Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Anthony Davis, the "Leap," and the Peculiar Pelicans

Image courtesy of Derick E. Hingle/USA Today.
There is a fundamental set of expectations that are attached to the honour of being a number one overall pick. Anthony Davis, 2012 recipient of that label, is coping just fine with the weight of heavy scrutiny. Individually, his play in the 2014 season has been something to behold. Davis, fronting the freshly rebranded New Orleans Pelicans, is presently placed 2nd in the league's PER rankings, behind only LeBron James. League average for the Player Efficiency Rating measurement rests at 15.00, and through fourteen outings, the Kentucky product owns a figure of 28.35. Affixed firmly in the melange of one of the NBA's more obscurely-assembled rosters, he has been a near-solitary source of stellar play, and led the Pelicans' push to the fringes of the Western Conference playoff picture. Entering the season, Davis was considered a very reasonable candidate to make the "Leap" to the next echelon of performance, and inch closer to his ceiling as an elite player in this league.

Viewed as a gangly defensive pest with a raw offensive repertoire coming out of college, it is Davis' showcases of scoring and low-post manoeuvres that have come as the most pleasant surprises. Among those were a monster 32pt, 12 rebound, six block display in a win over the Lakers, and a 29 and 15 game in a Salt Lake City defeat. Furthermore, he's getting to the line six times per game, and drilling 85.1% of his chances - becoming somewhat of an anti-Dwight Howard at the charity stripe. This proficiency at the free throw line, and his ability to reduce his turnover count to just 1.4 per showing, is certain to please the New Orleans administration. The offense isn't all sunshine and rainbows, however, as the sharp uptick in minutes, added attention, and occasionally odd shot choice have caused a mild decline in his scoring efficiency (shooting 49.7% to this point). Understandably, the second year man is finding the majority of his points in the restricted area, scoring at a 64.6% rate (62 of 96) in that region, and struggling when he has attempted to expand his range. Although he may not be relied upon as a lethal outside shooter, developing the midrange game and fine-tuning his planted jump shot is clearly next on the offensive agenda. The below graphic depicts Davis' difficulties (granted, in only a limited sample size) when forced further and further away from the comforts of the interior. 

A brief overview of Davis' shot locations, in blocks of eight feet, per
The Pelicans' prized big man is shooting 22 of 76, or 28.9%, on standard jump shots, overwhelmingly capitalising on dunks, flips, and tips, while weaving scattered hooks from the block into his arsenal. Ideally, an injury-free rotation with plentiful minutes for Holiday, Gordon, and Anderson, (plus bench contributions from the likes of Anthony Morrow and Tyreke Evans), would neatly balance the floor, and afford Anthony Davis slightly more breathing room from 15 feet and below. His usage rate is 21.7, slightly less than that of Tim Duncan, and narrowly missing out on the top ten for qualified power forwards. One would anticipate that this figure is at least a little skewed, and that the return of Ryan Anderson (who has now been active for five games), ought to level it out. Notwithstanding an aesthetically appetising scoring volume and a couple of tidy additions to the move set, Davis' devastation and dominance has transpired on the defensive end.

Indiana behemoth Roy Hibbert edges out New Orleans' unibrowed phenomenon by 0.07 for league-leading status in the blocks per game department, with the Pelicans' #23 deflecting 3.86 shots per game, on average. In addition to this, Davis is bunkering down in the paint at a level good enough for top five in the NBA (of eligible big men boasting steady minutes), minimising the conversion of opposing teams' shots at the rim to 42.5%. He is also inhaling rebounds in contested situations at a click superior to that of prolific glass-eaters such as Kevin Love and Dwight Howard, claiming boards in 45.3% of these cases, according to publicly available player tracking information. Assessing how he fares in a variety of front court tandems, though, carries certain value. It is perhaps most prudent to focus on the period in which Anderson has factored in - albeit a very limited one - due to the reality that NOLA were exposing the likes of Lou Amundson, Jeff Withey, and Greg Stiemsma to disproportionate minutes with the stretch four-man absent. Once again, the 2014 window of evidence is minute, but in terms of strategy, the proof is in the pudding: the Anderson-Davis duo is scoring at a handsome number, but is ultimately conceding 102.5 points per 100 possessions, per numbers. On the season last year, over a 61 game span, the twosome's defensive reality was even more daunting, giving away 113.0 points by the same measurement. With this in mind, it becomes easier to understand why an Omer Asik-Ryan Anderson exchange has swiftly grown into one of the Internet's favourite imaginary trades. The thought of regularly aligning Anthony Davis with a true ball-stopping, intimidating low-post body must leave the other 29 teams shuddering. Alas, the Pelicans appear keen to latch their bills onto Anderson's canny and bountiful game, trusting their ability to plug the holes of the remaining minutes holes with one-sided, stopgap bigs.

The early season demonstrations of Davis have contributed to frequent player comps in the public domain, most notably with some seeing a resemblance between him and a youthful Kevin Garnett. High praise, no doubt, and reflective of the way in which Anthony Davis has captivated the attention of the NBA universe in this relatively young campaign. Unfortunately for New Orleans, their roster isn't comprised of thirteen Anthony Davis', and they are currently staring at a sub-.500 record, with a bevy of balancing issues. Of foremost concern for the Pelicans franchise would be the fact that their 6-8 mark comes after a 25th placing in the "Strength of Schedule" standings (ranking at .473), meaning that there's an inevitable uphill stretch from here. For the casual observer and those seen as strictly Davis admirers, though, it might just be best to heed the advice of Tony Montana from here on out, and look at the Pelican fly.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The San Antonio Spurs and the Art of Subtle Stability

Image courtesy of Nathaniel E. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images.
The Spurs are 13-1, leading the Western Conference, riding an eye-popping, pace-setting 11 game winning streak, and yet, this is not news. Fourteen games into the regular season marathon, the silver and black hold a 93% winning ratio. Whilst some have sought to assess and scrutinise the legitimacy of the Trail Blazers' wildly hot stretch (and rightfully so), San Antonio continues it's excellence of execution in this, Tim Duncan's 17th season, stereotypically unnoticed and absent from public fandom and consciousness. Duncan, participant in a total of 1192 regular season bouts and 211 postseason showings, has featured in twelve of the team's 14 games thus far, and remains the centrepiece of the ever-reliable San Antonio locomotive. "The Big Fundamental" logged a cumbersome 2,813 minutes across standard and playoff contests last year, and is certain to have his court time intricately managed and carefully placed, yet again. It is almost as if basketball enthusiasts have become so blissfully accustomed to the recurring success of the franchise from the Southwest of Texas that it casually seeps through the everyday clutter of talking heads, and acquiesces to a status of lesser importance.

This season, it seems, has been no different. The insignia of the team's offensive output has, in a more recent context, proven to be remarkable spacing, copious amounts of shooters, and the usage of Tony Parker's penchant for slashing as the instigator for fluid, intelligent passing. It's early, to be sure, but the Spurs currently rank 4th in the league for assists per game, and 61.7% of the team's converted field goals directly result from teammate setups. Historically, San Antonio have found a way to implement solid, accomplished, bit-part, veteran contributors into their polished schemes, whether it be Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Glenn Robinson, Michael Finley, Fabricio Oberto, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Matt Bonner, or any other member of the Spurs' assorted casts who honed in on a regular role. Perhaps the 2013-14 version of this concept will be Italian guard Marco Belinelli, formerly of the Chicago Bulls. Of course, these names arrived in San Antonio with differing resumes and achieved varying levels of success once competing in a Spurs uniform, nevertheless, there is enough of a track record to trust in the managerial ingenuity of this front office. These complimentary pieces have allowed Popovich's men to take advantage of the roster's balance and flexibility, and experiment with new structures on both sides of the ball. 

The Spurs stand at 7-0 on their home floor, with a hearty net-rating of +15.0, and a handy pace of 96.92 possessions per 48 minutes, according to statistics. These healthy numbers are reflective of the regenerated offense that vaulted the team to a 61-win, #1 seed season in 2010-11, followed by a Conference Finals placing in the 2012 season, and earned them an NBA Finals berth this past June. This season, San Antonio have registered a number of double-digit victories, including a pummelling of a Cleveland outfit in utter disarray just three days ago, and a 31pt romp of New York at Madison Square Garden. The win over the Cavaliers, according to Alex Kennedy of, is the 37th time that the team has amassed that margin of victory (min. 30pts) in the Tim Duncan era. Kennedy noted that this is equivalent to eight more of those wins than any other NBA franchise in that window. It is comprehensive routs of this nature that create the luxury of resting key, ageing players for the Spurs, the significance of which simply cannot be overstated. 

Distinct from the offensive prowess of Duncan's squad, the tangible defensive presence of Tiago Splitter, forever lurking in the paint, is not to be dismissed. Analysis of San Antonio's two-man lineup figures highlight that Splitter, in almost any pairing (even with reserve guard Patty Mills), is able to heavily deteriorate the conversation rate of opposition scoring attempts. Measured on a per 100 possessions basis, Splitter (thus far), when paired with any of Mills, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, or Tony Parker, assists in restricting the opponent's field goal percentage below a meagre 41%. Splitter's role as a stalwart in the post is a primary factor behind the limiting of Tim Duncan's minutes to a career-low 27.3 per game. The sturdiness contributed by Splitter, in congruence with the creativity and unconventional play of bench bigs Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner, gift the Spurs the chance to rest their 37 year old future Hall-of-Famer extensively, and rely on guard-heavy units that look to compensate for the loss of Duncan's multifaceted offensive production. Behind all of this, clearly, is a conscientious strategy to pick spots on the floor, utilise the corner three as a predominant weapon, and maximise the value of good, well-balanced shot selection.
San Antonio's shot distribution chart through fourteen regular season games.
The above diagram illustrates the offensive decision-making of the Spurs to date, amplifying explicit points of emphasis. The shades of blue (ascending from below to above league average) portray how the team fares when compared to the remaining 29 squads, with the left baseline/block semi-circular region and three-fifths of the available three-point territories obviously favoured. Conversely, they appear to hold a deliberate aversion to the top-of-the-key region, hesitating to launch "long twos", widely acknowledged as some of the (statistically) least efficient spots to fire from. It is not difficult to fathom how this team has developed into an unequivocal offensive juggernaut, artfully whisking together heady play with above-average shooting capabilities. As a collective, San Antonio is nailing an average of eight threes per game, at a scary rate of 40.5%, in addition to owning quality percentages both at the line, and from the field. Tony Parker, perennially an undersized problem-maker in the paint for opposition teams, is leading the league in field goal percentage on drives (of players averaging at least 30mpg), netting an absurd 67.9% of his driving tries, per SportsVU player tracking data. Moreover, three of the Spurs' regular backcourt rotation (Parker, Danny Green, and Patty Mills) feature in the top ten in the NBA in average speed traveled (measured in miles per hour), ranging between 4.6 and 4.8mph, helping the team to counterbalance the low-post play of Duncan with a host of speedy, tempo-pushing guards. This is an offense unparalleled in its diversity and complexity, regularly punishing subpar opposing defenses and assaulting the basket from an assemblage of angles.

With this, and the spectacular defensive impact of the Splitter-Duncan combination (Splitter stifles the interior, limiting opposition FG% at the rim to 32.8% - good for league-leading status of those playing 20+ minutes and regularly contesting shots), San Antonio is set. In an odd way, having considered all of the above, it is unsurprising that the win-loss ratio is 13-1 to this point - indirectly feeding into the absence of popular attention. The ideal, perfectly scripted scenario would be a top two seed in the West, with a healthy core entering the postseason. Evidently, it is health - and not consistency of performance - that will persist as the overwhelming concern. To the basketball junkie, it is tough not to appreciate the unique beauty and unmatched dependability of the San Antonio Spurs.

Hornets colour scheme might not work

The Charlotte Bobcats announced on Sunday the colours they’ll wear next season as the Hornets. Purple and teal are the primary colours, while grey, black and light blue are the secondaries.

It’s unsurprising news. The franchise is reinstating the Hornets nickname in Charlotte, so it figures they’d reinstate the corresponding primary colours, too. Plus, the original Hornets colours are distinctive and popular.

The original Hornets while in Charlotte never abandoned or deemphasised purple or teal. Other teams that had used one of those colours did move away from them, such as the Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins and Anaheim Ducks. Perhaps the Charlotte Hornets would have too had they stayed in town beyond 2002. But they didn’t, so that probably adds to purple and teal being a special combo in Charlotte. It wasn’t just a fad.

Even if it seemed inevitable, bringing back purple and teal is probably a good move.

The primary uniforms of the original Hornets in the first half of the 1990s showed that purple and teal can work well when the rest of the uniform is restrained. That means no side panels and a fairly basic word mark and fonts.

The purple alternate they wore in the mid-‘90s looked sharp. A similar alternate for the new Hornets could work well.

The secondary colours of the scheme for the new Hornets are, unlike the primaries, a reason for concern.

Road uniforms of the original Hornets
The grey, black and light blue could be subtle enough to not be an issue, or some of the colours mightn’t appear on the uniforms at all.

But it’s also possible that they’ll be too prominent, clashing with the purple and teal and robbing the unis of the restraint that’d suit them.

Piping up the side of the uniform, like what the Bobcats have worn, would be one way for these secondary colours to be utilised to the detriment of the unis.

Remember the negative trajectory of the Bobcats franchise uniform-wise, too. Their initial uniforms in 2004 were pretty good considering they had few classic elements. Their gear then got blander until arriving at their current unfortunate set, replete with forced light blue, a “CATS” word mark and busy sides. The franchise isn’t in the habit of making their uniforms better.

The return of purple and teal could be a good thing, but there’s plenty of room for error.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Trail Blazers uniforms can withstand changes

The Blazers' road uniform
The Portland Trail Blazers are considering uniform changes for 2015-16, according to Blazer’s Edge. Contemplation of whether their current set requires tinkering seems appropriate, then.

To put it briefly, no changes are necessary. In fact, the Blazers have one of the best home and road sets in the league and are proof that good basic uniform elements can withstand alterations.

Their current home and road set breathes rare air: it’s interesting while staying understated and attractive.

The scoop collar looks great and, as their red alternate’s unflattering collar proves, is a significant factor is these uniforms’ success.

On that red alternate: it’s ok, but using the stripes from the homes and roads would be an upgrade on those tapered ones and removing the logo from the neckline and ‘rip city’ from the shorts would be an improvement, too. The "Rip City" alternates, meanwhile, are a hindrance to the Blazers' set.

Back to their current home and road set. The diagonal stripes on the jersey and vertical ones down the left of the shorts are a simple but appealing element, boosted by the Blazers’ colour scheme. The clean right side of the uniform is a nice, anti-clutter move.

The fonts for the word mark, player’s name and number are acceptably plain so as not to take away from the rest of the uniform elements.

All that written, a tweak or two is not to be feared. The Blazers have shown that.

The word mark and number font had drop shadow from 1991-2002. There also wasn’t a silver stripe then, just red and white. The word mark on both the homes and roads used to be red and in lowercase. And for a long stretch they went with a coloured waistband.

So the impressive uniforms we see today are the product of some slight modernisations.

If the Blazers maintain their colour scheme and designations and keep the scoop collar and the diagonal stripes, it’d be hard for any adjustments to render their set unattractive.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

In the Garden of Uncertainty

Fading away: Just like the hightop, gone is the Knicks brass' confidence in Iman Shumpert.
How much can one honestly say about the reeling, bizarre New York Knicks organisation? The traveling sideshow that is the Knicks took yet another wild spin into trademark insanity Wednesday, with the news that J.R. Smith will start in place of Pablo Prigioni in Atlanta, the swirling rumours of Mike Woodson and the front office's dissatisfaction with Iman Shumpert, and subsequent trade whispers. Firstly, Smith. The cartoon-esque saga that has been his last six months - whether it was his playoff meltdown and elbow to Jason Terryhis odd contract negotiations that changed in length and dollars (significantly), his not-so-subtly masked offseason knee surgery, his five game suspension for a violation of the league's anti-drugs policy, the unbalanced addition of his sibling (Chris Smith) to the roster, or his awful return game which saw him net 5pts on 1-9 shooting in a 31pt home loss - rolled on uninterrupted again today, as he steps in to start just his second game in 117 showings for the Knicks. Smith, ever the controversial figure, seemingly has the support of Mike Woodson, and will confirm what had apparently been brewing in the summer months by starting tonight's road game against the Hawks. Shumpert retains his position, for now, as it is the efficient Pablo Prigioni - who, by contrast, does not have the enduring adoration of Woodson - set to step aside. Of course, never mind the fact that across eight games in April of last season the Felton-Prigioni-Shumpert-Anthony four man unit managed a net rating of 18.8 and a true shooting percentage of 63.8%. Moreover, since being inserted as a regular starter on March 18, Prigioni assisted the Knicks on a 16-1 stretch over the month of March and April, including 13 straight victories. The decision to tinker the lineup prior to Wednesday's matchup represents the fourth experimented starting unit in only eight total games. In other words (even with Tyson Chandler's untimely injury), the word 'stability' has not been synonymous with the 2013-14 Knickerbockers thus far.

Timing and justification notwithstanding, J.R. Smith will seek to recapture the level of play that earned him the honour of being the NBA's premier bench performer, as the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year. In his 'contract year', Smith registered 18.1 points per contest whilst connecting twice from downtown per game, frequently amassing starter-quantity minutes (33.5mpg). His 5.5 long range hoists per game, however, were second only to league-leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, who attempted six per outing. After a smoking opening to his team's first round series, Smith crumbled in the wake of his league-imposed suspension, only managing 33.1% field goal shooting and 16.1 points per 36mins. Clearly, the majority of Smith's NBA successes have surfaced in a role where he is asked to deliver sharp, immediate offensive spark and can be withdrawn with little consequence, rather than as a proverbial second banana. The reliability of J.R. Smith as a #2 offensive option remains in serious doubt, and if that is underlining the thinking of his placement in the starting five, then the Knicks' officials may be startled by the outcomes. Apparently, the re-emergence of Smith from injury and suspension, the drafting of the walking trebuchet Tim Hardaway Jr. in the first round, and the inking of wily guard Beno Udrih to complement the roster's guard depth have deemed perimeter defender and chief young asset Iman Shumpert expendable. 

Frank Isola of the NY Daily News reports that New York have put the feelers out and tested the waters in relation to Iman Shumpert's trade currency, engaging in preliminary discussions with Denver. The news is not altogether surprising, yet it stands as indicative of the organisation's hasty, remarkably shortsighted strategising. As a result of age, contractual status/salary cap hit, injury, and team roles, Shumpert is undoubtedly the sole asset of any substantial worth in the trade market that the Knicks can lay claim to. Isola notes that the front office, absorbing the blows of Chandler's extended absence, is attempting to conjure a solution to its barren front court situation. Shumpert, attached to a rookie-scale deal, comes at the very modest price of $1.7M for this season and $2.7M next, only serving to heighten his value in trade conversations. If the reports are even vaguely true, and New York is gauging the possibilities of a Shumpert-big man exchange - Isola mentions Denver's Kenneth Faried as a candidate - one ominous truth appears to be eluding the team's officials. In (hypothetically) disposing of Iman Shumpert, the Knicks will have a grand total of zero quality, NBA-capable wing defenders under the age of 34, leaving an already-dire defensive circumstance to be hammered by a weakened, shallow rotation. The unquestionably positive defensive influence of the third-year man was made clear for all to witness and appreciate in the 2013 Playoffs, with his on/off-court differentials a reminder of this. In twelve postseason matchups, the Knicks' net rating with Shumpert on the floor was 7.6, while when he headed to the bench, it was a mere -3.3. Realisitcally, New York will have great difficulty discovering that level of defensive efficiency in any bigs available in Shumpert-centred discussions, nor will they be able to plug in above-average, short-term replacements from the free agent pool in the aftermath of any possible trade. 

Amidst all of this chaos and disorganisation, one thing becomes clearer as each game passes - the Knicks are tightly lodged with a small-ball, floor-spacing, undersized roster, sewn to a coach who is, fundamentally, an advocate of slow-it-down, front court focused, post up play. Woodson, in the face of all forms of cheery outcomes for his 'Prigionian' (new word) lineups, will do anything to escape the unwanted condition of a guard-heavy roster, almost to the point of sheer stubbornness. Having said that, with Chandler sidelined, the Knicks' coach is inherently handicapped and will be left to continue to start Andrea Bargnani - owner of an underwhelming -16.6 on/off-court differential - at centre

The storylines of Smith, Shumpert, and Woodson himself, are not likely to dissipate any time soon. Frank Isola of the Daily News seems determined with his take that Shumpert will be discarded via trade, sooner or later, and if Chandler's stint in a suit and knee brace is extended in the slightest, expect the Knicks to reshuffle their collection of bigs. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A look back at graphics on uniforms

The Pistons during the horse logo days
There’s a distinct lack of graphics on NBA uniforms these days. That’s probably a good thing. Here are some examples of teams employing graphics on their unis, something of a trend in the ‘90s that yielded some unflattering results.

Atlanta Hawks, 1995-1999

The home and road versions vary in quality. The home whites look pretty good, although the lettering isn’t all that clear. The roads suffer from the unflattering colour fade effect.

Detroit Pistons, 1995-2001

The horse fits with the lettering and on the jersey nicely, but would probably look better without the flames. The set as a whole is unattractive, particularly those numbers.

Milwaukee Bucks alternate, 1995-1999

The shadowy effect, interference with the jersey lettering and the colours are the biggest issues here. The fact the buck is different to the one in their logo at the time is a negative, too.

Philadelphia 76ers, 1991-1994

The 76ers with multi-coloured stars
This could’ve looked good had they made all the colours solid instead of faded. The result is a kind of metallic, computer-generated look.

Phoenix Suns, 1992-2000

An example of graphic success. The angle and colouring work, as do the sun streaks and spikes. The basketball is the weakest element, but it’s acceptable.

Toronto Raptors, 1995-1999

The raptor looks good and is taken from their logo, but that graphic makes an already busy uniform  with pinstripes, shorts logos and nameplate spikes  even busier.

Utah Jazz, 1996-2004

This set suffers from fade and colour problems, particularly the road unis. The set would’ve looked pretty good had they used just a mountain outline on the roads and cleaned up the lettering.

Employing graphics could be worthwhile today if teams avoided the fade effect and colouring issues that damaged some of the uniforms mentioned and used relevant and clean graphics. Atlanta, for example, could go with the hawk from their logo underneath clean lettering with the number in the top corner of the jersey.

It’s far riskier than a traditional approach, but it’s a way for teams to have an attractive and different look.

Friday, 8 November 2013

November Pain: Where to now for the languishing New York Knicks?

New York centre Tyson Chandler wincing after his collision injury.
Sitting uncomfortably at 1-3, with recent home losses to Minnesota and Charlotte, there is increasing reason for cautious concern about the trajectory of the 2013-14 season for the New York Knicks. The team's play has been well below par, exhibiting an unsettled rotation, an untidy offense, and an incredibly shabby defensive scheme. With Carmelo Anthony labouring to discover his offensive arsenal, currently shooting 37.1% from the field, and the supporting cast failing to manage anything even vaguely resembling transition defense, the Knicks have hopelessly dwindled to the despondence of a below-average start to the season. Harshly, the issues that have plagued New York's November performances were intensified on Wednesday morning, with reports that the team's defensive anchor, and best performer so far, Tyson Chandler, will be out for approximately 4-6 weeks. As mentioned in Wednesday's recap of the Knicks' home loss to Charlotte, Chandler collided with guard Kemba Walker, was helped off the floor and did not return at any stage of the game. Together with Iman Shumpert and Metta World Peace, Chandler has been one of very few Knickerbockers thus far to display honest consistency in his level of play.

Undoubtedly, this news is a crippling blow to a franchise already dealing with an untimely front office reshuffle, the ongoing suspension of guard J.R. Smiththe fading health and contributions of Amar'e Stoudemire (the $45M man), and the aforementioned losing start. Chandler essentially rescued the team in the lone victory (over Milwaukee) of the '13-14 campaign, as they almost disposed of a 25pt advantage, and has truly been the rock of an otherwise jittery, drama-ridden situation. Moreover, head coach Mike Woodson has battled to find a blend with the roster, not able to smoothly integrate new pieces Andrea Bargnani, Beno Udrih, and Tim Hardway Jr. with the desired effectiveness. It is extremely early in the NBA regular season marathon, to be sure, yet the numbers do not look favourably upon New York. Small sample size aside, the team presently sits in the bottom five in the league for points, rebounds, and assists per game, while the per minute breakdowns of defensive efficiency and player's on/off court differentials can make for scary reading. Recently, Woodson has steadfastly stuck with his 'big' lineup (featuring an Anthony-Bargnani-Chandler frontline), despite the questionable outcomes and murky ball-stopping efforts that have resulted. According to stats (measuring per 48mins), when Andrea Bargnani is on the floor, the Knicks hold a +/- of -21.8, and when he heads to the bench, the team fares at +13.3. This is a negative discrepancy not even remotely matched by any of the Italian's teammates, and - to say the least - does not auger well for Woodson's suggestion that he will adjust to Chandler's extended absence by shifting Bargnani to the five spot.

Woodson, ever the opponent of 'small ball' philosophy, figures to (primarily due to pure depth issues, more than anything else) escalate Beno Udrih's role in the rotation by slotting him in undersized, three-guard lineups. Udrih, the crafty veteran point guard who joined the Knicks in the summer, has only played sporadic, mostly garbage time minutes to this point. Nevertheless, inserting Udrih and adding more creativity to the lineups will not be able to distract from Woodson's #1 issue - a paper-thin front court depth chart. Despite revealing a 'platoon' style rotation plan for the team's backup big men prior to the season, with the intention of alternating games for Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire (both of whom are under minute limits), Tyson Chandler's injury and the genuine lack of options have dictated that Woodson throw that idea out the window, at least in the intermediate. Stoudemire, who looked sluggish at best on Tuesday, at this point of his drifting career is a walking injury risk and question mark, whilst Martin (who was averaging 24mpg toward the tail end of last season) has also been heavily hampered by an ailing body. Beyond the sidelined Chandler, the unreliable Bargnani, and the plight of the injury saddled duo, the roster outlook for New York's contracted big men is very, very grim. The Knicks wrapped up their training camp by cutting journeymen bigs Ike Diogu and Josh Powell, discarding the guaranteed contract of (recovering from injury) Jeremy Tyler and, in a shameless display of nepotism, elected to retain guard Chris Smith, who is conveniently related to offseason re-signing J.R. Smith. Only the Knicks could immerse themselves in such a ludicrous, absurd sequence of managerial decisions; it is a pattern that has been synonymous with the franchise for a decade. Indicative of the team's circus-like, scattergun, irrational, reactionary decision-making were reports that the man at the helm, owner James Dolan, boiled over to the extent that he wishes to banish the cheerleading ensemble (Knicks City Dancers) altogether.

Barring a surprise trade with the scarce available assets, or an impending stopgap signing to sure up the situation, New York will move forward with what it has - Bargnani, Martin, and Stoudemire - and almost certainly welcome former lottery pick Cole Aldrich, inactive until this point, into the rotationSince being selected 11th overall in 2009 and traded immediately to Oklahoma City, Aldrich has bounced around the Association, ultimately unable to nestle into a permanent NBA home. To say it would be remiss to expect Aldrich's inclusion to resolve any of the problems created by Chandler's injury would be a gross understatement. As currently constructed, New York are assuring themselves of persisting difficulties on defense (particularly in terms of the low-post and without Chandler's hallmark weak side help), and in the rebounding department. Harvey Araton, of the New York Times, very recently raised the theoretical solution of signing veteran centre Jason Collins to provide some aid to the Knicks' abundance of roster balancing quandaries. Collins, 35, steadily earned a reputation for his ability to offer toughness, defensive post presence, rebounding in limited minutes, and developed a (somewhat exaggerated) folklore identity as one player capable of shutting down Dwight Howard. As Araton hints at, however, there are hovering concerns that New York would not neglect the chance to sign Jason Collins for his on-court prowess (or lack thereof), but rather due to the attention expected to be received for inking the NBA's first openly-gay, active player. In 38 appearances last season for the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards, Collins managed roughly 10 minutes per game and continued to consolidate his status as an unflashy, workman-like player. The Knicks' official position on the unsigned big man remains to be seen, and though it appears an unlikely scenario, it does not change their foreboding frontline reality.

Given the likelihood of increased minutes for the Anthony-Bargnani combination, it is worth considering the on-court products of the pairing in the limited outings to date. Neither player is known for his defensive capability, and this is explicitly evident in the details (assessed on a per 100 possessions basis) of their floor-sharing, with a -24.5 differential across the first four games. The ghastly defensive numbers could be somewhat ignored or covered up to an extent if the offensively-oriented combo were able to outgun opponents at the opposite end, only that they are shooting an unsustainable 43.0% from the field when playing alongside one another, also per stats. Factoring in the inflexibility of the roster and the nature of the team in flux/panic mode, we can expect Anthony and Bargnani to feature in lineups with guard trios, and adjacent to fellow gunslinging forward, Metta World Peace. Assuredly, the Knicks' brass will anticipate a sizeable uptick in Carmelo Anthony's offensive efficiency and scoring volume, and hold out hope that a renewed role will allow the rangy Italian to cushion himself into a comfortable routine both offensively, and in the context of his place on the roster. Bargnani, officially listed at 7"0, has accumulated a mere eight total rebounds on the season, and found himself with an average of only 3 rebound opportunities (deemed to be within 3.5ft of the ball), according to publicly available SportsVU tracking data. Furthermore, he has found himself in a position to defend at the rim on 6 total occasions over four games, highlighting his penchant for floating aimlessly on the perimeter on both ends of the floor.

Of course, some of the unwanted trends through the Knicks' first handful of games will be addressed, and the team will look to iron out a lot of the kinks of their faulting offense, nonetheless, the long-term outlook is not especially flattering for the franchise. Burdened by injury, weighty salaries, and a dearth of true future assets and draft picks, New York - unless miraculously freed from the shackles of its own roster - seems destined to be lodged in the quagmire of the lower Eastern Conference playoff seeds. As Grantland's Zach Lowe reinforces, the Knicks have emphatically hitched their future and their basketball identity solely to the production of Anthony, a strategy that could well leave them in search of a restart button in seasons to come. There is still hope for the team to reach the postseason in 2013-14, notwithstanding Chandler's likely non-participation in 20 to 25 games, but just how far the face of the franchise can drag them is not yet certain.

In the immediate setting, however, Mike Woodson (with a warming seat of his own) will reshuffle the deck, experiment, and look to fill the chasmal void left behind by Tyson Chandler with bit-part contributions by role players and undersized, stretch four-men. Next on the schedule is a road game in Charlotte, and Woodson will have to comprise a working defensive strategy swiftly and with conviction, as the Knicks will host Tim Duncan's Spurs and Dwight Howard's Rockets in the next seven days.

If nothing else, the course and development of the remainder of New York's season is certain to provide an array of endless intrigue, and melodrama.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Knicks Night #3: Defensive Stability a Tall Order for New York

Mike Woodson not impressed by the play of his Knicks.
After a miserable display at home to Minnesota on Sunday, Mike Woodson and the Knicks looked to steady the ship with a victory over the lowly Bobcats at MSG on Tuesday night. Charlotte arrived in Manhattan with a 1-2 record, exerting a refined, stingy defense, yet being placed 30th in the free throw department (55-90 over the first three games, 61%). With Al Jefferson remaining on the sidelines as day-to-day with an ankle concern, new head coach and former Knicks assistant Steve Clifford stuck with a traditional lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts, and Bismack Biyombo. Despite undesirable results on Sunday, New York endured with their 'big' lineup, keeping Andrea Bargnani at the four spot to start the evening.

Wary of his late-game play and fleeting offensive successes, Carmelo Anthony attacked early in the first period, searching for some consistency in his trademark midrange jumper. Anthony's efforts aside (he begun with 1-6 shooting), though, the first quarter of play almost served as a mirror image of Sunday, with the Knicks' primary struggles emerging from their anaemic, sieve-like defense. New York's guards were constantly burned on pick-and-roll opportunities (particularly the point guards), as Kemba Walker shook and spun his way to a 4 of 5 start from the field. Much like the opening three contests, the Knicks were excessively reliant on the robust defence and leadership of Tyson Chandler, whose omnipresent alertness and weak-side help got the team out of jail on countless occasions. Chandler's presence was not limited to the defensive side of the ball, either, as his taps, tip-backs and offensive rebounding hustle masked the fact that New York could not splash outside shots. Tellingly, Chandler and Iman Shumpert (who is seemingly yet to earn the full trust and confidence of Woodson) were rocks of reliability in an otherwise shaky situation. Shumpert netted 9 points in the game's early going, though the apathy of the Knicks nonetheless resulted in the bleeding of 31 first-quarter points. Furthermore, alarm bells were sounded with 5mins remaining when Walker drove hard down the middle of the lane and jarred knees with Chandler, who could not bear weight on his right leg and failed to return after being forced to the bench.

With guard Raymond Felton also being attended to on the sidelines (following a shot to the face), Mike Woodson implemented an unconventional unit consisting of two point guards - having Pablo Prigioni play alongside the sparingly utilised Beno Udrih in the backcourt. Ball movement was an emphasis with this setup, and Metta World Peace (7-13 for 18pts in 33 minutes), who has been shooting well of late, reaped the immediate rewards by sinking a line drive three ball to reduce the deficit. Knowing that Anthony and Bargnani had battled to establish offensive consistency and with already-thin front court depth, Woodson inserted Amar'e Stoudemire for his first game action since Thursday of last week. Even with all that has been said on the subject of Stoudemire, and his unambiguous decline, this showing was particularly difficult to absorb. Stoudemire, remaining on strict minute limits, exhibited waning elevation, having a pair of his shots dismissed by Bobcats journeyman Jeff Adrien on back to back possessions. His first stint on the floor resulted in zero of two field goal shooting with one turnover, earning him a hasty hook from the unimpressed Woodson.

Concerning trends came out of the first half of play - the Knicks continued to peddle a porous defense, being torched in transition, and appearing to have no scheme or communication. The "slicing and dicing" (TM Clyde Frazier) of Charlotte's undersized backcourt, Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions, frazzled New York's defense, operating the pick-and-roll at will and throwing the home team's backcourt into utter disarray. Thankfully, for the sake of the Knickerbockers, World Peace provided much-needed stability and shot-making off the pine, connecting on 4 of his 5 launches in the first half, including two from downtown. Walker, meanwhile, with a melange of crossovers and pull-up jumpers, headed into the halftime break with 17pts on 7-9 shooting from the floor.

The Bobcats pushed the lead to as many as 13 points in the third stanza, punishing the scattered shooting and ball control of their opponents. Amar'e Stoudemire's (2pts, 3 rebounds, 5 turnovers) night to forget did not improve, being heavily limited by his diminishing athleticism and wild turnovers, whilst exacerbating New York's problems with a technical foul. Cody Zeller got his paws on a put-back after Anthony Tolliver's couldn't connect on a buzzer-beating long range fling, but the officials deemed that time had expired prior to the rookie removing his hand from the basketball.

It was clear in the fourth that if the Knicks were to assemble any form of a comeback effort, it would be on the shoulders of Anthony, for whom offensive rhythm and post-up polish had been a problem. Limiting the chances of this, though, was the pestering and suffocating defense of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which was an invaluable commodity for Charlotte in the closing stages of the game. An inadvertent tip by Anthony late in the fourth quarter stretched Charlotte's buffer to 6 points, forcing Mike Woodson to consider set play options to dial in from 23 feet and slice the difference in half. New York came out of a timeout with Kenyon Martin setting a hard pick at the top and freeing Carmelo for a straight-on treble, and the feint, flickering hopes of the Knicks' caught a hint of luck when Shumpert's liveliness earned the team a steal and transition opportunity. Shumpert, who finished with 14 points and was previously 4-4 at the line, missed the first and made the second, however, comfortably allowing the Bobcats to conservatively play the free-throw game and nestle into a two-possession advantage with time shrinking.

The loss leaves the Knicks clamouring for a seemingly elusive solution to their worrying trends, while Charlotte depart town sitting nicely at .500. Carmelo Anthony gathered five rebounds and scored 32 points, although it took him 28 field goal attempts to do so.

FINAL - New York 97-102 Charlotte

New York 1-3, Charlotte 2-2

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

NBA teams who should follow the retro trend

Phoenix's retro look
The Phoenix Suns’ new gear, featured in last week’s post on fresh uniforms for 2013-14, is inspired by what they wore in the ‘90s.
It’s nothing new for NBA teams to take pointers for their new unis from ones they’ve worn previously. Other recent examples include the Warriors, Wizards, Cavaliers, Jazz and 76ers. Teams such as the Nuggets, Heat and Bucks have done it with alternate uniforms. History will likely play a role in the new look of the Charlotte franchise, set to become the Hornets next season.

While most teams could learn something from uniforms past, here are four teams that could benefit significantly from reinstating uni elements they once wore.

Minnesota Timberwolves
Reverting to their old blue and green colour scheme would be a major improvement on their dingy current one. More than just a colour scheme change is in order though; a total switch from modern-and-edgy to classic would work. That means they should embrace their old scoop collar, waistband, and shorts and armhole trim.

Check out that ‘Minnesota’ script from their old logo. That or something similar could look superb on a jersey.

Los Angeles Clippers

Like the Timberwolves, the Clippers should embrace a more classic look. Their current cursive script and colour scheme call for it. They should draw inspiration from these ‘80s uniforms.

Notice how there is no outline cluttering the numbers or jersey script on those unis. Reinstating that exact number font mightn’t work, but something like that would be superior to their current choice. Bring back the scoop collar, striped waistband, shorts piping and clean jersey sides, too.

Houston Rockets

The red and yellow days of the Rockets
They should ditch the silver and reinstate the red and yellow colour scheme used prior to the mid-‘90s.

The angled script and clean uniform sides – those curved stripes on the sides of their current set are particularly unsightly – would be welcome returnees.

Indiana Pacers

Using their late ‘80s uniforms as inspiration could lead to a more attractive jersey script for the Pacers.

It should be modernized first though, and they could do without the horizontal colour panel.

Unlike other suggestions here, it wouldn’t require a complete reversion to a classic look or a change in colour scheme.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Knicks Night #2: Minnesota Can Score the Basketball

Kevin Love's wild, ridiculous fourth quarter bank shot. 
Having blitzed the Oklahoma City Thunder by 19pts (they led by 34 at one stage) on Friday, Minnesota arrived at the Mecca of Basketball with a 2-0 start in hand, and a scorching offense that had proved incredibly difficult to contain. Well, nothing much changed. Mike Woodson responded to the sheer size and girth of the Wolves' Love-Pekovic frontline tandem by sticking with Andrea Bargnani in the opening lineup, leaving the historically successful three-guard setup on the shelf, for now. Meanwhile, Amar'e Stoudemire did not feature and was rested by the Knicks, following an 11 minute spurt in Chicago on Thursday

For New York, the first period was riddled with turnovers and offensive ineptitude, as the Knicks handled the ball carelessly and opened up a flurry of transition opportunities for the Timberwolves. Minnesota's expensive summer signings, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, lapped up the chance to get out on the break, netting layups and dialling in from the outside. Martin, in particular, showcased his ability to persist as a prolific scorer, connecting on long-range flings (5-5 from 3pt range for the game) and steadily earning - and converting - free throws. The Knicks were the owners of an unorganised offense and a sloppy, sagging, scattered defensive effort, which freed Kevin Love in the paint for easy baskets. The frustrations of an unproductive offense seemed to shine through on the opposite end for the orange-clad 'Bockers, who fruitlessly leapt for up-fakes and pivots, and registered a handful of quick, costly fouls. Love was the primary source for this, as he scored four points the (very) unconventional way, being fouled on a perimeter shot, making three straight free throws, and bearing the responsibility of swishing a technical freebie. In a stark contrast to the dire play of New York, the Twolves wilfully swung the ball around the arc, which resulted in a glaringly open J.J. Barea corner three near the end of the term. Symbolic of his team's troubles and their outrageous six opening quarter turnovers, Mike Woodson burned a full timeout only 34 seconds before the first break, with the Knicks closing the phase with a remarkable 40-19 deficit.

The stagnant, lethargic play was a constant for New York in the first few minutes of the second period, and the problems were not solved with the untimely jawing of Metta World Peace, who picked up a technical for his efforts. Carmelo Anthony awoke the silent crowd with a baseline drive by Dante Cunningham, finishing with a strong two-handed slam. This trimmed the considerable margin to 14pts, and offense emerged from unlikely places from this point forward. Minnesota refused to allow their offense to fade, however, with Pekovic (11pts and 12 rebounds) and Love both regularly establishing post position, and the former able to deftly drop a hook in the basket over the length of Tyson Chandler. After managing 9pts in 25 minutes against the Bulls on Thursday, Andrea Bargnani (14pts on 6-10 field goal conversion) splashed two deep balls, as the beneficiary of some of Raymond Felton's 12 assists. It was Bargnani and Metta World Peace (17pts on 7-13 shooting in 20 minutes of play) who, surprisingly, stabilised the Knicks' offensive output in the second. Kevin Love leaked out on the break and broke through an attempted-swipe from Raymond Felton, finishing a finger roll and a traditional three point play. World Peace, however, erased this and ever so slightly brightened an otherwise gloomy first 24 minutes for New York, by nailing a corner three with 2 seconds remaining on the clock. The Love-led Wolves nonetheless fashioned a 64-49 halftime advantage. 

The bountiful transition game of Minnesota was orchestrated by Kevin Martin (30pts on 9-12 shooting) and Corey Brewer at the beginning of the second half, helping to pad the already-healthy gap for the road team. Mike Woodson turned to rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. for some semblance of offensive creativity and contribution, and he delivered. Hardaway Jr. scored inside, was found for an alley-oop by Felton, and soared to the basket by Love for a fast break jam. His showy confidence and exuberance led him astray, though, as he finished 3-12 from the floor and failed to hit on any of his seven outside launches in 25 minutes of court time. Although the Knicks were battling to chip away at the ugly margin, they were largely the authors of their own undoing late in the third, racking up regular fouls and entering the penalty early, permitting Love and Martin to set up camp at the free throw line. Combined, the duo ended the night 19-24 at the charity stripe. 

An 8-0 stretch over the end of the third and start of the fourth sturdied the Knickerbockers, even as Carmelo Anthony struggled to settle into an offensive rhythm. Anthony did, though, rebound extremely well throughout the night, attacking the glass and positioning himself to amass a total of 17 boards. Persistence on the rebounding front balanced Anthony's play, and left him well-placed to discover the offense that had evaded him in the first 36. Despite this, two plays from Kevin Love in the fourth quarter concreted the result and broke the will of both the rallying Knicks, and the home crowd. Love drained a cold-blooded three point shot to push the difference back out to eight points, and then on a later possession, stumbled, gathered and banked in (see above) an off-balance, circus shot. The stretch four-man led the charge for the Twolves, tallying 34 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists, adding to his stellar play from the team's two prior victories. Ultimately, the Knicks' laziness and inactivity in the first twelve minutes dug a hole too big to escape from for the rest of the contest. Minnesota will seek to lengthen their three-game winning streak tomorrow night in Cleveland, while the Knicks host the Charlotte Bobcats at MSG on Tuesday night.

Worth noting - the Knicks are now 0-2 while wearing their outlandish orange outfits this season.

FINAL - New York 100-109 Minnesota

New York 1-2, Minnesota 3-0

Friday, 1 November 2013

Food for Thought on the NBA's 'Tanking' Debate

Embarking on a season where a handful of teams look hopelessly destined (and content to be so) for the lottery, with zero postseason aspirations, there has been some noteworthy, timely discussion on the subject of 'tanking', being satisfied with losing games, and the now-commonplace method of building through the draft. ESPN's Chad Ford (via ESPN Insider) recently assessed the extent to which he believes teams qualify for the tanking label, throwing the Phoenix Suns and the Philadelphia 76ers atop his "rankings". Ford asserted that the NBA is littered with franchises who "want to lose a lot", based on the knowledge that "NBA GMs are calling the next draft the best in a decade". The chief lottery prizes are anticipated to be Canadian Andrew Wiggins and fellow freshman Kentucky's Julius Randle. League executives may value the talent of this upcoming draft at historic, near unprecedented levels, but with the team who holds the honour of the NBA's worst regular season record only assured of a 25% chance of the #1 overall pick, and so much more (player development, team culture, health, roster balance, coaching etc.) at stake in the game of drafting franchise-altering talent, is the tanking strategy truly worthwhile?

Forward-thinking, forthright Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban expressed his opinion on the matter of team-building, and just how the Mavs have approached the issue under his guidance. Cuban addressed the idea of allowing your team to "lose a lot of games so you have a chance to pick the next Kevin Durant, John Wall or Kyrie Irving or Blake Griffin et al", while reminding his audience that the formula cannot be that simple - there remains the inherent need for the players to develop, and for them to be appropriately surrounded by a supporting cast capable of contending for a championship. Interestingly, the Mavericks' owner also raised the prospect of many teams following a model, or a set strategy, and that, on the flip side, "it creates opportunities for those who have followed a different path". Cuban's views are, as usual, candid and worth considering, and raise further questions about the finality, certainty, or lack thereof, within the NBA's contemporary managerial manifesto.

A recent example of executive decision-making that remains relevant to this discussion is the Orlando Magic's decision to trade Dwight Howard prior to his contract expiring, and the talent level that the franchise received in return. Orlando flatly rejected the chance at receiving either of former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bynum, raising suspicions that Magic GM Rob Hennigan intentionally received an underwhelming (short-term) offer with the hope of improving the team's draft position. In the wake of the transaction, the Magic were widely projected to be the 'losers' of the trade, headed for a certain regression in the win column. A collection of All-Stars switched jerseys and Orlando held the desired commodity and centrepiece of the discussions, yet the organisation's returns consisted primarily of inexperienced young players, rookie, and future assets. All three major pieces of the deal (not arriving in Orlando) - Dwight HowardAndrew Bynum, and Andre Iguodala - have since departed their trade destinations, significantly altering any forecasts associated to the original agreement. Orlando finished 2012-13 with a league-worst record of 20-62, subsequently earning the 2nd overall selection in the draft and taking Indiana guard Victor Oladipo with the pick.

Dave Berri of analysed the historical outcomes of repeated losing seasons and high draft placements, setting the bar for basketball ineptitude at 25 wins or fewer. Berri reviewed the win totals of those teams in the years after their subpar seasons, revealing that "nearly 90 percent of teams that win 25 games or fewer are not contenders five years later". The piece discusses the trend of teams attempting to avoid the "mediocrity treadmill", while debunking myths that the NBA's draft lottery is starting place on the championship map, and concluding that "losing is not a winning strategy in the NBA". Berri's discussion also raised the prospect of teams lodged in the window of 34 to 49 wins in any given season (labelled "mediocre" for the purposes of his piece) are better placed than those who are wholeheartedly embracing the race to the bottom.

Another, different perspective on the subject emerged courtesy of Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who also refuted the idea of tanking, and insisted that his franchise would not be taking that route. Jordan clarified his thoughts on the tanking model, declaring, "If that was my intention I never would have paid Al Jefferson $13 million a year." The Bobcats, lost in the abyss of NBA irrelevance and holders of a 62-168 win-loss ratio in Jordan's three seasons as owner, are desperate to shed the label of being perennially incompetent, and would seemingly welcome a season in the range of 34 to 49 wins, to use Berri's scale.

With so much speculation and anticipation hovering over the 2014 NBA Draft and the potential prospects, this season is bound to prove an exhibition in team management, and team building strategy.