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Just The Sports: 2007-01-21

Just The Sports

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Starsky Without His Hutch

In a perfect world, each NBA team would have two premium scoring talents so that they might learn what success tastes like. Staying in this perfect world, no franchise would be forced to experience life without both of these stars on the court at the same time. Of course, such a world does not exist, and injuries do happen, so every team goes through a time when at least one of their top scorers, if not both of them at the same time, is unable to play. The hope that follows such an occurrence is that the other star will be able to raise in a game in a way that will make the absence of his partner a little easier to bear. Sometimes these stars are able to accomplish this; sometimes they are not. Take the Houston Rockets, for example.

When the Rockets finalized the trade that resulted in Tracy McGrady being added to their roster, their theory was most likely that by pairing McGrady with Yao Ming, they were done looking for their two franchise players. That dream lasted for all of one season, the 2004-05 one. Since then, in the two most recent seasons including this one, both players have had their seasons ravaged by injury and have only played fifty-one games together. Ming has played in thirty-three contests without McGrady and McGrady has repaid the favor by competing in thirty games with Ming on the sidelines.

With Ming playing alongside McGrady, he has put up some very good numbers. He is averaging 23.1 points per game with a 61.1% true shooting percentage. But without McGrady, Ming has looked like anything but someone an NBA team should be building around. If not for the one shot he took before having to leave his last game, six minutes into it, due to injury, he would have averaged 2.4 more field goal attempts per game than he has in games played with McGrady. This makes sense since with McGrady absent more of the offensive load would fall on Ming's shoulders. Unfortunately, these added shots have not translated into extra points since Ming is only averaging 24.0 points per game in those contests. What it has translated into is a much lower true shooting percentage, 57.3% to be exact. Ming has simply not been able to raise his game to a higher level without McGrady.

McGrady has made up for Ming not being on the court, though. Like Ming, McGrady has taken more field goal attempts per game when playing alone, averaging 5.2 more shots per. Unlike Ming, these added shots have been Rumpelstiltskin-ed into more points. When McGrady is forced to pass the ball to Ming, he has averaged 21.0 points per game. Without that burden to pass hanging over his head, McGrady has posted 28.8 points per game. He has done so by maintaining his shooting percentage, even shooting a little better when he shoots more (51.8% TS to 48.9% TS). In fact, it would most likely do wonders for McGrady and return him to the scoring numbers that first made him famous if he never had to play with Ming again.

These two players are only one example of what is happening across the NBA. With this sort of evidence, in addition to how the team as a whole does when one star is missing as compared to another, teams can make more informed decisions about which star is the more expendable.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Overcoming A Sophomore Slump

Even though Tyler Hansbrough has been and remains in a sophomore slump, this does not mean the University of North Carolina basketball as a whole is experiencing a decline in play from last season to this season. Thanks to a fine job of recruiting by the coaching staff, the 2006-07 team through nineteen games has proved themselves superior, at least offensively, to the 2005-06 Tarheels through that team's first nineteen games of the season.

While the UNC basketballers this year are much more efficient offensively, scoring 117.6 points per 100 possessions, than last year's squad that was only scoring at a clip of 108.8 points per 100 possession, they are not so as a result of improved shooting. A brief glimpse and a more in-depth stare will both lead the observer to the same conclusion; in their respective first nineteen games, the two teams shot basically the same percentages from the field and the free throw line.

The biggest difference between the two squads is the way in which they prized their possessions. There is really no contest when it comes to how these teams limited turnovers; the 2006-07 roster holds all the advantages. For this season, the Tarheels only have .195 turnovers per possession, compared to last year's .251 turnovers per possession. As the results of not wasting as many possessions, there are the increased offensive efficiency, floor percentage (.55 to .50), and field percentage (.48 to .41).

Another reason why Carolina has not suffered for the decreased effectiveness of Tyler Hansbrough has been because of the play of freshman Brandan Wright, who gives the Tar Heels another low-post scorer so they are not so reliant on Hansbrough to have a great game. Albeit in a slightly different role, Brandan Wright has for the most part matched everything Hansbrough did in the first nineteen games of his collegiate career, as far as shooting from the field (64.5% eFG to 60.9% eFG) and rebounding (14.3 Rebound Rate to 16.1 Rebound Rate). He is actually ahead of where Hansbrough was last year in keeping his turnovers to a minimum (10.2 Turnover Rate to 15.9 Turnover Rate). Where Wright still lags behind Hansbrough is in both the frequency with which he gets to the line per game (5.2 FTA to 8.0 FTA) and how well he shoots free throws once he does make it to the line (55.6 FT% to 76.3 FT%).

The same can be said for Brandan Wright when he is weighed on a scale opposite Tyler Hansbrough in this, Tyler's sophomore, season. As soon as Wright becomes a better shooter from the free throw line, he will go from being Hansbrough's equal to being his superior.

It is likely that last year's team would not have been able to endure Hansbrough's slump without many ill effects, but for this year's Tarheels team they have shaken it off as if the slump weighs nothing at all.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Former College Sharpshooters

In basketball, as in life, one must take advantage of those opportunities that come his way. For NBA players who do not fit the prototype of what an NBA player at their position should look like, it is especially important that they adhere to this lesson because the number of opportunities that they will be given are limited before they even step out onto the court. When these types of players succeed, it is a testament to their hard work and ability. Yet, when they fail, the failure not only affects the players individually, but is doubly damaging since it perpetuates the myth that a guard or center or forward will only have success in the NBA if he is this tall or can jump this high or can run this fast, which may cause the players behind them who also do not measure up to the physical ideal to receive fewer chances than they deserve.

Luckily, for former college sharpshooters, their path to NBA success has just gotten a lot smoother thanks to the inspired play of Charlotte Bobcats shooting guard Matt Carroll and Miami Heat guard/forward Jason Kapono.

In this, Matt Carroll's fourth NBA season and third getting significant run, he is averaging a career high in minutes per game (22.2) and field goal attempts per game (8.1). He is also averaging a career high in points per game (11.2), but that is not the result only of his increased number of field goal attempts. Carroll has actually posted a 54.4% effective field goal percentage along with a 60.5% true shooting percentage, which as you probably already guessed are also career highs, meaning he is becoming a more efficient shooter. Usually, one would expect a player who shot more to be unable to improve his shooting percentage since he would have more of a chance to miss his field goal attempts. Not so with Carroll.

Lest the data and the post title try to pigeonhole Carroll as only an excellent shooter, let it be known that this season he has, in addition to becoming a better shooter, increased his assist rate while decreasing his turnover rate. Before this season, Carroll had a career assist rate of 5.9 and a career turnover rate of 8.6. This season, the numbers are 11.0 and 8.0, respectively.

Like Carroll, this season has seen Jason Kapono average a career high in minutes per game (23.9), thanks to various injuries to the Miami Heat roster. Unlike Carroll, though, Kapono has not attempted a career high in field goal attempts per game in the 2006-07 season. His one-year stint with the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004-05 where he shot the ball 8.3 times per game trumps this year's 7.5 attempts a contest. Where a mere mortal might allow that fact to keep him from reaching a career high in points per game, Kapono has not, averaging 10.0 points and having a 63.7% true shooting percentage; his shooting percentage is 18% higher than the true shooting percentages he had in his first three years in the league.

Using these two players as models, NBA teams should not be fearful of giving significant minutes to college players whose top and sometimes only attribute is the ability to the shoot the ball well. After all, pure shooters can score even if they can't jump 40 inches in the air.