So, I've entirely forgotten about this blog, which is really stupid because it's not like I talk/think about sports any less these days. So I'm going to try to start posting again. Today's topic: LeBron, Jordan, skills, and supporting casts. My thesis: Jordan's supporting cast has gradually become overrated, and it didn't do much to aid the development of his skills; on the other hand, the weakness of LeBron's supporting cast in Cleveland actually made him a more efficient scorer, while in Miami, the relative strength of his team will encourage his bad habits.
I don't like LeBron. This has nothing to do with his Decision. Well, OK, it has a little bit to do with that. But anyone who knows me knows that I've disliked his game for a long time. In a nutshell, I find it incredibly aesthetically unappealing, and I think it relies on two things I don't much care for: 1) his unique combo of speed, size, and strength - basically, his raw physical assets, and 2) the fact that fouls are called very differently these days than they were in the past. In an effort to increase scoring (ignoring the fact that free throws contests are boring), the NBA has throughout the years ordered officials to call more and more ticky tack fouls - fouls for incidental contact that don't even slightly impact the offensive team. That means that when someone like LeBron goes charging down the lane, the slightest touch will result in a foul call. Of course, if he initiates the contact and the defender is his holding his ground, it should be a foul on LeBron, but refs never call him for offensive fouls. So when LeBron is driving, he scores pretty efficiently since whenever there's contact, he has the muscle to get through and finish, and he gets free throws to boot.
That's fine - I can't really hate a guy for taking advantage of what he has and finding ways to score. But I reserve the right to find it really unappealing to watch. There's not a ton of skill involved in this kind of play.
My bigger issue with LeBron, though, is his utter lack of a mid-range game, and his insistence on jacking up threes early in the shot clock. It's one thing to score efficiently but unappealingly; but it's even worse to not do that when you can do it pretty much at will. At this point, it's clear that he's just not a good shooter, and he doesn't seem to be developing any kind of mid-range skills. So why doesn't he just drive on every possession?
I've heard the argument that LeBron's output is already stellar despite his lack of a supporting cast, and that the lack of shooters around him forced him to take jumpers, but I don't buy it. If anything, his lack of a supporting cast forced him to drive more often, not to take jumpers more often. When people put the ball in your hands and expect you to do something, that encourages taking it to the hole. But despite that, he still took far too many threes per game.
Now that LeBron has taken his talents to South Beach, where he's got another great scorer on the wing in Wade and a floor spacing big in Bosh, people expect LeBron to excel. I see the opposite happening so far, and it makes sense to me. LeBron is a passive player. He has never wanted to wear the crown. He doesn't have the fire. He doesn't have the drive to be great. He'd rather sit back and let someone else do the work while he jacks up jumpers. The fact that he had to be the man in Cleveland forced him to take it to the hole more than he otherwise would have wanted to. Now that he's in Miami, where the scoring onus is more balanced, he can sit back and jack up more jumpers - and indeed, that's what he's doing. It's admittedly a small sample size, but he's taking significantly jumpers now than he ever did in Cleveland. And his shot selection is as bad as ever. He's shooting 29% from 3pt range. His eFG% on jumpers is just 41.5% (for comparison: Kobe's is 43.6%, Carmelo's is 44.0%, Durant's is 44.1%). I don't expect these numbers to get a whole lot better, despite a supporting cast that is at least solid. This actually arguably makes LeBron part of Wade's supporting cast.
I'm not sure why, after seven years in the league, LeBron hasn't realized that he's not a good shooter, and I'm not sure why he hasn't figured out a way to score from midrange. The argument has been made that Jordan's supporting cast helped him develop his offensive skills. Certainly they helped him win titles. But did they actually make him a better player? I don't buy the argument that they contributed much to his development. For one thing, Jordan shot 52% - an unheard of number for a guard - in his rookie season, and he continued shooting well above 50% for a number of years before the Bulls won their first title. And those early Bulls teams were not good. In '87, he averaged 37 PPG - 37! - and no one else on the team averaged more than 14.5. The next season, he averaged 35 while no teammate averaged more than 13. Jordan was doing this all alone, right away, from age 21. LeBron, at almost 26, still hasn't figured it out yet.
The Bulls obviously eventually became a better team, as guys like Pippen and Horace Grant matured. But even later on, how good were the Bulls? Many point to the fact that the '93-94 Bulls won 55 games without Jordan and then took the Knicks to a 7th game before losing (and may well have won the series if not for that generous foul call on Hubert Davis' 3 attempt) as evidence that his supporting cast was actually an excellent squad in its own right. But further analysis shows that that team was overrated; their Pythag expected win/loss record was only 50-32, and two rounds of playoffs are of course too small a sample to draw any real conclusion from. The team was pretty good, but mediocre at best on the offensive end; it found success by playing at a plodding pace with stout D. Simple rating system (SRS) and Pythag both place that year's Bulls team as roughly the 11th best team in the league. Obviously still quite good, but not nearly as good as is suggested by those who argue that they should have beaten the Knicks and could have beaten the Pacers and thus that they really were one of the top three or four teams in the league that year. The '94 Chicago team was certainly better than anything LeBron had in Cleveland, but even at its peak, MJ's supporting cast wasn't about to win anything on its own. It's revisionist history to suggest that the Bulls sans MJ were still excellent. And in any case, again, Jordan developed and excelled well before the likes of Pippen and Grant were any good. Those late 80s Bulls teams WERE pretty close to the standard of the Cavs of the LeBron era. That didn't stop Jordan from taking over the league.
Anyway, this is a long and rambly post, but my points are: 1) Jordan put up seasons with an invisible starting cast that LeBron has yet to dream of, 2) Jordan developed unbeatable skills before he had a decent team around him, 3) the weakness of LeBron's supporting cast in Cleveland actually encouraged better habits from him, 4) LeBron failed to learn much of anything over his first 7 years in the league and seems to be taking steps backwards in terms of efficiency this season, and 5) LeBron might be the most amazing physical specimen the league has ever seen, but his raw talents should make him by far the best in the league, and he's not, because he's both lazy/unmotivated and not a smart player.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Posted by Curry at 3:40 PM
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
We're past the halfway point of the season and the final third is well underway. We're 6 1/2 out of the division lead but in second place with a number of games against the Phillies left on the slate. We're only 3 1/2 back in the Wild Card. The Braves have championship caliber pitching. In fact, staff "ace" Derek Lowe is probably the worst of the bunch. Our offense is starting to come around now that Frenchy is gone, Anderson is finally healthy and hitting, McClouth has replaced Schafer and Prado has emerged to provide the production everyone thought Kelly Johnson was capable of providing. It certainly seems like a deal similar to the deal for Teixeira would be the prudent move right now. Add that big bat to complete the lineup and finally pair a first-class offense with our first class pitching and, bam! Playoffs!
Luckily, it looks like Frank Wren and Bobby Cox are content with the team at hand. Yes, it is possible that a big bat could put the Braves over the top, but the playoffs would still seem unlikely. The Phillies have a big lead and there are a lot of teams to leapfrog for the Wild Card. Meanwhile, the Braves don't want to disrupt a suddenly formidible lineup by moving too many pieces in a trade. McClouth and Escobar are the most attractive pieces to other teams, but there's no way McClouth leaves with the contract he has. And, despite the fact that Escobar has some attitude problems, there aren't many young, cheap shortstops out there who can do all the things Escobar can do. The market is small for line-drive hitting first basemen like Kotchman and the Braves would have to get a first baseman in return. The rumor mill had Vazquez as a possible trading piece with Tim Hudson on the way, but the Braves have no clue how Hudson will fare after his surgery and Vazquez value will likely still be high at the end of the season when the Braves have a chance to see if it's worth picking up Hudson's option for the following season. Then they could choose to move either Hudson or Vazquez to fill other positions or even possibly keep them both, depending on how the rest of the rotation shakes out.
Also, the list of big bats available is headlined by Holiday who will be a Boras represented free agent after next year and oh so clearly benefited from the Coors Field Factor as his numbers in an A's uniform prove. Holiday is not a difference maker. In fact, I'd take Prado over Holiday any day of the week.
Why not just sit tight? Instead of paying an inflated price for a name-brand, why not just sit tight and hope the next wave of Baby Braves prove to have a few more successes than their predecessors. Frenchy, McCann, LaRoche, and Johnson were supposed to be cornerstones. Instead, only McCann has met expectations. Tommy Hanson has been just as advertised so far, but Freddy Freeman and Jason Heyward are only a year or two away. A Yankees scout said he would trade anyone in his organization to land the long-ball hitting Heyward. While that's probably an exaggeration, it shows how much talent Heyward has. To put things in perspective, Heyward is more highly regarded than Francoeur in 2005 by far. And Freeman is not too far behind. And don't forget about Schafer, who was probably rushed to the majors too soon and suffered a setback with his wrist after being demoted. An outfield with McClouth, Schafer, and Heyward with Freeman at first base may not be too far around the corner. As long as those players live up to their potential, the big bats the Braves want will be arriving soon enough . . . from within the organization.
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Well, we're getting closer to the halfway point in the season, so it's time to take a look at where the Braves stand. Before the season started, I made a list of questions that the Braves needed to answer in order to be successful. Not surprisingly, it seems like about half of those questions have been answered for the better and the other half . . . well, not so good.
First, the good news. The starting pitching staff has come together and is arguably the best in the NL East. Actually, I think it is definitely the best in the NL East, especially now that Kawakami has settled down. The numbers are a little skewed due to the 3 starts awarded to Jo-Jo Reyes, who's value as a prospect has plummeted, but now that Tommy Hanson (who is projected to become a number one starter) is filling the 5th spot in the rotation, the Braves can trot out a rotation whose 5th option may have the most talent of all. Javy Vazquez has enjoyed his return to the NL and is pitching to his talent level. Lowe has been a rock. Jurrjens has taken his pitching to the next level. Kawakami started slow, but has a sub 3.50 ERA over his last 7 starts. And even though Hanson's debut didn't go as planned, he showed during the first three perfect innings exactly what he is capable of. The starters have been good and, as Hanson adjusts to the majors, they have more upside than any starting staff the Braves have assembled in a long, long time.
Now the bad. The offense . . . and by the offense I mean Francoeur. McCann has been his usual self after he got that vision thing cleared up. Chipper has come alive, even if he misses a few games here and there. Escobar has been solid. Kelly Johnson hasn't improved like I had hoped, but the Braves were never counting on him. Francoeur, however, hasn't provided any power and his deplorable slugging and on-base percentages are making an offense that was already lacking for power truly horrible. The McClouth trade is a step in the right direction as it gives the Braves a true leadoff hitter, a true stolen base threat, and allows Johnson to hit lower in the order where he's more comfortable (more about this trade later). However, unless Garrett Anderson suddenly sheds five years, the Braves have far too little power to afford to have an automatic out machine like Francoeur in the lineup. The Braves' brass has given Francoeur plenty of time to show he can adjust. It's clear now that he will never be the player the Braves (and everyone else, for that matter) thought he would be. It's time to trade him while he still has a shred of value and look for other ways to fill the void in outfield production.
As for the McClouth trade, it was a masterstroke by Frank Wren. Yes, a masterstroke. The only prospect with any real potential that the Braves gave up was Gorkys Hernandez, a super-speedster who has the potential to hit for average and steel bases. Charlie Morton and Locke are fifth/fourth starters at best. The Braves already have guys who can fill those roles if need be in Jeff Bennett, Jorge Campillo (when he comes off the DL) and now, rookie and future number 3 starter Kris Medlen. Hernandez might be good one day, but his absolute ceiling would be a Jose Reyes type player with less power. Yeah, that'd be great, but it's unlikely he ever becomes that good and I'd rather take a proven commidity like McClouth who hits for a little power, is an excellent base stealer and will be under contract for a reasonable amount for four full years. Now Schafer can take his time to develop. When he comes up, he or McClouth can move to one of the corner outfield slots, giving the Braves extremely good defense in the outfield, and the Braves will have two speedsters with power potential. If you recall, Hernandez came over with Jurrjens from the Tigers in the Edgar Renteria trade. That means that Wren has turned Edgar Renteria, a SS who is quickly fading, into a potential All-Star pitcher in Jurrjens and an All-Star centerfielder in McClouth who both will be with the Braves for relatively cheap for at least the next three years. Oh yeah, and it allowed Escobar, who is in so many ways a Renteria clone, at least at the plate, to blossom. So yeah, I'd say the Renteria deal has been a resounding success for the Braves so far.
Monday, April 13, 2009
It's been a great start to the season for the Braves, so far. Does quantity equal quality in terms of the starting pitching? The answer so far has been a resounding yes as Braves' starters lead the majors in ERA through the first week. Obviously, the staff won't sustain this level of success for the whole season, but at the very least it looks like Jurrjens, Lowe, Vasquez and Kawakami are all capable of eating up some innings and notching many quality starts along the way. Can the offense generate enough runs? So far, so good. Kelly Johnson has been on fire, Escobar has been on fire, Chipper's always on fire, McCann is playing like he wants to win an MVP, the bottom of the order is producing (Jordan Schafer, welcome to the bigs!). The two remaining question marks right now are the bullpen, which seems to be in limbo, and Frenchy. Read on after the jump . . .
What to make of the bullpen?
The bullpen has either been brilliant or horrible, depending on which game you look at. The Braves should easily be 6-0 right now if it weren't for an epic 7th inning bullpen meltdown in which the pen allowed 7 runs in one inning to the Phillies (four runs the restult of bases-loaded walks or hit-batsmen), to open the door for a miraculous comback. On the other hand, the bullpen has looked great in other stretches (such as the game prior to the 7th inning meltdown when the pen combined for 4 scoreless innings). In my mind, the pen is simply in limbo. Two years ago, Soriano, with the exception of a horrible three week stretch when he couldn't keep the ball in the park, clearly emerged as the Braves closer of the near future by shutting down opposing offenses first as the setup man to Bob Wickman and then as the closer after Wickman was traded. He started '08 as the Braves' 9th inning man but spent almost the entire year on the DL with a series of odd ailments. During this time, Gonzo came back from tommy john surgery and took the closing job by default with mixed results. Some nights he was awesome, some nights he couldn't get anyone out. However, with Soriano's continued arm issues, Gonzo has started '09 as the closer. However, i'm not so sure that Soriano shouldn't be the man with the ball in his hands in the 9th inning when he's healthy. He's got the most talent between the two, especially since Gonzo has lost so much velocity post-surgery. He looked stellar in the Sunday's sweep of the Nationals by notching a perfect ninth. Until the closer's role is locked down by either Soriano or Gonzo, the pen will have a difficult time adjusting to new roles. It's also important that the Braves determine if Moylan needs more rehab. He was absolutely unhittably in 2007, but lost 2008 due to surgery. If he can come back strong, the Braves will really be able to shorten games. However, his first three outings this year have mostly been disasters. It's imperative that Moylan rediscover his old form if the pen is to be a strength this season.
As for Frenchy, I still don't know what to make of the former golden boy. In spring training he waled more than he struck out and hit .367 with a new batting stance and plate approach. Pretty awesome for a dude who got a standing ovation the first time he walked in a major league game . . . over 100 at bats after his first major league appearance. The problem is, the season started and it's same old Frenchy. Only one walk this season, so far. His average is hovering around .220 or so. On the other hand, he's taken the ball to the opposite field on a number of occasions, most notably yesterday when he got a triple by taking a hanging breaking ball on the outside half down the right field line. Old Frenchy would have tried to pull it and hit a lazy pop off the end of the bat. This was clearly a step in the right direction. He also has produced in the clutch much better than he did last season, making his few hits very productive hits. Hopefully the average will creep up as long as he continues to stick to his commitment of hitting to all fields. Johnson, Escobar, Chipper, and McCann are going to be on base a lot in front of Francoeur and the Braves absolutely need him to drive them in. Hopefully yesterday's two triple performance is a sign of things to come.
The biggest story so far, however, has been the emergence of Jordan Schafer. Obviously his offense has been very good, especially for a hitter in the 8th spot. I think Schafer will start the '10 season as the leadoff hitter, but I like that he is hitting 8th right now. No reason to rush the kid. However, if he keeps slugging the way he has, Bobby Cox may have no choice but to move him up, especially since he is the Braves' only legitimate stolen base threat (unless McCann, the current team leader in stolen bases, keeps up his current, torrid pace . . . . . . . . that was a joke, guys). What impresses me most, however, is his defense. He's fast, but speed isn't everything when it comes to playing center field. He gets excellent jumps on balls, reads the ball well off the bat, and has absolutely no fear running down balls in the outfield. His defense won the game for the Braves yesterday against the Nats when he made two excellent catches that won't make ESPN's top 10 simply because he made them look to easy. The first was a great read on a sinking liner off the bat of one of the Nats (i forget who) with the go ahead run on second base and two outs that ended the inning. The ball was either knuckling or had some really strange spin and, when it was first hit, I thought for sure it would be a single. Instead, Schafer came out of no where, tracked the ball into his glove, and made the catch without even diving. The second catch was even more impressive. Soriano gave up a blast to center field in the 9th that looked like it might have a chance to get out of the park and certainly looked to be over Schafer's head. Instead, Schafer tracked the ball down while keeping track of where the wall was to make an extremely difficult catch look smooth and effortless. A key cog to the Braves' success in the 90's and the earlier portions of this decade was the stellar play of our centerfielders, defensively. Nixon, Grissom, Jones, and even brief cameos from Roberto Kelly and Lofton provided Braves pitchers with excellent cover in the outfield. This has been lacking recently as Andruw Jones' mobility decreased as he gained weight and then last year, when CF was a mess and four different people got a chance to make a go of it due to injurie, trades and poor performance. Last year, Kotsay would most likely not have gotten to either one of those balls and the Braves would have lost that game. I think that Schafer's defense alone will add at least three or four more W's to the win column for the Braves this year. As long as Schafer performs decently on offense (say hits .260 or higher with 10-15 homers and maybe a few stolen bases sprinkled in) his defense will be worth it's weight in gold. That would be great, but I wouldn't be too surprised if Schafer ended up with the ROY award.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Well, the Braves traded Josh Anderson to the Tigers today for a minor league pitching prospect. This all but guarantees that Jordan Schafer, the hot shot prospect, will get the nod as the opening day center fielder. The projected Braves lineup now looks like this:
Kelly Johnson (2B)
Yunel Escobar (SS)
Chipper Jones (3B)
Brian McCann (C)
Jeff Francoeur (RF)
Garrett Anderson/Matt Diaz (LF)
Casey Kotchman (1B)
Jordan Schafer (CF)
The Anderson/Diaz platoon could easily bat in the seventh spot if Kotchman gets hot. Similarly, I wouldn't be surprised to see Schafer move up in the order as the year goes along, especially if he continues hitting as he has this spring. Obviously, the difference between the Braves being a good offensive team or a bad offensive team will hinge on whether Francoeur can bounce back in a big way from a truly terrible season last year. More on the Braves later.
Posted by Rice at 4:38 PM
Monday, February 16, 2009
For the first time since I can remember . . . seriously . . . since way back in 1986 when I was 2 years old . . . wait, I hadn't even turned 2 yet, John Smoltz is not in the Braves organization. However, while many Braves fans are annoyed that the front office didn't sign John for one last season, there's just no way the Braves should have plunked $5 million guaranteed plus $5-$6 million more in incentives on a guy who won't even be able to pitch until June. That money is better spent filling our many other needs, including finding pitchers to actually fill out a rotation that has been decimated by injuries the past two seasons. Frank Wren and company brought in a whole bunch of new faces to replace Smoltz and, quite frankly, the 2009 edition of the Braves is going to look far, far, far different from any Braves team in recent history.
So who are the new Braves? Any Braves fan who has followed the team knows that starting pitching, once the key to the success of the 1991-2005 teams (wow, that was a long run of success, eh?) has become our Achilles Heel the past three seasons. The quality has been there, it's just been sitting on the sidelines for long portions of the season in the form of Mike Hampton. Last year, Hampton, Glavine, Smoltz AND Hudson (the baseball gods were cruel, last year) missed most of the season. Young guns Charlie Morton, Chuck James, and Jo-Jo Reyes have been unable to handle the load. While the Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens trade was a coup and Jorge Campillo provided some stabiility to the back-end of the rotation last year, the Braves clearly lacked the arms (well, we lacked healthy arms, anyway) to compete. Barring yet another season of catastrophic injuries, that should not be a problem this year. The Braves signed free agent Derek Lowe, won the bidding war for Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, and capatilized on catching prospect Tyler Flower's excellent season in the minors by trading for Javier Vasquez. For those you hoping for Jake Peavy, you might be disappointed. Indeed, I am to an extent. Peavy may have put the Braves over the top. However, for the first time in a long time, the Braves won't be relying on an older Glavine, Smoltz, or chronically injured Hampton to complete the rotation. In fact, Jurrjens who finished the season as the number 1 starter will probably begin this season as the number 3 or 4 starter. There are certainly question marks for these guys. When will Derek Lowe start to show his age (he's 36)? Will Jurrjens suffer a sophomore slump or build on his success as a rookie? How will Kawakami adjust to the MLB's after years in Japan? Will Javier Vasquez finally break his habit of underperforming now that he's back in the NL? Will Glavine be able to provide quality starts in the five spot of the rotation or will Campillo or even number 1 prospect Tommy Hanson replace Glavine in the rotation? But, the entire staff with the exception of the five spot has been healthy for pretty much their entire careers. If Hudson were healthy, this would be one of the more formiddible formations. With Hudson out until August, I hope that these guys can eat enough innings and provide as many quality starts as possible so that our bullpen isn't pitched to death and so that we can actually develop our young pitchers delicately instead of throwing them into the fray and having their confidence shot.
I'll be honest, I'm not convinced that the Braves have enough to make the post-season right now, as their are too many question marks. But I am happy to see many healthy, veteran pitchers wearing the uniform going into this season. There are still too many "if's" attached to any prediction of success for this squad for my liking, but the phrase "IF Braves pitchers stay healthy" isn't one of them, at this point. (Come on, baseball gods, show a little mercy!)
Posted by Rice at 10:53 AM
Sunday, February 15, 2009
So, word on the street is that Griffey really, really, really, really wants to be a Brave this season. I'm going to ignore everything this means for the Braves' chances of winning next year and just say this is super exciting simply because Griffey has always been one of my absolute favorite players. In his heyday, he combined offensive and defensive skill like only a few players in history could even dream of. It's a shame that injuries have prevented us calling him the HR king as there is perhaps no other more worthy candidate to supplant Aaron (wait, this just in . . . apparently some guy that I've never heard of named Bonds is the home run king? When did that happen?). Anyway, in light of the steroid scandals, it's fun just to remember how exciting Griffey was as a player back in the day.
Posted by Rice at 5:33 PM