The Siren Song of the NBA: Creationism

Yesterday the Knicks beat the Hawks at home, and I had one thought on my mind during most of the game. Earlier that day I had read Alan Hahn’s live chat where a questioner said the following:

“Is David Lee overrated? Double-doubles are great, but not when they don’t impact games. IMO Nate is more valuable to the Knicks right now in that he has the ability to carry a team on his back when he erupts for 20 pts in a single quarter…”

Now, I like Robinson and have been lobbying for him to get more playing time from his first season. I hope the Knicks will keep him around for a few more years at a reasonable price without hurting their chances for a couple of major free agents. And I don’t want to get into a discussion about who is the most valuable Knick, because it’s tough to answer that question. For instance what does “most valuable” mean? It could mean if you were building a team, which player you would choose first. It could mean which player, if removed, would hurt the team the most.

What I want to talk about it the siren song of the NBA – the creative scorer. As a fan who watches many games, it’s easy to understand the lure of the volume scorer. The average fan focuses on the guy with the ball, and the scorer tends to have the ball in his hands more often than his teammates. Additionally he is able to create the shot by his own ability, independent of his teammates. It’s easy for the fan to see the benefit of the scorer’s efforts, since it connects directly to the main goal of the team: points. Rebounds don’t change the point totals on the scoreboard. When the news covers the game, usually you hear something like “Robinson led the Knicks with 29 points, while Duhon and Hughes chipped in 19 each.” You don’t hear about the other stats unless it’s a phenomenal number (20 rebounds). And the players listed are in point order, even if they score 19 points on 20 shots.

What strengthens the bond between the fan and the scorer is that sometimes the scorer performs in an amazing manner. Watch any NBA game and you’re likely to see a few spectacular shots, most by the high scorer. Hence it’s easy for the average fan to relate to the leading scorer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the most important event on the court. Other things lead to a team’s victory, including defense, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws. But most of these aren’t as sexy as the made basket. When was the last time you saw a spectacular rebound? Has there even been a spectacular free throw? A turnover can excite the crowd, but unless it’s followed by a score the buzz is lost.

Now I’ll agree that the double-double is an overrated stat, but is it that much more overrated than points per game? Or even the ability to create your own shot? This final component seems especially important for the average fan who plays basketball. At the level of the average fan, being able to create your own shot is more important than many other attributes. In other words your neighborhood version of Al Harrington is worth more at the park than the NBA’s version is to his team. In the Hawks game thread, a game that Robinson missed due to injury, “ess-dog” commented “Now this is the kind of game that makes me wonder if Nate’s scoring and penetrating is overrated.”

During Isiah’s tenure New York was stuck with two players that could create their own shot, but do little else. Crawford & Curry seemed to divide Knick fans between creationists who worshiped their ability to make shot attempts, and those that covered their ears to the siren song of YouTube highlights. This year the team has traded one and marginalized the other, and their record is on track to improve by 10 games. It’s no coincidence that this improvement has occurred by replacing the inefficient ex-Bulls’ minutes with the more efficient Robinson and Lee. Additionally the latter pair gives the team more than just field goal attempts. Lee provides rebounding, while Robinson sprinkles the stat line with rebounding, assists, and steals.

As advanced statisticians already know, at the highest levels of basketball shooting is the most important factor with regards to a team’s chances of winning. But it’s not shooting volume that we use to measure it, but rather shooting efficiency. If a team can shoot at a high percentage and prevent their opponent from doing the same, they’re going to win a lot of games. Creating a shot does have value, but it must be taken in the proper context of the ability to make the shot. On the night the Knicks won without their best creative scorer, Golden State got blown out by the Bulls. They were ‘led’ by Stephen Jackson 19 points (on 20 shots), Corey Maggette 14 points (on 16 shots) and Jamal Crawford 11 points (on 15 shots).


Per 36 minute stats comparing last year’s creationists to their 2009 counterparts.

       Player  Season  Age  G  MPG  FGA  ORB TRB AST STL TOV  PF  PTS  TS%
Jamal Crawford 2007-08  27 80 39.9 15.7 0.4  2.3 4.5 0.9 2.2 1.6 18.6 .528
 Nate Robinson 2008-09  24 52 1561 16.9 1.7  5.1 4.7 1.7 2.1 3.4 21.1 .559
 
       Player  Season  Age  G   MP  FGA  ORB TRB AST STL TOV  PF  PTS  TS% 
    Eddy Curry 2007-08  25 59 1530 12.8 2.6  6.5 0.8 0.3 3.0 3.7 18.4 .578
     David Lee 2008-09  25 60 2134 11.9 3.2 12.1 2.0 0.9 2.0 3.4 16.7 .599

Samb A Low Risk For New York

Yesterday the Knicks signed Cheik Samb to a 10 day contract. Samb has played for 3 other NBA teams (the Pistons, Nuggets, and Clippers) but has only amassed 106 minutes in that time. His per minute numbers show him to be a strong shot blocker with a very limited offensive game. In fact his shooting numbers are downright laughably bad (TS% 30.5, eFG 27.3%)

Although I’m a big of a supporter of per minute numbers, 106 minutes isn’t enough of a sample to make a good conclusion. This is especially true with regards to a players shooting percentages, which vary more from game to game than their other stats. Luckily Samb has logged 500+ minutes for the NBDL, and his 14.7 pts/36 on 52.8% TS% in the minor league is encouraging. If you combine his numbers from the two leagues, he projects well for a backup center.

Season   Tm  G  MP  FGA FTA  FT% ORB  TRB AST STL BLK TOV  PF   PTS  PER  TS% eFG%
2007-08 DET  4  31  4.6 2.3 .500 3.5  8.1 0.0 1.2 2.3 1.2 9.3  8.1 12.0 .717 .750
2008-09 TOT 16  75 13.9 2.4 .600 4.3 10.6 0.5 1.4 4.8 1.4 3.4  7.2  7.2 .240 .207
NBA Career  20 106 11.2 2.4 .571 4.1  9.8 0.3 1.4 4.1 1.4 5.1  7.5  8.6 .305 .273
NBDL Career 20 508 12.7 2.8 .744 2.6  9.6 0.9 0.9 5.3 2.1 4.6 14.7 17.9 .528 .497
NBA+NBDL    40 614 12.4 2.7 .714 2.9  9.6 0.8 1.0 5.1 2.0 4.7 13.5 16.3 .490 .458

Samb holds up well when compared to some other NBA centers at approximately the same age/number of years in the league. His rebounding isn’t as strong as Ben Wallace or Andris Biedrins, and Big Ben was chipping in with nearly 2 blocks per 36 minutes. Additionally Samb compares poorly to the lot from an offensive standpoint (if you value his NBA numbers over his NBDL). However his blocked shots are the best of the bunch. In fact there have only been 54 seasons in which a player averaged more than 4.0 blocks/36 in 1000 minutes or more.

        Player   To   G   MP   FGA  FG% FTA  FT% ORB  TRB AST STL BLK TOV  PF  PTS
     Cheik Samb 2009  20  106 11.2 .273 2.4 .571 4.1  9.8 0.3 1.4 4.1 1.4 5.1  7.5
Samb NBA+NBDL   2009  40  614 12.4 .458 2.7 .714 2.9  9.6 0.8 1.0 5.1 2.0 4.7 13.5
  Jackie Butler 2007  69  848 10.8 .539 3.8 .775 3.1  8.7 1.3 0.8 1.3 3.1 6.1 14.6
   Jerome James 2002  72  991 10.8 .481 2.6 .500 3.5  9.0 0.9 1.0 3.3 3.0 6.7 11.7
  Steven Hunter 2004 145 1752  8.3 .506 4.3 .464 2.7  7.4 0.5 0.4 3.1 1.2 4.9 10.4
   Dan Gadzuric 2004 124 2020  8.8 .512 3.1 .500 3.4  9.7 0.7 1.3 2.8 1.3 5.5 10.6
Andris Biedrins 2009 309 7469  9.1 .602 3.2 .535 4.3 12.2 1.5 1.1 1.9 1.7 5.0 12.6
    Ben Wallace 1998 101 1321  5.7 .481 3.2 .347 3.7 10.4 0.5 1.9 2.3 1.3 3.9  6.6

The big question is will Samb ever see that many minutes? It’s hard to tell with D’Antoni. He seemingly coveted Chris Wilcox when in Phoenix, but now that the team has acquired him, the center has yet to see any real minutes. Wilcox has played in only 5 games, and has yet to play more than 12 in any game for New York. My gut feeling is that D’Antoni might throw Samb a few minutes early to see if he’s useful, but that you won’t see him again until the Knicks are officially out of the place race. It’s very likely that Samb won’t see any minutes this year at all. New York may just hold him on their roster for the summer league and re-evaluate him at that time.

To put things in perspective the last time the Knicks picked up a shot blocking center in Jerome James, the deal was 182 times longer than Samb’s. The shot blocker they picked up prior to James, helped them reach the playoffs (Dikembe Mutombo) in 2004. This is a good low risk-medium reward deal for the Knicks. It’s something that the team has been weak at considering the Roberson/Von Wafer mistake over the summer. If Samb can join the legion of NBDLers who have become solid NBA players he will give New York another cheap player to help the team win now. Additionally players like Samb could help New York field a competitive roster for 2011 without hurting them fiscally.