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Basketball philosophy

Posts Tagged ‘Larry Bird

Is Paul Pierce as talented as Larry Bird?

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, American basketball player for the Boston Ce...

, American basketball player for the Boston Celtics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve resisted applying my talent grading system to historical players for a few reasons. For one, I consider my system useful to separate talents into tiers, but not evaluate players in the same tier against each other. If a player has a score of 30 in my grading and another a score of 32, that difference is small enough that it played little to no role in their careers, not to mention within the range of subjectivity.

Secondly, ranking players’ talents before my time has its difficulties.

However in my private rankings of players, a player who’s score stands out to me as against conventional wisdom and against my previous opinion of him, is Larry Bird. Bird grades as a superstar talent, but there are around 30 players who’d grade higher than him. Certainly this seems low for a player in everyone’s top 10 players of all time. To be fair, even a top 30 or 40 talent in the NBA is a freaking awesome player. Furthermore talent is not production and it’s reasonable to argue Bird outperformed his raw talent level to become of the top 10 or 15 players of all time.

So why does Bird grade lower than expected? Noteably, in the skill impact and feel for the game categories, Bird cruises to perfect scores of 11. He’s arguably the greatest of all time in both categories, not just for small forwards but for any position. His shooting, shot creation, passing, post skills are otherworldly – and he’s a definitive example of a basketball genius instinctively.

Where Bird slips is his physical impact on the game. In regards to explosiveness and attacking players off the dribble, he is average for the small forward position. Part of the evidence for this Bird usually putting up 5 to 6 free throw attempts a game, mediocre for a high volume scorer. Bird is not a player who overwhelmed players physically, just like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash and post surgery Chris Paul didn’t/don’t have to in modern day. To his credit, one way Bird impacts the game physically is his excellent rebounding numbers for a small forward, albeit I’d give more credit for his rebounding to his instincts and feel than physical tools.

It’s hard for me to justify giving Bird more than a 5 or 6 in physical impact on the game. When added to his skill and feel for the game, his total grade is 27 or 28. This is well past the range I consider a perennial all-star threshold (23-24) and typical for some other superstars, so it’s nothing to sniff at, just not as high as expected.

I find it interesting to compare him to Paul Pierce. Now, conventional wisdom says Larry Bird is on a different plane of talent than Pierce. One is transcendent and the other, very good.

But Pierce rates well against Bird. Like Larry, Pierce’s most noticeable trait is his supernatural feel for the game. He’s one of the first players that come to mind for the term, Pierce has the ultimate “old man’s game” in his natural smoothness, ability to make his game look slower than it is and instincts. Pierce’s skill impact is also one of the best of his generation for a wing player. He’s a terrific 3pt and midrange shooter and shot creator, with an array of post abilities and moves. He’s also a great passer. In regards to skill plays, Pierce can do just about everything he wants. Pierce isn’t at Larry’s level as a perimeter shooter and passer, but he’s not far off. For these categories, I like a grade of 11 in feel for the game for Pierce and 10 in skill impact.

On the other hand, Pierce’s physical impact impresses me more than Bird. Pierce especially in his younger days had deceptively great explosiveness and slashing ability, as evidenced by much greater free throw attempt numbers than Bird, peaking at 8-9 attempts a game. Helping his slashing is that Pierce is such a great ballhandler, that it helped him penetrate and attack even if other players were more athletic. In regards to slashing off the dribble, Pierce isn’t at the level of freakish wings like Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Tracy McGrady, but he’s above average. I’ll give him a grade of 7 or 8 in the category.

When added together, this gives Pierce a score of 28 or 29. This puts him in the conversation for top 30-35 most talented players in history, which I believe is fair.

All in all, it’s hard for me to see where Bird separates himself in talent from Pierce. He’s the more skilled perimeter player, but Pierce is more talented at slashing and physically imposing himself on the game.

Part of this isn’t so much about Bird, as it is Pierce’s talent being underrated, perhaps. The guy has a fantastic and unique skillset, one of the best pure scorers and most intelligent players in history. One wonders if Pierce had found himself anchoring 60 win teams at the same point Dirk Nowitzki was, if Pierce would’ve also made the leap to widely considered MVP caliber player. I don’t believe in either talent or statistics, the difference between Pierce and a Dirk Nowitzki is significant.

For this reasons, Bird being called “only” as talented as Pierce, is not that large of an insult. Bird is a fantastic talent who’s will, work ethic and confidence helped his maximize his talent level and have one of the best careers ever. But I don’t consider the gap between him and Pierce to be as significant, as others do.


Written by jr.

March 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm

33pt Thursday: Was “Feel for the Game” the secret to the Red Auerbach era Celtics and Greg Popovich era San Antonio Spurs legendary drafting?

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Tony Parker and Greg Popovich

Tony Parker and Greg Popovich (Photo credit: Tiago Hammil)

I believe feel for the game is ultimately under-represented in NBA personnel decisions, particularly in the draft. However that does not mean nobody has ever considered the subject. When I look at two incredibly eras for franchises, feel for the game stands out consistently in draft picks/decisions – and that’s Red Auerbach’s Celtics and Greg Popovich’s Spurs.

Now, this could be simply a matter of the Celtics and Spurs being fantastic at finding great players and it just so happening that most great players excel in feel for the game, therefore their successful acquisition correlating with feel for the game friendly players rather than being a cause of it. But for fun, let’s look at the histories of some of their picks:

Auerbach joined the Celtics in 1950. Bob Cousy was actually passed on by the Celtics, but ended up with them anyways after his team the Chicago Stags folded. Cousy was the Celtics’ first player with supreme feel for the game, the first truly great offensive mind in the game at the guard position. Bill Sharman, a draft pick soon after was another with a strong feel for the game offensively.

In 1956 the Celtics made arguably the biggest history changing NBA trade ever, trading for the rights to Bill Russell for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. Bill Russell of course is in the conversation for greatest feel for the game of all time. His awareness of the court makes him the greatest defensive genius in NBA history, while his elite passing game for a big proved his awareness offensively. Read the rest of this entry »

The top 50 players of all time (by my standards)

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Bill Russell posing with other NBA Legends and...

Almost there, Bill (Image via Wikipedia)

If you’re a RealGM member, you probably know about this project, attempting to rank the top 100 players of the post shot clock era. (which among other reasons, allows us to avoid the impossible task of ranking George Mikan against everyone). We just completed the top 50, (note: Chris Paul made 50th, the thread hasn’t updated yet). I have some greivances about the overall list – let’s just say it’s 90% right and 10% wrong, but that 10% sticks out to a perfectionist. But shortly after it started I decided to update my own list one at a time in coordination with the main one, it is found halfway down the linked thread. This is my analysis in short at the halfway point, with 50 spots finished:

Tier 1 – The Greatest of All Time contenders

1. Michael Jordan

2. Bill Russell

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

These are the 3 players I primarily consider for greatest of all time candidcy. None need much introduction if you are a basketball history fan. Read the rest of this entry »

Pippen’s Blasphemy and Cowardice of Critics

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Chicago Bulls Scottie Pippen 1995

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Scottie Pippen said:

Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to ever play in the game. But I may go as far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player ever to play the game, because he’s so potent offensively that not only can he score at will, but he keeps everybody involved.

…and the locusts take the sky

The world exploded. Some talked about Jordan’s championships ignoring the matter that Pippen’s statement obviously wasn’t saying that the 26 year old LeBron had already accomplished more than anyone else ever, some tried to talk about Jordan being a more “complete player” without actually saying what LeBron was missing, some talked about Pippen as a bitter old fool. The only thing everyone agreed on was that you couldn’t possibly say LeBron might be better than Jordan.

(Well, except Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who once again made one of his patented “He’s right, but no wonder why no one likes him” statements bringing up Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.)

I find the whole thing amusing. I should say up front that I don’t give one whit about Pippen’s opinion in player comparisons general. Nothing personal, I’d say the same about pretty much any player. While I love hearing what these guys have to say about the game in general, such comparisons are complicated enough that no matter how fantastic your basketball knowledge, you can’t have a complete opinion without spending a ton of time analyzing the situation with every tool at your disposal. The number of star athletes, or even coaches, willing to do this is vanishingly small, and then you really do need to think about whether the speaker has an agenda.

Even a broken clock…

However Scottie’s being downright reasonable here in a world full of people too afraid to be reasonable.

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Written by Matt Johnson

June 2, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Information Gain: The secret to a must-watch event

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Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and Boston Ce...

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TrueHoop makes an argument today in an article about the importance of parity in praise of uncertainty in sporting results that I think almost completely misses the mark:

Research suggests that more uncertain outcomes lead to more certain income, or … more pie.

There’s a reason that the TV deals for the NFL and the NCAA basketball tournament both dwarf the NBA’s. In just about every game of the NFL season, and in just about every game of the NCAA tournament, you simply must watch to know what’ll happen. It all matters. You wake up the morning of the game with almost no ability to pick any winners. That’s the kind of thrill-ride that leads to enraptured fans and huge TV income.

Don’t confuse luck with parity 

Really, in every game you don’t know what happens in football and college basketball, but it’s a given in the NBA? Pshaw. I’ve tackled the issue of certainty/uncertainty here before on several occasions. Here’s the table from when I compared March Madness to the various pro playoff systems:

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The Little Dipper

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Lebron JamesSince the beginning of his career, we’ve compared Lebron James to the greats. He has the dominant scoring ability of Michael Jordan. He has the combination of size and passing of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But I believe the best comparison may end up being Wilt Chamberlain.

Both Lebron and Wilt are among the athletic greatest talents any sport has seen. They are men among boys physically. On top of this they possess superior basketball IQ and skill. Both players are larger than life stars.

What makes judging Wilt’s career so frustrating is a comparative lack of domination compared to other greats. The Big Dipper ended up with 2 titles, one in ’67 with Philadelphia and one in ’72 with the LA Lakers. His contemporary Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 years. Most noteably Russell came out on top in ‘68 and ‘69 when his team had aged and Wilt seemingly had the superior talent beside him. First with Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Wali Jones in Philadelphia, and then with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in LA. Yet Russell’s Celtics were a better team who won with defense, effort and supporting each other’s games. Wilt can be excused for not winning titles the first half of his career with less help than Russell, but in 68 and 69 he has no excuse. The truth is these two seasons take Wilt out of the greatest of all time discussions. If a greatest ever candidate, he wins in those seasons. Period.

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The Retro Player of the Year Project

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I’ve just finished running a project on the RealGM called the Retro Player of the Year (RPOY).  I think it was one hell of a project, so I want to give y’all a summary of it.

–          The idea behind the RPOY was that the NBA MVP award isn’t good enough. It only factors in the regular season, and really, the award that everyone wants when they do comparisons of players is an all-season Player of the Year award.

–          Now, this isn’t strictly an MVP for all seasons, because that wouldn’t work.  If the guy who has the best regular season is on a mediocre team, he’s not going to contribute as much value to his team in the playoffs as the star of the champion, so you’ve got to be a bit less literal than that.  The need for some fuzziness opens the door to people voting with different philosophies, but really that happens with the MVP any way. And still, we kept a focus where voting had to be based on what a player actually did that year, not what he could conceivably have done in the right circumstances. If a guy has a down year in the middle of his prime, even he was dealing with a moron of a coach and a tyrant of an owner – he suffers in this project.

–          RealGM is a website that has a variety of things on it, but the flagship of the public facing end of it is the basketball message boards.  I strongly believe they have the best basketball message boards on the internet, which is why I’ve been a moderator for them for several years.

–          The voting panel was semi-open.   By that I mean, at the beginning of the project, I let in all established posters from the site who wanted to be included, but afterward I only let in posters who impressed me.  I won’t claim that the members of the panel were necessarily the most prestigious of folks compared to actual MVP voters.  However, there were some powerhouses in this project I feel privileged to have been able to work with, and if you look at the votes, I think you’ll find that there are less “crazy votes” than what you see in a typical MVP vote.

–          The project took about 6 months to complete, starting from the ’08-09 season, and going back to the beginning of the shot clock era, with one digression to evaluate ’09-10 after the Lakers won their second title in a row.

Without further ado:  Here is a site made for the project which displays and tabulates the results, and here is the main message board page for the project.

Now, some results, and some thoughts on all this:

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