Thursday, August 9, 2007

How can a player be overvalued and underrated at the same time?

This off-season, amid the Garnett trade, Jermaine O'Neal rumors, the summer of Kobe's discontent, and Reggie Miller considering whether or not to step out of the broadcast booth and onto the court, the defending Eastern Conference champions have yet to re-sign their starting shooting guard and their 6th man, are actively shopping their starting power forward, and are essentially holding an open audition for their point guard spot. Since it's the Cavaliers, nobody cares all that much, but the Cavaliers' situation with their power forward platoon is really quite interesting.

First, the facts: Anderson Varejao, the floppy-haired wonder from Brazil, is a restricted free agent this summer. He has not been able to come to terms with the Cavs, as his agent, Dan Fegan, believes that he should be making starter money (About $8 million per year), while the Cavaliers believe that as he currently comes off the bench, he should be making bench player money (around $5 million a year). Meanwhile, the Cavs' starting power forward, Mr. Drew Gooden, is currently being actively shopped, and has been for the last several years. The most recent serious rumor involving Drew had him going to the Kings for Mike Bibby, the established point guard the Cavs have craved for so long.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Anderson Varejao knows that he's worth more than $5 million a year, and the league knows that Drew Gooden isn't the kind of commodity that can land a quality point guard. In the eyes of a GM, Anderson is much more valuable than Drew, despite Danny Ferry's efforts to convince them otherwise. However, in the eyes of a coach, Drew is the more valuable player-he played 56% of the minutes for the Cavaliers last year, while Mr. Varejao only played 49%. Oh, and age isn't a big factor; Drew is only 1 year older than Anderson, which makes this different from a simple "veteran production vs. young potential" question.

However, the truly interesting thing is that even though Drew is treated as the starter in Cleveland, it is a near-indisputable fact that the Cavaliers play better when Varejao is on the floor-Varejao and Drew play almost the same amount of minutes, and generally come in for each other, but the Cavs are 4.5 points better per 100 possessions when Varejao is on the floor than when he is off of it, and a stunning 8.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Gooden is on the floor than they are when he is on the bench.

To recap: the conventional wisdom of NBA brain trust believes that Drew Gooden is a better player than Anderson Varejao now, but Varejao is worth more due to his long-term "potential." In reality, Varejao is a better player than Gooden right now, but will probably not get much better over the course of his career than he is right now, while Drew will continue to produce more than many players considered more valuable assets than he is.

In short, Anderson Varejao is underrated but overvalued, while Drew Gooden is overrated but undervalued. How does that work? Keep reading.

Drew Gooden:

The top 10 of the 2002 NBA draft has to be one of the worst of all time. There were 2 bona fide NBA all-stars (Yao Ming and Amare Stoudamire, at #1 and #9), 4 players who are no longer with their original team (Gooden, Dunleavy, Caron Butler, and Chris Wilcox), and 3 players who are essentially done with NBA basketball (Jay Williams, Nickoloz Tskitishvili, and Dajuan Wagner.)

Drew went #4 in that draft. His first 3 years in the league, he averaged about 12 points and 7 rebounds in 27 mpg, shooting at a 46% clip. That was good enough to get him shipped off to Cleveland, along with Anderson Varejao, for Tony Battie and two 2nd-round draft picks. Meanwhile, in Golden State, the #3 pick in the draft, Mike Dunleavy, averaged 12 points and 5.5 rebounds in 31 mpg, shooting at a 45% clip, over his 2nd and 3rd years in the league. That was good enough to get him a 5-year contract worth $55 million. Nene, the #7 pick in the draft, averaged 10 points and 6 rebounds in 27 mpg, shooting at a 50% clip, over his first three years in the league. He was rewarded with a 6-year contract worth $60 million.

Here's a quick recap of what that looks like:

Drew: 12/7/46%
Dunleavy: 12/5.5/45%
Nene: 10/6/50%

Three forwards, drafted in the same year, putting up extremely similar numbers. Two get monster extensions after their first three years, while the other gets traded for Tony Battie.

Why is Drew Gooden so undervalued? Because the things he does well are skills that NBA teams assume can be easily acquired, and the ones he lacks are ones thought to be innate.

Drew Gooden is a very, very good rebounder; however, NBA teams do not consider it prudent to spend money on rebounders, as they assume that big men become better rebounders as their careers go on, although there is no evidence to support this. Here is a list of the league's best rebounders per 48 minutes, from the top down: Reggie Evans, Dikembe Mutumbo, Tyson Chandler, Jeff Foster, David Lee, Justin Williams, and Marcus Camby. Not a lot of trade value on that list-the only two guys seen as valuable are Lee and Chandler, and Chandler was essentially run out of town last off-season, while the Blazers nixed a trade that would have given the Knicks Darius Miles for David Lee.

Drew Gooden is also a quality midrange shooter, and gets many of his points on 15-foot jumpers from the wings. Again, this is not a skill that excites NBA General Managers, as they assume that a midrange game is something that can be developed.

Additionally, Drew Gooden is an intelligent scorer, and can use pump-fakes, jab-steps and two dribble-drives to get his shots; he also knows where to go on a pick-and-pop in order to get his shots. Again, NBA teams consider this an unexciting skill; what professional basketball player shouldn't be able to execute a "show-and-go?" It's not brain surgery.

Those are the things that Drew does well: Hits midrange jumpers, hustles for rebounds, and knows how to get himself looks on offense. All of those are good things, but NBA GMs believe that they can be easily taught.

The things he does badly, on the other hand, seem to be unsolvable:

  • He's a mediocre athlete. He can't run the floor or throw it down like Amare.
  • While he can score in a variety of ways around the basket, he's not strong enough to get deep post position, and thus does not appear to have upside as a back-to-basket scorer.
  • He doesn't shoot 3s. While GMs believe that "touch" is something that can be taught, "range" is innate-you're born with 3-point range or you're not. Drew doesn't attempt 3s now, so it is assumed that he will never be a 3-point threat.
Those are the reasons that Drew Gooden is undervalued. However-and this is where things get a little tricky-many of those same qualities make him overrated, and allow him to get floor time that he does not deserve.

While Drew's rebounding prowess is underrated on its own, combined with a hefty amount of minutes and Drew's affinity for taking shots, he switches from a "good rebounder" to being a "double-double machine." The double-double is intriguing in that it is essentially a worthless stat(If a player is averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds in 40 minutes a game, is he having a good year?) Yet the list of double-double leaders is populated with the best players in the league-Garnett, Howard, Duncan, Amare. By rebounding well, playing a lot of minutes, and taking a healthy amount of shots, Gooden has earned a reputation as being similar to that elite group of players, when in reality he is nowhere near the caliber of player as the rest of the double-double leaders.

Also, while Drew's midrange game would appear to be a good thing, the midrange shot is actually the most counterproductive shot in the NBA. I would need a separate post to fully describe why I so abhor the midrange game, but basically it's so much easier to score at the rim or draw a foul nowadays than it is to hit a jumper that the 3-point shot is the only efficient way to shoot a jumper. (Refrain from commenting on that for now-I will have that separate essay up sometime soon.)

Additionally, Drew is good at creating shots for himself, but he's a low-percentage shooter, especially for a power forward. Those 14 points he's good for are often coming at the expense of shots by more efficient shooters, such as LeBron James.

Drew gets his numbers out there on the floor, which makes him appear valuable, but as we see when we look at Anderson Varejao, numbers often don't tell the whole story.

Anderson Varejao:

Anderson, referred to affectionately as "Andy" in Cleveland, came over in the trade with Gooden as a 2nd-round pick who had gotten absolutely zero chances to prove himself. With playing time, he quickly became a productive player and fan favorite in Cleveland. As it would happen, while Andy doesn't score or rebound as much as Drew, he is more coveted by NBA GMs, although not for the reasons he is actually more productive than Drew now. In fact, the main reason that general managers want Andy is that he can be productive while still being extremely unskilled.

Andy is 6 foot 11, and an incredible athlete; he can run the floor in the blink of an eye, and has an extremely quick jump. To the naked eye, those are essentially his only skills, but the fact that he is such a blank slate allows NBA brass to imagine about his future in a way they can't imagine Drew's.

  • Anderson might be the worst shooter in the NBA-his eFG% on jump shots was .200 last season. (.500 is good, .400 is acceptable.) Jump shooting is something that can improve with repetition; NBA GMs imagine him being able to shoot a jumper.
  • Andy has little to no back-to-basket game; that, too, can ostensibly be taught.
  • As he showed in the last play in game three of the NBA Finals, he often has no idea what he's doing offensively; of course he can learn how to fit in an offensive set!
  • He struggles mightily to create his own shot, another thing that NBA teams assume players can learn.
  • He has a thin frame-get him some burgers and he's a low-post terror.
My god! In a couple of years, Varejao is going to be the Brazilian Amare Stoudamire! All he needs is a few of those David Thorpe workouts, and he'll be dropping 25-15s in no time! In reality, Andy probably won't show up one fall with a deft handle, sweet stroke, and Duncan-like post game on a bulked-up frame, but when scouts see a raw athlete like Varejao, all they can see is the best possible scenario. By refining his game as much as he can, Drew has destroyed our ability to imagine what he could become, and subsequently hurt his value. (In a related note, this is also why it's never a good idea for potential top-10 picks to stay in college another year-NBA teams expect them to improve after they draft them.)

In reality, Andy probably won't get much better than he is now. But wait! That's not such a bad thing! Why? Because Andy's underrated! (I really hope that this is starting to make sense.)

Many of the valuable things that Andy does aren't considered "skills" by the people who decide which basketball players are good and which aren't; as fate would have it, Drew Gooden is extremely bad at many of those subtle things that Andy excels at.

As with Drew, Andy is an excellent rebounder; just like with Drew, this makes him underrated, especially since he doesn't throw up double-doubles like Drew does.

As I mentioned, Drew has a much more refined offensive game than Andy does; however, the Cavs score 3.5 more points per 100 possessions when Varejao is on the floor, and 1.5 points per 100 possessions less when Drew is on the floor. There are several reasons for this.

First and foremost, neither Anderson or Drew is a very good shooter from the field-Anderson's eFG% is .476, and Drew's is .474. The average "true shooting" % of an NBA team is about 55%, so both of them are bad options to be taking shots on offense. Subsequently, a big reason that Anderson is a better offensive player than Drew is that he shoots the ball less-when he's not shooting, someone like LeBron is shooting, which is a better situation for the Cavaliers.

The other thing that makes Anderson a more effective offensive player than Drew is that he gets to the line about twice as much. Andy's lack of a midrange game forces him to crash the rim often, while Drew's reliance on his midrange shot and finesse game means he doesn't get to the line very much. I believe that we undervalue drawing fouls for the same reason we undervalue drawing walks in baseball; we instinctively judge scorers by their ability to score, much as we judge hitters by their ability to hit. (I believe that the days of disrespecting drawing contact are coming to an end-as Barry Bonds alerted us to the power of the walk, Dwayne Wade is fast acclimating us to the power of the free throw.)

Finally, Anderson's defense is extremely underrated. He doesn't block shots, and he is far too skinny to stop many of the league's larger forwards from shoving him around on the low block. In fact, his man-to-man defense isn't all that good-his opponent PER is actually higher than Drew Gooden's.

However, while Drew is an absolutely abysmal help-side defender, Andy is one of the league's best, despite his inability to block shots. Andy is extremely quick and always active on the defensive end, which allows him to contest shots. Additionally, he is one of the league's best at drawing the charge, which is actually more effective than a block(the offense never gets it back after an offensive foul), and very seldom fouls. For all these reasons, the Cavaliers are much, much better with Varejao on the floor than they are with Gooden.

So, in conclusion, the conventional wisdom is correct; Varejao is much more valuable than Gooden. Deep down, while they may attempt to play dumb, the Cavaliers know that; so does the rest of the league. They're right, but for the wrong reasons.


Karma said...

Good stuff Krolic.

Help defense is a very underated skill. Varejao has excelled in this area in such a short period of time, whilst Drew continues to fail at grasping the idea.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting summary. I agree that Drew may seam like the better player because he can score, but he is so unbelievably bad at just about anything outside the realm of scoring or rebounding that it hurts the team.

I recently re-watched the first quarter from the most recent Lakers visit to Cleveland, and Gooden was hitting his jump shots, but was giving up so many points on defense. Vladimir Radmonovic's streak of sucking ended at the expense of Drew Gooden. Shavlik Randolph looked like an all star at the expense of Drew Gooden.

His intangibles are ridiculously weak. It's as if he plays stoned or something.

I don't agree with all of the points that you made. Overall, I agree with your post. One criticism of Drew that I do not agree with is that he cannot shoot the three. I'm already irritated by his inability to get down low and reliance on the mid ranger shot. Imagine how much more soft he would be if he was camped out beyond the arc. Not a pretty though.

Neither Andy or Drew are perfect, but for my money, I would much rather have Andy at the starting PF spot.

Anonymous said...

Quite long winded. I can sum it up in two sentences. Anderson Varejao is not better than Drew Gooden. Therefore, the Cavs will not pay Varejao more than Gooden, who makes $6.4 million this year.