Friday, February 17, 2012

The Falling Price Of Hot Air

The price of hot air must be falling precipitously, because it seems writers are spewing it all about with more callousness than ever. Having previously said that I would be handing out awards for sportwriting ineptitude, I will introduce my current target of ire, the one Ian Levy, who, in, wrote:

"For all the scoring and distributing Lin has done, [the New York Knicks] offense has been only marginally more efficient. I'm happy for the Knicks and Jeremy Lin, but plenty of problems remain unfixed in New York."

Right away, that statement bothered me, because it seemed to fly in the face of everything we've been witnessing. And when something I read or hear doesn't quite sound right, it tends to stick in my mind and annoy me like a poorly-designed t-shirt tag. Could this be correct? Was the Knicks offense pre-Lin -- the main anchor weighing down the team's poor record -- really be only "marginally" worse than the one that's been passing and swinging the ball to and fro, racking up high assist-to-FG ratios, and playing happily inspired basketball together, during this streak? I had to fact-check.

And fact-check I did; after which, armed with the stats, I concluded that either Levy 1) is a complete liar, 2) didn't bother to do any homework to qualify or quantify his statement, 3) is unschooled as to what offensive efficiency actually is, or 4) is very unclear on the meaning the word "marginal". The Knicks, prior to Lin, scored roughly 99.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranked them 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. During the current win streak, they have been pouring in over 105 points per 100, which would be good for around 8th-best in the NBA.

Perhaps Ian can explain how jumping 17 spots in offensive efficiency ranking is a "marginal" improvement. I suppose an "adequate" improvement is then, what, the 30th-ranked team instantly becoming the top-rated team overnight? I'm not sure what a "good" improvement would be though. Perhaps being able to beat the NBA's 50-greatest-players team, or to outscore Zeus and his collection of Greek gods.

What would cause Ian to make such a patently-false statement? Did he see the high rate of turnovers the Knicks are still producing and conclude -- jump to conclude, rather -- poor efficiency? That in of itself would be pretty dumb, seeing as how FG% is a better, albeit oldschool, measure of offensive efficiency. Looking at effective FG%, the Knicks are around .500 for the streak, a good number and much (not marginally, much) better than the .474 they're averaging for the year overall. So it couldn't be that. On the other hand...maybe we're just overthinking this and giving this writer too much credit. Given that the "marginal" statement smelled fishy from the start, perhaps that alone is evidence of the nether-regions source from which the statement originated.

For making baseless statements without bothering to do the two minutes of work it takes to validate them, you Ian Levy are our latest Sportswriting Moron Of The Week.

Keep talking and writing sports analysts. The Moron-Awards committee will find you soon enough.

* So former Denver Nugget and Chinese-league escapee J.R.Smith announced he will sign with the Knicks. This after a friend informed me that the esteemed Stephen A. Smith had to restrain himself from cussing his co-analysts on an ESPN show who suggested J.R. would possibly choose NY over the Clippers. Stephen whitled down the comparison to a choice between "playing with" Jeremy Lin or Chris Paul, a comparison that is both simple-minded, myopic, and may actually be a logical fallacy. To be technical, both the Nuggets and Knicks would use J.R. off of the bench, so it's a little faulty to say he would be "playing" with Lin or Paul; he'd be playing primarily with their backups. Furthermore, if you look at the teams' rotation, you'd have to say that J.R. would get more playing time in NY than in LA, former all-star and free-agent signee Caron Butler being juuuust a bit more accomplished than second-year player Landry Fields. So that further erodes the notion of "playing". Finally, it also is worth noting that the Knicks can and were offering their full mid-level exception of $2.5 million over this season *and* next season, whereas the Clippers could only offer the veteran's minimum salary. More money, a longer contract, more playing time and a more significant role on the team. Suddenly, Stephen A.'s "dumb" choice seems like it got "smartified". But hey, just keep opting for histrionics and hyperbole might not always make you right, but it's certainly made you successful. I ain't mad at you for that. It sure is fun to be able to repeatedly punch holes in these tirades.

Anyways, I'm off, back to the Martian grind...

Melo's O, Iman's No-Go, and other tidbits

* I'm still annoyed by all this Carmelo-will-kill-the-offense talk being bandied about. Not since "Bobby Brown introduced Whitney to coke!" have we seen a bigger revisionist historical account being so widely accepted. (And for the record, Whitney was a 26-year-old, world-travelling, other-worldly star of a woman when she met a little 20-year-old young man named Bobby in 1989. If you think Whitney made it thru the entirety of the 1980s entertainment party scene without being exposed to and sampling coke lines, you are a gullible blithering idiot. I know that's harsh, but it's 2012, so apparently, nothing else has gotten thru your rose-coloured glasses by now. Whitney found coke the same way Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Len Bias, Bobby, Rick James, and every other entertainer and athlete in the 1980s did: by being a megastar and going to parties where coke lines were laid out like pretzels and dip. Please buy a clue...As for Whitney, it's utterly sad that we lost her so young. 48 is just too young. Whitney, we will always love you too, your talents and personal demons alike. May your soul be at peace.)

But as I failed to restrain myself from responding to the empty-headed recitations of Carmelo's supposed offensive deficiencies, I came across a few more interesting, glaring, statistics:

2011 Nuggets: with Melo: 107.75 ppg. w/o Melo: 107.16 ppg.
2011 Knicks: w/o Melo: 106.2 ppg. with Melo: 106.8 ppg.

Hello! For all the "Nuggets are better without Melo" talk du dour, both the Nuggets AND the Knicks scored more points per game with Carmelo on their teams than without? Like hell you say! How could this be?

It "be" for the simple sad fact that this generation of people, armed with all the tools of the Information Age, are every bit of the -- and maybe moreso -- misinformed, lazy robots as we've seen in any other generation. It is...well, sad. If Carmelo somehow "clogs" an offense, then I'd hate to see what happens when we add Liquir Plum-r.

* Iman Shumpert snubbed for the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge game.
Are you kidding me? Like, are you for real? Let's take a look at the rookies who *were* selected:
MarShon Brooks (Nets), Kyrie Irving (Cavs), Brandon Knight (Pistons), Kawhi Leonard (Spurs), Markieff Morris (Suns), Ricky Rubio (Wolves), Tristan Thompson (Cavs), Kemba Walker (Bobcats), Derrick Williams (Wolves).
Irving, Rubio, Brooks, all don't-even-try-to-argue selections. Walker, Knight, Williams, Morris (as of late), no qualms. But umm...Kawhi Leonard? Tristan Thompson?

Let's get something out right now: since early in the season, has had Iman Shumpert firmly seated in the 3rd slot on The Rookie Ladder (their rookie rankings). Basically the best of the class outside of Rubio and Irving. Walker has currently joined the upper rankings, so Shumpert is now 4th. Hardly anything to be upset over. But the 3rd-to-4th best rookie in the entire NBA doesn't make the rookie challenge? Leonard isn't even in the top-10, and Thompson? He didn't even make the just-missed-the-cut list. How do you not find room on this team for the rookie who's top-5 in the entire NBA in steals? I rarely complain about snubs this openly...but this one defies any stat-based, performance-based, by-position-based, or any other, explanation.

To quote Coach D'Antoni, upon receiving the news of Shumpert's snub: "Defensively I can guarantee there's no rookie better. That's half the game; so half the game he's better and the other half he's played well. He's been put into a spot where he had to be the point guard and he's not naturally a point guard. His best position is the two. He can play three. He's probably one of our best post defenders. He has to get better like all rookies, but he's played well. I'm shocked."

I am too coach. I am too.

* There seems to be more and more bad news recently. Rest in peace to ex-49er great, wide receiver Freddie Solomon. One of Joe Montana's top-2 targets in the 1982 and 1985 Super Bowl runs, and still the 49ers team-record holder for highest yards-per-catch average over an entire season (a hefty 21.4). Also, rest in peace to ex-Met, Hall-Of-Fame catcher Gary Carter. One of those guys who carried himself in a way and gave the vibe that made you feel you couldn't help but respect and admire him, no matter which team or rival you rooted for. Hope they're both at peace.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Can Melo and Lin Co-Exist?

Now that we’ve gotten through our first week of Linsanity, had a chance to breathe in-between games, and started looking towards the future of the 2012 New York Knicks, there is one question de jour that has emerged as all the rage among all circles: can Carmelo Anthony fit in with Jeremy Lin?

We’ve heard the supposed pitfalls; Melo is a ball-stopper, a ball-hog, a black-hole on offense. In some ways, there can be some truth to the criticisms, at least if you watched the P.L. Knicks (that’s Pre-Lin) this year. However, there is something completely laughable in the predictions of impending doom certain to befall the Knicks upon Carmelo’s return from injury. There seems to be this implied (and sometimes expressed) notion that Anthony has never played with a capable, offense-initiating point guard at any point in his career before now. And to that notion I retort: does the name Chauncey Billups mean anything to you people?

Whether or not Carmelo’s return will take the Knick offense and team to greater heights remains to be seen. But let’s put some things in their proper perspective. Last year, with Chauncey, Anthony, and Amar’e Stoudemire leading the way, getting the ball into the bucket was not at the top of the list of Knick problems. Hell, it wasn’t on the list at all. New York ended the 2011 season ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (108.3 points per 100 possessions). Let me repeat that for you: the Knicks were the fifth-best team last year on the offensive end of the court.

Their problem last year, as apparently the scant few of us with any sense would recall, was on defense. The Knicks ranked 23th in the league in team defensive efficiency in 2011 (106.9 p/100). Simply put, they gave up just as many points than they scored. When you look at it from that perspective, you can understand why the Knicks essentially shed Chauncey Billups in lieu of Tyson Chandler in the short offseason. Neither the Knicks nor their fans had any reason to cry tears at not having the assets to make a run for Chris Paul. Paul is a decent-to-good defender, and can disrupt an offense with his ball-hawking and playing the lanes, but 6-foot point guards are not what turn defenses around in this league. Big men are. CP3 wouldn’t have solved the Knicks' most glaring deficiency, their defensive woes, the way Chandler has, and as much as I love CP3's offense, scoring the ball wasn’t even the Knicks’ problem in the first place.

And just how much has the addition of Chandler, and other changes such as the emergence of ball-hawks like Iman Shumpert and improving players like Landry Fields, meant on defense? The Knicks now give up 97.7 points per 100 possessions, good enough to rank 10th in the league. Scoring in this lockout-shortened season has been down, but you can’t mistake a team’s moving up 13 spots in a particular rank relative to the rest of the league.

This year, however, the Knicks problem has been that, without a capable point guard P.L., their offense has suffered – a lot. It is down 10 points per 100 possessions from last year, and that 5th-best ranking has fallen all the way down to 23rd. However, seeing as how Carmelo and Amar’e were around for a significant portion of last season, and obviously this season as well, they are the constants here, so they are not what has changed on offense. What has changed is the Chauncey Billups-for-Tyson Chandler swap. One might conclude, then, that they simply exchanged one problem for another. However, it is much more difficult in this league to find a quality big man than it is to find a capable guard. Chauncey, were he being objective, shouldn’t have felt slighted by the Knicks’ decision to amnesty him – though he completely reserves the right to put that chip on his shoulder, right or wrong. They needed to shore up their defense in the worst way.

In any case, let me drop some more numbers on you. 46%: that is what Anthony shot in a Knick uniform alongside Chauncey Billups last year. 26.3: the number of points per game he scored during that time. And the best number of all, 42.4%: that is what Carmelo shot from 3-point range in those 27 games. The shooting percentages, by the way, are better than he's shot in any season for his career. So apparently, whether he black-holes the offense, puts up bad shots, or whatever other criticisms people come up for his game…42.4%. I don’t really need to say another word or quote another fact.

Now, I'm loathe to making predictions, and I'm not about to put my neck on a block for the possible future performance of total strangers, but the things that people are saying about Carmelo's past results are, simply put, complete and utter fiction. If Jeremy can keep getting by his defender and into the lane, Carmelo should have open mid-range and beyond jumpshots...the same kind of shots he knocked down last year.

As time goes on, incidentally, it appears that Lin is going to have to develop a left-hand dribble drive, or learn to drive to his left in some fashion. All the sneaky moves and quickness can only take you so far when people know you're only working one side of the court. However, he seems to have a tirelessly studious approach to the game -- I read a story that highlighted how he's been known to spend an hour or two in practice working on a single move, over and over and over again -- so there shouldn't be any reason that he shouldn't eventually add that and other facets to his game. And, surrounded by scorers and two low-post guys that love the pick-and-roll more than anything, the team has a lot of complementary parts and, as such, loads of potential.

And they will all happily co-exist, and give themselves a chance to max out that potential. Yes, even Carmelo.

Linsanity: What Took So Long?

A former coworker and friend of Chinese descent hit me a text this morning to say that he watched a sports talk show where the analysts were baffled as to why so many teams purportedly passed on Jeremy Lin. They wondered what took so long for the Linsanity train to leave the station. My friend, understandably, wondered why they didn’t just come right out and point to the race factor. I, however, wondered who in the world was paying these clearly uninformed, baffled, head-scratching pundits he was watching.

Let’s just get this out of the way: race was and is certainly a factor in the story of Jeremy Lin’s path to NBA relevance. The question is, however, just how much of a factor, and when?

That the sports talking heads my friend was watching couldn’t come up with valid reasons to explain Lin’s path to the Knicks is unforgivable, as far as I’m concerned at least. Again, these people are PAID to know what they’re commenting on. 5 minutes on Google – plus an objective mind – is all it takes to understand the long road that brought Lin to this point. Maybe 7 minutes if your internet connection is slow.

The road to Lin’s professional career begins, naturally, in high school. Jeremy as a prep was a 2-time MVP of his high school league, was rated the #1 player in California by virtually every major publication in the state, and his team had a high-profile state-championship victory over a much higher-rated team. Yet, Jeremy did not receive a single scholarship offer from even one Division-1 school. Let me repeat that: the consensus #1 player in the largest state in the entire United States did not receive so much as ONE scholarship offer. Now, objectivity might allow one to say, perhaps there were some other mitigating circumstances here; common sense tugs at you to point to his ethnicity. I have a very hard time believing there are circumstances mitigating enough to warrant his being bypassed by every Division-1 college in the country, outside of him being a convicted serial murderer. There’s just no plausible explanation that is going to be compelling enough, outside of “Asian guys can’t ball”.

So, Lin took his skills to Harvard, where he excelled in the Ivy League. By the end his college career, he was the #2 scorer in Ivy League history, and racked up equally-impressive numbers across the board. However, on NBA draft day 2010, his name went uncalled. Now, you may say again that race was a factor, but an equally-valid reason may simply be the view of the Ivy League at the time (or, at least, until Harvard’s current surge into national rankings). I’ll leave that call up to you. I tend to believe him coming out of the Ivy League is at least as much a factor as race or anything else.

So, from that point, Lin took his talents to the NBA summer league, and it is from there that it becomes increasingly difficult to blame race as the singular factor in his being “passed over”. He impressed everyone by going toe-to-toe with John Wall in one game in particular, raising eyebrows and getting notice is an fair amount of print publications. Measuring up to the #1 pick and eventual rookie-of-the-year will have that effect. He eventually found his way to the Dallas Mavericks prior to the 2010-2011 season – and it is at that point where simple circumstance and bad luck becomes the #1 factor for his delayed path to NBA relevance.

The 2011 Dallas Mavericks, for who may not know, were pretty stacked at the point guard position, with future first-ballot Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, speedy J.J. Barea, and capable Rodrigue Beaubois. It’s not much of a stretch to see how Lin wouldn’t make such a team. Eventually, he got picked up for the duration of the 2011 season by the Golden State Warriors. Golden State, however, is pretty well-to-do in their backcourt, with sharp-shooting Stephen Curry and the perennial almost-an-all-star Monta Ellis, as well as veterans Charlie Bell and Acie Law. Also not a stretch to see how a rookie might have trouble getting much more than garbage time on that roster – which is exactly what Lin got in 40-some-odd games for the season.

2012 is where the story gets interesting. The major factor in Lin’s long road at that point becomes the NBA lockout, which led to a truncated free agency and training camp period, and a compressed regular-season schedule built for robots, not human athletes. The Warriors, looking to clear cap space to make an offer to the L.A. Clippers restricted free agent center DeAndre Jordan, parted ways with Lin via the waiver wire. Now, we all like Lin’s talents, but when you already have Curry and Ellis, and you think you have a chance to snag someone like Jordan to man your frontcourt, the rookie guard on your roster is gonna be the one to hit waivers. Hey, that’s life.

Next up was the Houston Rockets, who claimed Lin off of the waiver wire. Houston’s backcourt roster, however, already consisted of Kyle Lowry, Jonny Flynn, Kevin Martin, Courtney Lee, and Gordon Dragic. These are all guys who have long proven they can play in the NBA. Honestly, it’s more a wonder why the Rockets bothered to pick up Lin at all. Perhaps they thought they would still somehow be parting ways with Martin and Dragic via trade (similar to the Lakers-Rockets-Hornets deal that was declined by the Hornets owner), and would need to add depth. Not so far-fetched. However, the Rockets soon found they too needed to shed roster spots in order to sign a center, free-agent Samuel Dalembert. It was deja-vu all over again.

Moreover, with the lockout-condensed off-season, there was no time for a guy like Lin to even show he could outwork one of those proven guys. In a typical year, NBA training camps last the entire month of September, followed by a 3-week preseason schedule, then a few days to a week layoff before the real games begin. This season? After unlocking the doors to the arenas on December 9th, teams had exactly 16 days till the Christmas Day start of the season. That’s over 7 weeks condensed into 2. 2 weeks to get guys into playing shape, practice, and prepare for the season. What would you spend those two weeks doing: practicing with the guys who have already produced for you and others in the past, or dropping their practice time to give workouts for brand new players? Exactly.

So, again, Lin hit the waiver wire, without even playing a game for the Rockets. Then is when the Knicks finally get involved. After an injury to guard Iman Shumpert in the first week of the season, the Knicks needed some insurance depth, not knowing how long Shumpert would be out, but fearing the worst. As it turned out, the initial 4-week prognosis for Shumpert’s injury turned into barely a 2-week stay-cation. Who knows, had that initial prognosis been for 1-2 weeks, would the Knicks have bothered to look outside the team to shore up their backcourt? We’ll never know. However, once Shumpert returned, and proved he was healthy, what happened to Lin? The Knicks sent him down to the NBA Developmental League.

Here is where the lockout really screws everything up – unless you’re a Knick fan. The schedule this season has teams playing 66 games over 120 days, somewhere around 55% of the days. A normal NBA schedule sees 82 games stretched over 6 months, somewhere around 175 days. So they’re usually playing closer to 45%-47% of the time. What suffers? Practice time. In that, there is none, barely. This season is the worst possible scenario under which an unproven 2nd-year player acquired during the season would have the time to show off his skills. Knick coach Mike D’Antoni has been criticized for saying he had “no idea” what he had with Lin, but that criticism is completely unfair. Teams don’t even have adequate time to practice with their proven players, much less work out new guys.

However, after recording a triple-double in his first D-League appearance, Lin found his way back to the Knick bench. Why? Point guard Baron Davis. Once slated to be days away from taking the court for the Knicks, and looked upon (probably far too optimistically) as the possible savior to their season, Davis’ recovery hit a setback. An elbow infection halted his training cold, putting his return from a back injury completely on ice until the infection clears up. So once again, the Knicks found themselves in need of point guard depth. So then, finally, comes the day, Saturday February 4th, the day desperation turns to hope. Out of answers, and running out of time, after giving Toney Douglas, the ghost of Mike Bibby past, and Iman Shumpert all ample opportunity to masquerade at point guard, Coach D’Antoni turned to the very end of his bench. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, did race play a role in the delay of Jeremy Lin’s opportunity on the big stage? Certainly, at least early on in his basketball career it likely did to some degree. But people need to not be so callous to paint Houston, Golden State, Dallas or any other NBA franchise with the racism brush. By a fortunate set of circumstances, Jeremy wound his way onto the Knicks roster, and naturally, after watching this kid play for the bulk of last week, I am more than glad that things panned out the way they did. All hail the lockout!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Linspirational Tale

Yes, I too have to jump on the greatest story so far this NBA season: the amazing coming-out party for Jeremy Lin. Unrecruited after a highly-successful high school career. Undrafted by NBA teams after a very good college career. Acquired, and then released, by the Dallas Mavericks in 2010. Buried on the bench in Golden State for 2011. Released by the Warriors to make room for an offer to a restricted free agent that was subsequently matched; in other words, released for nothing. Acquired by the Houston Rockets, and then released to make room for a journeyman center whose minutes have dropped precipitously over the past month (once mid-30s, now under 20). Acquired by the New York Knicks, buried on the end of the bench, shuttled down to the D-League, brought back and pushed the brink of being put on waivers yet again...and then?

The one sports story that has supplanted a Super Bowl champion. In New York City. The media capital of the world. It's nothing short of Lincredible!

By now you've already read and/or heard plenty about Jeremy, so of course I need to cut a different angle than what's been covered (no need to beat a drum that has a thousand musicians standing in line).

First was the silly notion by Stephen A. Smith and others that the game versus the Lakers earlier tonight would prove as some sort of litmus test for Lin. Yes, we know the Lakers are a playoff team, perhaps even a title contender...but have we forgotten that this is the team that was so desperate to upgrade the point position that it was set to trade two-thirds of its front court (Odom and Gasol) to do so? I immediately (read: prior to the game) scoffed at the notion that the Lakers would provide some stiffer level of competition for Lin (and have the tweets to prove it); the ghost of Derek Fisher past and Steve Blake do not put the fear of God into opposing point guards. And, lo and behold, we saw Kobe Bryant switch onto Lin 7 minutes into the game, and everyone from the aforementioneds to Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes taking cracks at trying to slow Lin down. By my count, at least 6 or 7 Lakers took pre-conceived turns guarding Lin (i.e. not counting guys like Pau Gasol who guarded him off of pick-and-roll switches). The result? Well, unless you've been under a media blackout, you know they were none to successful in corraling Lin. As me, I mean.

I think we should wait for the Knicks to play a team with a lockdown-defender point guard (think Rajon Rondo) or great all-around team defense (think Chicago Bulls) to say that Lin is facing something in the way of stiff competition. Of course, I'm starting to hear whispers that the rumours of Minnesota Timberwolf Rick Rubio's poor defense have been exaggerated, so it's possible that Lin's first exam may come as early as tonight's game.

The other point I wanted to address is the trepidation (or in some cases, downright belief) that Lin and/or the Knick offense will suffer with the return of Amare Stoudemire and, even moreso, Carmelo Anthony. In the rush to point out that Lin's first three starts have come without two-thirds of the Knick big-3 (haven't we all gotten tired of the big-3 designation in the NBA? If we haven't yet, I use it here to speed us along to that day), some people seem to have totally forgotten that day one of the Lin experiment came in a game with a full Knick lineup. In last Saturday's contest with the Nets, Lin played a hefty 36 minutes, as did Tyson Chandler, Carmelo logged 35 minutes, and Amare saw 25. More importantly, Chandler and Amare shot well from the floor and scored 17 points apiece, and Melo, while shooting a poor percentage, managed to get up 15 shot attempts. In the midst of all that offense, Lin was still able to carve out 19 shot attempts and 25 points for himself. One game is certainly not a sample size, but if those four guys are capable of playing together offensively on command, without any preparation, surely they can do it after a few practices and games together. The biggest fear here seems to be Carmelo's ball-stopping reputation; however, he *did* play with one Chauncey Billups in Denver, and Raymond Felton in NY. It's not as if he's *never* had a traditional point guard in his life. Time for Melo (whenever he returns) to simply make better use of those 15 shots.

In any case, welcome to NY, Jeremy. Get up off your brother's couch and contact a real estate agent. It seems you've finally found a home.