Wednesday, August 25, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 21-25

25. Derek Harper: Some (actually most) players finish their career with a one sentence biography. In Derek Harper's case, that sentence is "one of the best players never to make an All-Star team." It is often left unclear whether he deserved to make an All-Star team, or if he was just a good player who played forever. The truth lies somewhere in between. While Harper was a good, never great player, who did play forever, he was an All-Star caliber player at his best. The problem was that he just happened to have his best seasons in a conference that featured Magic, Stockton, Terry Porter, KJ, Fat Lever, and Sleepy Floyd's career year (1987).

Harper is also notable for leading the only two non-Dirk Dallas teams to reach 50 wins, the extremely balanced 87-88 Mavericks, who featured an eight man rotation of Harper, Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, James Donaldson, Roy Tarpley, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, and Brad Davis-all good players. Since there was no superstar on those teams, and they were prevented from reaching their full potential due to Roy Tarpley's injury and drug problems, they have been somewhat forgotten today, but for a couple years they were very good.

24. Calvin Murphy: Murphy's notable contribution to basketball trivia occurred when he set the NBA record for consecutive made free throws (.892 FT% for his career). Murphy definitely fell into the category of "shoot-first" point guard. The sharpshooting guard, who spent his whole career with the Rockets, averaged over 5 assists only twice in his career, but his effectiveness can't be doubted.

A Rockets team whose only other consistent scoring options were forward Rudy Tomjanovich and (first) guard Mike Newlin and (later) Moses Malone finished 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 6th, 1st, and 4th in Offensive Rating from 1974-1980 (Murphy's prime). Unfortunately, the Rockets' defense was as bad as their offense was good. Some of the blame can go to Murphy, who had a lot of steals, but at 5'9, struggled to guard bigger players. Despite his team's defensive struggles, Murphy helped his team much more than he hurt them, helping some less than talented teams to mediocrity during his best years.

23. Mookie Blaylock: While Murphy's offense covered his limited defense, Blaylock's excellent defense helped make up for his offensive struggles. Mookie never hit more than 43% of his shots, and almost never reached the foul line. He shot the three fairly well during the middle of his career, but when they started falling at 30% rather than 35%, his efficiency numbers turned ugly. But when he wasn't shooting the ball, he was one of the best point guards in the league.

Regularly at the top of the league in steals, Blaylock made 6 All-Defensive teams in his career, often using his defensive acumen to start fastbreaks the other way. Mookie was also an excellent passer, posting a career high of almost 10 assists in 1994, and averaging almost 7 a game for his career.

As a side note, the 1997 Hawks are a very interesting team. Their starting lineup played a whopping 72% of the team's total minutes. The Hawks featured a backcourt of Blaylock (in his best season) and Steve Smith, who led the team in scoring. Mutombo started at center, and the forwards were Laettner (18-9-3) and Tyrone Corbin. There was no bench to speak of, but the Hawks still won 56 games before losing to the Bulls in the playoffs.

22. Gus Williams: Williams is probably the most obscure player (though not the worst) to ever lead a championship team in scoring. Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma are usually remembered as the leaders of that team, but Williams led the team in USG%, AST%, STL%, and PER. But what was more impressive was his playoff performance. En route to the 1979 title, Williams averaged 27 points and only 2.5 turnovers on 48% shooting in 17 games (this was not an aberration, Williams consistently performed very well in the playoffs for the Sonics).

Williams' biggest weakness was a lack of familiarity with the foul line and three point line, leading to some less than stellar offensive efficiencies, especially by the standards of the offense-happy eighties. But he was excellent defensively, very good at creating shots for himself or his teammates (though he never posted gaudy assist totals), and he committed a surprisingly low amount of turnovers, leading to a very effective all around game.

21. Anfernee Hardaway: It's a shame that Hardaway's career is always punctuated with the sigh, "if only". If only he had stayed healthy, he would have fulfilled the promise he showed in 95 and 96. How good was he? Well the numbers say he was really good-in '96, his best season, he averaged 22-7 with 2 steals and excellent efficiency, and finished 7th in the league in PER, and 4th in Win Shares. If he had stayed at his 95-97 level of play for several more years, then had a normal decline phase, he would be in the top 5 of this list. But the Legend of Penny wasn't just about the numbers, it was about how he got them. But don't take my word for it. There are plenty of Hardaway highlights on YouTube. Start with this one, and go from there. And be happy that we got as much as we did.

Monday, August 23, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 26-30


30. Stephon Marbury: Starbury holds the distinction of being one of the most maligned athletes of his generation. Much of the criticism is warranted; he was never a good defender, he probably dominated the ball a bit more than he should have, he wasn't especially efficient, and his teams never won all that much.

But let's focus on what he could do. You don't average 19 points and 8 assists over a 13 year career without doing something right, and Marbury could certainly create shots for himself and for his teammates. It's also not true that he always lost; he was the leading scorer (and assist-er) on the 44 win 2003 Suns.

What I consider his most impressive performance occurred on the 2004 Knicks, who he joined through a midseason trade. The Knicks were floundering, at 14-21, when they traded for Marbury, and promptly went 25-22 the rest of the way. That does not seem particularly impressive, but when you consider that the Knicks' other four starters come playoff time were Nazr Mohammed, Kurt Thomas, Tim Thomas (who was replaced by an old Penny Hardaway after he was injured in Game 1 against the Nets), and Shandon Anderson, I think Marbury deserves a lot of credit for keeping that group near .500.

29. Jimmy Jones: The best point guard of the ABA. How good was he? I don't really know. He had some statistically dominating seasons in the early years of the ABA, especially 1969, when he averaged 26-6-6 while leading the league in FG% and PER. He wasn't a one year wonder, averaging 19-5-5 over 7 ABA seasons, and improving on those numbers (and efficiency) in the playoffs.

An efficient scorer, Jones is a difficult player to evaluate because I don't know how his impressive statistical output would have translated to a superior league. It is easy to point to his lack of success in the NBA as proof that he simply dominated a weak league, but it should be noted that he didn't reach the ABA until he was 23, had his best year at 24, had a decent season on a per minute basis in his first NBA season, 1975, and started to decline rapidly when he hit 31-in an era when quick guards did not age well. So, how good was he? I'm still not sure, but the ABA's best point guard deserves a mention here.

28. Doc Rivers: Doc will probably be remembered as a coach more than a player, but he was a very good player as a pass-first point guard in the 1980s. Rivers may be underrated now because he never received big minutes (and put up big statistics), always less than 33 a game, but per minute stats reveal a prolific passer and tough defender.

I was surprised by how much Doc Rivers resembled his protégé, Rajon Rondo, statistically. From 1986-1988, Rivers' best three seasons, he averaged 15 points, 11 assists, and 2.3 steals per 36 minutes, which is pretty close to what I think Rondo can achieve. Add that to decent rebounding and a surprisingly good ability to draw fouls, and you have all the makings for a great, unheralded point guard.

Unfortunately, Rivers fell off after those three years, and only averaged 27 minutes a game over his career, preventing him from climbing any higher on this list, but it should be remembered how great he was for those few years.

27. Andre Miller: He's never been great, but he's been good for a long time. His best season was probably 2002, when he averaged 17 and 11, winning the assist crown, but almost a decade later he was anchoring an overachieving Blazers team, without missing a beat in between (okay, there was that year with the Clippers he wasn't so great, but I think "being on the Clippers" counts as extenuating circumstances).

In making these ratings, I generally favored peak performance over longevity, but quietly consistent performance over a whole decade should be recognized. And I know I didn't realize how many good seasons Miller had strung together until I made these rankings, and I suspect I'm not the only one. I think part of it is that he's always played out of the spotlight. He left Cleveland before LeBron got there, and then swapped teams with Iverson in the Denver-Philly trade, both times ending up on the team with less media attention. Plus he played for the Clippers.

26. Fat Lever: Lever is the other end of the spectrum from Miller. He only had four good years, but they were a great four years. From 1987 through 1990, he averaged 19 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 2.5 steals, and only 2 turnovers. That's right, over a four year period, he almost averaged a triple double, was one of the best defensive guards in the game, and never turned the ball over. If he could only shoot, there would have been no holes in his game. As it was, he gave us four great years of unorthodox domination and someone we could compare to Rajon Rondo while making ourselves feel smart. And isn't that enough?

The Best There Ever Was

Lists, especially of the "who's best" variety, are one of the easiest ways to spur conversation and argument, especially when talking about sports. Sometimes it seems that is all they are good for, but there is a possibility that a list, in this case about basketball, will make one think about how they evaluate players, what skills are valuable, and will teach one more about the history of the game.

With the justification behind me, in an attempt to start blogging regularly I will be ranking the top 30 historical players at each position, with commentary and musings on where unranked current players are projected to end up in these lists. I will include current players in the actual rankings, but only current players whose historical position is somewhat stable. You won't really go wrong if you use the 2003 draft as a cutoff point, even if I don't always follow it. I am starting with point guards, the first installment of which will be posted later tonight.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shallow Thought Of The Day, Vol VIII

Did you realize that Magic Johnson and John Stockton peaked at the same time? By Win Shares, Magic's best 5 year stretch was 1987-1991. By the same measure, Stockton's best 5 year stretch was 1988-1992. (This is one of the reasons that the 1988 Lakers-Jazz WC Semifinals deserves to be remembered much more than it is.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Intriguing Nets

When Mikhail Prokorov bought the Nets, there was hope that the team would make a big splash in free agency. That didn't happen, but the Nets have almost completely turned over their roster after last season's 12-70 debacle, and they added another piece in this week's four team trade.

Last year, the Nets top ten players, in terms of minutes, were Brook Lopez, Courtney Lee, Devin Harris, Terrence Williams, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Yi Jianlian, Trenton Hassell, Josh Boone, Jarvis Hayes, and Keyon Dooling.

This year, that list will probably be something like; Brook Lopez, Troy Murphy, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, Terrence Williams, Jordan Farmar, Derrick Favors, Kris Humphries, and Quintin Ross.

That means that the Nets have effectively traded Lee, CDR, Yi, Hassell, Boone, Hayes, and Dooling for Murphy, Morrow, Outlaw, Farmar, Favors, Humphries, and Ross. Just upgrading all of that replacement level talent would be enough to catapult the Nets out of the East cellar, but what intrigues me is how this talent fits together, especially on the offensive end.

Now, this team will struggle defensively, although Lopez and Williams certainly have the potential to become very good defensive players. However, this team has the following offensive assets. 1) A skilled 7 footer that can control the paint (and averaged 19 PPG on efficient shooting as a 21 year old sophomore). 2) A point guard that can get into the lane at will, and draws a lot of fouls. 3) One of the best stretch fours in the league. 4) The best pure shooter in the NBA. Add to that another forward who can hit the three (Outlaw), a guy who should be deadly in transition (Williams), a decent backup point guard (Farmar), and whatever Favors turns out to be, and the Nets have the makings of a good offensive team.

Aside from replacing the offensive "contributions" of the departing Nets, the newcomers (Murphy and Morrow especially) should open up the offense considerably for Devin Harris and Brook Lopez. New Jersey finished 29th in 3 point percentage last year, and the appearance of a dangerous perimeter game should mean fewer double teams for Brook Lopez (especially with the opponent's power forward needing to chase Troy Murphy around the perimeter), open up more lanes to the basket for Devin Harris and Terrence Williams, and give the Nets a deadly drive and kick game.

It is difficult to make the case that the Nets will be anything more than a 35 win team that could sneak into the last playoff spot in a top heavy East, but their newfound offensive firepower could transform New Jersey, the worst offensive team in the league last year, into an entertaining team, and make them a more attractive destination for next year's star free agents (barring a lockout, of course).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Great Players, Small Minutes

Typically, great players receive 35-40 minutes a game. However, there are exceptions, All-Star caliber players who, for whatever reason, received lesser minutes. These players tend to be underappreciated since they don't put up big (conventional) numbers, but while they were on the court, they had few peers. Here are three of the best.

Manu Ginobili. Per 36 minutes-19 points-5 rebounds-5 assists-2 steals. Ginobili is the king of this category, with a career high of 31 minutes a game, and a career average of under 28 minutes a game, despite ridiculous on-court productivity. As a shooting guard who has never averaged 20 points a game, he is generally not viewed as a superstar, but his all around game compares favorably to the other top shooting guards of his era. Why has he never garnered bigger minutes? A combination of durability concerns, and Popovich's apparent belief that San Antonio is best served by having one of its two stars on every unit (for instance, this past year, San Antonio's top 35 lineups used either Duncan (and/)or Ginobili). This results in less overall minutes for Ginobili, but in a configuration that makes his minutes more valuable to the Spurs.

Arvydas Sabonis. Per 36 minutes-18 points-11 rebounds-3 assists. Sabonis is one of the NBA's greatest "what-if" stories. The big Lithuanian didn't come to the NBA until he was in his thirties with leg and feet problems (the main reason he played more than 27 minutes per game only once during his NBA career), but was still a highly effective player with the Blazers during the late nineties. He was famous for his passing, but also was an efficient scorer, excellent rebounder, and good defender. Despite playing his best ball overseas, Sabonis' rate and advanced stats are similar to that of Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, providing a clue to his effectiveness.

Bobby Jones. Per 36 minutes-16 points-8 rebounds-3.5 assists-2 steals-2 blocks-56% FG percentage. Was Bobby Jones a star? The answer may tell you more about the person answering the question than about Bobby Jones. On the one hand, it seems ludicrous to label a player who averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds for his career a "star". On the other hand, he was a great defender who did everything well (except for outside shooting), and managed to be selected to 4 NBA All-Star games, plus an appearance in the 1976 ABA All-Star game as a member of the league-best Denver Nuggets (he probably would have made the All-Star team anyway that year). If you favor players who can create their own offense, you probably won't think much of Jones. If you are enamored with defense and efficiency (as I am), then he's a Hall of Fame level player on a per minute basis (consider this comparison to current players, focusing on rate and advanced stats). Despite his effectiveness, he only played more than 30 minutes a game three times in his career, and only once in the NBA, where he spent 10 of his 12 seasons. The main reason for his lack of playing time, which mainly occurred after he joined the Sixers, was that Philly had a stacked frontcourt, with coach Billy Cunningham needing to find enough playing time for Jones, Julius Erving, Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins, and Steve Mix. This led to Jones' minutes being limited, and his eventual role as sixth man extraordinaire (for which he won the NBA's first sixth man of the year award in 1983).