Thursday, August 23, 2007

Offensive "tells"

I played a game of one-on-one basketball yesterday against my best friend. He was much better at basketball than me when we were younger. By the time we reached high school we were pretty even, but I might have had a slight advantage. These days, I have a bit of an unfair advantage--I'm five inches taller and outweigh him by 60 pounds. That doesn't mean I always win, but it certainly gives me an edge.

Despite the fact that I've been playing my friend for 25 years now, it really wasn't until yesterday that I noticed that he takes a full step forward on his jump shot (right leg starts behind his left leg, and then he steps forward so that his right foot is in front before he jumps). It's a fairly deliberate step, and one he doesn't make when continuing his dribble (or when he's shooting from inside the 3-point line). Having noticed this "tell," I was able to block a few of his 3-point attempts off the dribble (this "tell" didn't help if he hadn't used his dribble yet because he could turn the step-forward into a jab-step and go). I've always been pretty good about figuring out "tells" for the people I'm guarding, but I'd never been able to pick one up for my friend before.

Finding this "tell" made me think: what "tells" do NBA players have? I don't just mean tendencies ("he likes to go right"); I mean actual "tells" (Player X always does a left-to-right crossover if he cups the ball in his left hand near his hip on the dribble). Even professional poker players often have "tells" (even if they're very subtle), so I can't imagine professional basketball players are completely immune. In one of the articles about Team USA (I can't remember which one, or I'd find it and link to it), Andre Igoudala made a comment about knowing what Kobe likes to do, but he wouldn't share it.

I think this is the sort of information that broadcasters could share during a broadcast to really give fans an inside look at the game--talk about the "tell," and then show both the play in slow-motion and in real-time. This would allow fans both to see the "tell," and also allow them to see how difficult it is for a defender to actually act on that knowledge during a game because of the speed at which the play occurs. At the very least, it would give fans a bit of insight beyond the usual blather that we get from announcers.

What other sorts of information do you wish announcers would give during games?

Dalembert puts up good stats

Unsurprisingly, Team USA put a shellacking on Venezuela last night. The final score was 112-69, and by all accounts Team USA was never really challenged after a poor shooting first quarter. Yeah, Team USA! This game doesn't really tell us much about how good Team USA actually is, but it's still always nice to get a victory.

In more important news (for Sixers fans, at any rate), it also appears that Samuel Dalembert had a good game for Team Canada. At the very least, he had a very nice boxscore line: 10 points (on 4-5 shooting), 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 24 minutes. I didn't see the game, but based solely on the boxscore I'm curious to know why Dalembert only played 24 minutes (out of a possible 40). Especially considering that no one else on Team Canada grabbed more than 3 rebounds, I would have thought that Dalembert would have played more. Still, Team Canada played Brazil (considered the 2nd best team in the tournament) tough (see the last item for a very brief description of the game) before finally losing 75-67. If this game is indicative of things to come, then perhaps Canada will make some noise in this tournament despite the absence of Steve Nash.

[Update: It appears that the reason Dalembert didn't play more was because of early foul trouble.]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How does enlarging the floor help?

In Gregg Easterbrook's most recent column, he vents about the NBA. While I disagree with a good number of the things he says (decline in play in the NBA, it being a mistake to shoot 3-pointers), the issue that I really want to comment on is his proposal that the NBA should enlarge the court.

Easterbrook isn't the first to make this argument, but he sums up the normal reasoning behind the proposal fairly succinctly:
Want to reform basketball more? Enlarge the court. Today's typical NBA and big-college performer is taller and broader in the shoulders than a generation ago. With each passing year, there is simply less room to maneuver on the court. Less room to maneuver means fewer artistic old-Celtics-style backdoor plays, more crazy off-balanced 3 attempts and out-of-control elbows-flying drives down the lane. Players have gotten bigger; the court needs to get bigger.
I've never understood this argument, because I don't understand how enlarging the court really solves the problem. The issues with spacing occur in the final third of the court when the defense can compact itself. No matter how large the court is, the offense still needs to get to the basket and the defense's first priority is going to be stopping penetration to the basket. Simply enlarging the court isn't going to magically create more room.

To the extent that enlarging the court refers to widening the court on the baseline, then I can see some merit in the proposal. The corner 3-point line is short, so widening the baseline (and moving the three point line back to its maximum distance at that point) will create some additional room for cutting to the extent that teams extend their defense to the 3-point line. Still, I'm not sure that an additional four feet along the baseline is really going to make that much of a difference. For the most part, plays do not originate in the corner--players normally shoot from there as the result of a drive and dish when their defender has sagged into the lane to help out on defense. The extended 3-point line won't change this dynamic. It will just mean that the attempted 3-pointer will be slightly harder to make (perhaps accomplishing the opposite of the intended result, since the defender will be more likely to sag off of his man if the resulting 3-pointer is less likely to be made).

If you really want to open up the lane for more cutting, then I think you need to get more revolutionary. Changing 3-pointers into 4-pointers, or adding a more distant 4-point line, are far more likely to bring defenders away from the basket and open up cutting lanes. I'm certainly not ready for that revolutionary a change. Are you?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Varejao: Still not signed. Why not?

In looking at defensive efficiency last week, I highlighted the important role that mobile big men can play--allowing teams to pressure opposing teams (thus forcing turnovers) and still recover to be in position to contest shots and rebound missed shots. Considering the Sixers' defensive strength (i.e. DTOR) and weaknesses (i.e. TS% and DRR), I thought that Anderson Varejao would be the type of player who would be a perfect addition. His contributions to the Cleveland Cavaliers' superb defense demonstrates how he could fill the Sixers' need for a mobile big man who recovers well.

Varejao was also considered a hot commodity entering the off-season, so I assumed that (1) the Sixers had no chance of getting him, and (2) he would be snapped up right away. Based on these assumptions, I am little shocked that he currently remains unsigned. Accompanying this article over at the Wages of Wins talking about the remaining unsigned free agents, the author includes a table showing the WP48 and NBA Efficiency rankings of the remaining free agents. According to this chart, Varejao ranks third in WP48 and fourth in NBA efficiency among all free agents, and he ranks number one in both categories among restricted free agents.

So why hasn't Varejao been bombarded with offers? Steve Aschburner at takes a look at restricted free agency and concludes that:

As long as Team A knows that Team B is likely to match any offer it puts on the table for a valuable young guy, Team A would be wasting its time wooing the player and structuring a contract. It would be doing an opposing club's work for it, since the original team merely would have to duplicate the paperwork's clauses and provisions.

Even worse, it would be tying up its own free-agent flexibility; the collective bargaining agreement gives the original team up to seven days to match an offer sheet, during which the player must be carried on the bidding team's books. That waiting period used to be 15 days, but there really is no good reason that it should be more than, say, one. Except, that is, to chill the market.

In Varejao's case, the Cavaliers can match most of the possible offer sheets because of the salary cap constrained position most teams find themselves in. Knowing their strong negotiating position, the Cavaliers made Varejao a $1.3 million qualifying offer--a low-ball offer for a player whose value is somewhere between $6 million (the Cavs offer on a long-term deal) and $10 million (his agent's belief) per year.

Most people think that Varejao will end up either signing the Cavaliers qualifying offer and pursuing unrestricted free agency next season or signing the Cavaliers long-term contract offer. I think the Sixers should offer him the $5.7 mid-level exception for a one year contract (the most they can offer for next year). In the Sixers' best case scenario, Varejao is annoyed enough at the Cavaliers that he accepts the Sixers offer, the Cavaliers refuse to match because of luxury cap concerns, the Sixers benefit from Varejao's efforts this coming season, and they can use this season to convince Varejao to sign a long-term contract next summer when the Sixers will be under the salary cap. In the worse case scenario, the Cavaliers match the qualifying offer, forcing a conference rival to spend more money this year to retain a player than they desired.

This plan would cost the Sixers $11.4 million because they'll be paying the luxury tax (The salary cap for this season is $55.63 million. The luxury tax is $67.865 million.), but I think it would be a worthwhile expenditure. Considering how little free agent action is going on these days, I don't see how the normal reasons for not dealing with restricted free agents (worry about wasting time, tying up free-agent flexibility) really apply. And if somehow Varejao ends up on the Sixers, then I think the Sixers are a playoff team this coming season.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Defense and Team USA

Why didn't Team USA win the world championships last year? As this article points out, while poor outside shooting got the most votes as the team’s biggest problem on an poll, the real culprit was Team USA's lack of defense.

While Team USA's defensive efficiency appeared to be a superb 98.4 (the best NBA team was over 100 last season), this defensive efficiency rating was inflated because of the lower caliber of competition faced in the preliminary rounds. Against Greece in the semifinals, Team USA lost with a terrible defensive efficiency rating of 136.2.

Based on my posts on defensive efficiency from last week (here, here, and here), this poor defensive showing is not much of a surprise. Under Coach Krzyzewski, Team USA plays a high pressure defense. Against the majority of international teams, this system works well enough--Team USA forces a high number of turnovers and this leads to easy baskets on the other end. Against the better teams, those stocked with NBA-caliber players, this pressure defense simply does not force enough turnovers to be effective. Remember: the Golden State Warriors led the NBA in defensive turnover rate last season, but they still only forced a turnover on 18% of opponent's possession.

And when Team USA did not force a turnover, they simply did not have the personnel on the floor to force bad shots and grab defensive rebounds. The main line-up for Team USA at the World Championships was Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard. Other than Howard, no one in that line-up is known for their defense, and even Howard is still learning how to rotate correctly on defense. Playing Anthony at power forward was a particular problem--his mobility helps force turnovers, but he is simply not a good enough interior defender and rebounder to play extended minutes at power forward against teams that take care of the least not if Team USA wants to improve its defense.

The crazy thing is that as bad as Team USA's defense was, they very easily could have won the World Championships because their offense was so good. For the tournament, Team USA had an offensive efficiency rating of 129.2. Even in their loss against Greece, they had an offensive efficiency rating of 128.1. If Team USA's defense had been only slightly less terrible against Greece (i.e. defensive efficiency of 128.0 or lower), they could very easily have advanced to the finals and won the championship.

Team USA will almost certainly win the FIBA Tournament of the Americas that starts this Wednesday based solely on its offensive firepower (especially since Brazil and Argentina are likely to be without many of their stars). So I won't be watching to see the final score, but I will be watching closely to see if Team USA (and its coaches) have learned anything about playing good defense.