Joe-Pinions: Sports

10 Feb 2011 – Some Thoughts on Roster Moves in Sports

Posted in General Sports by txtmstrjoe on 10/02/2011

Some sports fans absolutely LOVE talking and/or thinking about their favorite teams’ roster moves.  Someone on local (Los Angeles) sports talk radio – I think it was Matt “Money” Smith, if I remember correctly – recently suggested that this is largely a consequence of the proliferation of fantasy sports, where fans can act and think like how they imagine their favorite teams’ general managers and personnel people operate.

I think Matt Smith was right on the money with that one.  *Ahem.

I don’t see the point of fantasy sports, and I don’t usually get too interested in thinking about my teams’ rosters too much.  I don’t delve into statistics to track how they are playing (I find most stats to be boring, to be perfectly honest); I’m much more interested in how my team is playing, with a particular focus on trying to understand the tactics and strategies in operation.

That’s not to say that I’m not interested in my teams’ rosters.  Of course I am.  But I tend to look beyond the stats as far as gauging the extent of the players’ contributions to the team’s goals.  Stats can sometimes be misleading, and they often don’t give you a comprehensive-enough perspective anyway.

When it comes to thinking about my team’s rosters, it’s never with the point of view that a player’s stats are the end-all, be-all.  I’ve always thought that statistics are nearly useless if they are just cited without understanding the context in which all those numbers were generated.  And the only way to understand the context of statistics is to watch the games and to understand what it is you’re seeing.

Let’s look at basketball, for example.  For the last couple of years now, Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum has been a favorite subject of many a trade rumor.  Last year, a lot of fans were seduced by the prospect of the Lakers trading Bynum for then-Toronto Raptors leading man Chris Bosh.  The arguments in favor of going ahead with that trade scenario were primarily driven by the statistical facts that Bosh was averaging around 24 points per game and collecting circa 11 rebounds a game; in contrast, Bynum was only scoring 15ppg and grabbing 8.3 rebounds per game.

Because many of my friends are also Lakers fans, I know for a fact that there were plenty of fans who desperately wanted to see this trade go through.  And nearly all of them wanted it to happen because they saw the numbers, and they thought those seven extra points and 2.5 rebounds more per game would only help the Lakers.  I was probably in the minority amongst Lakers fans regarding that Bynum for Bosh trade scenario.

Looking at just the numbers, of course you do the trade, right?  What are you waiting for, Mitch Kupchak (Lakers GM)?  Seal the deal already!

Of course, the Lakers didn’t trade away their young center, even though he did (and still does) have a bit of a history of being injury-prone (though I think this is overstated in arguments regarding whether or not he should be a Laker).  I’m sure that mere statistics aren’t the only reason why they didn’t go through with the trade scenario that many thought was a veritable slam dunk in the Lakers’ favor.

Consider these thoughts on this specific case, though:

  • Andrew Bynum is a true center; Chris Bosh is a power forward.  Although these two players may seem similar because of their heights (Bynum is listed at 7’0″, Bosh at 6’11”), the way they play the game and their roles on the court cannot be more different.  Bynum is a pure low-post offensive player, playing with his back to the basket very effectively; Bosh likes to face up and pop a medium-range jumpshot as well as occasionally cut to the basket.  Defensively speaking, Bynum stays in the paint, clogs the middle and is the last line of defense.  He is expected either to block shots on help defense or to alter them.  Blocked shots and misses are essentially the same thing if your team gets the rebound, and more often than not that’s what happens when Bynum is on the floor (he may not grab the board, but one of his teammates will).  The net result is the same:  The Lakers earn possession.  He is supremely effective in this role, and you’d see this if you watch Lakers games regularly.  When Bynum is on the bench, the other team INSTANTLY attacks the interior fearlessly.  They don’t do that when Bynum is on the floor.  Bynum also plays against the other team’s biggest player.  Bosh, on the other hand, has totally different defensive responsibilities.  Due to his lack of mass, he often doesn’t play in the low post, unless he’s up against a player whose height and weight are similar or inferior to his.  If he were to play against bigger players, there would be no way for him to hold position.  So if Bosh had indeed become a Laker, who would have taken Bynum’s place on defense?  And in terms of offense, adding another tall jumpshooter would not have helped the team much since the Lakers don’t really need yet another player who only took jumpshots (they have Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, all their guards, and even Pau Gasol living off of Js from mid-range to 3-point range).  They need a credible threat at the low block and in the paint on both sides of the ball, and Bynum fills this need much more capably than Bosh ever could.
  • Bosh was the number one banana at Toronto, while Bynum is either option# 3 or 4 for the Lakers.  Translation:  Bosh scores more points per game simply because he got the lion’s share of touches on his old team.  As a center, Bynum only gets touches if his teammates give him the ball and the team systematically runs the offense with him as the focal point.  Of course, this doesn’t happen too often.  Why?  Do you seriously think that Bynum will get more touches as long as both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are his teammates and are both on the floor with him?  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not saying Bynum should get more touches; Bryant and Gasol are the Lakers’ two best offensive players and as such the team should run their offense through them primarily.  The point is this:  Bosh on the Lakers would come nowhere near his 24.0ppg.  I’d wager that he would even score LESS than Bynum’s averages.  Why?  Like most players, he scores better with more touches because he stays in rhythm better.  If Bosh had gone to the Lakers, he would not see anything close to the number of touches as he did in Toronto because he would have become the third option on offense.  Not only would the volume of his shots have gone down, but I’d bet his shooting percentage would have decreased as well (due to a disrupted offensive rhythm from the decrease in touches).  Bynum, on the other other hand, would score more with more touches simply because he operates close to the basket, so he has a higher percentage shot available to him at most times AND he will be fouled many times as a last resort by the opposition.

Numbers, then, don’t tell the whole story.  They never have, and they never will.  Citing stats is only really useful if you demonstrate the hows and the whys behind the numbers.

So how do these thoughts relate to making trades?

First of all, I think all personnel moves have to be considered in the context of the team’s overall strategic goals and philosophies.  This is the macroscopic perspective.  If your team’s philosophy is defined by playing a certain style of offense, you have to acquire players most suited to that style.  For example, the Indianapolis Colts are definitely a pass-first team on offense, so their personnel moves tend to be geared towards acquiring good receivers in the skill positions and good pass blockers for their offensive line.  They also don’t try to get another good quarterback since they have a great one who is also largely bulletproof and healthy already playing for them.  The same is true on defense.  In basketball, the Boston Celtics play a very physical and rugged style of defense.  So what do they do?  They stock up on big thick bodies (Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal) to clog the paint; their guards are quick yet also physical, able to stick to their counterparts as well as bang with them.

Not only should personnel moves be in accordance with your team’s philosophies and strategic goals, they must also do one of two things:  Player acquisitions must either eliminate or shore up a weakness, or they must accentuate and enhance areas of strength.  The best roster moves of all accomplish both of these ideal goals.  This is the more microscopic level of looking at things.  Let’s look at the Los Angeles Lakers closely.  In my opinion, they have two glaring weaknesses right now:  They are getting very little consistent production from their guards on offense as well as getting shredded by the opposing guards on defense.  Also, Ron Artest continues to be completely out of sync on offense.  Of these two, the bigger weakness by far is the atrocious guard play on both sides of the ball.  The Lakers thought they had addressed this weakness by jettisoning the useless Jordan Farmar and with their acquisition of Steve Blake; unfortunately, this is just a band-aid, and not a very good one at that.  They need corrective surgery, not just a patch.  Blake gets into spells of bad decision-making far too often to make him a reliable option and backup to Derek Fisher.  Fisher himself is a big liability now (at least during the regular season):  He’s too slow and gets destroyed by quick guards.  Shannon Brown is maddeningly inconsistent and absolutely unreliable as well.  He may have a penchant for making spectacular plays, but he also makes big mistakes on offense and on defense far too often.  The Lakers’ pathetic guard play on defense is evident even in their best player, Kobe Bryant.  Kobe’s got so many miles in those legs, he simply sacrifices defense in favor of offense.  This is the correct choice, of course, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Lakers sorely need much better defense from their guards.

In terms of their strengths, the Lakers have the most skilled front court in the NBA.  Gasol, Bynum, and Odom are all long and tall and mobile, very good on offense and quite solid on defense most nights.  It is an advantage that few teams, if any, have.  In my opinion, it is hugely illogical to cede this unique advantage by trading away one of these three bigs; actually, it’s downright asinine to even consider breaking up this dimension of the Lakers.

In an ideal world (without egos, salary considerations, and other imperatives of reality), what I would do to improve the Lakers would be to get a better complement of guards and get one more big lively body.  Shannon Brown is too inconsistent, so he’d be gone.  I’d be more patient with Steve Blake, but I want another guard who can defend and shoot a reliable jumpshot in there as well.  Lots of pundits are high on Kirk Hinrich, so I guess that’s one candidate.  Fisher I’d keep, but use him almost exclusively during the playoffs, when the game slows down and his lack of foot speed and his vast leadership and experience are assets.  But the ideal guard is someone like Deron Williams.  As far as getting another big body, I’m intrigued with both Kevin Love and with Marc Gasol.  Pau’s younger brother is physical and is solid on defense and in rebounding; Kevin Love is a rebounding monster (rebounding is like defense, in that effort and attitude and technique go a long way, and Love has all these in truckloads) and can shoot outside.  These guys would complement the team’s core, address the team’s biggest weaknesses and add even more muscle to their strongest attributes.

The absolute worst thing to have happen is for a roster move to totally disrupt your team’s current constitution.  This is the almost inevitable consequence of a trade or a draft choice that most people who only see things in terms of statistics never understand.  You float the idea that Carmelo Anthony could be had for Andrew Bynum, and a lot of (in my opinion, really stupid) fans start drooling because they can only see Anthony’s mind-boggling offensive numbers.  Do they ever think about whether or not Anthony would get the same number of shots if he played alongside Kobe and Pau?  (He won’t.)  Do they ever consider whether or not ‘Melo would thrive in the triangle offense?  (Who knows?  The triangle requires a bit of brain power to run properly, and ‘Melo has never struck me as someone with a high basketball IQ.)  Don’t they understand the impact that trade would have on the Lakers’ defense?  (Of course not.  Nobody thinks about, much less understands, defense, and nobody who isn’t knowledgeable understands Bynum’s impact on this part of the game.)  Do they even think about whether or not ‘Melo would be content to always be in Kobe’s shadow?  (That’s beyond the scope of most fans, I think.)  Can two guys who want to be the alpha dog on the team ever co-exist?  (In most cases, the answer is a resounding no.)

There’s a reason why there are so few Jerry Wests and Scott Piolis and Ron Dennises in sports:  It takes so much brain power, vision (macro- and micro-level both), understanding, wisdom, experience, and foresight to be a good manager.  Fantasy sports may make you think it’s a simple matter of looking at stats; gauging performance in sports in reality is based on far far more than just statistics.  The numbers are just components of a larger, far more intricate puzzle.  This essential truth is 100% true.

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