Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Best and Worst of Bill Simmons in One Handy Capsule

I have a love-hate relationship with Bill Simmons. On the one hand, this is my 21st post about his columns and most of those posts have been some variety of "this argument is totally wrong!" He is typically irrational when it comes to the Boston teams, which is to be expected, and he lets that irrationality affect his analysis, which is a problem for a guy who's paid to write smart columns about sports. He turned me into a Peyton Manning fan, which is quite an accomplishment in light of the fact that I swore eternal vengeance against Manning and Phil Fulmer for lying down in the January 1998 Orange Bowl. The recent dominance of Boston teams has been the worst development for my enjoyment of Simmons' work.

On the other hand, I read Simmons with more regularity than any other columnist. He doesn't just have a good writing style; he clearly cares about the craft of writing. His reading habits are evident in his writing and I appreciate anyone who reads voraciously. I wish I had more time to do the same. Simmons is so much better than the average columnist because he's a product of the Internet. He knows that there is a market out there for analysis that goes deeper than "Derek Jeter is clutch because his teams win." He knows that there are better stats than the conventional ones that one would see opening a newspaper, as evidenced by his collaboration with people like Aaron Schatz and John Hollinger. That said, he does get lazy with his analysis...

Take today's effort regarding Mike D'Antoni. This paragraph irked me:

We spent so much time arguing SSOL's team merits that we never noticed its effects on careers. Remember what happened to Quentin Richardson when he left Phoenix? (Even Sugar from Survivor didn't disappear as quickly.) Have you seen Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa or Raja Bell this season? (Overpaid bench players, as it turns out.) Or Amaré Stoudemire? (Is he even an All-Star anymore?) Have you caught Al Harrington, David Lee, Nate Robinson and Duhon in the Knicks' version of the SSOL system? (Suddenly, they're gone in every fantasy league.) Most important, has anyone seen Steve Nash lately?


Initially, the paragraph bothered me because Simmons ought to acknowledge that Joe Johnson has had an excellent career since leaving Phoenix. Billy Knight was ripped for signing Johnson to a massive deal and giving up a lot to acquire him. The source of the critique was that Johnson would not be the same player outside of Phoenix's system and without Steve Nash to feed him the ball. Now, Johnson is the lead player for a 21-10 team. He's turned into a good scoring option at the end of a tight game and he's also the Hawks' defensive stopper against opposing guards. If he were more of a character (you know, giving himself nicknames, getting stabbed in a nightclub, that sort of thing), he'd be one of the big stars in the league. Of all people who should know about Johnson, a Celtics nut who saw game four of the Celtics-Hawks series last year tops the list. He's a massive exception to Simmons' argument and he isn't mentioned.

So, with a skeptical eye, I decided to look at the players that Simmons did choose to cite to prove his point that players drop off the face of the earth when they are no longer playing for D'Antoni:

Quentin Richardson - Funny thing about Q, he's muddling along this year at 12 points per game while being coached by D'Antoni! If Simmons' theory were right, he should have exploded this year. Here are Richardson's PER numbers for the last four years:

2004-05 - 13.63
2005-06 - 9.61
2006-07 - 14.30
2007-08 - 8.72
2008-09 - 12.00

Richardson was in Phoenix for 2004-5 and then ended up with the Knicks thereafter. He had a great year for Phoenix, then a bad year, a good year, and a bad year for the Knicks. If I were trying to make the case that D'Antoni makes players better, I wouldn't choose a guy who had a better PER two years after playing for D'Antoni.

Boris Diaw - Diaw had a terrific 2005-6 that caused Hawks fans to want to send him or Mike Woodson a Semtex eclair (depending on whom we blamed for Diaw exploding after leaving Atlanta), then promptly declined thereafter:

2005-06 - 17.31
2006-07 - 13.02
2007-08 - 11.97
2008-09 - 13.55

Either D'Antoni was an apparition in 2006-07 and 2007-08 or Diaw declined while he was in the SSOL system. Note that Diaw's numbers have gotten better this year in year one AD'A.

Leandro Barbosa - Here is another guy who had one great year for D'Antoni, but started his decline while D'Antoni was still on the bench in Phoenix:

2005-06 - 15.14
2006-07 - 18.49
2007-08 - 15.81
2008-09 - 16.00

Barbosa's numbers are unchanged this year, despite the coaching change.

Raja Bell - Here is another guy whose decline started well before D'Antoni took the money from the Knicks:

2005-06 - 12.94
2006-07 - 12.01
2007-08 - 10.48
2008-09 - 8.97

Bell was 29 in 2005-06. The best explanation for his decline would be the fact that he has been moving farther and farther from his athletic prime.

Amaré Stoudemire - Finally, we have a guy who suffered from D'Antoni leaving:

2004-05 - 26.71
2005-06 - injured
2006-07 - 23.15
2007-08 - 27.29
2008-09 - 22.77

Stoudemire is not producing on the same levels he hit under D'Antoni. This could be the result of coaching, or it could be the result of Steve Nash showing his age. A third possibility is that we are dealing with a small sample size of 30 games and we need to wait a year or two before proclaiming that Stoudemire was destroyed by D'Antoni leaving Arizona.

As for the Knicks players, they are producing bigger numbers, but I don't see anyone proclaiming that Nate Robinson and Al Harrington are suddenly great players. Rather, I think most sane people realize that the Knicks are playing at a much faster pace this year, which means more shots for Knicks players and their opponents.

While Simmons' examples are faulty, his underlying point is spot-on:

The best thing that ever happened to Malone was Stockton, and vice versa; So, what if the Bullets hadn't screwed up and had picked Mailman one spot ahead of Utah instead of taking the immortal Kenny Green? How would you remember Dominique's career if the Lakers had picked him over Worthy? What if Pippen never played with MJ? What if McHale never played with Bird? What if young Kobe had gotten stuck on an expansion team instead of the Lakers? What if KG found a great team before he turned 30? What if Tim Duncan landed on the 1997-98 Celtics instead of the 1997-98 Spurs? In a league where you can play only five at a time, the fortunes of every good player are irrevocably tied to those of his teammates and coach. For better and worse.


If I had to pick one mistake that sports columnists make more than any other, it's that they fail to appreciate context. I've yet to see anyone in the AJC note that we all thought that Mark Richt was a great coach when Georgia's primary rivals were coached by Phil Fulmer, Ron Zook, and Chan Gailey, but now we all have gnawing concerns because of Urban Meyer and Paul Johnson. We all thought that Leo Mazzone was the greatest pitching coach on earth, but how much of that was based on the fact that he could trot out Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz on a regular basis? We all worried that Joe Johnson was a complementary piece masquerading as a star, but look at what Johnson looks like now with a proper point guard and more mature sidekicks at the forward positions?

Simmons makes a great point. I just wish that he would have remembered it when he claimed last year that the 2007 NFL season was resolving the Manning-Brady debate, as if Brady's numbers had nothing to do with having a motivated Randy Moss on the team. Or maybe Simmons will acknowledge that he thought that Doc Rivers was one of the worst coaches in basketball when the Celtics were tanking in 2007, but now he loves the Doc who gets to coach Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and a maturing Rondo.

5 comments:

Jeff said...

I can see why you wouldn't like the theory since it can be seen as a vague, indirect slight on your precious Joe Johnson but I think there's a few holes in your critique.

1. I don't follow Hollinger as closely as you do but PER seems like a balanced enough stat that it would smooth over the superficial bump Simmons is talking about in points, assists and 3s. And D'Antoni's system obviously inflates those stats because it leads to more shots and more open shots.

2. Several of your anaomolies are easily explained. Diaw started sucking immediately after (a) he signed a big contract, and (b) he lost his role as point forward after Stoudemire came back. Q did see a drop in offensive production but got a bigger role on the Knicks; also, the fluctuation in his numbers and the fact that he now sucks owe largely to his back issues. As to Barbosa, I think part of the answer is that he's one-dimensional and people figured that out.

3. Shouldn't you include some Knicks' numbers? I agree that nobody thinks Nate is great, but D'Antoni did rehabilitate Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford's numbers to the point that the Knicks were able to unload their onerous contracts fairly quickly. And as someone who has suffered through the Isiah era, their offense certainly has exploded under D'Antoni, even if their D has somehow managed to get worse.

4. Ultimately, the point of Simmons' article is about Nash and the fact that he just isn't as good as people thought he was under D'Antoni. And the numbers sure bear that out. The same seems to be true for Stoudemire but, as you said, we'll see on that.

Anonymous said...

Three quick thoughts:
1) Simmons has acknowledged that he hated Doc Rivers as coach of the Celtics. He believes that Doc actually improved as a coach during the 2008 postseason. He has said that repeatedly. Whether that is true or not is another discussion but that is his claim

2) I don't think you looked at the numbers on Richt vs. Meyer and Richt vs. Zook. Richt has coached 8 games against Florida. He is 0-1 vs Spurrier as the Florida coach, 1-2 vs Zook as the Florida coach, and 1-3 vs Meyer as the Florida coach. Check out those numbers, UGA's record with Richt vs UF with Meyer is 1-3 and UGA's record with Richt vs UF without Meyer is the exact same 1-3. As far as the Paul Johnson example, Richt went 6-0 vs Chan Gailey and has lost one shootout vs Paul Johnson. Does Paul Johnson look like a better coach than Chan Gailey? Yes, but Paul Johnson also just got his clock cleaned by an LSU team that UGA pounded so don't be surprised if UGA starts another 7 game winning streak versus Georgia Tech next year.

3) Finally, an interesting bit of Georgia-Florida scheduling trivia that has some bearing on the games result. Florida usually has a bye week before the UF-UGA game while Georgia does not. During the Richt Era, Florida is 5-0 when they have a bye and 1-2 when they don't. Georgia is 1-0 when they have the bye and 1-6 when they don't.

cellphonerep said...

i can agree about the steve nash comments to some extent. don't forget nash is getting old fast. now with amare, did the fact that shaq come over combined with nash aging have anything to do with it? i'm curious to see how grant hill's numbers stack up.

Anonymous said...

"If I had to pick one mistake that sports columnists make more than any other, it's that they fail to appreciate context. I've yet to see anyone in the AJC note that we all thought that Mark Richt was a great coach when Georgia's primary rivals were coached by Phil Fulmer, Ron Zook, and Chan Gailey, but now we all have gnawing concerns because of Urban Meyer and Paul Johnson. We all thought that Leo Mazzone was the greatest pitching coach on earth, but how much of that was based on the fact that he could trot out Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz on a regular basis? We all worried that Joe Johnson was a complementary piece masquerading as a star, but look at what Johnson looks like now with a proper point guard and more mature sidekicks at the forward positions?"

Funny you should say this, because there's no Atlanta-area athlete in recent history this applies to more than Michael Vick. He gets criticized all the time for not improving, not reading defenses, having poor fundamentals, etc. but nobody, including yourself, mentions the horrible coaching staff with which he was saddled and the ridiculous schemes he was forced to run.

Michael said...

Anon1, leave Richt's head-to-head records aside and look at the years in which he won the SEC East: 2002 (Zook), 2003 (Zook), and 2005 (Meyer's transition year after Zook). On Doc Rivers, it's amazing that Rivers went from being a terrible coach to a good one once he was coaching Garnett and Allen.

Anon2, you make a good point with Vick. The problem is that the offense that works best for Vick would be a pro adaptation of the Meyer/Rodriguez spread and he's too brittle to run such a system. He was a terrible fit for the WCO, but what system works better for a guy who was inconsistent with his accuracy and took crazy, off-line drops so his OL never knew where he would be?