Thursday, May 19, 2011

The great NBA Euro debate

By Rick Morris

Truly, sometimes you never know where an interesting philosophical debate is going to materialize.

On the official FDH Facebook page (that, admittedly, I use for my own chatter as well as FDH bidness) Tuesday night, I expressed my joy about my Cleveland Cavs winning the draft lottery and uttered one request about the other pick at #4 that the team holds: “No Eurotrash projects, please.”

Well, that certainly caught the attention of my friend and former broadcast colleague Joe Lull, sportscaster at WEOL AM 930 in the Cleveland area. Before you knew it, we had quite a Facebook thread going, one that was certainly worth reproducing here (after I applied enough copy-editing so that none of us was truly embarrassed!). Joe, myself and FDH Senior Editor Jason Jones – who is actually even more vociferous in his Euro-suspicions than I am – had quite the discussion going. Agree or disagree with any of us, it’s the kind of exchange of views that FDH always tries to embody and it was fun mixing it up with Joe.

JOE: Rick, the "Eurotrash" you speak of isn't trash at all. Actually, some very skilled players [are coming] from overseas this year. Take solace, the Cavaliers have put more time, energy, money and overall resources into scouting Europe than the vast majority of NBA franchises.

JOE: PS - Prep yourself for Jonas Valanciunas.

RICK: Joe, with the possible exception of Kantor, I'm not sold on these guys in that spot. They seem like risks to me based on the body of work. You see [lots of] upside, I see troubling question marks on a pick that, if it yields a player who can be a legit third or fourth offensive option, could keep this team out of lotteries after next year.

JASON: [Joe is] drinking the Kool-Aid. Not one of these Euros belongs in the top ten. Not one. There has never been a Euro worth top ten projection, ever. Dirk, Manu, Pau, may be good players, but [they] weren't worth a top ten pick. Furthermore, there has not been a non-American collegiate worth a top ten pick in the last decade. Look it up again. Euro upside is not worth the risk. This team needs two absolute starters in these first two picks, not projects with upside. To believe the contrary is short-sighted and irresponsible. That includes any GM that would take one in the top ten, let alone the top five.

RICK: Well, Jason, this is bound to look like groupthink since you are in charge of our NBA Draft rankings, but so be it. :-) I'm not going to speak for you, but one of the things that scares me about some of these guys is that there has barely been ANY overseas presence in the lottery for several years now. I was actually taken aback today when I looked up the specifics; it was worse than I thought. While I have a lot of trust in the Cavs' organization and would like nothing better than to believe Joe's assertion that they may have an inside track on figuring out who can be worth what, I keep coming back to the difficulty that ALL teams face in calculating the worth of these players given the confusion about so many aspects of Euro play, from what to make of play against the caliber of competition on down. Why are we on track to have possibly more Euros taken in the lottery this year than the last half-decade combined (with Euros for these purposes being defined as those without US college experience)? Is it because talent evaluators are so discounting the college kids that they are figuring the Euros are a better risk? I hope not, because at least a few of the college kids look like good bets for the same alleged upside as the internationals (i.e. Klay Thompson and Marcus Morris). In short, the fact that we have little to go on aside from the physical skills of these players measured in isolation troubles me. So while my original shorthand of "Eurotrash" was tongue-in-cheek, the reasons for my fear of these players are real.

JOE: I respect your opinions and I know you guys do your homework. [I] Just can't take Jason's assertions as accepted fact. Decisions by personnel evaluators are not made solely upon evaluation of history. To judge players simply because they come from overseas is to completely disregard all of the in-person scouting, psychological evaluation and deep research that goes into these decisions. Teams don't always get things right, but having friends in extremely high places in the league, I can tell you the resources they have at their disposal are light years beyond the stats and historical trends you and I use to formulate our hard-line stances.

JOE: At the core of the argument is [the imperative] to avoid taking "project" players in the lottery. In general, I do agree with that. Lost in the shuffle is the idea that while some of the Euros may have projected high ceilings, that doesn't mean they can't play immediately. I know for a fact [that] NBA teams believe Vesely can start TOMORROW and Valanciunas can contribute right away, while also having the highest upside of the Euros. Kanter could provide 10 and 8 this year, although he doesn't have as high a ceiling. Bottom line, while the disparity between where some of these players are now and where they ultimately may be is large, that's due to their extremely high ceilings, not their inability to contribute immediately.

RICK: Well, this is interesting stuff, Joe. The one thing that is inescapable, which I think Jason regards as crucial, is that overseas players do not have the apples-to-apples point of comparison with collegiate competition (not that all lottery picks come from power conferences, but they have infinitely more in common with each other regardless of where they played over here in that respect). Even with my heinously sub-par hops, I'm sure there are guys I could still posterize in weak leagues. Now, I'm sure the scouts take these things into consideration when they compose the profiles -- and I'm sure the science of normalizing levels of competition for evaluation's sake is improving all the time. The crux of this issue appears to come down to the historical trends you reference. Again, Euro impact in the lottery has been pretty invisible for years now after receiving a bit of a bump post-Dirk. There are indeed exceptions to every rule. But looking at the law of averages, as I do with most sports topics, I'm left to question whether there are this many exceptions to the law of averages in this draft. I'm not prepared to state categorically right now that there are not. I certainly question that, though.

JOE: Good stuff, Rick. [The] biggest difference to remember this year is the incredibly low level of talent in the NCAA. For instance, Derrick Williams looks like a dominant player to the naked eye, based on his tournament performance. Look deeper, and you'll find that while he ALSO fits all the profiles you want statistically (high PER, high rebounding rate, shooting percentage), he doesn't match up favorably to many NBA 3s and 4s when you project his actual game. Can't beat bigger guys in post, can't pass out of doubles, often out of position for rebounds, etc...

JOE: Conversely, European talent this year was highly regarded even if all the top collegiate prospects had entered the draft. You make a good point on apples-to-apples comparisons, however, one could argue the talent disparity between the NCAA and many European leagues is slowly shrinking. One thing to remember is that the Euro prospects this season have been scouted by NBA types for 3+ years. Scouts didn't just walk into a gym two months ago and like what they see; they have projections based not only on physical assessments, but the progress that they've seen over the past couple seasons. Plus, like I said, popular opinion is that these guys CAN all contribute immediately in varying capacities.

JASON: All of that is interesting from both sides. The problem with it is that it has been that way for almost 20 years and has rendered terrible results. Scouts that cover these Euros do so for ten years, in some cases. That's all they do. In some regard, there is a clear understanding of the pulse of the game over there. Any scout doing his job has seen ridiculous amounts of game action; they've done their homework. The apples-to-apples thing may be the most important part. Maybe they've sincerely considered that in the evaluation. All of their efforts are there and calculated, which leaves one major factor left to consider...NONE OF THAT IS NEW. This has been the process. Every year, we hear about narrowing the gap in talent and every year these scouts and GMs are wrong. Someday that might be the case. It might even be this year. This issue is one of draft strategy. Are there really 5-10 NBA teams that are willing to throw their lottery pick on the roulette wheel in the hopes that this is the year that their scouts are right? There is a physically missing. There is a mental aptitude missing. There is a speed element missing. There are too many variables to consider when one takes the final evaluation out of the Euro fishtank and moves it to the NBA fishtank. And we are really starting to lose track of the expectations when I'm trying to be convinced that a Euro who can give 10 and 7 immediately means a damn thing. 10 and 7 is a mid-second rounder. That's [a] fourth-tier free agent signing. That's "let the other guy draft him and if he pans out, then we'll consider pursuing him as a free agent.” In the lottery, whether he can start or not is not very high on the evaluation scale. Take any of the guys over 6'10. I bet most of them could start in Golden State or some team desperate for a big. The question becomes: is an adequate Euro big man better than a dynamic NCAA guard who could be a cornerstone? Yeah, they could start tomorrow but so what, that doesn't carry as much weight with me. I'm definitely not going to get to everything here. The last thing is Derrick Williams. I will see your angle on the Euros and raise you that on Williams. NO ONE is grading Derrick Williams on his tournament performance. Williams is and has been the number one guy dating back to the preseason camps of last year. In most cases, tournament or not, Williams has never not been out of the top two. There is an apples-to-apples [element] with him, physically and mentally. Teams know exactly what they will get from him. He may be built like Lebron, but no one is making the mistake [of thinking] that he is [as good as him]. However, he is athletic, powerful, tenacious, has a high ceiling and has the type of measurables on offense that fit the type of player he is. He's not going to shoot well from outside of 17', but that's not his game. Scouts didn't like Griffin because he has a good sky book or shoots the three well. They liked him because he gets after it physically, which is why every scout in the world has Williams in the top three and most in the top two. "Passing out of the double team?” Are you serious? That's like criticizing Kyrie Irving because he doesn't register many blocked shots, or [saying] Kemba Walker won't be able to box out seven-footers. Skill, strength, intelligence, tenacity, NBA IQ, the ability to make the transition: these Euros may possess some of those things, but they lack the physical ability. They can shoot and pass and rebound (in a relative vacuum), but it’s everything else that [causes concern]. Remember, during these extensive evaluations, everyone on the planet who knew anything said Darko was that guy. He was Dirk if Dirk actually played center. They said Darko could take guys off the dribble, post up, defend swingmen, hit threes like a SG and even win the opening tipoff. I saw the footage and agreed. I saw what he did over there and sincerely believed he, Melo and Lebron were on a tier by themselves. As it turned out, Darko was so physically inadequate that we would never get to see the rest unfold. If Yao was 6'10, he'd be a bust. Does anyone really believe that Rubio isn't here because he'll only play in a large market? One last thought. American players own European players unconditionally...until they change the rules. In Olympic play, they adopted some European aspects, rules, and nuances and the American players suffered. The NBA is not going to change the rules to suit the non American players yet people still expect them to perform on the same level with the American players when they make [the] move to playing the NBA game. Make no mistake about it, there is a basket and a ball but the European game and the NBA game are significantly different games.

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