Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's going on in the Atlantic Division?

The Knicks are championship contenders 
now that they have Melo. Right?
In my first post for Sports, Stats, and Stuff, I wrote that the Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams trades shifted power in the NBA from West to East.  I specifically said that the players going East were collectively much better than those traveling West and that the Knicks would (eventually) be a championship contender as a result.  While I still stand by that earlier article, I have been eating a fat slice of humble pie the past couple weeks.  Even with Monday night's crucial (yet flawed) win over the Magic, the Knicks have lost 9 of 11 games.  In the Carmelo Anthony era, the Knicks are 8-12, dropping from two games over .500 to two games below.  They've also dropped to 7th in the Eastern Conference standings, making their potential first round playoff matchup much harder.  The has been good news for the Philadelphia 76ers, the East's new #6 seed.  Philly has been surging, compiling an 11-7 record since the All-Star Break (and the Knicks got Carmelo).  On Monday night, they went into Chicago and dismantled the Bulls 97-85, with six Sixers in double-digits in points.  This stark contrast was supposed to be reversed.  The Knicks have Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony--two of the most dominant players in the NBA.  (Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Knicks fan and season-ticket holder.  Am I biased? Yes,  but our editor is a Sixers fan, so he'll keep me in line.)  The Sixers, on the other hand, have a sophomore point guard and no bona fide stars to speak of.  Clearly, Mike D'Antoni's squad should be superior to the young guns in Philadelphia--but this has not been the case this season.  Are the under-the-radar 76ers REALLY better than the new-look Knicks?  Hit the jump to find out.

There are a bunch of ways to answer this question.  The first would be just looking at the records of the two since that trade--advantage: 76ers.  This seems unsatisfying, though, because the Heat's 9-8 start this season proved that superstars need time to gel and develop chemistry.  There is also such a limited sample size right now (20 games for the Knicks, 18 for the 76ers) that judging these two teams fairly would be nearly impossible based off records alone.  That means we have to look for another way to asses these Atlantic Division rivals.

The second way to see who is better is to simply look at both sets of players and compare.  Using John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER), we can get a simple, numerical assessment of all players and compare them across teams.  In this case, let's take the top five players on each team in terms of minutes played this season and compare their PER.  Theoretically, the players who play the most minutes are the ones with the most impact on their teams' fortunes, so we'll look at the five most important guys on each squad.  Here are the results:

New York Knicks
Amare Stoudemire: 23.0 PER (37.1 minutes per game)
Carmelo Anthony: 20.7 (36.9)*
Chauncy Billups: 17.7 (32.6)*
Landry Fields: 13.8 (31.8)
Toney Douglas: 14.7 (24.0)
*=arrived in midseason trade; PER/minutes per game only for games with Knicks

Philadelphia 76ers
Andre Iguodala: 17.8 (37.0)
Jrue Holiday: 15.3 (35.1)
Elton Brand: 18.1 (34.6)
Jodie Meeks: 13.3 (27.3)
Thaddeus Young: 18.2 (25.8)

New York Knicks: 17.98 PER average
Philadelphia 76ers: 16.54 PER average

Doug Collins has the 76ers playing inspired defense
So, judging by just the individual players--or at least the most time-intensive ones--the Knicks do appear to be better than the 76ers.  Some readers might be confused about how to interpret PER scores--admittedly, the calculations behind the rating system are complex and relatively opaque.  However, a comparison might prove useful here: the Knicks' 17.98 PER average is closest to Andre Miller or Rudy Gay.  By contrast, the 76ers' closest comparison is to the Nuggets' thug-in-residence, J.R. Smith.  NBA fans know the stark difference between Gay and Smith.  The former is averaging 19.6 points per game and 47% shooting this season, while the latter is contributing 15.4 ppg and 41% shooting in 2010-2011.  The Knicks, then, have the clear advantage in the personnel department.  Granted, Philly's Lou Williams and his team-high 18.9 PER are not included in these calculations because he players fewer minutes per game than Young, but that falls on coach Doug Collins (above).  On paper, the Knicks' five best players are solidly better than the 76ers' best five.  This seems to point to the Knicks actually being the superior team, but, again, this only looks at individual players and misses intangibles like chemistry, coaching, and teamwork.  To delve even deeper into this question, it's time to look at things from a more macro perspective.

The third method of analysis for determining whether New York or Philadelphia has the better NBA team is to look at the teams as a whole--not just at their components, the players.  The biggest influence on teamwork, chemistry, and camaraderie in the NBA (and most organized sports, really) is the head coach.  For this post, we are looking at Mike D'Antoni in the Big Apple and Doug Collins in the City of Brotherly Love.  Before this season, Collins compiled a 332-287 (.536) record as a head coach, though he had the help of His Airness for three season in Chicago (and 2 in Washington, but that's a different story).  Collins also has a 15-23 (.395) playoff coaching record, with 2 trips out of the first round and 1 trip to the Conference Finals.  D'Antoni's regular season numbers are not terribly different from his counterpart's: 328-275 (.544).  That record also includes two rebuilding years in New York before this one; his pre-Knicks record is 267-172 (.608), a vast improvement over Collins.  In the playoffs, too, D'Antoni has the advantage: a 26-25 (.510) and 2 trips to the conference finals.  Though D'Antoni has received plenty of criticism from the New York media during the Knicks' recent slide, he still beats Collins on the only quantifiable way to judge a coach: his track record.  D'Antoni's playoff success and better use of the talent assembled for him puts him (and the Knicks) slightly ahead of Philly's Collins.

The fourth and final way I'm going to analyze and compare these two clubs is by looking at their potential for growth.  The Sixers employ a bunch of young players, and the Melo trade was always going to take time to work, anyway.  So, let's see how much we can expect the Knicks and the Sixers to get better in the coming years, as the Celtics, Magic and Hawks age and there might be room for new contenders atop the East.

What will Brand, 31, do over the next few seasons?
Starting with the 76ers, their top PER man, Lou Williams, does not seem to have much room for growth in his game.  Though only 24, Williams is already in his 6th NBA season; though his PER is up slightly from last season, that is only because his minutes are way down while his statistical performance has held relatively steady.  This seems to indicate that, while Williams has turned in a few impressively efficient games this season, playing him more is not likely to benefit the Sixers much at all.  Another key cog for the Sixers is Elton Brand (see right), whose PER is up 3.4 points from last season and is his highest since 2006-2007.  During his prime, Brand regularly turned in PER's between 21 and 26, making him one of the most efficient players in the league.  But Brand is 31-years-old now, and the chances of his PER returning to peak levels are very slim.  Not that he can't maintain his renewed vigor and continue playing efficiently, but he is unlikely, at age 32 next season, to return to being one of the top power forwards in the NBA.  The most significant 76ers player with room for improvement is their point guard, Jrue Holiday.  His PER is up from 12.3 in his rookie year last year to 15.3 in his second season in the NBA.  He has also improved in almost every statistical category: more points, rebounds, assists, and trips to the free throw line; fewer turnovers and fouls.  At only 20-years-old, there is little reason to think that Holiday has reached his ceiling.  Such vast improvement after one NBA summer means that, given more game experience and more offseason training with the Sixers, Holiday might be able to blossom into a star point guard in this league.  Here is where the hope for Philly's future lies.

The Knicks have a young contributor of their own who looks like a budding star in this league: Landry Fields.  The 39th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Fields (see left) has started every game but one for the Knicks, racking up a 13.8 PER while leading all guards in rebounds this season.  While it is impossible to project exactly how he'll perform in the future, we can look at similar players for a comparison.  Last year, the Thunder's James Harden posted a comparable 14.0 PER in his rookie season; this year, he is up to 16.1 PER, putting him in the top 100 players in the league,  Obviously any comparison is imperfect, but James Harden's two-point jump in his sophomore year provides at least a rough idea of what we can expect from Landry Fields going forward.  The biggest area of improvement for the Knicks, though, is in their overall team chemistry.  Of the 76ers top six players in PER, all six were on the team last season and four were on the team two years ago.  For the Knicks, only one--second-year combo guard Toney Douglas--of their top six PER players was on the team last year, and none two years ago.  In fact, two of the top six--Anthony and point guard Chauncey Billups--were acquired in a midseason trade.  Given the Knicks' exhausting "Manic March" since the trade, the players have had little chance to practice with one another and develop chemistry.  There is ample precedent for teams needing time to gel after major acquisitions.  This season, the Miami Heat got of to a 9-8 start with their "Big 3;"  they then went 21-1 and are 42-15 since overall since the slow start.  And that team had all of training camp to learn one another's strengths and tendencies.  The Knicks have been doing it largely on the fly, meaning that, if Mike D'Antoni and his coaching staff can do things right, the Knicks could gel into a strong, cohesive unit. That's still a big "if," but the potential is at least there.

So there you have it: along our four lines of analysis (record, current players, coaching, and room for improvement) the Knicks come out on top 3-1.  The 76ers do have the better record and have been playing much better than the Knicks of late.  The Knicks do have a sizable PER advantage (1.5 points) among their top five players, and those players have little familiarity with one another.  This means that, given time and proper coaching, the Knicks' advantage on paper can be translated into results by fostering chemistry and teamwork.  The coaching issue is a relatively close one, as D'Antoni did have Steven Nash on his great Suns teams and still failed to make the NBA Finals.  However, he is good enough--as Collins has already been this season--to bring his players together to play as a team.  All that remains is to see whether he'll actually be able to do it.  And herein lies my verdict: the Knicks are better than the 76ers, but only if coach Mike D'Antoni can harness the talent at hand.  Erik Spoelstra did in in Miami after a rough start, now it's D'Antoni's turn.  Can he do it?  Can the 76ers improve in ways I didn't think about?  Or are the Knicks (eventually) going to start climbing the ladder in the Atlantic Division?

1 comment:

  1. Solid post. Although, as the Knicks' roster stands now, I am not too optimistic about the prospect of D'Antoni leading New York back to the promised land. You mentioned this point toward the end, but I think it's worth pressing even further: Steve Nash was a big, big part of D'Antoni's success in Phoenix. In fact, I'd even go so far as to that D'Antoni has only won and will ever win with a ridiculously skilled, versatile, fast-paced point guard who can get the ball up the floor and run flawless pick and rolls. Obviously, Steve Nash fit this bill back in his MVP days, but as Rick Pitino might say, he isn't walking through the MSG-door anytime soon. Chauncey Billups is still an elite point guard but not in D'Antoni's system. And Tony Douglas, well, he isn't a championship caliber guard in any offense. Thus, if the Knicks are going to do it with D'Antoni, then they need a Chris Paul, Deron Williams, or other elite floor general that's tailored for a run-and-gun offense. Until that happens, not only am I taking the 76ers over the Knicks now, but I have them in a playoff series as well.

    Over and out from England,