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Friday, September 29, 2006

Role Reversal: Answering Questions Instead of Asking Them

Usually I ask basketball related questions, not answer them, but earlier this week I spoke with the man behind NuggetsNoise and discussed the challenge of comparing players from different eras, roadblocks facing Miami and Dallas on the road to the NBA Finals and--of course--the Denver Nuggets. Here is the link to the interview:

Shaq Checked, Next "O," Melo Overrated

posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 PM


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At Saturday, September 30, 2006 11:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if Oscar Robertson is really the best guy to compare Lebron to. I haven't seen Oscar play a whole lot, but he appeared to have a much more refined game than Lebron currently does, with his post-ups, fade-away jumpers, passing, and leadership. Lebron reminds me more of a young Magic Johnson (before he developed his post game and perimeter shooting) except that he's more focused on scoring than on rebounding and passing (like Magic was). Their offensive games are similar though: both rely on their size and strength to drive to the basket on opponents for high-percentage shots.

At Sunday, October 01, 2006 12:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, on the Shaq/Wilt comparison: from watching old games of Wilt Chamberlain, it's surprising how infrequently he used his power to just knock guys around and get to the basket. Not saying he didn't use his power, but he didn't use it nearly to the same degree that Shaq does.

I've often read quotes from contemporaries of Chamberlain (e.g. Bill Russell, Al Attles) which suggested that he didn't use his power as much as he could have and was very mindful of how big and strong he was. I think Russell once said that if Wilt used all of his power, he could have averaged 70 ppg in 1962. For these reason, I find it ridiculous when some people act like Wilt dominated strictly because of his size.

I think it's almost unfair to Wilt to present Shaq as a modern-day Wilt. Wilt was a much better defender and rebounder, and showed a much stronger willingness to adapt his role for the benefit of his team. We've seen how willing Shaq was to change his role with the Lakers. Now with the Heat, Shaq tries to pass off the decline of his skills as him being "unselfish" and "letting" Wade be "the man."

I think the Shaq/Dawkins comparison has some real merit. Shaq is basically a billionaire's Darryl Dawkins. Both were huge and good at scoring and had unique personalities, and both lacked the rebounding and shot-blocking abilities you might expect someone as imposing as them to have.

At Sunday, October 01, 2006 2:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Of course, no comparison will be a perfect match. The LeBron-Big O comparison is intriguing for a couple reasons. One, the Big O seems to encourage it. He bristles when he is compared to MJ and rejects the idea that MJ had the same all-around game that he did, but he embraces comparisons with LeBron and even said that he thinks that LeBron can match his feat of averaging a triple double for a season. Two, LeBron scores a lot more than Magic did, so when he gets a triple double it usually more closely resembles Oscar's 30-10-10 than Magic's 19-10-10 (or thereabouts).

Oscar's game was probably more well refined than anyone else in the history of basketball. I think that even the young Magic's game was more refined than LeBron's. Magic won the Finals MVP as a rookie. As I mentioned in the interview, he had an unparalleled grasp of the tempo of the game--who should get the ball when, based on matchups, foul trouble, time and score. I elaborated on that point, but some of those comments were cut from the final transcript.

When you come to the NBA straight out of high school and your game can be legitimately compared with Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, your career is definitely on a good track.

Regarding Wilt/Shaq/Dawk, I spoke at greater length about the fact that Wilt was much more of a finesse player than Shaq but some of those statements also did not make it to the final transcript (the interview lasted more than an hour, so understandably not everything gets included).

Jabali made a very perceptive point with his Dawk/Shaq comparison: how the game is officiated affects a player's statistics. Dawkins' foul trouble limited his minutes and curbed his aggressiveness when he was on the court. Could/would he have put up Shaq-like numbers if he had been officiated differently? I'm not ready to go that far but the reverse question of whether Shaq could put up the numbers he did in his prime if he were officiated the way Dawkins was is interesting.

As for Shaq's transition to a lesser role in Miami, I agree with your assessment. Shaq/DWade and Shaq/Kobe have been discussed quite extensively here at 20SecondTimeout, particularly during Miami's Finals run. The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen made a point very similar to yours in one of his articles and I posted a link to that article here.

At Monday, October 02, 2006 12:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About Dawkins' foul trouble: I know Dawkins picked up lots of fouls, but wouldn't Jabali's point only relate to OFFENSIVE fouls picked up by Dawkins? It would be interesting to find out what percentage of Darryl Dawkins' fouls were offensive. It could be that he was just a clumsy defender and picked up lots of fouls that way (like Chris Mihm does today).

At Monday, October 02, 2006 12:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, a question about Oscar Robertson:

I've read lots of interviews and articles about Robertson, and he has suggested that he would certainly be able to average a triple-double in today's game. He points out that if anything, he'd have more assists today because stat people were much stricter during his era when it came to awarding assists (in his Autobiography he said something like "these days if a player passes the ball to another player, and he dribbles 45 feet and scores, there's a 50/50 chance the first guy will get an assist"--I'm sure he's exaggerating to make a point).

However, I think Oscar overlooks the fact that it was much easier to accumulate lots of rebounds for most of the years Oscar played. There were many more shots attempted, and many more misses during the average game during that time, and thus many more opportunities to get a rebound.

For example, Oscar's average of 12.5 rpg in 1962 was about half of what the leage leader (Wilt Chamberlain) averaged, but would probably be enough to contend for the league lead today. Oscar's 12.5 rpg in 1962 would probably be more like 8 rpg today.

A great "almost triple-double" year that people often overlook is Magic Johnson in 1982: 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg. Magic probably had a better rebounding year in 1982 than Oscar had in 1962 (Oscar had the better assist year though).

At Tuesday, October 03, 2006 3:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I don't know if anyone has actually done a statistical breakdown of this, but I do believe that a substantial portion of Dawkins' fouls came on charges/over the back type calls. Those were the types of calls that really inhibited his ability to be aggressive offensively and that is what Jabali was referencing. For a substantial portion of Shaq's career, he was able to catch the ball in the post, wheel into the defender's chest and dunk the ball. Incidentally, I don't blame Shaq for that--why not play that way if you are big and strong and the officials permit it? The point is, Dawkins was also big and strong but was not permitted to play that way. In the past couple years, the NBA game has been officiated differently and Shaq is not powering over people in quite the same manner (he is also not scoring nearly as many points). Shaq is also slower now than he used to be--he used to catch the ball and explode into his move, so defenders might not have had (or wanted to get) good position to take a charge and the contact happened so quickly that the official had to quickly decide to call charge, block or nothing. Now Shaq's moves are slower and more deliberate, so it is easier to see what is happening; defenders know that offensive fouls will be called against Shaq, so they are more apt to try to take charges.

As for Oscar Robertson, you are right that the big challenge in averaging a triple double now is rebounds; Oscar said that when he said that LeBron might average a triple double today. I agree that the assist has been somewhat devalued today because it is awarded much more liberally.

I spoke about the issue of standardization in the interview, but that part was not published. I mentioned it in reference to Wilt's 50 ppg season versus MJ's 37 ppg season but similar principles can be applied to Oscar's rebounds. Sure, by a purely mathematical model, points and rebounds were more plentiful in the 1960s because teams scored 115-120 ppg. So there is a temptation to divide 50 ppg into 1962's average score and 37 ppg into 1987's average score and try to "standardize" the numbers. My problem with this is that it ignores non-numerical factors. To score 50 ppg in an era of 120 ppg scores requires more running up and down the court, more wear and tear, more field goal attempts and the stamina to withstand all of this for 82 games. Wilt averaged 48.5 mpg that year! Who can say that in a slower paced game Wilt would not have been even more unstoppable? Maybe he would have averaged 60 ppg with teams walking the ball up the court more. Maybe MJ would have worn down or suffered injuries and not been able to average 50 ppg in a faster paced game. So, even without addressing the thorny issue of who faced tougher competition/playing conditions, I reject the idea of just crunching numbers to make 50 ppg equal 37 ppg. As for Oscar's rebounds, the era of guys averaging 15+ rpg seemed to be over until Rodman came along and did it in the early 90s. Wilt was still getting 18-19 rpg as an older player with a surgically repaired knee at a time when other top rebounders were getting substantially less. I am not convinced that a young Robertson playing today would not average 10 rpg. Fat Lever had some years in which he averaged over 9 rpg as a 6-3, 175 guard.

Magic's 1982 numbers were indeed awesome. Bird was considered a top MVP candidate right off the bat and won Rookie of the Year over Magic, but Magic won titles in two of his first three seasons and the Finals MVP as a rookie. It wasn't until Kareem's role was markedly reduced that Magic started winning regular season MVPs.

At Tuesday, October 03, 2006 4:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent point about the wear-and-tear that a faster paced game might present. That's definitely a huge factor when it comes to any kind of "standardization".

However, I think that points are much less in need of standardization than rebounds (or assists). Why? Because points are less dependent on the style of the game in the following sense: Wilt showed in 1962 that if he took enough shots (39 fga's and 17 fta's) he could average 50 ppg. It then sounds very plausable that even if teams were averaging 90 ppg, Wilt could still get his 50 ppg if he took enough shots. Therefore it would make sense to "standardize" points if one wanted to look at the relative impact Wilt's scoring had with Jordan's, but I think it is NOT necessary to "standardize" if one wants to look strictly at capabilities (meaning Wilt was capable, if given enough shots, to average 50...Jordan never showed that).

Rebounds, on the other hand, are possible only when a player misses a shot. A given player is much more at the mercy of the style of the game when it comes to rebounds as opposed to points because while a team can theoretically give one player the same amount of shot attempts per game no matter the style and tempo (provided we aren't looking at extreme cases--think the pre-shot clock era exaggerated) it is impossible for a team or player to ensure the same amount of rebound opportunities when going from one tempo to another.

I agree with you that an extraordinary player can transcend eras (like Rodman being able to get 18 rpg in the 90s), but I think you've still gotta admit that style has something to do with it. If you took Rodman from 1992 and played him in 1962, I'm sure he'd average 20+ rpg. When Wilt was getting his 18-19 rpg in the early 70s, everyone was getting fewer rebounds than in the early 60s--including Wilt. It's not like Wilt was getting X rpg in 1962 and then 10 years later while everyone else was getting substantially less rpg, Wilt was still getting his X. As you pointed out, Wilt was old and playing on a surgically repaired knee, but some of effects of those factors are mitigated by the fact that Wilt had a much lighter scoring load than in previous years and was able to focus more on rebounding. Perhaps a young Wilt may have been able to get 25-27 rpg in the early 70s ... but I'm inclined to believe that style of play was a very significant factor as far as Wilt's diminshing (yet still amazing) rebounding numbers are concerned.

My skepticism of Oscar Robertson's ability to get 10+ rpg in today's game comes from his track record rather than his size (Charles Barkley is probably shorter than Oscar, and as you pointed out, Fat Lever definitely is). Oscar's best rebounding season was 1962 when he got 12.5 rpg, but I'm not sure that would translate to more than 10 rpg today. Maybe Oscar never focused as much on rebounding as he could have. Maybe he could have gotten 15-17 rpg in 1962. But that leads too far into speculation for my taste.

I agree that Magic was underrated in the early part of his career. As early as 1982, Kareem's all-around game had declined seriously, even though he was still a great player (I think his 80s rebounding average is probably below the average of the majority of starting centers from that era). People often overlook that. I think it just goes to show how unselfish and team-oriented Magic was to be able to sacrifice the individual spotlight like that.

At Tuesday, October 03, 2006 4:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I agree that standardization may have more validity for rebounding than for scoring, for the very reasons that you listed. You make an excellent point regarding the "capability" to average 50 ppg--something, as you mentioned, that Wilt proved and MJ did not.

Nevertheless, I still believe that a young Oscar could average 10+ rpg if he were playing today. He was pulling down 10-11-12 rpg playing in a league that only had a handful of teams, so the talent was very concentrated. He faced Chamberlain and Russell 8-10 times a year, in addition to other Hall of Fame centers and power forwards. His understanding of how to play the game is probably unsurpassed by anyone. MJ, LeBron and Kobe have all shown the ability to average around 7 rpg at least once in a season within the past 10-12 years. I also recall that MJ had a stretch in which he averaged well over 10 rpg when Rodman was suspended (I think that Pippen was also out with an injury). Could MJ have averaged 10 rpg for a season? It's impossible to say. A lot of this depends on the type of team the player is on and what the team needs him to do. I can't prove it, of course, but I believe that if a young Big O were playing today on a team that needed him to average 10 rpg that he could do it.


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