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.