Monday, May 11, 2009

Playoffs Musings

Just wanted to empty out the notebook with a few quick observations. We'd have to say it's been a frustrating playoff season due to injuries more than anything so far, with the key injuries to KG, Ginobili and now Yao really putting a damper on things, as they've forced contending teams to compete at far less than 100%, even though it certainly hasn't affected how hard those teams have competed.

John Hollinger touched upon this in his Insider Gems on Friday, but the statistical performance of LeBron James in the 2009 postseason has just been out of this world. Of course, Hollinger's note on how LeBron's PER was off the charts was before LBJ casually dropped a 47-12-8 on Atlanta on Saturday.

LeBron is now averaging 33.7 pts, 10.0 reb, 6.6 ast on .551 FG% in 7 games, giving him a staggering playoff PER of 44.82. Remember that his regular-season PER of 31.76 was an all-time great number; 44.82 is hard to even comprehend. Put it like this: the difference between James and the no. 2 player on the playoff PER leaders (Tony Parker, at 29.28) is 15.54. The difference between Parker and the no. 64 player on the list (Tyrus Thomas, at 13.80) is 15.48.

Do you not care for new-fangled metrics like PER? Fine, let's put this in simpler terms. In 2006, Bill Simmons created what he called the "42 Club," a shorthand way of calculating postseason greatness, which he described by saying, "Just add up the point, rebound and assist averages for franchise guys during the playoffs: If the number tops 42, you're probably talking about a pantheon guy."

Here was the list he came up with:
    Since it's my idea, I only allowed guys who played 13 or more playoff games in one postseason to be eligible, since that's a legitimate sampling (more than a month of basketball at the highest level). Here's what the 42 Club looks like since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976:

    Michael Jordan (six times) -- 49.4 ('89); 50.7 ('90); 45.9 ('91); 46.5 ('92); 47.8 ('93); 43.8 ('97)
    Shaquille O'Neal (four times) -- 43.6 ('98); 49.2 ('00); 49.0 ('01); 43.9 ('02)
    Larry Bird (four times) -- 42.0 ('81); 44.4 ('84); 43.4 ('86); 44.2 ('87)
    Moses Malone (twice) -- 43.0 ('81), 43.3 ('83)
    Magic Johnson (twice) -- 43.8 ('86), 42.5 ('91)
    Karl Malone (twice) -- 43.0 ('92), 42.9 ('94)
    Hakeem Olajuwon (twice) -- 44.2 ('94), 47.8 ('95)
    Tim Duncan (twice) -- 42.7 ('01), 45.4 ('03)
    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- 47.1 ('80)
    Charles Barkley -- 44.5 ('93)
    Kobe Bryant -- 42.8 ('01)
    Allen Iverson -- 43.7 ('01)
    Kevin Garnett -- 44.0 ('04)
    LeBron James -- 44.7 ('06)
    Dirk Nowitzki -- 45.1 ('06, ongoing)
The point of the column was that Nowitzki had entered the pantheon of all-time greats, but then he went on to falter in the Finals and ended up at 41.6 for the playoffs.

Since '06, LeBron has added another "42 Club" postseason with a 43.6 in 13 games in '08.

Now, in '09, LBJ is at 50.3 through 7 games, topped only by MJ's 50.7 in 1990, dating back to the NBA-ABA merger. Michael was 27 when he did that; LeBron is 24. James is working on his third 42 Club season at 24. Only Bird and Bryant on this list did it even once by that age.

[LeBron's updated playoff numbers through the end of the Atlanta series:
32.9 pts, 9.8 reb, 6.8 ast, .532 FG%, 41.61 PER, 49.5 "P+R+A"]

Certainly, the Celtics, Rockets, and Spurs aren't crying for anyone after the key injuries they've suffered, but the Portland Trail Blazers have to be considered a mild tough-luck team of this year's postseason at this point. Now that we've seen how well Houston has performed vs. L.A., and how poorly Dallas has fared against Denver, it increasingly seems like the two last-second shots (one disputed) by Michael Finley which lifted San Antonio to a 3 seed at the end of the season really skewed things in the West.

If I had to create a power ranking for the Western Conference after watching the playoffs, it would go something like this:
    1. LAL
    2. DEN
    3. HOU
    4. POR
    5. DAL
    6. SAS
Nothing major, I just think Portland deserves to still be playing.

To further the point, there was an interesting tidbit on the APBRmetrics message board last week, noting that Blazers opponents shot .803 at the free-throw line this season, which was the highest number for opponent FT% in the 39 years that the number has been recorded.

Of course, part of the reason for that record is that this season's .771 FT% overall nearly set a league record. Still, the outlier .803 mark for the Blazers - pretty much entirely based on luck, unless you think the Blazers didn't hold up their hands properly while standing on the lane, or that the fans weren't terribly effective with their Thunderstix - is estimated to have cost them 1-2 wins over the course of the season. Alas, one win would have given Portland the 2 seed.

Talking about the Blazers, I found it interesting to hear Brandon Roy say that the team needed, "Maybe a banger, a power forward, a rebounder in back of LaMarcus. Something like that."

I thought that GM Kevin Pritchard got more to the point: "For us to take the next level up, it has to come from Greg [Oden]. He can take a 54-win team and take it to another level."

I couldn't agree more: it's largely on Greg Oden from here. Portland doesn't even really need his offense - they were no. 1 in the league in points per possession this season, but they were just an average-to-subpar defensive team.

The Blazers need Greg Oden to be a dominant defensive player. Yes, he was a productive player per-minute, and suffered from a league-high propensity for picking up fouls more than anything. But there were too many times that I saw players unafraid to challenge him and shoot right over him without fear. Perhaps, as Kevin Pelton suggested to me, Oden was a bit spooked by all his fouling to truly be aggressive in patrolling the lane.

Draft Express did an outstanding Rookie Retrospective scouting report on Oden at midseason, the thesis of which was mainly that Oden can still be great, but he still needs to regain full confidence and ability in his knee in order to regain the athleticism that allowed him to have superstar potential as a defender patrolling the lane.

But again, the Blazers need Greg Oden to dominate and intimidate on defense, to own the lane. That is ultimately why he was drafted no. 1, and that could ultimately be the decisive factor in determining whether the Cleveland/New York LeBrons or the Portland Trail Blazers become the team of the 2010s.

Shouldn't the Denver-Dallas series be Exhibit A in the evidence showing why Byron Scott should no longer be the coach of the New Orleans Hornets? The Hornets bench was atrocious, yet New Orleans castoffs J.R. Smith and Brandon Bass are talented, young, athletic, affordable bench players in the series (and we're not even holding Scott accountable for ex-Hornet Chris Andersen, because of Birdman's drug problems).

Now, it feels like it's happening again as Scott has been unable to properly develop Julian Wright, who still has a lot to prove, but I have the sinking suspicion he will end up developing into a solid player for his next coach. A franchise which is as tenuous as New Orleans in terms of the wealth of both its owner and the market as a whole can't afford to waste any potential, especially players who can be productive at inexpensive salaries. For this reason alone, Scott must go.

(Note that the good folks at both Hornets247 and At The Hive, who both watch the team more closely than I, have come to a different conclusion, though their respective votes of confidence are clearly of the "lukewarm" variety.)

We quickly compiled a list of the biggest playoff upsets of this decade, simply by finding the teams which had overcome the biggest deficits in terms of regular-season wins. Here's the entire list of series where a team has overcome a deficit of 5 wins or more in the '00s:
    '07 GST v DAL 25
    '06 MIA v DET 12
    '06 MIA v DAL 8
    '04 DET v IND 7
    '07 NJN v TOR 6
    '05 DET v MIA 5
The funny thing to us is that we did this with a specific idea in mind: to help prove that the Detroit Pistons had been the biggest underachievers of the decade. Yet, it turns out that, by this simplistic metric, they were actually an overachiever as much as underachiever.

Their '04 run is a little skewed because they were certainly better than a 54-win team after they acquired Rasheed in February (that '04 Lakers team was only a 56-win team, by the way), and the '05 team benefited from Miami injuries, but still, those team basically played to their potential. The 64-18 '06 team was the one which really blew its opportunity, for sure, but I had forgotten that the '07 team which lost to Cleveland, in what seemed like a big upset, only had a 3-win advantage in that series (53-50).

But, more notably, what this exercise shows is that it is actually the Dallas Mavericks who have clearly been the biggest playoff underachievers of the decade. They should have been the champs in '06 and they should have been playing the Spurs to essentially determine the champs in '07. Instead, they will walk away from the decade with zero championships.

We enjoyed reading this excerpt of J.A. Adande's report from Game 3 of the Rockets-Lakers series, about the Ron Artest foul on Pau Gasol which caused him to be ejected:
    After a video review and a cordial discussion with the officials (he even had his arm around Ron Garretson at one point) Artest was kicked out. Afterward he was optimistic about avoiding further penalties, and appreciated the officials' explanation, which he called "cool."

    "He said they were thinking about rescinding it, making it a 1, but [Gasol] fell awkwardly, so they made it a 2," Artest said.
Thank you, Ron. That's what we said.

Stay thirsty, my friends.


At 9:06 AM, Blogger Jason J said...

Probably should be mentioned that the reason Jordan doesn't show up more on the Bill Simmons list and at a younger age is not because his playoff production prior to 1989 was not high enough but because his team wasn't good enough to play the requisite 13 games when it had to go against he Celtics and Pistons of the day in the early rounds.

So in a sense it may have less to do with LeBron being better at a young age than the Cavs being stronger, the East being weaker, and the first round being longer.

If you look at regular season info you see that at age 24 Jordan was actually more productive (by PER and WS) than LeBron if only marginally so.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger rsn said...

I am left to wonder if it is something in the Portland water or air that makes teams shoot free throws better there. Maybe all of the organic food?

Was their home FT% against roughly the same as their road FT% against?

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