I'm going from memory here, and I may get the details wrong. I read this recently on a post by Joe Posnaski, and his blog has since been shut down—so there's no way to check all the facts. But the gist of it is accurate. Pos quotes Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame coach of the Baltimore Orioles, who says that a secret to his success was that he didn't fill his roster with random ballplayers — guys that hit .260, 11 home runs, 55 RBI's, etc, while playing barely tolerable defense and providing average baserunning and speed. The guys on his roster were put there for specific reasons—this guy for speed, this guy for power, this guy for power and batting average, another for defense, strong arms, etc., etc., etc. You don't win with random players who do a lot of things with astounding mediocrity. You win with guys who do at least one thing spectacularly. Brooks Robinson was a mediocre hitter. But damn, he was sublime at thrid base.
In a similar vein, Bill Simmons poses a question in his Book of Basketball. Would you rather have 1.5 great seasons from Bill Walton, intermixed with 10.5 injury-riddled junk seasons (and then 1 more great, but severely limited season at the end), or would you rather take 13 of 14 healthy seasons from the Admiral, at least 10 of which were really, really good? Simmons says he'd take the season and a half with Walton—because he was so good in that brief stint that he could lead virtually any team, with any supporting cast, to the NBA title. The Admiral was never quite that good.
I still have a scrap of hope. A scrap more than I did at 4:00 Friday afternoon. Because usually when these deals leak, if they're legit, they get finalized and officialized quickly. LeBron's rumored bolt to Miami was confirmed that night. Al to Utah was confirmed that day. So was the Raja deal. The more the rumor floats around, uncertain and unconsummated, the more likely it is to die.
And so there's a little hope. Not much. But it's lingering there like the last bite of cheesecake sitting on the plate.
And why hope? Why does it matter? And what does this have to do with Brooks Robinson? Or Bill Walton?
Well, I've wanted to write about AK for a while now. This may be my last chance. So of course I won't be brief.
I've gotten into more basketball-related arguments about Andrei Kirilenko than any other player. My brother and I have jawed at each other for years now. Here on SLC Dunk, it seems nothing brings out differing opinions like AK. Last week Amar posted three myth-busters: one about how much better Millsap was in the playoffs than Boozer; one about CJ stepping it up like nobody else on the team (even Deron); and the third showing AK was still as good as he was back in 2004. Which post got heated, with SLCDunkers suddenly questioning Amar's methods? Of course it was the one about AK-47.
AK just couldn't win everyone over. His scoring dropped when Boozer and Memo arrived* His blocks have gone down. He never was a great shooter from outside. Once he filled the box score and was a Fantasy Basketball machine. But those days are long gone, too many fans said. Add all that to his huge contract—and the consensus was AK was dragging the team down, limiting their potential.
*Actually, this isn't true. AK still popped in almost 16 ppg AB—after Boozer. It was when Millsap, Brewer, KKorver arrived, when CJ started getting PT — that was when AK's involvement and scoring dropped. Maybe the lesson should be to NOT give a player a max contract and then immediately go out and find 5 guys to cut his playing time and role into just a fraction of what it had been just 2 years prior.
And as Deron turned into Ninja, as Boozer and Memo became All-Stars, as Millsap emerged, as the team made the playoffs again, including their unexpected run to the WC Finals in 2007 ... as all this happened, so many wondered what the team would be like if AK ever transformed into the AK of old. Or we wondered how the team could turn his terrible contract into something nice, like Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett.
But behind all this complaining was a dirty little secret: AK was still the AK of old. Look at his per-36 minute numbers. Really, the only thing that dropped a lot was the number of shots and bocks. But still, he was still the Jazz best shot-blocker, the best ball-hawk, the second best passer, the man-to-man best defender, the best help defender, etc.. He still shot a decent percentage (from 2-point range, his 3's were streaky, but hey, that was the AK of old, too). He didn't foul, he didn't turn the ball over too much.
The question we should have been asking was what would happen if the Jazz gave him a starting position and significant role again?
Well, we saw it last year. 20-4. #1 in Hollinger's power rankings. Routinely destroying high caliber teams at home and on the road. The best basketball we've enjoyed since 1998.
And we saw that AK was the catalyst. We saw the big, crunch-time steals. We saw the hammer dunks. We saw the total disruption-defense. We saw the "holy crap" passes. We saw AK's play turn our brilliant, but moody point guard into a happy guy. We chanted "AK will save us all!"
Here's the simple truth:
If the Jazz can get THAT AK for a whole season, that turns into a 68-14 record.* Out guys turn into the best team in the league. Hollinger's rankings last year showed the 20-4 record wasn't a fluke. If you looked at all the indicators: point differential, home vs. away games, caliber of opponents, etc. — if you look at all those factors, the Jazz still had by far the best team in the league over that time.
*I know there are going to be criticisms to this extrapolation. All teams go on runs, right? The Houston Rockets won 20 straight without Yao—they didn't turn into the best team in the league. The Jazz went on a tear like that after the Kyle Korver trade in 2008. That didn't translate to the best record in the league a year later.
My defense: those teams didn't go on a tear that also launched them to #1 in Hollinger's rankings within 3 weeks. Their point differentials, their home vs. away splits, their strength of schedules—they all revealed teams that were not nearly as good as one might expect just looking at the record during the run.
That wasn't the case with Jazz last year. If you looked at all the little stats, all the little indicators for success, they were there. That's how they went from mediocre to #1 in the rankings in 3 weeks.
And another truth when thinking about KK vs. AK. We never knew if KK was the reason for the Jazz run. He shot poorly after the trade, and was it really Korver's influence or a Jazz sigh of relief after the Giricek fiasco? There wasn't any doubt about AK's contributions and catalyst role last year. We saw it was him. We saw he was the primary difference maker.
But what if AK gets hurt? That's the big argument, right? That's the one thing Diaw has over AK—he's durable.
Well, what if AK gets hurt? Let's say he misses a typical number of games — 15*. So we get AK for 67 games. That gives us a record of 55-12 over those 67 games. Even if the Jazz play less than .500 ball without AK, that's still an overall record of 62-20. You wouldn't take that? You wouldn't be thrilled with that record? You wouldn't love those 67 games with AK enough to put up with the other 15 without?
*That's what AK's missed over the past 5 years—an average of 15 games. High of 24, low of 5. And no, I'm not counting 2005. That was six years ago. It is a complete statistical anomaly that doesn't show what he will likely miss this year. Plus it was a broken wrist—not the chronic back, calf spasms, strains, pains, etc. that have been keeping him out since then. It was a totally different thing. AK's as likely to miss 40+ games with some severe broken bone as any other player on the team. We might as well wonder what happens if Deron breaks his leg and misses 60 games. They're equally likely.
Anyway, If we have a healthy, happy AK-playing-like-he-did-last-year for even 80% of the games — that's a 60-win team. And what if lightning strikes, and we get a whole season from him? Doesn't 65 or more wins sound freaking awesome? That's the healthy, happy, AK-playing-like-last-year guarantee.
But what if it doesn't work? Well, we have four seasons worth of evidence showing us what the team is if it doesn't work. 50-53 wins, hoping for a 3 or 4 seed and home court in the first round.
Is Boris Diaw going to change that?
Is Boris Diaw a player that can single-handedly turn a good team into a 60-win or more great team? If not, what sense is there in trading him for AK? If he can't give the team what AK can, if the team is still a 50-53 win team with or without him, what good is his durability anyway? Isn't rolling the dice with AK the only option that makes any sense? Sure, there's a chance it won't work—but so what if it doesn't? They're still a 50-53 win team? But if it does ... if lightning strikes just this once ...
Well, lightning does strike sometimes. Bill Walton somehow stayed healthy enough for one magical season in 1977. He only played in 65 games, but it was enough. Or should the Blazers have gone with some random center instead, because "what if Bill got hurt again?"
And now back to Earl Weaver and his players who can do at least something great.
Does Boris Diaw do anything great? Anything at all? Or is he more like that .260 hitter jacking up 11 home runs? As far as I can tell, his shooting is fine, his three point shooting is fine, his passing is fine, his rebounding is fine, his defense is meh, his shot blocking and ball hawking are meh. Just a body to to fill in 20 minutes a game.
On the other hand, for all of AK's flaws, can anyone deny that there are some things he is simply great at?
He's a GREAT shot blocker. He's a GREAT help defender. He's a GREAT hustler. He's a GREAT attitude. He's a GREAT transition finisher. He's a GREAT passer. He's got a GREAT basketball IQ. He's a GREAT teammate. He's a GREAT defensive disruptor, deflection generator, and ball hawk.
My one hope now is that KOC and Greg Miller wake up tomorrow morning and realize that the team is a lot better with a guy who is truly great at a few things. That a team with even an 80% AK is more exciting and simply better than a team with a 100% Boris Diaw. That the chance for 60+ wins this year and next is worth AK's enormous contract this year and much smaller one next year.
My one hope is that somehow, after sleeping on it, they realize how unbelievably awful this trade really is.
*Last asterisk. Before this abomination of a trade rumor surfaced, I was planning on writing a piece on AK vs. Melo. I'll just do the gist of it here:
Statistically Melo has had a better free throw percentage than AK. Melo also shoots more.
AK has been superior in overall shooting percentage, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, fouls, and turnovers.
Three point percentage has been equal over their careers.
Anecdotally (i.e. these stats aren't kept, but you can see this stuff just by watching any game) Melo was a superior scorer, with the ability do score from anywhere on the court.
AK is a superior help defender, one-on-one defender, better at getting deflections, gets more hockey assists, does more creative passing, can run team plays better, sets better screens, disrupts more shots, makes more brainy plays, is willing to sacrifice his stats for the good of the team, and has a much, much better attitude.
Add it up, and Melo's a superior scorer and free throw shooter. AK's better at every single other aspect of the game.
Still, virtually anyone would say Melo > AK. Why is scoring that much more valuable? Is it really that much more valuable? Or does it reveal something screwy about us, fans, analysts, etc. when we put so much weight into that one ability and aspect of the game? Or are we getting it right—is scoring really that much more important than everything else? And if so, why?
I can think of no other player that these questions matter as much as they do when talking about Andrei Kirilenko.