Super starts from four players cause reconsideration of Athens
Posted: Wednesday November 24, 2004 1:19PM; Updated: Wednesday November 24, 2004 1:19PM
Friday's brawl between Detroit and Indiana is such a huge story that it's turned into an information black hole, preventing any other news about the NBA from escaping.
Which is a shame because there are a number of interesting stories developing around the league that are deserving of your attention. One of the season's most interesting storyline tangentially involves the Detroit Pistons, or at least their coach.
You see, Larry Brown was also the coach of the U.S. team at the Olympics in Athens, where the Yanks came in a disappointing third. If you'll recall, he used a veteran lineup at the games that featured Richard Jefferson and LamarOdom as starting forwards and Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury starting in the backcourt, with Shawn Marion as the key reserve.
Meanwhile, five younger players formed the bench and rarely saw significant action -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Carlos Boozer.
What's interesting about this young NBA season is that four of those five players have become absolute monsters. Stoudemire leads the league in scoring and field-goal percentage, Wade is among the top 10 in scoring and leads the league in free-throw attempts, James is averaging an Oscar Robertson-like 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and Boozer is piling up 22 points and 10 boards and shooting 55 percent a night. In fact, you can make a case that the quarter have been the four of the six or seven best players in the league thus far.
Statistically, they have few peers. I use a system called Player Efficiency Rating (PER) to measure each player's statistical performance on a per-minute basis, ending up with a rating of how many points he's worth to a team if he plays 40 minutes.
Player Efficiency Rating (PER)
Top 10 players in 2004-05 through Sunday
The PER clarifies how Olympian the efforts of those four players have been thus far. Through Sunday, Stoudemire was sitting on top of the league with a rating of 32.10, beating out even last year's MVP, Kevin Garnett. Similarly, Wade has fulfilled Kobe Bryant's greatest dream by taking over from Shaq as his team's primary scoring threat, with his rating of 29.79 ranks third in the NBA. Meanwhile, former Cleveland teammates James and Boozer are also near the top of the board.
Incidentally, one other thing you'll notice in the chart of the top 10 players is that the conventional wisdom that players in the Olympics lose effectiveness the following season is taking a serious beating. Seven of the nine top-rated players played in Athens -- the other three are Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili -- and all except Duncan are vastly exceeding their career norms.
But let's get back to Brown, because it raises an important question, namely this: How could these guys be riding the pine so long in Athens? Right now if a GM offered Odom or Jefferson in a trade for any of these guys he'd get laughed in his face. You'd have trouble getting any of them in a trade for Odom and Jefferson. Yet the two started ahead of James and Boozer/Stoudemire at forward.
Granted, none of the young quartet had played nearly as well in 2003-04. But given that the Olympics were just three months ago, one also must presume that much of their off-season improvement already was well underway when they embarked on their trip to Greece. James, for instance, supposedly was the best player on the court in the team's practices.
The mind conjures up many potential reasons why the fearsome foursome spent most of the Olympics waving a towel on the sidelines, but to me, only two possibilities are realistic:
Olympic basketball could be so different from NBA basketball that it's possible for a dominating superstar in the NBA to not have much value at the Olympic level; or
Brown could have been so wedded to his philosophy of using veteran players that he was blinded to the fact that some of his best players were the young guys.
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Both are problematic for the future of USA Basketball. The first, obviously so, because it makes it tough for the American side to evaluate who to select for the Olympic team if NBA performance is going to be an unreliable indicator. The most glaring example is Tim Duncan, who was the second-best player on the planet before turning into Joel Przybilla in Athens. There is more traction to this theory if you look at the foreign teams -- several players who either were bypassed by the NBA or had already failed at that level nonetheless played extremely well in the Olympics.
Yet the second theory could be the more accurate one. If you look at the numbers for the youngsters in Athens, for instance, it's immediately apparent that Stoudemire, James and Boozer were vastly more productive than their veteran peers. They had the three highest field-goal percentages on the team. James shot a scalding 73 percent and had the team's best per-minute assist rate but somehow couldn't unseat Jefferson. Boozer had the best per-minute rebound rate and shot 60 percent but had to be Odom's caddy. Stoudemire also hit 60 percent despite languishing on the pine, playing just 54 minutes the entire tournament.
Perhaps it's unfair to knock Brown too much for his -- after all, he didn't know Stoudemire was about to turn into Godzilla. Additionally, the differences between the NBA and the Olympics are nothing to sneeze at, with Wade providing the perfect counterexample. As dominant as he's been in the NBA this year, he was awful at the Olympics. He seemed uniquely unsuited to international hoops and led the team in turnovers despite ranking seventh in minutes.
But in retrospect, a starting five that included James and either Boozer or Stoudemire undoubtedly would have been more productive, and that's important for USA Basketball to realize when considering future coaches. The reality is that from now on, Olympic rosters will look much like the one in Athens -- filled with flawed veterans and talented youngsters while the A-List starts stay home.
That means it's imperative for the next coach to be willing to utilize the kids to a much greater extent that Brown did. It's only with the hindsight of seeing the young players turn into MVP candidates just two months later that it becomes completely apparent how costly it was in Athens. So while the rest of the nation ponders basketball brawls, one hopes the Olympic basketball brass is considering how the season's first two weeks inform the debate on the '04 disappointment, and how they can correct that oversight in Beijing.