Here Comes Leon Powe

August 11th, 2009 by John Krolik

Via Windhorst, it appears that the Cavaliers are about to sign a two-year deal with Leon Powe. I wrote something about the possibility of Powe when the rumors about him first started up, but I’ll try to expand upon those thoughts now. First off, read this excellent send-off to Powe by Zach Lowe over at Celtics Hub. After you’re done with that here, in no particular order, are my thoughts about Mr. Powe’s imminent acquisition:

1. This is a flyer, and a great one.

In my first “profiles in profiling” entry this year, I lamented how teams don’t take risks when it comes to their 12th men. Instead of taking a guy who you know is going to be passably insignificant, why not take a chance on a guy with a 10% chance of being a really good rotation player and a 90% chance of sucking in a spectacular and horrifying manner?

Yes, this is a guy whose best-case scenario is to join the team at the All-Star break, and who’s had such a bad history of knee problems there’s a legitimate chance he’ll never be an NBA-level player. On one level, it’s always scary to give any kind of a contract out when there’s that level of uncertainty involved. (Note: the deal is contingent on a physical exam, and there have been allusions to “protections” the Cavaliers may have in the deal, so the Cavs do have some safety nets in place.)

But on the other hand, this is Leon Powe for the veteran’s minimum. (According to Adrian Wojnarowski’s twitter feed.) That’s the same amount of money the Cavs paid Jawad Williams, Dwayne Jones, Lance Allred, you name it. It’s the minimum. You really can’t pay less than that. And when you start thinking about the deal that way, it looks like a steal from where I’m sitting.

Powe is a year and change removed from having a major impact in the NBA finals. Heck, it wasn’t all that long ago he was considered one of the 5 best players in his year-he was one of the other big names during one of LeBron’s turns at ABCD, if memory serves. When this guy is healthy, almost nobody doubts that he can flat-out play.

2. Leon Powe is really, really, really good at the things he’s good at.

Take this as you will: Leon Powe is about as good as an undersized, unathletic player with no range or ball skills to speak of can be. Yes, there’s a definite ceiling in terms of how many ways he can impact a game. But as a pure banger, Leon Powe is just about as good as they come. Powe had the best offensive rebound rate of any power forward for the second consecutive year last season, and 9th in rebound rate overall.

And offensively, Powe might not have any real jump shot whatsoever, but he knows his limitations and spends what time he has with the ball in the paint, shoving bodies around and trying to get the ball in the basket any way he can. 80% of Powe’s shots came in the immediate basket area last year, and despite his dip in proficiency on layup-type shots from 07-08 to 08-09, his love of the dunk gave him a very respectable 60% mark on “inside” shots.

Like Zach mentioned, Powe isn’t a “pure” post player, but he uses his strength, wide base, and touch to find some way to dump the ball in the basket when he catches the ball in the paint, albeit with little regard for aesthetics. He’s gotten a little better at passing when he’s down there, doubling his assist ratio from 07-08 last year, but he’s still not much of a playmaker down there. (He did improve, but remember that he had the worst assist ratio in basketball in 07-08.)

As many a disgruntled Laker fan will inform you, Powe’s best skill offensively is his ability to throw his body around in the paint and draw fouls-had he qualified, his 28% “draw foul” rate would have put him behind only Dwight Howard in the entire NBA. Leon Powe is one of the most efficient backup 4s in the league because he’s a guy that’s an artist in the scrum. He doesn’t see a need to try to do anything other than what he knows, make sense of the chaos that takes place when the ball is bouncing, the bodies are banging, and the elbows are flying under the basket.

3. Fit is a concern.

For all Powe’s strengths skill-wise, he still has major disadvantages athletically: he is much smaller than most centers and much slower than most power forwards. And he can’t stretch the floor. With Zydrunas, he’ll be relied on to show on pick-and-rolls and defend the perimeter, a dicey proposition. With Shaq, not only would he have to show on pick-and-rolls, but the floor spacing would get destroyed. With Anderson, the spacing is a concern, plus one of the two could have to guard a true 7-footer. Like a lot of Ferry’s acquisitions this off-season, the arrival of Powe seems to signal more small-ball lineups with LeBron, Moon or Parker playing the de facto 4 spot, and taking chances with Powe using his strength to guard the post.

Like a lot of blue-collar, undersized 4s who PER-type stats love (Powe, Chuck Hayes, Ike Diogu), Powe looks fantastic from an efficiency standpoint because he’s a role player who’s completely aware of his own limitations, is extremely good at a few things on the court, and doesn’t deviate from what he knows he’s good at. The flip side is that he can hurt the versatility of a 5-man unit by not being able to fill gaps and play a role within the greater system that asks him to do something outside of his very specific comfort zone.

So while I love Powe as a guy who can give impact minutes off the bench and even be the focus of a 3rd or 4th unit, I’m not sure if it’s realistic to see him as a guy playing long stretches of important minutes at any point down the line, even if he’s completely healthy. Boston was able to cover him pretty nicely, especially in 07-08, but remember that they have two legitimate defensive aces on their front-line in terms of KG and Kendrick Perkins, two guys who combine size, strength, and mobility in ways that can plug a lot of holes defensively. (And don’t forget the Thibodeau factor; he may be even more of a defensive savant than Mike Brown.)

4. Part of this feels like a JJ Hickson failsafe.

Hickson has a ton of potential, but I feel like he may have picked a really bad time to get a major injury. When he got hurt, he still had a lot of learning to do before he was ready to play serious minutes. Now he’s missed a lot of time at a pretty critical developmental stage, and I don’t think the front office is ready to bet the farm on Hickson being a rotation player this year. Hickson’s got the physical ability and package of skills to be a rotation big, while Powe has the instincts. I think the chances one of them cracks the rotation are better than the chances that both of them do. Part of this move may have been about taking a backup bet on another horse.

But overall, this is a great player and a great guy coming to the Cavaliers with very, very little financial risk involved, so my final position is that I congratulate the front office for getting yet another deal done, congratulate Mr. Powe for finding a team, and hope to see him on the floor reasonably soon.

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