Friday, January 27, 2012

What Ails The Knicks?

Well, you knew this subject had to come up one of these days. It's unavoidable. I'll skip the platitudes and spiffy remarks on their play -- it's too depressing for wit -- and just jump right into it. First, the good news: The Knicks have actually improved by leaps and bounds on defense, which I suspected -- predicted, one might say -- would happen the day they signed Tyson Chandler. They are currently 8th in the league in defensive rating, up from 22nd a year ago. Problem is, they've been equally-good at keeping the ball out of the basket on their end of the court, ranking 24th in scoring.

ESPN's John Hollinger took a (stat-based, of course) crack at trying to explain their offensive woes, in the following article:

In short, he concludes that the Knicks are actually distributing the ball well (assisting on 55.4% of the their buckets, as compared to 55.7% for the top-rated Heat offense), but that their shots are, for whatever reason, simply not falling. He quotes a set of numbers to illustrate their blind-man marksmanship, numbers that you've either seen before, or are better off not seeing anyway. To that end, he wonders (or predicts) that Baron Davis may not be the saviour many are expecting him to be.

While his analysis is interesting, it doesn't really delve far enough into the issue. Is it simply that the Knick players are poor shooters? Rarely can things be explained so simply. There are ways of looking at the issue. Specifically, what *types* of shots are the Knicks getting? What is the breakdown of the number of 2s and 3s? I've heard numerous times that the Knicks are among the league leaders in 3-pt attempts. One wonders what you'd see if you further divided the issue into the locations on the court from where those 2-point attempts are coming, whether the shots are under duress, and where in the shot clock the shots are occuring. Those issues all affect the quality of shots taken, and thus the percentage of shots made.

It would hardly surprise me if another too-high percentage of their shots are occuring from 16-22 feet, as opposed to at the rim and from 3-9 feet (three of the four 2-pt shot locations quoted by advanced statisticians). If a bulk of those shots were also coming with defenders close by and late in the shot clock, I'd be equally unshocked to hear it.

And if so, maybe, just maybe, if B-Diddy can work the pick-and-roll, and rediscover some form of youth by getting into the lane, he may be able to raise the *quality* of the shots the Knicks are getting, which should affect their shooting percentages...or earn them a seat on the bench if not.

Perhaps one day I'll be bored enough to dig thru to uncover those stats...or maybe some writer out there may earn his pay by doing so.

Salient points raised by Hollinger, but the analysis could go much deeper into the numbers to uncover the source(s) of the Knicks' struggles to score the ball.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sportswriting Moron Of The Week

The pandemic of moronic writing continues. With this being such a continued, ongoing theme in this blog, it's just occured to me that I might as well start handing out a regular award for all the inaccurate columns, terrible analyses, and half-witted commentary with which we are beseiged. So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I present to you, the inaugural Sportswriting Moron Of The Week Award, which goes to: ESPN NFL Blogger Adam Schefter!!! *golf clap and cheers*

Of note, in the above-linked blog, which analyzes the 4 potential Super Bowl matchups, Adam, while discussing a potential Patriots/49ers game, includes this fantasic gem of historical inaccuracy:

And once, the 49ers played the way the Patriots do today: high-flying offense, limited defense.

Limited defense Adam? Excuse me? Were you awake, or even alive, during the 49ers run? Mercy me. Where do I begin? Well, since we're discussing the Super Bowl, let's just start with a number from there: 17.8. That's the average number of points scored by 49er opponents in their 5 Super Bowl victories (26-21, 38-16, 20-16, 55-10, 49-26). Limited?

But naturally, it's far too simplistic to stop there. It's just one game, right? After all, the Buffalo Bills were a great team, but you'd never know it from their final three Bowl appearances. So how did the 49ers defense fare over the duration of those Super Bowl years? Well, for starters: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 8th. Those are where their defense ranked among the league in points allowed during those runs. An average of 4th-best in the league in limiting the amount of points by the opposition. Limited? Was that perhaps a typo for limitING?

It gets worse. For four of the 5 Super Bowl runs, the 49er defense actually ranked just as high or *higher* in the league than their offense. In 1981, the defense actually carried the team more than the offense, ranking 2nd in the league in points allowed, as compared to the offense's 7th-place points-scored rank. In 1988, the defense was 8th and the offense again 7th. The 15-1 '84 team and 14-2 '89 team -- the two best of the dynasty -- had an offense-defense rating of 2-1 and 1-3 respectively. Do you really think that the 1984 team that shut down the high-flying, Dan Marino-led, record-setting Miami offense to a tune of 16 points is something to call "limited"? Nope. #1 in points allowed, the stingiest defense in the entire NFL that year. What a coincidence.

The only year you could make so much as a weak case for the offense carrying the team would be in 1994, when the offense ranked 1st and the defense 6th. However, good luck trying to convince anyone with a pulse that a defense that ranked 6th out of 30 teams is somehow "limited".

It is commom knowledge by now, among football circles, that the idea that the 49ers were all flash and no substance is ridiculous. Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and the West Coast Offense certainly made all the headlines, but anyone who truly follows football knows they had a stout defense each and every year, chock full of pro-bowlers and eventual Hall Of Famers.

Ronnie Lott. Charles Haley. Dwight Hicks. Keena Turner. Dana Stubblefied. Eric Wright. Fred Dean. Those names mean anything to you? They should. Hell, that 6th-rated 1994 defense had nearly their entire secondary (Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks, Deion Sanders) in the Pro Bowl.

Seriously, when you really take a good look at those 49er teams of yesteryear, you realize just how complete they were from top to bottom. Among the best teams the NFL has ever seen. There isn't a team among the 5 that even remotely resembles top-heavy teams like the 2011 Packers and Saints.

By the way, for the sake of comparison, this year's New England Patriots ranked 15th in the NFL in points allowed; 31st in yards allowed. (The 49er Super Bowl teams ranked 5th in the league in yards allowed on average, only once as low as 10th). Nevertheless, our dear Adam saw it fit to compare a defense that ranks 15th and 31st to one that averaged 4th and 5th. Sure, that makes sense.

Adam Schefter, hands off your keyboard, stand and take a bow; you are this week's sportswriting moron. Congratulations!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

All Hail The Football High Powers

Woe be unto thee that disobeyeth the football gods. After a year of historical exploits and off-the-chart statistics, high-powered NFL offenses were threatening to change the game and reduce it's foundation and core values to rubble. But just when football purists thought all hope was lost, from out of the smoke and ashes arose a familiar conquering sight: smashmouth football. Over this past weekend in the NFL divisional round, smashmouth stood up and boldly declared: I am still here, and I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.

The weekend began with smashmouth pounding a New Orleans Saints RB (P. Thomas) out of the game, starting a contant stream of turnovers that put the Saints behind early. And though they eventually overcame the early deficit with their high-powered GQ glamour offense, it was their defense that failed to hold onto a fourth-quarter lead given to them -- twice. Then, in the weekend's final game, button-downed glamour football tried to make one last desperate stand against smashmouth, when the Green Bay Packers cut their deficit to the New York Giants down to 2 TDs halfway thru the fourth quarter. This gave the Pack some measure of hope that their own high-caliber pretty-boy offense would ride thru on a white horse to rescue the day. But, as with the Saints, their defensive deficiencies betrayed them, as the Giants -- armed with smashmouth running -- immediately marched right back down an onside-kick-shortened field and restored an insurmountable 3-TD lead. Both Green Bay and New Orleans were held in check by stingy opponents' defenses -- as well as their own costly mistakes -- and ultimately done in by the porousness of their own defenses. In between, the New England Patriots showed that maybe, just maybe, their reorganized defense can actually perform (statistically-speaking, their defense kept the Packers' company at the very bottom of the NFL rankings), and the Baltimore Ravens just went about their ho hum workmen smashmouth day, giving up exactly zero points in the 2nd half of their game.

What's somewhat strangely ironic in all this is that the San Francisco 49ers, the one team built more on smashmouth football than any left in the playoffs, were almost betrayed by their usually-stout defense (missing tackles, making judgment errors, and giving up 2 late TD drives) and had to be rescued by glittery offensive plays. I suppose the gods were subtly whispering to us: balance, it's all about balance.

So, the result of all this is that three smashmouth teams -- and a team who performed like one -- are all that remain in this year's playoff field. Those luxurious high-powered offense-driven teams? They will be parked in the garage at home watching with the rest of us.

We've heard it innumerable times: offense wins games, defense wins championships.

Betrayeth ye not the football gods, or suffer the wrath of agonizing playoff elimination. Purists rejoice!

If It Ain't Broke, Bud Will Fix It

As the ink dries on his brand new contract extension, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is out to further cement his legacy as the guy who fixes everything except things that actually need fixing. Recall how the MLB turned a blind eye to steroid use for over a decade until the avalanche of evidence and decibel level of the whispers became impossible to ignore. Juxtapose that with the outcome of the MLB All-Star Game now being used to determine homefield advantage in the World Series, a move that was designed to increase interest in the midseason all-star contest by making it "meaningful" ("This Time It Counts!"). How did that move work out? In 2010, nearly a decade after the change, the All-Star Game had it's worst TV rating...ever. Then, in 2011...they repeated the feat by going *even lower*. Worst rating...ever. So, the game is garnering even *less* interest than prior to the change. (Channeling my inner Dr. Phil) So Bud, how's that tinkering working out for ya? This of course doesn't even touch upon the constant risk of gifting an unearned home-field advantage in the World Series to a low-seeded know, kinda like what just happened 3 months ago in the 2011 Series. Increase the significance of one single exhibition game, while simultaneously reducing the value of the entire 162-game regular season. Brilliant Bud. Simply brilliant.

(For the record, this is by no means armchair quarterbacking on my part. I hated the meaningful-exhibition-game idea the moment it was introduced. And actually, I didn't much care for the alternating-league home-field advantage rule that it replaced. Playoff teams should be rewarded for having better records than their opponents. We do it that way in the other two playoff rounds. In any case, I simply knew everyone would yawn at the "it counts!" idea. I certainly did.)

Not one to rest on his laurels, Bud now has a new target for generating fan interest: the MLB playoffs themselves. Specifically, Bud is furthering the push to add another wildcard team to the playoff pool, an idea that has been bantering around for the past few years. However, it's not a real playoff team per se; this 2nd team will merely lock horns with the other wildcard team for a one-game playoff, the winner of which will go on to face the #1 team in the league. If that sounds eerily like the NCAA Basketball play-in game, then congratulations, you are paying complete attention. Now, when was the last time you rearranged your work and/or personal schedule so that you could catch that compelling all-important 64 vs. 65 matchup? Never? Like hell you say.

Simply put, this idea is dumb. It's not going to have any grand effect on fan interest...if it has any effect at all. The problem? There is simply no foolproof playoff scheme that can account for every possible playoff race scenario. If it's "boring" to have one team far ahead of the others in a wildcard race, it will be just as boring to have two teams far ahead of all the others in the race. Will these two teams break their necks down the stretch, jockeying for positioning to have that all-important play-in game at home? Maybe...but not as much as they'll be trying to set up their pitching rotation to make sure their ace is pitching that game. Ask any manager if he'd rather have his #4 pitcher starting at home, or his ace pitching on the road.

And what of the playoffs after the play-in game? Now you have a slightly-weary team, perhaps one that's flying all over the country in a span of days, unable to start their ace in game one of the divisional series, and unable to use the ace twice in the 5-game series, thereby eliminating one of the most exciting, most compelling and scariest prospects of the MLB playoffs. I cannot wait for some top-heavy-pitching team -- i.e. a team with one good starter and a bunch of also-rans filling out the rotation -- to finish 10 games in back of the first wildcard team in the standings, win the play-in game (due to their one superb pitcher), and then become chew-toy playoff fodder for their best-in-league divisional series opponent.

We see versions of this kind of one-trick pony team with some regularity; opening up the pool of teams only increases the chance of having such a team sneak into the divisional round, only to be overmatched and massacred by their league-leading foe, all because they've been forced to exhaust the one competitive advantage they could have used, the one chance they might've had to keep up with the bigger dog.

Naturally, this scenario of de-fanging a one-pitcher staff is but one specific risk. However, each and every one of these wildcard teams would undoubtedly be negatively affected by that one-game playoff. Okay, so maybe the rest of your rotation behind your ace isn't made up of single-A callups and home-run derby pitching coaches. But there's a reason why you consider one pitcher on your staff to be your ace. It's because he's the one guy you feel most confident turning to when you absolutely positively have to get a win. He's the one guy who you *will* turn to in that situation. Teams who have 2 or more of those guys? They don't end up as 5th and 6th seeds in the league. They win divisions.

So, regardless of the makeup of the wildcard teams, you are fairly assured of having a lower-seeded divisional series opponent that will be starting on the road *and* unable to use their ace until game 3 or 4. Wait, what's that? There *is* no game 4 because your team got swept, so your ace *never* gets to pitch in the series at all? Poor you. How'd that play-in game win work out for ya? This is something that happens occasionally in the playoffs; having a mandatory play-in game ensures it will happen on a near-yearly basis -- twice.

Last season, September saw Tampa, Boston, and LA in the AL, and St. Louis, Atlanta and Milwaukee in the NL, engaging in two frantic "races" in the final weeks of the season for the single wildcard spot in each league (I use the term 'race' loosely, because you normally don't see a contestant in a race running in reverse the way the Red Sox and Braves were). But what if there were two wildcard spots? The final week of the Tampa/Boston American League race would've been wholly uninteresting. No amount of clubhouse chicken and beer would've made Boston get lapped by *two* teams. Once the Greater Los Angeles Anaheim Area Angels of Disneyland Incorporated fell too far behind both Boston and Tampa, the lure of the 'race' would've been over. Same with the National League race. The magical final weekend would've lost all significance and suspense. That final day I spent in my local sportsbar with my head on a swivel following four (or was it 6?) games? I wouldn't have bothered to leave the house. That absolutely magical (no histrionics here; it truly was) 3-minute stretch where Boston and Tampa swapped playoff positions one final time? Who would care? Hell, would it have even happened? A weekend, if not an entire week, of excitement and suspense, sacrificed for a single game. One which could very well end up being a blowout, further whittling down a week's worth of suspense into two or three innings.

Did I mention that this change would also likely completely kill the fantastical notion of the one-game playoff? Now, instead of having a handful of these games scattered throughout MLB history (Yankees/Red Sox in the 70s, Tigers/Twins a few seasons ago), you will have two, every single year. The uniqueness of the game, the lore of the phrase, will be completely lost. Hell, a decade from now, we may not even view those historical game-163's in the same nostalgic light.

So, from the final weeks of the regular season, to the divisional playofs, to the mystical history of past playoff games, there will be no end to the carnage Bud is about to unleash on us.

Attempting to create a false pretense of excitement at the end of the regular season, meanwhile simultaneously diluting one entire divisional playoff series...which naturally effects the league championship series and beyond. Brilliant Bud. Simply...brilliant.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Pandemic of Lazy And Dumb Sportswriting

On the very remote chance you've taken the time to scan some of my other blog offerings, you may have noticed a unifying theme: I detest terrible writing. And in particular, I have a special hatred for poor sportwriting. Naturally, I don't mean those who cannot so much as form grammatically-correct passages or spell properly -- they deserve as much pity as they do ire -- but rather people who waste paragraph upon paragraph writing pointless bile and illogical tripe. Laziness also gets my goat in equal measure. So without further ado, I present to you:

Dumb Writer #1 and Dumb Writer #2.

Now, NY Daily News -- and NY Post -- are publications of which I loathe to read any section, so it took my boy Cook to point me to these lazy pieces of journalism. (Not that all of the major sports publications aren't saddled with their own shabby writing.) But, right after watching the NY Knicks defeat the Philadelphia 76ers at the Garden last night, Cook and I predicted there would be some dumbwriter that would draw for the easy "the Sixers were playing their third game in three nights and were tired" excuse. And right on cue...What is almost comical is the offhanded way in which the second dumbwriter constantly refers back to the Sixers 3-in-3 stretch and their supposedly-tired legs. "The Knicks could've pulled away, but didn't manage to against a team that must've had dead legs..."

Now, perhaps you're thinking that the 3-in-3 stretch was, in fact, a plausible excuse. Allow me to halt your thinking in its tracks. To start, Philly is a young team, among the youngest in the NBA. If there's anyone equipped to handle a brutal stretch, it's them, even taking into account the fast pace at which they play. However, was this stretch really brutal? The first two games were in Philly, and the third in NY. With the lack of travel, you might as well just call that three home games. Hell, with Philly players typically calling New Jersey their home, there's a very real chance there is a Sixer or two for whom the trip to the Garden was a shorter commute. But here's the real kicker: the second game, the one just prior to last night, was a blowout. A laugher. A brutal 27-point beatdown (of the Sacramento Kings). None of the Sixer starters even played the 4th quarter; all but one played under 30 minutes. Outside of Holliday and Turner (a sub), the top rotation guys logged 29, 25, 22, 22, and 21 minutes. THIS is the team you think is so worn out? Give me a freakin' break.

Last weekend, Oklahoma City had a 3-in-3 swing where they had to fly to Houston, then back home, in between the games. Then, after an off-day, they had another back-to-back (so, 5 games in 6 nights).
That is a brutal stretch. A 3-game stretch with 2 home games, the 2nd a blowout, and a 90 mile trip on New Jersey Transit? Boo hoo cry me a river.

Now, if these writers were angling for excuses, for mitigating factors to devalue the Knicks win, they might have noticed that the Sixers starting center, Spencer Hawes, got injured in that second game and didn't play the Knicks. Hawes has been getting print all over sports websites for his surprising early-season play. Scan both articles above; neither of the words "Spencer" nor "Hawes" even appear once! Two writers and neither of them noticed the opponent was without their starting center? One of the most improved players in the entire league so far? What the hell do they pay these sportswriters for?

Hawes being out had much more to do with last night's game than some cookie-cutter lazy notion of tired legs. Anybody who watched that game and surmised the Sixers were tired needs to visit their optometrist. Hawes being out obviously altered the Sixers rotation, disrupting their bench which, as the writers pointless trotted out, is among the league leaders in scoring. Well, lo and behold, late in the 1st and 3rd quarters -- when the bench came in -- the Knicks went on big runs, 14-2 to end the first. Those two runs effectively decided the game, forcing Philly to play uphill all night long. Hmm, an offensive eruption against a bench playing their first game with an altered rotation. Gee, who would'a thunk it. Seriously, this really is not rocket science, people.

For comparison purposes, let's look at a passage from the Associated Press coverage of the game:

...the Sixers, who played without starting center Spencer Hawes, who strained his lower back Tuesday night. They shot just 39.5 percent from the field.

"We really missed a guy like Spencer in a game tonight because he's our best passing guy and we like to play out of the post and do some of that stuff. So I was really just trying to work on the fly," Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said.

Local sportswriters and sportscasters are damn-near legendary for their myopia. These two clearly know little to nothing about the league outside of the guys donning blue and orange. It is unforgivable that they would draw for this cookie-cutter "tired" excuse and NOT EVEN MENTION the Spencer Hawes injury. Ridiculous. And I'm sure by tomorrow they will have the nerve to criticize players who just go through the motions.

Mitch Lawrence, and Tim Smith, take a bow. The sports fans of the City of New York just grew a little bit dumber today.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

When Senility Attacks

Disclaimer: I don't write this entry to make fun of anyone's mental state, but the mind-boggling nature of two articles I just read leaves me at a loss for any other explanation.

ESPN's John Clayton put forth two articles today -- one for the NFC, one for AFC -- giving a grade to every NFL team as we bid adieu to the 2011 regular season. Among a litany of curious grades, and reasonings for them, came the following two gems:

"Green Bay Packers: Grade: A+
The Packers almost had a perfect season, but there was no question they had the perfect quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Even though he didn't throw for 5,000 yards, he still had 45 touchdown passes. (b)Rodgers' performances covered for a defense that gave up 411.6 yards a game.(b)"

"New England Patriots: Grade: B
The offense gets an A. Tom Brady threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns and tight end Rob Gronkowski developed into an offensive superstar. (b)The defense pulled down the grade because it gave up 411.1 yards a game and 26 touchdown passes.(b)"

Excuse me? Wow. A mind truly is a terrible thing to waste. I'm not sure what else to say here. Or if anything else needs to be said.

In case you were wondering, or holding out some hope that there might be some sort of justification for giving one team a pass on a horrific flaw, then knocking another team down a full grade for the exact same flaw......the Packers gave up *29* touchdown passes (to the Foxboronians' 26). And the two teams gave up an identical 39 TDs to opposing offenses.

Aside from the hilariously and perfectly contradictory entries, there really is no sound reasoning available in this universe to give a team with such a porous defense a perfect grade. A perfect grade implies, well, perfection; implies that there is nothing that can be improved upon for this team. Anyone who so much as thinks (much less writes) that there is nothing that can be improved upon for a team that ranked deal last in defense should spend the next two weeks in Lambeau Field as a tackling dummy for the Packers to (s)practice(s) learn on. If the Packers had a defense like the Ravens, Steelers, or 49ers, and awesome special teams to boot, the postseason would've been cancelled already; there'd be no point in playing the games. They'd be winning games 70-7. *That* would earn a team a perfect grade. Besides, if this team gets an A+, what about a team that has a upper-echelon defense to boot? A++? A+ squared? A+ times infinity? Pfff.

John Clayton: Grade: F.

I'll keep this one short and get into other happenings in sports in another entry; reasoning as patently ridiculous as his deserves space all to itself.