Changing Perspectives: East

by Jeff Fogle 22. February 2011 00:08

Everyone has a general perception of the playoff races right now, based on the full season standings you've probably been glancing at in the newspaper over All-Star weekend. Do those standings paint a truly accurate picture?


6...New York

9...Charlotte: (2 games back)
10...Milwaukee (3.5 games back)
11...Detroit (4.5 games back)

Hopeless: New Jersey, Washington, Toronto, Cleveland

Boston is percentage points ahead of Miami heading into the return of play Tuesday. Chicago his hot on their tails. Orlando currently is in fourth position despite a disturbing tendency to play great vs. bad teams but struggle vs. the other powers. Spots #6-8 are currently up for grabs among several teams, with the Knicks hoping a marquee acquisition might help lock things up.

That's where things stand for the full season. What if we only look at games since the end of November?

1...Miami: 31-7
2...Chicago: 29-10
3...Boston: 27-10
4...Atlanta: 23-14
5...Philadelphia: 22-16
6...Orlando: 23-17
7...New York: 18-17
8...Charlotte 18-21

9...Indiana: 15-23
10...Milwaukee: 15-23
11...Detroit 15-24

Hopeless: New Jersey 11-28, Washington 10-28, Toronto 9-25, Cleveland 3-36

Wow...every single spot changes in the first eight. Miami surges to first place, even though they had to temporarily deal with some injuries. Chicago passes Boston into second. Orlando drops from fourth down to sixth. And, look at Philadelphia, the fifth best team in the East since just after Thanksgiving.

New York and Indiana aren't looking so good. Charlotte would have a 2.5 game lead over the also-rans if the season started on December 1st.

What about basketball as its been played in 2011? Here are the six-week standings since New Year's.

1...Chicago 17-6
2...Miami 16-6
3...Boston 16-7
4...Atlanta 13-7
5...Orlando 15-9
6...Philadelphia 14-9
7...Charlotte 13-12
8...New York 10-12

9...Indiana 10-13
10...Detroit 10-14

The Rest: Milwaukee 9-16, New Jersey 8-16, Washington 7-16, Toronto 4-20, Cleveland 2-22

Now it's Chicago who's got the best record, with Miami and Boston knocking loudly on the door. Orlando is back in front of Philadelphia. New York is still in the playoffs, but barely hanging on. Milwaukee has fallen apart. Toronto, largely ignored in league coverage, is almost as bad as Cleveland since you put the new calendar on the fridge.

That's enough of the exercise. But, I should point out that Indiana is 7-3 since Frank Vogel took over as head coach. A shorter recent sample would have them in the playoffs and the Knicks on the outside looking in.

What's the "right" way to look at the Eastern race? Should we place the most weight on the full season because it has the larger sample size? Should we place the most weight on the recent games because November is so far away from April that it should just be tossed out?

The answers are ahead rather than known now. We can probably say this much:

*The three-way battle between Miami, Boston, and Chicago for the top seed is likely to be very important. Whoever finishes second and third will probably have to beat the other two to reach the finals. The top seed will only have to defeat one of the other two. Can aging Boston afford to pace themselves for the playoffs with that reality?

*Philadelphia had such a poor start that catching Orlando or Atlanta from behind is unlikely. They trail the fifth spot by 7.5 games at the break. Should the most recent form continue, the Sixers become a dangerous sixth seed. That could mean a tougher first round gig for whoever finishes third amongst the earlier triumverate.

*New York badly needs to rebound from their recent slump if they want to make the playoffs. Rest should help an up-tempo team who hit a wall a while ago. Acquiring Carmelo Anthony may or may not make their lives easier depending on who all is involved.

*Indiana (under Vogel) and Charlotte have the look of playoff teams, at least by Eastern standards. Milwaukee hasn't performed like a playoff team in a few weeks.

Those are the storylines we'll be covering in the coming days, probably along with a few more we can't even imagine yet...

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Can We Untangle the Mess?

by Jeff Fogle 16. February 2011 01:12

There are a handful of teams who are obviously championship contenders. And, there are a handful of teams who are obviously much worse than everyone else. Can we untangle the mess in the middle?

Probably not! But we can give it a try...

I started thinking about this today after noting how well the Philadelphia 76ers were being rated in a few different methodologies. You can click here to see John Hollinger's latest Power Ratings at ESPN. Philadelphia ranked 8th at the time I wrote today's piece, but may rank differently by the time you read it.

I think there's a sense among most basketball fans that Philadelphia really isn't one of the best 10 teams in the league right now. Yet, it's surprisingly hard to show that in the numbers. They grade out impressively, particularly if you emphasize recent form.

*Philadelphia ranked 11th in full season efficiency differential heading into Monday action. (You can see the entire league here if you sort on "Diff" in the third category after the team names.)

*That full season ranking includes a horrible 3-13 start. Philadelphia is 23-16 since then...which would be good enough to lift an 11th place rating into the top 10 in analytical approaches that emphasize recent form.

*So many previously respected teams have fallen on hard times lately (like Utah, Denver, or New York), that a team's spot on the ladder can get better just by watching other people fall off it.

It doesn't sound right. And, if you watch a lot of basketball, it doesn't feel right either. Yet, there it is in the numbers.

Let's group the NBA into three hunks:

1) Clear chamionship contenders like Miami, San Antonio, Boston, the Lakers, Chicago, Orlando, and Dallas (the top seven teams as sorted by efficiency differential...all of those guys were at +3.0 or better entering Monday in the link mentioned above)

2) Teams who are variations of awful like Cleveland, Washington, Toronto, Minnesota, New Jersey, Sacramento, Detroit, and the shorthanded LA Clippers (the bottom eight teams who were all at -4.0 or worse)

3) Everyone else..the tangled middle (teams from +3.0 down to -3.1 heading into Monday...the bulk of which were actually between +1.4 and -0.6)

Here are the won-lost records over the last 20 games for mess in the middle, which includes all Monday action but the very latest start.

Memphis 14-6
Atlanta 13-7
Phoenix 13-7
Portland 13-7
New Orleans 12-7 (pending Golden State)
Oklahoma City 12-8
Philadelphia 12-8
Golden State 11-8 (pending New Orleans)
Denver 11-9
Indiana 10-10
Houston 10-10
Charlotte 9-11
New York 8-12
Utah 7-13

These 14 teams are basically fighting for spots 8-21 on the ladder. A 12-8 mark for Philly is nice. But, that's not enough by this approach to get them to the top 10.

We're probably dealing with a hunk here where the margin of error is great enough to prevent much confidence about any conclusions. Denver's been exhausted but may be about to freshen up. Indiana may lose its high energy buzz soon under Frank Vogel. Maybe a break is exactly what New York needs. Isn't Utah due to get things rolling again? Efforts to untangle may only create the illusion of untangling. Heaven forbid there are any big trades over the next week and a half!

What will the next 20 games look like for that group? Would you want to bet Philadelphia is one of the best three over the next 20 games? Would you expect them to win a best of seven series right now over the likes of New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Portland, or Atlanta? Or even Memphis, who they lost to tonight? We'd be impressed by their competitive fire no doubt. Are they BETTER than those teams?

That will be something to watch and discuss after the All-Star Break, as the stretch run for the playoffs may do some untangling for us. I'm generally not a fan of totem pole rankings because reality tends to cluster rather than space out neatly. We may be dealing with a ladder that actually has a few empty rungs after the seventh...with several teams then grasping at the same spots in the mid-teens...followed by more empty rungs before you get to the place-takers down low.

Transition Points

*Speaking of the high energy Pacers, it was great to see the "StatCube" on the NBA Network's pregame show tonight showcase the new tempo and offensive rebounding rates for Indiana under Vogel. Ernie Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Chris Webber in the flesh were talking about Pace Factor and Offensive Rebounding Rates (see the stats in both categories here, you can sort by clicking on "Pace" or "ORR" in dark blue). Hope we helped get those memes on the radar with our recent coverage.

*Indiana actually struggled on the offensive boards tonight. Miami knew what was coming, and boxed out well, holding the Pacers to a 21.6 rate. As expected, the game was played at a very fast tempo, registering at 101 possessions per team. 

Hope you got a chance to watch. Very entertaining game. Dwyane Wade scored 20 points in the first six-and-a-half minutes, then threw a breathaking length of the court alleyoop to LeBron James for a layup. One-handed like a down-and-out from Peyton Manning, from one baseline to the other. The crowd was abuzz, but you can't roar when the road team makes a play like that! Miami blew all of a 41-17 lead before rallying to pull away late to a 110-103 decision.

*Talk of Philadelphia's recent surge reminded me of 2008-09. Philadelphia started 9-14 rather than 3-13, but did play very solid basketball after that. They peaked at 40-35 (meaning 31-21 over 52 games, which included a road win at the LA Lakers, series sweeps of playoff bound Portland and Houston, plus splits with San Antonio and Miami). A late slide took them into the playoffs at the .500 mark.

In the postseason, they won a road game at Orlando, and held a 2-1 series lead before ultimately falling to the Magic four games to two. The 2010-11 team looks like a group that can make the playoffs...but it's hard to see them winning a first round series.

*Tuesday's edition of "back-to-back team loses to fresh opponent" was Charlotte falling in Chicago 106-94 the night after beating the Lakers.The normally stingy Hornets' defense let the Bulls hit 50% on two-pointers (and three-pointers). Charlotte's offense was just 2 of 11 from behind the arc. We're seeing that a lot in these days leading up to the All-Star Break. Tired legs equates to softer than normal internal defense, and three-point shots that clang off the rim. Derrick Rose of the Bulls continued his attack on the rim, earning nine free throws on the night.

See you late Wednesday, the final night before the All-Star Break for everyone but San Antonio, Chicago, Dallas, and Phoenix...

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Common Sense Defensive Estimates

by Jeff Fogle 15. January 2011 01:29

Talk about the MVP Award is starting to heat up, with a few players hearing MVP chants from enthusiastic crowds. As is often the case, discussions about contenders are focused on offensive production at the expense of a player's all-around game. Defense typically gets excluded from these conversations because it's so hard to measure. While it IS hard to measure a player's defensive contributions, it's actually fairly easy to make commonsense estimates. This is important to remember, if you're one of the people trying to make an MVP case for Amare Stoudemire!

Let's start with some simple premises that avid followers of basketball would likely agree with:

*Internal defense has a bigger impact on games then external defense.

*Tall, physical guys have a bigger impact on defense than shorter, slighter guys do.

*Teams who grade out well in defensive efficiency must have players who are defending well.

*Teams who grade out poorly in defensive efficiency must have players who are defending poorly.

Yes, we can all think of individual exceptions to those guidelines. There are some hard-nosed defensive point guards...there are tall guys who move poorly and are surprisingly easy to score on. There are good defensive players on bad defensive teams. There are bad defensive players on good defensive teams.

But, I'm only talking about commonsense estimates of a contribution, not any sort of in-depth grading that you can calculate out to a hundredth of a point like PER or myriad other stats. In the spirit of "approximate value" from the old Bill James "Baseball Abstracts," you can make a run at this.

First, let's outline approximate defensive contributions by position as simply as possible. If you're dividing up 100% of a team's defense, let's say 24% goes to each of the three frontline positions (post, power forward, small forward), and 14% goes to the two guards. I'm sympathetic to logical tinkering there...moving the small forward down a bit and lifting up maybe the point guard since he's harrassing the ballhandler. But, I don't think anybody is going to suggest that a hard-nosed point guard has equal defensive impact to the best of the bigs. For today's extremely simplified purposes, 24-24-24-14-14 gets us to 100% in a way that well enough captures team defensive impact. Bigs are more important than smalls. Bigs share the burden.

Start with those, adjust for defensive efficiency at the team level, and you're already at a good ballpark sense of a player's defensive impact. That's all you need to talk about defense in this year's MVP race.

LeBron James: small forward on the #3 defense
Dwyane Wade: shooting guard on the #3 defense
Amare Stoudemire: power forward on the #21 defense
Derrick Rose: point guard on the #1 defense

We're only estimating defensive impact here, but it seems pretty logical that James is the biggest contributor from this group. He and Stoudemire take up similar spaces on the floor...but one is helping to anchor an elite defense while the other is anchoring a poor defense (and, himself, has a poor defensive reputation). Rose probably deserves kudos for his defense given how well the Bulls rate as a team. He's not a big though. He's not likely to be out-defending James.

Nothing here worth taking up on a soapbox. But, look how it helps clear up the MVP discussion. Here's a listing of Adjusted PER, Joe Treutlein's tweak to John Hollinger's landmark player rating stat. The most common complaint about PER is that it doesn't fully capture defense. Our approximations can help fill in the blanks.

ADJUSTED PER (through Thursday)
LeBron James 27.42 (in 37.6 minutes per game)
Dwyane Wade 27.26 (in 36.3 minutes per game)
Derrick Rose 24.86 (in 37.7 miutes per game)
Amare Stoudemire 24.33 (in 37.4 minutes per game)

Who's going to catch LeBron from behind if he has the biggest defensive influence of the group? How could anyone suggest Amare Stoudemire is a better MVP choice? Or Rose? LeBron would have to be pretty useless for a big (which he isn't) to lose any ground when defense is in the discussion.They're all playing similar minutes, and LeBron is an inside anchor for the #3 defense.

I'm sure many NBA teams have significantly more intense methodologies for evaluating individual defense (God help them if they don't!). But, if you're a sportswriter who only follows one team all year...and you're trying to evaluate the impact that defense on teams you don't follow should have on the MVP discussion...a simple approach like this can help clarify things.

Transition Points

*Dallas is now 2-7 since Dirk Nowitzki had to leave the lineup with an injury. Entering tonight's game in San Antonio (a 101-89 loss), their efficiency averages without Dirk were very similar to the full season numbers for the Detroit Pistons.

Dallas over 8 games: 101.4 on offense, 107.0 on defense
Detroit this season: 101.8 on offense, 107.6 on defense

Dallas had an average tempo of 91.8 during the eight games prior to tonight. Detroit was at 90.1. Not a dead ringer, but extremely similar in the big picture.

So, that gives you a sense of how valuable Dirk Nowitzki and Caron Butler were the Mavericks. Without them on the floor, Dallas turns into Detroit. The Pistons moved to 13-26 on the season with a win tonight in Toronto.

*Philadelphia/Milwaukee was the only "double hermit" game on the early Friday schedule (neither team played last night, or will play Saturday night--Clippers/Warriors is one on the late slate, but it's a sandwich game for the Clips between Miami and the Lakers in a way that could prove distracting). Fittingly, a game between two evenly matched teams went right down to the wire in Philadelphia's 95-94 victory.

I haven't had a chance to talk about Doug Collins' team yet this year. Playing around with the numbers tonight I noticed a strong correlation between tempo and success:

97 or more possessions: 1-8
94-96 possessions: 3-7
92 or less possessions: 10-5

Tonight's game fit the bottom category. Clearly the Sixers prefer halfcourt basketball. Some of that 4-15 record at 94 or more is probably the result of picking up the pace after falling behind in a failed effort to catch up. Stats can get loaded that way. The 10-5 record in slower games is likely to be meaningful. Philly does best when keeping the pace in their comfort zone.

I'll do some more digging in coming weeks with other teams to see if I can get a better read on comfort zones around the league.

*A quick shortcut for evaluating the difference between the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA is to look at the 8th best record in each. That's the median mark amongst 15 teams, and there are 15 teams in each conference.

Various methodologies will give you varying answers as you try to get a read. Medians are pretty darned handy, and there's no math in this case! Just look at the 8th team in the conference standings. Right now, that's the Philadelphia team we just discussed at 16-23 in the East, and Portland at 20-19 in the West pending tonight's late result at Phoenix.

Medians from the decade, starting with last year and working back...

2009-10: West 50-32, East 41-41
2008-09: West 48-34, East 39-43
2007-08: West 50-32, East 37-45
2006-07: West 42-40, East 40-42
2005-06: West 44-38, East 40-42
2004-05: West 45-37, East 42-40
2003-04: West 43-39, East 36-46
2002-03: West 44-38, East 42-40
2001-02: West 44-38, East 42-40
2000-01: West 47-35, East 40-41

The West has been better every year by this measure, with monster edges the last three seasons.

Using raw wins and losses may provide a slightly different picture. The advantage of medians is that you can easily envision games played against quality teams. An outlier with a horrible record can skew raw totals. With medians, you know what 8th best was...and you know that there were seven teams with equal to or better records in that conference. This provides additional perspective when considering how many difficult games a team may have played. You only get a boost of playing a horrible outlier in your conference 3-4 times. Anyone in the West was playing a bunch of games against quality the past few years...and on the whole over the last decade.

This doesn't mean the "best in the West" are automatically better than the "best in the East." It does mean they played tougher regular season schedules. That should weigh on your team and player evaluations. (Note that all four MVP candidates getting run right now are in the East!).

Have a great weekend! See you Monday night...

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