“There is real hope that Eddy will develop into a league-leading center,” (Knicks owner James) Dolan said. “If you watched the second quarter of the San Antonio game he was pretty good. That’s Larry’s job … to get him from one quarter to four quarters.”
New York Daily News
March 02, 2006
Whether it’s due to the variety of cultures or the sheer number of inhabitants, New Yorkers rarely agree on anything. However, thanks to James Dolan & the Knicks front office, 2006 has given New Yorkers a topic all can agree upon: The New York Knicks suck. While Big Apple residents often have the propensity to overstate their cases, it’s hard to be a contrarian on this issue. At 17 wins and 44 losses, New York is dead last in the NBA standings. Additionally the Knicks have the NBA’s worst salary cap situation. Not only do they currently have the league’s highest salary, but they continue to trade for and sign players to exorbitant long term contracts.
Since their 2000 season ended, the boys in blue & orange have been in a slow & steady decline. It’s no coincidence that the Knicks demise is accompanied by two major events that left them absent of a quality big man. Patrick Ewing was traded to Seattle in the summer of 2000, and Marcus Camby was sent packing over a year later. While I’m not obtuse enough to think that you need a dominant center to win in the NBA, New York’s most successful teams have been lead by the man in the middle. The 70s Knicks wouldn’t have been the same without Willis Reed. Patrick Ewing kept the team afloat in the 80s and 90s. And Marcus Camby almost catapulted them to an improbable Finals victory in 2000. Since then, the Knicks have attempted to fill this void with undersized power forwards like Kurt Thomas and Mike Sweetney. New York’s only playoff appearance in this period was when they had a serviceable (but past his prime) Dikembe Mutombo roaming the paint.
It’s probably these kinds of thoughts Isiah Thomas had in his head when he signed Eddy Curry for 6 years and $60M. Curry is only 23 years old, and at a listed 6’11 285lbs is no undersized power forward. There is no doubt that once Curry releases the ball, he is an able scorer. In David Crockett’s last KB.Net article, he said of Curry:
You can count nine centers with better offensive production (Shaq, Duncan, both Wallaces, Ilgauskas, Brad Miller, Zo, Okur, and Gadzuric), and all but Gadzuric are a good bit older than Curry.
And this is where the opinions of Curry begin to diverge. Although he doesn’t lack the ability to score, it’s the other aspects of the game that elude Eddy. He seems disinterested on the defensive end, is a timid defensive rebounder, and turns the ball over too often. When Isiah Thomas decided to pursue Eddy Curry, he must have thought that these attributes would change. In fact the quote above shows that the Knicks owner, James Dolan, feels the same way. But is this true? How likely is it that New York’s present center will become their center of the future?
To answer a question like this, we just need to look in the past. To find players similar to Mr. Curry, I limited myself to 23 year olds who were 6’10 or taller. I also limited myself to the last 25 years, or what I would term the modern era of the NBA (1980 or since). This is due to the changes in the game including the ABA/NBA merger, the three point line, gaps in statkeeping (blocks, steals, turnovers), etc. Using this information, we can gauge how likely it is for Curry to become a more productive player. If we look at 23 year old players whose defensive rebounding rates were close to Curry’s (5.0 & 6.2 DREB/40 min) we find that after 3 years those same players on average saw a meager increase of 0.5 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes. Optimists will find comfort in the knowledge that there were a few players who started out as timid as Eddy, and turned into excellent rebounders.
Marcus Camby was an awful rebounder for the Toronto Raptors, which is probably the reason they traded him to New York. In his first two years he averaged 5.5 and 5.3 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes. In New York, his rates steady increased until blossoming as a full time starter in 2001. That year Marcus averaged 9.9 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes, nearly double his average in Toronto. Another player who went from hyalophobe to hyalophile is Jayson Williams. Like Camby, in his first two seasons Williams showed a fear of glass for the Sixers. And just like Marcus, Jayson nearly doubled his defensive rebounding by age 26, snaring 10.0 DREB/40min.
Camby and Williams show that it’s not impossible for Curry to become a strong rebounder. However if you’re going to start to tout Curry as a future All Star, you might want to preface your statement with something to the effect of being a blind optimist who will be winning the lotto in the near future. By looking at defensive rebounding averages of all players from age 23 to 36 (see graph below), players will hit their peak around the age of 27 and begin to decline at around 32. From this data it might be reasonable to incur that Curry will be at best a league average rebounder for a man of his size, and at worst remain a poor rebounder.
By using this same technique, we can also analyze his turnover and blocked shot rate. The next two charts reveal that both turnovers and blocked shots decrease steadily as a player ages. That turnovers decrease is a good sign for the Knicks, since it’s a major weakness in Curry’s game. As poster NGLI pointed out, the Knicks young center is prone to being stripped due to keeping the ball too low and is called for offensive charging by bowling over his defenders. If Eddy can improve on his career 3.3 TO/40 minutes, it’d make him a legitimate offensive option, one the Knicks can feed into the post without effectively giving the other team the ball in the process. As for blocked shots, it looks as if it’s a skill a player either has or does not have. I did eyeball a few of the league’s best shot swatters, and their rates do increase. Nonetheless for everyone else it’s just a skill that erodes as a player gets older.
Armed with this data it’s clear that Eddy Curry will remain a “Baby Shaq” and never become the real deal. The safe money is that he should be able to reduce his turnovers enough to become an offensively productive center. Unfortunately he’ll never be strong on the defensive end, either in rebounding or blocking shots. Now is this the definition of a “league-leading center” that the Knicks front office had in mind when they gave away a couple of first round picks and signed Curry to $60M? That’s something New Yorkers can debate about for the next few years.