" because that is what happened last year. But that thinking is flawed. The reason they couldn't win in the second round last year had more to do with playing Utah than it did with any sort of inability to pull off consecutive upsets.

If Barnes is really back, then I think the Warriors are just as dangerous as any other Western Conference contender and that their fate - like every other team - is tied to matchups (and, to their detriment, home court advantage). Heck, I might just pick them to win it all. If they make the playoffs, that is.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Race for 8th

This from Jon Barry, in today's "Daily Dime" on ESPN: "If Dallas is out, it's Denver. I wouldn't say this is a sure thing, because as great as the Nuggets are offensively, they are equally bad defensively. Is the offense going to be enough? They've got a big game with Dallas at home Thursday. The loss of Dirk should light a fire under the Nuggets."

Barry is right about one thing - The Nuggets-Mavs game tomorrow is huge. But he's wrong - oh so wrong - about his evaluation of the Nuggets as a team.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if the Mavericks were to believe Barry's analysis, they will surely lose to Denver. However, if they know better (and they have to, right?), they will likely win.


That is because the majority of NBA types completely misunderstand Denver. In fact, I just had a lengthy email exchange with a buddy about this and, as with Barry's comment above, it came in the context of discussing the Mavericks and whether they could still make the playoffs without Dirk.

Here was one salvo:

"I think Dallas will be okay if they beat Denver on Thursday. Consider that their game of the year. If they lose it, I think they will lose faith in themselves without Dirk and slide to 9th. If they win, I think they could actually find a second wind and then turn to a running game the rest of the way.

It is kind of interesting, because people kill Avery for playing such a slow pace, but I don't think he has a choice most of the time. Dirk is agile for a 7-footer, but he's not fast by any stretch of the imagination. Plus, he has to stop a lot to wipe that mop of hair out of his eyes (it isn't a coincidence that his best playoff performances came with the buzz cut). I am interested to see if Avery keeps pulling back the reigns now that Dirk is out or if he lets this team get out and run. Stackhouse is still a surprisingly good transition player, Terry has always shot better running into a jumper, and we all know that Howard is a monster on the break. And they've got Jason Kidd, who - despite losing 19 steps - is still one of the best at running the fast break in NBA history. Throw in Brandon Bass and even George (he's always been surprisingly good at hitting the corner three off a secondary break) and this team has the personnel to get up and down a little bit. Without Dirk to cater to (his only big value-add on the break is as a trailing shooter, something that has become less valuable every since he decided to stop shooting threes for whatever reason), Dallas should be able to run freely and see what happens.

All of that said, I would NOT run against Denver. The Nuggets - contrary to popular belief - are actually a good defensive team and a woefully inefficient offensive team. They only give up and score a lot of points because they play at a hellacious pace. If you force them to play slow, they will get plenty of stops but usually bog down completely on offense. It is far better to try to beat the Nuggets 88-82 than 118-112. The more possessions they get and the faster they shoot, the easier it is for them to bury their bad shots and turnovers. If Dallas tries to run with Denver, they will probably get annihilated. But if they force-feed Dampier and Bass, run a deliberate offense, and make the Nuggets impatient, I think they will win easily. Detroit can run with the Nuggets and win. So can the Lakers and Warriors and Suns. But the Spurs can't (and they know it - that is why SA and Denver always play games under 100, yet the Spurs used to play over 100 against Phoenix all the time - they are the best at knowing who they can and can't run with). And the Mavs definitely can't. So they shouldn't try."

How I can see that and 90% of the people who will read this post can see that, yet Jon Barry (who I like as an announcer, by the way) can not, is utterly mind-blowing.

That aside, I can't wait to watch the game tomorrow night. It will likely feature a clash of styles between two teams that are trying to avoid missing the playoffs - unthinkable to each of them when this season started. Meanwhile the Warriors host the Blazers immediately afterward in a TNT doubleheader that actually means something. Outstanding.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Battier Better Win This Year

You might remember that my choice for Defensive Player of the Year last year was Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets. I felt that he was the primary reason that the Rockets were the league's best defensive team and one of the smartest and most versatile defensive players in the league. I could live with Tim Duncan as the choice, but was dismayed to see Marcus Camby (one of the worst pick-and-roll defenders I've seen) get the award for his blocked shot stats and Bruce Bowen take Battier's spot on the All-Defensive team because of his reputation.

This year? I'm thinking things might be different. The Rockets are once again a dominant defensive team and this time, the stars might be aligned for the former Blue Devil will the wrinkled forehead.

For starters, Bowen has lost about 14 steps and has continued to be exposed as a dirty cheap shot artist. Plus, the Spurs as a team have slipped a little defensively, so Duncan isn't really in the mix. Josh Smith blocks shots like a maniac, but he's undisciplined and doesn't have the reputation of many veterans.

That leaves only Camby. And this time, perception might work the other way. The Nuggets are actually a pretty fair defensive team, but because they play at the fastest pace in the league and therefore give up a lot of points, they've come to be known for playing poor defense. So even though Camby might actually be better this year than last year, voters might be reluctant to give it to someone from Denver. Plus, the mere fact that he won the award last year might prompt someone to spread the love.

The other major factor is that Battier finally got the national platform he needed when he hounded Kobe Bryant into 11-for-33 shooting. The "hand in the face" technique has been shown over and over in freeze frame and by now, everyone has seen and marveled at not only the intelligence (why don't more people think of this?) but also the coordination (it can't be easy to come within a few inches of someone's head time after time after time).

The hype machine is fired up now and it could be just what Battier needs to take home some overdue hardware.

Must Win For Denver?

The Nuggets, fresh of their 168-point performance against the hapless Sonics, are heading to the Motor City to play the Pistons.

Normally, this would be viewed as a difficult road game and another chance to trot out the "what if" scenarios involving Joe Dumars, Carmelo Anthony, and the 2003 NBA Draft.

But this year, the game is taking on added significance due to the fact that Denver is outside of the playoff picture. This, despite boasting one of the most dangerous lineups in the NBA and a sterling 40-26 record. But such is life in the current NBA, where David Stern cares only about overseas expansion and nothing about fairness (Exhibit A: the Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspensions in last year's playoffs, Exhibit B: the Seattle Supersonics, Exhibit C: the playoff format).

I will be watching this game very closely to see how the Nuggets respond. Because even more than the result, I want to see how they approach the contest. This is the type of game that the Nuggets from the first half of the season would probably have laid down for - knowing how tough it would be to win in Detroit, they might have just mailed it in and conserved their energy. But they can't do that now. Will they show and prove? Will they maintain their composure. Will they play with the confidence that they can win?

If they do all those things - win or lose - I think it bodes very well for their chances to catch the Warriors and reach the playoffs. If they don't, I think they are done.

They HAVE to bring it tonight.

Paul Fires Latest MVP Salvo

The most pertinent question at this time of year when it comes to the MVP race is not "how valuable" a player is (imagine that), but rather "have the voters already made up their minds?"

For some reason, almost without fail, the MVP award gets decided right about this time every year. This is when you get the big flurry of columns and arguments and Steven A. Smith sightings and once people start taking positions, well, good luck getting them to change their minds. At the exact time of year when NBA analysts should be expanding their minds in the interest of accuracy, they are instead narrowing their viewpoints in the interest of being right (or loudest).

Makes no sense.

For instance, if the good people who vote on this award have been paying attention for the past week, they would have to move Chris Paul up their ballots.

While Kobe was being tortured by Shane Battier (one of the best defensive efforts I've ever seen) and shooting his team out of a game in Houston and LeBron was taking and missing an ill-advised game-winner, Paul was doing the following:

- Destroying the Spurs (no seriously, DESTROYING them)

- Battling Chauncey Billups and keeping his team in a tough road game ... while playing on one leg

- Going for 37 and 13 on that same bum wheel while leading a stirring and critical fourth quarter comeback over the Bulls.

Right now Paul is the the most unstoppable penetrator in the game. He's the best ball handler. He's the most disruptive perimeter defender. He throws the best alley-oop. He's playing for the #2 team in the brutal West (tied with the Lakers). He's putting up the first 20/11 season in 15 years (he's on pace to be just the sixth player of all time to reach those numbers, joining Isiah, Magic, Big O, Tiny Archibald, and Sacramento mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson). What else is there?

Unlike most fans and media members, I'm not making up my mind until the bitter end. Kobe could lead the Lakers on a big winning streak without Gasol and LeBron could throw up a series of 40-15-15 triple doubles.

But for now, Paul has vaulted into the lead.

My ballot as of today:

1. Chris Paul
2. Kobe Bryant
3. LeBron James

[Update - Since this is an NBA blog, I don't want to crowd the main page with my tourney picks. But I do want to get them on record, especially because I just know I will wind up tinkering in my various pools and screwing it up. So proceed to the comments for my tourney picks.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Amare for MVP?

Last night was a big one in the NBA, because it featured "The Suns." As in, the version of the Phoenix Suns that we've come to know and love over the years. Their second half against Golden State was a work of art. They got Barbosa and Amare ahead of the pack, Raja Bell was firing threes, and Nash was dazzling with his patented full-speed, pull-up three in transition. It was a sight to behold. And coming on the heels of their grind-it-out win against San Antonio on Sunday, I can tell you that the West just got even more interesting. Granted, both games were at home, but they beat a "slower" team and a "faster" team in big, nationally televised games. Dare I say the Suns are on their way?

The other thing I was struck by last night was the play of Amare Stoudemire. On one hand, he didn't do anything different from a normal Amare performance. Yet there was something revelatory about the way he played.

The weird thing about Amare is the way little things get held against him. By most accounts he is a bit of a prima donna, yet a few personality quirks wind up getting exacerbated and the perception of Amare becomes one of "Locker Room Monster." He isn't the strongest defensive player in the world, yet to hear some analysts tell it, he's out there shaving points.

The defensive thing is the most puzzling to me. For starters, he's not the only guy in purple and orange that struggles on that end of the floor. Part of that is that the Suns have assembled a team of poor to quite poor (as opposed to "strong to quite strong") defenders and Amare is one of those. But the other part is that they've never wanted to fixate on defense. They didn't want to challenge shots too closely for fear of fouling and stopping the clock. They were willing to save a little energy on D so that they could run even harder on offense. Amare was just doing what he was told, really. And because everyone railed on the Suns for their poor defense and because Amare became the poster child for said poor defense, he now has this ungodly reputation.

But is it even true?

I will grant you that Stoudemire has too major weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor. They are:

1. Staying out of foul trouble.

2. Doing his work "early." This second issue is one of the major causes of the first and the primary reason he's not an effective on-the-ball defender in the lowpost. He's either a tad lazy or a tad, um, not that bright, because he never seems to be in the right position before his guy catches the ball. Every kid who learns how to play post defense the right way (say, at Big Man Camp) knows that denying cutters and working for superior post position is a huge part of defending the paint. Amare's never quite mastered this task, preferring instead to just wait for someone to have the ball and then try to stop them. This is why skilled post players (skilled not only at shooting and dribbling, but also at positioning and using their bodies) like Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol eat him alive.

That said, he's not entirely without merit on the defensive end. He has fantastic timing as a shot blocker and despite following a "don't foul!" mandate, he still manages to swat 2.24 shots per game (6th in the league). He averages nearly as many rebounds as Kevin Garnett (in similar minutes). So he's not just taking up space out there.

Besides, since when does being an average or subpar defensive player submarine a player's entire reputation. Here is just a quick rundown of some of the NBA legends who lacked a little bit on D:

Steve Nash - Two MVP awards
Charles Barkley - MVP, member of original Dream Team
Magic Johnson - Three MVP awards, considered one of the greatest players of all time
Dirk Nowitzki - MVP award

These are just the guys that come to mind without even thinking very hard about it. It seems more than a little unfair to punish Amare for similarly being "offensively inclined."

Anyway. To get back to my initial point, Amare just seemed like he was on another level last night. With the deadly jumper that he's developed (nearly out to three point range), his body control, and explosive ability to finish at the rim, he's probably the most unstoppable frontcourt player in the game today. Seriously, when was the last time you saw somebody effectively guard him one-on-one?

And while I don't actually think Amare deserves the MVP award in a year like this - with LeBron, Paul, and Kobe playing at ridiculous levels - doesn't he deserve to be thrown into the conversation once in a while?

In addition to the visual evidence that tells me Amare is unique and unguardable, there is also ample statistical evidence to suggest that he's truly one of the four best players in the league this year. By almost any measure, he stacks up as one of the elite. He is:

- 3rd in PER (behind James and Paul)
- 2nd in the league according to Yahoo's fantasy stats
- 4th according to ESPN's fantasy player rater (doesn't include turnovers)
- 3rd in points per 48 minutes (6th overall)
- 4th in field goal percentage
- 6th in blocks per game (as mentioned above)
- 1st in efficiency rating per 48 minutes (3rd overall)

I think it's time we let Amare off the hook for past sins and acknowledge just how incredibly good this guy really is.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Now That's How You Respond to Bruce Bowen

If you've ever read this blog, you know that I think Bruce Bowen is just about the dirtiest basketball player to ever walk the earth. When he kicked Amare Stoudemire - he of the surgically repaired knee - in the Achilles last year on an open dunk, Bowen was dead to me forever. There's no coming back from that kind of evil. I don't care what you had to do to make it to the NBA, you do NOT knowingly put a guy's career and ability to walk in jeopardy.

Last night he was at it again, kicking Chris Paul twice in the chest while Paul was defenseless on the ground. Real nice. Man, that guy is a word-I-don't-want-to-put-in-print.

What I found more interesting than Bowen's cheap shot (because seriously, at this point it is almost expected) is the way the Hornets responded. At the time of the incident they held a 60-53 lead and then after it happened, went absolutely crazy down the stretch, outscoring the Spurs 40-22 the rest of the way. Chris Paul was unstoppable and David West got the better of Tim Duncan in key spots. The Hornets pretty much just bullied them from that point forward.

And you know what they say about bullying bullies. I'm surprised Bowen didn't run home crying.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Suns-Spurs In Retrospect

If you care about the NBA and had access to a television on Sunday, you likely watched the Suns hold off the Spurs and end a three-game home losing streak. It was an intense, physical contest that felt very much like a playoff game and left Phoenix fans feeling quite pleased. After all, the only thing better than ending a rough stretch is beating the Spurs, right? I mean, it's all about San Antonio!

Of course, that is the problem this year in the West. It's not all about San Antonio. Sure, the Spurs are looking like a favorite. But so are the Lakers. And the Jazz. And, heck, even the Rockets and Hornets. Who isn't a favorite in the West this year?

The Suns problem is no longer beating San Antonio. That won't be an easy task in and of itself, but with Shaq guarding Duncan and these two aging squads going after each other, it seems like the odds are about 50/50 for once. No, the problem for Phoenix is beating everyone else.

The landscape of the Western Conference has changed, folks. A year ago the only true threat to a Suns title was, in fact, the Spurs. This year, all eight playoff teams (and even one non-playoff team) can beat any other team in a series. I honestly believe that. Which means that Phoenix is going to have to fight tooth and nail just to play the Spurs (unless it is the first round).

In my opinion, the biggest problem for Phoenix - brace yourself for this - is team speed. Yes, the team famous for picking up the pace is in danger of being run out of the gym by half the teams in the West.

To better analyze the Suns' postseason chances, lets break down the Western contenders into two groups: the teams that play faster than the Suns and the teams that play slower (based on Phoenix's post-Shaq pace numbers compared to the rest of the league).

Golden State
L.A. Lakers

New Orleans
San Antonio

Obviously, one of those teams won't make the playoffs (unless that team is the Suns themselves), but it is worthwhile to consider them all. We can start by looking at the teams in the "slower" category. From that group, I see two teams that Phoenix can handle (Dallas and Houston) and two that they might struggle against, but could still come away with a series win. Houston is obviously on fire and the loss of Yao actually makes them faster and more athletic, but I expect them to come back to earth by the postseason and the Suns actually match up pretty well. Dallas is cooked and Dampier would last about 14 minutes before fouling out against Shaq qnd Amare. The Spurs, we already discussed. Only New Orleans seems like a real problem, given the way the Hornets have handled Phoenix this year (4-0). A closer look, however, suggests that a postseason matchup might not follow the existing script. For starters, New Orleans hasn't seen the new-look Suns. I realize that probably isn't scaring anyone, but Shaq should at least slow down David West a little bit. Furthermore, New Orleans won three of those four games by less than five points (including a double overtime thriller). Finally, the Hornets are woefully short on playoff experience in a league famous for its dues-paying history. The biggest problem for Phoenix against N.O. is the Chris Paul Factor. As in: who will guard him and how will Nash keep his turnovers down against him? Call it another 50/50.

To summarize, here are the loose odds I would give Phoenix to beat those four teams:
San Antonio (50/50)
New Orleans (50/50)
Houston (75/25)
Dallas (80/20)

Not bad, all things considered. Which brings us to the far more problematic area: playing against the fast teams. I know it is hard for people to wrap their heads around this, but Phoenix isn't the thoroughbread in this race anymore. Just look at their current starting lineup from last year to this year:

PG - Nash/Nash (slower - due to his body breaking down, which is becoming painfully obvious)
SG - Bell/Bell (probably the same)
SF - James Jones/Grant Hill (slightly faster, which shows how slow James Jones was)
PF - Shawn Marion/Amare Stoudemire (slower - Amare's a gazelle, but not nearly as fast as Marion)
C - Amare/Shaq (much, much slower)

60% of the Suns lineup is slower than last year, while the 20% that has gotten faster is marginal.

This is coming at a time when the rest of the league is getting faster, particularly the teams listed in the "faster" column above. Utah's pace keeps getting quicker as Ronnie Brewer has added speed at the 2 and now teams with Williams, Boozer, an Kirilenko to provide four solid athletes in the starting lineup. The Warriors and Nuggets are blurs, as everyone knows. And the Lakers - who have always given Phoenix trouble - are now playing just as fast, in addition to playing just as well, as the Suns.

The matchups against these four teams don't bode nearly as well. Utah is a ferocious home team and the Suns have no answer for either Williams or Boozer. Remember what those two did to Alston and Yao last year? The Suns are going to have to put Amare on Boozer, which is going to result in fouls galore. The Lakers are clearly going to present a problem. They've played the Suns tough for years and now have the horse up front with Gasol (and that's without even considering Bynum) to cause real problems. I think the Suns can score big on the Lakers, but they won't be able to stop them. And in a shootout, it comes down to pace considerations and possession creation - ironically, the Lakers have out-Phoenixed Phoenix on this front. Denver probably won't make the playoffs, but they are 3-0 against the Suns and look like a mortal lock to beat them in a series. Phoenix has no answer for Melo, no answer for Iverson, and can barely even contain Kenyon Martin. Yikes. [Update: Fire the research department! Denver is 1-1 against Phoenix. I am adjusting the odds accordingly.]

Then there's the Warriors. Even last year they looked like they had passed Phoenix as Baron Davis and Jason Richardson bullied the Suns out of the building on two ocassions. Now GSW has added Version 2.0 of Monta Ellis to the equation and has no one for Shaq to guard.

Here are the odds:
Golden State (25/75)
L.A. (25/75)
Utah (40/60)
Denver (50/50)

Hopefully you are still with me here, because the good stuff is on the way. What we can gather from these two sets of odds is that the Suns might indeed have turned a corner on Sunday and that Shaq is working out ... but only in regard to the teams playing at a slow pace. They are still in big trouble against fast playoff teams from the West.

So what can they do?

Simple: put Barbosa into the starting lineup. This accomplishes a variety of things:

1. It adds speed. Duh. This is the obvious benefit, as Barbosa is Phoenix's fastest player and the one guy on the roster that is likely to have a speed advantage against his counterpart. At this point in his career, that raw speed hasn't translated into defensive prowess, but at the very least he can keep opposing guards busy chasing him around on the other end of the floor. There is real value in forcing a guy like Allen Iverson or Monta Ellis to sprint all over the court paying D. Not only that, but Barbosa gives Phoenix their best possible option to get out on the break and take advantage of Nash's incredible ability to throw long lead passes. Currently, only Amare is a true weapon on this play, as Raja runs to the three-point line (effective, but not quite as good as a layup), Grant Hill is only able to get deep enough for mid-range jumpers, and Shaq is still on the other side of the court.

2. It should help Barbosa break out of his slump. I am aware that my man Leandro is struggling right now, so it probably strikes you as strange that I would highlight him as the key guy on the Phoenix roster. But if recent history is any guide at all, nothing will help the Brazilian Blur get back on track faster than hearing his name introduced by the public address announcer. In seven games as a starter this year, Barbosa has played out of his mind, averaging 25.6 points per game on 55% shooting (including a whopping 28 threes on 50% shooting). If nothing else, putting him in the lineup for the opening tip might prompt a return to form.

3. It keeps Raja Bell rested and out of foul trouble. Many people feel that Barbosa can't start because it takes Phoenix's best defensive player off the floor. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. The first is that Bell is running out of gas. Too many nights spent guarding Kobe and Melo and McGrady are taking its toll. Plus, Bell is getting in early foul trouble because - wait for it - opposing teams also know that he's the best defender and so they attack him to get him off the floor. Waiting eight minutes to bring him in will enable them to avoid this early onslaught, keep Bell rested, and likely allow them to have their best possible defensive unit on the floor in the fourth quarter.

4. It makes it easier to go small. One of the keys to success for Phoenix is going to be their ability to play with a small lineup. Putting Barbosa at the 2, Bell at the 3, and Hill or Diaw at the 4 will help them regain some of the lost speed and allow them to get out and run more (regardless of whether Amare or Shaq is at the 5). Right now though they seem to be locked in to this trend of rotating Nash, Barbosa, and Bell in the backcourt and Hill, Diaw, Amare, and Shaq in the frontcourt. Starting Barbosa and playing him 35-40 minutes a night will force D'Antoni to rediscover the joys of playing Raja Bell at the 3 and going small more often.

Who knows, maybe this just wouldn't work, or maybe they can beat "fast" teams without making any changes. All I know is that I will be watching the nationally televised game against the Warriors this Thursday to see how the Suns fare when the pace picks up.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Ginobili Condundrum

When I posted about the MVP race on Tuesday morning, I expected to receive a few emails. It went with the territory that Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Kevin Garnett supporters might want to mix it up a little bit and tell me how wrong I was in naming Kobe as the lead dog. So imagine my surprise when all the emails were from Spurs fans. And they weren't even about Tim Duncan!

No, the good people of San Antonio seem to believe wholeheartedly that Manu Ginobili is the most valuable player in the NBA.

Even at first blush, this is ridiculous. Duncan is still the MVP of the Spurs (he has proved that more than ever during their recent 10-game winning streak), which is pretty damaging to the claim that Ginobili is the MVP of the entire league. That said, there is no doubt in my mind that Ginobili is underrated in most NBA circles (although he sort of deserves this fate for being a gigantic flopper). John Hollinger of ESPN - through both his PER analysis and columns - has probably done the best job of pointing this out. He has Ginobili fourth in the league in PER, behind only LeBron (who is off the charts), Paul (having the best PER season by a point guard in several decades), and Amare (not exactly a defensive stopper). So you could argue that but for James and Paul having historically good seasons, Ginobili might actually top the list of most productive players in the league. Heady stuff.

The problem that my esteemed emailers are running into is one of faulty logic. Here is the thought process: "John Hollinger has proven that Ginobili is one of the very best players in the league. Manu plays for the defending champs and current top seed in the West. Therefore, he must be the most valuable player in the league."

False. This is the type of logic that can cause a student to miss points on the SAT or LSAT or GMAT, or whatever standardized test they are currently taking. This is critical reasoning 101, people!

Even if you adhere to Hollinger's PER stats with 100 percent certainty, there is still a big jump one must take to go from calling someone "best" to "most valuable," because it ignores an important variable - time. PER measures player stats on a per minute basis, which is actually very helpful in determining quality and efficiency among players with different raw numbers (effected by total minutes played). That said, there is obviously a corollary effect between how long a good player is on the court and how his team typically performs.

The problem with taking Hollinger's stats and using them as an argument for Ginobili's MVP candidacy is that it ignores this key variable. I don't blame Manu for playing fewer minutes than other elite players, nor do I necessarily think Popovich is doing something wrong with his rotations. I don't even think there is anything wrong with Hollinger's system. But you don't even see Hollinger contending that Ginobili is as valuable as LeBron, Paul, or Kobe. That's because they are on the court for different amounts of time.

Since we (okay, I) already ushered in the idea of standardized testing earlier in the post, allow me to use that as an example. (Prepare for shameless promotion of my employer.) Veritas Prep is a test preparation and admission consulting company that specializes in the GMAT. When deciding to enter a crowded market, the founders - Chad Troutwine and Markus Moberg - believed that by offering more hours of test prep, from superior instructors, they could offer an entirely new level of service. They were correct, as they have built the fastest-growing GMAT test prep company in the United States.

One of the chief selling points is that the courses are 42 hours in length. This, compared to 20-to-27 hours from most of their chief competitors. Now, it is very hard to prove cause and effect on something like this, but most studies prove that there is at least a corollary effect between the amount of time students spends preparing for a test like the GMAT and how well they will do. If all other things are equal (and I would argue that Veritas also has superior materials and instructors), then it would stand to reason that students would benefit more from the longer course. Again, if everything else was the same, there would be a larger impact purely by spending more time doing it.

If this is true in test prep, than it certainly seems true in professional basketball. Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili may have similar "per 40 minute" numbers (as Hollinger recently noted), but only Bryant is actually playing close to 40 minutes per game. The Lakers benefit from those fantastic statistics for over 38 minutes every contest, while the Spurs only reap the rewards of Manu's play for just 31 minutes per game. This isn't an issue? Really?

Put it another way. If a household had two wage earners that both made $100 an hour (pretty good, I know) and one worked 31 hours a week and the other worked 38, which would he the "better", or more skilled, worker? They would be equal, based on how much their performance warranted on an hourly basis. But if you were to ask which was more valuable to the household as an earner, clearly it would be the individual working 38 hours a week. That person is bringing home $700 more dollars per week and over $35,000 more dollars each year. It isn't even close.

This MVP discussion isn't close either. I'm not suggesting that Ginobili isn't great. Or that Kobe Bryant is that much better than he is. But there is no way in hell that Manu is as valuable. And don't even get me started on LeBron James or Chris Paul (both of whom are "better" than Ginobili anyway, based on Hollinger's PER system, disregarding the fact that they play nine and six more minutes every night).

Sorry, emailers.

MVP Recount

I recently threw up a post about last weekend the magical coincidence that saw the three top MVP candidates all put up amazing performances on national television. At the end, I cast my "ballot" and ranked the candidates as such:

1. Kobe Bryant
2. Chris Paul
3. LeBron James

In what is probably going to become a trend, I am being forced to reconsider on the fly. Last night, while Kobe was idle, James and Paul were going nuts. LeBron, you know all about. The crazy, effortless dunk in warmups, the 40-footer that he drained like a free throw, the seven three-point bombs, the 50-10-8 with four steals (one of three players in the last 20 years to add 10 dimes to 50 points), and the taunting of Spike Lee. It was all pretty incredible stuff. So he's the new #1 on my ballot. Forget historical trends or what place the Cavs are in, this guy is the best player in the league, having just an incredible season. For today at least, he's out in front.

As for Paul, he simply kept tormenting the Hawks, punishing them for not drafting him in 2005. He had 15 and 10 at halftime and finished with 23 points and 18 dimes as he continues to showcase why he's the next Isiah Thomas.

So here's the new ballot, with apologies to Kobe, since he didn't get to play last night:

1. LeBron James
2. Chris Paul
3. Kobe Bryant

(Note: Poor KG had his best game of the season and still can't crack the top three.)

Monday, March 03, 2008

M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!

These days, you can't watch an NBA game without hearing the hometown crowd serenade its star player with the familiar M-V-P chant. Brandon Roy goes for 17 in a win over the Sonics? M-V-P! Joe Johnson gets an "and one" to cement a victory over the Bobcats? M-V-P!

Ridiculous doesn't even begin to describe the phenomenon. It's gotten as annoying as student bodies storming the court and Roger Clemens opening his mouth to speak.

That said, this weekend the M-V-P chants were flowing and, for once, they were completely justified.

If you tuned in to the NBA on ESPN this weekend, then you were treated to three amazing home performances from three of the season's top four MVP candidates. By my count, there are four primary candidates for The Most Confusing Award in Sports: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Chris Paul (in no particular order). Typically about this time of year we start to hear endless shilling for the lead MVP candidate. This year? Crickets. My theory for the silence is that no one has any idea who to anoint as the favorite. It is literally a four-horse race and one that is too close to call.

Which is what made this weekend so spectacular. KG didn't get a national TV platform, but still went for 20 and 16 against the Hawks as Boston pushed its NBA-best record to 46-12. Garnett's infectious intensity was on full display and when he went to the line for his lone free throws he was showered with M-V-P chants. Of course he was.

But this weekend belonged to the other three lead dogs.

It kicked off on Friday night with Chris Paul taking advantage of a rare national TV appearance by putting together a masterful performance against the Jazz. He had 13 and 7 by the end of a incredible first quarter that featured a 25-1 run by the Hornets and finished with 24 points, 16 assists, and 5 steals. Plus, he got to the line for 14 free throws which gave the crowd plenty of chances to vocalize which award they think Paul should win. What made the performance so impressive was the way he went right at Deron Williams just weeks after being crushed by his Utah rival. In fact, that night in Salt Lake City was probably the biggest flaw on his MVP résumé ... until now. Paul's body control, quickness, ballhandling, and anticipation are unrivaled in the NBA and for the time being, he has left no doubt who the best point guard in the NBA is.

LeBron James warmed up for his national TV showcase by working over the T-Wolves to the tune of 30 points, 13 assists, and 8 rebounds on Friday night and then turned it up a notch on Sunday morning. Playing the Bulls in a fairly in a game made more intriguing because of the recent trade between the two teams, LeBron came flying out of the gates with a series of ridiculous shots, scored 23 first half points, and then finished things off with one of the sickest dunks I've ever seen (his head was at least six inches above the rim and he must have thrown that thing down at about 75 mph), followed by a stepback jumper to win it. He once again prove that nobody on the planet can match his combination of strength and speed, that no one should be able to lead the league in scoring and still pass the way he does, and that his fourth quarter woes are a thing of the DISTANT past. Watching LeBron these days doesn't feel like watching a basketball player - it feels like watching a superhero. The Cavs fans must have noticed this as well, because they responded in the best way they know how ... "M-V-P! M-V-P!"

Despite Paul's wizardry on the grand stage and LeBron's incredible stat (and rim) stuffing ways, Kobe Bryant probably had the best weekend in terms of MVP momentum. Despite losing to the Blazers on Friday night, Bryant took full advantage of a big matchup with Dallas on Sunday to go screaming to the front of the pack (not unlike Cole Trickle "dropping the hammer" in Days of Thunder). Bryant did all of his usual Kobe things against the Mavs - hitting jumpers from everywhere (everyone talks about Rip being the best midrange shooter in the league, but my money is on Bryant) and finishing acrobatic plays at the rim. The sheer force of his will was amazing. He scored 22 in the fourth quarter, eight more in overtime, and 52 for the game, while grabbing 11 boards. (Note: Jason Kidd may be solid defending big guards, but only if "big guards" doesn't include Kobe Bryant.) Even more impressive than those numbers was his work at the free throw line. Somehow - maybe because of the injured pinkie - he missed seven of his first 10 free throw attempts (my theory is that he was distracted by all the MVP chants!). It was downright bizarre. But in true Kobe fashion, he turned his steely resolve to sinking free throws, shaking off the 30% start to hit his last 17 free throws. Why isn't anyone talking about this?

All told, there were a lot of MVP chants coming down from the rafters of Staples, Quicken, and the New Orleans Arena this weekend.

Before I let you go, I'll go ahead and give you my vote for MVP now. If the season ended today, I would order the big four as follows:

1. Kobe Bryant. He qualifies under the Oscar-esque lifetime achievement criteria. He's the #2 scorer in the league and the most dangerous end-game finisher since Jordan (although LeBron is closing fast). His team is on top of the West. He's playing with a broken pinky. He's not as good defensively as everyone thinks (Roy abused him repeatedly on Friday, eventually forcing a switch), but is still far superior on that end to 90% of the superstars in the league. What more is he supposed to do? I've never been a huge Kobe Bryant fan and remain convinced that he's one of the most contrived people on planet earth, but no matter how you define this award - most valuable, best player, most talented, best stats - Kobe is in the mix, if not the clear favorite.

2. Chris Paul. He could go up or down depending on whether his team goes up and down. If the Hornets win the West, I'm afraid Mr. Bryant's mantle might have to remain empty. And when it comes to pure value, there might not be anybody who makes a better case than Paul. He's turned David West and Tyson Chandler into All-Star level players, is the most disruptive perimeter defender in the league (I've never seen anybody who can pick pockets like Paul), and on his way to the first 20 points/10 assists per game season in a really long time.

3. LeBron James. LeBron might have actually passed Kobe for the imaginary title of "best player in the league" now that he's playing with ferocious intensity each night, starting to impact games on the defensive end, and leading the NBA in fourth quarter points (20% more than the nearest player - Bryant). Plus, his numbers are insane and his valuable is off the charts. That said, the MVP award almost never goes to teams with middling records. In fact, a look at the entire 50-year history of the MVP Award reveals that the winner has come from the first or second best team in the league a remarkable 90 percent of the time (47 of 52 years). The only exceptions were the following:

1956 - Bob Pettit (his St. Louis Hawks finished third in a four-team conference and sixth in an eight-team NBA in the first year the MVP was awarded)

1975 - Bob McAdoo (the Buffalo Braves were third in the East and third overall)
1976 - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Kareem's fourth of six trophies came in his first year with the Lakers, when they finished fourth in the West and ninth overall)

1979 - Moses Malone (his Rockets were third in the West and sixth overall)

1988 - Michael Jordan (the Bulls finished third in the East and seventh overall)

I know LeBron is having an amazing year, but Kobe had an amazing year in 2006 but was crushed in the MVP voting. James himself had an amazing season in 2007 but was thwarted by Dirk Nowitzki. Plus, LeBron is trying to buck historical trends in a year featuring plenty of more traditional candidates (KG plays on the #1 in the NBA, Kobe for the current #2 in the West and #4 overall, and Paul for the #3 in the West and #5 overall). If the Lakers or Hornets win the West, are voters really going to dig down to the #4 or #5 seed in the Least? Come on.

4. Kevin Garnett. I know it isn't his fault that he got injured (which is pretty much as rare as a lunar eclipse - coincidentally, they occurred at the same time), but the fact remains that he missed nine games (Boston went 7-2 in those contests) and his numbers are down. Stats aren't everything, but in a year like this, they put him back a few paces.