Thursday, July 29, 2010

Can Anyone Challenge LA in the West?

Seven teams finished within 7 wins of the Lakers' 57 last year, so it's not hard to imagine that at least one of them might seriously challenge LA's three-year hold on the West title. Of those seven, the Spurs are probably too old and the Thunder too young to pose a real threat. Having been raided by the Bulls and despite solid pick-ups Al Jefferson and Raja Bell, the Jazz' roster has some serious holes. Dallas only has 7, maybe 8 legitimate rotation players and their 2nd-best record in the West obscured an 8th-best point differential last year.

The Nuggets were clearly the 2nd best team in the West in 2008-2009, and might have been again in 2009-2010 if they hadn't fallen apart towards the end of the season while coach George Karl underwent chemotherapy. This year they've improved with the addition of Al Harrington (16.82). Chauncey Billups' PER is nearly equal to Kobe's (20.25 to 21.95), even if Kobe is underrated by that stat. The Nuggets' Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith are better than any of the Lakers' other guards.

The Lakers added Matt Barnes (13.66) as a back-up for Ron Artest (12.12) on the wing. Maybe together they're as talented as Carmelo Anthony (22.29), who is always capable of taking over a series. While Nene (18.95) and Harrington are no Gasol (22.97) and Bynum (20.26), Denver does have depth of quality big men to contend with LA's Big 3. I would give LA a slight edge in a best-of-seven series, and it would be a good one.

Only the Boston Celtics came closer that the Suns did to eliminating Los Angeles in the playoffs. For that reason, plus their fairly impressive recovery from losing Amare, we have to at least consider Phoenix. The Suns actually look to be more talented that the Lakers across both the guard and wing positions (Nash 21.67, Richardson 16.63, Childress 18.00, Hill 14.07, Dragic 14.87 against Kobe's underrated 21.95, Barnes 13.66, Artest 12.12, Blake 11.61, Vujacic 11.39, Fisher 9.29). Channing Frye (43.9 3pt%) and Hedo Turkoglu (37.4 3pt%, 4.1 asts) will spread LA's big men and possibly neutralize their defensive strengths. On the other hand, neither Robin Lopez nor the undersized Hakim Warrick seem likely to stop Gasol or Bynum, so it's hard to say that Phoenix would be a favorite. But I couldn't count them out.

Every year, the Blazers have the potential to be the top threat to the Lakers, if only they can stay healthy. With injury-prone stars like Brandon Roy (21.36, 17 games missed) and Greg Oden (23.14, 61 games missed), that's a pretty big challenge. At guard, the Blazers can't match Kobe, but Andre Miller (18.18), Rudy Fernandez (13.10), and Jerryd Bayless (14.38) are a solid group. Edge Lakers. At the wings, Roy and injury-limited Nicholas Batum (17.31) were both way better than Artest and Barnes in 2009-2010. Edge Blazers. If healthy, Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge (18.30), and Marcus Camby (17.91) would form a big 3 as impossible to defend as Gasol, Bynum and Odom. Portland's weak point might be a one-on-one match-up between the slow-footed Oden and a more athetic Bynum or Gasol.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Heat or Celtics the East Favorites?

Many say that Miami's mega team is the automatic favorite in the East. Others give the current conference champs, a deep Boston team, the edge over a supposedly shallow Miami rotation. Some pundits have made strong cases for Orlando or even the Boozer-Rose Bulls to stop Miami's coronation. Curious to see who might be right, I looked at the Hollinger Player Efficiency Ratings (PERs) of each team's roster categorized by Guards, Wing Players, and Bigs.

Let's start with the conference finals I'm hoping for, Miami vs. Boston. Clearly, nobody in this match-up comes close to D-Wade (28.1). But Boston has a great guard trio of Rondo (19.18), Allen (15.22) and Nate Robinson (16.41). Miami's point guards are serviceable, and neither Mario Chalmers (10.74) nor Carlos Arroyo (12.38) is likely to carry too much of the ball-handling load with LBJ and Wade on the team. Slight edge Boston.

At the wing, Lebron (31.19) and Mike Miller (14.00) are miles better than Paul Pierce (18.24) and Marquis Daniels (9.64). That's a huge edge for Miami.

Miami and Boston both have five big men who can expect to see significant time. Bosh (25.11) heads a front line featuring Centers Josh Anthony (10.26) and former Cav Zydrunas Ilgauskas (11.99), Udonis Haslem (14.62) and an aging Juwon Howard (9.99). Boston is still led by Kevin Garnett (19.51), but newcomer Jermaine O'Neal (17.92) adds depth to the front-line with Kendrick Perkins (15.08), Glen Davis (11.59), and Rasheed Wallace (13.18). Miami would have the best big man in a series, but Boston's front-line depth is of a higher quality. Slight edge Boston. All in all, I have to think Boston has the depth of talent to challenge Miami. I'd put this match-up at 50-50.

Orlando and Chicago are both interesting contenders. Orlando's big men stack up pretty well against Boston's and Miami's, and Vince Carter/Mickael Pietrus are about as good as Pierce/Daniels. While they lack the guard depth of Boston, or anyone who comes close to Wade or Lebron, they do have potent 3-point shooters that could serve as an equalizer. At full strength, I think either Boston or Miami would have an edge against Orlando, but Orlando would be a tough out.

The trio of Carlos Boozer (21.42), Derrick Rose (18.69), and Joakim Noah (17.96) make Chicago a contender. The Bulls added a big man (Boozer) who is more productive that Garnett at this point, and a 3-point shooter in Korver (53.6 3pt%) to improve the team's awful performance in that category last year. Their guard depth might overwhelm a poor defensive roster like Miami's, and they have the big men to compete with Boston/Orlando. All in all, Chicago is clearly out-manned by the top 3, but not by too much.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scottie Pippen Was Really, Really Good

Averaged 20 pts, 7.3 rebs, 6 asts to help Jordan win six rings

Michael Jordan said recently that he would never have joined up with Magic and Bird to win titles, a la Lebron joining Wade and Bosh (although to be fair, Bosh is not one of the top 3 players in the league). Instead, Jordan said, he just worked harder to beat them. That's sparked a lot of talk about whether any titles LeBron wins with the Heat will be as meaningful, legacy-wise, as those won by Jordan in Chicago (or even the post-Shaq Kobe titles). I don't have anything to contribute to that other than to say that yes, Wade and Bosh are much better players than the #2 & #3 guy on either Jordan's Bulls or Kobe's Lakers.

Anyway, what I'm getting around to is that Scottie Pippen was really, really good. In the Bulls' six championship seasons, he averaged 20 points on 48.4% shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2.2 steals a game. And that's with Michael Jordan averaging about 30 points every season!

Lebron never had a #2 guy nearly as good as Pippen in Cleveland, and there was no reason to believe Cavs management would succeed in getting him one after seven years of failing to do so. The Lakers, on the other hand, did get Pau Gasol to be Kobe's #2. His averages of 18.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game arguably make him as valuable to Kobe as Pippen was to Jordan.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Tippy Top

Here's another chart I put together from Wikipedia on our place in the international pecking order. In the spirit of looking for more Americans in elite European leagues, I wondered what exactly a chart of players on the very best European clubs by nation would look like. The chart below lists the number of players for each nation playing on teams in this year's group stage for the UEFA Champions League, the very upper echelon of club soccer. Of course, by only including UEFA, these counts give the European nations an edge over Latin American nations, which often retain a few of their big stars on their own national league's top teams at any time;

# of players from Champs League Group Stage teams
Ivory Coast7
United States3
South Africa0
South Korea0
New Zealand0
North Korea0

If you're looking at group stage dropout France at the top of the list and wondering if too many stars on one team can be a hindrance, let's consider how these rankings would have predicted the World Cup to play out. In a group stage as unpredictable as this one, we saw some star-studded teams as France and Italy (two of the top five in elite-team players) fail to advance. In all, only 10 of the 16 knockout spots went to the teams this chart would have predicted to advance. In the knockouts - when early favorites reasserted their dominance - the chart would have gone 11-3-1, with no prediction on the Japan-Paraguay game (which went to Japan on PKs). And so it seems that yes, the more players you have on the best 32 teams in Europe, the better you'll do in the World Cup.

The three players for the U.S. are Oguchi Onyewu of AC Milan, and Rangers' DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu. As a side note, Beasley and Edu kind of demonstrate how this measure doesn't necessarily capture your very best players. Beasley only played a few minutes in garbage time and while Edu played well he never contributed on the level of a Premier League starter. That this chart misses our two other Champs League-worthy guys (Donovan and Dempsey) but does hit right on in our number of those guys (three with Onyewu) is odd evidence in favor of the predictive value of the chart.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Looking for Forwards

So I finally bought Matt Bai's book The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics after being reminded by looking at this blog. If you're willing to buy the hardcover edition - which for some reason has a slightly different title - it's $2.49 and under on Amazon.

Anyway, I came back to post this table of the number of players on the U.S. Men's World Cup Team playing in elite European leagues:

World Cup
2010 3 4 7 1
2006 2 2 1 1
2002 2 2 4 1
1998 1 0 2 0
1994 0 0 0 0
1990 0 0 0 0

These numbers were quickly compiled by looking at the World Cup rosters on Wikipedia. Club teams are categorized as "elite" if they currently play in the top English, Spanish, Italian, German or French leagues or an elite team from another league (Ajax, Rangers, Porto, etc). That is to say that "elite" is somewhat subjective here. It's also based on current team rankings, even if I'm looking at players from the 1998 squads. Despite the remarkable stability of the European soccer hierarchy, there are some changes, so this shouldn't be considered perfectly accurate. It does pick up some clear trends, however.

What's most immediately clear to me is what a newcomer we are to scene of legitimate threats to win some games in a modern World Cup, with players from the very top of the European club soccer pyramid. As recently as 1998, only 3 of our 22 (23 player rosters began in 2002) players were playing elite European soccer. In 1990 and 1994, playing in Europe was the exception rather than the rule, and still only limited to weaker or secondary leagues.

The three from the 1998 team - GK Brad Friedel of Liverpool, MFs Claudio Reyna and Chad Deering, both of Wolfsburg - initiated a trend of the US' traditional strength at goal (like this year's Tim Howard of Everton backed up by two more Premier Leaguers) and the midfield. Indeed, Friedel and Reyna led the US to a shocking World Cup quarterfinal in 2002. With the exception of 2006 when even our best midfielder (Landon Donovan) wasn't ready for the world stage, that part of the field has been an area of rapid development. This year's midfield was unquestionably our strength, anchored by Donovan (most recently of Everton), Fulham's Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley (28 appearances in the Bundesliga).

Our back four made huge strides in the run-up to this World Cup. Oguchi Onyewu moved from Belgium to AC Milan in 2009, while unfortunate injury cost him time in Serie A and cost the US in the World Cup. Carlos Bocanegra moved to French Rennes and was given the U.S. captaincy. Steve Cherundolo completed his 12th season with Hannover 96, the last eight played in the Bundesliga. Jonathan Spector has made 87 appearances for West Ham United since 2006.

It's our strikers where we need the most help. We didn't have a single elite striker in the 90s World Cups, and we've only had one each in the last three (Joe-Max Moore, Everton; Brian McBride, Fulham; Jozy Altidore, Hull City). Even Jozy has only two goals in 34 European appearances. A quick glance at the Spanish and Dutch rosters reveal that all 9 of their forwards play for top teams in Spain, England or Italy. That's the gap we have to start to close if we're ever going to be serious threats to win one of these things. Here's hoping that before 2014 Altidore, Findley, and others make some real strides, and pick up experience breaking down tough European defenses and scoring goals in big games.