Monday, February 25, 2008

Analyzing the NBA Trades via the Easy Bucket Principle

I was playing 21 (i.e. pickup basketball) last night, and I got killed, as usual. It's not because I'm a bad basketball player; I'll block your shot, snare a fair amount of rebounds, and pass to the open man. But I can't create my own shot to save my life, and that's what 21 is all about. That means I usually end up taking contested foul-line jumpers, rather than the high-percentage opportunities I could get from post-ups and dribble-drives. The only way I score easy buckets is via a sneaky left-hand hook on a post-up.

To help you stay awake, these NBA Monday posts will also feature some NBA player candid photos. Today's victim is Shane Battier.

I started thinking about how this problem of mine applies to the NBA, and it actually fits quite well. That's why a big man is so vital to winning championships; they create easy buckets from post-ups. And then it becomes clear why Michael Jordan was able to be an exception to that rule. He and Scottie Pippen were 6'6"+ masters of the dribble-drive, which is the only other way a team can obtain easy buckets. Thus, the Easy Bucket Principle is as follows:
No NBA team can win a championship without at least one player being able to create his own shot in the lane.

Look back at your championship teams, and you'll see that this applies to nearly every champion in the last 25 years, whether it's via the postup to Duncan, O'Neal, Abdul-Jabbar, McHale, and Olajuwon, or the dribble-drive of Jordan, Pippen, Bryant, and Erving. Look at the teams that couldn't quite win the championship, and they contain plenty of excellent point guards that couldn't finish at the rim (Johnson, Payton, Price, Stockton, Starks) and high-scoring forwards/centers that didn't rely on a post-up game enough (Barkley, Kemp, Nowitski, Ewing). In fact, perhaps this helps explain the Ewing Theory; Sprewell off the dribble-drive was a better source of easy baskets than a Ewing post-up. The exception to the principle, admittedly, is the Detroit Pistons in the late 80's. (The Detroit Pistons of 2004 used Rasheed Wallace post-ups extensively when Karl Malone got hurt in the Finals, so they still sort of count.)

The good folks at did a study on points in the paint and found that, although helpful, it's not a perfect indicator. I would argue that the problem is that a skilled point guard or fast break offense can inflate a team's true easy bucket capability. To clarify by example, I do not consider Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Amare Stoudamire, or Zydrunas Ilguskas to be sources of easy buckets. None possess a true post-up game or the size to consistently score on bigger players via the dribble-drive. In addition, the true usefulness of a source of easy buckets is late in the game, where players are too tired and defenses are too tight to create buckets via jump shots or dribble-penetration. It is then that easy buckets are most needed.

Random photo of Shane Battier II; don't you just love the Duke basketball polo shirt?
Me and Shane Battier... yay #31!

Given that principle, let's analyze the trades of the last month:
1. LA Lakers obtain Pau Gasol. By the Easy Bucket Principle, this is an awesome trade. Kobe Bryant still is a source of easy buckets, but as he has aged, he's a little less likely to slash all the way to the hole. Adding Pau Gasol's postup threat is a great move and makes them a championship contender.

2. Phoenix Suns obtain Shaquille O'Neal. By the Easy Bucket Principle, this is even better than the Gasol trade. While he's looked old recently, Shaq is the Easy Bucket MVP over the past decade. The Phoenix Suns get rid of Shawn Marion, who was not at all a source of easy buckets. Although he scored often in the lane, those were usually a result of hustle plays or Nash feeds.

3. Dallas Mavericks obtain Jason Kidd. By the Easy Bucket Principle, this is a useless trade. Jason Kidd isn't big enough or fast enough to score off the dribble-drive on a regular basis. Although he may help pass the ball to shooters or cutters, the Easy Bucket Principle could care less. What's worse is this entire Dallas Mavericks team lacks a source of easy buckets until Dirk learns to score in the post.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers obtain Ben Wallace and Wally Szerbiak (not spelled correctly). By the Easy Bucket Principle, this is worse than making no trade at all. Drew Gooden had a post-up game of sorts; Ben Wallace has none. Larry Hughes could get to the basket off dribble-drives on occasion, when he wasn't taking bad shots; Wally Szerbiak can only wait around for the ball to be passed to him for a 3-point shot. There's an argument to be made that Ben and Wally enhance Lebron's own position as a source of easy baskets. But I have severe doubts even on that count. Ben will clog the lane more than Drew did and not finish as well, while Wally is only useful to Lebron when Lebron posts up or penetrates far enough that he could finish on his own sans pass. Although I thought this deal was great when I first looked at it, it's a failure according to the Easy Bucket Principle. Chicago may actually have obtained the best players in the deal.

So what do you think of the Easy Bucket Principle? Is it nonsense? Common sense? Let me know in the comments. By the way, my thanks to for Friday's link. Several new commenters left interesting points of analysis that made me think deeper about the post.


  1. Mcbias, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    Would you be up for a link swap?

    Just leave it in the comments somewhere.


  2. Glad you enjoyed the recap. Thanks for reading.

    As for the easy buckets principle, there are a couple things here. First, Z has an underrated post game, he just doesn't get used.

    Second, while bombing threes can come back to bite you in the ass, the Cavs do have a bunch of really good three-point shooters now. And they're going to get wide open looks when defenses collapse on Lebron. Wide open threes are basically easy baskets when the shooters are good enough

  3. I somewhat agree on Z. If they would throw the ball to him in the post 20-30 times a night (almost like a running back with carries, ha), I think he could be quite effective in the post. Although that hook of his is not very smooth, at 7'3" he can get away with that.

    On paper, the Cavs have a great rebounding team (just like last year) and now plenty of shooters as well. Taking off my "Easy Bucket" hat, it should work really well, especially because Lebron can get them easy buckets. But in terms of truly adding more ways to score easy buckets in close games, this trade is a step back. As a Cavs fan, I hope I'm wrong.

  4. I like the theory. I've pointed it out many times, but... jump shooting teams (Dallas has been #1 in that category for years) don't do well in the playoffs, when jumpers are more contested. It's easy to hit 50% when you are playing a meaningless game against the Bobcats in January, but not so easy against the tough defenses you face in the playoffs. It fits perfectly with your "Easy Bucket" theory.

    In 21 I usually try to get close, shoot over my opponent, and grab the rebound. It's the "6'2 guy with a bit of a quick jump (but no vertical) and long arms" offense.