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Already the push has started for the Celtics to pursue 6’11” power forward Charlie Villanueva now that the Bucks have decided not to tender him a qualifying offer that would have been around $4.6 million. (The fact that Villanueva appears to be interested in Cleveland–or at least moved by the affection of Cavs fans on the Twitter–will likely add to the intensity of the “Sign Charlie” movement, if it ever grows to acquire movement status).

Let me toss some cold water on the campaign with three questions:

1) Is Charlie Villanueva worth the full mid-level exception (i.e. about $5.6 million for next season)?

2) Will he take a one-year deal? 

3) Will some team in the NBA decide to throw more than the mid-level at Villanueva, thereby taking the Celtics out of contention to sign him? 

The short answers:

1) Maybe, but not definitely

2) I would bet against it, but more players may decide to go the one-year route this season in hopes of signing a bigger deal next season.

3) Probably

Let’s take a closer look at Villanueva after the jump.One thing is for sure: Villanueva had the best season of his career last in 2009, and he stepped up his offensive production when the Bucks lost Michael Redd for the season in late January. Villanueva set careers highs in points per game (16.2), rebounds per game (6.7), three-point shooting percentage (34.5%), PER (18.6) and usage rate (28.6). The Bucks leaned on Villanueva more than ever before (that usage rate is by far the highest of his brief career), and his offensive efficiency did not take a nose dive under the increased burden. He actually turned the ball over a little bit less last season than in either of the prior two. These are all good signs. 

He’ll turn 25 in August (on my birthday!), so he’s entering his prime. He’s a 6’11” power forward with three-point range, and we like the fact that he Twitters (though perhaps halftime was an inappropriate time to do so) and that he serves as something of an inspiration for children with alopecia

Still, some questions about Villanueva:

1) Can he improve his shooting (fairly bad) shooting numbers? 

2) Is he the right defensive fit for the Celtics?

Let’s start with #2, since, after all, the Celtics are a team that butters its bread with defense (yay bad metaphors!). We all know we haven’t yet found numbers that perfectly capture a player’s defensive contributions, but the numbers we do have suggest Villanueva is an average defensive player at best, a bad one at worst. 

In the last two season, the Bucks have played significantly worse defense with Villanueva on the floor than with him on the bench–and both samples are fairly large, since Charlie only plays about 24 minutes per game, which seems weird to me. Last season, the Bucks gave up 111 points per 100 possessions with Villanueva on the floor and 106 with him on the bench, according to 82games.com; the year before, the split was 116.6 points per 100 possessions with Villanueva on the floor, 111.1 with him on the pine. 

Those just aren’t good numbers. Neither are the PER stats opposing power forwards are putting up against Villanueva–18.3 last season and 20.4 the year before, according to 82games. Don’t even think about trying him against centers, because the stats show they torch him at rates we don’t really want to think about.

Simply put: Villanueva is not Rasheed Wallace on defense. He is not someone who could help neutralize Dwight Howard. Or if he his, he hasn’t shown it yet. 

(In fairness to Villanueva, the Bucks defense improved slightly with him on the court in 2007, but he only played in 39 games that season. His presence made no difference in his rookie year with Toronto. His Basketball Prospectus numbers are pretty average).

One thing Villanueva does VERY well on defense: he rebounds the ball. His grabbed 21.6 percent of available defensive rebounds last season (another career high), good for 13th among 81 forwards who were eligible for the scoring title last season–and ahead of some pretty damn good rebounders, including Paul Millsap, Nene, Pau Gasol and others, according to Basketball Reference. Defensive rebounding is a key building block of any good team defense, so that’s a major plus point on Charlie’s resume. 

But he can defend the screen-roll? Can he guard guys in the post? Can he close out on shooters? These are the things that are foundation of the Celtics defense under Tom Thibodeau.

The answers are all up for debate, but the early returns aren’t encouraging. 

Offensively, Villanueva shoots a lot of jumpers, but not an outrageous amount. (About 65 percent of his field-goal attempts every season are jump shots, according to those 82games links above). Last season was by far his best as a jump-shooter. He recorded an effective field goal percent of about 46 percent in ’09 after hovering around 41 or 42 percent in prior years. 

Why? Because he jacked up about one more three-pointer per game than in 2008 and made them at a slightly improved rate (34.5 percent compared with 30 percent the year before). 

I want to be clear: 34.5 percent is not really a good three-point percentage. Since 1980, only 37 forwards–just a bit more than one person–have attempted more than 250 three-pointers while connecting on fewer than 35 percent of them, according to Basketball Reference. (Hey, guess which forward has the most seasons in the NBA history that fit the above criteria? If you’re reading this, it shouldn’t take more than one guess). 

There were probably a lot of Milwaukee possessions that ended in Villanueva three-point attempts that should have ended some other way. 

My bigger problem with Charlie’s offense is that he has had a very, very difficult team finishing up shots inside. He hit only 48.7 percent of his inside shots last season (dunks excluded) and 47.8 the year before. 

Put simply: That is really bad for a power forward. I went through 82games numbers for 30 players in the NBA who either start at power forward or played starter-type minutes at the PF spot, and only five made inside shots at lower rate than Villanueva: Kevin Love (48 percent), Hakim Warrick (48 percent), Kenyon Martin (46 percent), Ryan Anderson (39 percent–and the closest thing the Nets had to a starting PF for much of this season) and Tyrus Thomas (39 percent). 

The weird thing is Villanueva  hit 61 percent of his inside shots in 2007. What the hell happened? Not playing as many games with Redd and Andrew Bogut probably hurt this season, but what about in 2008? 

All of this said, there’s no denying Villanueva is an interesting guy to look at with the mid-level. He’s 25, and his numbers suggest he’s getting better. For that reason, I doubt the Celtics will be able to sign him. Some team is going to throw $8 million a year at this guy, for multiple seasons. Maybe Villanueva is willing to take less for one season to play for a winner and see if the NBA economy rebounds. If so, the Celtics will have to decide if he can thrive here, and, especially, whether he can raise his defensive game to our level.

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Zach Lowe

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