May 18, 2009

Ziller vs Gladwell

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ankur @ 12:52 AM

There’s been a recent spate of interest in basketball and risk that seems to be confusing a fair number of people.  Malcolm Gladwell, noted author of  books like Blink and The Tipping Point, wrote an article in the New Yorker recently arguing that underdogs need to use unconventional strategies to have a chance to win.  In it, he talks about the way in which a full-court press might be one of those strategies.  Gladwell also engaged in a lively back-and-forth with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, in which he mentions the way in which the current NBA draft setup creates a “moral hazard” – in other words, there’s an incentive for lottery teams to lose, since losing makes it more likely you’ll win the lottery.

There are a number of objections you can make to Gladwell’s theories.  For instance, longtime readers of this blog will remember that I debunked the “there’s value in tanking” myth, indicating a rational team would NOT try to lose.  Some people, however, have chosen to make less reasonable criticisms.  This includes the usually-sensible Tom Ziller, who recently argued on FanHouse that these stances were contradictory. Basically, Ziller says that the first theory says “teams should try to increase risk,” while the second theory says “we should penalize risky behavior from teams.”  To use his words,

“The draft structure rewards risk. This is bad, says Gladwell. A lack of innovative strategy — seen as risky — is a problem, says Gladwell. Do you want risk, or not?”

Those of you so interested can read my immediate reaction as the second comment on the FanHouse post cited.  I reproduce it here in somewhat lengthier format, so that the point is a little clearer.

There are two basic problems with Ziller’s argument.  First, he doesn’t understand what Gladwell means by risk.  Second, he mixes up a claim about how a team ought to work within the rules with one that’s about how the rules should look, creating a contradiction where none exists.

First, Gladwell isn’t talking about the same kind of risk in each situation.  When talking about pressing teams, Gladwell’s making a really simple argument – let’s say that if both teams play normally, we know that my team will lose.  Why on earth would we play normally?  If the goal of the game is to win, and playing normally guarantees that you lose, playing normally is a really strange decision to make.  Sure, pressing is risky in that it could take us from a close loss to a blowout – on the flip side, it could take us from a close loss to a win.  If you’ve got nothing to lose, give yourself a puncher’s chance!

I don’t think this claim is controversial at all – people who disagree with Gladwell are saying that the press is a bad tool for this objective, not that he’s wrong about the objective.  When Gladwell talks about risk in this context, therefore, he’s talking about a risk that is it’s own reward – a chance to win that you didn’t have before, that comes at the cost of possibly increasing your margin of defeat.

In the argument about the draft, Gladwell is talking about the way in which there’s an incentive to lose more games so that you get a higher draft pick.  Risk isn’t actually a part of his argument at all – it’s mentioned when he makes an analogy to banks, NOT as part of the conversation about teams.  The argument Gladwell is actually making here, if Ziller had bothered to actually pay attention, is about the incentives that teams have.  Gladwell’s point is pretty simple here – we should want teams to try to win as many games as they can.  Therefore, creating a system that makes teams want to lose games is bad.  The current system makes teams want to tank, so they can get a better draft pick…so the current system is bad.  Again, I don’t think this point is very controversial – I think the alternatives he suggests are ridiculous, but the idea that the lottery needs reform isn’t new, and the moral hazard idea is straight out of Economics 101.

Notice, therefore, that risk doesn’t mean the same thing in either example, so trying to strawman Gladwell’s arguments into “risk is good” and “risk is bad” is all kinds of silly.  Even more interestingly, these arguments are operating at completely different levels – one is about a team’s decisions given a set of incentives, and the other is about the incentive structure that team works within.  The first one says that if teams are trying to win, they should take risks like pressing, while the second says that we should encourage teams to try to win.

Let’s use a different example to make this point clearer.  Suppose that Gladwell made the argument “teams that have a lot of money should use as much as they can to make themselves better,” and also the argument “the league should impose an overall cap on how much a team can spend to make itself better.”  In Ziller’s eyes, these would be contradictory – after all, the first one says “teams should spend money,” and the second says “teams shouldn’t spend money,” right?  Any reasonable person can see, however, that this is not the case – the first is talking about what a team should do given the current rules, and the second is about what those rules should look like.  Put another way, the first argument is about strategy, and the second is about fairness.  Since they have completely different goals, any attempt to compare those two is inevitably doomed to fail.

Look, Gladwell’s arguments have a bunch of problems with them, and other people have done a thorough job of exposing them.  Let’s not create some where none exist, yeah?


May 4, 2009

Boston Celtics vs Orlando Magic

Filed under: Uncategorized — siddhant2001us @ 4:31 AM

This is a second round series hampered by injuries as the Celtics are missing Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe while the Magic are missing their starting backcourt in Jameer Nelson and Courtney Lee.

Big Men: As great as that Chicago-Boston Series was, let’s be honest. It was largely close because Kevin Garnett wasn’t in it. With him, the Celtics suddenly have a great defense again and Derrick Rose and the Bulls aren’t able to wreck havoc by driving in and stretching the aforementioned Celtic defense.

Instead, the Celtics have to start Glen “Big Baby” Davis alongside Kendrick Perkins against Orland’s Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis.

Perkins certainly has improved by leaps and bounds since he first entered the league. He will have his hands full in this series trying to keep the energetic Howard off the boards, but for what it is worth, I am pretty sure he will greatly hinder Howard’s scoring opportunities. To be fair, that’s not all that hard to do. Perkins has the size and length to stay with Howard and keep him from just spinning and dunking outright, and he is a good enough defender that he will prevent Howard from just throwing up that mechanical right hook shot over and over again.

The new starter Glen Davis is not going to be nearly as impressive this series on defense. His generally mediocre defense will get exposed more often by the quicker Lewis who by the way will most likely get more rebounds a game than Davis as well. Still, if it is any consolation, Lewis probably will be too undersized to do anything against Davis when the “Big Baby” sets himself up at any part of the post. So do they cancel out? No, Lewis will get the ball more and make Davis cry at least once this series as he is quickly sent to the bench. Ok, that was probably a low blow so let’s just move on.

Swing Men: Paul Pierce and Ray Allen start and lead Boston against Orlando’s Hedo Turkoglu and new starter JJ Redick.

For all the fuss being made about Rajon Rondo becoming one of the best point guards in the NBA (and he probably has,) the Celtics will continue to live and die based on the contributions of Allen and Pierce. This series is no difference as both are matched up against two very mediocre defenders at best.

As long as JJ Redick is in the game to space the floor on offense, look for Ray Allen to dominate him on the other end. It isn’t out of the question to expect the future hall of famer to drop 40 on his Magic counterpart as many as three times this series.

Meanwhile Paul Pierce probably won’t have quite as easy a time against Turkoglu. The Turkish small forward is smart and has long enough arms to make things tricky for Pierce when the Celtics have the ball by backing off of him and daring him to shoot from the outside. Pierce is at his most effective when he is able to get to the right block and act from there. If Turkoglu can back off far enough to bait Pierce into shooting from beyond that block, he will have him right where he wants him. Furthermore, he is a good enough playmaker to force Pierce to work on the other end as well. That being said, the guy doesn’t have the greatest foot speed so look for Pierce to be able to get his fair share of open looks and make the Magic pay.

Neither team really has a significant advantage at the end of the game though. While Pierce and Allen have had their late game heroics highlighted by the media and their recent series with the Chicago Bulls, both Turkoglu and Redick have proven that they can also make big shots when it matters most. Redick of course made most of these in college so it is somewhat questionable if he can do so in the NBA, but it says here that he will be fine. There should be no question of Turkoglu’s clutchness, however. On a team with three other all stars (Howard, Lewis, and the injured Jameer Nelson,) Stan Van Gundy generally designs his crunch time plays for his small forward. Turkoglu hits them too as he did against the Sixers during the first round and multiple times last year against the Celtics in the regular season.

Still, if it is imperative that the Celtics keep it close in their big men match up (and it is,) it is equally imperative that the Magic swing men keep it close against their own counterparts. They have to be willing to attack them at any time and often to tire them out for offense.

Point Guard: Rafer Alston of the Orlando Magic will attempt to slow down the red hot Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics. Rondo who ultimately came out on top in his battle against the highly touted rookie, Derrick Rose, has certainly added a pretty feather to his cap of accomplishments. Still, he has to stay grounded because it is this match up that should swing the tide in favor of the Celtics for good.

Rafer Alston might not make anyone forget about Jameer Nelson, but he also isn’t going to be one to fear Rondo or not make him earn his points. Alston is supremely confident, fairly quick, and a solid enough playmaker. If Rondo sleeps on defense, Alston will be able to easily get into the lane and make the Celtics defense panic. Davis will probably be too slow to help out on Alston, and Perkins helping on Alston frees up the alley-oop loving Dwight Howard so Rondo has to stay in front of him at all times.

Not that Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston is going to have all that much energy on offense. Rondo has the ability to run the Magic point guard ragged. He will explode into the lane early and often and force the Magic defenders to scramble in response. His jumper is streaky at best, but he is so quick that it rarely is that big a deal. You cannot play too far off of him because by the time he meets you when that is the case, he will have too much momentum to stop without fouling. When he does pass, it should be noted that his decision making has been impeccable in the playoffs which is highlighted by his recent game 6 performance when he registered 19 assists against 0 turnovers in 57 minutes.

Coaching +Bench: Doc Rivers who actually once coached the Orlando Magic now returns once more as the ever improving coach of the Boston Celtics.

 At his disposal off the bench will be Stephon Marbury, Tony Allen, Eddie House, Brian Scalabrine, and Mikki Moore. These guys know their roles and stick to them, which is good because none are really talented enough to contribute much more than they currently do except for Marbury who randomly has developed a fear of shooting.

If you thought that Rivers over used his starters in the last series, read the list of guys I gave as primary backups and expect him to repeat his tactics from the first round.

Despite being shorthanded in terms of big men, I think Rivers should single-team Howard and play him largely straight up with Kendrick Perkins. Challenge Howard to beat you via his offense, because quite simply put he probably cannot do that for four games.

On the other team’s side, sits the hard working Stan Van Gundy. He will count on Mickael Pietrus, Anthony Johnson, Tony Battie, and Marcin Gortat to produce off the Magic bench.

Johnson is going to have a tough time keeping Rondo in front of him, but will make the Celtics pay if they leave him open to double someone else. Pietrus can somewhat effectively guard Pierce, Allen, and even Rondo, but is also very likely to shoot a host of idiotic three pointers too quickly in the offense and commit dumb fouls. How well he keeps his play in check will go a long way to deciding how much the Magic will miss the young Courtney Lee. Gortat and Battie are both solid big men who play passable help defense and will not make it significantly easier for the Celtics to hit shots in the lane when Howard rests.

Van Gundy has to make sure that any screens for Ray Allen not involving Howard are switched on to prevent Allen from dominating early and often with his quick release and deadly accurate jumper. At the same time, he has to get his team to be as physical as possible. The Celtic are running on adrenalin at this point after their exhausting series with the Bulls. If the Magic can be physical and lay down hard (but fair) fouls early and often, the Celtics could fold early and concede large opening leads.

Regardless, being physical is the only way the Magic have a chance at containing the lightning quick Rajon Rondo. Turning him into a jump shooter largely curtails his overall effectiveness.

 In addition, Van Gundy has to create ways for the Magic to stay balanced on offense if the Celtics do indeed decide to play Howard straight up. They should feed their big man whenever a dunk opportunity presents itself, but when it doesn’t, they must work it around to their playmakers: Turkoglu, Lewis, and Alston and allow them to create.

To be fair, the Celtics can also counter all of this by playing with the same poise they had when they beat the Bulls in seven games.

Final Verdict: This series will certainly be an interesting one. The Magic had just as tough a time beating the Sixers as the Celtics did with the Bulls so both teams just escaped elimination even if it took the Celtics one more game (and a plethora of overtimes) to do so. In the end, I think the Magic might suffer more from just being happy to be in the second round.

Boston Celtics in 7

May 2, 2009

Los Angeles Lakers vs Houston Rockets

Filed under: Uncategorized — siddhant2001us @ 11:35 AM

This might actually be the match up between the two best teams in the western conference. 

Big men: Los Angeles Lakers start Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom against Yao Ming and Luis Scola who start for the Houston Rocket. This is going to end up being a match up of speed (Lakers) against power (Rockets.) As a result, the Lakers need to abandon any thought of playing Yao Ming straight up and should instead front him at all times and double him after he starts dribbling. Yao Ming isn’t much of a passer off the dribble and this should be a great way for the Lakers to generate some turnovers. At the same time, the Lakers have to either stay at home on Luis Scola or close out on him quickly. The moment you leave him for too long, bad things happen as he will either hit an open jumper, cut to the basket, or simply crash the boards. Speaking of rebounds, the Lakers have to commit as a team to boxing out. During their first round match up, the Utah Jazz averaged 13 offensive rebounds a game which led to numerous second chance opportunities. The Rocket big men have to understand that if they don’t give up on a play then there is a good chance they will be able to score 10-15 points a game just on put backs. When the Lakers are on offense, Scola has to gauge Lamar Odom’s mood. If Odom is playing passive, don’t be aggressive on defense because you risk waking him up and having him do something. Meanwhile, Yao has no chance at keeping up with the much faster Gasol, but he can be physical enough with him to try and intimidate the Spaniard. Honestly, if I was working for the Rockets all I would do is keep showing Yao Ming the picture of Gasol and the rest of the Spanish national team’s offensive Olympic picture. That should motivate him to shut down Gasol. In any case, both sets of big men have their work cut out for them if they want to gain a significant advantage.


Swing Men: Kobe Bryant and Trevor Ariza start for the Lakers against the Rocket’s Ron Artest and Shane Battier. For all the talk about the Rockets having two guys who can potentially stop Kobe Bryant, Bryant did average 28.3 points, 5 assists, and 53 percent shooting against both of them during the regular season. Basically, it doesn’t matter who decides to guard the most skilled player in the NBA; Kobe knows he can get his. Honestly, the best way to guard Kobe Bryant in my opinion is to let him score early and get into a rhythm by the first quarter. You want to turn his teammates like Trevor Ariza into spectators. Once the game does head into the fourth quarter, none of the other Lakers will be in rhythm and Kobe should be exhausted. The Lakers are simply not a disciplined team at times and thus are vulnerable to a strategy like this. Don’t fret Laker fans because thanks to Ron Artest, so are the Rockets. If the Lakers allow Ron Artest to take all the dumb shots that he wants to take, this is going to be a short series as Artest attempts to go 1 on 5 and lose a whole bunch of times. At least when Kobe Bryant decides to take on the world by himself there is a slight chance he goes nuts and pulls it off. Ron Artest has zero percent chance to win a game by himself on the offensive end. Both Trevor Ariza and Shane Battier are guys who will do all the little things on both ends of the floor, be capable of guarding the opposing team’s best wing scorer (Kobe and Artest,) and knock down open jumpers. Both will have at least one game that they will alter greatly without any regular fan knowing.


Point Guards: Los Angeles’s Derek Fisher vs. Houston’s Aaron Brooks will finally answer the question: who is faster, a rock or something traveling at the speed of light? Not only is Derek Fisher quite possibly the slowest starting point guard in the league (bottom five for sure,) but Aaron Brooks is probably the fastest/quickest north-south point guard in the league. Look for Aaron Brooks to beat Fisher over and over again and quicken the overall pace of the game…which incidentally plays right into the Lakers hands. The faster the pace is, the harder it is for Yao Ming and Luis Scola to keep up with the Laker big men. Thus, Brooks has to keep his composure against Fisher and pick his spots to beat him off the dribble (generally by either waiting for his entire team to get over the timeline or by having one or two man fast breaks.) Fisher on the other hand should be given a handful of plays where he takes Brooks down low into the post and absolutely hammers him.


Coaches/Bench: Phil Jackson and the Lakers bench vs. Rick Adelman and the Rockets bench. Off the bench, the Lakers will play Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown and maybe Jordan Farmar and Josh Powell. The Rockets on the flip side can count on Kyle Lowry, Von Wafer, Carl Landry, and Chuck Hayes to play some minutes with possibly some cameos from Brent Barry and Brian Cook. No offense to Rick Adelman who is a nice regular season coach, but Phil Jackson completely destroys him. Phil Jackson and Adelman have met many times in the playoffs, but Jackson has never once lost a series in their head to head match up. In any case Adelman has to figure out how to be more creative in how he uses Yao Ming. Against Portland he either received the ball down at the left block or was too busy setting screens to receive the ball. That can’t happen against the Lakers, because Yao Ming is the most consistent scorer on the Rockets who can’t allow themselves to go on as many scoring droughts as they did against the Blazers and thus they must take advantage of the fact that the high scoring Lakers have even less size than the Blazers at the moment. At the same time, Phil Jackson has to figure out a way for the Lakers to provide help on both Yao Ming and a penetrating Brooks without giving up too many open jumpers to the snipers on the Rockets. That is really where this chess match begins. I will suggest one thing for the Rockets: that they play Von Wafer alongside both Battier and Artest while resting either Ming or Scola for significant stretches of the game. This allows Artest to shut down Odom which he is capable of doing and Battier to face Bryant. This also allows for a maximum spreading of the floor if Yao is the center as he now has four three point shooters he can pass to. The one risk here is that this line up is probably easier to convince to run, and the Lakers have ran all season which gives them the huge advantage if the pace does quicken. Still, this lineup could be the perfect antidote and something Adelman should tinker with, because the Rockets need all the offense they can get. As for a suggestion for Phil Jackson, the Lakers should make sure that they aren’t substituting too many players in at once, because the Rockets will be able to pick that as a perfect time to make a run against cold players.


Final Verdict: In the end, despite the Rockets playing good defense, having the best offensive center in the game, and having a point guard that should give the Lakers fits on defense, they simply cannot keep up with the Lakers. The Los Angeles Lakers when clicking have the best offense in the game, and should be able to run away with the score in most cases. Lakers in 5

May 1, 2009

Denver vs Dallas

Filed under: Uncategorized — siddhant2001us @ 1:21 PM

Finally, after about two weeks, we have reached the second round of the playoffs! Let’s break down the first match up of the second round which pits the Dallas Mavericks against the Denver Nuggets.

Big Men: Denver starts Kenyon Martin and Nene Hilario (I guess now he just goes by Nene) while Dallas begins their games with Dirk Nowitzki and Erik Dampier. Dampier and Nene basically cancel each other out. They do their best to rebound and protect the basket on defense, and not much else. Nene is probably more talented, but that’s not going to make too much of a difference in this series. On the flip side, the other match up has the potential to decide the series. Dirk Nowitzki is just two seasons removed from his MVP and he has been phenomenal this season playing with Kidd. Martin is a player who after both of his knees being repaired by micro-fracture surgery has reinvented himself as a defensive ace. The reason Denver beat New Orleans so easily is probably because Martin shut down David West by himself. Without West creating double teams, the Hornets role players had to take much tougher shots and could never get into a rhythm. Can Nowitzki be bullied like that? Absolutely, he can. Ask him what happened when the Warriors put Stephen Jackson on him two years ago and see how happily he answers that. If Dirk can’t score on Martin, the Mavs could get swept; so as I said before, this is probably the key match up that decides the whole series.

Swingmen: Dallas has a finally healthy Josh Howard and Jason Terry vs. Denver’s Carmelo Anthony and Dahntay Jones.  (Author’s note: Antoine Wright and Jose Juan Barea have both taken turns starting for the Mavs in these playoffs, but since Terry gets more important minutes than either of them, we’ll pretend he’s the starter.) Melo has to shake off his bruises and go right at Howard. Meanwhile, Howard basically has to do the same thing in an effort to slow down Denver’s best scorer by making him work on defense. He also has to push the envelope even more if Dirk is getting killed by Martin. Meanwhile, Terry isn’t going to be able to get Jones off of him on defense. This guy just helped hinder the great Chris Paul all series long, and should do the same to The Jet. Honestly, that’s probably a big storyline here. The Mavs were able to score on the Spur’s overrated defense (overrated for this season) all day long. However, in Kenyon Martin and Dahntay Jones you have two guys who are actually capable of shutting down Terry and Dirk. Stay tuned.

Point Guards: Denver’s Chauncey Billups vs. Dallas’s Jason Kidd: Both of these guys have seen better days, but both of these guys have also clearly rejuvenated their teams this season and led to them to play better than expected. Billups is the perfect match up for Kidd because even if he does occasionally blow by him, Kidd’s help defense will have time to rotate onto him. Expect both to have their clutch moments and get their teammates involved. This is going to be a match up for the ages as these two old timers fight for one last hurrah against each other. There actually is some old history here too. Back when Kidd played for the Nets and Billups for the Pistons, their teams met in 2003 and 2004. In the first series Kidd averaged 24, 10 and 6 while holding Billups to less than 30 percent shooting. In 2004, Billups outscored Kidd 22-0 in game 7. So with both guys getting older, this is probably their last chance to settle their old scores. Either way, NBA fans are going to win.

Coaching + Bench: George Karl and the Nuggets Bench vs. Rick Carlisle and the Maverick Bench: Unless Martin absolutely shuts Dirk down the entire series, this is what will decide the series. Chris Anderson will come off the Nuggets bench to give the Mavericks fits whenever they try to score inside. He’s not a great defender by any stretch, but his blocks have the ability to completely change the momentum of a game. On the flip side, I’m not even sure if JR Smith understands what defense is. There is a 50 percent chance he just thinks that it is his chance to rest in between offensive possessions. As a result, Terry has to attack Smith and make the rest of the Nuggets rotate. I’d tell you what Smith has to do, but I’m not sure it will matter, because there is a 100 percent chance that the only thing going through his head is, “I am JR Smith Mother Fu(I think you get the point; we’ll move on with the same  blank facial expression on George Karl’s face after Smith jacks up another 3.) Another scorer that the Nuggets can utilize is Linas Kleiza who is secretly is the best back up small forward in the NBA. If it wasn’t for Melo, Kleiza would be a household name by now. Anthony Carter will make smart passes, not shoot much, and generally play well enough to give Billups a small rest here and there.

            On the Mavericks side, Jose Juan Barea has to give his team a boost whenever he is in the game and score in bunches. He is this year’s version of Jannero Pargo (who played for the Hornets last year.) That is to say when he scores and is on, his team probably isn’t going to lose. Against a team that has the potential to shut down both Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki, that is exactly what Barea has to do. There actually isn’t that much help from the Mavericks bench. Brandon Bass is basically the only other player with a good chance to alter this series by basically being a poor man’s version of Chris Anderson for the Mavs. Rick Carlisle can also count on Antoine Wright to play acceptable defense for 15 minutes a game. Basically that means Carlisle has to hope that his starters have one last great series in them for the year, because Denver has the decided advantage in the depth department.

Final Verdict: Denver can shut down Dallas’s top two scorers in Nowitzki and Terry and is deeper as well. Billups has turned this Denver team into quite the well oiled machine. That being said, I think Dallas puts up a better fight than people expect. Look for Kidd and the Mavs to push Denver to 6 games before losing.  

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