Decade’s Best: Frontcourt

Words me (Tzvi Twersky) and daniel (Daniel Douek)

Choosing the decade’s best frontcourt wasn’t easy. 10 years; 30 teams; new rosters every year for almost every team. Meaning, over the course of a few days I had to scour 295 rosters–the Bobcats began play in the 2004-05 season–studying each and everyone of them. It would have been easy–well, maybe not easy, but not difficult–if I were just doing a face value analysis of the frontcourts. Who had the best group of three players over the course of one 82-game season; that would’ve been a breeze. But I hoped to be able to give you something more complex, advanced and telling. So I hit up my man Daniel Douek.

Daniel, a financial analyst by day and sports junkie by night, is on a savant level when it comes to numbers. In his free time, he’s been known to crunch all kinds of digits and configure new statistical models, coming up with fresh ways to evaluate NBA and NFL talent (think of him as a much younger John Hollinger). So I enlisted him to help me figure out a way to decipher 10 year’s worth of NBA data. Many hours and hundreds of chats later, we think we came to a conclusion as to the decade’s best frontcourt.

The following is our conversation almost verbatim.

10:22 PM me: So I’m working on a post about the best frontcourt of the decade that’s about to come to a close. Off the dome, best starting frontcourt of the decade options: Peja, C Webb, Vlade for the Kings  about eight years ago?  How about Wallace, Wallace and Prince in Detroit a few years back? Etc. Ideas?
daniel: That actually existed?
me: Which one are you talking about? Those are just two options. I’m also thinking, Howard, Lewis, Turkoglu from last year. Or Pierce, Garnett, Perkins from chip season.

10:23 PM daniel: Duncan, D. Robinson and whoever (San Antonio) could be another good one.

10:25 PM me: But Robinson was pretty done by the Aughts, if I remember right.
daniel: Ok.
me: Arit. If you think of anything, hollla.
daniel: KK.

10:30 PM daniel: Melo, Nene, Camby is a very solid group.
me: Yeah, true. Or Kmart, Nene, Melo like last year.
daniel: Yeah, but Camby was/is defensive Player of the Year.
me: The Pau Gasol,  Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest combo is pretty nice, too.
daniel: I was gonna say Artest, Battier, Yao.
me: That may be it; this year’s lakers trio.
daniel: It’s very good, but resist the urge to overrate Bynum.
me: I know. Trust me, I’m not sold on him just yet.
daniel: Let’s look at it like this: Artest = Artest; Pau < Yao
me: Pau is worse than Yao, but plays 30 more games a year.
daniel: Bynum > Shane Battier or L. Scola?
me: I would match them up differently. Artest = Artest; Bynum is less than Ming;   and Pau is better than Scola.
daniel: In the 2008-09 season, Yao played 77 games. So if its a one year question I would take that over the lakers trio that you mentioned.

10:40 PM me: So Scola, Artest, Ming you’d say are the best front court of the decade? It sounds crazy; we’ll have to dig into those numbers, man, or people will kill me.
daniel: Or maybe Camby, Melo, Nene. (But I may be too big of a Camby fan.)
me: Yeah, think you are.

10:42 PM me: So we got a tip yesterday about Mr. Trina…I mean Kenyon Martin. An informed individual made the claim that Martin is Denver’s defensive quarterback. It’s hard to verify, but if you look at the team’s points given up per 100 possessions—105.4 when he’s playing; 110.5 when he’s sitting—it seems like it could be true. The team seems to be much better on D when he’s on the court.

10:44 PM daniel: Very interesting stuff there about k-mart. But I think the Peja, Webber, Vlade frontcourt might still be better.
me: Yes! I have to look at the stats. I’m going year by year, team by team right now.
daniel: I don’t really remember how good Vlade was. I think you need to look at  % of the teams points scored, rebounds and use your judgment on defensive assessment. The problem with Vlade, Peja and C Webb is, as I recall, none of those players were exactly defensive stoppers.

10:53 PM daniel: Another problem with the Lakers is that the frontcourt doesn’t include the team’s best player.
me: Yeah, also, the season is not even half over so it’s hard to judge them.
daniel: right

10:59 PM me: Rookie Elton Brand and a Rookie Ron Artest together with Brad Miller in Chitown. I know they weren’t even close to the best frontcourt of the decade, but if they stayed 2gether…And, later, Jermaine O’Neal, Brad Miller and Ron Artest in Indy?!? That group should be in consideration, maybe?
daniel: Check percentage of points scored; I think it’s the biggest stat. So the nuggets, the best they get to (I think) is 49% of their team’s points. Whereas last year’s Rockets scored over 50% and were better defensively. Last year’s Magic are at like 54% of points scored; that’s just Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard. Wait! Ok, that’s it. The 01-02 Kings frontcourt scored 58.5% of the team’s points.

11:05 PM me: So 01-02 kings it is? In accordance with that stat, I mean?
daniel: That’s the best I saw. That team (the Kings) was ranked seventh in the league defensively, which is pretty good. The Rockets last year were just over 50% of the total offense and I think they were better defensively, but it doesn’t matter.
me: Where you looking,
daniel: Yeah.
me: Also, the % of points doesn’t factor in the three guy’s D. Should that matter a lot? I mean, it does matter, but should it matter that much for this….
daniel: Well I don’t think it matters THAT much considering they were still the seventh best D in the league. If the D was towards the bottom I would say it matters. Oh, and I don’t know how they stack up rebound-wise. I think you should check that out
me: OK, cool.

11:11 PM daniel: 23.8 rebounds per game for the 01-02 Kings; 24.8 for the magic last year, along with 54.5% of the teams points, and the number one ranked D in the A.
me: The Magic? Really? With Hedo and Rashard, two guys who are known solely for their O? Wow.
daniel: I mean they’re D rating on basketball reference is number one (that’s based on pace and points allowed presumably).
me: In terms of  points allowed they were 6th in the L. Ok. Thanks, man.

11:53 PM me: ’03-04 Dallas squad had hella lot of strong frontcourt players: Jamison/Antoine walker/Dirk Nowitzki/Josh Howard and Michael Finley.
daniel: If you include reserves it becomes much more difficult because I think with the Kings one year, brad miller was a reserve (have to check that out).
me: Nah, I’m not including them. I’m just saying, that’s hella lot of good non-guard players…
daniel: Also, I hate Toine. Dude is one of the least efficient players in the history of the game. (I actually like his swagger though—”because they don’t make 4 pointers.”)
me: Ha. Love that quote. Man, liking the Cs, I have mixed feelings about him.
daniel: It’s interesting. I like him but if I were a GM (and I should be one) I would never want him. Ever. I believe at one point there was talk of a swap of Antoine Walker for Steph Marbury, and one sports writer said why would you do that; it’s like trading cancer for AIDS.
me: Ha, sick. There are only a handful of writers who would—and could—write that.
daniel: I don’t remember who cause I heard it second hand. Point is, when evaluating Walker as a player I have to dock him for being so inefficient—even if I like him.
me: BTW: Camby’s Defensive Player of the Year year, 2006-07, wasn’t the greatest year for Denver’s frontcourt.True, Melo had his best full year to date, but the power forward spot was an issue because Martin missed the season and Nene had one of his worse years. The year before may be a better look.
daniel: Thing is, Camby is always in contention for DPOY, and I feel like their rebounding numbers with him and Nene must be great.
me: Nah, man, not that year. 2007-08 is even better, with Martin in and Nene out.

12:08 AM me: Yeah. On to the next team…

12:10 AM daniel: its going to be the 2001-02 Kings or the 2008-09 Magic.
me: I’m looking at the 03-04 and 2004-05 Pistons right now.  One of these two may also be in the conversation.
daniel: They only scored 41.6% of their team’s points in 2004-05.
me: Yeah, but boards and defense need to be included. The intangibles. They were good, real good. Remember.
daniel: And they only pulled down 25.9 boards, and were number three in defense adjusted for scoring pace. And in 2003-04, Prince and the Rasheed and Ben W. only accounted for 37 percent of the team’s points. And they only pulled in 24.2 boards, but they were number two defensively when adjusted for pace.
me: So I gather that 2003-04 is out. Prince was a little too raw, even though they won the chip.

12:16 AM me: It’s weird, by the way, that you like the Kings and Magic for this “award.” They were the two that came to mind and I mentioned immediately, without looking at stats.
daniel: Right. You also mentioned the Pistons, who don’t stack up as well stats-wise, but it is a good call on your part.

12:18 AM me: Now I’m looking at the 03-04 Pacers. Subtract the fact that Jeff Foster started and Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest were a sick one-two punch—both on O and D.
daniel: True. Here’s the question though: you’re starting a team, do you take last year’s magic frontcourt, or—
me: Would you?
daniel: —Last years Nugget’s frontcourt? The basic questions is Melo or Howard, who do you prefer? Talking about just for one year, I’d take Melo. I love Melo, though; I think he is easily the third best player in the A.
me: As does SLAM. Strictly looking at stats, Magic frontcourt had a better year, no?
daniel: The problem with looking at the stats for that is, it doesn’t take into account that the Nuggets have other players who can score reliably in Smith and Billups, and they didn’t need Nene and Martin to average a huge amount of buckets.
me: So then going back to Pistons, they had Billups and Hamilton and they didn’t need Sheed or Tayshaun to shoot or score much.
daniel: Yeah, but their percentage of points scored is too low.
me: You hear what I’m saying? We can’t say what could’ve been. Like how much they could’ve scored.
daniel: I think we can safely say that Ben Wallace would not have picked up the slack if needed.

12:22 AM me: Looking at the Suns: Amare, Marion and Qrich in that first season of seven seconds or less…..
daniel: That’s a very good scoring unit, but a very bad defensive unit.
me: Yeah, true. Though Marion was an excellent defender and per 100 possessions was that actually a bad defensive team? I mean they gave the other team more possessions…therefore, even shooting a worse percentage, the other team was bound to score more. No? Isn’t that the per-100 argument?
daniel: They scored 54.6 % of the teams points, and arguably the two best players on that team were not in that group (Nash and Johnson). Their pace adjusted rating is 17th.
me: Johnson, at that point, was not top two on that team. I like him…a lot, but no way. At that point in time, Marion was that good of a player all around.
daniel: When Joe Johnson broke his face against the Spurs, the series was over and people who knew the game knew that.
me: Yeah, but if they lost Amare or Marion it also would’ve been over, too, no? The answer is yes, they would have lost without either of those two players.
daniel: Yeah, that’s true. Regardless, Nash was the best aspect of that team.
me: Of course.
daniel: They could have lost Q Rich and still won—

12:27 AM me: WAIT! So does the best player on the team have to be in the frontcourt for it to be the best frontcourt?
daniel: No, but I think it counts against them if it’s not, like if the front court is the second option, if they aren’t driving the team. And if the front court is scoring because their pg gets them amazing looks, or because their sg takes all the pressure off them, it should count against them
me: It’s tough to gauge who’s better sometimes. It’s like the chicken versus the egg argument; does a great lowpost player make his pg look good or does a good pg make a bad frontcourt player look good.

12:29 AM me: Anyway, moving on for a second, what do you think about the 03-04 Lakers?
daniel: …
me: You see what I wrote?
daniel: Yes.
me: Scratch it, because their small forward was Dev. George. Ewwwwww!
daniel: To be honest, though, I am leaning towards last year’s Magic team.
me: Did you look at the Laker’s frontcourt last year, stats-wise? Just peak at their stats—under whelmed.

12:32 AM me: The thing is, and have you been factoring this in, being that the frontcourt is three players and the backcourt two, statistically speaking, shouldn’t the point per game numbers and percentages automatically be skewed to favor the frontcourt? Now obviously that doesn’t take the fact that guards score more into account; but still…Is that something we should be factoring in?

12:39 AM me: You here, broda? What, you headed to sleep already, fool?

12:43 AM daniel: Went to grab some eats and now I’m back. As to that Q of yours: guards score more, and there are reserves, so it’s not set up that 60% of scoring comes from three players. So, no, we’re good with our stats so far. Have you thought about the Champion Cs with Pierce and KG and Perkins?
me:I said that a mad many minutes ago. Problem is: Perk didn’t do as much then.
daniel: Let’s see.
me: You looking at the stats or am I?
daniel: They accounted for 45% of the Celts’ points; 20.4 rpg; and they were the number one D in the A.
me: Eh. Magic, Kings and a handful of teams have done better.

12:48 AM me: What about 04-05 MIA Heat? Shaq, Eddie jones and Udon. Haslem?
daniel: Check the numbers…
me: They’re not good enough.
daniel: I doubt they would be; not a great group.

12:51 AM daniel: Here’s another thing I would look at to help differentiate between the Magic and the Kings: the difference in rebounds is not that great, but I wonder about offensive rebounds? Is there a real difference there?
me: Good point. Worth looking at, I’d say.
daniel: I’d bet the magic win that battle.

12:53 AM me: What about the early Aughts Trail Blazers? Sheed, Sabonis, Pippen or Steve Smith or Bonzi Wells.
daniel: Were Sheed and Z Randolph ever together—and by that I mean, were both ever seeing minutes on the same team?

12:56 AM daniel: By the way, if you’re not counting this year’s teams for the award, you have to count the 99-00 season.
me: True. Agreed. Doesn’t change much for me, though. Oh, and I’m looking at the Kings throughout the decade right now. Then I have three more teams to look at: Spurs; Jazz; Wizards. All have potential: Duncan; Boozer, Okur and Dr. Dre AK-47; Caron Butler, Jamison, Haywoood.

12:59 AM me: Oh, sh*t! The 00-01 Kings were better than the 01-02 version. Webber and Vlade were playing better and putting up better numbers—even if the team didn’t go as far. Please double-check that for me.
daniel: Webber, Vlade and Peja accounted for 58.7% of that team’s points scored; 25.2 rpg; 6.4 orpg; 9.5 apg; 3 bpg; 7th best D.
me: How does that compare to the  01-02 version….?
daniel: Looking at that year, 54.3% of points; 23.8 rpg; 6.4 orpg; 11 apg; 2.8 bpg.
me: So 00-01 is better at scoring %, rebounds, just not assists…So, if you had to choose, based on what we just saw….the 00-01 version didn’t get as far, but produced better results stats-wise. Agreed?
daniel: Yes, and they were better at O-boarding than last year’s Magic. So throw them into the mix—to the top of the mix, actually.

1:10 AM me: Continuing: 07-08 Washington Wiz also were very good.
daniel: it’s Jamison, Haywood and Butler?
me: Yeah, not bad, no?
daniel: 53% of team’s ppg; 24.1 rpg; 7.7 orpg
me: Check the steals and blocks, too. They’re numbers should have been pretty good, I believe.
daniel: 7.3 apg; 2.4 bpg (woof)
me: ugh.
daniel: 3.9 spg
me: Spg is nice, but irrelevant-ish when looking at big men. I mean, not irrelevant but less important than if we were discussing guards.
daniel: And their D was 24th best after adjusting it for pace of play.
me: Ok, so they’re clearly out.

1:14 AM me: How about this one; their stats are surprisingly dope: the 2005-6 Jazz.
daniel: AK47, Okur and Boozer? Wow…looking at the numbers…54% of ppg; 25.7 rpg; 7.1 orpg—
me: 4.3 bpg and 9.4 apg, right? This group is surprisingly really f*cking good.
daniel: Yeah, but 21st in D with the pace adjustment. Weird, though, Kirilienko is considered great defensively—at least he was that year.
me: And they had a low combined shooting percentage. But, they’re a surprising entrant into the discussion. By the next year, with Deron Williams there, they drop like crazy in the frontcourt. It’s amazing, but not surprising.

1:18 AM me: I’m on my last team, the spurs, gonna go through them and then we’ll assess the winner.
daniel: What about the Lakers with Shaq, Malone, and George? How did they stack?
me: Not really well. Look that up real quick, if you can, I’m on to the Spurs.
daniel: Uch, they do not stack up at all. Forget it.
me: Hahah, told ya that mad earlier. It’s kinda amazing that no Spurs team ever had a sick frontcourt in the Aughts. I just finished looking. Because of a weak small forward stats-wise or because  Admiral Robinson was on the downside, they just never had that frontcourt. I mean Duncan individually is the best power forward ever, but he never played with two other good bigs, especially not after Robinson dipset.
daniel: In 99-000 they scored 49.5% of ppg and grabbed 26.5 rpg.
me: Good, but we’ve seen much better,  and it went downhill from there—guards took over, Parker and Manu.

1:36 AM me: On to the last one: Tyson Chandler/David West/Peja. I just need to check this one and then we can call it.
daniel: This is pretty good. It’s 49% of their ppg and 24.9 rpg.

1:38 AM daniel: I think as it stands it’s between the Kings of 00-01 and the Magic of last year—with outside chance 07-08 Nuggets.
me: With that Jazz trio mentioned at some point. as a surprisingly good frontcourt.
daniel: Surprise guests should include the Jazz and last year’s Rockets.
me: Yeah.

1:40 AM daniel: The 05-06 Nuggs were also very good: 52% of ppg; 4.7 bpg; 23.1 rpg; 6.2 apg; 3.3 spg; but only the 13th ranked D.
me: Right. I’m caught between two teams, man. In your mind, who’s the winner: Sacramento in 00-01 or the Magic last year or someone else all together?
Daniel: One of those two. I have to stew on it.
me: ok, stew. We’ll talk post-stewing

2:09 AM daniel: Okay, so the Kings of 2000-01 were the best frontcourt of the decade, better than the 2008-09 Magic, and here is why:
more orpg
more rpg
higher percentage of team ppg
more apg
more spg
better fg% (53.8 to 47.2)
better ft% 74.2 to 69.2
Though there are a few things that point to the magic, but most of the differences are pretty trivial: .3 orpg; .4 rpg; .4 apg; 3.9% of teams ppg (this is big but not huge); they also have .7 more blocks per game; took almost 400 more ft; and these are the big two, took 66.9% of the teams total fts (compared to 54%) and took 48.2% of the teams fgs compared to 45.6%.
I think it’s very close, though.
me: Let’s look at the tie-breaker that I just made up: who had the better individual players. Meaning Peja versus hedo; Webber versus Lewis; Vlade versus Howard. I would say two of the three head-to-heads go to Kings, no?
daniel: Webber beats Lewis;Howard beats Divac; Peja is a better scorer than Hedo, but I wouldn’t run an offense through him the way you might through Hedo (2.2 apg compared to 4.9 apg)
me: right. Peja wa so good at that point, though.Anyway, let me write Kings cause they were more fun. You know how much crap I would take for that?
daniel: Head-to-head, for me, would be: Hedo versus Webber, and Webber wins that. And Peja beats Lewis cause they are the same player.
me: Interesting breakdown.
daniel: But Peja shot a better percentage…
me: I had it the other way in my h-to-h because  of listed positions.
daniel: I mean Webber and Hedo are very similar,with the assisting ability factored in.
me: Right. I hear that, as to why that comparison works better. So Kings it is.
daniel: Barely. The defense factor really makes it uber close. Plus the Finals factor (Orlando) versus the conference finals (Kings).
me: Change of heart, again, maybe? So now success factors in?
daniel: Technically they both lost to the western conference champs, and they both lost to the eventual champs.
me: I like that; that’s a nice way to look at it.
daniel: I still think Kings but by literally the tiniest of margins— like a hair, at the end of a pimple at the end of the nose difference.
me: I’m more than down with that. The Kings had the frontcourt of the decade…wow.

2:28 AM me: By the way, if you’re down, I’m gonna clean up this chat and run it as my column for the “decade’s best” piece.
daniel: Cool with me.
me: Ok, great. After all the help your provided me with, it wouldn’t be fair if I just ran with everything we’ve said and threw my byline on it and forgot about Douek.


For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.