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The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 10/5/05

As I generally think was true of most NBA statistics types, when I first saw that Isiah Thomas had agreed to send Mike Sweetney to the Chicago Bulls as part of a three-player (and multi-pick) package that brought restricted free agent Eddy Curry to New York in a sign-and-trade deal made official yesterday, I initially judged the deal a coup for the Bulls.

For a while now, I've been touting Sweetney as a future star. Here's what I wrote about him last summer for the best NBA blog around,

"Want some incredibly exciting news, Knicks fans? Here are Sweetney’s best age-21 comparables. Number one? Zach Randolph. Number two? Carlos Boozer. If I’m running the Knicks, I do whatever I can to ensure that Sweetney is playing at least 30 minutes per game next season, and let the results speak for themselves. Most Improved Player isn’t a bad guess, and I’ll pick Sweetney so long as a path is cleared for him to start."

It wasn't a great year for undersized young power forwards, was it? While Randolph was injured and Boozer was injured and dealing with trade rumors, Sweetney had a solid but unspectacular second season in New York. He started for the Knicks after the trade deadline, averaging 9.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in that role but seeing only 22.5 minutes of action per game.

Sweetney is still three weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, while Curry won't reach that age until December. Besides making me feel older than I should, this means both players have most of their careers in front of them. How can we make educated guesses at how they will develop?

One way is what I alluded to in the earlier Sweetney comment I quoted - similarity scores. After seeing how useful similarity scores have been to projecting player development in baseball, notably Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system, I pulled together my own version a couple of years ago. (John Hollinger of fame and have similar systems.)

Explaining how the system works is beyond the scope of this column (I went into more detail here), but suffice it to say players are rated compared to league average and standard deviation for that particular season in nine statistical categories - a 'shooting' rating which combines 3-pointers and free throws; two-point percentage; rebounds per minute; possessions per minute; a 'pass' rating; blocks per minute; inside play (using threes and free throws again); minutes per game and overall efficiency. Also included are the player's height and weight because, more than overall ability, I'm looking to rate how the player plays, hoping this reveals development trends.

That brief introduction aside, let's peer into the crystal ball and look at the top ten most similar players for both Curry and Sweetney last season to see if they reveal anything important. I've listed some statistics from the comparable age-22 season (age as of end of year) for each player, as well as their number of All-Star appearances:

Player           Year    Sim    PPG  RPG   FG%   PER A-S
MIKE SWEETNEY    2005           8.4  5.4  .531  16.4   -
Gary Trent       1997   98.81  10.8  5.2  .536  16.8   0 
Otis Thorpe      1985   98.00  12.8  6.8  .600  16.6   1
Charles Barkley  1985   97.96  14.0  8.6  .545  18.3  11
Wayman Tisdale   1987   97.80  14.5  5.9  .513  16.3   0
Charles Oakley   1986   97.36   9.6  8.6  .519  16.5   1
Victor Alexander 1992   96.80   7.4  4.2  .529  13.9   0
Danny Fortson    1998   96.05  10.2  5.6  .452  14.3   0
Mark Landsberger 1978   95.54   5.6  4.9  .506  14.5   0
Al Harrington    2002   95.52  13.1  6.3  .475  14.3   0
Antawn Jamison   1999   95.40   9.6  6.4  .452  16.6   1

Player           Year    Sim    PPG  RPG   FG%   PER A-S
EDDY CURRY       2005          16.1  5.4  .538  16.3   -
Wayman Tisdale   1987   96.65  14.5  5.9  .513  16.3   0
Brad Daugherty   1988   95.45  15.7  8.1  .510  16.2   5
Tom Chambers     1982   95.28  17.2  6.9  .525  15.5   4
Gary Trent       1997   95.22  10.8  5.2  .536  16.8   0
Bill Cartwright  1980   95.21  21.7  8.9  .547  17.9   1
Zach Randolph    2004   95.18  20.1 10.5  .485  19.6   0
Elton Brand      2001   95.14  20.1 10.1  .476  20.4   1
Lonnie Shelton   1978   94.88  14.9  7.1  .514  17.4   1
James Edwards    1978   94.75  14.8  7.2  .453  14.7   0
Otis Thorpe      1985   94.74  12.8  6.8  .600  16.6   1

A couple of interesting things jump out at me right away. The first is that, as been mentioned elsewhere, Curry and Sweetney are fundamentally pretty similar players, with three players appearing on both lists. The three-inch height difference is the main thing separating them; both players are good low-post scorers who are, ahem, a bit thick in the midsection. The main statistical difference is that Sweetney is a substantially better rebounder. Overall, their similarity is 93.88, which is awfully high.

(Trading similar players is nothing new for Isiah Thomas, incidentally. When he dealt Keith Van Horn for Tim Thomas a year and a half ago, they were the two most similar players to each other in the league.)

The second thing I notice is that both players are fairly unique. Those similarity scores are not very high, and sometimes most similar means least dissimilar, which is how Antawn Jamison and Al Harrington end up on Sweetney's list.

If I'm struck by anything about Curry's list in particular, it's how solid it is. None of the players he is similar to developed into big stars (maybe Brad Daugherty would have if not for his troublesome back, but that's conjecture). At the same time, Gary Trent is the only player who couldn't be described as at least approaching All-Star level. With the notable injury exception of Daugherty, most of the veterans comparable to Curry enjoyed lengthy careers.

While Sweetney's list contains undoubtedly the best player in Charles Barkley, it also includes relative NBA washouts in Victor Alexander and Mark Landsberger. The lunchpail types, Charles Oakley and Otis Thorpe (opponents in the 1994 NBA Finals) enjoyed extremely long careers, but Sweetney has yet to demonstrate he can thrive as that kind of role player. (In his defense, it's a lot easier to do that when you're playing next to Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon.)

All in all, I think these lists tend to confirm a bit of NBA conventional wisdom: All things equal, height ages better. Sweetney and Curry will both lose certain skills as they age, but Curry will always be 6-11 and Sweetney 6-8. The importance of that distinction is probably overstated, but that doesn't make it untrue.

That's an argument to take Curry over Sweetney. Now, Curry and his lucrative new contract and the uncertain condition of his heart and the draft picks the Knicks surrendered over Sweetney? That's another column altogether.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA.
He can be reached at

Also see Kevin's previous columns for
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk

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