Friday, October 24, 2014

Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol: Top 10 Players?

I hate even writing about this thing because it's pretty pointless. Calling someone a "Top 10" or a "Top 25" player is a pretty arbitrary distinction, especially when you are comparing guys across positions. For the most part, media sites tend to run these player rank features as a way to kill time in the off-season and stir up some content. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see what these lists reveal about the way we view certain types of players.

Two good examples of that are Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol, who are pretty widely acknowledged as two of the best C's in the game. They are both in the prime of their careers and they are both centerpieces of high-level teams with a chance to go far in the playoffs. No one is going to argue that these guys are not really, really good basketball players. Here is where the various off-season lists have these two ranked:

- SI: #17
- CBS: #11
- Slam: #14
- NBA Rank: #12

- SI: #16
- CBS: #16
- Slam: #23
- NBA Rank: #14

While there's nothing necessarily wrong with where those guys are ranked, it's worth unpacking a bit. Just because they don't score a lot of points doesn't mean they don't have a tremendous effect on the game - if anything, scoring is a bit overrated since almost every guy in the NBA can do that. Marc and Noah bring so much else to the table that they help a team win more than most guys who dominate the ball and pour in 20+ points a night.

You can start on the defensive end of the floor, where having a big man who can control the paint is still the foundation of almost every elite defense in the league. A C who can slide his feet, cut off driving lanes and protect the rim serves as a second-line of defense for everyone else on the team, allowing them to be more aggressive. They have to protect the defensive glass and they have to prevent the other team's C from scoring at the front of the rim, the easiest shot in the game.

The Bulls and the Grizzlies are two of the best defenses in the league and that is in large part because they are built around the unique skill-sets of their C's. Marc and Noah are just as important on the other end of the floor, where they are facilitators out of the high post who move the ball and create easy shots for everyone else. And while they aren't great individual scorers, they still function as highly effective release valves around the basket.

Everyone understands this, but they don't quite make the connection when it comes to translating impact on the game to value to a team. When Marc went down last season, the Grizzlies plummeted in the standings, barely holding onto a playoff spot. When he came back in, they pushed the Thunder to the absolute limit in the first round, looking more like a 3/4/5 seed than a 7/8 seed. He makes everyone on the team better on both sides of the ball.

Conversely, everyone thought that Derrick Rose was MVP of the Bulls four seasons ago. Yet, even with Rose out of the line-up, Chicago was still competing for home-court advantage in the first round in each of the last few seasons. My guess is if Noah had missed the last three seasons, they would have been fighting just to get in the playoffs and Rose would have been like Carmelo last season, jacking up a bunch of shots and wondering what the fuck just happened.

Always, always keep this in mind: Basketball is played on two ends of the floor. Basketball is played on two ends of the floor. Noah and Gasol aren't great scorers, but if you are going to make a fair comparison, compare their O with the D of most PG's. Their ability on O is just something extra they bring to the table! A good number of elite PG's, in contrast, are moved off their position on D and hidden on that side of the ball as much as possible.

Big men are like the offensive linemen of basketball - you don't really appreciate what they do until they aren't there. If they are doing their job, the average fan doesn't notice them. Everyone wants to worry about the guy with the ball in his hands who puts up all the stats but that guy can only be as effective as the guys in front of him let him be. Here's another way to look at it - are QB's more important than the O-line?

The NFL is a QB-driven sport for the same reason that the NBA is a PG's league - those guys, like dead rappers, get better promotion. We are told that you have to have a great QB to win a Super Bowl just like you have to have a big-time scorer to win an NBA title. Who is going to be the guy who leads his team on a 2-minute drill? Who is going to take the last shot of the game? What people miss is a lot has to go right just to get that far.

What's a QB without a good offensive line? Pretty much nothing. What can an offensive line without a QB do? A lot. They can open up holes in the running game and force the defense to play 8 men in the box. Any QB is going to look better behind a good offensive line because they make their jobs easier. The same goes for all skill-position players. A good O-line is like a ghost in the box score, silently raising everyone else's stats.

We are seeing that this season with the Dallas Cowboys, who have one of the best offensive line's in the league. They are opening up holes for DeMarco Murray, they are giving Tony Romo more time and letting him use the play-action pass as a weapon and they are keeping the defense off the field. They make every guy on the team better in a lot of subtle and non-obvious ways. It's the same thing with big men.

A good example is how playing through the post affects the tempo of the game. If you can throw the ball into Marc Gasol every time down the floor, he holds it for 5-10 seconds, everyone takes a deep breath and then he creates a shot, it really limits the number of possessions when you face a team like the Thunder. Check the scores for that series - even with the OT games, they were lower than the ones against the Clippers and Spurs.

The Grizzlies don't really have the perimeter talent that the elite teams in the West do, but they punch above their weight all the time in the playoffs. They beat the Spurs and lost a Game 7 to the Thunder in 2011, they lost a Game 7 to the Clippers in 2012, they beat the Clippers and the Thunder (w/o Westbrook) in 2013 and they lost a Game 7 to the Thunder in 2014. No one wants to see Gasol and Z-Bo in a seven-game series.

People always say guys like Noah or Gasol "do the little things" that help a team win but there's nothing all that little about playing defense, rebounding and scoring around the basket. If you look around the league, I don't think it's a coincidence that there are not many good C's on bad teams. It's funny that good C's are A) extremely valuable and B) extremely rare, yet you can find so few ranked among the best players in the NBA.

Everyone wants to stick PG's on Top 10 lists because they have the best stats, but that's just because they have the ball in their hands the most. What people don't realize is those stats all come with an opportunity cost. Plenty of guys can put up good stats playing next to good big men - there are more good PG's in the NBA than ever before. If it's really easy to find a good PG, than by definition, good PG play can't be that big a deal.

A good rule of thumb in basketball is the farther you play away from the basket, the more replaceable you are. PG's are the smallest guys on the floor and you can always find small guys somewhere. The ones you can't find anywhere are the 7'0 monsters who occupy the prime real estate on both sides of the floor. If you tried to trade any PG in the NBA for either Noah or Gasol, their teams would hang up on you really quickly.

Russell Westbrook is one of my favorite players in the league, but what would happen if you traded him for Marc Gasol? OKC would slide Reggie Jackson into the starting line-up and then they would have a front-court of KD, Ibaka and Gasol. The floor spacing that KD would have with those two + Gasol's ability to score and pass out of the post + the absurd D they would have + Jackson is a really good PG? FOH with that team.

* Another way to think of it: Would you rather have Jackson and Gasol or Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins? 

The reality is that if you put Joakim Noah or Marc Gasol on just about any team in the league, that team is going to get a lot better, really quickly. Those guys flat out aren't going to be on too many bad teams because their ability to raise the games of everyone around them means that, all of a sudden, that bad team isn't so bad anymore. I don't know about you guys, but that sure sounds like two of the 10 best players in the game to me.

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