Thus, a thought experiment. Contracts aside, would you rather go through the NBA season with the best possible offensive lineup or the best possible defensive lineup? A couple years ago, I did this exercise with baseball players. For basketball, I'm hypothesizing that the best offensive team available will be better than the best defensive team, but only because those great offensive players are pretty good at defense, too.
Here's the offensive team.
PG - Chris Paul
SG - Kobe Bryant
SF - LeBron James
PF - Dirk Nowitzki
C - Amare Stoudemire
There really isn't much to say about this, other than that they can do absolutely anything on offense, play any style, and there's a real chance they could go undefeated. 130 points per game? Sure. Run the offense through CP3 and LBJ, let Dirk spot up outside, tell Kobe he can do anything he wants, and tell Amare he's going to get at least two alley-oops per game. Unstoppable.
Here's the defensive team, assuming we're going to play an aggressive man to man scheme.
G - Tayshaun Prince
G - Ron Artest
F - Josh Smith
F - Kevin Garnett
C - Marcus Camby
Sub in Rajon Rondo, Bruce Bowen, or Mickael Pietrus for Smith and shift Prince and Artest down a spot if you think they can't handle quicker points, but I love Tayshaun so much that I'd be willing to put him out there in that position, especially with all the shot blockers behind him.
Here's the thing: That defensive team, even with Garnett's salary and Chris Paul's pittance, is still cheaper than the offensive group ($73.6M to $60.7M) and can put the ball in the basket at a pretty good clip, themselves. Moving down the ladder to the guys who are considered fringe-starter types, how much money might a team save by starting a player or two whose value is mostly tied up in defense?
Pietrus was signed for a little less than $5.5 million per year to play defense. All he has to do is be worth a little above average on the season--maybe three wins above replacement?--and he'll have earned his keep. Call him an excellent defensive player, the type that will be deployed on the opponent's star swingman, whoever that is, and a slightly less than average offensive player (though I'd argue his ability to hit threes and attack the basket make him at least average). With increased minutes, Pietrus could certainly be a bargain.
The biggest lesson, though, also comes from Pietrus, and that is that top tier defensive players are so unappreciated that if a guy is at all reasonable on offense, he might be signed for well below his production value. The trick is identifying them before their reputations fully catch up with them, like the Magic did with Pietrus.
Let's say the Bobcats are looking for a swingman in the summer of 2011, after Jason Richardson's deal expires, after the big free agent splurge of 2010, and both Carmelo Anthony and Tayshaun Prince are interested in playing in Charlotte. Anthony is nowhere near the player that LeBron James is, and he's going to get a free agent contract worth somewhere in the area of $19 million per year that summer. It's ludicrous. 'Melo is a great offensive player, but whereas James has the capacity to shut down his man and relishes the flying swat, Anthony's defense is anywhere from "uninterested" to "countdown to offense". There is no way his offense, alone, is worth that much money. Prince is not the offensive force Anthony is, but add his defense and I suspect he's worth at least as much as Carmelo, in sum. He'll sign a free agent deal for something like $13 million per year, leaving an extra $6 million to sign a legitimate point guard who could more than make up whatever difference there is. It's Augustin/Anthony versus Sergio Rodriguez/Prince, and as of now, I'd gladly take Rodriguez and Prince.
Tonight, the Cats are at Milwaukee, 8:30pm start. Woooooooo! Milwaukee! We might be better than they are! Just don't let Michael Redd get hot from outside.