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Utah Jazz 2010-2011 Season Review: #3 Imperfect Strangers

Francisco Elson is a 35 year old multi-racial Dutch center from the cosmopolitan port city of Rotterdam. He is 7’0 and weighs 235 pounds. Over his eight year NBA career he has played in over 467 regular season games and is a career 47.8 fg% shooter. He helped win a championship ring as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Kyrylo Fesenko is a 24 year old Ukrainian center from the previously labeled closed city of Dnipropetrovsk. He is 7’1 and weighs anywhere between 288 and 300 pounds depending upon which period of his particular glyoxylate and gluconeogeneis cycles he currently is in. Over his four year "career" he has played in 132 regular season games and is a career 49.8 fg% shooter. Since moving to the US for work he’s had like two and five eighths hectares worth of onion rings. At the time of this writing I was not able to get a confirmation on if he tried to write this off on his taxes as a business expense. I do know that his suggestion to his accountant that he should try to write it off as entertainment (he didn’t eat them all, he’s not a pig!) was denied. Per his usual, Kevin O’Connor had "no comment."

These two guys are classic Jazz players in the mold of Frank Layden hosted NBA VHS Videos. The really tall version of The Odd Couple was supposed to battle each other for an injured Mehmet Okur’s lost minutes this season – but instead battled their own injuries, airport customs, and prejudice to come together and become the best two-man beach volleyball team in the Mountain Time Zone! and random benchings over the course of this season. These two guys started last summer as free agents, and after a whole year of changes within the franchise, are starting from scratch all over again. As no major network will pick up my proposed reality tv show featuring them this may be the end of the Fesranco Kyrylson era of Jazz basketball. Let’s take a look at these imperfect strangers.

Setting the record straight:

I make no bones about it, I remain a "Fesenko Guy" as much as anyone could possibly be in this day and age. To be clear, all I ever wanted was for Fesenko to get 12-16 minutes of play per game this season (maybe more if the other team has a big guy we need to match up with), I never wanted him to start, I just wanted him to get a chance to get better by playing more. For those keeping score at home, he only played 8.6 mpg last year, up from 8.3 the season before. Last off-season I wrote over eight thousand words on him. It would be an understatement to say I wasn’t happy about the Jazz signing playing time competition for the big lug a few days later. I, naturally, had to write about that too. I felt like the beginning of the season was a "Fesenko vs. Elson" zero-sum type of game. Only one would emerge victorious. And for a set of valid, but possibly illogical, reasons I wanted Fesenko to come out the victor.

Over the course of the season I recognized the folly of that system. It should never have had been "Fesenko vs. Elson", but instead "Fesenko and Elson". Watching them complement one another as members of The S.W.A.R.M. showed me the error of my ways. Elson was the veteran, refined and full of tricks. He played hard and played with an abject roughness or toughness that one would have to develop to stand out in an urban port city. (Yes, we all missed out on the "Francisco Elson is a Pirate" Meme.) He was always trying to hit people out there, and he would space the floor with his confident midrange shooting. Fesenko was the perpetual small town kid, deferential on the court on offense, yet undeniably proficient despite his maddening inconsistency. When he’s not over-thinking things (hard to believe) he is a natural basketball player. Not just a tall guy forced into a job he doesn’t love. They somehow made it work.

Better than that, they made it work together. In the Miami Heat road game, about an eternity ago now, we came back from a huge deficit to send the game to overtime and eventually prevailed. Paul Millsap was truly the hero of that game. But in the fourth quarter and for overtime the solid defensive contributions of Fesenko in the zone defense helped give Millsap a chance to win it. Even more selfless was how Fesenko, after the Jazz had the lead with the game on the line, implored then Head Coach Jerry Sloan to substitute in Francisco for him because he was a much better free throw shooter. Elson went into the game, got fouled, and made all his freebies. And we won.

Still peeved at his signing, I had to give Elson props for finishing the game and for being a solid bench contributor. As the season progressed, and The S.W.A.R.M. kept us in games I grew to accept him, cheer for him, and after Moni’s video, I grew to love him like I do all of our players.

The Short and Long of The S.W.A.R.M.

This was a bench lineup that was comprised of the odds and ends General Manager Kevin O’Connor managed to get, and cobbled together by Hall of Fame Coach Jerry Sloan. Beyond logic, a five man unit of Earl Watson, Ronnie Price, C.J. Miles, Francisco Elson, and Kyrylo Fesenko actually closed the gap that our starters would fall (oh so) far behind by. According to the data from this version of The S.W.A.R.M. (remember there was another one that had Gordon Hayward in there instead of C.J. Miles) was the 15th most used lineup by our coaches last season. Despite being used less and less as the season progressed (because of C.J.’s promotion to starter, and the various injuries that hurt Ronnie, Francisco, and Kyrylo’s seasons) , they were one of the most effective units on the team. How effective? Well, these guys were actually our best defensive unit, in terms of opponents’ points per possession (PPP). They were so stingy that other teams only managed a paltry 0.85 ppp. The Jazz as a team were ranked 26th, and gave up 0.93 ppp. As a frame of reference, the Boston Celtics had the best overall mark in the entire league, allowing only 0.84 ppp according to the data presented by the good people over at SynergySports.

Surprisingly, this unit was also the 5th best in terms of offensive production, working hard enough to muster 1.17 ppp despite being, you know, a lineup of Earl Watson, Ronnie Price, C.J. Miles, Francisco Elson, and Kyrylo Fesenko. The Jazz as a team were 11th best in the league with a mark of 0.95 ppp. Clearly this group of guys was greater than the sum of their collective parts. Of course, it’s not like these guys played together for 30 minutes a night, but they did captivate the hearts of the fans. And this is a fan blog, so there ya go.

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Despite the small sample size, and the point that they faced off against other 2nd units, this groups’ collective grit cannot be overlooked. They managed a +10% Net Turnover ratio and were 4th best on the team In +/-, finishing at +20.’s powerful and equally mysterious StatsCube suggests that The S.W.A.R.M. was our 7th most used lineup (by Min Rank which isn’t explained) – but one of the best as well. These guys earn a NetRtg (difference between OffRtg and DefRtg, obviously) of 34.68 which is also 7th best out of all of our lineups, but each of the groups that have a better NetRtg have played nowhere near as many minutes together as a group. Aside from causing turnovers this group was actually one of the few Jazz lineups that held their own on the glass (and then some): gives them a rebounding percentage of 59.5%, while says they hauled in 61.5% of the available boards when they were on the floor. The team average for the season was under .500 – so this is part of what made The S.W.A.R.M. worthwhile.

Naturally, a big part of that rebounding percentage falls on the shoulders of Elson and Fesenko. However, the overlying opinion of the casual fan suggests that our bench sucks and a big part of the reason is that our bench bigs sucked. The S.W.A.R.M. was a nice gimmick, but even a double PG / double C lineup couldn’t hide our bench. Right? Fes and Frank sucked right? Or maybe their average production was overlooked because we’re used to guys like Paul Millsap and Antoine Carr coming off the bench and being major contributors?

Perception vs. Reality . . . or . . . "Just how bad these two bums sucked."

The first trick to being happy in life is to recognize what you actually have. With Fesenko and Elson, after all, you do have something. What that thing is, mind you, isn’t an All-Star Center. Mark Eaton is the most beloved center in franchise history. He was a one time All-Star. He was great at blocking shots, but in 875 games, and at 7’4 playing with John Stockton, he managed 6 ppg off of 45.7 fg% and 8 rpg. He also fouled four times a game and we lost a playoff series (or two) because by the end of his career he was useless on offense and other coaches exploited him by playing a guy like Sam Perkins against him. He was really awful on offense, but historical revisionism and homerism prevent anyone from admitting that he kinda sucked.

Mehmet Okur, also another one time All-Star, has managed to give the Jazz 16 ppg (+10 more than Mark, and at a better eFG% to boot!) and 8 rpg in his time as a Jazz man. However, since he doesn’t block 4 shots a game he also sucks according to some people. It really does surprise me that a lot of Jazz fans think Mark is better than Memo for some reason; how many game winning threes has Mark made? We know that Memo has at least one game winning block.

Moving beyond Memo (who sucks because he’s not Mark), we get to Greg Ostertag. Greg Ostertag did block a whole mess of shots, 2 a game, but that was only half of what Mark brought to the table sent away from the table. He scored 5 ppg (1 less than mark, but unlike anyone else mentioned, the only guy to even sniff shooting 50 fg%), and brought home 6 rpg. Thus, he also sucks. At least with Greg, unlike Mark and Memo, fans agree that Greg sucked. He was not an All-Star, but he was still, somehow, a starter.

If you just look at the per game statistics it’s hard to be happy with Fesenko and Elson in comparison. They don’t block four shots a game. They don’t score 16 points a game. They don’t shoot 50% a game. What bums! But that’s only if you attempt to compare them to guys who start and play 20+ mpg. Francisco averaged 2.2 ppg (47.8 fg%) and 1.9 rpg. But he only played 9.8 mpg. Kyrylo averaged 2.0 ppg (44.0 fg%) and 2.0 rpg. But he only played 8.6 mpg. It’s easy for your per game averages to suck if you play less than 10 minutes a game.

And there’s a very good reason for playing low minutes – both of these guys are third string centers. Thus, comparing them to two former All-Stars and a starting center on a two-time Western Conference Champion team is pretty flawed. You are setting yourself up to be upset and be resigned to wildly suggesting that they are the worst players ever. Maybe they are bad players? After all, depending on who you ask, each of our top centers in the last 25 years have sucked. These guys must suck too.

If you can get over that, and recognize what we have here aren’t All-Stars, or even Starters, then you can begin to understand that maybe . . . just maybe . . . these guys don’t suck. They are actually very average.

Apples to Apples . . . 3rd string centers to 3rd string centers.

There are about forty guys who played in the NBA last year who provide the same amount of talent as Elson and Fesenko do. These bench guys, perhaps you’d call them the Fugly Forty, need to be compared in order to see if our guys are actually bad players, or if they are actually average.

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This is sorted alphabetically, and here you can see some of the qualities and problems associated with each of them. The Bolded Red values are the top 5 (inc ties) values for each section. The Blue celled values are the better deals / younger players. That said, this isn’t the main apples to apples comparison. Each guy plays a different number of minutes per game, and a true apples-to-apples would be to increase or reduce each of their stats to what they would get if they played 12 minutes a game. There was a lot of excel involved, and if you are nuts feel free to take a peek. Instead I’ve put all of the important stuff in the following images.

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Fes’ values are in the blue background cells (because he’s from the Ukraine), and Fran’s values are in the orange ones (duh, because he’s Dutch). The sequence of green background cells display the range of values that show one standard deviation below and above the mean. As a result we can see if our dudes are ‘average’, or not. According to ordinal ranks our guys appear to be below average (in the 21-40 group more than the 1-20 group) on offense. I don’t think this is much of a surprise. Their adjusted GO Ratings (changed the formulas because of the 12 min max issue – regular Go Rating is a projection if you play 33.6 mins – starters minutes) are abysmal. But we already knew that because normal Go Ratings are similarly poor. I’m find with these two guys not taking a lot of shots, they know they aren’t good and are smart enough to let other guys shoot. Kosta has a points per shot value that’s about as bad as Fes’, but The Koof is the 4th most frequent shooter out of these 40 guys! Glad to see Morris Almond rubbed off on him.

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Defense is something else entirely. Our guys seem to be pretty good at everything here, except for blocking shots compared to their peers. And yes, I put assists here too, sorry. I guess my desire for an equal number of cells for both of these images makes me a bad guy. Fesenko is more than one standard deviation above the mean when it comes to defensive points per possession and personal fouls. He’s more than one standard deviation below the mean when it comes to getting steals. He’s a big boy and he does foul a lot. If he played half the game (24 minutes) at this rate, he’d have close to 5 fouls at the end of it. Some people posit that it’s his penchant for fouling that prevents him from getting more playing time. If you look at the play-by-play of his games though, he only very rarely picks up 2 fouls in the first quarter, and even rarer is the game where he picks up 3 fouls in the first half. Fouls are a bad thing. But if you are a 3rd string center who is 7’1 and 300 pounds I think it would be a bad thing if you didn’t throw your weight around. Am I wrong about this? If buddy is only going to play less than 10 minutes in a game, let him intimidate the other team with fouls. You know Kobe Bryant was afraid of Big Kitty Cat Teddy Bear.

Aside from not being a bunch of shot blockers, or Fes’ fouling addiction, I think it’s safe to say Fran and Fes were better on defense than they were on offense.

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Against the ‘average’ member of this Fugly Forty I think our two guys stack up almost as averagely (is that even a word?) as can be. Fesenko is way worse on offense, yet still within one standard deviation on most everything. I guess maybe they don’t suck when compared to the right group of players.

One thing is certain though, they are cheaper than average – which is almost the main selling point when you are filling out your rosters’ 13th and 14th men.

Evolving Relationship

At the beginning I was really against Francisco, and I was wrong. The Fesenko vs. Elson idea was dumb, even though our coaches probably would have wanting more competition between the two. The Fesenko and Elson halcyon days of The S.W.A.R.M. was fun. Our team was winning, and these two guys were working well together. Since the trade brought in Derrick Favors, and since all of his extended time off should have fully healed Mehmet Okur, I think the writing on the wall exists for this tandem. The Jazz will probably pick one or the other for next season. And these two imperfect strangers will become true strangers again. The small town boy from the Soviet Union and the hip, liberal guy from a sophisticated free town may have to say their goodbyes.

This isn’t the post for this, but I think both guys have legit reasons to think they’ll be coming back next season. Fesenko is huge, young, finishes well around the basket, and was one of the best defenders (for all players, for all positions) according to opponent’s points per possession. He was also great in opponents PER. He could be that big dude we use against other big dudes as a bench guy to block shots and foul people hard. His list of guys blocked this season alone includes Andrew Bynum, Blake Griffin, and LeBron James (the last two were on dunk attempts). He comes dirt cheap – or at least did this past season at $1.08 for a guy who can clog up the paint.

Elson isn’t known to be as funny in interviews, but he’s a smart guy. He should be, he’s an 8 year vet who is going to be 36 years old by the time next seasons’ playoffs start. (And our team plans to be there) He does not usually make mistakes and he has good hands and can take and make uncontested jumpers. He’s money at the free throw line as well. He plays with the toughness that we’d want from Fesenko. The injuries he has sustained over his career are more serious injuries than all the dumb stuff Fes misses games for. However, no one is going to mistake Fesenko for an iron man. At times Elson does play like he is made out of iron at least.

Both guys are special, and have something to offer any team – even if it’s as a 3rd string center. There isn’t going to be a lot of minutes to go around next season if everyone is healthy. We may be saying goodbye to one if not both of these guys. And for as long as I’ll be a basketball fan, I will think of these two fondly – another one of the 10 or 11 things I’ll remember about this season.