The Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics are essentially the same team with one exception: Boston has a legitimate center in Mark Blount, and that makes all the difference.
I am going to try to prove to you that the Suns and Celtics are approximately the same team, though the Celtics have a legitimate center. The way I'm going to prove it is to go through the top several players from each team, show how they are approximately equal or at least comparable, and then come up to the center spot, where Boston's Mark Blount has the clear advantage.
Both Phoenix and Boston have a franchise wing player, competition between two of their best players for the other wing spot, a potential future Hall of Fame point guard backed up by a lightning-fast defensive-minded second-year player, and some young beef in the frontcourt. On to the details!
Numbers marked in bold represent the leader in that category between the two players being compared. "Yr" means number of years in the league and "Ht/Wt" means height and weight, according to NBA.com. Bear in mind that weight, in particular, may not be correctly updated to reflect offseason adjustments.
THE FRANCHISE WING PLAYER
Pierce puts up statistics like a small forward though he is plugged into the shooting guard spot. Marion puts up statistics like a power forward though he is plugged into the small forward spot. Both will find they play some time at the other position as the season goes on and as their respective coaches decide at points to go small. Pierce has the edge in points and assists but Marion has the clear defensive edge, from steals and blocks to rebounds. Marion also shoots a little better, though last year was Pierce's worst shooting year of his career. Over their careers, both Marion and Pierce average exactly 35.6% from beyond the arc.
COMPETITION FOR THE OTHER WING PLAYER: THE OLD-TIMER
Welsch is a better rebounder than Johnson, so I've marked his 3.7 boards per game higher than Johnson's because had he played the same minutes as Johnson (and kept the same rebounding rate), he would have averaged 5.6 rebounds per game. Welsch is also a better marksman from the three-point line, and has more steals.
Both have been with their teams at least a little longer than the competition, and both were the starters last year. But with Quentin Richardson coming to Phoenix over the summer, and Ricky Davis halfway through last season to Boston, these guys will feel the competition. None of these four players have any assurances about cracking the starting five, and each may find himself on the bench to start the game even though he is in his own coach's estimation one of the five best players on the team.
There is one other ironic similarity between Welsch and Johnson: both have been Celtics for one year in their career.
COMPETITION FOR THE OTHER WING PLAYER: THE NEWCOMER
Both are players who moved over from losing teams where they were one of the top options, Q from the Clippers and Davis from the Cavs. Davis spent the last 70% of last season in Boston, coming off the bench in all but 5 games. Richardson did not have to face such substantial time as a sixth man but may find himself in that spot now.
Both players are gunning to wrest the starting spot away from its previous owner and are looking to prove themselves the cornerstone at that position. Richardson and Johnson are duking it out for the shooting guard slot while Davis and Welsch are competing for the small forward slot. Both want to play alongside the franchise wing player, be it Marion or Pierce, in the starting lineup.
Richardson is a better rebounder than Davis, but Davis is better at assists, steals, and overall field goal percentage. The reason his field goal percentage dominates Richardson's is because he doesn't take nearly as many threes as Q, though he has a better three-point percentage. Both players took about 1,000 shots last season. For Q, nearly a third were three-pointers. For Davis, it was only about 15%.
Who could have imagined that Ricky Davis would be praised for his shot selection? Yet here we are. For all his emotional volatility and trade rumors, here's one analyst hoping he stays with the Cs.
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STARTING POINT GUARDS
Both teams have wily veterans running their point position. Just comparing last year's numbers, the two are very similar in production. Nash shoots better both from the free throw line and beyond the arc, but Payton gets more steals and blocks. It's your typical offensive efficiency vs. defensive efficiency argument. Payton also has an advantage in rebounding.
The one area where Nash dominated Payton last year -- assists -- is a bit deceiving. Both players had career years in assists last year: Nash had his career high and Payton had his career low. If regression has taught us anything, it is to expect some movement back to their career averages. In that department, Payton leads Nash by a margin of 7.2 assists per game to 6.0. Factor in Payton's age and the two are probably approximately equivalent. Even the minutes they saw last year were about the same, with the elder Payton actually playing more.
As a GM, you'd take Nash over Payton every day of the week and twice on Sundays because he's younger, shoots better, and is under contract for a long time. He can be a cornerstone of a franchise looking to return to the Finals. But if you're just looking for this year and this year only, and if you give Payton the benefit of having salary come off the cap... in other words, if you skew the rules to favor Payton, then what you get is they are about equal, apart from the offense vs. defense distinction.
Even the type of games they prefer and the type they will run are similar. Both like to push the ball on the fast break and find teammates to reward.
BACKUP POINT GUARDS
These two are probably two of the most similar players in the league.
Last year, for the first time in 16 years, two rookies claimed the top two spots in steals per 48 minutes. Number one was Marcus Banks with 3.05 steals per 48 minutes. Number two was Leandro Barbosa with 2.98 steals per 48 minutes.
Both were born in late November, though Barbosa is a year younger and an inch taller. Both are defensive powerhouses and a bundle of energy. Both will benefit tremendously this year by the lessons they will receive at the hands of their potential future Hall of Fame mentors.
THE YOUTHFUL FRONT COURT
This marks the end of our statistical comparisons. Amare Stoudemire has no equal on the Celtics. Much as I appreciate Kendrick Perkins and his well-rounded game, he is no Stoudemire. At least not yet.
Furthermore, much as I appreciate Big Al Jefferson and what he brings to the Celtics with him, he is also not quite Stoudemire. At least not yet.
Physically, all three players are similar. They are each listed at 6-10 and Stoudemire is the lightest of them all, at 245 pounds compared to 280 for Perkins and 265 for Jefferson. Here in particular these numbers may be flawed as they probably don't represent offseason changes.
Stoudemire is 2-3 years older than these guys so the potential is still there for them to develop into something special.
In particular, I am still holding out for Al Jefferson to follow in Stoudemire's footsteps and be named the surprise Rookie of the Year.
But of course the edge here goes to the Suns, and it is the only edge that does so of all of the positions. I won't bother comparing Raef LaFrentz or Tom Gugliotta or Walter McCarty to Stoudemire. In his best years, Googs was better than Stoudemire, but those days are nearly a decade behind him. Raef, meanwhile, never approached the 20-point, 10-rebound plateau that Stoudemire achieves with such seeming ease. And does it really matter that McCarty has a better three-pointer than Stoudemire?
So it is granted that the power forward spot is the strength of the Suns and the relative weakness, at least until Big Al comes through, of the C's.
Both teams have youth for the future in their frontcourt. The Celtics have Big Al and Perkins. The Suns have Stoudemire, Maciej Lampe, Zarko Cabarkapa, and Jackson Vroman.
THE CENTER SPOT
This is where the Suns take a dive. Who can they put up against Mark Blount? Jake Voskuhl? It isn't even close.
Stoudemire grabbed more rebounds but he played more minutes. If Blount's numbers are scaled up to reflect the same minutes, he would also average 9.0 boards. He would also be comparable in assists, and actually lead slightly with steals, and be tied exactly with blocks. That leaves just two categories open for comparison: total points and field-goal percentage. Stoudemire got more points but Blount was more effective.
The plan for Phoenix is to, at times, play Stoudemire at center. Such a strategy typically works for smaller players who have good range, with the idea being that they can draw out the big lumbering giant to the perimeter, opening up the paint for the slashing guards. But Stoudemire is no threat from the perimeter.
The other possibility is to use a quick guy to beat the lumbering giant back up court. And Stoudemire is fast, to be sure. But Blount is no lumbering giant. He runs fast breaks quite well, and gets back on defense. That strategy won't work either.
On the flip side, if Stoudemire is to defend the opposing center, he will have his hands full not only with the likes of Shaq, but with the Blount as well. Blount can easily hit his 10- to 15-foot shots over Stoudemire and what's more important, he can pass over him to cutting teammates as well.
Furthermore, with Stoudemire playing out of position and probably at a slight disadvantage to Blount, who will man the power forward position? Suddenly Phoenix's only clear superiority over Boston has become its biggest weakness.
The conclusion is as expected. Boston and Phoenix have exceptionally similar teams but the Celtics boast a legitimate center. I wrote an article explaining why signing Blount was Boston's best offseason move, and within a few days, I read that Red Auerbach feels the same way.
Now we know why.
If Phoenix had been able to get Erick Dampier or some other name-brand, legitimate center (did they even pursue Mark Blount?), they would be the favorites in my book to win the Pacific Division, much like the Celtics are my favorites to win the Atlantic Division. As it stands, they will likely make the playoffs, but until they add someone in the middle, they will fare no better than Nash's previous center-less team, the Dallas Mavericks. At best, they will make it to the second round.
The Celtics? If everything goes their way, they can make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. Only three teams are stronger: Indiana, Detroit, and Miami. Depending on how things play out, i.e., if Miami has a great but not amazing regular season and finds itself in the seventh seed facing either the Pistons or the Pacers, the Celtics will have a relatively straightforward road to the second round, and if the Heat advance on Shaq's back, that would be a tough but not impossible route to the promised land.