At the unofficial halfway poll of the 2011 NBA season, the MVP picture is the murkiest it has been since the legendary non-race of 1978. One popular candidate is Amar’e Stoudemire, who was signed by the Knicks over the Summer of LeBron and has been credited with reinvigorating basketball in the Big Apple. He’s averaging a career-best 26.4 points per game. But his offensive advantage comes at a cost.
Stoudemire is a natural power forward. And one with a face-up game to boot. By playing at center, Stoudemire creates an automatic mismatch every night on the offensive end; there simply aren’t many centers in the league who can guard a quick, jump-shooting forward. And New York makes it impossible to switch a forward on to Amar’e by pairing him with Danilo Gallinari, himself a perimeter player masquerading as a four. Teams can’t switch their center off of Stoudemire and guard him with a small player, unless they expose the likes of Shaq and Andrew Bynum to chasing Gallinari around the 3-point line.
According to the 82games lineups, New York is +98 with lineups lacking a big next to Stoudemire (in 673.3 minutes). When natural bigs Ronny Turiaf or Timofey Mozgov are in the game with Amar’e, New York’s -28 (315.4 minutes). Almost all of that differential is at the offensive end; When Amar’e’s on the court with a center, New York’s offensive rating is ~107. Without another big man, ~116. It’s no wonder Turiaf and Mozgov are 7th and 10th on the team in minutes played, respectively.
Stoudemire isn’t the first example of an athletic center playing like a wing and overwhelming slower defenders. In 1975, coach Jack Ramsay rode Bob McAdoo at center all the way to the MVP award. McAdoo, like Amar’e, possessed a solid outside jumper and could drive the ball off the dribble by a slower man. Like New York, Buffalo paired smaller players with McAdoo like Gar Heard and Jim McMillan making switches impossible.
In theory, these teams are giving up something on the defensive end to create matchup problems on offense. Note the jarring drop-off in New York’s defensive rating with Amar’e in the game:
That can’t be ignored when evaluating the performance of players like Stoudmire and McAdoo in these situations. Both should be given ample credit for having the ability to create these matchups and hold their own on defense — the resulting gain on offense still yields a net positive from anything lost on defense — but since the classical box score is so offense-centric, we should keep this in mind when evaluating players in similar circumstances.
In a comparable vein, we should pay attention to the offense-defense tradeoffs seen in fastbreak teams — a sacrifice of defensive rebounding to leak out on offense — and in great defensive teams, who crash the defensive boards in lieu of fastbreaking. There might not be as many individual situations as glaring as Amar’e and McAdoo, but we should keep offense-defense tradeoffs in mind when judging performance in mismatched situations like these.