The Plight of the NBA’s Dying Role: the “Bigger T.J. McConnell”

It’s February 28th. A day after Dwyane Wade turned back the clock and broke Sixers’ hearts. Three days after the Wizards had snapped a Philadelphia 7-game winning streak. Reports are breaking that the Sixers have released Trevor Booker (and later, that the roster spot was meant for the return of Ersan Ilyasova).

With little fanfare, he went. Resoundingly, the trumpets were saved for the upgrade the Sixers had just received: a “shooter,” a “floor spacer,”  and “bench depth” for a player who buzzes around the rim on an expiring contract. If you look at the numbers of the two in a Sixers uniform, the pro-Ersan argument becomes even more convincing from a production standpoint:

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It’s fair to note that Booker played half the games and half the minutes as Ilyasova, but if you double Booker’s stats, he’d still fall short in most categories. And truth be told, this isn’t the tanking Sixers of old: the emphasis with role players is far less on talent-evaluation (seeing who could make a future roster) and far more on immediate production. This is playoffs Sixers–there’s no leniency for glue guys who don’t rebound, assist, or shoot at a high volume.

I could point out that Booker had a 125 Offensive Rating (an estimate of points produced or scored per 100) with the Sixers, while Ilyasova’s highest is 109. On the opposite end of the court, I could throw in that Ilyasova’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus (estimate of defensive points per 100 a player contributed above a league-average player) comes in at -1.4 in those 62 games. Booker is slightly above average at 0.5 through 33. However, fans and media are not going to go crunching stats to determine worth when 14 PPG vs 4.7 PPG is right in front of their noses. And teams, in the high-octane modern model of the NBA, are finding that point-production is king and offense wins championships. One only needs to look at the Houston Rockets, and their Trevor-Booker-with-end-product Clint Capela, as evidence.

To contextualize the trajectory that the NBA is taking with offense and aesthetics, I’ll give an NFL analogy. Think of Booker as a backup running back (ignoring the few teams embracing the running back by committee resurgence), and think of Ilyasova as a backup wide receiver. Which role is more important? Which position is prioritized in the draft? More playing time? More designed play-calls? The NBA is moving along with the same philosophy of “air it out” and Booker is the bruising, in-the-trenches running back once so valuable to a team’s offensive identity (or a fullback, if I really wanted to nail home the increasing obscurity of his role). That is how far the NBA has distanced itself from around-the-rim play.

And so, I was sorry to see Booker go. Sorry, but not surprised. Although his game is one that is increasingly subjected to the end of a bench, I would’ve liked to see him stay in Philadelphia–a city exemplified by an identity of grit, hustle, and underdog status. Because I know that this city understands that heart can’t be measured, no matter how far you dig into the numbers. Goodbye, Trevor Booker: my second favorite “Bigger T.J. McConnell” (behind Nick Collison).

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Sonics Rising

 

 

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