Why Channing Frye Is Better at Center Than Power Forward

Enough talking about GMs for a few hours. Later this morning, Hedo Turkoglu will be introduced as the Suns' newest player. 

Paul Coro mentioned in the AZ Republic that Turk might play the Power Forward position for the Suns, much like Boris Diaw did in 2005-06 season as a point-forward and secondary ball handler.

This would be a good, as well as bad, thing. Turkoglu is a terrible rebounder, and the common thinking is that the Suns would be killed if Turk played PF for too long. 

So this has led Suns fans to hunt for a better option. But who?

Poor Hakim Warrick - no one wants him to get 30-35 minutes a game at PF, including me. Not that Warrick has no chance to succeed, but giving him 30+ minutes severely reduces the minutes of other player(s) who deserve them more. Lawal is too young. Collins is a mystery. If either plays a lot this season, that's a sure indication of more losses than wins. Teams just don't win 50+ games and make the Conference Finals by giving significant minutes to a rookie PF. And Clark is not a good option, either. He has the size, but he's mentally encumbered with the thought that he's a 6'2" shooting guard.

Who's left? Apparently, many think Channing Frye should take PF minutes. Here's why that SHOULD NOT happen.

Well on the surface, Frye sure "seems" like a Power Forward. He is tall and lean (though 248 pounds is not light as a feather), he likes to shoot outside shots, and spends most of his time on offense outside the painted area. This all screams POWER FORWARD or STRETCH 4.

But that's conventional thinking. And the Suns have never been conventional. 

  • The Suns are at a height disadvantage on most nights. If the other team can successfully play two 7-footers at all times, then they will get more rebounds simply by standing taller than the Suns' guys. The middle of the road in the NBA last season was 41.8 rebounds per game. So, given the height disparity, how did the Suns come in 7th, at 43.0 rebounds? And middle-of-the-pack in differential (Suns' rebounds vs. opponents' rebounds)? Not one of the Suns' players was an above-average rebounder. The answer: mismatches. A rebounder, by physical definition, is not successful at guarding a player in space. With Frye on the floor, standing around the 3-pt line, setting/coming off screens, the other team could not afford to play two rebounders at a time. As a result, the Suns' inherent height disadvantage was negated.  And, Amare would get a lumbering biggie, which helped him win the offensive battle. Only LA had the mobile bigs to offset this over the course of an entire game.
  • Lopez-Frye, yin-yang. But of course, there are diminishing returns to a mismatch. Over the course of an entire game, the other teams would figure it out. They would scheme to win the rebounding battle anyway by playing lighter and faster and more aggressive. Enter Robin Lopez, a traditional play-inside-the-paint Center. Robin was yin to Channing's yang. Suddenly, the Suns were switching up on the other team just as they'd get settled into one style. If the other team went small and played well at it, the Suns would go big (Lopez). And vice versa.
  • Low-post defense. Surprisingly, Channing became a good post defender - on the low block - by the end of the season. He was effective against Tim Duncan and Gasol/Bynum, as long as they stayed in the painted area, second only to Robin (and miles ahead of Stoudemire). Lou Amundson got crazy blocks and a lot of rebounds, but was a real liability when defending the low post, as well. Conversely, Channing is really bad in space, trying to defend at 15 feet from the basket. Opponents would shoot over him or drive past him with ease. 

So for those three reasons (mismatches, yin-yang to Lopez and low-post defense), Channing is better at the CENTER position than the Power Forward position. What the Suns need is a PF who can guard from the high-post or wing, on down. This *could* be Earl Clark someday. He is big and tall and yet very quick on his feet. 

In the meantime, we cannot take away Channing's strengths just to pigeon-hole him into a traditional position based on his physical characteristics.

That is why the Suns re-signed him to 6 mill a year, and why they are mentioning Turkoglu at Power Forward. This is not because they think Turkoglu fits there best, but rather because that's the most-available position at this time, given the C position (Frye, Lopez) and SF positions are solid, and we need to find 25+ minutes a game for Turk.

How will Hedo Turkoglu do at Power Forward?

Let's start by harkening back to 2005-06 season, when Boris Diaw was the Suns PF. Boris averaged 13 points game without being able to hit an open jump shot, along with 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists.

Boris couldn't dribble, but was a great passer off the left elbow (outer corner of the painted area), as well as from directly under the hoop with no one guarding him. He averaged 6.2 assists that season, second only to Nash's 10.5. The two of them accounted for 2/3 of the Suns' assists each game (Barbosa averaged 2.8 and Bell 2.6). Boris' assist rate that season was 30.5 (percentage of plays in which Boris touched the ball that ended in an assist by him), with an overall career rate of 24.2.  Hedo's assist rate, by contrast, has been about 19.2. He is not quite the same passer, but he's a much better shooter/scorer.

With regard to rebounding, Boris' rebound rate that season was 10.8 (percentage of missed shots that he rebounded). His career average - playing the PF position exclusively in Phoenix AND Charlotte - is 9.4 (bottom 15% of all qualifying power forwards). Turkoglu's career rebound rate is even worse, at 8.6. We can expect a slight uptick though, considering how many MORE caroms will be in his vicinity as the PF on running team, just as Boris' was higher as a Sun than before and after. (Amare, by contrast, has a career rebound rate of 14.7). 

*All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com and espn.com (Hollinger/insider)

Sounds bleak, since the Suns were KILLED on the glass in 2005-06, outrebounded by 4 per game that season.  But after Kurt Thomas went down in February, missing the rest of the season, the Suns front line consisted of Shawn Marion (rebound rate of 16.3 that season) and Tim Thomas (rebound rate of only 7.4) and no one else in the rotation with a rebound rate higher than 8 for the season. That's 1 person (Marion) getting their fair share of available rebounds (10%) per missed shot, given that there are 10 players on the court at a time. One.

By contrast, the returning Suns have 4 of 10 rotation players get their fair share of rebounds on missed shots last season (a rebound rate of 10 or higher): Lopez (14.2), Hill (10.3), Frye (11.0) and Warrick (11.8). Childress (9.6) and Turkoglu (8.9) just missed the cut, as did returnees Richardson (9.2) and Dudley (8.0). But that is a lot better than the 2005-06 team.

You may discount the second half of this column - comparing PF Boris Diaw in 2006 to the prospect of Hedo Turkoglu in 2010 - and that's fine.  Two different eras. Two different NBAs.

But Hedo is the best fit at PF that we have at the moment, and the Suns' supporting cast in 2010 is a lot more equipped to handle an undersized/no rebounding PF than that 2006 team ever was.

And, I believe, the Suns will hold their own on the glass in 2010-2011 with 8 of 10 rotation players (sans Nash and Dragic) getting their fair share of available rebounds.

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