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The Battle for 3rd string: Fesenko vs. Elson. Round one! Fight!!

Fesenko vs Elson: Round 1! Fight!! [Made by AllThatJazzBasketball]
Fesenko vs Elson: Round 1! Fight!! [Made by AllThatJazzBasketball]

With our roster taking shape and nearly all of our free agent rotation players being signed somewhere, the rumors started to trickle in about a possible Francisco Elson signing. If you follow me on twitter (and God help you if you do), then you know I was in denial about this. Of course, because David Stern hates me, we did reach an agreement with Elson a few days ago. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but, I felt like it was a silly signing due to the yet unresolved issue of our current free agent center Kyrylo Fesenko. The underlying point is that I felt like this was a slap in the face to Fesenko, and his nebulous ‘people’ (Slap in the face . . . kick in the face, whatever . . .). If you care, my initial reaction can be found here. If you simply want a visual representation you can click here instead.

….aaaaaand, because of the restrictive minimum word count clause written in the contract I signed when I swore fealty to Basketball John, there’s a whole bunch more I have to say on the subject. You can click the link below for the rest of it.

In its present form, NBA teams need 13 guys on the roster. This is true. What you do with the players when they sign is entirely up to you (that is, if your name is Jerry Sloan). This guy is a Jazz player, so he will have my support. That said, I don’t know if he’s here to be the 4th string center, or if he’s here to be a rotation player. I have to say that size is a nice thing to have, even if it is for insurance (as an aside, back when he was on the Nuggets they joked that his name was Geico), but the practicality of actually carrying four centers means some guys are going to get the screw job when it comes to minutes. Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Maybe it was because we were too excited all off-season long with all the ups and downs (divorcing Carlos Boozer, losing Wes Matthews, watching Ante Tomic play, getting Raja Bell and Al Jefferson, new uniforms!), but by the time this signing was announced the reaction to it (save for my twitter jihad against Elson) was quite muted. (see: "Meh") It is fair to say that at this stage of the free agency period teams are not going to pick up MVP type players.

I could not agree with myself more after looking at Elson’s career numbers. I started to wonder, why Elson?

Why Elson, indeed.

Elson has been around. He has played for more teams than LeBron James played with during his free agency circus. The immediate premise has to be that Elson is important enough to get because Mehmet Okur’s health and future health are question marks right now. Of course, the Jazz did carry four center types back when Memo was healthy (we don’t have to look too far in the past to find those heady Memo-Jarron-Fes-Kosta salad days); so I think that the real reason is something else.

Elson does not have killer career stats – but sometimes in our previous Jazz regime – our general manager was influenced to sign or trade for guys who have had good games against the Jazz. (Examples off the top of my head are Carlos Boozer, Gordan Giricek and John Amaechi) Is this the case with Elson as well?

According to the stats, no. I do submit that the game is more than just stats; however, few measurements are as empirically sound and quantitatively valid as stats. ‘Cisco has played 22 games against the Jazz in his entire career (all teams, regular season and playoffs). In these game he averages 2 minutes per game less than his career numbers, which is fine. As humble as these stats are, they are much improved in some areas compared to the ‘regular’ Elson. The biggest, most obvious jump is that for his career Elson is a 47.823 fg% shooter. Against the Jazz his value jumps up to 54.098 fg%. His Shooting Worth (the ratio of how many points he scores over how many shots he takes – league average over the last two decades is 1.22) actually gets worse though, because he’s going to the line less than against other teams. The rest of his numbers remain pedestrian, though in 2 less minutes per game he’s blocking .168 more shots per game. So there’s always that. In reality though, Elson’s performance against the Jazz is not the reason why we are interested in him. It has to be something else still.

Perhaps with all of the changing of the guard it was important to bring in a veteran who knew the rigors of the NBA game, as well as the rigors of the Jazz team? Therefore, Elson’s signing would be . . . wait . . . no . . . that was Raja Bell’s deal. Not ‘Cisco’s. To his credit he has bounced around in the league, but he has remained in the league. This next season will be his eighth in the NBA, and he will turn 34 around the All-Star break. Of course, he was a 27 year old NBA rookie, so no one is going to suggest that this cat has much upside.

He has played in 405 regular season games and 30 more in the NBA playoffs. I am impressed by this. Furthermore, Franny averaged 17 minutes per game in 67 games a season in his first three seasons under Denver Nuggets coach George Karl. His final season with the Nuggets, his third, had him averaging nearly 22 mpg. For a point of comparison – Fesenko’s first three seasons he averaged 8 mpg in 26 games per season. Of course, all this really tells us is that George Karl does not run the same substitution patterns as Jerry Sloan. The argument could be made that as an unpolished rookie, Elson wouldn’t have gotten more than Fesenko-esque minutes if he was on the Jazz back then. How true this statement is will never be answered as we don’t have a ‘what if’ machine.

So, Elson plays more than twice as much as Fes. Add this piece of knowledge to the facts that Elson has more experience and the Jazz reached terms with Elson before they agreed to a new contract with their own free agent center. The obvious conclusion must be that Elson is just plain better than Fes.

Gentlemen, stat your engines!

Clearly, within the realm of comparing these two guys in the arena of statistics there can never be a declared winner. There can only be . . . failure.

Fes can’t get off the bench. Fran can’t do anything on the floor. Fes can make his shots and Fran can’t. Fes gets to the line, but can’t make them – and Fran makes his, but doesn’t get there. Elson is the big winner when it comes to rebounds, but he never played with Boozer, Millsap and Memo. Alas, I can’t really take this comparison seriously as one guy has played in 400 games and accomplished nothing in his career as a player (as a team mate he has a ring); while the other guy has "played" in 79 games and his per game averages are a joke. How did things go last season?

Oh, wow. This . . . this is something else. Elson had an injury plagued year that reduced him to play in even fewer games than Kyrylo did! This can never be a selling point when you are a free agent in your mid 30s. While a 5.500 GO Rating is fun to point at and laugh, this is not a fair comparison either. If I can waive off Fesenko’s career per game numbers as being misrepresentative of his actual playing ability, I must also strike last season from the record. (I’m not just trying to fabricate stats to support my opinion, I’m not David Locke after all)

Let us look at the last two regular seasons combined, then.

This could be a fair comparison, as Elson played in 71 games, and Fes in 70. While Elson manages to play nearly 7 more minutes a game, aside from rebounds, he either remains in the same neighborhood as Fesenko in per game production – or severely outclassed by Fesenko in others. At this stage in his career you’d expect all of those 400+ games to have made Elson a better player. Right? That’s not like I’m asking for the moon. I’m not saying that Elson HAS to match Fesenko’s 55.725 fg%, or to have a Chris Mullin like shooting worth. (CM was 1.352 – last two seasons KF was 1.351) I am saying that Elson’s experience should make him better than the absolutely green Fesenko.

It does look bad that Mr. Professional, work ethic having, hard working, journeyman center is at a stage in his career where a completely unpolished slacker, who finally got playoff playing time because of a potentially career ending injury to the guy ahead of him on the depth chart, is producing just about the same thing on the court, but in 7 less minutes per game.

It’s the Catalina Wine Mixer! POW!!

It gets worse for Francisco when you adjust Fesenko’s stats for this time period for 7 extra minutes on the court. But wait . . . there’s more! Elson was still able to weasel a reported (by the new @tribjazz) guaranteed contract from the Jazz. So in addition to coming to a new team, where his direct competition for playing time has been in the system for three years already and is 10 years younger than him, Elson is also coming off a serious injury of his own.

Role Play

It appears like Fesenko will be brought back as well. This is good news, and you can’t understand just how happy I am that Fes will again have two guys ahead of him on the depth chart (Al and Memo), and possibly three (Elson) when he gets in Jerry’s doghouse. A while ago I wrote a piece extolling Fesenko’s virtues, and even back then wrote:

"…I did not just write eight thousand effing words so that we pick up some guy who was a back-up in Denver, instead of the guy we spent 3 years "developing"…" - Amar during this really long post

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. To be honest, whatever speculation we have about Elson/Fesenko, who is the back-up, whether or not they have some sort of Iceman/Maverick rivalry means nothing as the season goes on and we are (hopefully) at full strength.


Why would the Fesenko/Elson dynamic mean nothing this season? Because our bigman rotation is already packed, and there are only 96 minutes to go around at PF and C. Even if you go conservative and give the trio of a recovered Memo and Pal Jeffersap only 30 mins on average each, that leaves only 6 minutes to give to Elson and Fesenko. Which kind of sucks, because I think Fesenko can be a good player, a rotation player even, but needs playing time to get better. He’s not going to get it here this next season.

Whatever he was going to get is going to be even less now that Elson is on the team. Strangely enough, when I started a new ‘my player’ season in NBA 2K10 (with updated rosters from the middle of summer after the draft and after most of the FA dust had settled) Fesenko did not make the team past training camp, but Elson did.