Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bar Debates: Iverson or Allen? Nash or Kidd?

The best basketball blogs talk a lot about PER and adjusted plus/minus and whether it can be proven that coaches matter, but sometimes it's more fun when you and your buddies have those (mostly unscientific) debates about who belongs in the Hall of Fame and whether so-and-so is one of the top 10 players of all-time. 

This happened last night, when a passionate Nets fan friend of mine peppered me with a series of fun NBA hypotheticals. We were a couple of beers into the evening and had no access to Basketball Reference or 82games or John Hollinger. Which in a way makes my answers more interesting, since they are based on my memory and the images these players have left in my brain. Today I checked the stats to see if I was right. 

Hypo #1: Kobe or LeBron?

Bar answer: LeBron. LeBron. LeBron! This is the correct answer. Kobe is the wrong answer. 

Next day answer: LeBron. Just read this. Or this.

Hypo #2: Is Tim Duncan one of the ten best players ever?

Bar answer: A nearly instantaneous yes. Admittedly, I'm an unabashed Duncan fan, and I still think about the 1997 lottery on a weekly basis. 

Next day answer: Still yes, even figuring that five of the top 10 are reserved for Magic, Bird, MJ, Wilt and Kareem. That leaves a bunch of really really great players fighting it out for five spots. But by almost any measure (like this one, or this one), Duncan qualifies for the top ten pantheon. (Random side note: David Robinson is third-best all-time in PER? Wow.)

Hypo #3: Who has had the better career, Ray Allen or Allen Iverson? 

Bar answer: Iverson, followed by some second-guessing, followed by some second-guessing of that second-guessing, followed by a mind-blowing conclusion of, "Hey, you know what, that's actually a really good question." 

Next day answer: Wow, this is a fascinating question. These guys have had interesting parallels in their careers--both high lottery picks in 1996 (AI first, Ray fifth), and both took pretty mediocre Eastern Conference teams far into the playoffs in 2001 (Iverson's Sixers beat Allen's Bucks in Game 7 of the Eastern finals that season). And Allen hit a ridiculous late-game floater to help UConn beat Georgetown in the 1996 Big East championship game. (Side note: I was still a big G'town fan then, and I was following the game online in my college dorm room. I went to take a shower with Georgetown up something like seven with a minute to go, figuring either they'd hold on or I'd miss a horrible collapse that would just upset me. I came back and my across-the-hall neighbors had taped a note to my monitor reading "Uconn 75-Georgetown 74." Thanks, jerks.)

Iverson's career PER (21.2) is better than Allen's (19.8). Obviously, Iverson put up the bigger scoring averages and free throw totals, but he scored his points very inefficiently compared to Allen. Allen's true shooting percentage blows Iverson's away every year. There is an entire body of thought among some analysts that Iverson's low shooting percentages (especially from three-point range, a place he probably shouldn't have been shooting from as much as he did) make him a poor team player. One analyst, Dave Berri, has pegged Iverson as an average player, nothing more, and has argued that Tyrone Hill, Dikembe Mutombo and others were more responsible for Philly's run to the Finals in 2001. 

On the pro-Iverson side, I think there is a lingering perception, right or wrong, that Allen is not capable of playing top dog on a good team. He's perceived as a three-point shooter, and three-point shooters need other people to create space for them to shoot. I'm not sure this is fair to Allen. He was the go-to guy on a Bucks team that was better than people think (he led the league in offensive win shares in 2000-01, according to BR) and he dominated the ball on those Seattle teams earlier this decade. As a C's fan, I've been pleasantly surprised with Allen's two-point game. He cuts to the rim well, can finish around big guys and uses pump fakes and change-of-direction dribbles to get his mid-range jumper off.

Iverson, on the other hand, is a proven alpha dog who can get to the rim and create open looks for his teammates--his Assist Percentage is much higher than Allen's (29.1 to 18.2). His best seasons (2001 and 2005) were likely better than Allen's best. If anything, the question about Iverson is this: Can he alter his game at all as he declines and become an effective second or third banana? Allen has answered that question positively. Iverson hasn't. 

Neither is above average on defense, though Iverson has better defensive efficiency rankings--probably the result of playing with a Philly team that was regularly in the top five or eight in overall defense from 1999-2003. 

Gun to my head: It's Ray Allen by a smidge.

Hypo #4: Who was better in his prime, Steve Nash or Jason Kidd?

Bar Answer: Kidd, given with surprisingly little thought.

Next Day Answer: This is a nearly impossible question, as it depends on three questions that are partly philosophical, partly unanswerable, and, when they can be answered, they depend a lot of individual tastes: 1) Is defense as important as offense? 2) Can we accurately measure defense? 3) How much of Nash's monster success from his prime Phoenix years should be credited to Mike D'Antoni's offensive system

If the answers to one and two are "as important" and "yes," then I'll stick with Kidd. But, wow, I forgot what a terrible shooter Jason Kidd was and is. Even in his best years, he's right around 40 percent with a true shooting percentage at about 50 percent. As for Nash, are you aware that he's currently fifth all-time in three-point percentage? I wasn't. What's even more impressive is that the other guys in the top 10 (Jason Kapono, Steve Kerr, Hubert Davis, Tim Legler, etc.) are spot-up shooters who do nothing but run around screens or sit at the three-point line waiting for big guys to pass out of a double team. Nash led the entire league in true shooting percentage in 2006 and 2007. 

But then there's defense, and we know Nash has always been a liability there. In his prime, Kidd had a reputation as a lockdown defensive player, and the numbers back that reputation up

So Nash is a great offensive player and a poor defensive player. But you can't say the reverse about Kidd--that he was a great defensive player and a poor offensive player. Because that dude was a force on offense in his prime, even if he couldn't shoot a lick. As a Celtics fan, let me tell you: There was nothing more terrifying in 2001-03 then Jason Kidd pulling down a rebound at the foul line, shifting into an immediate sprint and dishing to Kenyon Martin or Kerry Kittles on the wing as Antoine Walker stood out of breath at half court. His assist numbers speak for themselves, but Kidd's offensive game was better than those numbers show. He completely transformed the way his teams played, and he racked up wins with a supporting cast that didn't have nearly the talent as those Phoenix teams from 2005-07. 

Nash has the edge in PER, with seven straight 20-plus seasons and PERs in the mid-23s in his two best years. Kidd only has two 20-plus PERs seasons on his record (though he's got several in the mid-19s), and his best never got higher than 22.5. 

But the fact that Kidd's PER is so close to Nash's despite the enormous shooting percentage gap between them shows how much Kidd contributed in other stat categories. Throw in his defense, and Kidd gets the edge.

1 comment:

  1. Allen over Iverson? Wow...can't agree with that, but I'll say this about Allen's "clutch" game winner against gtown in '96. it was garbage. pure luck. He actually looked to pass, then saw no one, panicked, and chucked it towards the goal. It clanked off the side and inexplicable bounced up and went in. I remember that one vividly (was a huge gtown fan). Ray Ray went like 5-20 in that game, by the way. mark my words: garbage. jerome williams (junkyard dog) missed a one foot putback with a second to go that would have drastically changed how people remembered that game (not to mention victor page...victor who?...missing a one and one with 45 seconds to go and gtown up one. that loss was heartbreaking...