Category Archives: Analysis
During the early part of the 2000s, the Eastern Conference was in flux. The breakup of the Jordan-era Bulls had opened the door for a number of squads, but none of them truly seized upon that opportunity, and without a dominant team the conference was universally regarded as inferior to its counterpart out West.
Sure, there were the New York Knicks, Chicago’s 90s rivals who could never quite get past them when it mattered, but after a fluke 1999 run to the Finals, they made a series of horrendous personnel decisions that crippled them throughout the 2000s. Likewise, New York’s bitter enemies, the Tim Hardaway/Alonzo Mourning Miami Heat, had only a few more years left in the tank before collapsing to 36-46 in 2002. And the Indiana Pacers, who were almost as old as the Bulls by the end of the 90s, followed up their 2000 Finals berth by falling to .500 in 2001 & ’02.
As the East’s old guard was disintegrating, Orlando attempted to declare themselves the conference’s new power, boldly signing Tracy McGrady & Grant Hill in the summer of 2000 (and drafting Mike Miller), but Hill was never healthy and the Magic never seriously contended for a title. Meanwhile, led by quintessential post-Jordan superstars Allen Iverson and Vince Carter, the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors emerged as well, but after a memorable semifinal series in 2001 (the year Philly made it all the way the Finals before losing to L.A.), neither team would mount another deep postseason run. And the Milwaukee Bucks, who seemed so promising behind a core of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Glenn Robinson, & Tim Thomas, withered after Thomas underachieved and Allen was dealt to Seattle for a disappointing half-season of Gary Payton.
For the first time in three years, LeBron James did not give an acceptance speech at the Most Valuable Player’s press conference. Now, as he faces his successor at the podium, Derrick Rose, in the Eastern Conference Finals, James is hoping his Heat can do exactly what the Magic and Celtics did to him — prevent the reigning MVP from advancing to the NBA Finals.
In the NBA, the Most Valuable Player carrying his team to the brink of a title is the rule, not the exception. Since the league began handing out the hardware in 1956, the MVP’s team has appeared in the championship round 28 times, good for a 51 percent rate. And during the NBA’s halcyon era of Magic, Larry, and Michael, the clip was even higher: from 1983-2003, the MVP made a Finals appearance in 16 of 21 seasons, more than 75% of the time. In a world where current players are largely measured against those three names alone, it makes headlines when a reigning MVP fails to reach the league’s grandest stage.
Perhaps this is why the drought of recent winners has been met with so much scorn. Since 2004, only one MVP (Kobe Bryant in 2008) has led his club to the Finals. The others — Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and James — flamed out in the Conference Finals (or in the cases of the latter two, earlier), provoking backlash from the Skip Bayless set and anyone else preoccupied with legacies or comparisons to long-retired legends. That it has been viewed as a blemish on James’ otherwise staggering resume is undeniable.
Yet now he has a chance to inflict the same criticism on Rose, the youngest MVP in league history. It’s strangely fitting, because their paths have run parallel ever since the Rose-for-MVP talk rose from a whisper at the lunatic fringe of Bulls fandom to a din heard across the entire country. In the wake of ‘The Decision’, the media tried to talk itself into casting Kevin Durant as James’ foil, but Rose out-Duranted everyone, ranging from his own sharp improvement to the Bulls’ unexpected #1 seed and the endearingly humble manner in which he carried himself (culminating in a truly beautiful moment at his MVP presser). In the minds of many, he embodied the yin to James’ preening yang.
For these reasons, the media will doubtless go easier on Rose than they did James, should the Bulls’ season end early. And by the same token, the fact that James felt he needed two other big names, one of whom is nearly his equal in the universe of NBA megastars, to reach the Finals again will continue to dog him if the Heat prevail. But even if his legacy cannot be fully repaired through victory, it’s clear that in a twist of fate, the only way James can gain some measure of redemption for his “incomplete” MVPs of 2009 and 2010 is to stamp Rose’s 2011 award with the same stigma.
From 2008 to 2010, the NBA playoffs clearly had a “ruling class” that consisted of Boston, Orlando, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Combined, those three teams played 26 playoff series, and just once did one of them lose to a team outside of their own small clique:
Over that 3-year span, the Lakers-Celtics-Magic triad went 20-1 in series against non-ruling class teams, and as a result the road to the NBA title always went through one of the three teams. The rest of the league was largely irrelevant when it came to determining the championship.
Until this year, that is. For the first time since 2007, a ruling-class team failed to register at least 1 series win in a playoff season, as the Magic fell to the Atlanta Hawks in a 1st-round upset. Yesterday, the Lakers saw their season end against a non-ruling class team for the first time since 2007, losing in embarrassing fashion against the Dallas Mavericks. And the Celtics, for all of Kevin Garnett & Rajon Rondo‘s heroics in Game 3, still trail Miami’s superteam 2-1 in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
It’s tough to make any sweeping statements on the basis of a few week’s worth of games, but the 2011 playoffs seem to indicate a major changing of the NBA guard. After having their way with the league’s proletariat for three seasons, the once-mighty ruling class now finds itself on the wrong end of a radical upheaval.
With Derrick Rose‘s 2011 MVP looking like a foregone conclusion, it seems only natural to compare his campaign to that of Allen Iverson in 2001, the year another popular guard won the MVP despite not being the game’s most talented player.
Here’s the numerical tale of the tape for A.I. and D-Rose, with Rose extrapolated to 82 team games: (Glossary)
Statistically, the two players are incredibly comparable. If you translate Iverson from the 103.0 league-ORtg environment of 2001 to the league ORtg of 107.1 in 2011, his ORtg/%Poss/DRtg becomes 110.5/33.8/103.0, production that is basically equivalent to Rose’s after adjusting for usage.
In the wake of the ongoing Charlie Sheen chaos, I was (of course) racking my brain to find a comparable NBA analogy. Ideally you’d want to find a situation with the following parallels:
- It involves a winning team. Although I have personally never seen an episode, Sheen’s show Two and a Half Men is apparently wildly successful, as Sheen is quick to point out to anyone who will listen. So any NBA equivalent would have to involve a good team, probably one that had been a contender for multiple years.
- It involves that team’s best player. Monetarily speaking, Sheen is the #1 scorer on Two and a Half Men, and in fact the league’s top player — he made $1.8 million/episode in 2010, making him the highest-paid actor on television. The basketball equivalent would have to deal with a similar star in his prime.
- The team releases that player mid-season. Production on Two and a Half Men‘s 8th season was halted midway due to Sheen’s behavioral problems, so an NBA version would have to involve a team waiving their best player in the middle of the season.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single situation in NBA history that meets all of those requirements. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are only a few remotely comparable situations:
First of all, I’m an unabashed Gilbert fan; I’ve always found him to be one of the NBA’s most interesting people, in addition to one of its most gifted players. And after everything that’s happened over the past few years, I’m glad he finally has an opportunity to make a fresh start in Orlando.
That said, I’m not sure he can help the Magic very much at this stage of his career.
With the 2010-11 season warming up, let’s finish up our ranking of the 31 best NCAA teams from 1980-2010:
10. Louisville Cardinals (+14.76 SRS)
Louisville has somewhat quietly amassed a dominant resume over the past 3 decades. With 2 national titles and 4 Final Fours, the Cardinals were probably the best program of the 1980s, while their “down” years of the 1990s consisted of 8 NCAA berths & 208 wins. And in the 2000s, Rick Pitino took them to a Final Four in 2005, seamlessly transitioning from the Crum era with 220 victories of his own. Pick any year since 1980, and chances are The Ville was one of the better college basketball teams in the country.
9. Syracuse Orange (+15.41 SRS)
Record: 755-279 (.730)
Prominent Coaches: Jim Boeheim
Best NCAA Finish: Won NCAA Championship (2003)
Under Jim Boeheim, the Orangemen won more games than all but four schools since 1980. He took a solid program and turned it into a perennial contender, produced a number of NBA prospects, won 14 Big East regular-season or tournament titles, and finally filled the gap in his resume when Carmelo Anthony carried ‘Cuse to their elusive NCAA crown in 2003. Simply put, no Big East team has been better over the past 30 years.
“Trying to compare the Heat to anything that has ever come before is an exercise in futility. You have the best player in the league, who happens to LOVE to pass teamed up with the second-or-third best player, who also is pretty fond of passing to the open man. They may both have had similar styles, but they ended up in those styles due to their teams’ set-ups. How LeBron will act now that he can people to pass to who are good in their own right cannot be predicted with the information we have.
There’s never been anything like it before. Every Heat game is going to be worth watching, especially against the crappy teams, because you don’t know what sort of thing they’ll bring out when they’re way ahead. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have regular season games where Miller shoots 20 3s and scores 30+ points, just because they think it’d be fun to do. This Heat team goes way beyond special into the realm of surreal.”
That reminded me of a Chase Stuart post at PFR in October 2007:
Last Friday, I posted about teams that formed as potent a slashing combo as the new LeBron James–Dwyane Wade duo in Miami, and found that in an incredibly small sample of similar cases (3, to be exact), at least one — if not both — of the players had to change their playing style to accommodate their new circumstance. A lot of people asked about the general effect of the new team member on the offense, though, so today I wanted to quickly follow up and look at whether the driving tendency of the added player correlated to the amount of offensive improvement the team saw.
One common observation about the new-look Miami Heat goes something like this:
- Dwyane Wade is a great perimeter player who makes his living attacking the basket. He’s unstoppable when he drives into the lane, but not as good when you force him to shoot a jump shot.
- LeBron James is also a great perimeter player who makes his living attacking the basket. He, too, is unstoppable when he drives into the lane, but not as good when you force him to shoot a jump shot.
- Won’t this redundancy in skills make the Heat easier to defend?
If only we could quantify this dilemma, find similar situations in the past where two hard-driving teammates joined forces, and see if their offenses were as potent as expected…
Oh, wait, we can.
Enter good old Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA). Because the majority of fouls are assessed on interior shooting attempts and/or aggressive offensive plays, FTR is actually a pretty good indicator of where a player likes to operate from on offense. Players like Glen Rice and Dennis Scott were known for their low FTRs because they took a ton of perimeter jumpers, shots on which a foul would land you in the serious doghouse. And at the other end of the spectrum there’s Reggie Evans, whose legendary FTRs tell the story of a player who rarely attempts a shot outside of point-blank range. Obviously there are some players who are exceptions to this rule, but the majority of players’ inside-outside tendencies can be described simply by looking at FTA/FGA.
So that should be the starting point in examining the issue of hard-driving teammates. The next step is to compare everyone’s FTR to some universal standard, and to do that I borrowed this method from PFR’s Doug Drinen. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but it basically compares everyone to the league average; 100 is average, numbers greater than 100 mean the player attacks the rim more than the average player, and numbers under 100 mean the player is less aggressive than the average player. The theory is that if we just look at these “FTR Index” numbers for perimeter players (PG, SG, SF), we can find players who drove to the basket the most, which best describes LeBron and D-Wade’s playing style.