Monday, April 13, 2009

Searching for that PPF: Perfect Power Forward

Karl Malone back in '92 When you think of the Utah Jazz, you think of two things: Stockton and Malone. Right now the Jazz have a pretty good point guard in Deron Williams (career playoff averages of 20.2 ppg (46.8 fg%, 41.6 3pt%), 4.0 rpg, 9.2 apg, 1.14 spg – which aren’t too shabby). As for the Malone half of the equation, that remains to be filled despite a variety of candidates. This season’ relative lack of stability due to injuries has only magnified the problem. Unless Fesenko and Koufos turn into Shaq and Dirk over night the Jazz main players to set picks (to later be rolled or popped, as the situation calls for) for the remainder of this season (and beyond) are Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Paul Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko. I’m sure a number of playoff teams wouldn’t mind having those four guys on their roster – though each of them cannot fully duplicate what Malone could do, and sadly, even if they all where combined Malone still surpasses them all. Malone was a better, more efficient scorer inside and out than Boozer. Malone was much more consistent than Okur (and pretty clutch too, though everyone only remembers the game winners he didn’t make). Malone had the respect of the refs, unlike Paul Millsap. And while Vintage AK was a defensive beast, Malone will be remembered as one of the most solid man defenders in the paint – frequently shutting down the Admiral, while hanging 30 on him on the other side. What’s worse, is that Malone did it all in under 40 minutes, but these four guys all need more playing time than they are already getting.

And none of them are the Perfect Power Forward (PPF) – and most likely, will never be. For starters, two of them shouldn’t even be in the discussion – while he may be better served as a PF playing with a big, banging center, Okur is the center of the present for the Jazz; similarly, AK on the wing makes more sense than inside with the roster that the Jazz sport today, unless you want to start trying to guard Kobe with Matt Harpring and Morris Almond. This leaves Paul Millsap and Carlos Boozer. Or Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap. Either way, you can’t rearrange the letters to spell Karl Malone.

But do the Jazz need for lightning to strike twice? How important is it to have a Malone-clone on the team? Maybe the Jazz need to do with the power forward spot what they did with the point guard spot: not necessarily an upgrade, but an update for how the game (especially the rules of the game) have changed in the last decade. The NBA has moved to a guard oriented league even more than it used to be when decided to prevent people from actually defending guys with the ball who drive and shoot. It was thusly important for Utah to get a point guard who would frequently know when to turn off the natural point guard, ball distribution instincts, and turn on their shooting instincts. I think it’s pretty safe to say the Jazz have that now with D-Will (again, career playoff averages of over 20.2 ppg, while John’s is only 13.4 ppg.). [Btw, in the 1988-1989 NBA Playoffs John Stockton AVERAGED 27.3 ppg (50.8 fg%, 75.0 3pt%, 90.5 ft%), 3.3 apg, 3.67 spg, 1.67 bpg, 3.73:1 assist:turn over ratio and 13.7 apg – eat that Two Time MVP Steve Nash!]

Two 6'11 PFs do battle So, what would a power forward update look like? I think the largest point is that the size of the players have changed significantly over time. It’s not unlikely to see 6’8 shooting guards on teams, Malone was considered short for his day and he was 6’9. Boozer is generously listed at that height and Millsap is actually an inch shorter. Taller guys have longer arms (usually, unless you are 6’7 Ronnie Brewer with a 6’11 wingspan) and get their shots blocked less often. I think that Memo has the right height for a PF today, 6’11. The guy has to be a solid interior defender who is strong on the glass and changes shots. Very few power forwards score over 20 ppg any more, so it’s not that necessary to be a great scorer, but the player must have range to 20 feet and be able to knock down what few FTA they get. Essentially I’ve described what KG is, or what Portland Fans hope LaMarcus Aldridge will one day become. (or basically what Rasheed Wallace should have become by now)

Both Boozer and Millsap have good post games, and display the ability to hit the 15+ foot jumper. I wouldn’t call either money from 20 feet though. Both have also gone through spells where they can’t buy a made free throw. ‘Sap really would need to improve on that if he wants to start in this league and play inside. Millsap has the frame and motor of a first class energy guy, when he has to play against taller guys (like KG or Kendrick Perkins) you see him shooting jumpers more often than going inside because he’s just flat out smaller than those two. While Millsap fades on his shots against big guys, Boozer fades out of the picture almost completely (unless he’s being defended by Yao Ming). It would appear that the PPF for the Jazz may not even be on the roster radar right now. Both current players are great on the glass (especially the offensive glass), but have their failings on defense. Boozer can be a good defender and even a shot blocker (look at his Cleveland days), but he currently is not. Millsap excited fans early in his career with his gritty defense and weakside shot blocking. He’s amazing, but I wouldn’t wish to rely on him to guard centers (like this Bynum guy Lakers fans keep telling us about) for the long run – like how Malone could defend David Robinson and Shaq in the paint. The height difference is quite pronounced when ‘Sap is checking a guy 5 inches taller than him – I first saw this in the Rookie/Soph game where he and Bynum were matched up against each other. Bynum was just bigger than him all around and caused him problems on offense and defense. Defensive switches are a big part of the NBA game, and a size upgrade wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Of course, reality sets in and how many 6’11 KG types are there in the NBA, and how many of them are available for the Jazz to pick up? NBA draft websites continuously extol the virtues of kids I’ve never heard of who are all string beans of height and oozing with potential – but Kris Humphries had potential too, you know. I wouldn’t mind going to war again next season with Boozer, Millsap, Memo and AK at the four (if it somehow made financial sense) over having to rely on some 19 year old kid who has the potential to be the next Chris Webber or something. It just wouldn’t be going to war with the PPF though – and for as long as we rely on our current offensive playbook, and expect to defend guys in the paint without doubling, then the desire for a Malone-clone will continue to persist in the minds of Utah Jazz fans and coaches alike.