Weakside Putback

Commenter Luc Longley posted an interesting counter-argument to the earlier post about the relative success of Greg Oden:

“usually I am struck dumb by the brilliance of the new enthusiast’s analysis, but in this case I have a couple of thoughts. The question isn’t just whether oden will grown into a slightly-above-average center, it’s whether the blazers were right to draft him ahead of durant, right? Excluding pre-1992 big men who aren’t “true” centers makes Oden look like a better pick than he is, because it doesn’t account for how the position has changed…

In the late 80s/early 90s, almost all the top big men were true centers: ewing, parrish, robinson (with “the dream” being a notable exception). shaq and zo aren’t anomalies as much as they are the last/best of a dying breed. In the late 1990s/early oughts, versatile F/C’s like nowitzki, duncan, camby, gasol, and esp. garnett started to face the basket and play outside and created very tough defensive match-ups for traditional centers. And then in 2001 zone defense was legalized, which spread the floor and made centers even less important on both ends. I’d argue “true” centers have slowly become obsolete.

So if oden is a back-to-the-basket post player whose utility is (arguably) limited in today’s NBA, why do you draft him #1 overall? You don’t, you take durant and build around him instead. The blazers front office has essentially bet that parrish would be a dominant center if he played today.

Which brings me to my main argument: oden and robert parrish are actually the same person. seriously, look at pictures of them side-by-side. pretty much open-and-shut…”

A lot of good points are raised in there that deserve some closer inspection. First, yes agreed, the analysis was sloppy and probably too cavalierly back-of-the-envelope. The point wasn’t to make a conclusive argument for or against Oden, just to give his performance to date a little–and I do mean little–context.

Second, at least half of The New Enthusiast campaigned in favor of the Blazers selecting Kevin Durant at the time, though blogs hadn’t been invented in 2007 so there’s no recorded evidence of this. But, while the Blazers can’t redo the pick, it’s still worth considering what Oden’s career might look like, even if Durant is and will likely always be the better player. Oden can still be a good pick even if he wasn’t the “right” pick.

Also, Robert Parish was really good. If Oden matches the Chief’s 10-year peak of around 18ppg/11rpg, the Blazers would probably consider his selection a success–especially if in Brandon Roy they have someone whose career approximates Durant’s.

The central presumption of Luc’s post–that “true centers” of the 80s/90s vintage are obsolete–is what I’m interested in. It seems anecdotally true. Garnett, Duncan, Nowitzki–the league is filled with versatile, face-up big men, with Hakeem probably serving as the hybrid link between these two eras. But there are still a number of back-to-the-basket goliaths who produce at a pretty high–and efficient–rate. Yao and Big Z come to mind. I doubt anyone would prefer them over the previously mentioned hybrid big guys, but I wonder if this is purely because the hybrids are better (which, ok yeah, those used in the above example admittedly are), or if there isn’t some amount of bias against them at play because they don’t fit the current NBA zeitgeist.

How did we arrive at this place where we consider a certain style of player better than another? Does it matter that a hypothetical  Kevin Garnett  gets his 20 and 10 facing the basket, while the hypothetical Yao gets his turned the other way? I bet there are some actual on-court differences–like, maybe KG’s high-post position spreads the defense for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce or something–that someone smarter than me could demonstrate. Maybe it’s that KG presents a match-up problem for Yao, but then why shouldn’t Yao also present a match-up problem for KG?

In baseball, positional requirements are pretty rigid. A catcher has to possess a necessary skillset in order to successfully field his position–a skillset so rare and important that it’s excusable if the catcher can’t really hit. Other positions have easier requirements, which means that players filling those slots have to offer something valuable above and beyond the basic skillset. This is why first basemen are so often hypertrophic home run hulks–since anyone else could field their position while they couldn’t field anyone else’s, they have to do something no one else can do, i.e. jack a lot of dongers.

In the NBA, positions are much more fluid. There is no one, best way to win, which is part of the ever-renewing drama of the game. Magic Johnson, Lebron James, Seven Seconds or Less–they’re all examples of the constant category-busting that takes place in the NBA. Still, that doesn’t prevent a conventional wisdom about archetypal players from calcifying. Take a look at this chart from upsideandmotor.com*:

This has been rightfully generating a lot of talk on the basketblogs. It’s fun and provocative and true in a way that’s only apparent to those who look closely enough to see the magic behind the numbers. But I think it also points out some of the difficulties in constructing a positional/skill taxonomy that does for basketball what Bill James’s defensive spectrum did for baseball. First off, the categories, while deeply funny and true like only deeply funny things can be (Megalomanical small guard!?!), are often too vague or too specific to be helpful. Also, it can be reduced to something of a tautology–is Chris Paul at the summit of the NBA because he’s in the class “Elite Point Guard,” or is “Elite Point Guard” at the summit of the hierarchy because of Chris Paul?

I think it also demonstrates a line of thought that lurks behind a lot of NBA analysis, a sort of deductive fallacy of converse accident that concludes a general truth based on specific and rare examples. I.e. there are no dominant back-to-the-basket big men because back-to-the-basket big men are obsolete. There are plenty of alternative reasons, though. Being 7’2″ and 300lbs while still having the dexterity to end up like this and not like this is exceedingly rare. So is being 6’10” with the ability to run the court and knock down elbow-extended jumpers. The simultaneous presence of one and absence of the other may be nothing more than genetic happenstance. It could also be result of the faddish scouting and developing of talent that resembles Kevin Garnett, et al, due to a decade of prominence from such players. It also could simply be a result of rule changes that favor the slightly smaller, more athletic big men, though this strikes me as a little chicken-and-the-egg.

All of which is to say that, yes, Luc Longley is entirely correct in saying Kevin Durant is likely to be more valuable over his career than Greg Oden, and it’s not unthinkable that the Blazers will at some time regret their decision–though I don’t think that time is now. But it’s also possible that there is a True Postman on the horizon who will force us to re-examine our existing archetypes of success in the NBA. Maybe that will be Greg Oden, maybe not. I just don’t think we yet have a firm enough grasp on all the moving parts of success in the NBA to confidently say that any player’s success–or failure–is attributable to something outside of the player’s abilities themselves.

*The Enthusiast is totally and willfully ignorant about all matters having to do with etiquette, especially when it comes to the internet. So if it’s uncool to reporduce images from other sites, let us know.

Read This Blog, Greg Oden

A few things to note from last night’s frenzied, shirtless eruption at the Rose Garden.

One, Brandon Roy is really good. The Enthusiast will probably take some time to construct this argument in a more convincing, statistically-grounded way in the near future, but I think for right not we can all agree that his swagger is prima facie beyond phenomenal, and also that he should probably be currently higher than 9th in All Star voting for Western Conference guards.

Second, what’s up with Steve Nash’s foul line routine? This is from a different game, but like all really, really good free throw shooters, Nash repeats the routine every time he steps to the line. Observe:

After the first attempt, he steps back from the line and hands-out the high-fives*. Then he steps back to the line. All the other players are in place and ready for the next shot. The ref, who appears to be this guy, stands under the basket holding the ball. Next, Nash pantomimes two free throws. Only then does the ref signal the players to get set, give Nash the ball, and step out of the way.

Here’s the thing. Check out the NBA rulebook’s entry on foul shooting:

“A free throw is the privilege given a player to score one point by an unhindered attempt for the goal from a position directly behind the free throw line.This attempt must be made within 10 seconds.”

According to the time-code on that video, Nash–and everyone else–seems to be in the ready-set position for the foul shot at the :06 mark. He takes the shot at the :16. Or, by my count, approximately 10 seconds. It seems like the ref decides to just chill out for a hot second and blithely watch Nash practice his follow through a couple times before, you know, doing what the rules instruct him to do. Shouldn’t those 8 seconds be counted against Nash? It seems like the point of having the 10-second limit is to force the shooter to hurry up and shoot. So why does the ref wait until Nash is ready before starting the countdown?

Third and last, Greg Oden. As predicted by the TNT studio dudes, Shaq seemed to make an extra special point of bullying him in the post and, other than a few sweet dunks in the beginning and a couple of offensive rebounds at the end, Oden mostly watched this one from the bench.

Eventually, the announcing crew got around to debating Oden’s rookie season thus far vs. the expectations surrounding him when he was drafted first overall in 2007. In their estimation Oden sometimes gives off the impression of being too sensitive, psychically fragile even. An anecdote about Oden getting over-the-phone hugz from his old AAU coach didn’t help. Reggie Miller hinted that Oden lacked the killer instinct that he (Reggie) possessed, and that he (back to Greg, now) should stop reading blogs analyzing his performance.

To which I would say, “Have we learned nothing from the trailers for ‘Yes Man’ starring Jim Carrey? You can’t hide from life–you have to attack it head on and go scootering with Zooey Deschanel!” Also, I would say that some blogs analyzing his performance <ahem> might actually offer him some good news and encouragement. Like, thusly.

The case so far: Twenty-one games into what is essentially his rookie season, Oden is posting a line of roughly 8 points and 8 rebounds a game along with 1.4 blocks. He’s shooting .522 from the floor, .640 from the line in just over 22 minutes a game. Solid, but not spectacular. To give this a little context, I compared Greg’s statline with the rookie years of some other heralded centers. To simplify the process, I defined heralded as one of the top 3 draft picks and excluded centers drafted before 1992, the year Shaq and Zo were taken 1, 2, because I was only 11 and not really paying attention before then. For further ease of comparison, I focused only on what I consider true centers–so no Tim Duncan, Kenyon Martin, etc.

By my count, that produces 11 rough comps for Oden: Andrew Bogut in 05, Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor in 04, Yao in 02, Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler in 01, Olowokandi in 98, Camby in 96, Bradley in 93, and Shaw and Zo in 92. Here are there splits in their rookie years, along with their age during that season.

Bogut (21): 9.4  7.0  0.8  .533  .629  28.6

Howard (19): 12.0  10.0  1.7  .520  .671  32.6

Okafor (22): 15.1  10.9  1.7  .447  .609  35.6

Yao (22): 13.5  8.2  1.8  .498  .811  29.1

Brown (19): 4.5  3.5  .5  .387  .707  14.4

Chandler (19): 6.1  4.8  1.3  .497  .604  19.6

Olowokandi (23): 8.9  7.9  1.2 .431  .483    28.4

Camby (22):  14.8  6.3  2.1  .482  .693   30.1

Bradley (21):  10.3  6.2  3.0  .409  .607  28.3

Shaq (20):  23.4  13.9  .562  .592  3.5  37.9 

Zo (22):  21.0  10.3  .511  .781  3.5  33.9  

A couple of things to notice before bringing Oden into the mix. Shaq and Zo are pretty clearly heads and shoulders above this group, and Shaq is even significantly ahead of Zo. They are super-duper franchise mecha-centers, each once-in-a-generation Monstars who somehow came out in the same draft. Brown, Bradley, and Olowokandi are on the other end of the spectrum. Bradley’s shotblocking made him more of a serviceable backup than an outright bust, but one thing these stiffs all had in common right from the start was inexcusably low FG% for an NBA big man.

Of the remaining six, Yao and Howard developed into dominant forces on both ends of the floor, and though Oden could reach that level, it’s hard to predict that kind of leap. The others settled into valuable defense and rebounding post presences. Of this group, Camby has been the most succesful, with Bogut slightly above average for the position. 

How does Oden compare? One area he is lagging behind in is playing time. Other than Chandler, Oden is on the court for significantly less time than comparable players were their rookie seasons. Considering that he is coming off knee-surgery and that his back-up is one of the best in the league, this isn’t all that surprising. But, let’s say he was logging something more like 30 mpg. His line would look something like 11, 11, and 2. This would put him squarely in the middle of the Camby-Bogut range, and closer to the Camby end due to his shot blocking. 

Now obviously this is a highly unscientific approach to evaluating Greg Oden’s career to date. My calculations are not actually, you know, precise. Also, Oden might be most comparable to big men I excluded from the list because they were unheralded in the way I defined it, like Andrew Bynum or Chris Kaman. Additionally, though Oden and Camby could end up having statistically similar careers, they would accumulate the stats in totally different ways: Oden is a back-to-the-basket post player, Camby is a weak-side vulture and face-up shooter.

Still, Reggie Miller’s courtside psychoanalysis notwithstanding, in the first twenty one games of his career, Greg Oden production suggests that a career of something like 15/12/2 is easily within reach. Or, essentially, a more defensive-minded, equally rickety-looking Moses Malone. And that ain’t bad.

*I love this.