The other day I wrote that I thought Darko Milicic would contribute more to the Timberwolves this season than Shaquille O'Neal would to the Celtics.
What I didn't make clear enough was that my point is really a story about reputations. O'Neal is a champion and a celebrity. While there is trepidation related to his age and other things, I have seen plenty of commentary suggesting that he could really help the Celtics.
Milicic, meanwhile, has been derided as one of the worst signings of the offseason.
The general point I'm addressing is one I saw on Twitter when word of this bet first was being discussed. Essentially: What has Darko Milicic ever done? How can you compare him to Shaquille O'Neal?
To which I'd respond: How does what they did years ago matter now? And how do we adjust to the reality that no matter how great O'Neal was in his prime, he's so not in his prime anymore?
My point is not that Milicic is better than O'Neal. My point is that the O'Neal signing might seem like a big deal, but probably isn't. And I get that Milicic will be making more money, and therefore could be more productive but still poorer value. My point is really that even though it's a common technique, reputation alone is a lousy way to judge a signing -- it skews drastically to the big names, and away from the players with tarnished reputations like Darko. Meanwhile, they're actually pretty similar players!
Hence the bet -- to highlight that.
On the day I made up the bet, I had no one to bet against. But I'm very thankful that FanHouse's Tom Ziller has stepped forward, and in style. He is not only picking O'Neal, but he's picking him by a country mile, with some fancy and intimidating charts backed up with some powerful rhetoric.
Tom and I spoke a couple of days ago and I made clear that there would be no free passes for injuries or anything else. It's cumulative regular season-long contributions at both ends of the court. I'm not saying Milicic will score more, play better D, have a better PER, be more efficient or anything else. I'm saying that over the course of this season, smart analysis will show he'll produce more at both ends of the floor, in total. In other words, if O'Neal's lumbering fouls up Boston's defense, that'll matter. If one or the other gets suspended, injured, rested or anything else, tough.
And that may not be fair in judging the better player, but it's fair when we're talking about the value of signing this or that player -- players who can get on the floor are more valuable than players who can't.
Tom and I also agreed on something else: If it's close, then at the end of the regular season, we will ask the stat experts who comprise the TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown (my mom, as a non-expert and a partisan, will abstain) to determine the winner. One of them, David Berri, has already done some projecting on this issue, and predicts a close race.
The bet is as follows: Loser has to write some flowery rhetoric about the other guy's player. So if O'Neal is the better performer, I'll be writing about how great he is. And if Milicic proves the more productive, Ziller will sing his praises.