Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Painted Area's 2012-13 NBA Awards

With the 2012-13 NBA regular season in the books, let’s get right to it with our mythical awards ballot, which was submitted as part of the ESPN Forecast and the upcoming TrueHoop Network Awards:

1. LeBron James, Miami
2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
3. Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers
4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
5. Carmelo Anthony, New York

First Team
G Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers
G Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
F LeBron James, Miami
F Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
C Tim Duncan, San Antonio

Second Team
G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
G James Harden, Houston
F Carmelo Anthony, New York
F Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers
C Marc Gasol, Memphis

Third Team
G Dwyane Wade, Miami
G Tony Parker, San Antonio
F Chris Bosh, Miami
F Al Horford, Atlanta
C Brook Lopez, Brooklyn

It was on January 17, watching LeBron James fully in command of the Staples Center stage vs. the Lakers – running the entire game en route to 39 points on 17-25 FG, 7 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals - that I realized we are at the peak. It’s that magical time in a superstar’s career when the arcs of physical and mental excellence intersect.

Soon after, LeBron delivered perhaps the best month of basketball ever played, a February in which he averaged 30-8-8 on ridiculous 64-43-81 shooting as the Heat went 12-1, beginning their march to 27 straight.

All told, at age 28, James produced one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. He has a near-record 31.7 PER, with the ability to guard every position on the floor, for a 65-win team. He deserves to be the NBA’s first unanimous MVP.

Further, LeBron now has the chance to be the first player to produce a 30+ PER in both the regular season and the playoffs, with a championship in TWO seasons. It’s been done only three times total, by Michael Jordan in 1990-91, Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000, and James himself in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant’s exceptional season was obviously MVP-caliber as well. KD’s extraordinary 50-40-90 shooting at high volumes is the best shooting season in basketball history. In fact, Durant and James BOTH combined efficiency and usage better than any players in league history. Both players are better than 64% in true shooting percentage with very high usage rates. As Basketball Reference shows, that’s never been done before. And now it’s been done twice in the same season.

Also, Durant’s dramatic improvement in passing – from 2.7 assists per game in 2010-11 to 3.5 in ’11-12 to 4.6 this year – is probably the most impressive development in his continued ascendance, especially considering it’s exactly what OKC needed after losing James Harden’s playmaking.

Chris Paul is still the best point guard in basketball, and the leader of one of the league’s top six teams. CP3 is a clear no. 3 in PER (at 26.3) and on my mythical ballot. Beyond his playmaking, Paul was once again one of the NBA’s best clutch scorers, and leads the league in steals (without gambling excessively) for the fifth time in six years.

Beyond Paul, the choices get quite difficult, especially because so many guards – including Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry – had strong seasons which are difficult to separate. Westbrook had a better combination of defense and durability (he’s still never missed a game) than the other contenders to narrowly earn my nod. In the big picture Russ is still underrated, if anything, as a driving force in Oklahoma City’s excellence.

Efficiency at the power forward position drove Carmelo Anthony’s career-best season, in which he’s led the Knicks to a surprising 53-28 record while closing in on his first scoring crown. Anthony is shooting a career-best .379 behind the arc despite hoisting 6.2 threes per game, by far and away the most of his career. He also has a career-low turnover rate even with a league- and career-high in usage (Melo had the lowest TO rate for any of the league’s high-usage players).

Since 6-10 are really not that far from 4 and 5 in our book, we’re going to go ahead and rank our next five here: 6. Kobe Bryant, 7. James Harden, 8. Dwyane Wade, 9. Tony Parker, 10. (tie) Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol.

On our All-NBA teams, the guards were pretty much impossible to separate, and we agonized over Duncan vs. Gasol for quite a while as well. Both excelled as anchors for top defensive teams, Duncan was more productive (more productive, ever, than any 36-plus player other than Karl Malone), while Gasol played more minutes. Essentially a coin flip for us.

The real stunner at the center position is that there’s no Dwight Howard to be seen; he could be left off the All-NBA Teams for the first time since 2006.

1. Mike Woodson, New York
2. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio
3. Mark Jackson, Golden State

As usual, there are about a dozen worthy, plausible candidates for Coach of the Year. That said, I’m surprised that Mike Woodson doesn’t seem to be earning much consideration for the award. For a guy considered to have a lack of imagination during his time in Atlanta, he’s been rather creative in maximizing his aged roster in New York.

Whether it’s been coaxing Carmelo into his best season by playing him at power forward, playing two point-guard lineups, or unleashing a three-point-heavy spread offense, Woody’s consistently pushed the right buttons. And, not that it’s relevant to the Coach of the Year discussion, but the Knicks have played a style that’s fun to watch for the first time since the Pitino era, a quarter-century ago.

More than anything, the 53-28 Knicks are simply much better than I thought they’d be. The 45.5 over/under number for seasons set by Vegas before the season seemed about right. In fact, we went back and took a look at the preseason over/under lines for season wins, to gauge which teams exceeded expectations the most.

Here were the top five teams:
    HOU 13.5
    GS 9.5
    NYK 7.5
    MEM 6
    LAC 5.5
Of course, Houston was a bit of an aberrant case, as they acquired James Harden right before the season, but their line went up just slightly, from 29 to 31.5.

From there, the Warriors and Knicks were big overachievers, which was our sense of things. The overachievement factored into our votes for both Woodson and Mark Jackson – we never thought the Warriors would experience so much improvement without a strong contribution from Andrew Bogut.

The Gregg Popovich vote speaks for itself at this point – he again won in the high-50s despite significant injuries, and most importantly, turned the Spurs back into a top-five defensive team for the first time in several years.

George Karl was the toughest omission, given how he’s constructed a style that’s a perfect fit for his roster - as he always seems to – and led a team without an All-Star to the fourth-best record in the league, at 56-26.

We can’t even quibble with likely winner Erik Spoelstra, given how well he’s methodically molded his team into an offensive and defensive juggernaut over the past three years.

1. Marc Gasol, Memphis
2. Roy Hibbert, Indiana
3. Tim Duncan, San Antonio

Probably the hardest DPoY pick in several seasons. There was no obvious choice, especially because the two dominant defenses in the NBA – Indiana and Memphis – were true team units. We ended up going with the anchors of the three best defensive teams by opponent points per possessions, and it should be noted that all three were supported by elite perimeter defenders, such as Tony Allen, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, among others.

Recent research unveiled at the Sloan Conference emphasized the importance of deterring shot attempts in the paint, which reinforced the defensive preeminence of big men to us. When in doubt, we go big for DPoY unless the perimeter defense is simply too extraordinary to overlook.

1. Damian Lillard, Portland
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans
3. Andre Drummond, Detroit

First Team
Damian Lillard, Portland
Anthony Davis, New Orleans
Andre Drummond, Detroit
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte
Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto

Second Team
Bradley Beal, Washington
Dion Waiters, Cleveland
Harrison Barnes, Golden State
Maurice Harkless, Orlando
Pablo Prigioni, New York

A little bit of a strange year for rookies, in that I had no problem giving Damian Lillard my ROY vote, yet I tend to think that about five of his fellow rookies will end having better NBA careers. But Lillard wins on the strength of what Hubie Brown calls “attendance”, and age, really. Don’t get me wrong, Lillard was impressive in shouldering a big load for the Blazers, as a lead guard who averaged nearly 39 minutes while playing in all 82 games.

But, at age 22 with three-plus years of college play under his belt, Lillard is a more polished product than the promising youngsters in the class, such as potential stars Anthony Davis (just turned 20) and Andre Drummond (19), as well as Bradley Beal (19), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (19) and Jonas Valanciunas (20). Indeed, if there were a 2012 re-draft, Davis and Drummond would surely go 1-2, with Beal right behind them.

I had a very difficult time choosing two among MKG, Valanciunas and Beal for my last two First Team slots. Defense was the deciding factor for Kidd-Gilchrist, and superior overall production flipped the coin in favor of Valanciunas over Beal.

It’s probably unfair to Beal - who I consider the third-best prospect in this class – who improved markedly after John Wall showed up to liberate him, but the early-season struggles still count against him, and he also missed 26 games.

In any event, Valanciunas certainly deserves more consideration for All-Rookie First Team than he’s been getting (which is very little). Jonas had the 4th-best PER (15.5), by a good margin, out of rookies who played more than 20 minutes per game.

1. J.R. Smith, New York
2. Jamal Crawford, L.A. Clippers
3. Amir Johnson, Toronto

Yet another decision that was difficult to unspool, with so many worthy candidates. If anything, the Clippers or Nuggets second units probably deserved to share this award this year – their outstanding work by committee outshined any individual performance off the bench in 2012-13.

But J.R. Smith earns the award in part via the sheer volume of his work. He managed to lead the Knicks in minutes, by being one of the few players avoid injury, logging 33.5 minutes per game in 80 games played, lighting it up for 18.1 ppg in that time, second only on the Knicks to Carmelo.

Friday, April 12, 2013

In Favor of NBA Goaltending Rules > FIBA's

In FIBA basketball, goaltending rules allow for the ball to be live after it hits the rim. In other words, what's known as basket interference in most of American basketball is a legal play in the international game.

Many, including outgoing commissioner David Stern, have called for the NBA to adopt the FIBA rules regarding basket interference.

I favor the American goaltending rules, and the wild finish to Tuesday's Rockets-Suns game helps illustrate why. For a quick recap, the game was tied 98-98 in the final seconds, when James Harden launched a three which bounced high in the air before hitting the rim again. Jermaine O'Neal knocked the ball away while it was still "within the cylinder" above the rim for the rare buzzer-beating goaltend on a three, which won the game for the Rockets. Here's a look at the play:

It's not a perfect illustration for a couple reasons: 1) The shot had little chance of going in on the second bounce and 2) O'Neal's hand appeared to partially come up under the rim, which is a goaltend under any rules, including FIBA's.

So, imagine a slightly different play, in which:
• Harden's shot had a softer second bounce, with a 50-50 chance of going in, and
• O'Neal simply knocked it away off the rim cleanly.

By FIBA goaltending rules for basket interference, that slightly different play would have been legal. Would that have been a fun play to watch? A satisfying way for regulation to have ended? To me, it would not.

A ball bouncing around and rolling on the rim, especially in an important moment -- Did the shooter put the ball up softly enough? Will he get the roll? -- is an exciting play!

There seems to be a sense that the FIBA rules would unleash an extra level of above-the-rim play in the NBA. But in reality, most instances of legal basket interference in FIBA basketball look an awful lot like O'Neal's play on Tuesday: a defensive big man reaches up and easily knocks the ball away off the rim, at about 10'1" in the air.

There's a theory that the superior athleticism of NBA players would lead to more spectacular putbacks on offensive rebounds with FIBA rules, but based on what we've seen from NBA players in Olympic and World Championship play, there are a few extra "guide-in" followups of balls on the rim.

Ultimately, the rule is not a major deal, as it affects a small percentage of plays. But I think the "shooter's roll" is more fun to watch than a "No soup for you!" denial by a big man reaching up to the rim.