Sunday, December 2, 2012

Scouting 103: Replacement-Level Players

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The “replacement-level player” is one of the more interesting concepts to come out of baseball’s statistical revolution. No one gets stats in a vacuum; you’re not going to hit 40 HR’s unless you’re getting 400 or more plate appearances. So to measure how much a player means to their team, you can’t just look at their offensive and defensive contributions, you have to look at how they did relative to a league-average player. 

The tricky part is defining what exactly a league-average player is. The talent pool for shortstops is much smaller than the one for first-basemen; it requires a lot more athletic ability to snag line drives on the left side of the diamond than it does to stand on a bag and catch balls thrown at you. Most major leaguers could play first-base in a pinch, very few could be short-stops. Therefore, the level of hitting required to be a league-average 1B is much higher than the level of hitting required to be a league-average SS.

This is what made A-Rod so unbelievable in the early 00′s. He was hitting .318 with 52 HR’s and 142 RBI’s as a SS!

All nine batting positions can be arranged in what is called the “defensive spectrum”: the more demanding a position is defensively, the further it is to the right — DH, 1B, LF, RF, 3B, CF, 2B, SS, C. Conversely, there are lot more replacement-level corner infielders than there are replacement-level catchers. The same idea can be applied to basketball’s positions. All five — PG, SG, SF, PF and C — require roughly the same amount of athletic ability, but there are a lot fewer seven-footers who are NBA-caliber athletes than there are six-footers.

Where basketball differs from baseball is in the distribution of the offense — the distribution of at-bats is constant; the distribution of shots is not. Every NBA team has one or two players they run offense through, which means the other three players spend most of their time on offense watching the ball. And in order to space the court around their best players and prevent the opponent from sending constant double-teams, these players have to make their defenders respect them by hitting open jumpers.

A replacement-level player on the perimeter has to be able to shoot 3′s, while a replacement-level power forward has to be able to knock down a 15-foot jumper. Only centers, who play primarily within 10 feet of the basket, don’t need a jump-shot, though of course it would be nice if they did.

Despite the negative implications of the term, replacement-level players have some value. Because of the salary cap and other limits on player acquisition, many teams are forced to start below replacement-level players: the Miami Heat have been playing below-average players at point guard and center all season.

The Heat’s biggest problem isn’t the “egos” of the Decision Three; it’s the fact they don’t have anyone who can defend point guards and shoot 3′s and they don’t have anyone who can defend centers adequately. When they get replacement-level players at those positions in the off-season, they’re going to start looking like the 70+ win juggernaut everyone was talking about over the summer.

There’s no hiding a below-average player in a basketball game either. If they can’t hit open jumpers, defenses will sag and play 4-on-5; if they can’t adequately defend their position, they have to be hid on the other team’s worst player and hope that he can’t take advantage of them. One of the most common mistakes GM’s make in assembling teams is not understanding the idea of the “replacement-level player”.

 On one hand, you only need two high-usage players, all a third big-time scorer does is take the ball out of the hands of the other two. The Heat would be a lot better this season if they had given smaller contracts to Brendan Haywood, Ray Felton and Mike Beasley instead of Chris Bosh, even though Bosh is worth more than all three in a vacuum.

 But you don’t want to over-pay a replacement-level player either, spacing the floor and playing adequate defense for your position is valuable, but as you move down the height spectrum from center to point guard, it becomes increasingly less so.

It’s also important when looking at college prospects: unless a player has incredible shot-creating ability like the 5’9 Nate Robinson, they have to meet the minimum standards of height, athleticism and skill for an NBA replacement-level player. And the further to the right their position is on the height spectrum — PG, SG, SF, PF, C — the more valuable they are.

Point Guard:

A replacement level point should be at least 6’1 180 with the foot-speed to stay in front of guys like Tony Parker and Jameer Nelson. Only a small handful of players can do a good job defensively on guys like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook; it’s an impossible standard for the average point guard to fill.

Offensively, they’ve got to be able to consistently knock down 3′s. Andre Miller is the only starting point guard in the NBA who is a below-average shooter from long-distance, and he’s an All-Star level shot-creator and distributor who plays with the ball in hands a lot.

Most overpaid replacement-level PG: Mike Conley, Memphis: $45 million over 5 years. 

While the former top-5 pick has talent, he’s still no better than 20th among the league’s point guards. The Grizzlies have three high-usage players in the front-court (Gay, Randolph and Gasol) so all their point guards should do is dribble the ball up-court and enter it into the post. And the difference between #20 and #40 is a lot smaller than between #1 and #20.

Average contract for a replacement-level PG: Jordan Farmar, New Jersey: $12 million for 3 years. 

There are a lot of replacement-level point guards in the NBDL and Europe, just look at the production of call-ups like Zabian Dowdell (Suns) and Sundiata Gaines (Nets) this season. Back-up point guard is the easiest position in basketball to fill; there’s no need to give someone like Chris Duhon a 4-year $15 million contract or draft someone like Acie Law in the lottery.

Shooting Guard:

A replacement-level shooting guard should be at least 6’5 200, with the quickness to stay in front of guys like Jason Richardson on the perimeter and the length to challenge jump-shooters like Kevin Martin.

Most overpaid replacement-level SG: Richard Hamilton, Detroit: $34 million for 3 years. 

The first-thing players lose as they get older is their foot-speed. Hamilton, a former All-Star, is now best used as a decoy on the perimeter. He can still knock down open jumpers, but he’s not creating his own shot unless you re-arrange your entire offense to run him through a maze of picks.

Average contract for a replacement-level SG: CJ Miles, Utah: $15 million for 4 years.

Small Forward:

The two wing positions — shooting guard and small forward — are fairly interchangeable in the modern NBA. But defending 3′s, who can be as tall as the 6’10 Hedo Turkoglu, is much more of a challenge. Therefore a replacement-level small forward should be at least 6’7 220 while retaining the same amount of foot-speed as replacement-level guards.

Most overpaid replacement-level SF: Caron Butler, Dallas: $46 million for 5 years.

When Butler went down with a season-ending knee injury at the beginning of January, many people thought the Mavericks season was over. But while he would need to be replaced in the rotation, I didn’t think it would be all that difficult:
Most NBA swing-men can do the things he does well — spotting up off Dirk, Terry and Kidd and moving the ball crisply around the perimeter. And his unique skill — the ability to create inefficient jumpers — isn’t of much value on a team with the most efficient shot-creator in the league.  
Defensively, he is an average sized small-forward with an average wingspan and average to below-average footspeed; he gets by on veteran savvy and shuttling faster wings into the Mavs bevy of shot-blockers. He’s not really hurting the team on that side of the ball, but his contributions aren’t exactly irreplaceable.
Sure enough, Dallas signed Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer off the waiver wire, and they haven’t lost a beat: going 20-3 in their last 23 games.

Average contract for a replacement-level SF: Ryan Gomes, $12 million for 3 years. 

Power Forward:


Because the two post positions are so interchangeable, with teams like the Lakers, Blazers and Mavericks starting two seven-footers in their front-court, a good power forward is as hard to find, and nearly as valuable, as a good center.

One of your bigs has to be able to bring his defender out of the paint by knocking down 15-20 foot jumpers; otherwise, there’s not enough room around the rim for your best players to operate.

Therefore, a replacement-level power forward should be about 6’9 230, with the strength not to be abused in the low post by guys like Carlos Boozer and the foot-speed to chase guys like Lamar Odom around the perimeter. Most college players above 6’8 are either “3.5′s” (too slow to guard 3′s and too weak to guard 4′s) or “4.5′s” (too short to be 5′s and not skilled enough to be 4′s).

Most overpaid replacement-level PF: Drew Gooden, Milwaukee: $32 million for 5 years. 

Average contract for a replacement-level PF: Antonio McDyess, $10 million for 2 years.

Center: 

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask: be at least 6’11 240 with the ability to hit a five-foot hook shot. Yet good NBA teams like the Knicks and the Hawks are forced to start guys like Jared Jeffries and Jason Collins at center respectively. Like a replacement-level catcher in baseball, a replacement-level center in basketball is extremely valuable, if for no other reason than if you’re not careful you might find yourself without anyone who can play the most important defensive position on the court.

Championships are won and lost in the paint, which is why teams like the Knicks and the Heat, despite starting multiple All-NBA players on the perimeter, have no shot to win a title this season. They are “donut teams” — a lot of shiny but ultimately empty calories on the outside with a big hole in the middle.
 

Average contract for a replacement-level C: Jeff Foster Indiana, $13 million for 2 years. 

There are no overpaid replacement-level centers in my opinion. If you have a seven-footer who can defend the paint without being a complete liability on offense, than you keep him. Which is why I found Boston’s move to deal Kendrick Perkins at the deadline so baffling. 

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