Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell's NBA "Mismatch Problem" Problem

Also see: Analysis - Kobe & Pierce: A Tale of 2 Pick-and-Rolls

I've always generally enjoyed the work of Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink as well as a staff writer for the New Yorker. In a piece that I wrote for Ballhype in March, I included a theoretical "Malcolm Gladwell's Sports Book" as one of the five sports books that I'd like to see written. As I wrote then:
    We're thinking that something NFL-oriented might be up his alley - maybe a thorough look at theories on how a team or an organization should be built, how game plans are constructed and executed, or how draft prospects are thoroughly scouted, vetted and ultimately selected.
Unfortunately, after watching a speech in which Gladwell addressed NBA, NFL and NHL scouting combines, I may have to take it back.

Some background first: Gladwell's next book (due in Nov.) is called Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don't- a glimpse of which was seen in a recent New Yorker piece.

As described by publisher Little Brown (via
    Outliers is a book about success. It starts with a very simple question: what is the difference between those who do something special with their lives and everyone else?... We're going to examine the bizarre histories of professional hockey and soccer players.... And in examining the lives of the remarkable among us -- the brilliant, the exceptional and the unusual -- I want to convince you that the way we think about success is all wrong.
One subject in Outliers is what Gladwell calls the "mismatch problem," which refers to his idea that the qualifications which people look for/companies require in candidates when hiring often do not necessarily have any correlation to successful job performance - and often leads to poor hiring decisions.

In a recent speech at "Stories from the Near Future," the 2008 New Yorker Conference (which can be seen here), Gladwell tried to explain his idea of the "mismatch problem" by relating it to the role that scouting combines play in terms of how NHL, NBA and NFL teams decide which players to draft.

The problem is that the logic Gladwell uses to relate combines to the "mismatch problem" is sloppy, simplistic and contradictory to the point of being nonsensical.

Gladwell says this about scouting combines in general:
    As it turns out, if you look closely at the scouting combine as an institution, and as a kind of metaphor for hiring, it turns out it doesn't make sense at all. Scouting combines are, for the lack of a better word, a disaster.
Since this is a basketball blog (and since we're just a day away from the NBA Draft), we will focus on Gladwell's thoughts about the NBA scouting combine.

Just to clarify, when we talk about the "scouting combine," we mean the testing that is done at the pre-draft camp in five areas of athleticism: no-step vertical jump, max vertical jump, bench press (number of times 185 lbs. is lifted), lane agility, and 3/4-court sprint. Measurements of height, weight, wingspan and standing reach are also done at this time.

Prior to 2008, the players were given an overall ranking based on their combined results on the five tests.

The core of Gladwell's argument was that the top five rookies in the league this season had wildly variable rankings at the 2007 combine. Here are the players he cited as the five best rookies, with their combine rankings (out of 81 total players):
    Greg Oden 62
    Kevin Durant 78
    Al Horford 21
    Thaddeus Young 7
    Joakim Noah 43
Meanwhile, he pointed out that the top three ranked players at the combine included one scrub and two guys who aren't in the league.
    D.J. Strawberry 1
    Russell Carter 2
    Dominic James 3
That was that, pretty much the entirety of Gladwell's argument, which he concluded by saying that the combine is "an absolutely useless predictor of how someone performs at the professional level."

Here are my issues:
1. He's sloppy with the data.
Chad Ford published the results of the 2007 combine on (Insider) last year.

In a scan of the numbers, it sure seems like Oden's score of 0 times bench-pressing 185 pounds is curious, and indeed, Ford's first piece of analysis is this:
    The big winner here seems to be Greg Oden, who tested off the charts in agility and speed for a big man. He didn't take the bench press test because of concerns about his wrist. But if he had he may have been in the Top 10 for best athletes in the draft. That's huge for a center.
So for Gladwell to assert Oden as ranking 62nd as his first piece of evidence is wildly misleading, and a lazy lack of simple analysis (the 2007 combine data, on Draft Express, is the second result returned by a Google search of "NBA combine" and Oden is the second name on the list, with "NA" listed under his Bench Press results).

2. The arguments - based on the data as it's presented - are contradictory.
Gladwell's statement that the NBA combine is "an absolutely useless predictor of how someone performs at the professional level" may actually be accurate.

One of the foremost NBA draft experts, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, made a persuasive argument last year that the combine results are essentially pointless.

But think back to what Gladwell is trying to prove with the "mismatch problem": that people make poor hiring decisions because the criteria and data they use to evaluate candidates does not correlate with job performance.

That's the thing: the data that Gladwell presented actually indicates that scouting combines *do not* create a mismatch problem. If the top three picks in the draft were rated 62, 78 and 21, and the 1-2-3 athletes at the combine produced just one late second-round pick combined, then all Gladwell proved is that teams are *not* overvaluing the results of the scouting combine when making their hiring decision.

Note: Givony accurately notes several occasions when the scouting-combine results have been overvalued. I'm not saying it never happens - I'm mainly trying to note that Gladwell's argument is contradictory as presented.

Also, as a smaller point, let's go back to his list of the top five rookies and add another piece of data: where they were drafted.
    Greg Oden 62 - Drafted 1
    Kevin Durant 78 - Drafted 2
    Al Horford 21 - Drafted 3
    Thaddeus Young 7 - Drafted 12
    Joakim Noah 43 - Drafted 9
Doesn't this data, as it's presented, indicate that Young was the one who was drafted furthest below his potential, considering he ended up being judged as the 4th-best rookie but was picked 12th? And wouldn't that seem to suggest that his high ranking at the combine might have actually been undervalued?

I'm not saying I agree with that point, I'm just saying - based on how the data was presented, with no other context - isn't that a valid piece of analysis that could be drawn?

It's just a mess to me at this point - Gladwell's trying to argue that the scouting combine is useless, but the data he presents seems to indicate the combines aren't actually used, and all the while there's no mention that there are other factors which go into NBA "hiring" decisions.

3. I believe there is value in the combine.
As much as I respect Jonathan Givony and the entire Draft Express site, I have to respectfully disagree with his argument that the combine is a complete waste of time.

I do believe that there is value in the combine data if the numbers are analyzed closely and with some sense of relative value - is this player more or less athletic than I might have realized?

In Chad Ford's analysis of the 2007 combine results, these were the winners (again, relatively - not the guys who should be drafted first, but guys whose draft "stock" could be most affected):
    Greg Oden
    Jason Smith
    Nick Young
    Rodney Stuckey
    Jared Jordan
Al Horford was judged to have an advantage over Brandan Wright, and Corey Brewer did not seem to fare well against other small forwards.

Ford's other underachievers included:
    Kevin Durant
    Spencer Hawes
    Josh McRoberts
Durant's note carried this disclaimer:
"Will it affect his draft stock? According to one NBA executive, 'No one will care, he's a basketball player. But if you're comparing him to Oden, then yes, Oden is the big winner.'"

The jury is still out on the Oden comparisons, of course, but people certainly kept Durant's poor combine results in perspective.

And overall, I think that the 2007 data is decent in retrospect, as it identified one of the biggest overachievers (Stuckey) and biggest underachievers (Brewer) relative to draft position in this rookie class. I'd also note that probably the biggest overachiever, second-rounder Carl Landry, ranked 5th at the combine.

I'm not saying this is foolproof or spectacular data, but I also don't think it's "an absolutely useless predictor of how someone performs at the professional level."

In 2006, these were among Ford's winners:
    Ronnie Brewer
    Jordan Farmar
    Randy Foye
    Brandon Roy
    Rudy Gay
    Tyrus Thomas
    Rodney Carney
    J.J. Redick
All but Thomas and Redick appear to be very good-to-excellent value picks.

These were the main losers:
    Marcus Williams
    Mardy Collins
    Patrick O'Bryant
    LaMarcus Aldridge
    Adam Morrison
Big miss on Aldridge, but Morrison and O'Bryant look like two of the worst picks of the draft.

The 2005 combine analysis had some big hits - Deron Williams (whose athleticism had been questioned at Illinois) and David Lee boosted their stock by performing well - and some big misses - Joey Graham ranked no. 1 overall (sorry Raps fans) and Monta Ellis somehow scored near the bottom at the combine.

I really don't want to overstate my position on this point. I actually agree with Givony on the idea that scouting combine data is often overvalued, I just don't agree with the Gladwell sense that it's "absolutely useless."

Again, I think there is some value in the combine, but I fully realize it's a minor piece of the puzzle, and that the conclusions drawn from the data are often wrong. But you know what, subjective evaluations are often wrong, too. And as utterly cool as I think John Hollinger's work is in translating college stats into professional performance, you'll notice that his statistical projections have plenty of misses, too. The draft is just an inexact science no matter how you try to slice it.

I thought that TrueHoop's outstanding interview with Nets Coordinator of Statistical Analysis Ken Catanella from Tuesday really put things into perspective well:
    I know a lot of teams wrestle with how to integrate new-breed analytical work into their decision making process. Can you give me glimpse of how that works for the Nets?
    Taking a step back -- my background is in valuing companies for investment banks or mutual fund companies. It's making a projection based on past performance, trying to answer the question "what here really indicates likely future success?"

    Figuring that out really starts in conversations with the coaching staff, and trying to get a sense of what kinds of stats could be important. I did a lot of that when I was on Coach K's staff, and I'm lucky enough to work with Lawrence Frank.

    Then, based on those insights, we do a bit of regression, which helps to project how different players' careers might play out in the NBA.

    What goes into the mix is not any one magic number, though.

    There are typical efficiency stats. There are anthropometric ratings like wing span, body fat, vertical leap, standing reach and the like. There are strength of schedule ratings. There is looking at who they were on the court against, and who they were on the court with. There are +/- numbers. The numbers really run the whole gamut. You try to find anything that you can measure that might be helpful, and put it all in the mix.

    Do I sense that you are not even looking at the same sets of numbers for every prospect?
    It depends on the position. And it can get very detailed.

    We chart, essentially, every game that every draft prospect has played on video, and we track just about every category you can imagine.

    Closing out the shooter, winning loose balls ... all that stuff?

    All that and much, much more.

    Also, scouts are very valuable tools, too. I never want to underestimate them. We can work together by getting data into their assessments early, seeing a players' characteristics. Trying to get a full picture, using playing stats, evaluation stats, and the statistical part of the psychological evaluation ....
As Catanella paints the entire picture above, the point is that the combine data is just one set of data among a substantial number of metrics. To make the combine data an end-all/be-all would be absurd, but I do believe that evaluating combine numbers as pieces of data as necessary in a larger, well-defined context does have value in player evaluations.

4. It's all just too much of a sweeping, simplistic generalization.
That last point above ties into one of my main issues: Gladwell is just way too breezy and simplistic with the information. His argument is basically this: scouting combines are useless predictors of professional performance, NBA teams use scouting combines as part of their evaluations, therefore NBA teams make poor hiring decisions.

What Gladwell's missing is that NBA personnel decisions are actually made based on a tapestry of information, not just a single set of metrics, and it's really an increasingly fascinating story to dig into, as the window that Catanella opens to the process seems to indicate. It's a shame that Gladwell - especially given his influence as a leading cultural commentator - offers such a shallow view.

One of my favorite descriptions of the process was by Mike Born, Director of NBA Scouting for the Blazers, who described the team's approach of "Eyes, Ears and Numbers" in an interview with Blazers Edge:
    Blazersedge: What kind of data do you analyze? How much of scouting is numbers, how much is observation, how much is "feel"?

    Kevin Pritchard brought in a saying, I assume it was from San Antonio: "Eyes, ears, and numbers".

    "Eyes" means what you see. Does a player have a feel for the game? What's his basketball IQ? Does he play winning basketball? What are his skills: shooter, ball handler, athleticism, size, length? You gather visual impressions of what you like and don't.

    "Ears" has to do with culture, which is obviously a huge factor for our team. How does a guy fit? We do research on players so we know coming in whether they'll mesh easily or not. This entails talking in person with coaches, calling assistants and strength coaches, building the book on your man. Are they hard workers? Are they dependable? What are they like in the locker room? Do their teammates like them? Do they show leadership skills? And that's just the on-court stuff. We also want to know if they will be good in the community...what they do in their off time and that kind of thing.

    Numbers are simply stats. For college we look at things like scoring, field goals, rebounds per minute, assist-to-turnover ratio. We also do quality of opponent analysis. We want to know if a guy has been playing against the best competition and how he fared. We try to look at back-to-back game and one-day-rest patterns to gauge how a guy will hold up physically. For the NBA we have a simulation guy who uses his own stats analysis. You weigh stats and strengths, digging deeper than the normal boxscore. For instance, which is better: a 90% free throw shooter who goes to the line 3 times a game or a 70% guy who goes 8 times? The boxscore highlights the 90% guy, but is he really more valuable? Our simulation guy doesn't watch many games. He just goes by the numbers. It gives us a different perspective. It lets you watch players differently.
The reality is that the process of making NBA hiring decisions is much more layered and multi-faceted and complex than Gladwell gives it credit in his simplistic speech. I wish that he would have, for example, dug into the San Antonio Spurs organization and the totality of their "Eyes, Ears and Numbers" approach around the world, instead. I can only hope he explored the topic with something closer to the depth it deserves in his book.

Also see: Analysis - Kobe & Pierce: A Tale of 2 Pick-and-Rolls

Monday, June 23, 2008

Finals P.S.: Thibodeau Notes; L.A. Can Still Win 70

Emptying the notebook with one last post of Finals thoughts, before we put 2007-08 to rest for good and spin it forward....

I still can't entirely get my head around how everything fell into place so improbably and perfectly for the Boston Celtics in 2007-08.

Beyond the fact that the franchise was devastated by finishing with just the no. 5 pick in the 2007 lottery, and that KG rejected the original deal in late June (it was finally consummated on July 31), don't forget that defensive guru Tom Thibodeau was hired by the Wizards on July 3 and coached with the team for a few days before having a change of heart.

As Pradamaster of Bullets Forever broke it down last summer:
    From what it seems, it was an awkward situation all around. Ernie [Grunfeld] went and got a coach over [Eddie Jordan]'s authority, but didn't give Thibodeau the lead assistant role, which pissed off Thibodeau. Then, Ernie signed all of EJ's assistants to one year deals while offering Thibodeau a two-year contract, which probably stung EJ a bit. Still, the whole thing seems a bit murky.
Pradamaster went on to hand out blame thusly:
    If we really have to assign blame, it should include everyone. Blame Thibodeau for quitting after giving a verbal agreement. Blame Ernie for creating an awkward situation by signing Thibodeau to a 2 year contract, then giving all of EJ's assistants one-year deals. Blame EJ for seemingly not being all that receptive to Thibodeau and not giving him the lead assistant role.
If Grunfeld and Jordan and Thibodeau simply could have all got along, then there's no Thibodeau, and probably no title, in Boston.

And the last line of the excerpt above makes me think that, among all of the praiseworthy things that Doc Rivers did in this magical season, perhaps the most important thing was his willingness to accept a strong lead assistant such as Thibodeau.

As a coach on the hot seat coming off of a 24-58 season, Rivers might have felt threatened by having a potential head-coach-in-waiting lurking over his shoulder. He might have chafed at all of the stories which have credited Thibodeau for such a large share of the team's turnaround.

So give Doc credit for sublimating his ego, and for having the common sense to realize that more W's would reflect well on him - as it overwhelmingly has - regardless of who helped deliver them.

Because, as much as I thought Doc had a great season, esp. in the Finals, I don't believe that this team wins a championship without the addition of Tom Thibodeau, and I think Thibodeau is now one of the more underrated free agents on the market this summer.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Bulls "are considering making a run" at Thibodeau, which would be weird considering that he is not only more qualified for the head-coaching job than Vinny Del Negro, but conceivably could be worth more than the $2 million a year that Del Negro is reportedly making.

My blogging partner-in-crime, Jay Aych, floated the intriguing idea that the Knicks should try to throw a ton of money at Thibodeau, to pair his defensive prowess with D'Antoni's expertise. Indeed, one would think that the Knicks could conceivably improve by 20-25 games on coaching alone by replacing the underachievement of the Isiah era with a D'Antoni/Thibodeau combo. Even if it were a legitimate possibility, though, one wonders if D'Antoni's ego could be as flexible as Doc's, considering that Steve Kerr tried unsuccessfully to get D'Antoni to hire Thibodeau in Phoenix last season.

Marc Stein reported that Thibodeau "probably is sticking around" in Boston after not scoring a head-coaching gig. The Celtics certainly need him if they hope to repeat.

Speaking of which, there's of course a summer of transactions ahead, but at first blush, these Celtics don't strike me as the type of team that will be repeat champions. They had such a unique alchemy this season, as they were carried through the playoffs by a combination of an intense hunger to win and a home-court advantage that was the fruits of their regular-season-long intensity. I think that both of those elements will be hard to replicate as precisely next season, and with Messrs. Pierce, Garnett and Allen at ages 31, 32, and 33, respectively, next season, I just don't see it all coming together again. This team's margin of error was ultimately much smaller than the colossal Game 6 blowout that's fresh in our minds.

Now, that said, I was assuming that the 2007-08 version of the Celtics would ultimately be underappreciated in a historical sense b/c they were a defensive-oriented team, which made them a little uglier to watch at times, so I was somewhat pleasantly shocked to see Bob Ryan name them the second-best Celtics team ever, above Bird's '84 team, and above all of the Russell teams.

Amen. Give this team its due. They are possibly the greatest defensive basketball team I've ever seen, and statistically, they rank as the greatest defensive team out of all NBA champions since the NBA started tracking TO's in 1973-74.

On the other side of the coin are the Lakers. I am somewhat amused though hardly surprised at the harshness of the criticism being levelled at the Lakers - it's the nature of sports media to overreact to the most recent events.

I still believe that, if Andrew Bynum comes back healthy, these Lakers have a chance to win 70 games in 2008-09. As ugly as Game 6 was, the fundamentals remain the same to me:

  • not only did this year's team win 57, but they went 22-4 in games that Pau Gasol finished,
  • their core players Bryant (30), Odom (29) and Gasol (28) will all still be in their primes,
  • they will be adding pretty much the equivalent of a no. 1 overall draft pick in Bynum, who will be 21, and whose per-40 minute averages this season were 18 pts, 14 reb and 3 blk,
  • Derek Fisher (who will be 34) is the only player over 30 in the rotation; bench players such as his backup Jordan Farmar (22) and Sasha Vujacic (25) are still improving,
  • they not only have a ton of depth to withstand injuries, but are also essentially adding another nice versatile bench piece in Trevor Ariza (23),
  • I think they'll come back with more hunger after the ultimate disappointment of this season.

Yes, I was moderately disturbed by the lack of fire shown by Gasol and Odom in Game 6, but I don't think that will affect their performance in the regular season. And of course there are personnel questions still to be answered such as whether they will re-sign Sasha Vujacic and whether they'll look to move Odom and his expiring deal (and what they might get in return).

I just believe that people have forgotten how good this Lakers team was because of what's fresh in their minds: not just Game 6, but actually the last month of basketball - 11 straight games against the two best defenses in basketball, which made people forget just how good the L.A. offense was this season when they had things clicking.

In the regular season, very few teams can approach the level of defense that Boston and S.A. unleashed on the Lakers, and I think that most teams will get overwhelmed by the Laker offense over the course of the 82 next year.

Also, as much as people might want to call the Finals a "six-game sweep," it really was closer than the Game 6 blowout indicated. There's no question that Boston was the better team, but still, the series easily could have gone back to Boston with L.A. up 3-2. This team is not far away.

This season was gravy for L.A., it was still a success - esp. after the deep turmoil of last summer and fall - despite the disappointing ending. I still think the Lakers are on the cusp of dominating the league for the next few seasons, and yes, I still think they can win 70 games next season.

I can't remember the last time I was so happy for a guy to win a championship as I was for KG this season. I don't have anything original here, as I can't top Slate's must-read breakdown of both his entertainingly unhinged post-championship interview, and his famously emotional interview with John Thompson in 2005.

Just wanted to make sure I was on the record in showing KG some post-championship love, so here are the YouTube clips of those two interviews, as well as Jimmy Cagney's "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" valedictory from the 1949 gangster movie White Heat, the improbable inspiration for some of KG's post-game rantings/ravings, which I found in this message board discussion on Celtics Blog.

KG with Thompson (emotion kicks in at 4:20)

KG with Tafoya (all emotion)

Cagney in White Heat

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Make Room for No. 34

Also see: Analysis - Kobe & Pierce: A Tale of 2 Pick-and-Rolls

Save a place in the rafters of the new Garden. With his NBA Finals MVP performance (not to mention the 41 points in Game 7 vs. Cleveland), Paul Pierce has clearly ensured that his no. 34 will fill out the 30s, joining 31 (Maxwell), 32 (McHale), 33 (Bird), 35 (Lewis), and many others as a retired jersey number of the Boston Celtics.

It's worth noting the numbers of Pierce's outstanding Finals performance on both ends of the court one more time. Here's how he compared to Kobe Bryant for the series:

TRUTH: 21.8/4.5/6.3, .432 FG
KOBE: 25.7/4.7/5.0, .405 FG

These numbers probably look more impressive in relation to the players' respective regular-season stats, as Pierce's numbers were up and Kobe's down:

TRUTH: 19.6/5.1/4.5, .464 FG
KOBE: 28.3/6.3/5.4, .459 FG

And of course, The Truth also pitched in on the effort against another All-NBA First Teamer, LeBron James. Here's how the Pierce/LeBron numbers looked for the Celtics-Cavs series:

TRUTH: 19.4/5.0/3.6 .404 FG
LEBRON: 26.7/6.4/7.6 .355 FG

Not nearly as close, but the main story of that series was the defensive job that Pierce and the Celtics team defense did on LeBron. Here are his regular season numbers for comparison, with the difference in FG% remaining the most shocking:

LEBRON: 30.0/7.9/7.2 .484 FG

So, there's absolutely no debate now that Pierce's number will be retired by the Celtics. The only question left is this: did Pierce elevate himself to Hall of Fame status?

At age 30, the resume looks like this:
- 1 NBA Championship
- 1 Finals MVP
- 3 All-NBA Third Teams
- 6-time All-Star
- 23.1 ppg average, 16,945 career points
- 21.4 career PER

In terms of raw stats, his career numbers are higher than I expected, as he is already no. 72 in career NBA points, with plenty of career left. He's also no. 20 in career PPG and no. 36 career PER, though those average numbers are sure to fall as he ages.

Also, Pierce is already no. 6 on the career points list for the Boston Celtics, and he could easily get up to no. 3 next season (he's 1300 points away). He certainly has a great shot to surpass Larry Bird's 21,791 to eventually end up as the no. 2 Celtic scorer of all time, behind only John Havlicek's 26,395.

Basketball Reference has a Hall of Fame Probability page, which measures the likelihood of a player making the Hall of Fame based on the criteria that voters seem to favor, moreso than necessarily measuring the worthiness of a player's qualifications. As Justin Kubatko wrote, "Keep in mind that my goal was not to determine who should be in the Hall of Fame, but rather who is likely to be in the Hall of Fame."

Pierce rates 9th among active players and 52nd all-time with a probability of .9512. All of the players above him on the career list who are eligible for enshrinement are in the Hall of Fame.

The variables Kubatko tracks include average points, rebounds and assists per game, All-Star games played, and MVPs and championships won (though not Finals MVPs won), so the probability can go down as a player's averages start to decline late in his career.

I haven't made up my mind on my own opinion yet. It's hard for me to think that a guy who I've rarely had on the top 10 of my personal MVP ballot could be a Hall of Famer, but Pierce's heroics over the last two months have clearly elevated himself in my mind. At the least, I'd certainly have to say that I think Paul Pierce has moved from "unlikely" to "likely" status as a potential Hall of Famer following his performance on both ends of the court in the 2008 Playoffs.

Also see: Analysis - Kobe & Pierce: A Tale of 2 Pick-and-Rolls

Monday, June 16, 2008

Kobe & Pierce: A Tale of 2 Pick-and-Rolls

Let's go to one old reliable, the NBA Hot Spots (courtesy of, and one new toy, RedLasso, to provide a quick & dirty examination of how Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce are being defended in the pick-and-roll in the Finals.

I'm going to skip the pretty pictures in the Hot Spots, and just focus on the data. I calculated the numbers for both Pierce and Kobe for each of the four concentric areas which are measured: At the Hoop, Mid-Range, Long 2's, and 3-Pointers, for both the regular season and the Finals. I included their percentage of shots in each of those four areas, as that's the number I want to analyze.

Here are Kobe's shooting numbers, according to Hot Spots:

Hoop: 320-513 .624 (30.5% of total shots)
Mid: 120-270 .444 (16.0%)
Lng2: 185-492 .376 (29.2%)
3pt: 150-409 .367 (24.3%)
TOT FG%: .459
FT: 623-742 (9.0 FTA/game)

Hoop: 11-24 .458 (22.0% of total shots)
Mid: 17-34 .500 (31.2%)
Lng2: 12-32 .375 (29.4%)
3pt: 6-19 .316 (17.4%)
TOT FG%: .422
FT: 34-44 (8.8 FTA/game)

The goals of the Celtics' defense are a) to keep Kobe away from the basket, b) to run him off of the three-point line, and c) to keep him off the foul line. Even with a small sample size, these numbers suggest the Celtics have done a tremendous job on the first two counts, as Kobe's percentage of FGAs taken either At the Hoop or from 3-Pt Land has plummeted from 54.8% in the regular season to just 39.4% in the Finals. Also, his FG% from those two areas is much lower, as well.

Quite simply, Boston is forcing Kobe to take 2-pt jumpers under duress. He did erupt for four 3s in the first quarter of Game 5, but a couple of those were tough shots that Boston can live with. The C's haven't had as much success as the Spurs did in keeping Bryant off the line (2.2 FTA in that series), though Kobe did shoot much better from the floor (.533) vs. S.A.

Take a look at these quick clips from Game 4 for examples of how the Celtics are defending Kobe in the pick-and-roll.

This is really pretty simple stuff. It all starts with the maniacal effort that Boston has displayed on defense basically since the start of preseason. In the clip below, there's a pick-and-roll with Bryant (Pierce) and Gasol (Garnett). First, watch KG's help:

KG "shows" hard to provide help and cut off Bryant's driving lane on one side of the screen. Then, Kobe and Pau reset and run it again, and KG shows on the *other* side of the screen to block Kobe's path again, forcing a pass. But frankly, that's ho-hum stuff from the Ticket, the kind of help-defense excellence he's displayed routinely for over a decade. No news here.

Now watch again, and focus on Pierce. He is the guy who strikes me on this clip - dude fights to go over the screen, not once, but twice on this play. Going over the screen against Kobe Bryant - which generally leaves a defender dangerously vulnerable to Mamba's lethal ability to drive to the basket - is not advised for the faint of heart.

Pierce knows he has KG behind him to help cut off Kobe's driving lanes, but still he's not satisfied - he's determined to deny Kobe a good look at a 3 from behind the screen as well. Kobe will get tough 2's or nothing at all. That's outstanding 2-man defense on the pick-and-roll.

This next clip is really just meant to show that it's more of the same with all of Boston's bigs. This PnR is Bryant and Gasol against Pierce and P.J. Brown. Like KG, P.J. shows hard to block Kobe (and probably gets away with a foul) while Pierce fights over the screen. The other Celtics rotate well, and Farmar ends up shooting an airball. We could probably find Perk showing like a beast, too, but we think you get the point.

At the end of Game 5, Mark Jackson remarked that L.A. needed to find some offense schemes that worked, b/c the 1-4 Kobe isolations were not getting it done. They've had to move away from the screen/roll game b/c the help from Boston's bigs has been too good. Meanwhile, Tex Winter apparently thinks that L.A. stayed with the triangle too long in Game 4.

I still think the Lakers need to try to get back to the execution of the core triangle offense which they displayed for most of the season after the Gasol trade.

But it's easier said than done, as Boston seems to have a defensive answer for everything. As Roland Lazenby noted in the piece we linked to above, coming into the series, "the Celtics coaching staff had done a great job scouting the triangle and with the Lakers in the basic format, Boston was able to send three or even four defenders at Bryant in the half court."

Then, as Forum Blue & Gold noted, "In the first half of game four the Lakers came up with a way to make the pick-and-roll very successful against the Celtics, getting the ball to a big at the free throw line on a sort of pick and pop play and having the other big cutting to the basket. The Celtics adjusted to that, changing how they defended the pick-and-roll."

Prepare, execute, adjust, execute some more. You're telling me Tom Thibodeau didn't merit so much as an interview for any of the job openings out there? Geez.

OK, for quite a contrast, let's look at the Lakers' pick-and-roll defense vs. The Truth. Here are Pierce's Hot Spot shooting numbers:

Hoop: 214-373 .574 (34.0% of total shots)
Mid: 70-166 .422 (15.4%)
Lng2: 82-194 .423 (17.7%)
3Pt: 143-363 .394 (33.1%)
TOT FG%: .464
FT: 409-485 (6.1 FTA/game)

Hoop: 17-29 .586 (38.6% of total shots)
Mid: 4-10 .400 (13.3%)
Lng2: 4-15 .267 (20.0%)
3Pt: 9-21 .429 (28.0%)
TOT FG%: .453
FT: 37-45 (9.0 FTA/game)

Again, it's a small sample size, but still, these numbers seem to reflect what our eyes are telling us: L.A. is unable to keep Pierce away from the basket.

To quote Forum Blue & Gold again: "The Celtics stick to their game plan and what they do, the Lakers go in and out of their plan. The Celtics have some lapses, but for the most part are more true to who they are. They play hard on defense. They find a weakness they think they can exploit on offense (say Pierce covered by Radman) and they go right at it. Every time down."

Amen to that last part. Keep it in mind as we look at Pierce against the Lakers D in Game 5.

Pierce torched the combo of Radmanovic and Walton in many ways, including on the side pick-and-roll on the left wing. Pierce often chose to simply ignore the screen, and take advantage of a mismatched defender who was also leaning toward the screen. Watch these two, which resulted in a hoop and a foul:

Then, in the fourth quarter, when Kobe took over the defensive duties vs. Pierce, the Lakers went to an odd scheme which the Celtics exploited repeatedly. The set up was a PnR with Pierce and KG vs. Bryant and Gasol, way up in the right corner near halfcourt, with the rest of the court spaced with shooters R. Allen, Posey and House.

Kobe was angled toward the sideline, such that it looked like he was setting up to trap Pierce, rather than playing conventional defense where he was between Pierce and the basket. But all it seemed to do was leave Kobe vulnerable to be easily picked off by KG, leaving Pierce basically unguardable in a one-on-one matchup with Gasol.

Here Pierce got to the basket for a foul:

On the next possession, they ran it again. This time, Kobe recovered to help Gasol double Pierce at the basket, but that just left KG wide open for an elbow jumper:

How about one more, right down Broadway to draw another foul with 3:00 left:

Yes, Kobe did come up with his game-clinching steal in a similar set, but that swipe from behind (a borderline foul) was hardly fundamental D that can be counted on consistently.

All in all, it was just way too easy for Pierce to get to the basket in Game 5. The Lakers need some answers on both ends of the floor, both in terms of scheme and execution, or else the Larry O'B's gonna be hoisted on Tuesday night in Boston.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

'08 Finals Preview--BOS vs. LAL


Celtics have to feel confident about how competitive the Spurs--a team that is very similar to the Celts--were vs. L.A. The Spurs easily could have extended that series if they would have hit some of their 2nd half perimeter looks in Game 1 & Game 4, and it was not their defense that was the problem. Like the Spurs, the Celts are built around a vaunted defense, but both have offenses that can experience droughts from their auxiliary players.

Lakers offense was made to look fairly pedestrian by the Spurs. So it's very conceivable that the Celts could do the same. Yes, Kobe was lights-out, but Bowen forced him to make tough shot after tough shot. Not to mention kept him off the line. And if you take Kobe's unconscious shooting out of the mix, the rest of the Lakers only shot 42.6%.

Posey & Pierce are the best options on Kobe, though can't see either guy making Kobe work for his looks like Bowen. Bowen would often look to funnel Kobe to Duncan, and you can't fault the effort--Bowen & Duncan were in position to challenge many of Kobe's attempts--Kobe was just too good with his jumper.

Boston's weakside defense is good as any, they will need to be alert to the cutters playing off the fulcrum of the Triangle. Kendrick Perkins has really impressed in these playoffs as a terrific help defender, and handles himself well defending on the perimeter. The Celtics will make it their duty to collapse around the painted area, and have to imagine they try to make Kobe a jump shooter like the Spurs did.

Not surprisingly, the Spurs took away the Lakers' effectiveness from long-range--Lakers shot only 32.5% in the West Finals. Not sure Lakers will fare much better vs. the Celts, who were the best at guarding the 3pt. line in the reg. season, and have been nearly as good in the playoffs.

Two main difference between the Spurs & Celts defenses: Celts have no one like Bowen & the Celts have been prone to fouling more than the Spurs--Boston has allowed their opponents to average 5 more ft attempts per game in the playoffs. Though, the Celts are probably a better overall rebounding squad than the Spurs, at least better on the off. glass.

Lakers' defensive rebounding was solid vs. the Spurs, but dicey in the first two rounds, and their def. rebounding was mediocre in the reg. season. Though the Celts aren't Cleveland or Utah, they have been hitting the off. boards at a pretty good clip thru-out the playoffs--30% off. reb pct. KG & Perkins can cause problems for the Lakers, while Rondo is dangerous as well on the off. glass.

The Celts' offense starts with looking to iso, ball screen, & post Pierce. Next it's setting KG up down low--KG loves the left block where he will want to turn right shoulder for a jumper. KG has been a deadly hitting his 20-footers in the playoffs, this needs to continue. After that, Allen will come wrapping around screens, we'll see if the Lakers double/shadow Ray off of screens. Also, the more time Rondo spends time handling the ball the better--when he's off-the-ball he really hurts the offense.

Odom & Gasol have to do a better job of finishing their shots in the series. Both guys tended to pull-the-string on their short looks, almost like they were overly intimidated by Duncan. This needs to change--both guys need to take the ball strong at Perkins & KG.

Maybe the Celts can just let Kobe go, and try to contain the rest of the Lakers. Defense was not the issue for the Spurs, it was the trying to find enough sustained firepower on offense. This is a similar situation for the Celts. The Celts can guard as a team just as well as the Spurs. One difference for the Celts is they don't have anyone as good as Bowen to check Kobe straight up.

Just don't have faith in the offensive options around Garnett & Pierce providing consistent contributions. What let down the Spurs was their spotty offense that would go thru awful droughts. Still not sold on the Celts' offense. Not sold on Allen as a consistent threat.

Think these games will be close because of Boston's defense, particularly their ability to protect the 3pt. line which should keep the Lakers point totals down. Think the Celts have a great shot in this series, the extra home game helps, but guys like Allen, Posey, Perkins, & Rondo will have to step up offensively with some consistency for the Celts to prevail.

Can The Celtics Steal Another One From L.A.?

With the first Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals of the internet era upon us, I've really enjoyed some of the looks back at the matchups between the teams from the '60s, such as the yeoman work done by Basketbawful, both in his Worst of the Celtics-Lakers series and his compilation on Deadspin, and SI stories like Dick Friedman on Game 7 in 1966 and classics from the SI Vault from 1963 and 1969. Also, outstanding work as usual from Forum Blue and Gold in offering a thorough look at the history of the rivalry.

I certainly agree with the consensus that the Lakers have been the best team in the league in this year's playoffs, and should be considered the favorite in this series. But what's interesting in looking back at the history of Celtics-Lakers Finals is that, despite Boston's decisive 8-2 edge, the C's have often won as underdogs, occasionally by stealing games they had no business winning. Let's take a look at a few of those....

The 1963 Finals are hard to get a read on. As the excellent 1963 SI story on the emerging rivalry spotlighted, the Celtics were considered to be an old team, which is somewhat odd because, as Basketbawful pointed out, many of the Celtics stars were in their prime, although Bob Cousy was in his final season at 34.

The Lakers made for a good story as the hot new team in L.A., just starting to draw Hollywood stars in their third year in town, and with a fresh young marquee idol in Jerry West at 24. Many thought they were set to end the Celtics' streak of four straight championships, apparently including, strangely enough, Cousy himself.

As The Cooz said in his book The Last Loud Roar:
    Very candidly, I had not expected to beat Los Angeles in this playoff. Last year's series had gone to overtime of the seventh game, which is about as even as two teams get. Facing the matter realistically - and pros are, above all, realistic - it seemed to me that they had improved a bit, if only through the acquisition of Dick Barnett, and we had gone back a little, if only because Frank Ramsey was having a bad year.
Perhaps the most colorful description of the series came from the man himself, Mr. Bill Russell, who recounted the 1963 Finals like so in his autobiography Go Up For Glory:
    1963... a vintage year.

    This was the year that everyone decided Los Angeles would beat us for the championship. We were finished. Even Los Angeles believed it. They had Baylor and West.... They had style and ability and we were getting older.

    The All-Star Game was at Los Angeles that year and the California radio stations blared all through it: "Los Angeles... the basketball capital of the world."

    It bothered us.
    It was Cousy's last series. And all that fru-fraw about the basketball capital of the world. Everyone came to see us get killed. By the time the sixth game came around the idea passed along that maybe we weren't going to be the lambs led to the slaughter.

    We were moving, fast, loose as ashes, and we were shaking L.A. and turning them every way but loose, baby. We had their number.
    [After talking about how the Celtics had blown a 14-point lead in Game 6, Russell threw in this beauty of a paragraph as he set the scene for the game's climax.]

    The mob was yelling. The noise swept over and out of the corner of my eye. I watched Doris Day drop her popcorn in her lap as she jumped with excitement and thought "Not this year, Doris, baby, not this year." I smiled and looked back to Baylor and he was picking up steam and coming down to meet me.

    [Baylor would be called for a charge that ended up sealing the game and the championship for Boston.]
    I had a magnum of champagne to celebrate [on the plane home], my one annual drink. As I stood in the doorway, I couldn't resist it. I raised the magnum and bowed and said, "As the sun sinks slowly in the west, we bid farewell to Los Angeles... the basketball capital of the world."

    We exited laughing.
Yes, he said "fru-fraw."

The Celtics' streak of eight straight championships had ended at the hands of a dominant 68-13 76ers team in 1967, to the chants of "Boston's dead" in Philadelphia. Boston was truly aging at this point, and it seemed as though the torch had been passed to Philly, as the Sixers beat the Celtics by eight games for the Eastern Division title in '68 and built a 3-1 edge in the Eastern Finals.

Yet Boston fought back to win the series in a dramatic Game 7, but that merely set them up for a matchup with a Lakers team that was cruising. L.A. had swept the Western Finals, and was 38-9 since a midseason trade fortified its bench.

As Jerry West said in his autobiography Mr. Clutch:
    We were better rested, younger, hungrier, hotter.... For the first time, I felt we were as good as any team in the league. Maybe Philly was better but they were out of it. If we ever had a chance to beat Boston, this seemed to be it. If we ever should have been favored over Boston, this was the time. I was very hopeful coming in.
But the Lakers blew a 15-point lead in Boston in Game 1, and, with the series tied 2-2, lost Game 5 in OT. They would lose the series in six, and West would be left to reflect:
    What really hurt me then was that I felt we had thrown away two games in the series - the first game and the fifth game - and we had lost it at home. We could have won it. We really could have won it. Maybe not too many of the others, but this one.
The 1969 Finals is one of the great stories in NBA history, as the banged-up, over-the-hill Celtics rallied from a subpar 48-34 season to knock off a star-studded Lakers team - which had added Wilt Chamberlain in the offseason - in seven games as Celtics legends Bill Russell and Sam Jones went off into retirement with one last title.

A couple of improbable shots helped Boston steal two games which saved the series for them.

In Game 4, Sam Jones - a man with a resume of clutch shots that's at least as long as Robert Horry's - dropped this off-balance jumper behind the picket fence at the top of the key, to give Boston an 89-88 win at the buzzer and even the series at 2-2:

And then, of course, Don Nelson, ostensibly 400 pounds lighter than today, helped stave off a furious Lakers rally with one of the friendliest bounces in basketball history as the Celtics remarkably won Game 7 in L.A.:

And then, 1984, you probably know this one. A seven-game epic that helped launch the NBA to another level, yet it really easily could have been a four-game sweep. Down 0-1 at home, the Celtics saved their season by literally and figuratively stealing Game 2 behind Gerald Henderson:

Magic was dreadful in the clutch. After Henderson's steal tied the game, Magic dribbled out the clock in regulation, as the Lakers never got a shot off and the game went to OT. Then, in the final seconds of a tied Game 4, he made a bad TO on a post entry pass, and the Celtics were able to score another dramatic OT win which again kept them in the series:

Then there was Larry Bird's epic performance in the sauna of the Game 5 "Heat Game" at the Garden, and an eventual championship in seven. Once again with help from the leprechaun.

As Larry himself said in his conference call with Magic:
    Well, obviously in '84 when the Lakers were controlling -- we got beat in the first game, went into overtime in the second, felt we got lucky to win the game, got blown out in the third game. We had to change our tactics, try to play a rough game, a halfcourt game, against them. Just watching how all the guys really turned the clock on them, played a different style, played a rougher style to change the series, I thought that was pretty incredible on our part. A lot of people didn't like how it turned out. But we had to do whatever we could to stay in the games because they were running us out of the building just about every night. For us to win the '84 championship was pretty mind-boggling to me the way they dominated us early in the series.

As outstanding as the Lakers have looked at times in this year's playoffs, the Spurs still had their opportunities to steal Games 1 and 4, yet could not capitalize.

Maybe this whole series will come down to whether the Celtics can do so - if they can repeat history and steal one if the opportunity presents itself, and maybe that will be the difference in another unexpected Finals win over the Lakers.

Sounds dramatic, but I say no. Lakers in 6, a new dynasty begins, Phil overtakes Red, and the franchise's 15th title pulls them to within one of Boston.