Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Results are In

My thanks to everyone who participated in the poll to determine the greatest player to suit up for the Syracuse Orangemen basketball squad. As of this morning, there were 87 voters on our Rankopedia poll. I was pleasantly surprised by the results. Typically when you run a poll like this, you get a some unusual results with the ‘latest, greatest’ dominating the results, and that was not our case. I can’t disagree too much with the top 10, though I’ll give a few comments and provide you with my own list later in the blog.

The top 10, as of this morning:

Dave Bing
Carmelo Anthony
Derrick Coleman
Pearl Washington
Sherman Douglas
Lawrence Moten
Billy Owens
John Wallace
Gerry McNamara
Hakim Warrick

The most surprising thing about this top 10 wasn’t so much who was on it, but the clear separation in the results for the top 10 from the rest of the pack. I would not have thought the top 10 was definitive; the separation line for me would have likely be around the top 8. But as a group, we the voters thought that players such as Rony Seikaly, Roosevelt Bouie, Louis Orr, and Leo Rautins weren’t close enough to that top 10 group.

I was happy to see that Dave Bing got his recognition and end up at the top. There’s never been a classier gentleman at Syracuse University, and clearly his Hall of Fame credentials and outstanding NBA career are still getting notice. So often you see players from bygone eras unjustly discounted because they played in an older era, under the mind set that all the greatest athletes have existed in the past 10 years. Legendary players such as Lew Castle, Joe Schwarzer, Vic Hanson, Ed Sonderman, Billy Gabor and Vinnie Cohen really didn’t stand a chance in this poll. Then again, the game has changed so much, particularly prior to the 1960’s, that evaluations of those players can be tough.

Dave Bing has more #1 votes than anyone else with 39. Carmelo Anthony had 25, Coleman 7, the Pearl 2, Douglas 1, Moten 1, Wallace 1. You always end up with some votes that I've got to question with GMac getting 3 first place votes, Warrick 4 first place votes, and Eric Devendorf 1 first place votes.

I do think that Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick made the top 10 based on their recent popularity; as time goes by, I might expect to see them drop off. Don’t get me wrong; I’m big fans of GMac and Hak. I’m just not sold that they are significantly better than Seikaly, Bouie, Orr, Rautins, and a few others.

You also question votes at times when players are left off a ballot. 13 voters didn't think Bing was in the top 10. There were 12 who felt the same about Anthony, 15 for Coleman, 17 for the Pearl, and 25 for Douglas. I'm not positive who the best is, or the order of the top 10, but I'm 99.9% confident these five guys are in the top 10. If someone seriously thinks they aren't please let me know; I'm more than willing to hear the perspective. My personal thought is people leave certain players off the list as an oversite and/or in spite of a player (i.e. I don't like Coleman, so I won't put him anywhere on the list).

So having said that, my personal top 10 are as follows:

Derrick Coleman
Dave Bing
Billy Owens
John Wallace
Carmelo Anthony
Pearl Washington
Sherman Douglas
Lawrence Moten
Rony Seikaly
Vic Hanson

I realize I might bore you with a complete analysis of all my picks; however, I’ll provide you with some comments on each, in reverse order, and try to keep it concise (yeah, right).

The 10th position was very difficult for me. I considered Hakim Warrick, Leo Rautins, Roosevelt Bouie, and Vinnie Cohen for that position, before settling on Vic Hanson. Hanson did play in a much different era of basketball, 1925 to 1927. It was an era of half court offenses, jump balls after every made basket, and teams had one or two defensive specialists who did nothing but ‘guard’ opposing players (fyi – a history lesson on why two positions are referred to as ‘guards’). Hanson was the best in his era, one of the two most dominant basketball players in college basketball at that time. He led the Orangemen to a 49-7 record over three years. He was an outstanding athlete, being the only man ever inducted in to the college football and college basketball hall of fames. He played for the New York Yankees farm system (this is the Yankees of the Ruth / Gehrig / Lazzeri era). Hanson was 5’10”, 175 lbs, and played forward. Clearly he couldn’t play forward today. But at 5’10”, he’s no smaller than guys like Sherman Douglas or Gerry McNamara, and being a tremendously skilled basketball player and outstanding athlete, I’m sure Hanson could play guard today and still be outstanding.

Rony Seikaly at #9 draws career comparisons very similar to Warrick. Both were struggling players as freshman; both improved dramatically each year, and both were dominant players their senior seasons. These are the types of players very difficult to evaluate in terms of ‘career value’ because clearly they were different players throughout their career. And to be fair, you have to tend to gravitate how they finished their career, when put into this context. For those of you may remember, Seikaly was probably the most dominant center Syracuse ever during his senior season, and he had learned the turnaround jumper at that point in his career.

Lawrence Moten at #8 is probably the Syracuse basketball player with the highest basketball IQ. He wasn’t the most physically gifted player at Syracuse, but always knew where to be on the court, and flowed effortlessly into the offense. And he was that way the day he stepped onto campus. Moten was so effortless, you would watch a game, and when it ended you would be shocked that he had scored 20 points again.

#6 and #7 always create problems for me, and if you asked me to vote again tomorrow, I might flip them again. Pearl Washington and Sherman Douglas were great playmakers at Syracuse, both excellent at breaking down defenses, setting up their teammates, and taking over the scoring in clutch time. Both were great showman, with slightly different styles. The Pearl was all shake-and-bake, and he embarrassed defenders routinely. Douglas could throw a pass anywhere, and it always seemed the Orangemen had five or so alleyoop dunks each game he played.

#5 is Melo. This will probably be controversial with many fans out there. Melo had a great season, one of the best seasons a Syracuse player has ever had (though not necessarily the best… that’s for a later day). The problem with his career value, is that it was only one season. The players I have ranked higher then Melo had at least one season, if not more, equivalent to Melo’s one season. Melo, as a freshman, was not better than Derrick Coleman as a senior, or Billy Owens as a junior, or John Wallace as a senior, or Dave Bing. All of these players took Syracuse to national prominence and strong tournament showings throughout their careers. There are guys who didn’t make the top 10 list who probably had seasons in their careers comparable to Melo (Vinnie Cohen and Rudy Hackett come quickly to mind).

#4 is John Wallace. Wallace is probably the most underrated player on the top 10 list (and I have a list of top 10 most underrated players for a later date). He was considered a lottery pick after his junior season, after what had already been a stellar collegiate career, and he chose to come back for his senior season. All he did at that point was lead the Orangemen through a miracle run in the NCAA tournament, and come within a few points of an NCAA title.

#3 is Billy Owens. Owens was as complete a player as Syracuse has had, a small forward with guard skills in a power forwards body. He could pass, shoot, rebound. His junior season, when he led the Orangemen to a 26-4 regular season record, the Big East Regular season championship, and #6 national ranking is a testament to his ability. His reputation is often tarnished by the subsequent and unexplainable quick exists from the Big East Tournament and NCAA tournament that year, plus an injury plagued NBA career that was disappointing.

It was tough picking between the top two. I have Dave Bing at #2. As I mentioned earlier, never a classier gentleman at Syracuse University. He exploded onto Syracuse on the freshman squad, and more fans showed up to watch the frosh team then the varsity. The Syracuse basketball program was reborn under new coach Fred Lewis, and his star player Dave Bing was the primary reason. The team went from 8-13 to 17-8 in Bing’s first season. Bing would destroy every scoring record at Syracuse, was an outstanding rebounder and a tremendous playmaker. Bing technically was a forward for Syracuse, though he was the primary playmaker, and spent a lot of time in the backcourt. He would go onto a stellar NBA career and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

I had to go with Derrick Coleman at #1. His impact at Syracuse, like Bing, was significant from the first day he stepped on campus. Coleman was 6’11”, with a wingspan that was even bigger. He was a rebounding machine, pulling down more rebounds in the modern era of college basketball than anyone ever. Coleman could run the court, could jump, could handle the ball, and was a tremendous force inside with the ball. He quickly developed the ability to shoot facing the basket, and could make the three point shot (though he was rarely in the position to do that). Jim Boeheim would often have DC help bring the ball up the court to help break the full court presses. If Howard Triche had blocked Keith Smart’s shot like Hak had blocked Michael Lee’s, DC would have been Melo twenty years earlier.

Coleman’s statistics aren’t nearly as impressive as some of the other players on the list. He had to share scoring honors with guys like Sherman Douglas, Stevie Thompson, Rony Seikaly and Billy Owens. Yet, he was still able to set the school record for career scoring. He had to share rebounds with talented rebounders like Thompson, Seikaly and Owens. Yet, he was still able to pull down more than anyone else in history. He was named to the Big East First Team three times, and named the Player of the Year in 1990. He would go #1 in the NBA draft, something no other Orangemen has done.

Coleman has tarnished his legacy by failing to become the player everyone wanted in the NBA. He became fat and lazy; yet for a guy who underachieved in the NBA, he still had decent numbers over a fifteen year career. Clearly disappointing, but 16.5 ppg and 9.3 rebounds per game, for his career isn’t ‘bust’; it’s just a shadow of what was expected. And, I think the damning of Coleman for what he wasn’t in the NBA, speaks volumes for what he was at Syracuse.

Again, my thanks to everyone who voted. The Rankopedia poll will stay out there, and will continue to get votes over time. I may revisit this in a few months and see how things have changed, if at all.


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Who's the Best Ever? You decide.

As a casual summer project, I thought I’d run a poll on who is the greatest basketball player in Syracuse history. The focus should be on career value, not a single season, though individual season efforts should be considered.

I’ve set up a poll on Rankopedia. This poll is open to anyone. I’ve pretty much pre-populated the list with any player worth considering, plus a few additional players. If I missed someone, you can add him to the list.

A few of things to note about Rankopedia’s scoring methods:

  • Voting for only one player will not count as much as if you voted for a complete list of top 10. So for example, if you thought you could give Gerry McNamara an advantage by voting him #1 and giving nobody else a vote, you are wrong. You are better off voting Gerry #1 and then also completing the voting 2 – 10. I don’t know the algorithm Rankopedia uses to weight it, but in their bylaws they make that clear.
  • You can vote as many times as you want, though only one time each day for each poll.
  • I can’t control who votes, so obnoxious rival fans could vote, or message board trolls, or English soccer fans. But over time, those with interest in the Orangemen will tend to comprise a larger percent of the poll.
So feel free to join in on the voting. At some future date, I’ll let you know who I think my top 10 are, and who the ultimate #1 is. But I don’t want to spoil that for now

Here's the current results:

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hopkins - Next Orange Head Coach

According to a report by Andy Katz at ESPN, Mike Hopkins has officially been named Jim Boeheim's successor at Syracuse University.

I applaud the university for making this move; it may be the first move athletic director Darryl Gross has made that I'm in favor of. I'm slightly biased because Hopkins is one of my favorite former players, but I'm also a huge fan of continuity. I think continuity helps with recruiting and with keeping a strong fan base solid. The fact that Hopkins has been an assistant at Syracuse for 12 years says a lot about his commitment to the program. I'm not at all concerned that Hopkins hasn't been a head coach before. Boeheim was new to the role (though he was the coach of the freshman squad) and Jamie Dixon stepped in with no problem at Pitt.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Kristof Ongenaet

The addition of Kristof Ongenaet to the Orangemen for the 2007-2008 season is a big plus from my personal perspective for three reasons.

First, it addresses what I thought was the biggest concern for next season, which was the lack of experience and depth at the power forward and center positions. I’m not an expert on Ongenaet; I’ve never seen him play, but Orange Fan has done his normal thorough research and analysis on Syracuse recruits, and I like what I’m reading. A big guy who plays tough defense and loves to rebound; plus he has some college basketball experience, even if it is at the Junior College level.

The second reason is Ongenaet allows me to delve into many other historical perspectives and comments. I mean, not only is he a junior college transfer, but he’s also an international player (from Belgium).

As far as I know, there have been only three junior college transfers to Syracuse during the Jim Boeheim era; two were significant contributors and one was an interesting side note. Michael Lloyd played for the Orangemen in the 1994-95 season with solid success at the point guard position, with 12.5 points and 5.2 assists per game. An irregularity in his transcript forced him to leave school after that season.

Jason Cipolla is probably the most notable junior college transfer for the Orangemen. He was a vital part of the 1995-96 team that made a run at the national championship. Cipolla brought some hard nose play and more importantly a nice three point shot. He would score 7.7 ppg that year and 13.2 ppg his senior season.

The third transfer I’m aware of is walk-on Tyrone Albright. Albright played basketball at Onondaga Community College for two years before coming to Syracuse for an opportunity to play. He would be a 26 year old senior on the 1995-96 team, providing some maturity on the team. His playing time was that typical of most walk-ons, playing in the last minutes of lopsided games.

The other aspect of Ongenaet is that he is from Belgium. As far as I can tell, he’s the first Orangemen to be born in Belgium, the sixth from Europe. There are been 14 Orangemen born overseas, and they have met with varying success at Syracuse. Leo Rautins, Rony Seikaly, Joe Schwarzer and John Barsha were college All-Americans. Kueth Duany and Marius Janulis was vital contributors to Final Four teams, and Elvir Ovcina was a decent role playing center/forward the later part of his collegiate career. Clinton Goodwin was a decent player at the turn of the century, and Marc Guley was team captain his senior year and later the head coach for the Orangemen for 12 seasons, taking the Orangement to their first NCAA tournament. Hank Piro was a football player who played a little basketball (and would go to the NFL), and Joel Katz was a walk-on.

There really have been three foreign players who did not succeed at Syracuse: David Patrick was a speedy guard who transferred after his freshman year; John Karpis and George Papadokas were Canadian big men who didn’t work out and transferred elsewhere. So the international experience, while somewhat limited, has been pretty successful for the Orangemen over time.

The third reason I like the arrival of Kristof Ongenaet is his last name. He is going to create nightmares for college hoop announcers. According to Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, the correct pronunciation of this name is OH-Jah-Naut. And I don’t know if it’s just me or not, but everytime I see his last name, my mind transposes the letters and I see ‘Orange Net’. That’s got to be a good sign.

Kristof Ongenaet is going to join the list of Syracuse players with unusual names such as Ernest Uthgenannt, Clarence Houseknecht, Zangwill Golobe, and the legendary Wilmeth Sidat-Singh.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Chamberlain Effect

Occasionally there is an athlete who is so superior to his competition that he puts up statistics that are overwhelming in their nature. They are in fact, so overwhelming, that fans cannot truly appreciate them and in effect start to devaluate the statistics. This is what I call the Chamberlain Effect, after the legendary Big Dipper Wilt Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s 1961-62 season is legendary: 50.6 points per game, 25.7 rebounds per game, a total of 4029 points, including a 100 point effort against the New York Knicks. These numbers are so large, that I believe fans start to rationalize he couldn’t have been that good, and therefore they disregard the numbers entirely, or at least rationalize them away until they are trivial in their minds.

It’s one of the arguments that fans make when comparing Bill Russell to Chamberlain. The argument is that Russell was a better player because his teams won more championships; Russell ‘sacrificed’ his statistics so that his team would be better, and most would contend Russell was a better rebounder.

First of all, Russell played with a bevy of Hall of Fame teammates: Tommy Heinsom, Satch Sanders, KC Jones, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, Clyde Lovelette and Bill Sharman. Chamberlain, in the same comparable time period, would play with a handful: Tom Gola, Paul Arizin, Nate Thurmond (1 year), Hal Greer, and Billy Cunningham. He’d later join up with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, when all three were venerable veterans. So, it’s rather clear that Russell had a lot of talent around him on the court, and that played some part in all those championships. Russell absolutely was a key factor, if not the key factor for the Celtic dynasty, but it wasn’t a one man show. Unless one wants to argue that all those Celtics made the Hall of Fame riding on the coattails of Russell’s success (I would suggest that is hogwash).

Second, many fans will say that Russell didn’t score because he did not have to, and he could have scored comparable to Chamberlain if he wanted. Well, there’s no evidence that could ever have been true. You must assume, that if Russell were the intelligent player he is credited with being (and I do assume this to be true), that he would defer to his teammates when he was in a low percentage situation, and he would take the shot when he was in a high percentage situation. Given that, consider that Russell’s best season from the floor, he shot .467 (1959-1960). If he were to take significantly more shots, you would have to expect that number to go down, not up due to the need to take more low percentage shots, and general fatigue.

Chamberlain, on the other hand, taking all the shots, never shot below .461 from the floor in his career; and that was his rookie season. His next lowest season was .499, and he shot over 50% from the floor every other season of his career. The fact was that he could score, he could score big, and he could score with more ease than any other player on the court.

Third is the knock that Russell was a better rebounder. I guess he must have looked like a better rebounder, because somehow Chamberlain pulled down more rebounds each year, and for his career than Russell. Russell may have had better form, but the Stilt still got more. The NBA record for rebounds in a game is 55 by Wilt Chamberlain; and he did it against Bill Russell and his Celtics.

Russell was definitely a better defensive player, one of the best in league history, if not the best and an unparalled shot blocker. However, Chamberlain was a very good defender himself, and an effective shot blocker. Russell’s defensive edge over Chamberlain isn’t close to the offensive edge that Chamberlain had.

That’s not knocking Russell. Russell was a great NBA player, one of the greatest ever. He won all the championships, he was admired by the fans and the sportswriters, and an outstanding center. He was also on a team that allowed him to focus on what he did best (defense), and didn’t require him to be a strong offensive presence…which was good because it seems apparent he would never have been a dominant offensive threat.

Ask yourself this question about Chamberlain. If you put him on the Celtics, surrounded by all those Hall of Famers, coached by Red Auerbach, and you put Bill Russell on the Warriors with Paul Arizin and Tom Gola. Which team would have won the NBA titles? Chamberlain probably wouldn’t have had his 50 points per game; there wouldn’t have been the need, and Auerbach would’ve had him focused more on defense. He probably would have had a mere 35 – 38 points a game that magical 1961-62 season; he probably would’ve increased his shooting percentage from a lowly .504 to .550/.580 range.

The Chamberlain Effect occurs across sports. I believe Babe Ruth is a victim of this effect to some extent, and was Ted Williams. Perhaps 20 years from now fans will look retrospectively and apply the Chamberlain Effect to Barry Bonds (whose stretch from 2001 to 2004 was unbelievable).

Jim Brown suffers from the Chamberlain Effect from many fans (though I think he and Ted Williams both receive extreme respect from today’s athletes; it seems the athletes understand how significant these accomplishments were, more than some fans). Brown led the league in rushing 8 times in his 9 seasons, and led in scoring touchdowns 5 times. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry for his career. Again, the numbers seem too impressive, and so fans say “well, but…” or “compared to today…”.

There are times when statistics are misleading, and they must be evaluated in their correct context. All the greatest hitters in baseball didn't live in the 1930's and 1990's, and all the greatest pitchers didn't live in the 1910's and 1960's. Players in the 1960's weren't better rebounders across the board than players in the 2000's. Guys scoring 25 points for the Denver Nuggets in the 1980's weren't as impressive as guys scoring 20 points for the Detroit Pistons in the 1990's. But, sometimes (often), statistics point out the greatness they were intended to measure.