Around the NBA

By Kevin Pelton
Jan. 28, 2004

"Page 23" takes this opportunity to take a look at some of the biggest stories from around the NBA in the past week:

Nets Axe Scott, Promote Frank

Monday morning, on its NBA front page, had the following lead-in to the story about Byron Scott's dismissal:

"At 22-20, the Nets underachieved this season under Scott."

That immediately caught my attention. Have the Nets really underachieved?

While everyone remembers that they went to the NBA Finals last season, the Nets only won 49 games. Not that it means much of anything, but I predicted an identical 49-33 record for New Jersey this season. How many wins does 49-33 translate to over 42 games?

25. (25.1, to be exact.)

That's not all. Despite a 47-point drubbing at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies in mid-December, the Nets have a solid point differential, +1.2 points per game. If you regress point differentials and winning percentages this season, that projects to a .540 winning percentage -- 23 wins (22.7, to be exact).

New Jersey has some developing young players, like Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, but the main reason anyone would have predicted them to be significantly better this season was the addition of Alonzo Mourning -- who retired after 12 games. Who else did people think was going to be the answer for the Nets, Zoran Planinic?

Based on all that, it's tough for me to say the Nets had really underachieved. They weren't at where I expected them to be right now, but they were close enough to easily make up that gap over the second half of the season.

Yes, the Nets had lost five straight games before beating the Celtics on Sunday, but isn't that the kind of thinking I argued against in my last column about sample size? Five games aren't going to tell you anything about Scott the previous 200-some-odd games didn't. I think you could make that argument based on the entire season as well.

However, saying Scott didn't deserve to be fired based on the Nets' performance this year is not the same as saying he did not deserve to be fired. For all the success the Nets had the last two seasons, Scott was never considered a good Xs and Os coach, and his in-game strategic moves were erratic at best on the high stage of the playoffs.

(This is a good time to mention the Eddie Jordan factor. Jordan's gotten a lot of credit for New Jersey's success, but I question whether that reputation is really deserved. I know he coached one of the worst teams I've ever seen in Sacramento and has been beset by injuries this year in Washington, but the guy's career record is 46-94.

Jordan's claim to fame is bringing the Princeton offense to New Jersey, but the Nets have never won because of their offense. The Nets were third in per-possession defense last season, a distant 19th in offense. This season, they're tenth. So would somebody tell me how that makes Jordan some kind of genius?)

In the East, it's difficult to tell whether a team is underachieving or overachieving. That, along with the knowledge that for many teams, one move could be enough to put them over the top and into the NBA Finals, is probably the biggest reason we see so many personnel moves in the East, especially on the coaching side.

There could be a deeper reason. I've mentioned before that I'm part of an online baseball simulation league. Like the Eastern Conference, we have a weak sister, one of the divisions. A lot of us owners believe that owners in that division have a warped idea of the talent in the league because the teams they see the most are so poor. As a result, they overvalue their own talent, which makes them tough to trade with.

We don't have coaches, but if we did I bet the turnover in that division would be extremely high. When you overvalue your own talent, it's easy to think your team is underachieving. 12 guys in the East have to make the All-Star team, and somebody has to be the second-best center after Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Larry Bird takes over the Indiana Pacers, and he sees his team has the best big man in the East (Jermaine O'Neal) and a borderline All-Star (Ron Artest). And they lost in the first round of the playoffs? Of course Isiah Thomas is the problem, so he gets rid of him.

The counter-argument here is that the Pacers actually have played outstanding ball under Rick Carlisle, but they were in the exact same position a year ago. Call me in April.

The top seven coaches in the NBA in terms of longevity coach in the West. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the top six have all made the playoffs each of the last three years. Success is a cause of the stability, but it may be an effect as well, as coaches and players get a chance to grow into successful units with each other.

Would the Dallas Mavericks be where they are if they had fired Don Nelson four years ago? How about the Minnesota Timberwolves if they'd axed Flip Saunders for his failure to get the team past the first round of the playoffs?

These are important questions, but tough ones to answer.

O'Brien Resigns

Speaking of the difficulty of telling whether a team is underachieving or overachieving, let's move on to the Boston Celtics and Jim O'Brien. Celtics fans seem to be split as to whether O'Brien has made the most of mediocre talent or has held his team back. Both sides have persuasive arguments.

On the one hand, the Celtics clearly aren't the most talented team in the world. Last year, they featured Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, and a host of role players -- and Walker's value remains up in the air. The ultimate test of a coach, I imagine, is how he performs relative to another coach at the helm of the same team. Well, O'Brien took over a 12-22 team from Rick Pitino and went 24-24 the rest of the way. (Of course, many Celtics fans would point out that outcoaching Pitino is a pretty dubious indicator of ability.)

At the same time, there is a strong anti-O'Brien contingent, including this site's Boston columnist, Josh Ozersky. I like three-pointers as much as anyone, but O'Brien's three-point-happy offense passed the line of being reasonable. The Celtics weren't even a good three-point shooting team last season, making just 33.4% from the field. O'Brien's ability to get his best players on the court was also questionable, as he has shown an obsession with hustle guys with limited talent.

It's a terrible thing for a columnist to do, but I'm going to admit I don't really know whether the Celtics or Nets will be better off with their new coaches, Lawrence Frank and John Carroll (at least beyond a possible honeymoon period). It's the Eastern Conference. I just have no idea.

All-Star Break Approaches

Looking for illogical arguments? Go no further than Marty Burns' (All-Star) mailbag at -- and no, with the exception of the argument that the Mavs deserve a rep, I don't mean Burns' comments. But really, Gary Payton does suck "in every way imaginable".

I don't get worked up about All-Star picks anymore, because it's now my view that there are many equally valid ways of thinking about the All-Star game. It could be a reward for the players who've had the best first halves, it could be an exhibition of the top players in the league irrespective of this year's performance, or it could be a chance for fans to see their favorite players. Most analysts pick on the first view and are indignant when fans or the coaches think otherwise.

Generally, I believe in something between the first two criteria. Of course past performance should be taken into account, especially, again, in the wake of the variability of statistics. My picks, then:

West East
G Cassell G Kidd
G Maggette G Redd
F Stojakovic F Pierce
F Kirilenko F Abdur-Rahim
C B. Miller C Ilgauskas
Ut Nowitzki Ut B. Davis
Ut Brand Ut Marbury

I was forced to leave out Ron Artest because I dutifully followed the positional requirements in the East (I fudged a little in the West by taking Brad Miller over the deserving Yao Ming at center and moving Corey Maggette back to the two). Nowitzki's performance has been strong enough to merit an All-Star berth on its own; that he was one of the NBA's top players last season is a tiebreaker.

I suppose the biggest surprise here is taking Elton Brand over another squatty power forward, Zach Randolph. I've pushed Randolph as much as anyone, but the fact that he's averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds obscures low shooting efficiency, while Brand has been absolutely phenomenal in his limited playing time. I've devoted enough time to this.

Miles for McInnis

Darius Miles was the subject of my very first "Page 23" column, and while I strived to remain objective, my feeling at the time was clear: He wasn't going to go anywhere unless he dramatically improved his skill set. A year later, nothing has changed, except that Miles is a year closer to having the word unmet be placed in front of potential when referring to him.

To his credit, Miles has turned the tide to some extent. After seeing his numbers decline each of the last two seasons, he's improved his shooting percentage and cut his turnovers this season. But everything else is down, and 43.2% shooting with no threes and poor foul shooting still isn't going to cut it at the small forward position. Miles remains a jumpshot away from being even an adequate starter; teams just don't (or shouldn't) respect him, giving him no opportunity to take advantage of his other skills.

After a reasonably disastrous first season with the Blazers, Jeff McInnis has settled back into his usual level of adequacy this season. Shooting nearly 47% from the field and amongst the league's leaders in assist/turnover ratio, McInnis is a nice reserve option at the point. Of course, the Cavaliers already had a nice reserve option at the point in Kevin Ollie, who they signed as a free agent this summer, which makes McInnis a curious fit at best.

As a starting point guard, McInnis is better than the current Cleveland alternatives (mostly shooting guards with James playing the point), but he's not a long-term solution. At some point, don't the Cavs have to develop some guys besides the phenomenal Carlos Boozer to play alongside James? Something tells me Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and McInnis aren't long-term solutions.

Kwame Brown Breaking Out?

Another high-school-to-NBA disappointment seems to be going a different direction than Miles. Brown is having an outstanding month of January, setting career highs twice with 23 points and then 25, and averaging 13.4 points and 8.0 rebounds during the month.

The good news is this is not a Michael Olowokandi-style breakout. You may recall at the end of the 2001-02 season, Olowokandi had a couple of months where he put up outstanding averages. When you looked deeply at his numbers, however, Olowokandi wasn't playing better at all, he was just getting more minutes and more shots. Brown's rebound rate isn't up, but his shooting percentage has shot up from 40.0% in November to 45.3% to December to 51.9% in January.

The real question we're looking at is, what is a better frame of reference for predicting future performance, a recent stretch or the overall period? I think, in general, the latter is more accurate. I've found that a number of players who have "broken out" in the second half of a season -- Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford in Chicago last year, to name two obvious examples -- see their numbers drop down to their overall level, if not below, the next year. Brown's performance, in that light, is encouraging but far from reason to declare he's turned the corner.

Of course, Brown's overall numbers are not bad at all. His shooting efficiency and rebounding numbers are solid. I still don't see an All-Star game in Brown's future, but he can capably start at power forward.

Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on He writes "Page 23" for on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached via e-mail at