The Universe Cup Part 5: In Defense of the Cuts

Article Length: ~3,300 words or about 18-25 minutes of reading.

Buckle up ladies and gentlemen because this is hopefully the longest post you’ll ever see on this blog.

Just in case you have 30+ minutes to use on reading my musings on the NBA, here are links to part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.  This may just be the most intriguing part to the whole series because here is the place that most other sites that do sports hypotheticals drop the ball: the place where they defend their choice to leave certain individuals off  lists such as ESPN in their top ten point guards of all time (where Stephen Curry was ranked fourth over the likes of Thomas, Kidd, Nash, and Paul) leaving Gary Payton and Mark Price off the list.

I don’t plan on competing with A Song of Ice and Fire in length, so to save some time, I’m going to format my defenses a little different.  I’ll pick a player’s specific year, but I won’t list all of the relevant stats next to his name; furthermore, my descriptions will be significantly shorter so that I can include only the most pertinent details, for I have quite a few players that I cut.  Let’s get started.  So to have some semblance of order, I’ve split the players into three categories: Bubble Players (the few players that were either originally on the team or heavily considered), Big Names (the best players of the 2000s that didn’t make the cut), and Star Glue Guys (players I considered based off their intangibles).  Let’s begin.

 

Bubble Players:

 

Yao Ming 2008-09

I’m going to be completely honest, Yao was actually on my roster until I started writing part 4.  For real, I had every intention to put him on until I really looked at the flexibility of the roster’s positions.  With Yao, I would have two players in Shaq and Yao that cannot play any other position other than the center position, and neither player is built to handle a small-ball lineup defensively. Shaq gets a pass because his physical domination overwrites any quick, defensive lapses he may cause.

My original reasons for Yao included his beautiful personality and his wet midrange game (well, almost midrange.  He shot 45% from 10-16 feet in 2008-09).  Not only that, but his former coach Jeff Van Gundy was very open about Yao’s complete dominance.  A player that’s 7′ 6″ and can stretch the floor relatively well would always prove useful, but in the end I picked Dirk for his greater ability to stretch the floor and his flexibility in playing the four or the small five.

 

Tracy McGrady 2002-03

This will be the year that many people forget as time goes on.  T-Mac made a legitimate argument for himself as the best player in the NBA by tossing up some astounding number, and, for those of you into advanced stats, this is the year T-Mac tied the second highest OBPM (offensive box plus-minus: a stat that tries to quantify a player’s offensive production on the court) of all time.  If that sound dubious, the stat passes the sight test.  Of th top ten OBPMs in history (counting this year), Jordan takes up three, LeBron takes up three, Curry takes up two, and T-Mac and Chris Paul take up one.

T-Mac’s greatest detriment was his inability to ever leave the first round of the playoffs (not counting his Spurs stint which I outlined in this article).  While this didn’t speak to his ability to carry a team especially on the offensive end, it spoke more to his inability to inspire his teammates to rise up to the next level.  For a great description of T-Mac’s career, read Bill Simmons’ account of the unfortunate aspects of his career.  Beyond his mentality, what he brings to the table talent-wise could be replicated by one of Durant, LeBron, Kobe, or Wade.

 

Steve Nash 2006-07

I’m going to lay out two players’ shooting percentages laid out in the following format: FG%/3P%/FT% – shooting percentages from 0-3 feet/3-10 feet/10-16 feet/16-3P.  One will be Stephen Curry from 2015-16 and the other will be Nash from 2006-07.  Can you guess which is which?

 

Player A: 51.2%/45.9%/90.4% – 69.3%/44.9%/47.5%/46.8%

Player B: 53.2%/45.5%/89.9% – 67.6%/55.4%/50%/52.2%

 

Well obviously player B is Curry right?  Wrong.  Nash was absolutely destructive from anywhere on the court, and, combining his hyper-efficiency with his uncanny ability to find teammates for easy buckets, Nash was a top offensive player of all time.  One need not look any further than Joe Johnson to find the extreme impact Nash has on his teammates.  Johnson played with Nash for one season in Phoenix back in 2004-05 when he had a career high in 3P%.  His second highest percentage in his career was in 2013-14 when he shot 40.1% while making 2.1 3s a game.  With Nash, Johnson shot a staggering 47.8% while making 2.2 3s a game.  That’s an insane difference.

I just couldn’t pick Nash though because, since Curry and Nash are so similar, like I have documented before, having both would be somewhat redundant especially since both are small, poor defensive point guards.  Curry at least has solid team defensive awareness whereas Nash was truly just an awful defender.  Let’s just remember him by his passing and his shooting percentages.

 

Dwight Howard 2010-11

Dwight is truly polarizing player.  On one hand, he is clearly the best center post-Shaq in the NBA and should be known as one of the greatest defensive centers of all time, but on the other, he has faced continued criticism from retired and current players alike.  Many of those criticisms are called for, but in general, Dwight was dominant.

Howard missed the cut for the team because of his unvaried and unpolished offensive game, and his awful personality which has pissed off organizations from the Lakers to the Magic and individuals like Stan Van Gundy, Kobe, and James Harden.  If he’s Shaq’s direct backup, then the team would really have no variation between the two centers on the team.  Both dominant in the areas near the basket and provide needed bulk.  If Howard doesn’t get his playing time though, which he would looking at how the roster shakes out, I’m afraid he would throw too much of a fit and not work well in the locker room.

 

Manu Ginobili 2006-07

If I were to make a list of the most underrated players of all-time, Ginobili would certainly make that list.  His willingness to sacrifice notoriety by coming off the bench (and playing for the Spurs) really hampered his chances of being known as an all-time great, but to be completely honest, he’s a top five shooting guard since the dawn of the millennium (Kobe, Wade, and Allen are the only three above him for sure, depending on the position at which you list Iverson).  His crafty maneuvers, popularization of the Euro-step, unbelievable passing, and ice-cold veins make him the perfect addition to any team.  Could he lead a playoff successful team as the number one guy?  I don’t think so, but as a second or third (or in this team’s case, twelth) banana, Ginobili would be completely invaluable.

To me, the only two problems are his streakiness and his need to have the ball in his hands.  The former of those issues isn’t necessarily the biggest detractor especially if  you’re meant to bring some gusto off the bench, but in the end I opted for consistency and lockdown defense (Kawhi).  Saying he needs the ball isn’t calling him a ball-hog in any sense of the word, but Manu simply works better as an on-ball playmaker of which this team already has an abundance.

 

Big Names:

 

Allen Iverson 2000-01

If anybody actually cares enough to get emotional over my articles, my leaving Iverson off the post-2000s team is probably the most I’ve pissed anyone off.  Sure, it’s easy to look back now and scoff at his ridiculous inefficiency, his low assist numbers before going to Denver, and his lack of a reliable three point shooting, but Iverson typifies the generic and usually meaningless phrase of somebody playing his heart out.  Iverson consistently played over forty minutes a game, and that was going balls-to-the-walls every second he was out there.  At 165 pounds and barely six feet tall, Iverson took more punishment going to the rack then anybody maybe ever (Wade follows close behind if we’re counting just the 2000s).  While not the strongest or greatest one-on-one defender, his unparalleled hustle and ball-hawking were terrifying for opposing offenses.  The following two videos are actually my two favorite plays by Allen Iverson (jump to 3:53 in the second video).  Truly the definition of the heart-and-soul of Philly.

He gets the steal, loses and regains his balance, and makes the layup all in 3.9 seconds.

Marc Jackson never had a chance here.  Iverson was going to get that ball.

Reliving some of these moments and discussing his greatness is making me slightly second-guess myself, but my criticisms of AI are substantial.  Unfortunately, the “practice” rant is always brought up as a detriment to AI but in a way that misses the point. AI’s reasoning behind that news conference was that playing ball was so natural to him, so instinctual, that he didn’t understand the need to go to a structured event to learn more about it.  Iverson didn’t display an aversion to practicing (you don’t get that good without tens of thousands of hours in the gym), but he did display an aversion to structure and authority which worries me on a team where cohesiveness and unselfishness is of the utmost importance (and where I already have my quota of selfishness in Shaq and Kobe).  Sorry AI, but because of the aforementioned inneficiency and the attitude problem, I can’t pick you for your perpetual hustle and heart….it so kills me just because I would love to have a lineup with AI and KG.  Just imagine…

 

Jason Kidd 2002-03

When NBA players talk about other NBA players, it’s always necessary to take their comments with an ocean of salt.  That said, earlier this year, LeBron stated that he would choose Jason Kidd as the NBA legend with whom he would like to play.  While I wouldn’t necessarily go in that direction, but truth be told, Jason Kidd is really an unappreciated player who should be higher on everybody’s all-time PG list, like ESPN’s where Stephen Curry is listed at number 4….  Most everybody knows his wizardry with passing the ball, connecting with Vince Carter on countless alley-oops, but his intelligence goes way beyond his assist numbers.  Some of the plays he made were mind-boggling in that he knew where everybody on the court should be and will be better than they do.  Check out some of these videos I’ve posted below.  Stupid intelligence.

Also, being a solidly built 6’4″ PG, Kidd was one of the greatest PG defenders in NBA history.  He could switch easily between guarding the one and the two, and locked down his unfortunate matchup.  This was because of his combination of athleticism and awareness on the court.  Point is, Kidd was stupidly good.

Unfortunately, Kidd really was a poor shooter from pretty much everywhere on the court.  His FG% of 41% isn’t really indicative of his efficiency on the court since the majority of his shots came from three, and he shot a respectable percentage at the rim; however, his greatest skill of being a floor general might be overshadowed by having guys like Paul, LeBron, and Wade on the team who also excel with the ball in their hands.  Sure, Kidd would be extremely helpful particularly on the defensive end, but his strengths don’t match up with the rest of the team.

 

Carmelo Anthony 2012-13

Melo is that one star who has been right on the cusp of being one of the best for essentially his whole career.  He consistently has been one of the most dangerous scorers in the league for the past 10 years, and his teams (used to be) perennial playoff threats.  Now after deciding to not leave the Knicks for the Bulls in the summer of 2014, Melo has essentially wiped out any chance of leading a team to the championship. But that’s neither here nor there.  The point is that Melo is a tremendous scorer who would be ridiculously productive as a 3-4 who stretches the floor with his ability to get really hot (like when he scored 37 points in 14-and-a-half minutes on 10-12 shooting from three against Nigeria in the 2012 Olympics).

The issues with Carmelo are that he’s not a particularly willing passer or defender, and he plays bully ball where guys like LeBron and Shaq are going to be roaming.  As much as I would love to test out a lineup of Curry, Allen, Durant, Carmelo, and Shaq, Melo just isn’t worth it.

 

Chris Webber 2001-02

I was really rooting for Webber to make my team honestly.  His unselfish passing, ability to stretch the floor, and solid defensive instincts made him what appeared to be a lock for the team, but, for a couple or reasons, I just can’t trust him.  First and most obviously are his well documented injuries during his Sacremento days.  During the 2000s, he only played 70 or more games once (and it was 70 in 2000-01) because of his continued knee troubles.  Second, and not just because of the notorious Michigan State mishap, but Webber just wasn’t a clutch player.  Sure, he has some magnificent games in crunch time such as his 51 point 26 rebound explosion against the Pacers in 2001, but even that performance didn’t translate to a win.  Third, and most importantly as Zach Lowe points out in this wonderful description of Webber’s career, Webber really wasn’t particularly good at the gritty details required to win.  He grabbed uncontested rebounds, overpassed instead of becoming aggressive, and took too many possessions off on the defensive end.  Webber’s IQ on the offensive side would have been perfect for the squad, but it just doesn’t outweigh the negatives for him.

 

Russell Westbrook 2015-2016

Westbrook seems to always have a parade of critics shouting out some new narrative which he subsequently proves wrong: he’s a ball-hog – he averages 10.8 assists a game; he’s inefficient – he has a true shooting percentage of 55.7%; he’s not a great defender – he averages over two steals and has a DBPM of 2.3 which matches Ron Artest’s DBPM  during his DPOY season.  So what’s the problem?  On paper, Westbrook is the perfect player (basically), and, if you only pay attention to what other stars say like Kobe Bryant say about him, you’d think he would be leading his team to the best record in NBA history.

Well, plain and simply, I can’t trust Westbrook.  I have a few specific moments in mind, but the video I posted below does a good job of showing the sort of thing I’m talking about.

He finishes with extreme authority, but only shoots 59% from 0-3 feet from the basket which is about three percentage points better than Tony Allen.  My only explanatino for this is an inabillity to slow the hell down.  Westbrook’s best quality of going 100% every second he’s on the court is what gets him into the most trouble on both ends of the court.  He tries to become Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter, gambles for wild steals on many possessions, and falls in love too much with the three-point shot.  I can’t have a loose canon like this on the team (I already have my hands full containing Kobe).

 

Star Glue Guys:

 

Chauncey Billups 2007-08

If I had been decided entirely on picking a twelth man solely for his leadership qualities, it would have been Chauncey.  He encompasses the old adage of a true professional, and he brought that attitude to him every single day regardless of whether or not it was a practice or a game.  Jonathan Abrams of Grantland (RIP) masterfully explains how Billups’ journey in the NBA turned in a way to make him one of the most respected players of the 2000s.  While he will always be immortalized by his Mr. Big Shot nickname, he was a bit overrated in that aspect comparatively to other stars, but that confidence from him and his teammates shows something even more telling: Billups was the de facto man of a very successful franchise.

While Billups’ volume three-point shooting at a 40+ percentage would have been perfect as the off-ball leader on this team, his defensive abilities concerned me slightly.  He was the leader of one of the stingiest defenses the NBA has ever seen, but much of that needs to be attributed to Big Ben and Tayshaun Prince.  That would have been find if I ddin’t already have a couple of players whose defense is a tad concerning to me (Curry, Allen, Durant, and Dirk), so I opted for the defensive aficionado in Kawhi.   I hope I don’t regret not taking the quintessential leader.

 

Tony Parker 2008-09

 

The steady, underappreciated point guard is once again left off a team of which he is clearly worthy.  Parker never had eye-popping stats which will unfortunately render him essentially unknown within the next couple of decades.  Nobody will remember that during the majority of the Tim Duncan era, Parker was right by his side as the whirling dervish in the paint, contorting his body every which way to finish over, around, and under any competitor.  Pop took the time to really lay into him early in his career which helped Parker to become the current unshakeable leader.  He runs the Spurs motion offense as well as anybody, and shoots the midrange ball dangerously enough to cause a defensive nightmare on the pick-and-roll.

The two largest issues with Parker are his three-point shooting and his defense.  His first season was the only season in which he made at least one threee-pointer a game.  His quickness and intelligence helped him work around this deficiency, but for a backup player receiving limited minutes, I need a player that’s more specialized and less skilled across the board.

 

Ben Wallace 2003-2004

One of the best, if not the best defensive player in the history of the game, a conclusion drawn from both anecdotal evidence, other’s opinions, and essentially every advanced statistic for calculating defense.  His 03-04 season ranks as the 12th highest DWS season ever (only three players made the list above him: Dave Cowens (once), Wilt (twice), and Bill Russell (eight times…wow)), and it ranks as number two all-time in DBPM (behind his 2002-03 season) and is one of five of his seasons to appear in the top ten for the same stat.  Ben Wallace won games with his defense.

I think we all know what the issue is.  Let me throw some numbers at you: 42.1, 42.4, and 45.  Those are his FG%, two-point percentage, and his free-throw percentage respectively.  Wallace was useless at scoring the basketball.  His offensive rebounding prowess helped him to still contribute tremendously on the offensive end, but, even for the best defensive player since Dennis Rodman (or maybee even Bill Russell), I really cannot have such a liability on the offensive end.

 

 

There you have it folks!  You slogged through countless words to find my true thoughts on the most cohesive team that I could muster post-2000.  You’ve also seen why I picked those players, and why I left certain players off the list.  I apologize if this article seemed rushed at all for any particular player, but as you can see, it already dragged on a bit too long.  If you have any thoughts on any of these sections or would like me to discuss anything else in further detail, please let me know.

 

Cited Articles:

 

ESPN.com, “All-Time #NBArank: Magic Johnson tops list of greatest point guards”

Abrams, Jonathan, “The Legacy of Yao”

Houdek, Cody, “The Great “Greatness” Debate: Tracy McGrady Vs. Kawhi Leonard”

Simmons, Bill, “The Unfortunate Tale of T-Mac”

Houdek, Cody, “Steve Nash or Stephen Curry?”

Harvey, Randy, “Shaq explains his criticism of Dwight Howard”

Martinez, Jose, “If LeBron James Could Play With Any NBA Legend, It Would be Jason Kidd’

Lee, Kirby, “Carmelo, Team USA dominate record books”

Aykis16, “What if Chris Webber’s knees hadn’t broken down?”

Lowe, Zach, “Put Chris Webber in the Hall of Fame”

Abrams, Jonathan, “The Professional”

Brown, David, “How good was Chauncey Billups? Was he really Mr. Big Shot?”

 

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3 thoughts on “The Universe Cup Part 5: In Defense of the Cuts

  1. Pingback: Building a Super Team and Other Observations | nbacademic

  2. Pingback: Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 1: Setting the Groundwork and Selecting the First Player | nbacademic

  3. Pingback: Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 7: The Coach, Team Strategy, and Defending the Cuts | nbacademic

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