With Josh Powell and Eddy Curry looking like legitimate NBA players in preseason, some Spurs fans want both to stay and replace the often times disappointing bigs Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair. But are Powell and Curry really upgrades?
Let's start with career numbers in some key categories. I looked at shooting efficiency, using effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, and rebounding, using total rebound percentage and defensive rebound percentage. I also used PER as a composite stat and defensive and offensive win shares plus wins produced per 48 minutes to provide an assessment of their impact. I color-coded the chart using green for the best in the bunch, yellow for the second best, orange for the third best and red for the worst.
Now, as you see, It's easy to notice that the top half of the table, which features Blair and Bonner is filled with green and yellow, while the lower half, which are Curry and Powell, is mostly red and orange. Blair is the best rebounder, and has a good win shares per 48 minutes average for his career. Bonner is the worst rebounder of the bunch, but he scores efficiently and has average defensive and offensive wins shares that far exceed anything produced by Curry or Powell. Context matters. Bonner and Blair have always been with a good team, while Curry and Powell have been on some bad teams, but it doesn't look like either has been great in any area throughout their career.
But what about the most recent available numbers? Here is the same table featuring numbers from each player's last NBA season. Powell didn't play in the NBA during 2011-12, so his numbers come from the 2010-11 season, when he played in Atlanta.
The trend is even more notable now. Powell and Curry have been much worse than Bonner and Blair in their recent seasons. Again, it is important to note that Powell wasn't in the league last season, which means his numbers come from the 2010 season and that Curry only played 14 games for the Heat. Nevertheless, it is clear that in terms of production, Blair and Bonner are a step above Curry and Powell both in their careers and in recent seasons. The only category in which Powell is clearly better than Bonner is total rebound percentage. Other than that, he edges Matt by 0.1% in defensive rebound percentage, which is insignificant. Curry was just awful last season.
At this point, it is important to note that these guys are very different players and would fill different roles. Curry can be compared to Blair, but not to Bonner, as the role they would play on the team would be completely different. So let's do a different exercise including all the Spurs big men divided by role. Diaw, Bonner and Powell will be "outside bigs" and Splitter, Blair and Curry will be "inside bigs". Timmeh is excluded because he's Timmeh and because he can play both roles. For inside bigs, we'll focus on offensive rebound percentage and field goal percentage at the rim and for outside bigs we'll look at field goal percentage from 16-23 feet and from behind the arc.
Curry is by far the worst inside big man available. You might say it's not fair to look at his limited run with Miami as a gauge, but at no point in his career has he had similar numbers to Splitter and Blair. You don't need color-coded charts to figure that out since, as JRW mentioned, he has played only 24 games over the last 3 years. There is a reason for that: Curry has not been a productive player, even in a reduced role, in garbage time.
As for Powell, he barely edges Bonner's defensive rebound percentage and ties his percentage in long jumpers on more attempts. The problem is during his last year in the NBA, Powell didn't even shoot a three. And in his entire career, he has taken only 20 three-pointers. He's arguably the better shooter from 16-23 feet, if attempts are taken in consideration, but his range doesn't extend beyond that and Powell is not a good enough rebounder to make that fact irrelevant.
What about Defense?
Now, what stats cannot capture is defense. No one is going to confuse Bonner and Blair with great defenders, so signing someone that might not produce as much but can defend better makes some degree of sense. Unfortunately, Powell and especially Curry are not great defenders. Even if I admitted that they are better on D than Bonner and Blair, respectively, which I am not ready to do, there needs to be a cost/benefit analysis to what the team loses and gains: are these guys good enough defensively to outweigh DeJuan's and Bonner's contributions on offense? The answer seems to be a resounding "no" in Curry's case. Even when he was a highly touted young player, his lack of mobility was one of the biggest knocks on him defensively, and Curry didn't have the shot blocking ability or post defense to make up for that. Powell is more mobile, which is what the Spurs should look for, but is not an ace defender or rebounder. He can hit a mid-range jumper and do an acceptable job on power forwards. But Powell has never had a defensive rating below the team's average and his offensive rating has often been abysmal. If he is an upgrade over Bonner defensively, it is not a considerable one, and he cannot come close to Bonner offensively. Powell is simply not the type of player that transforms a defense, and if the Spurs discount offense, it should be for a player that is.
The only conclusion I can draw is that neither Powell nor Curry seem to be an upgrade over Blair and Bonner. Curry is not even compatible with two of the Spurs' best bigs (Splitter and Duncan) and Powell, while versatile enough to pair next to the inside bigs because of his mid-range jumper, does not figure to be a huge upgrade defensively or on the boards to Diaw or Bonner. While I don't disagree with the notion that changes need to be made to the front line rotation, I doubt these two guys are the answer. That being said, if PATFO gives either a shot, as the 15th man or by moving Bonner or Blair, I'll be comfortable knowing that they saw something in the veterans that makes them believe Powell or Curry can in fact play beyond what they have produced thus far in their careers.