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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA

During Tuesday night's edition of NBA Coast to Coast, Tim Legler and Jalen Rose did an on court demonstration of the defensive adjustment that the Cleveland Cavaliers used to hold Dwyane Wade to 2-8 fourth quarter shooting in Cleveland's 107-100 win on Monday. Wade still finished with 41 points on 16-30 shooting and he also had nine assists, seven rebounds and seven steals, but he made a bid for an odd (and unprecedented) quintuple double with his eight turnovers. LeBron James scored 42 points on 13-21 shooting--including 6-7 from three point range--and he contributed eight rebounds and four assists, though he also had a high number of turnovers (six).

James figured prominently in Cleveland's fourth quarter defense against Wade: as Legler and Rose explained, early in the game the Cavs simply "showed" hard with a big man when the Heat ran screen/roll plays for Wade but Wade used his quickness to blow by whichever Cleveland big man trapped him and get into the paint. So, Cleveland countered in the final stanza by sending James to trap Wade before the screen could even be set. This forced Wade to dribble away from James, kept Wade out of the paint and helped the Cavs to outscore Miami 31-18 in the fourth quarter en route to a come from behind road win.

Rose made a very important point while demonstrating/talking about James trapping Wade: James stands 6-8, while Wade is listed at 6-4, so Wade cannot see over or around James to even try to make a pass. If the situation were reversed and Wade trapped James, then James could just pass right over his head, as Rose showed with Legler "guarding" him (Rose and Legler are roughly the same heights as James and Wade respectively).

I've consistently maintained since last season that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the two best players in the NBA but some people think that Wade and Chris Paul should be in that discussion. Wade and Paul are both great players but one disadvantage that they have versus Bryant and James is height: James is 6-8 and Bryant is 6-6, while Wade is 6-4 and Paul is just 6-0. I've stood next to all four players and can honestly say that, if anything, James and Bryant seem taller (and bigger) than their listed sizes, while Wade and Paul certainly are not taller than they are listed and may be slightly smaller (I'm not convinced that Wade is a legit 6-4, unless I've grown since the last time I was measured, which seems highly doubtful). Obviously, height alone does not matter unless you can actually play but at an elite level even the slightest advantage makes a difference. James is so big--the same size as Karl Malone was during his prime--that he can legitimately play power forward, while Bryant is big enough to play small forward; as Rose and Legler indicated, it is much tougher to trap a bigger player because he can simply see right over the help defender.

From my perspective, Wade is a mini-James: they have similar skill set strengths (explosiveness, court vision, finishing in the paint) and share the same major weakness (outside shooting). However, I'd take Bryant or James over Wade unless or until Wade's skill set is markedly better than theirs, because Wade's height is a disadvantage.

As for Chris Paul, in the history of the NBA the only time that someone who is roughly Paul's size has been the best player on a championship team was when Isiah Thomas led the Bad Boys Pistons in 1989 and 1990. Paul is the best point guard in the league and should make the All-NBA First Team but I don't see how anyone could take him over Bryant or James. Thomas admitted that during his playing days he never worried about his diminutive stature but that one time he was at a banquet with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (who are each 6-9) and he thought to himself "Damn, they're big" and he wondered how he really had managed to compete with them at a championship level; Chuck Daly, Detroit's Coach during the Bad Boys era, said that if Thomas had been 6-6 then he might have been the greatest player ever. However, Thomas is not 6-6 and, as great as he was, he was not a better or more dominant player than Bird, Magic or Michael Jordan (who is 6-6)--and the same thing is true today of Paul vis a vis Bryant and James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM

18 comments

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18 Comments:

At Wednesday, March 04, 2009 7:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dave!

Of all the natural gifts in the NBA, size is the most penalized one. Post players get manhandled while defenders can't even touch guards. When Kidd takes Paul into the post, Paul can push, and grab as much as he wants. Kidd isn't allowed to touch Paul on the perimeter though. Nobody roots for goliath.

And the travels! (sorry a bit off topic)
I'm not talking about the "crab-dribbles" either.
I watched Steve Nash's instructional video. He has the ball in triple threat, demonstrates a dribble left, pullup move. He does this by jabbing with his right foot, then uses that foot to make a cross-step to the left together with his first dribble. Perfectly legal.
But then, when he demonstrated the dribble right, pullup... wow.
In triple threat, he jabs with his right, then picks up his pivot foot(left), cross-steps with it to go with his first dribble.
Kobe does this too in his "Nike signature moves" youtube clips. (his post footwork though, is amazing!)

These get called in casual games, in inter-company sportsfests, everywhere else!

If you have seen "Better Basketball" by Rick Torbett(and i highly recommend it, nothing else comes close) he doesn't want his players to use the jab-step-FROM-triple-threat(he opts for a more legal, and actually useful jab-step-INTO-triple-threat) move. I didn't realize why it was so important until I saw the Nash and Kobe videos.

Z

 
At Wednesday, March 04, 2009 11:20:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Height in the NBA is a very interesting topic.

I am convinced that a very large amount of listed heights are inaccurate. With a few exceptions (I've heard Bill Walton was taller than his listed 6'11" -- he wanted to avoid being seen as a "freak" for being 7'+. Many pictures of Walton standing next to other big men confirms this.), most inaccuracies in listed heights exaggerate the true heights of players.

For instance, I've heard Hakeem Olajuwon (usually listed at 7'0") was 6'10". Magic Johnson always seemed slightly shorter than Larry Bird when they were standing next to each other. My hunch is Magic was actually 6'8", as he was reported to be when drafted. More recently, Kevin Love, who is listed at 6'10", was measured as being less than 6'8" (if I remember correctly). Tim Duncan used to be listed at 7'0" earlier (perhaps so he and David Robinson could be marketed as "twin towers"), but is now listed as 6'11".

By the way, in light of all these inaccuracies, isn't it stupid how so many people insist that Wilt Chamberlain would be a stiff today when faced up against all these "huge, athletic" modern centers? At 7'1" barefoot, only Shaq and Yao would be bigger. Wilt would have have almost the same height advantage over the average center today as he had when he played.

I'm surprised you say Kobe may be bigger than his listed size. I always thought he was 6'6" or slightly under it. But you are probably right. I've never stood next to Kobe.

I certainly agree with you that size is very important. It's why, if I had to choose one player from the last decade to build a team around, I would have chosen Duncan or Shaq over Kobe or LeBron or whoever without thinking twice. The rules have somewhat diminished the dominance of big men in the league, but it is still there.

Having said that, no one should be punished for being big, especially in any sort of "objective" analysis. I have a feeling that the people who decided Steve Nash deserved back-to-back MVPs were giving him extra points for being small (not to mention supposedly lacking athleticism).

 
At Wednesday, March 04, 2009 11:22:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

David, I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the Spurs picking up Drew Gooden. How will this alter a possible Lakers-Spurs playoff series?

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 5:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

The NBA rules stipulate that you cannot touch a player on the perimeter but that more contact is allowed in the post. The NBA used to permit hand checking on the perimeter and then it allowed what Ronnie Nunn called a "tactile touch"--meaning that a defender lightly touches his man to keep track of him while watching the player with the ball--but the league has decided to allow perimeter offensive players to move around unfettered.

By strict definition, a lot of the perimeter players travel but I actually think that Kobe travels less often than most of the perimeter players because his footwork is so precise. I can't think of too many examples of him blatantly traveling and he does not have a "crab dribble" move, nor does he utilize the jump stop or extra steps that LeBron, D Wade and others do.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 6:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

The Gooden signing is not official yet but all indications are that the Spurs will acquire him.

Gooden played for Mike Brown--a Popovich disciple--in Cleveland, so he should be very familiar with the Spurs' defensive scheme. Gooden is a skilled big man who can shoot the faceup jumper, postup and shoot the turnaround and he is a good rebounder. I wouldn't say that he is a great defender but he is an active body and not a liability at that end of the court. He is a more skilled player that Oberto or Bonner and probably the best big man the Spurs could sign at this point. I'm sure that Popovich would love to have a talented 7 footer to pair with Duncan but even though Gooden is not that big he can definitely help. He started for a Cleveland team that made it to the Finals in 2007.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 6:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I think that a lot of the listed heights and weights of NBA players are inaccurate. The weights tend to stay the same year after year but we all know that virtually everyone puts on weight between 22-32 years of age. I am a slender person with a high metabolism and I work out a lot but my weight did not stay the same during that age range.

Some seven footers don't want to be listed as that tall because they consider it to be a stigma (I think that was the case with Walton). On the other hand, as you mentioned, Hakeem was listed at 7 feet but seemed to be a couple inches shorter.

Kobe is listed at 6-6. He is certainly no shorter than that and I would not be surprised if he is closer to 6-7. On TV, he looks slender/wiry but when you stand next to him he is bigger than you might expect, particularly in his upper body. Watch him guard bigger players (Pierce, LeBron) on the post and you will notice that they cannot push him around easily; Kobe is both bigger and stronger than he may appear to be on TV.

Jason Terry is listed at 6-2, 180 but he is also much bigger in his upper body than he appears to be on TV. I'd be surprised if he actually weighs less than 195-200.

Shaq and Duncan have clearly been the two dominant players of the post MJ-era. The interesting and ultimately unanswerable question is whether a team would be more likely to win a title with Shaq or Duncan plus an average shooting guard or with Kobe plus an average big man. We will never really know, because Duncan either had a future HoF big man or else some All-Star quality guards, while Shaq has always been paired with a top notch guard. Kobe made the playoffs with a subpar center but obviously did not win a championship.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 11:32:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

A lot of people have criticized Gooden for lacking basketball IQ and being a defensive liability. I would agree more with you, however. He may miss some key rotations, but he works hard as a defender. I think it's a great signing for the Spurs. The other big men they have (besides Duncan) are either huge offensive liabilities (Oberto, Thomas) or huge defensive/rebounding liabilities (Bonner). Gooden is more solid all-around.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 11:38:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I wouldn't say Duncan has always had a future HOF big man or All-Star quality guards. In 2003, Robinson was putting up 8 and 8. Still solid contribution, but it would be misleading to say Duncan was paired with a future HOF center that year (even though technically he was). Also in 2003, Parker and Ginobili had not yet emerged as All-Star level talents. The 2003 Spurs actually remind me a bit of this year's Cavs. One superstar with no other clear-cut stars (perhaps you could argue about Mo Williams), but an ensemble of hard-working, defensive-minded players.


I think one thing people overlook in comparing big men with medium sized players is defensive impact. An MJ or Kobe can lock down one guy, but a Duncan or a Wilt or a Kareem can can make it difficult for an entire team to score in the paint.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 12:34:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

David,

FYI - I've heard Kobe say in his Make-a-wish interviews that he light heartedly admits to the kids (or maybe it was just one kid) that he is really 6'5 without shoes. Not sure how much stock to put in that, but there it is. I still agree with you that he must be stronger than he appears, as he is able to resist much stronger looking players in the post.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 7:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Although Gooden's body type and skill set are different, he reminds me of Lamar Odom in that he tantalizes you with what he is capable of doing but does not perform at the highest level on a nightly basis.

I agree with you that he is more well rounded than the other Spurs' bigs (other than Duncan, obviously) and that signing him is a good move for the Spurs. It would not shock me if Gooden became a starter for the Spurs, at least against certain teams with specific matchups. It will also depend on Gooden's health and how quickly he picks up the Spurs' system, though I don't expect the latter to be a big problem.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 8:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

When I have stood next to Kobe, Wade and the others we both were wearing shoes. Wade is barely taller than I am, though he should be at least two inches taller according to how he is listed. Kobe towers over me, so I doubt that he is only 6-5. I would say he is a "tall" 6-6, possibly close to 6-7.

Kobe's upper body is much thicker and more developed than it appears to be on television.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 8:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Yes, the 2003 Spurs featured Duncan's weakest supporting cast among his four championship teams. I would still say that having Robinson there, regardless of the numbers, is different from having a limited player posting 8 and 8. Robinson's numbers reflected his role and did not fully describe his impact.

I agree with you that Duncan and the great bigs of the past can help to shut down an entire team as opposed to just locking up their own man.

 
At Thursday, March 05, 2009 11:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to single out any player, but just cited those to instructional videos as examples.
In Jordan's instructional video(also found in youtube), he specifically states that the particular moves that I described above were "travels, in any league."

Back on topic, I'm quite sure that players are required to take yearly physicals, and height and weight are always measured there, without shoes of course. I also think that some All-star, and MVP votings are partially swayed by height perceptions.

Off the top of my head, 7 footers who don't block a lot of shots get more heat than their 6'11 counterparts. Guards taller than their listed heights also get praise for rebounding prowess.

I for one think that Garnett is taller than Rasheed, Duncan, and Nowitzki. Well he also seems really skinny looking, so I could be wrong.

When I first saw his highschool clips, I thought he was already huge, but look at them now and you'd really think that he is much bigger than 6'8, 240. He also seems taller than Ben Wallace.

As for the Gooden pick, I don't care if he's mistake prone, he plays hard, he grabs rebounds, and he's at least capable of sticking with Dirk, West, and Gasol type players. You don't need a lot of basketball IQ to just "stick with your man and grab rebounds." Wow, I just realized that he will also be the Spurs most athletic big man!

Z

 
At Friday, March 06, 2009 5:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I agree with you that the players are probably measured--certainly they are weighed--on an annual basis but the "official" data that is listed in media guides/online is not necessarily derived from the most recent measurements. It is easy to find plenty examples of players whose listed weights stay the same for several years in a row, which is highly unlikely and usually defies visual evidence to the contrary. I've seen Kobe listed at 205 and I can guarantee you that a muscular professional athlete who stands at least 6-6 and can battle in the post with LeBron and Pierce weighs more than 205. For years, Marbury was listed at 175 pounds even though he was acknowledged to be one of the strongest pgs in the league. He's at least a solid 200 and has been so for quite some time.

I have not done a systematic look at this, but I have informally noticed that guards listed at 6-4 usually seem shorter than that in person. It's almost like 6-4 is the default listing for a shooting guard who is 6-2. Years ago, I met former Purdue star Troy Lewis, who was always listed at 6-4, and I could look him dead in the eye, which means that either he is 6-2 or I am 6-4. Jeff McInnis, who played for the Cavs years ago, was listed at 6-4 but he also seemed to be about 6-2 or just a shade taller. As I said before, Wade seems short for 6-4. I suspect that most of these guys were given a couple extra inches in college to make them look like better prospects on paper and they have "officially" kept those inches even after they became established pros.

LeBron is definitely a little taller than Wallace, though the hair styles can make it hard to tell sometimes. LeBron is also much bigger than he was in high school. If he was really 240 at that time then he is at least 265 now.

It depends how you define athleticism, but I would consider Duncan to be more athletic than Gooden.

 
At Saturday, March 07, 2009 8:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman, I've criticized you before for underselling Wade in some of your posts, but I do have to give you a credit for a fair piece here. I do, however, disagree that Wade is not on the same level as Bryant and James (Paul is not, though).

It's true that James outshined Wade at the end of that game, but in my opinion that was on account of the fact that he had high-quality support in Mo Williams which allowed him to conserve his energy in spots for the last part of the game. Whereas Wade had the burden of carrying his club the whole game and simply didn't have the juice left at the finish.

You also have to look at what Wade has been doing of late beyond that game. Since the ASG, he's been on the kind of run that hasn't been seen since MJ's streak of triple- doubles in the late 80. Over the last nine games Wade is averaging 36 pts. and 11 assists on 56% shooting. Over the past four games, he's averaging 40 pts. and 11 assists.

The truth is that since the playoffs back in 2005-- when injuries to he and Shaq prevented MIA from getting to the
Finals--, Wade has been in the Kobe/Lebron class (when he has been healthy). However, for whatever reason, he always ends up flying beneath the radar. He has to put up performances that simply can't be ignored, such as the 2006 Finals or this recent post-all-star streak, in order for him to receive a significant level of media attention.

You are correct that his size is a disadvantage, but to me that is what makes what he does all the more impressive. But, anyway, as I said, I do appreciate that you wrote a judicious article about him.

 
At Saturday, March 07, 2009 1:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Wade is having an outstanding year and will either make the All-NBA First Team or the All-NBA Second Team depending on whether the voters choose two shooting guards for the first team or if they go with Kobe plus CP3 on the First Team.

Wade's post All-Star break production is even a level above the way he played prior to the All-Star break and I'm sure that he is earning himself some MVP votes but I'd still take Kobe and LeBron over him.

A lot of people seem to have forgotten that Kobe averaged 35.4 ppg for the entire 2006 season, which is the eighth highest average in NBA history. Bryant led the Lakers to a 45-37 record in the West and a playoff berth despite having Smush Parker as his starting pg and Kwame Brown as his starting center. Brian Cook started 46 games that year for the Lakers, too. Anyone who thinks that Wade's supporting cast this year is lacking should look at that year's Lakers roster. Kobe finished fourth in MVP voting that year. I don't see how anyone who did not vote for Kobe that year could possibly vote for Wade this season, particularly in light of how well Kobe and LeBron are performing for two of the top three teams in the NBA. Kobe is playing better than he did last season, so if you go by the boxing theory that you have to knock out the champ to dethrone him then Kobe should win the MVP again this season, unless something changes dramatically in the last 20 or so games.

 
At Saturday, March 07, 2009 4:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman:

But, it's not about MVP. Most fans understand that the criteria for MVP is fairly consistent from year to year, and that Wade's team simply doesn't have enough wins. Team wins have always been paramount, and the voters typically don't give much consideration to differences in supporting casts between candidates. So that's fine.

No, this isn't about the MVP hardware. This is about perception-- the perception that Kobe and LeBron occupy a separate class among NBA players, which is how it is constantly portrayed in the media.

Remember TNT's silly Native American themed ASG intro segment? They compared all the different positions to animals-- guards to snakes, PFs to bears etc. But, Kobe and LeBron were the only ones who weren't in a position-specific comparison. They had their own animal-comparison. They were the "eagles"-- the only two.

That's just a really corny illustration of what I'm talking about. I don't think I need to convince you that the press often carries on as though Bryant and James are the only two players in the league. But, I could also talk about how Wade, by his play, "inconveniently" forced his way into the Olympics coverage which was clearly designed around the idea of Kobe and LeBron being the primary heroes who would lead the US to gold.

Anyway, getting back on point, so Wade's team record disqualifies him from the MVP award. That's the way it goes. But, he's proven (again) this year that when it comes to the discussion of the best players in the league, he's in the conversation along with Mr. Bryant and Mr. James. Thank you for the reply.

 
At Monday, March 09, 2009 5:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree that Wade should be included in the broader discussion of the best players in the NBA but I also think that Kobe and LeBron are in a class by themselves right now. Saying that does not mean that they are much better than Wade but I think that there is a difference.

It is important to not just look at stats. If Kobe or LeBron wanted to--or if their teams needed them to--they could put up the same kind of scoring numbers that Wade is. The reality is that even including Wade's post All-Star game exploits his scoring average is not that much higher than Kobe's or LeBron's. Wade is a great player but I would take Kobe and LeBron over him. So, Wade can be in the MVP "discussion" if we are talking about the top four or five candidates but if we are strictly talking about who should get the lion's share of the first place votes then this year that "discussion" should only include two names: Kobe and LeBron.

As for Wade's performance in the Olympics, it is important to remember that he enjoyed two luxuries: coming off of the bench to play against either tired starters or fresh second unit players and knowing that he could go all out because he would only play limited minutes. Those things do not take away from what Wade accomplished but they do put things in proper context. Kobe accepted the responsibility of being the primary defensive stopper against the other team's top perimeter threat. He sacrificed some of his offensive game to do this but we saw that in crunch time in the gold medal game Coach K called timeout and called on one person to save the day: Kobe. Coach K did not go to LeBron or Wade. If anyone is going to talk about the Olympics, that point has to be first and foremost. It should also not be forgotten that ever since that roster was put together Kobe set the tone for the team's work ethic and professionalism.

 

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