Friday, October 5, 2007

Training Camp Begins, Time for Eastern Conference Rankings

With NBA training camps having begun this week, I thought it would be a good time to provide my power rankings for the Eastern Conference:

1) Detroit Pistons - The key pieces from a 53-win team, plus the addition of some promising rookies lead me to put Detroit on top of the East.
2) Chicago Bulls - Seven of the Bulls top eight from last season return, plus two new big men - Joakim Noah and Joe Smith.
3) Boston Celtics - The Hall of Fame trio will certainly contend for the conference championship. Injuries and the development of their young players will be the determining factor here.
4) Cleveland Cavaliers - With Ilgauskas and Marshall a year older, the development of Cedric Simmons, Shannon Brown, and Daniel Gibson will be vital.

5) New Jersey Nets - I don't buy Jamaal Magliore being the missing piece to the Nets' puzzle. I would expect the Nets to play more consistently throughout the season, but never truely contend for the title.
6) Miami Heat - Too many injuries to key players and a lack of talented youth has the Heat as a fringe playoff team.

7) Washington Wizards - The Wizards certainly have a talented roster this season, but likely are a talented center short of moving up the power ranking.
8) Orlando Magic - Adding Rashard Lewis is worth at minimum five wins to their regular season total. The Magic are still short on talent around Dwight Howard and Lewis to make a serious run in the East.
9) Toronto Raptors - With a majority of the Eastern Conference teams improving this offseason, the Raptors only made minor tweaks to their roster. The development of Andrea Bargnani and T.J. Ford will determine the success of this team.

10) New York Knicks - Zach Randolph was a strong addition to the Knicks roster, but they will have all types of trouble playing defense this year.
11) Atlanta Hawks - The Hawks have a young roster with loads of potential. Finding a reliable point guard to lead them will be vital in their success.
12) Charlotte Bobcats - I like Charlotte's starting five now, but they lack depth at every position. If they can keep their core together for years to come, they will be a contender soon.
13) Milwaukee Bucks - The Bucks had an active offseason, but still have plenty of question marks. What will Yi Jianlian bring them? Can Charlie Villanueva stay healthy? Do they need more of a true point guard?
14) Indiana Pacers - The Pacers may see themselves trading Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley by midseason and starting over around Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy Jr.
15) Philadelphia 76ers - The 76ers have some nice pieces in Andre Iguodala, Jason Smith, Rodney Carney and Thaddeus Young, but they lack a consistent veteran post scorer.

Review on "Wages of Wins"

I was reading The New Yorker's review on "The Wages of Wins" by David Berri from May 29, 2006 earlier today. I have not read the book and was interested in reading Malcolm Gladwell's review. Two sections of the review stoodout to me:

The first:

In “The Wages of Wins” (Stanford; $29.95), the economists David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt, and Stacey L. Brook set out to solve the Iverson problem. Weighing the relative value of fouls, rebounds, shots taken, turnovers, and the like, they’ve created an algorithm that, they argue, comes closer than any previous statistical measure to capturing the true value of a basketball player. The algorithm yields what they call a Win Score, because it expresses a player’s worth as the number of wins that his contributions bring to his team. According to their analysis, Iverson’s finest season was in 2004-05, when he was worth ten wins, which made him the thirty-sixth-best player in the league. In the season in which he won the Most Valuable Player award, he was the ninety-first-best player in the league. In his worst season (2003-04), he was the two-hundred-and-twenty-seventh-best player in the league. On average, for his career, he has ranked a hundred and sixteenth. In some years, Iverson has not even been the best player on his own team. Looking at the findings that Berri, Schmidt, and Brook present is enough to make one wonder what exactly basketball experts—coaches, managers, sportswriters—know about basketball.

The second:

Most egregious is the story of a young guard for the Chicago Bulls named Ben Gordon. Last season, Gordon finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and was named the league’s top “sixth man”—that is, the best non-starter—because he averaged an impressive 15.1 points per game in limited playing time. But Gordon rebounds less than he should, turns over the ball frequently, and makes such a low percentage of his shots that, of the N.B.A.’s top thirty-three scorers—that is, players who score at least one point for every two minutes on the floor—Gordon’s Win Score ranked him dead last.

At some point, I would like to read this book and dive further into Berri's calculations and thoughts.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Cardinals Fire GM Walt Jocketty

Jocketty got a raw deal
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What exactly does a GM have to do these days to keep his job?

Walt Jocketty spent 13 seasons at the helm of the St. Louis Cardinals. In that time, they racked up seven playoff appearances, three National League pennants and a World Championship (an unlikely one, but still, the flag looks the same). Their seven-year run of winning seasons was snapped this year, due in no small part to injuries to Chris Carpenter, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, and 2007 marked just the fourth losing season in Jocketty's tenure.

Jocketty was let go due to non-baseball reasons, but sometimes the baseball reasons need to win out. His track record at the major league level includes some outstanding moves:

• He picked up Rolen for a young Placido Polanco back in 2002. Rolen was a star at the time having a down year, with Dallas Green killing him in the press at every opportunity; Rolen hit 15 homers in two-plus months with the Cardinals, finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2004 as he had his best year and the Cardinals won the pennant, and had another excellent year in 2006 before injuries wrecked his season this year. Polanco became a great hitter for average starting in 2005, but the value Rolen provided in the short term made this a slam-dunk for the Cardinals.

• He acquired Edmonds for Kent Bottenfield and then-prospect Adam Kennedy. Bottenfield was out of the majors for good inside of 15 months and Kennedy eventually developed into a fringy regular, but Edmonds became a star, hitting 172 homers with a .410 OBP over the next five years, with great defense in center.

• He picked up a broken-down Carpenter after the 2002 season, and while Carpenter needed another shoulder surgery before he was able to pitch for the Cards, he turned in three fantastic years, winning a Cy Young Award and coming in third the following year. While Jocketty eventually gave Carpenter a huge contract extension, the cost of the initial pickup was minimal; Carpenter came to St. Louis because the Cards offered him a spot on the 40-man roster and Toronto wouldn't.

• He traded an underachieving and soon-to-be-free-agent J.D. Drew to Atlanta for Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright. Marquis gave the Cardinals two solid years before one awful one, while Wainwright became the closer on the 2006 championship club before becoming an above-average starter this year. Drew spent one year with the Braves before leaving as a free agent.

If Jocketty has had a major failing, it's that the Cardinals' farm system was not especially productive during his tenure, but that area of the business was taken away from him over the last two years, and the team's drafts in that time have not been particularly strong. And that leads into the real reason for the friction that led to Jocketty's departure: the rise of Jeff Luhnow, hired by owner Bill DeWitt and handed increasing amounts of responsibility within baseball operations, to the detriment of several of Jocketty's longtime lieutenants. This situation, where the general manager did not have full authority over his team's scouting and player developments, appears to be unique within the game, and it's all the more unusual given Jocketty's track record and reputation.

St. Louis is now in a difficult spot. If it's true that Luhnow -- who apparently won't be a candidate for the GM position -- is untouchable due to his relationship with the team's primary owner, many GM candidates with backgrounds in either scouting or player development will balk at the position because of how limited their control will be. They may be forced to fill the position from within (John Mozeliak, their former scouting director and now the interim GM, would be a solid choice), or to accept a candidate whose interest in being GM supersedes his concern at the lack of control. Jocketty, meanwhile, should have his pick of positions, as many teams would be thrilled to obtain a GM with his reputation and track record, and you can bet that one of his first questions for a prospective employer will be, "Can I pick my own scouting director?"

Monday, October 1, 2007

Europe Competing with the NBA for Talent

"Affluent European teams tempting NBAers", Toronto Star
September 30, 2007
By Dave Feschuk


So here it is, the NBA's annual take-over-the-world tour. And maybe the Raptors' two-week jaunt through Italy and Spain inches the roundball globe just a little closer to what some have long considered its manifest destiny, a European Division for David Stern's mighty league.

Judging from this past summer, though, Europe's basketball power brokers aren't pining to be colonized. Instead, they're suddenly competing with the NBA for the kind of players that European teams, not long ago, had little chance at landing. And they're doing it with impressive stacks of euros, the high-flying currency that, as of yesterday, was worth $1.42 U.S.

So while some have scoffed at the Europe-bound threats of Andrei Kirilenko and Anderson Varejao, disgruntled NBA forwards who have both talked of the option of leaving the NBA for Europe, this summer has seen a flow of trans-Atlantic traffic in a heretofore unusual direction. And the movement, now that Chris Webber is reported to be considering a two-year deal with Greece's Olympiacos, could continue.

The prospective terms of the Webber deal – two years and a net takeaway of $10 to $12 million (all figures U.S.) for the 34-year-old free agent – are the latest set of stunning figures to be tossed around the Continent. Sarunas Jasikevicius, the Lithuanian point guard slated to make $4 million with the Golden State Warriors this season, agreed to a buyout and signed with Olympiacos's Greek-league rival Panathinaikos for a deal that that will pay him a net salary more than $4 million a year. Factoring in the exchange rate – and the fact his NBA salary was a pre-tax figure while his European salary is quoted in take-home pay – Jasikevicius would have had to sign an NBA deal worth about $8 or $9 million to bank the same amount.

The prospect of NBA-calibre players heading back to Europe, once essentially idle chatter, is now "a concrete threat," said Maurizio Gherardini, the Raptors' Italian-born assistant general manager.

"No one was expecting Europe to become such a quality alternative over these past two or three years," Gherardini said.

"I think the NBA teams need to understand that the European teams can put on the table some good contracts, something that, a few years ago, you couldn't even think of."

Most of the gains are at the bottom of the NBA food chain. Uros Slokar, the Slovenian forward who spent last season riding the bench for the Raptors, has found impressively gainful employment in the Russian league, more than tripling his take-home pay after earning $412,000 in the NBA last season. And the list goes on.

Maceo Baston, the Raptors forward from Dallas who has spent the majority of his nine-year pro career playing for teams in Italy, Spain and Israel, said that when piled atop the traditional benefits of playing on the old side of the Atlantic – the apartment and the car that are automatic throw-ins in most contracts – the deals are "surprising."

Where are these teams getting the money? The best-in-Europe Spanish league is booming. The Russian league counts among its owners a handful of mega-rich businessmen. Same goes for the Greek-league powers and a couple of teams in Istanbul, Turkey. The top team in Israel, Maccabi Tel Aviv, isn't averse to paying top dollar to secure talent. Even the comparatively modest salaries in the Italian league are on the rise.

"I still believe that there will never be enough money to attract the true superstars (to Europe)," Gherardini said. "But for an average player, if he has a true offer from Europe, you do not want to underestimate that. You have to respect he growth of basketball in Europe, because people love basketball and it's getting better and better."

Taking a Break for the Cubs and the Playoffs

With the Cubs clearly in the playoffs and Lou Pinella and Jim Hendry having to put together a 25 man playoff roster, I got to thinking. Who's going to get left off this thing? They going to go with 3 catchers? How many bats? Which long relievers are making this squad? 14 hitters and 11 pitchers?

Gordon Wittenmyer wrote a brief article last week in the Sun-Times speculating who they will go with. But the focus of this article was Geovany Soto's inclusion. To me, Soto is the best catcher in the organization and a lock to find himself on the roster when the Cubs begin their march. Personally, I would tell Soto to prepare to catch every playoff game and let Jason Kendall know to take a seat. Kendall's caught 51 games with the Cubs so far and had 51 guys attempt a steal on him. How many of those has he thrown out? 2. The two victims were a base stealer who slid past the bag and Ken Griffey Jr. thrown out by a wide margin on a botched hit and run. He provides no power and has only batted .169 in September. In fact, I would play Henry Blanco over Kendall.

When I sat down and looked at the current roster, some of my toughest decisions were whether to go 3 catchers (Henry Blanco) or include the extra outfielder (Matt Murton, Daryl Ward). Angel Pagan and Ward's health status will certainly have to be taken into account when deciding, but I had to assume that based on today, Pagan would be out and Ward would be in.

More difficult though was picking the 11 pitchers to go with. The four starters (Carlos Zambrano, Rich Hill, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis) were pretty simple and I don't see them pitching anyone else in a playoff game (Marshall, Trachsel). I personally think Lou brought up Kevin Hart to get him ready to pitch in the playoffs but I don't see how you add him when you have other, more experienced guys there (Trachsel, Scott Eyre, Wood). Hart though has pitched in 8 games, 11 innings, and only given up 7 hits while striking out 13 since his callup. He's given up 1 run. I like him and think he's got a great future with the organization, but he's still very young at 25 and there are too many others ahead of him. So, he's off the roster.

The next decision was the hardest. The guys on the fringe for the last spot are Kerry Wood, Scott Marshall, Trachsel, and Eyre. Ideally, you carry two guys who are swingmen types that can pitch either long relief or start for you. The Cubs only have two of those types of guys (Marshall and Trachsel), after you've eliminated Hart. In his last 7 starts, Wood has not given up a run. However, his success as a reliever is somewhat deceiving because Lou rarely brings him in with runners on base or in a close game. When you look at Marshall, you see he's only made 3 appearances in September - all in relief. He is very inexperienced as a reliever with the Cubs, so you have to question his inclusion.

At 37, Trachsel holds the "experienced" card in this mix. He has clearly been there before but has been awful since joining the Cubs. He's given up 16 runs over 17 innings pitched and only has 11 strikeouts.

With Scott Eyre, you have a guy who is also experienced pitching in the playoffs in the past with the Giants and Lou has been throwing him quite often in the last several weeks. In fact, in September, Eyre did not give up a run. You have to go back to August 11 in Colorado to find a game where Eyre had a run scored on him. To me, he's a lock to make this roster.

So what do I think Lou will do? Marshall's inactivity signals to me that he's on the cutting block. I assume his confidence has fallen, plus he get's hit hard by right handed batters.

What would I do? This one's easy in my mind. You can have all the experience in the world, but if you're bad, you're bad. Trachsel never pitches another game in a Cubs uniform.

Two things are for certain for the Cubs: One, they will be in the playoffs in 2007 and two, Pinella has some tough decisions to make in the next several days as to who will be on this 25-man playoff roster.

25 man roster (14 hitters, 11 pitchers)


Long Relief/swingmen:

Closer/short relief