Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Overemphasis on Big Guys

I alluded to this point in the previous post, but to reiterate, teams, the media, and fans tend to inflate the importance of big guys in the draft and through free agency (power forwards and centers). That’s not to say that when a clearly superior big guy is available that a team shouldn’t take him. Guys that come to mind are Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaq, Chris Webber, (come on, we all thought he’d be awesome), Tim Duncan, maybe Yao Ming, and Dwight Howard. Those guys are easy picks. They were considered franchise-changing talents, and for the most part they lived up to their billing.

The promise of the above guys are what lead teams astray. They see a guy like Greg Oden and try to forecast him into one of the guys who were franchise changers. They compare him to David Robinson because he’s a nice guy, he’s physically huge, he can block shots, and he has a “raw” (read: massively underdeveloped) offensive game. It’s not Oden’s fault that he’s not as good as everything thinks he should be or that he’s suffered injury after injury and will be arthritic prematurely. It’s just that we love to project big guys into stardom when they don’t really deserve it. I’m particularly sensitive to the big guy love affair because the Sonics, for three miserable drafts in a row, picked “raw” seven-foot “projects” early in the first round. From Robert Swift (picture him wearing all black, sitting in the back of a classroom looking sullen, and tell me you’re not thinking to yourself “Is the quickest way out of here through the window or do I try and bolt for the door?” – I realize that it’s the 10th anniversary of Columbine and that Virginia Tech was not long ago, and that it's completely insensitive and inappropriate, but when I see Robert Swift, I see that kind of kid, I can’t help it. I'm sorry.), to Johan “I’m as soft as an ├ęclair” Petro, to Mohammed “I have no earthly idea how to play basketball, but I’m tall” Sene. I’m sure they are all nice enough guys, but they will never be a reason that a team wins a playoff series in the NBA. They are seven foot albatrosses and they litter the NBA landscape. Big guys like this linger at the ends of benches year after year. They have different names, but they are all the same player. Tall guys who don’t have any basketball skills who costs teams far too much money and are taking up spots that should go to talented players who are six inches shorter, but several times more valuable in terms of actually playing and winning games.

It’s unfair to lump all big guys who are non-stars into this category. Not all big guys are complete wastes of space. Some non-star big guys actually contribute in many ways because they bring things to the table. Guys that fit this mold, in the playoffs are Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, Chicago’s Joakim Noah, New Orleans’s Tyson Chandler (when not injured), LA’s Andrew Bynum, Boston’s Kendrick Perkins, Philly’s Sam Dalembert (although he costs way too much, at least he plays), Dallas’s Erick Dampier (same comments as Dalembert), Portland’s Joel Przybilla, and Atlanta’s Zaza Pachulia. These guys actually bring things to the table and are useful, but not vital parts of their teams. Quite honestly, most teams could probably get by without having them at all except on the nights that they face an actually talented big guy, of which there are very, very, very few in the league.

I feel bad for big guys because oftentimes we hear stories about them where they sort of fell into hoops because they were tall and someone convinced them to play, so they played and are now making loads of money (so I don’t feel too bad for them) because of this genetic freakiness. Because a guy is tall and because there are guys who exist (the aforementioned superior big guys) who are great, we lump them together. We wonder why our big guy can’t simply get the ball in the post, turn to the center or baseline, and drop a jump hook through the hoop. We ask, “What’s so hard about that?” or say, “He’s seven-feet tall, why can’t he do that?” The answer is, “He’s not good.” A big guy will disappoint teams, media, and fans more than he will please them. We believe that all big guys are unstoppable because they physically resemble Olajuwon, when in fact they’re just tall and not special beyond that. Anyway, I’m not anti-big guy, but I do feel that a team should only acquire one for specific purposes. Some non-exhaustive purposes are:
1. If he’s a definite star (a la Tim Duncan)
2. You need a big guy for your definite star to beat up in practice
3. You need a big guy to sub into games to give your definite star a break or if he’s in foul trouble
4. When traveling, you want to make it abundantly clear that you are a basketball team
5. The big guy is young and you see promise, but only if you’re going to draft him very low and only if you have someone to teach him how to do big guy stuff

Drafting a big guy is like drafting a quarterback in the NFL. There is a big risk/reward ratio to work out. NBA teams often need quality big guys and NFL teams often need quality QBs for the same reason: there are only so many to go around. But teams make mistakes in both leagues when they project a player to be someone he’s not because a true big man/QB star isn’t there. The Detroit Lions may have made this error by picking Matthew Stafford (although he may be good) and the Portland Trailblazers definitely made this mistake when drafting Oden over Durant. For what Portland is doing, Przybilla fits them fine and Channing Frye could be playing Oden’s minutes as a backup. He’s more than capable even if he is a less-talented Aldridge. Portland with Durant on board would be a nasty, nearly unguardable team. As it is, they have Oden, who, again through no fault of his own, is placed in a position where he has so many expectations heaped on him. He’s never going to come close to reaching those expectations and it’s more likely that he’ll fall far short of them. It’s too bad, really.

If I was running a team I would continually value basketball IQ, skill, and ability above size. Always. I would keep rolling the best damn 6’7 and under team in the league unless and until a truly dominant big guy became available either through the draft, trade, or free agency. Why waste a pick (and money) on a big guy that you know damn well is not as talented and can help your team less than a swingman who has actual basketball skills? For example, I’d rather have DeMar DeRozan on my team than Hasheem Thabeet. Yes, I realize that Thabeet is a great shot blocker, but he’s a train wreck with the ball in his hands, whereas DeRozan has the talent and ability to develop into a super-duper star. Thabeet will never be a star, and it’s a virtual guarantee that he’s going to have some sort of weird injury directly related to being 7’3. I’d bet money on that if I could (and if I had any money to bet…).

Just for fun, here is a list of the teams in the playoffs and a list of the players who play vital roles determining the outcome for their team. For example, if Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon both have great games, then there is a more than likely chance that the Bulls are going to win. If they both have terrible games, then there is a more than likely chance that the Bulls are going to lose. If Brad Miller or Joakim Noah has a great or terrible game, then it’s doubtful that their performance will have much to do with the outcome of the game.

The playoff teams
Boston: Paul Pierce, Ray Allen Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett (not playing)
Chicago: Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon
Orlando: Dwight Howard (maybe), Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkolu, Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston
Philly: Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Sam Dalembert
Atlanta: Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby
Miami: Dwyane Wade
Detroit: Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey, Rasheed Wallace
Cleveland: LeBron James, Mo Williams, Big Z
LA Lakers: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom
Utah: Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer
San Antonio: Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili (when playing)
Dallas: Dirk Nowitski, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry
Portland: Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge
Houston: Yao Ming, Ron Artest (kind of)
Denver: Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony
New Orleans: Chris Paul, David West

Based on this self-serving list I’ve created here are the numbers:
Non-Bigs: 27
Bigs: 15 (and I included Rashard Lewis, Thaddeus Young, Dirk Nowitski, Lamar Odom, and David West in this group, even though they play more like guards than forwards)

What’s my point?

My point is that non-bigs determine the outcome of NBA playoff teams than bigs do. It’s a fact. Having a “dominant” big man does not determine success in the NBA. It’s pretty evident that Dwight Howard is the most gifted big out there right now. And where is that going to get Orlando? An appearance in the second round of the playoffs? Maybe the third? Maybe as Howard grows, he’ll lead his team out of “almost there” status. But, and be honest here, do you really see it? He’s awesome right now at what he does, but do you see him getting any better than he is? Do you see his game progressing to incorporate a great, consistent hook or jumper? I don’t. It’s not like he can’t get there, I just don’t know that he will get there. I do know this though, I’d choose LeBron, Kobe, CP3, and Wade over him.

This is my really, really, really roundabout way of telling you that I would absolutely draft Ricky Rubio over Blake Griffin in the upcoming draft and not feel the least bit bad about it. I’ve seen Rubio play (albeit in short stints) and the guy is fantastic. Also, since he’s a guard, he will be in a position to dominate the ball and make decisions. Griffin can’t do much except be explosive and finish around the rim, which is great, but he seems more like a complementary player than a star player. Rubio is a star and has been in the professional ranks for years. He won’t be phased in the least and will thrive in any system. I love the kid and can’t wait to see him play here.

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