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Just The Sports: 2008-01-27

Just The Sports

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Jermaine O'Neal

Jermaine O'Neal has expressed on several occasions his desire to be traded out of Indiana and away from the Indiana Pacers, all to no avail, so there should be no surprise that O'Neal is now threatening that his knee injury may not allow him to play in another game this season. When labor does not feel its demands are being met by its employers, then its only recourse is to withhold services, which is exactly what O'Neal seems to be doing. However, O'Neal has overrated the value of his services to the Indiana Pacers if he thinks the franchise will immediately capitulate to his demands.

This is O'Neal's eighth season with the Pacers and the first four seasons with the team were relatively injury-free for O'Neal, but over the last four seasons (including 2007-08), he has only played in 197 out of 328 regular-season contests, or only 67% while being paid 100% of his money. The only reason the number is even that high is because O'Neal played 69 regular-season games in the 2006-07 season. In the other three seasons, O'Neal has missed at least a quarter of his team's regular-season games so while O'Neal has been injured or suspended, the Pacers have found out what life is like without O'Neal in the lineup and should not fear his absence from the roster in the future.

With Jermaine O'Neal on the active roster for forty-four games in 2004-05, the Pacers outscored their opponents by .5 points per 100 possessions (105.7 to 105.2). Without him in the other thirty-eight games, the Pacers outscored their opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions (107.5 to 105.2).

In the next season, it was another case of the Pacers not missing O'Neal by virtue of their not having any precipitous drop in their efficiency level, thanks in part to a trade that brought the ultra-efficient scorer Peja Stojakovic into the fold. In the fifty-one games in which O'Neal played, the Pacers outscored their opponents 1.9 points per 100 possessions (104.2 to 102.3) and without him in thirty-one games, the Pacers outscored their opponents by the same 1.9 points per 100 possessions (106.5 to 104.6).

Only last year, during the 2006-07 season, did the Pacers with O'Neal look significantly better than they did with him, but with his missing only thirteen regular-season games that year, there are not really two roughly equal sample sets to compare to each other. Even so, the Pacers were outscored by their opponents by 2.0 points per 100 possessions (103.8 to 105.8), and without him were outscored by an embarrassing 9.9 points per 100 possessions (100.0 to 109.9).

However, that season looks even more like a statistical outlier since during this season, the story has been the same as the tale told in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. In the thirty-three games O'Neal played in, the Pacers were outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions (103.5 to 106.4) and in the other fourteen games, the Pacers have been outscored by .9 points per 100 possessions (106.6 to 107.5). Neither number is impressive, but they do show the Pacers are not a worse team without Jermaine O'Neal.

No matter the roster changes or the coaching changes, the Pacers have never been handicapped by O'Neal's absence so if they choose to ignore his complaints as they have in the past, it will not do any damage to the product on the court. On the other hand, if they can trade him to a team that overrates his prowess on the court, the Pacers should try to do so without having to give up any of the more important players on the roster.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Anderson Varejao

Cleveland Cavalier Anderson Varejao nearly became infamous for his contract holdout over the summer that also spilled over into the regular season before the Cavaliers matched a three-year, $17 million contract sheet Varejao was offered by the Charlotte Bobcats. To the untrained eye, it seemed ridiculous for a player who had only averaged 6.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in the season previous to holding out for more money, but Varejao is a very valuable player to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Every season Varejao has had a defensive rating below the league average and an offensive rating well above league average, including this year, and in addition to that, he is a very proficient rebounder in terms of his rebound rate. He may not be a superstar, but he is a very valuable player in his own right so his return should have elevated the Cavaliers' play in some definable way.

On the surface, it would appear that Varejao did make the Cavaliers better when he returned to their line-up. During the twenty-one games Varejao missed, the Cavaliers were outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. With Varejao in uniform for the next twenty-two games, the Cavaliers outscored their opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions, which is a 10.0 points per 100 possessions swing in favor of the Cavaliers just because Sideshow Bob's Brazilian doppelganger is playing. Simple enough.

Unfortunately for Varejao the next time he wants to make the case that he deserves more money from the Cavaliers, he will not be able to point to these splits to demonstrate how valuable he is to the team for there are other, more accurate reasons for the Cavaliers' turnaround.

Actually, the Cavaliers were not as bad during those twenty-one games as the statistics suggest. LeBron James missed five of those twenty-one games, thereby transforming an already unimpressive offense into something even more anemic and pedestrian. Once those five games are removed, the Cavaliers were only outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions. In addition, the Cavaliers played a much tougher schedule before Varejao showed up to ply his basketball trade. Thirteen of the twenty-one games the Cavaliers played were against opponents who are currently above-.500; in the next twenty-two games, only nine games were against opponents who are currently above-.500. Therefore, the Cavaliers' improvement was less due to Varejao's return than the fact they were playing an inferior brand of foe. It will not be until the Cavaliers play more quality foes with Varejao that we will be able to determine how much of a positive difference Varejao is providing.

Furthermore, while listening to ESPN Radio's production of the Los Angeles Lakers-Cleveland Cavaliers games, I overheard analyst Will Perdue state Varejao's return has reinvigorated his teammate, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, since they are the best of friends and always hang out with each other. While Varejao and Ilgauskas may be great friends and Ilgauskas' mood may have improved, it has not translated to any improvement in his play on the court. His shooting statistics are basically identical before (53.2 TS%/1.06 PSA) and after (53.4 TS%/1.07 PSA) Varejao returned to the roster and the only important statistics for a low-post player that have changed have been his minutes, which have gone down (32.5 minutes per game to 28.2 minutes per game), and also his rebound rate (18.9 RbR to 16.7 RbR), which has also gone down. Those numbers have decreased because of Varejao due to the fact minutes for Varejao have to be taken from somewhere and Varejao's rebounding prowess means there will be fewer rebounding opportunities for Ilgauskas.

Anderson Varejao may be a crowd favorite, but the difference with and without him is not enough to suggest the Cavaliers could not have improved in the same way if he had not suited up for them this season.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chris Lofton

Go to, the official home of the University of Tennessee men's athletics, and you will see on the top banner a picture of senior Tennessee shooting guard Chris Lofton, who is described as being an All-American candidate. If Lofton is indeed a candidate for All-American honors, he is only one in the way in which Dennis Kucinich was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the President of the United States in 2004 and 2008. In other words, Lofton is a candidate in name only because nothing he has done on the court this year even whispers All-American talent.

What makes the banner's proclamation that much more ironic is the fact this is the only season where Chris Lofton has not been one of the country's superb players. In his previous three seasons, Lofton had true shooting percentages and points per shot attempt marks of 65.9 TS%/1.32 PSA, 64.7 TS%/1.29 PSA, and 65.0 TS%/1.30 PSA. This year, Lofton is shooting a statistically significantly worse 55.0 TS% on 1.10 points per shot attempt.

The way in which he has declined would not be as noticeable if he had another viable skill to help his team, but all Lofton can really bring is his shooting prowess and when he is not shooting well, he is unable to make up for it in other facets of the game. In fact, he is falling into some of the same ruts he was able to climb out of in putting together his junior season, which has been his best so far. Lofton's junior season has been the only one during which his three-pointers made comprised less than 60% of his field goals made (51.4%) and he attempted more free throws than he made three-pointers. His freshman season three-pointers were 63.1% of his made field goals and he shot forty-eight fewer free throws than he made three-pointers. During his sophomore season, he relied even more exclusively on the three-pointer, with 65.5% of his made field goals being three-pointers and shooting fifty-four fewer free throws than he made three-pointers. Head coach Bruce Pearl is no doubt disappointed to see Lofton reverting back to his former bad habits; Lofton's senior season is seeing 73.4% of his field goal makes coming up off three-pointers and he has two fewer free-throw attempts than made three-pointers.

For Lofton to rely so heavily on the three-pointer when he is struggling so mightily to shoot well shows both a lack of adaptability and perhaps even a lack of confidence that he can get any other kind of shot, by actually using the dribble. His shooting slump has certainly not made him into a better passer as his 12.3 assist rate/8.5 turnover rate suggests nor has he become a better rebounder (6.1 rebound rate) so he has been a real liability to his team.

If Lofton desires to have an NBA career, he will need to develop better point-guard skills since a 6'2 shooting guard is not in high demand in the NBA, especially one who is only a catch-and-shoot player and cannot help the team in any other way. There are taller players with the same skill set who will actually be able to shoot over defenders, making him completely unnecessary to any team. Therefore, he will need to get out of his slump quickly if he does not want his career to end on a sour note. One thing is for sure, though; unless his last two games are a harbinger that his shooting slump is over, then he will not need to clear his calendar in order to make time for any All-American ceremonies.