Thursday, November 6, 2008

They're Not Saying "Booo." They're Saying "Dooo." Oh, Wait.

On Chris Duhon Not Being a Good Point Guard

If you frequent this space then you no doubt have noticed that I'm not overly enthusiastic about the play of starting point guard Chris Duhon. During the home opener I wrote that "I am not extending him the benefit of the doubt in the first eight minutes of the season." That is true. Thus far in his NBA career he hasn't earned that.

I was skeptical of the acquisition when it went down in July and wrote that I "don't know if he is the Knicks starting point guard (though he seems to think he is), a pass-first back-up or just someone else that Donnie Walsh is throwing at the wall to see if he sticks." Now, we know he is the starting point guard. We know that he starts over Stephon Marbury. We know that Marbury hasn't gotten one minute of run so far this season. We know it is awkward.

Skepticism aside, I am clearly predisposed to being won over by anyone in a Knicks uniform. Heck, I've even been writing glowingly of Zach Randolph for the past week. Anything is possible. I'm a Knicks fan. Obsessively. Compulsively. I want to like these guys and I want to believe in them. Even if just to be able to tell myself that all these words aren't for nothing. But, I'm done with Duhon. He shows me nothing. His mediocrity is what makes me want to chant "We Want Steph" from the rooftops of Midtown.

Duhon's play is uninspiring and uninspired. On the offensive end he has no authority. He is not an engine for the offense. He doesn't orchestrate anything. He isn't the transmission for the offense. He doesn't pick up tempo and push the ball in transition or slow the team down when it is moving too fast. He isn't the steering wheel, moving teammates and defenders around the floor with his dribble or his passing. He isn't event the seat belt, keeping us safe and steady in case of a sudden turn in the game. Duhon isn't any of those car parts. Rather he is something like the special-order fog lights that some guy in your high school auto shop class put on his blue 1987 Dodge 600. Yeah, you understood that a car should have fog lights but not why he needed special-order, neon ones when the factory lights worked and were already on the car. Chris Duhon is those lights. He's something you can say you went out and got but was undeniably and utterly needless and purchased just so things would look better rather than perform better.

In trying to legitimize my dislike for the former Duke captain (and show that I'm just not against him because he is a former captain at Duke), I've gone to the numbers. The cold hard facts. Duhon is on the floor more than any other Knickerbocker, averaging 37 minutes per game. During those minutes the numbers are not pretty at first sight: 27 points and 19 assists through four games. Those are not averages. Those are totals. And, the numbers are even less attractive with a little deeper analysis.

Since no one would ever, ever pretend that Duhon is a scoring point guard (and the numbers would embarrass them if they did), you might disregard the point total and just assume that the strength of his game is distributing the ball and getting good shots for his teammates. False. He does not do those things. Through four games, Duhon has just three passes that have resulted in layups or dunks for his teammates. His other 16 passes that were slotted into the box score as assists only landed there because his teammates made plays or hit jump shots after getting the ball in their hands. And since Duhon is not a penetrate-and-kick player, or even a player who has shown an above average aptitude for getting to the rim or into the paint, those jump shots have not, for the most part, been open.

Dribbling the ball up the floor after a made hoop by the other team does not make you a point guard. It just makes you someone playing basketball. When watching a point guard it is seeing-eye bounces passes on the break, needle-threading darts to big men in the paint, and those dribble-kick gifts to open sharp shooters that make us take notice. Those are the tools of the trade. That is running the point. And even though Duhon is listed as a point guard he is as fraudulent in that role as Joe the apparently unlicensed Plumber is in his.

To substantiate this claim I went rifling through the game-postmortems from other NBA teams to see how other point guards around the Association fare in the passes-leading-to-dunks-and-layups category*. While Duhon has racked up a staggering tally of three such passes in four games (zero in the opener, two against Philly, 1 against Milwaukee and zero against Charlotte), while averaging the fourth most minutes of any point guard in the NBA to this point, four of his own teammates have already surpassed him in this category, all while playing fewer minutes and having less of the ball. Jamal Crawford has five LorD (layup-or-dunk**) dimes, Nate Robinson has seven LorD assists, David Lee has four and so does Zach Randolph. For crying out loud, the Zach-hole has arguably set up more easy buckets for teammates than Duhon.

Obviously, assists from big men are a different animal since they are more often making shorter passes nearer to the rim or out of double teams to open teammates. So I don't want to make too much of Randolph and Lee here but it is worth pointing out. Still, looking at the assist numbers for Nate and Jamal it is clear that those two have a far greater capacity for play-making then the team's lead point guard. And, this fact is made far more obvious by watching the game then by looking at these numbers in a vacuum.

The tale of the tape is even less flattering for Duhon when you compare him to point guards playing for other teams around the league rather than his teammates. When studying a point guard on a D'Antoni-coached team I felt compelled to begin my investigation by seeing how Steve Nash has fared in the LorD assist category through his first four games. While averaging 32.2 minutes (almost five minutes less than Duhon) per game, Nash doled out 16 LorD assists in the first four games that he played this season. Now that is point guarding. Nash, of course, is a two-time MVP and someone who even Duhon's most ardent supporters (who I'm not sure actually exist outside of the Duke campus) would say is in another class. So, let's move on down the line, having established the high end of the spectrum with Nash.

Chris Paul racked up a more modest 11 LorD dishes in his first four games. Not quite as impressive as Nash but still far, far superior to Duhon. Paul managed 3+ such passes in three of the four games that the Hornets have played whereas Duhon hasn't topped three in 148 minutes. Again, Paul is an unfair comparison. Let us try to find someone in more comparable situation. How about Devin Harris of the NJ Nets? Harris has passed five passes that led to layups or dunks while While averaging less than 31 minutes per game in the first three games that he has played. He equaled Duhon in the team's second game alone and is already at 166% of Duhon's total while playing one less game. And, the Nets are brutally bad and openly tanking in hopes of landing Lebron James. Next up, I decided to check in on my March man-crush Derrick Rose. While he's no doubt a superior talent, Rose is playing in his first week in the NBA and Duhon is purported to be a steady veteran so I don't think this is totally unfair. And, it's pretty close. Rose has just four LorD assists over four games in which he averaged 35.2 minutes. The difference, though, is that Rose led the Chicago Bulls in scoring in two of those four games. Aside from the fact that he is just getting his high tops wet in the game, he brings other things to the table. Duhon, meanwhile, is the guy who just brought his fork to the pot luck dinner.

Yet, so far he plays more minutes per night than all but three other point guards in the NBA: Tony Parker, Jose Calderon and Chris Paul. Two of those three are legit stars in this game and the third is an up-and-comer who is tabbed to reach that level. Chris Duhon is not that caliber of player. Not even close. Which brings us to the elephant in the room with a sneaker logo emblazoned on his head: Stephon Marbury. When discussing Duhon's shortcomings it is unavoidable (even though I've done a good job thus far) to raise the specter of Marbury, who has been and might still be a top-notch player at the position. While I will weigh in on the buyout/don't buyout debate later, all that matters when it concerns Duhon is that Marbury is on the team right now and he is much, much better at playing the position. Right now.

For all of his personal foibles and public missteps, Marbury is a supremely gifted point guard. Through the first five games of the 2007-2008 season he registered 16 LorD assists. Which, for those uninclined to arithmetic, means Duhon needs to hand out 13 such passes in the Knicks next game just to tie him. After the fifth game of last season, Marbury and the Knicks boarded a chartered plane bound for Phoenix. They were set to start a four-game road trip with a game against the Mike D'Antoni-coached Suns. Aboard the plane, hurtling westward, former Knicks coach Isiah Thomas attempted an ill-fated motivation gambit which resulted in an argument/altercation with Marbury. Depending on who you believed Marbury was either sent home by Thomas or went AWOL shortly after the plane landed. Given Thomas's recent untruths regarding his overdose and just about everything else we've learned about him since last November, I know who I'm inclined to believe. Either way, Marbury was a no-show that night in Phoenix when D'Antoni's Suns beat the Knicks.

A few-days-short-of-a-year later, I can't help but wonder if the Marbury-related drama at the outset of the 2008-2009 season has its roots in those events in November 2007. I can't help but think that D'Antoni's stance on Marbury was formed in the crucible of those events. After all, he was full-time NBA coach and couldn't have been expected to actually be keeping tabs on the Knicks unless they were right in front of him. I can't help but think that somehow Isiah Thomas is still sabotaging the Knicks and Marbury. And, you thought I couldn't somehow blame him for Duhon!

Because, you see, D'Antoni's playing-for-the-future mantra doesn't really hold water when it comes to Duhon, who signed a two-year deal during the offseason. Chris Duhon is not the future of this team. There is zero chance that Duhon will be the team's starting point guard a single day after his two-year contract expires. And, neither will Mardy Collins or Anthony Roberson, who combined with Duhon form, arguably, the worst point guard trio in the Association (I don't count Nate as a PG right now because his role at this time is clearly as offensive spark plug). None of those guys are the point guards of the future and there is not a snow ball's chance in Hell that any of them will be on the roster entering the Summer of Lebron's Free Agency after next season.

There is no way that Donnie Walsh is going to try to lure LBJ to come to a Knicks team that is helmed by a player like Duhon. No chance. So, Duhon is not the future. Wilson Chandler may be. David Lee may be. Jamal Crawford may be. But not Duhon. And, therefore he shouldn't be the present. Duhon is not even close to the Steve Nash -type player that D'Antoni wants to run his offense and he is not nearly good as Stephon Marbury, who D'Antoni has at his disposal to run his offense.
*I will readily admit that this made-up statistic may be misleading, especially on a Knickerbocker squad with little interior presence, and that I am no John Hollinger when it comes to numbers. But I do think that this made-up stat gets to the heart of what Duhon's game lacks: playmaking ability and making-teammatest-better ability. And, hey, at least I'm trying to back up what I think.
**In a few cases (but really like three or less for all of these numbers) I've included a pass that led to a "1-foot shot" in my calculations.

What Can Brown Do For You?

Knicks Beat Larry Brown's Bobcats, 101-98

After coming out the gates like a tranquilized elephant - awkward, lumbering, yet still dangerously out of control - in the first quarter the Knicks were able to hold on for a win last night at the Garden. It was a rambling performance that had little cohesion to it. But it was a win, the club's second of the young season. I'll take it.

As mentioned, it was bad early for the Knicks. It was uglier than Bobcats second-year forward Jared Dudley. The Knicks missed their first six shots, not scoring a point until almost four minutes had come off the clock. When the score was 10-6 in favor of the visiting Charlotte Bobcats, Dudley had equaled the score of the Knicks all by his lonesome. The former Boston College standout's early point-scoring highlights the confusion of this Knicks squad at the outset of games. They don't know what they're doing. On offense. Or on defense. Dudley is a player who is half the physical specimen that someone like Wilson Chandler is (both were rookies last year) but he is at least three times as smart a basketball player. He saw the first-quarter holes in the Knicks interior defense, identified the soft spots around the perimeter and methodically took advantage. As a team the Bobcats had four layups/dunks before the Knicks even had three field goals.

Trailing, 8-2, before most fans (who were coming, which wasn't many) were even in their seats, Randolph kept the game from getting out of hand by rolling off 6 points on three consecutive Knicks possessions. Z-Bo's assertiveness woke his teammates up to the game they were in and clued them in to the way it would need to be played. They would need to create their own shots and aggressively look to shoot. They needed to do this because Chris Duhon was not going to get this team into any cogent offense. And, he was'nt going to unlock the defense with his passing and penetrating. He had zero assists and zero points in the first quarter.

Duhon was present and accounted for but totally absent after the opening tip as the Knicks didn't break the ten-point mark until almost 7.5 minutes had gone by in the quarter. You can say all you want about Stephon Marbury's abilities as a facilitator of an offense but there is no way that he ever lets a team go so cold for so long. Eventually he puts his head down, curls the ball in the crook of his elbow and goes hard at the rim to get some points. Aside from Allen Iverson there has been no little man better at going to the rim like this over the past decade. Duhon, on the other hand was as passive as could be while the Knickerbockers floundered in the first quarter. Wilson Chandler and Nate Robinson both made their own breaks on offense to compliment Randolph's scoring and keep the score close against the 'cats.

The Knicks managed 19 points in the first quarter. The Bobcats outdid them with 20. Neither team was exactly a house afire. In a remarkable stretch, however, during the second quarter one player did catch fire and gave us a show worth the discounted price of admission. It all started when Nate Robinson hit a three-point shot to start the scoring in the second session. Robinson, who was a rookie in the Association when Larry Brown coached the Knicks, scored 19 points all by his little lonesome in the second. And these were 19 out of the first 21 points the Knicks put on the board. He was all over the floor. And had the assist (to David Lee) on the lone bucket during the sprint that wasn't his. He was 5 for 5 from behind the arc. He was pushing the tempo, getting shots up early in the shot clock. He got a tip-in bucket off of a David Lee miss and even hit the heat-check three pointer from the left corner that 24 out of 25 players on a hot streak miss. It was like he was playing a real life version of NBA Jam. The Garden was all oohs and aahs. And euphoric admiration for what we were watching from the 5 foot, 7 inch guard out of the University of Washington. When his run peaked (but before we knew it had), Robinson had 24 points compared to the Bobcats team total of 26. The littlest man on the court other than Larry Brown was awesome. You just knew that he was going to sleep well in his tiny little race-car bed after a performance like this. It couldn't last forever and eventually he missed a shot. And then a few more and then committed a foul and a turnover. The Knicks, though, held a 40-26 lead when Nate finally cooled off. And, there were still over eight minutes to play before halftime for the Knicks to run away and hide with the game.

The Bobcats persisted tortoise-like, though, as the Knicks kept forcing the ball to a cooled-off Nate and the cooled-off Nate kept taking shots that only a hot Nate would hit. D'Antoni eventually pulled him since the team couldn't help but focus on him, even though whatever magic was in his shot had dissipated. When Robinson was pulled there was great applause and even some grumblings and rumblings about "how could he pull him?" But D'Antoni had to. The thrill ride was over. It was back to the end of the line. So, here the Knicks were again. With nothing working on offense. There was no plan other than somebody take the ball and score. Nate's explosion was entirely and amazingly of his own doing. It wasn't the result of D'Antoni's game-planning or Duhon's point-guarding. It was all Nate. It was an entirely individual effort, with 15 of the 19 points he scored in the quarter coming on three pointers. Most of which were quick or contested.

The Bobcats, meanwhile, methodically worked the inside-out on their offensive end while the Knicks counted on jump shots to fall after Nate cooled off. Former Dukie Duhon managed three assists in the second quarter, compared to his goose egg in the first, but they came on 26-foot, 23-foot, and 19-foot jumpshots, respectively. The first two were hit by a torrid Nate while the last was hit by Zach. The Bobcats outscored the Knicks, 21-10, to close out the quarter and the game was tied at the half.

The third quarter looked more like the first quarter insofar as no one player just took it over and made it get his name tatooed on its arm. The Knicks put up 30 points while the Bobs managed 25. Charlotte had a six-point edge halfway through the quarter and the Knicks had a five-point edge at the end. It was a quarter of runs. The crowd was getting as into it as they're going to be on a damp November Wednesday with Charlotte in town. Crawford and Chandler propelled the Knicks while Emeka Okafor (who definitely had some local fans in the crowd from his UConn days) and Gerald Wallace did the same for the visitors.

It was a meandering game entering the fourth quarter. Neither here nor there. The Knicks meandered their way out front but then the Bobcats meandered their way right back into it. And, then Zach Randolph - just like he had in the first quarter - asserted himself when the Knicks offense was floundering. He scored 13 of the team's 20 points in the deciding frame. Those were the first 13 of the quarter. Because the Knicks started the period the same as the first one. With nothing going. Yet Z-Bo's ball hawkishness not only kept the team afloat (like in the first) but it staked them to an nine-point bulge with less than six and a half minutes to play.

With a bad team on the ropes in their home gym the Knicks then went on to reel off two whole points in the next six minutes and sixteen seconds. Which was nice. Inevitably the Bobcats caught up, coming within a single point after a Jason Richardson layup with ten ticks remaining. After an-almost-steal by the Bobccats, Jamal Crawford hit two free throws to ice it. Game over.

It wasn't pretty. And, two individual runs - Nate to start the second quarter, Zach to start the fourth - obscured the fact that this was a poor, poor showing against a poorer team. But, a win is a win is a win. I'll take it. The team is 2-2. And, .500 is the magic number this season. Let's hold tight to that mark as long as we can.

Here's what the papers had to say:
The News
The Post
The Times