Monday, April 25, 2016

Steph Curry vs Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I fear that Steph Curry's knee injury may keep him out of the playoffs. Like, I imagine, many other sports fans I have been checking the internet regularly today to discover the results of his MRI.  It would be sad and bad for the NBA if a freak spill (Curry slipped on a wet spot on the court) takes him out of this season.

I watched a documentary over the weekend about Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the NBA player identified as one of the top five players of all time in the NBA.  Jabbar was a very good player, but I don't believe that if he played in this era he would have been such a dominant force.  And I think one could write the same about many of the centers of the pre-three point era.  With the possible exception of Bill Russell.  Curry and other players who can consistently make three point shots are more valuable than Jabbar would have been in this era.

Before the three point rule came into effect in the late 70s, a team had to have a big man in order to be successful. The Knicks, until they got Willis Reed, were perennial losers because they had no dominant center.  A center was valuable in that era for three reasons.

The first was because he acted as a last stop defender for players driving to the basket. Opponents thought twice about taking the ball to the rim against Russell because he was so good at blocking shots.  A high percentage play in basketball, particularly at that time, was driving to the basket to get closer.  So, having a big guy in the middle who could swat away attempts close to the basket was valuable.  The second reason you needed a big guy was for rebounding. Nobody rebounded like Russell and Chamberlain.

The third reason why the big man was valuable, particularly for someone like Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain, was because the big guy would have an easier go of it to make a basket. If you were tall and athletic and could get the ball down low, your shot percentage was a lot higher than someone who had to shoot from a greater distance. Wilt Chamberlain was so strong that if he got the ball near the basket he could dunk the ball and maybe his defender at the same time. Jabbar was not as strong, but he had an indefensible hook shot which was almost a guaranteed two points if he got the ball low.

In contemporary basketball, however, taking a shot from around the basket may not be as wise as taking a shot from thirty feet away. When I played basketball a coach would scream at a player who took a long shot.  The chances of making a long shot were a lot lower than the chances of making one close to the basket.   Today nobody screams at you for taking a thirty foot shot if you can make a decent percentage. If you make a shot from thirty feet you get three points for your effort. If you dunk the ball you only get two.  What has become normal in today's game is for a player who has an easy guaranteed layup to throw the ball out to someone thirty feet away so that he can take a three. You don't have to be a math major to figure out why you might do that.  If you can make 5 of ten shots around the basket (a decent percentage) you would score 10 points. If you could make 4 out of ten shots from three point range, (Curry's percentage is 45%) you would score 12 points.   So, a coach would prefer you take a three than a two.

All this is to explain why a big guy in today's game is not as valuable as a player who can shoot from long range. Stephen Curry might not have even got a tryout in 1978.  Now scouts are looking for players who can make three point shots.  You absolutely need a big player for rebounding and shot blocking, but many teams compete successfully without a dominant center because the value of the big guy is diminished.  Draymond Green who plays with Curry is "only" 6' 7" but he is more valuable in 2016 than Jabbar would be in this era, because throwing the ball into Jabbar would get you only two points, while finding Curry or Klay Thompson--another sharp shooter--or shooting yourself as Green does well, is more valuable than dumping the ball down low.  Jabbar did not hit a three point shot in his entire career.

How come you don't see many 7 foot centers in college basketball and the pros? In the sixties you scouted all over for a 7 footer. You don't see them, because the scouts are not looking high and low for them. Now you look high and low for a guy who can shoot from long range. In fact, if a player today has what we used to say were "all the tools"--but cannot shoot from long range then he does not have all the tools.

Abdul-Jabbar would not have been in the top ten players of all time if he played in the contemporary NBA.

Steph Curry will be the NBA's most valuable player for the second consecutive year this year. I sure hope the injury he suffered last night is minor.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Zeke You made some very good points, but the NBA still has high hopes for big stiffs. Like Hasheem Thabeet. I wonder if the key person in that fiasco kept his job. Take care. Gene