Posts Tagged ‘kevin garnett’

Kobe Bryant is Fading Away and Other Aging NBA Stars

October 13, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of preseason NBA ball this past week, and it looks like Charles Barkley is still correct. Eventually Father Time conquers all.

There’s a litany of aging NBA stars playing out what may be their last professional contracts over the next couple of years – Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen if he signs somewhere, and maybe even Tim Duncan (that group in 2006 would have been the best team ever). I’m leaving Dirk off the list not because he isn’t an aging star but because it looks like his style of play will allow for a gentler slope of decline. Timmy probably belongs off the list with Dirk for a similar reason and because Pop takes such good care to protect him from the rigors of the 82 game season.

I’ve seen all of the Lakers preseason games, and 36 year old Kobe Bryant bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to 38 year old Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards. The skillset is still there. He has all those familiar moves carefully crafted over an NBA lifetime spent winning scoring titles and championship rings. But the grace is gone, that athletic lift that put Kobe in another stratosphere.

Bryant has always taken and made a lot of tough shots. That’s part of his mystique. He can get up a shot with a chance to go in from anywhere at any time against anyone. But it’s getting to be more difficult to add easier, more efficient scoring possessions to those tough ones. The blow-by ability off the first step is harder to come by. The explosive dunk over the top of a help defender in the lane is a rarer highlight. Losing that ability to slash into the paint at breakneck speed and fly through the air at the rotating defender cuts down on trips to the free throw line. One drive per game that used to result in a drawn shooting foul that is now counted as a missed shot or a turnover becomes a huge hit to a player’s efficiency rating.

For the first three preseason games, Bryant has a TS% of 0.416. He has scored 34 points on 36 shot attempts with only 11 free throws attempted in 3 games and 0 made three pointers (he’s only attempted 1 three-pointer). Three games is a meaninglessly small sample, especially in the preseason. And the first two games weren’t so bad (3-13 in game 3 brings the total efficiency down a lot), but I watched the games, and I see real problems. Too many fade away jumpers against set defenders. Too few open shots off quick hitting attacks. Too many dribbles to get into the lane. It doesn’t take much in terms of a slower step or lower elevation to put the defense in position to impact those field goal attempts.

I saw all the same things with Jordan in Washington. A string of games where he seemed to play pretty well but when you looked at the box score his shooting was under 45%, and he barely got to the line followed by a putrid 30% shooting game and very few high 50% or unicorn-rare 60%+ shooting games to balance things out. In his youth and even the tail end of his prime, MJ would pepper his game log with really great shooting nights to offset the mediocre games. As a Wizard that just didn’t happen because even when he was making the majority of his tough shots, he still wasn’t getting himself enough easy opportunities (free throws and layups). So games that would have been 50+ points on 70% shooting for a younger MJ wound up being 35 points on 55% shooting for #23 in blue. They were exciting to watch, all the more so because so many of his makes were on tough, contested shots, but the end result was that what should have been a spectacular game was merely a good game. This is the territory that Kobe appears to be entering.

The problems Steve Nash faces are even more obvious. Once the premier fast break and pick and roll point guard of the league, Nash now lacks the quickness to get by defenders or turn the corner coming off screens with a live dribble. Pressure defense bothers him because he’s not a threat to blow by an off-balance defender and get into the lane. His handles are still good. His shot is still pure. And he was never a speed demon. Logically it would seem like his game could survive getting slower, but that little bit of separation he used to get is narrower than ever. He can still bounce in a perfect pocket pass or whip a lefty behind the back no look to the corner, but his scoring threat is severely reduced, which in turn means those open passing lanes are harder to come by as the opposing defense reacts less and less to his attempts to drive and shoot.

The defense is going too. Kobe can still put in a very solid effort one on one, but his days of wreaking havoc on opposing team offensive schemes are gone (and have been for a few years really). Nash was never much of a defender. Even KG isn’t dominant defensively anymore. He’s still sound in his rotations. He’s still seven feet tall. But he doesn’t close out on shooters like he used to. He can’t switch and stay in front of a dribbling guard for multiple seconds to snuff out a possession. His show and recover and other help defense actions are all a step slow.

Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar I saw go from hyper-talented but raw rookie to dominant superstar to faded legend. I missed the first stage of that arc with the Jordan / Barkley generation, and I missed the first two stages with Bird and Magic. But the KG / Kobe era is close to me because I’m the same age as those players. To me they still seem like they should be young bucks in the prime of their careers, but stardom in the realm of athletics doesn’t work that way. So it’s time to lower our expectations and just enjoy the good moments when they come up. I’m sure Nash has one more game in his bones where he controls the tempo, gets the defense on a string, and makes his teammates all look like stars. And Pierce will hit a game winner and shout to the stands. And Bryant will toss in 50 hard-fought points. It just won’t happen often, and it won’t be easy.

Neil Young told us that it’s better to burn out than fade away. MJ and Kobe have taught us that even when your athletic flame has burnt out, you can still hit a fade away. Thank god that highlights are forever young.

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Best Power Forward in the NBA 2013-14

December 30, 2013

There was a debate raging on my Twitter feed @DoubleDribbleWP this weekend regarding who the best power forward is today. I did not take part in the discussion because I thought the topic deserved more than 140 characters worth of thought.

The debate centered around LaMarcus Aldridge, the long-armed forward-center post-up and spot up jump shooting specialist for the ass-kicking Portland Trailblazers, Kevin Love, the rebound savant with killer 3 point range and tremendous passability, and Blake Griffin, the multi-time All-Star with a great motor and all-around game who is best known for his devastating above the rim finishes.

The debate omitted the actual best power forward in the league. You know the guy. Won back to back MVPs and Finals MVPs the last two years. Took his talents to South Beach a few years back and now he starts on a front line next to Shane Battier and Chris Bosh and leads the team in rebounds per game. There’s a decent chance you’re wearing his best-selling jersey right now. LeBron James is in fact a power forward this year, as he was last year, and almost indisputably he’s the best player in the league. So while I guess it’s possible to define the role of a power forward and create some criteria to discredit LeBron, let’s just save the time and agree that he’s the best, and we’re actually debating who the second best in the league and first best in the West is.

If we ignore LeBron and look west, and also omit Kevin Durant, who does give minutes at the PF but starts and plays most of his time at the SF, then LaMarcus, Love, and Blake are the best candidates for the top PF spot.

The BBR stats are here.

Per Game:

Player Age MP FGA FG% 3PA 3P% FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
LaMarcus Aldridge 28 37.1 20.6 .472 0.2 .000 4.9 .801 2.4 8.4 10.9 2.9 1.1 0.8 1.8 2.0 23.4
Blake Griffin 24 36.6 15.9 .524 0.5 .375 7.3 .700 2.3 8.3 10.6 3.1 1.1 0.7 2.9 3.4 21.9
Kevin Love 25 36.3 18.6 .464 6.5 .386 7.7 .833 3.7 10.1 13.8 4.2 0.8 0.3 2.5 1.8 26.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/30/2013.

Advanced:

Player Age PER TS% eFG% FTr 3PAr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% ORtg DRtg WS/48
LaMarcus Aldridge 28 22.5 .514 .472 .236 .008 7.2 24.5 15.9 13.9 1.5 1.5 7.2 28.7 110 104 .165
Blake Griffin 24 21.5 .574 .530 .459 .031 7.2 24.6 16.1 15.1 1.5 1.5 13.1 26.7 110 101 .177
Kevin Love 25 28.4 .595 .532 .412 .351 10.3 31.4 20.3 20.6 1.1 0.7 10.2 28.0 122 102 .278
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/30/2013.

Great per game stats for everyone. Each player is putting up 20 PPG and 10 RPG.  Each player is maintaining at least a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio which is what we expect from a big man in the NBA.

Statistically there’s no question that Kevin Love comes out on top. Love plays the shortest minutes and amasses the highest points, rebounds, and assists per game. His field goal percentage is the lowest of the bunch, but that’s only because more than a third of his shots come from beyond the three point line. His TS% is much better than the others at a beefy 59.5% thanks to his great three-point shooting and a high free throw rate (2nd highest of the group behind Blake).

In terms of play-style, Love has no real historical comparison. His rebounding and passing are reminiscent of Charles Barkley, but he lacks Barkley’s ball-handling skills and low post dominance. He makes up for those two failings with Dirk Nowitzki like shooting touch and basically limitless range. No one has ever done what he’s doing.

The easiest argument against Love is that his team isn’t winning as much as expected (I guess Love isn’t ALL you need – sorry). Even that you could counter with the fact that Kevin’s raw plus / minus is the best of the group:

Love +7.7
LA +7.1
Blake +5.1

It’s kind of hard to fault Kevin for his team’s lack of wins when he puts up the fantastic stat line he does and has the highest on-court point differential (which is all that an unadjusted +/- really shows us). Also when you look at the advanced team stats, Minnesota is actually rated higher than you’d expect. They are a .500 team, but their SRS projects them to be a top 5 in the West, behind both the Blazers and the Clippers but ahead of current playoff-bound teams such as the Rockets and Suns. Maybe the lack of actual wins when the team is performing well on paper should be placed on Love’s shoulders. Perhaps this is one of Bill Simmons’s leadership issues where a team falls apart in key moments. On the other hand it might be what happens when your point guard is the worst shooter in the last 50 years.

The real counterargument to Love’s statistical dominance is the matter of defense. He’s not great at it. The question is whether or not Blake or LaMarcus is significantly better on that end of the floor.

Until the adjusted plus / minus stats are available, it’s tough to credit LaMarus with an overabundance of defensive potency. His team’s defensive rating of 107.6 is in the bottom 10 leaguewide. His personal DRtg isn’t bad at 104, 3.6 points per 100 possessions, better than his team’s average and 1.3 better than the league average; however, both Love and Griffin rank better than him in DRtg. Where Aldridge does surpass them is in versatility on defense because he can defend both the PF and C positions one-on-one. This could be a major advantage in a defensive system that refused to double the post.

Aldridge’s best quality is probably his one on one scoring, which is excellent and the best out of the three. His efficiency marks aren’t as good as Love’s or Blake’s, but in terms of getting a bucket one-on-one against a set defense, he’s probably the best low post scorer in the league behind Brook Lopez. He’s also got that Kevin Garnett / Tim Duncan mid-range jumper game that opens things up for his teammates on pick and pop possessions. He has the type of game that impresses analysts who are former players or coaches because it translates to the post-season where transition scoring is more difficult and half-court buckets against a set defense become a real premium.

Blake Griffin is the only player of the group that the stats really support as a plus defender. His team defensive rating is top 7, just ahead of the Miami Heat, and his individual DRtg of 101 is 4 points better than league average and 2 points better than his team’s average. The Clippers play a couple different styles of defense on the pick and roll, sometimes asking Blake to drop back into coverage and sometimes asking him to show so hard that he actually switches for short periods (just like Kevin Garnett did for Boston under Doc Rivers). His blocks and steals still seem a little low for a player with his athletic gifts, but overall I think he ranks out as the best defender of the three, at least until the adjusted plus minus numbers become available and give some additional clarity.

Offensively Blake is the bottom of three statistically. This is primarily due to his lower usage and higher turnover rate. The Clippers do play at a pretty high pace, 6th fastest in the league, and high pace can lead to more turnovers and a more even distribution of usage. That said, the Timberwolves have an even faster pace than the Clippers do, and Love’s usage and turnover rate don’t suffer.

Blake’s in an odd position in that he plays with a ball-dominant, pass first point guard. On the one hand this can be very good for a player statistically. Karl Malone and Amare Stoudemire both had amazing stats while playing with two of the greatest pick and roll point guards of all time in John Stockton and Steve Nash. But playing with Chris Paul, who controls the ball for 80% of each possession and maintains a fairly even shot distribution for the team, takes opportunities out of Griffin’s hands or puts him in position to have to make snap decisions should Paul get him the ball late in the clock. It’s tough to tell if we should hold him more accountable for any inefficiencies since he has the best point guard in the league setting him up or forgive him for not doing more since he doesn’t have the ball as much. Griffin has certainly expanded his game and improved his mid-range jumper to help the team spacing and take advantage of Paul’s half court game. Blake is also probably the best playmaker of the bunch. Love may be a better passer and more prolific assist-generator, but Griffin is able to create shots for teammates out of the post or on the move and has shown great ability to read the court in transition and find the open man.

All three players definitely have their strengths and weaknesses. Love is the best shooter and rebounder. LaMarcus is the biggest and the best at creating points in the half court. Blake is the most athletic and most dynamic on the move. My inclination is to give the title of best PF in the league not named LeBron to Kevin Love. He certainly still has some things to prove on the defensive end and in terms of team wins, but his on court ability is just so remarkable. Like Barkley and Garnett before him (sorry Minnesota – I lived in Minneapolis during the KG era), Love may need to go to a new team before we can see how good he really is when playing with high caliber teammates, but the tools are all there to be an MVP type player.  I’m not sure I’d say the same for Griffin and Aldridge, though Blake is still developing.

NBA Top 50 – MVP Shares

December 27, 2013

Rank Player MVP Shares
1 Michael Jordan* 8.138
2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 6.203
3 Larry Bird* 5.693
4 LeBron James 5.387
5 Magic Johnson* 5.129
6 Bill Russell* 4.827
7 Shaquille O’Neal 4.38
8 Karl Malone* 4.296
9 Wilt Chamberlain* 4.269
10 Tim Duncan 4.261
11 Kobe Bryant 4.206
12 David Robinson* 3.123
13 Moses Malone* 2.873
14 Kevin Garnett 2.753
15 Bob Pettit* 2.628
16 Hakeem Olajuwon* 2.611
17 Oscar Robertson* 2.479
18 Charles Barkley* 2.438
19 Steve Nash 2.429
20 Jerry West* 2.09
21 Kevin Durant 2.019
22 Dirk Nowitzki 1.804
23 Elgin Baylor* 1.659
24 Allen Iverson 1.567
25 Bob McAdoo* 1.494
26 Patrick Ewing* 1.424
27 Chris Paul 1.423
28 Julius Erving* 1.407
29 Dave Cowens* 1.338
30 Dwight Howard 1.249
31 Willis Reed* 1.073
32 Derrick Rose 0.981
33 Alonzo Mourning 0.968
34 Jason Kidd 0.933
35 George Gervin* 0.911
36 Bob Cousy* 0.882
37 Tracy McGrady 0.855
38 Dominique Wilkins* 0.849
39 Gary Payton* 0.823
40 Dwyane Wade 0.793
41 Clyde Drexler* 0.778
42 Scottie Pippen* 0.716
43 Sidney Moncrief 0.695
44 Dolph Schayes* 0.69
45 Wes Unseld* 0.639
46 Bernard King* 0.625
47 Rick Barry* 0.592
48 Chris Webber 0.588
49 Elvin Hayes* 0.571
50 Grant Hill 0.52

A couple days ago, we put together a top 15 list using playoff success as our criteria for consideration and then boiling down using stats, titles, and awards. It was a stilted approach in that I set out to be as inclusive as possible in determining playoff success but then was totalitarian in crediting the awards.

The above list is the top 50 cumulative career percentage of MVP votes received. Essentially the voters have a 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place vote every year. If one player were to receive 100% of the 1st place votes, he still would not get all the MVP shares for that year, because the 2nd and 3rd place votes comprise part of the whole. Since the voting is rarely ever that one-sided, generally the actual award winner’s total share leaves a lot for the runners up to add to their total.

What’s nice about measuring with the shares rather than just giving an arbitrary credit for winning the award is that it credits guys who were consistently high in the running but may have lost out to others due to missed games or when two great players starred for the same team and split the vote. Shaq and Kobe are good examples of players who may have got in each other’s way when it came to actually winning the MVP but both consistently received large portions of the vote – they are 7th and 11th respectively even though they each only won a single MVP award.

The other good thing about using voting results as a measure of player greatness is that voters can approach the game from a more nuanced perspective than numbers. If we picked MVP by statistics each year, Wilt would have 10, and Russell would have very few. Something was happening to make voters break the 60s up into some votes for Wilt, some votes for Russell, and enough votes for Oscar to win one year. As I wasn’t around at that time, and heck even the people who were avid fans didn’t have great exposure to all the teams and players, the views of the voters are all the context that we really have to go on to help supplement the raw numbers.

A quick note on the limitations of stats: take a look at Michael Jordan’s season in 1992. His team won 67 games and absolutely dominated the league with a margin of victory of 10.44. Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had their most efficient seasons. Obsessive basketball nerds like Bill Simmons (and me) consider 1992 to be the season where Jordan was at the peak of his basketball ability. It is also his worst statistical season in half a decade. His PER fell 4 points. His TS% dropped by 2.5. His free throw rate dropped by 4%. His ORtg fell by 4 points.

Basically all of his personal efficiency numbers tanked, and his team was better for it. Why? Well I was 13 at the time, and I don’t remember seeing him do anything all that different, but I’d guess it’s because he was giving up some of the isolation plays that led to his drives to the rim for easy scores and free throws in order to run the triangle and keep his teammates involved. Whatever happened, I don’t think MJ fell of a cliff at the age of 28, and his new play style worked to the tune of the best season any team had between the 1987 Lakers and the Bulls again in 1996.

So while Jordan’s box score stats indicated that this was the worst he’d played in half a decade and show a massive drop from 1991, his MVP shares actually went up by 1% from his previous MVP and by over 10% from his first MVP in 1988 (when he had the best season ever by PER standards). Granted, the metrics that I’m referring to didn’t exist back then, and the points, assists, and rebounds were still strong, so maybe that increase in MVP shares isn’t voters capturing nuances of Jordan’s game so much as voters responding to a dip in Barkley’s production and the absence of Magic Johnson. Still this is one subjective record of a player’s impact on his team and on the league that we have access to, and it dates all the way back to the late 1950s.

The weakness of using this measure is that MVP voting is not an exact science by any means. The criteria is ill-defined to the point of being almost useless. How is “value” defined for NBA players? Is it the player who personally accounts for the most wins on his team? If so then the best producer is probably that guy. Is it the player who takes a step back statistically to allow others to flourish? If so it’s probably the best player on the winningest team. It’s a very nebulous concept, and some players seem to get the lion’s share of credit that could be more evenly distributed. Take a look at Karl Malone sitting between Shaq and Wilt on the list. The asterisk next to his name is to indicate that he’s in the hall of fame, but it should be to indicate that 40% of his MVP shares belong to John Stockton, who incredibly does not make this list at all.

I stumbled across this list on Bastketball-Reference.com, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s not a definitive ranking by any means, but it is a good snapshot of how great players have been perceived by award voters over the years and certainly has some merit as a tool to help add some context to the box score numbers.

15 Greatest NBA Players

December 24, 2013

The 15 greatest players in NBA (and ABA) history:

1. Michael Jordan
2. Bill Russell
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4. Wilt Chamberlain
5. LeBron James
6. Tim Duncan
7. Shaquille O’Neal
8. Magic Johnson
9. Julius Erving*
10. Kobe Bryant
11. Larry Bird
12. Jerry West
13. Hakeem Olajuwon
14. Sam Jones
15. Bob Pettit

*Includes ABA career

Here at Double Dribble we’ve done player rankings in the past, usually based on one statistic or another, examining who is “best.” For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to formulate a system for ranking players based not on who is or was the best player but on who had the greatest career. I don’t usually think in those terms, but a few recent discussions have intrigued me. In particular Rick Fox stated in an NBA Hangtime podcast that Kobe Bryant would go down as the greatest player in Lakers history and NBA history. Note- greatest, not best.

What’s the difference between being the best and being the greatest? My interpretation is that being the best means having the highest level of ability with ability being a mix of physical talents, practiced techniques, and IQ for the game. When we debate whether LeBron James might be better than Michael Jordan, we compare their abilities as players. Greatness is about accomplishments including significant statistical measures, team success, and awards. So if one were to say that Larry Bird was better than Magic Johnson, but that Magic had the greater career and deserves a higher place in the GOAT list, that’s not necessarily a contradiction.

Greatness is easier to support than bestness, but it is also more driven by circumstance. Charles Barkley may have been a better overall player than Karl Malone, but that is a long, difficult argument that requires considerable support and explanation. Karl will go down as greater than Barkley because he had more post-season success and maintained better health for longer. One could contend that had Barkley played with John Stockton his whole career like Karl did, he would have had more playoff success. Easier to justify greatness but more circumstantial.

All of this lead in is to say that I decided to focus the lens on greatness for this player ranking exercise. I took a cue from Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN fame. Wilbon told me (in an online chat) that he would take the 1984 draft class of Jordan, Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and John Stockton over the 2003 draft class of James, Wade, Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony because the former group made more NBA Finals. I thought that was an odd criteria, but when it comes to legacy and the measure of greatness, deep playoff runs are really the crux of the argument.

Longevity, statistical milestones, and awards are all very important, but playoff success is often where the race starts. Think of comparable players like Allen Iverson and Isaiah Thomas. AI led the league in scoring multiple times and won a league MVP. Zeke went to multiple finals, won two championships, and has a Finals MVP. Which of them is typically considered greater? Thomas. Hands down. We don’t even get to consider stats because we stop considering at the back to back titles. Is Zeke better? Is he more valuable? Those are completely separate questions.

Rather than insist that players made the NBA Finals a certain number of times or anything quite that arbitrary, I ran a search, year by year of players that played a sufficient number of games to win the title regardless of how far they actually progressed. This number was a moving target over the years as league expansion and playoff reformatting impacted the number and length of playoff series. In the NBA today a team must win 16 games in order to be champion. For most of the history of the ABA it only took 12 wins. For most of Bill Russell’s career, a team could win a title in just 9 games.

My base criteria for consideration was 4 seasons where the player played at least enough playoff games to have won a championship with a minute average over 30 per game. I then took the top 4 seasons by each of these players (4 seasons is pretty tough to come by and narrowed the list nicely) and rated them based on weighted statistical (I used averaged PER and WS48) measures and gave additional credit for each finals made, championship, finals MVP, and regular season MVP all weighted against different values. I’m not going to put my formula here because it is still evolving and isn’t especially scientific, but these particular players were pretty much constant no matter how I shifted the scale, and the top 5 didn’t really change (though James and Duncan are in a near-tie at this stage).

Examining the results, I was surprised that the list gave me almost exactly what I would expect at the top. Jordan, the big three centers, and LeBron in some order is what I think most experts would give for a top 5. Then Magic, Bird, and Kobe would make most lists. Shaq and Doctor J are probably a little more surprising, but when you look at their accomplishments (if you include the ABA for Doc), they’re pretty hard to ignore. Hakeem is often included ahead of O’Neal but I just couldn’t find any statistical measure or accomplishment scale that would allow for that. Dream might have been better. He might have been more valuable. He wasn’t greater.

The most surprising exclusion was Oscar Robertson, and again, this is entirely because of the greatness criteria. Oscar’s Royals just didn’t advance far enough in the playoffs often enough. He does in fact have 4 total seasons and shows up at #30 on this list, but two of those seasons are in Milwaukee with Kareem when Oscar was past his prime. If I weighted regular season stats and factored them in as well, Oscar would likely make the top 15 (I should probably do that).

The only player who really stands out as a surprise to make the group is Sam Jones, but when you consider he was often the leading scorer on the Russell title teams, it’s not inconceivable that he deserves to be mentioned as one of the greatest, if not the best, players ever. Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek just missed the top 15 cut off, and Karl Malone and Dwyane Wade weren’t far behind them.

Players who might make a best list but missed the criteria for this greatest list due to not making it deep enough into the playoffs quite enough times include Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, David Robinson, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Artis Gilmore, and current stars like Chris Paul and Kevin Durant.

Quick positions breakdown: 5 guards (Jordan, Magic, Bryant, West, and Jones), 5 centers (Russell, Kareem, Wilt, Shaq, Hakeem), and 5 forwarders (LeBron, Duncan, Doc, Bird, Pettit)

Quick era breakdown: 5 Late 1950s to Early 1970s (Russell, Wilt, West, Jones, Pettit), 6 Mid 1970s to Mid 1990s (Jordan, Kareem, Magic, Doc, Bird, Hakeem), 4 Late 1990s to Early 2010s (LeBron, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe)

Barkley and Shaq vs. Blake and Dwight

November 21, 2013

In the weekly TNT broadcasts, Charles Barkley and Shaquille Oneal have been highly critical of Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard.  Tonight Charles is announcing the Clipper’s game live, and his criticisms of Blake will come in real time.  Are the gripes legit, or is this a case of retired player sour grapes?

From here I’m going to break this into two separate comparisons, Barkley vs. Blake and Shaq vs. Dwight.

In Chuck’s case, he seems to be genuinely frustrated that these two former slam dunk champions haven’t become more complete basketball players, which is funny because so many pundits were always harping on Barkley for not fulfilling his potential back in his playing days.  Mostly the knock on Charles was that he only played defense when he felt like it and didn’t keep himself in great shape, and those were fair criticisms.  Barkley’s hang-up with Blake and Dwight is more about offensive skillset and execution, and whether those are fair criticisms or not is debatable (I happen to agree, but it isn’t a no-brainer question).

Statistically, Barkley at Blake’s age was further along.

Age 23-24:

Barkley – PER 26.4 WS/48 .233 VORP 5.65

Griffin – PER 22.3 WS/48 .193 VORP 3.97

Charles was way more efficient on a per possession basis, and he played way more possessions.  From a production standpoint, Barkley was the better of the two, and if that proves to anyone that he has a legitimate claim to be able to give Blake advice, then so be it.

In terms of skill set, Charles and Griffin are actually similar in a lot of ways.  They both play that 3-4 swing forward role, able to match up effectively against small forwards because of their superior agility and power forwards because of their superior strength.  Both have the same weaknesses defensively, namely they are a little slow of foot to chase speedy small forwards off of screens or keep guard-forwards in front off the dribble, and they are a little bit short to contest the shots of the taller power forwarders (Griffin is listed at 6’ 10” but looks closer to 6’ 8” and tends to play in a crouch – Randolph and Pau shoot over him easily).

On offense I’d only consider looking at them over the same age range, 21-24.  There are some stylistic similarities.  They both love to get out and run and finish above the rim.  They both have superior ball-handling skills for their size and strength.  They both like to spin off the blocks and have good touch when finishing around the rim.  Griffin has more ability to catch and finish above the rim.  Charles had more ability to carve out space and get shots off in the paint.  The big difference, and the reason that Barkley is always harping on Blake’s lack of a post game, is that Charles was a dominant force in the post, while Blake is not.

Barkley had an unusual post game because of his height. He rarely used a hook shot and instead based his post game with all it’s countermoves off a power move towards the middle of the floor.  Longer defenders would seem to be a problem, but he had such a leverage advantage that he could usually root them out of position and use his quickness and explosiveness to get into position for easy layups.  He also had a bang and quick spin drop step, a one handed jumper to the middle, a turnaround over the opposite shoulder, and very reliable up-and-under reverse.  Blake has two post moves he likes, a spin move off a quick dribble and a hook / scoop going right.  He’s shown flashes of having a turnaround but rarely uses it.

I think what Charles wants to see from Blake is a commitment to establishing low post position and a quick, decisive attack out of that space.  This is not bad advice, but Charles needs to take into consideration that Blake does a lot of his work on cuts and off the pick and roll.  Getting better is of course a good idea.  But getting better hitting midrange jumpers off the pick and pop and getting better at making free throws would be a much better idea.  Blake has that Barkley-like combination of strength and agility, but actually needs to work on the same skills that Karl Malone developed over his career.  Playing with Chris Paul seems to be a lot like playing with John Stockton.

Shaq’s over-the-top expectations of Howard may be a little bit pettier.  He puts down Dwight as a way of maintaining his own legacy as the last great behemoth in the game, or that’s how it comes across.  From disputing the Superman nickname to calling for ridiculous 28 points 15 rebounds per game averages, Shaquille’s constant disparaging remarks have a personal undertone.  That said, Shaq is correct that it seems like Howard could achieve more if he was a little more determined to get post position, demanding of the ball, and polished in his moves.

Statistically Shaq was much better than Dwight.

Age 20-28:

Shaq – PER 28.2 WS/48 .227 VORP 5.92

Dwight – PER 22.7 WS/48 .186 VORP 5.18

Dwight actually has a higher TS% than Shaq, by 2%, but Shaq has a much higher usage, a much higher assist rate, a slightly higher offensive rebound rate, and much lower turnover rate.

Shaq and Dwight are a less apt comparison than Chuck and Blake even though they may be a more obvious one.  Shaq was 7’ 1” and ranged between 325 lbs and 375 lbs when he played.  He was incredibly massive and very agile for that size, but most of his game was predicated off of brute strength.  Dwight is listed at 6’ 11” but is probably closer to 6’ 9” and while he’s very powerful physically, he probably weighs in the 260 range, gigantic but not otherworldly so.  It is possible to keep him off the block and hold position against him.  His game is largely predicated on speed and hops.  Frankly so much of O’Neal’s success came because he could establish position against anyone and the width of his shoulders made him unfrontable, and Dwight will never have that.

O’Neal is basically looking for Dwight to improve in all areas on offense from running the floor, to crashing the boards, to posting up.  Again, these are great things to improve, but it’s unclear how much growth Dwight really needs in these areas.  Could he run the floor better?  Sure, but other than Karl Malone, you could say that about all big guys.  For a center with rim protection responsibilities, Howard changes ends very well.  Could he dominate the offense glass better?  Maybe.  He doesn’t have the advantage that Shaq did where Shaq was able to get his own rebounds because his power moves cleared out the paint for him and his standing reach didn’t require second jump effort to haul them in.  Dwight generally makes an athletic move when he shoots on his own, so he’s not necessarily on balance to follow that up with a tip in.

Post play is an area where Dwight is underrated in terms of his efficacy but could obviously still improve a lot.  Howard is an efficient scorer in the low blocks.  He has a reliable hook with either hand and an explosive first step to the middle.  He needs to develop a baseline turnaround and a quick drop step with touch as his counter moves.  Shaq actually had all of those things.  He had a finesse skill set to complement his power game.  Where Dwight could improve even more is on his passing out of the post.  He passes well when he’s set but not as effectively when the double comes as he makes his move.

So is it fair for Barkley and Shaq to criticize Blake and Howard.  Sure it is.  They are talking heads on a sports show who actually played the same positions as these guys did and actually did the job better.  If Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith criticized two NBA players like this we wouldn’t question their right to do so, though their knowledge of the game is certainly not at the level of two hall of fame players.  Are Chuck and Shaq focusing on the right things when they complain about the youngsters?  I’m not so sure.  The game has changed, and post play is more difficult to execute and less efficient as a scoring method than it used to be.  That said, champions usually have post players, whether it’s LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki in the mid-post, Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett in the low post, or Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce in the high-post, the last 5 title winners have gone to the post up when necessary (and prior to those years it was always Timmy, Shaq, or Rasheed in the post), so getting better back to the basket play is never a bad idea.