As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Elton Brand, Courtney Lee, and Trevor Booker.
Appreciate Elton Brand by making a snifter of Brandy an important part of your morning routine.
A few years back, I'd firmly sided myself with those who believed Elton Brand to be (essentially) done and washed up. He'd looked subpar for several seasons in a row, playing most of his minutes injured and producing minimal gains for terrible teams when he'd actually make it onto the court. I think I distinctly remember telling a friend that I'd eat my hat if he got through a season without significant injury ever again. Someone should figure out what hat I had on when I said that, because I should get to eating. In Brand's two years since that proclamation, Brand played (I kid you not) 141 out of 148 possible games. He missed just seven! In two years -- one of which was on a compressed lockout schedule! He's currently batting a perfecto on the current season, as well, which is astonishing. We're looking at a guy who played in 113 of 246 possible games in the three seasons immediately prior to that. We're looking at the guy who'd looked a bit over the hill for years. We're looking at the guy who had one of the biggest albatross contracts in the league, once upon a time. He recouped wonderfully, became a key cog in a very solid 2012 Philadelphia team, and was amnestied because the Sixers felt they really, truly needed to resign Spencer Hawes, pick up Kwame Brown, and sign Nick Young. Go figure.
Regardless. While Brand is undersized in height for the center position, he's been extremely effective as a defensive anchor over the last two years by relying on his wingspan, his bulk, and his instincts. He's far better in the post than outside of the paint contesting jumpers, but he's not really that bad at either -- his enormously long arms help him in that regard and allow him to put up a strong contest without jumping or fouling. He's one of the best shot blockers in the league, and unless I'm forgetting someone major, I'm almost certain he's the best one under 6'9". His bulk allows him to body up most post players and keep them uncomfortable in the post, and although he's lost a step, he's still one of the better pick-and-roll covers in the league. There were many reasons that last season's Sixers were good, but the Brand/Iguodala one-two punch on defense was by far the most important. Collins put together a scheme that best maximized their skills and absolutely wrecked even the most prolific offensive teams with effective re-routing, forcing the broken play, and keeping just about every team unsettled against the Philadelphia defense. Andrew Bynum will be a massive offensive upgrade over Brand, but it really does remain to be seen if Bynum can have the same defensive impact that Brand did -- Brand was really phenomenally good on defense in 2012.
Offensively, Brand had some good moments as well under Doug Collins. One thing I did neglect to mention in my Iguodala capsule earlier this week (as good friend Matt Moore later pointed out) was that Iguodala's awful shot selection hasn't entirely been a factor of his own decisionmaking. Doug Collins has an odd insistence on making his teams shoot long two pointers, and this tends to make players on his teams have oddly inflated attempts from the midrange and the long two even when they've got effective three point shooters and solid at-rim players besides them. A stylistic thing. "They're inefficient, but because of that, they're less guarded! Therefore, they are the right option." Not quite accurate logic, but it's what he rolls with. And is, indeed, a pretty big part of Iguodala's higher-than-they-should-be proportion of long twos. And the same goes for just about everyone in the Collins system. It REALLY isn't a good thing for most players, but it's actually ended up being fantastic for Elton Brand. He can't shoot threes (or, realistically, anything outside 20 feet), but inside that range he's great. He's got a phenomenal 10-to-20 foot jumper, and last season posted an excellent 45% from 10-15 feet and 43% from 16-23 feet. He did that on far more attempts than average, as well, just to dissuade you from imagining it's a fluke.
Brand didn't fit very well with Eddie Jordan or DiLeo, but he was essentially a perfect match for Collins' system from both a talent perspective and a fit perspective. And he made that fit count -- he's been a great player for the last two years. Truthfully, he's been far less than excellent in Dallas, and chances are pretty high he'll never produce at quite the level he did last season ever again. Age takes all men at some point, and subjectively, watching Brand inspires a sense that he's falling off in a few ways the stats don't quite pick up. His heavy footsteps, his inability to cover transition plays anymore, his generally flat shot, et cetera. But if he can recoup a bit and Carlisle can put him in a similar defensive situation as he had in Philadelphia, there's really no good reason Brand can't be an excellent value contributor for the Dallas Mavericks this season. And I'll continue eating my hat, thank you very much.
I'm a big fan of analyzing important leverage points, both historically and in my personal life. You know the analysis, most likely, even if you've never really heard it phrased like that. As an example -- when I was in college, I took a class on Markov Chain Monte Carlo modeling. We were given a distinct problem one week, as part of a broader teaching example. The data was a large dataset of monthly measured smog levels in a small English town. At some point in the last 200 years, the town had completely transitioned its identity -- it used to be a massive industrial town, with several smog-spewing factories and a gritty working class. Now, though? It was a clean, green, sparkling cottage town. The factories were gone. There were some farms, now, and a viable telecommuting working class. The teacher refused to tell us what the town was, and posed as our modeling problem to determine when, exactly, the city "switched." In short, we had to produce a model that would give us a series of the most likely dates when, via the data, we could state that the city had alternated from an industrial smog-spewing smokestack to the everclean present.
We needed to find the leverage point, the moment when the underlying distribution to the smog concentration numbers changed. It was a highly interesting problem, and as it turned out, the data was about as clear as possible -- almost all of us got the same answer, primarily because the town in question had closed down all three of the factories within a month of each other. It didn't exactly take a complicated model to tease it out of the data -- in fact, most of us checked our work by simply looking at the data around the point. It was pretty clear. But although the final MCMC sampler came up with a relatively simple model, the whole idea of analyzing time-varied data in an effort to determine tangible distribution shifts has always stuck with me. We tend to look at a career or a time series as different snapshots of a similar underlying distribution. Analyzing for leverage points and finding distinct distribution shifts inspires a better understanding of the fundamental volatility in the underlying distributions behind the statistics and numbers we take as gospel, and helps us realize when our assumptions may be flimsy or ill-prepared.
Reeling myself back in, Courtney Lee is a good player to introduce with this concept, because I can't really talk about his career without talking about the single leverage point that may have changed his entire story. You may have forgotten it, but I can say without a question that he hasn't. I refer to his blundered miracle lay-up that quite nearly gave the 2009 Magic a tied series with a historically great Laker team. I often wonder -- what, exactly, would've happened if he'd made that layup? Thinking in the very localized sense, the Magic would've knotted the NBA Finals heading into three games at home. They still probably wouldn't have won it, but people don't tend to remember that the 2009 Finals did include three extremely close games -- had the Magic won this one, the series would've at least gone back to Staples for a game 6 and, if they could've flipped one more game, possibly forced a game 7. It's worth noting that while Jameer Nelson was relatively awful in that series, he also was coming back from injury -- which stands to reason that he may have gotten better as the series went on, potentially giving the Magic one or two new wrinkles to use in the later reaches of a long series. The botched layup didn't necessarily decide the Finals, but it has completely changed the way they're looked upon historically. It turned a hard fought series into a "gentleman's sweep." It changed the game, both on a micro and macro level.
It changed Lee's career, as well -- it's plausible to consider the idea that if he'd made that layup and the Finals weren't later looked upon as such a dominating performance by Los Angeles, the Magic may have refrained from flipping him to New Jersey. Had that happened, Lee wouldn't have had to spend a year of his young career mired on one of the worst teams of all time with a coach that supremely disliked his game. He was then ported over to Houston, where Adelman didn't like him at all either -- leading to, again, another lost season. He finally recouped a bit in 2012, shooting more threes than he'd ever shot before under a more approving McHale and redesigning his perimeter defensive game a tad in hopes of becoming a bit more reliable as a stopper. And despite his reputation, he needed it. He's a decent defender, by the eye test, but you look at his on/off numbers and you do start to wonder if he's a bit overrated on that front. Subjectively, his help defense is a bit problematic and he has some trouble getting over screens, which makes his generally tenacious on-ball defense less valuable overall. But Lee's a good guy, and I'm hoping he finds a good niche in Boston. He hasn't looked bad in Boston, but his three point shot has left him and his problems getting over screens have been major problem-points for a Celtics team that desperately needs Avery Bradley to come back and supercharge their flagging defense. His career may never quite be as promising as it was when it looked like he'd have 4+ years of tutelage behind Stan Van Gundy, but it's certainly not a lost cause. So here's to Courtney Lee, leverage points, and the tiny twists of fate that change everything.
I like watching Trevor Booker's game. Which is surprising in some ways. Lovingly dubbed "Cook Book" by journeyman Cartier Martin in a midseason joust last year, he's got a lot of the problems that make a player tough to watch at an NBA level. It starts with his position -- he doesn't really have one, and although we live in a post-position world, it's nice to actually have a cogent idea of where you fit on the floor. Booker is in that awkward place between a wing and a big, where he's not quite nimble enough to cover wings but not at all large enough to cover bigs. It ends up making him a rather negative-production player on the defensive end, although given how many players on Washington are awful defenders and how little defensive structure or system the Wizards have around him, it's hard to really argue he's in a great position to maximize anything. And it's not to say he lacks in effort -- the man played hardest of any member of the 2012 Wizards on that end, he's just at such a size & athleticism disadvantage it never worked very well. He also has no outside shooting ability, a rather uncreative game, and is quite prone to turning the ball over. Which usually would make for a player I don't like much.
But that's not all he is. Booker lacks many things, but he'll never lack effort. The man ranked as one of the best at-rim players in the league, converting on a scintillating 73% of his shots in the basket area last season. And he didn't do that on a scant few attempts, either -- he attempted almost 50% of all shots he took from the at-rim range, and he made significantly more shots at the rim than he did from every other range of the floor combined (112 to 69). This does tend to point to one flaw in his game -- as I said, he doesn't have much of an outside shot, and in general isn't much of a jump shooter. He shot just 32% from the floor on all jump shots last year. Subjectively, it looked even worse than that. As a result of his jump shot struggles, he's never going to be a high usage player -- last year, he ranked in the bottom 25% of all big men in usage percentage. But it's the little things, with Mr. Cookbook. The fact that he's the only Wizard with the ability to set a remotely useful screen. The fact that he jumps for loose balls, throwing them at untold speeds into the body of an opposing team's player in an effort to ensure possessions. The fact that he'll hustle for the rebounds while other Wizards stare idly at the ball, immobile, waiting for the ball to approach them slowly and tenderly caress the small of their back as it reassures them that "yes, Jordan, it's OK that you can't stop shooting me. I can take it. I love you."
Overall, I like Booker. I like watching him. I'm not always on the train with high-energy hustle players, but something about Booker really entertains me. I hope he can fully recoup from this season's knee strain and take his place as a 25-30 MPG hustle guy for the Wizards. He's one of the few on that team I unconditionally enjoy. Perhaps it's partly the players around him -- the Wizards are one of the most dismally drab teams in the league, and against that backdrop, I have a feeling that many marginal players would seem more enjoyable than they would in the context of a better team. But there is something beyond that. Can't knock the hustle, can't knock the grit. Seems like a good guy, too. Some call him Booker T instead of Cook Book, which I actually think is probably the better nickname. Also, a fact that deserves constant notation: Trevor Booker's favorite Christmas gift ever, according to the good folks at Truth About It? A big wheel! I mentioned this in the last-year's capsules and I'll probably mention this whenever I talk about Booker for the rest of my life. Because it's awesome. If you vow to remember one arbitrary fact about Trevor Booker for the rest of your life, make it this one.
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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Commenter Matt L got this last set spot-on. Good work, fella.
- Player #310 has been playing like an all-star point guard this season. His team's still awful, as of yet, but he's surprised me.
- Player #311 hasn't been all-star level this year, but he started decently. He's been worse lately, though, and his team has fallen off badly around him.
- Player #312 flops. A lot. He's also a decent defender who's been somewhat useful to his team, as of late.
Gonna be in Los Angeles tomorrow. Fun times for everyone.
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