Where in the World Is Leon Powe?

When Levitt and I were up in Boston a couple months ago to write about the Celtics’ reliance on statistical analysis to make strategic and personnel decisions, one goal was to figure out strengths and weaknesses the Celtics knew about their own players and other teams’ players that weren’t obvious. Danny Ainge and Mike Zarren were understandably not very forthcoming — trade secrets and all that — but Zarren was willing to admit that:

Ray Allen‘s worth goes far beyond his perimeter shooting, that Rajon Rondo‘s rebounding was an undervalued asset, that Leon Powe‘s surprisingly strong play was not so surprising to the Celtics …

It’s true that Allen found ways to score in the last few weeks even when his jumper was stone cold. It’s also true that the diminutive Rondo loves to get inside and grab rebounds. But watching the Celtics beat the Pistons last night, I found myself thinking: Where in the world is Leon Powe?

By the end of the season, he was getting a lot of minutes, and that continued through the first two rounds of the playoffs. But he hasn’t set foot on the floor in the past few games; it’s as if he’s been disappeared.

Why? I haven’t heard the broadcasters on the Celtics-Pistons series (Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson) mention Powe; quite possibly they have and I missed it. I like Van Gundy and Jackson a lot, in part because they aren’t shy about offering real critiques of players and coaches: that’s refreshing.

But even if Powe isn’t a topic of conversation on the game broadcast, I am hardly the only person to wonder where he’s gone. The blogosphere is rich with speculation and innuendo.

One blogger asked “Is Leon Powe Dead?” Another wondered whether Powe might be injured, or if he’d simply gotten in coach Doc Rivers‘s doghouse for some blown defensive assignments. (It has been interesting to watch how Rivers really goes with the “hot hand,” be it on offense or defense, and similarly keeps a cold guy on the bench for days at a time.) The Leon Powe Fan Site puts it bluntly: “Doc Rivers Doesn’t Like Leon,” and explains why.

I know far, far less about basketball than anyone mentioned in the paragraphs above. Still, it is strange to see an asset as valuable as Powe be taken out of commission. (His personal background is also fascinating, and heartbreaking, but that is another story.)

For the record, when I was on The Takeaway on May 14, I was asked to predict the outcome of the N.B.A. championship. I said it’d be the Celtics against the Lakers in the finals, with the Lakers winning. (Sorry, Mike and Danny.) I’m still feeling good about that prediction — although maybe, if the Celtics would un-bury Leon Powe from the bench, I might get proven wrong.


The broadcasters in this series are atrocious. They remind me of typical sports talk radio hosts who like to yell about things, and say ridiculous things to get the callers riled up and keep the radios tuned in. As far as insight goes, they're terrible.

They spent 10 minutes last night with one of them propagating the idea that refs should call something a flagrant foul all year long, but should not continue to call it a flagrant foul in the playoffs. I don't even know what to say.


Sacramento Mike (17): Cassell isn't exactly a young player.. in fact he's one of the oldest players in the league


It really is all about matchups. Powe's problem all year has been that he has had trouble with the defensive rotations. He made it to the point at the end of the year that his offensive production more than made up for his defensive problems. However, against Detroit, where his offense is all but mitigated by their stifling interior defense, and against a team that moves the ball and executes so well offensively, the defensive rotations become so much more important. Doc gave him a shot in the first couple games, but when he kept missing rotations, and failed to do much else, he made the change to the slightly better team defender Davis, and now has eliminated them both from the rotation for the much more solid PJ Brown, and more minutes by the vastly superior Perkins and Garnett.


Powe's muscle in the paint is not geared to the jump-shooting Detroit offense. In Game 5, 6'11'' Rasheed Wallace scored all of his 18 points from behind the arc.

The guy can play, though.

Sacramento Mike

I've followed Leon's career since he was at Cal, and have been casually following his progress in the NBA. I was glad to see him earning minutes as an "energy guy" coming off the bench and was beginning to hope he would be able to forge a decent career.

That said, it seems to me Doc Rivers is running an extremely short bench and is unwilling to play many of the young players for extended minutes (exceptions: Rondo and Cassell). In last night's near collapse, it looked like the C's were tired down the stretch and could have used some energy minutes when they were up 14 earlier. Of course that would have required some forethought by Doc.

Perhaps Leon could find his way home to Oakland. I'm sure Nellie would find a way to use him.

Sacramento Mike

Just looked into the Leon Powe fan site, and had to share this:

"If the Celtics lost while not playing Leon, he would have been murdered by the billions of Leon Powe fans waiting outside the arena."

I can only assume "billions" means each and every person on earth. That is awesome.


Joe- Until last night Brown had been primarily back-up center in the playoffs, often out there with KG, it was the fact that KG has been playing almost the entire game that has been really hurting Powe. Although Powe was playing C more until Brown started playing more, not that there is a lot of difference between the positions in today's NBA. There has even been some times where Posey has been at PF.

I say that if his name was pronounced POW! he would get more attention and perhaps playing time; this is by far the most disappointing thing about him to me. He really should have been more effective in the Atlanta series (theoretically a better matchup for him), which I think lead Doc to believe that Powe wasn't ready for a lot of playoff minutes.


#6 Dane - Maybe if you knew anything about basketball, you'd know his value. His presence alone creates space for everyone else. Defenders can't cheat away from him because they have to respect his shot. By the way, Allen has been clutch his whole NBA career and has hit more big shots this year than anyone else on the team. There's a reason both Pierce and Garnett said they'd want Allen to take the last shot with the game on the line.

His defense may not be great, but he does provide many intangibles and has always been able to get to the basket. You should read up on how big his influence is on the younger players and getting them to emulate his great work ethic. He's also one of the best free throw shooters in the league. The fact that he's about to turn 33 and is playing on 2 repaired ankles does play a part. It's a shame so many people are judging him on some recent struggles and not his whole career.



Powe isn't playing because his skills are ill-suited to see court time against the Cavaliers, who have way too much size inside for Powe to contend with, or the Pistons, where he would get exposed by their constant screens and jumpshooting bigs.

If the Celtics advance to play the Lakers, Powe could certainly hold his own against the Lakers backup bigs (Turiaf et al.) who are certainly no better than he is.


The stated reason, by Doc on an interview on WEEI, was that Leon was not very good with his defensive rotations. His lapse on a defensive rotation were noted by Mike Fratello at least once live during the Atlanta series, during a game I was watching. Current analytical techniques, +/- and other on-court/off-court metrics, have not been able to verify the effect which has lead to continued sniping and speculation in the Celtic fan community as to a different motivation.


I think Powe was playing a lot more minutes at the end of year because they were resting KG and Co a lot more. Now that it is the playoffs, they are going back to the regulars and the experience.
His diminished minutes also might have something to do with Kendrick abd PJ playing well as of late.



Ray Allen is actually an excellent defender....one of the best guard defenders in the league right now.


Thank You Stephen! I'm happy someone has brought this up. Leon earned playing time and lost it for no reason at all. Just a stupid hunch by Doc Rivers that could prove costly. I read the stuff on the Leon Powe Fan Site often and they are freaking out and make good arguments to why he should be in there. It's nice to see someone other than that site bring this up. Good Stuff!


There has been a lot of benching-the-key-guy thing going on in the playoffs. For example, San Antonio used Kurt Thomas heavily against the Suns and Hornets, but he saw little time in the Lakers series. I assume PJ Brown and Kendrick Perkins' solid play has a lot more to do with Powe's benching though.

As a Lakers fan, I have great admiration for Phil Jackson for developing a bench all year long and following a very predictable substitution pattern. Barring foul trouble, colossal slump or injury, the Lakers bench knows when they will come in and how long they will play. Making too many lineup and rotation changes this deep in the playoffs does not sound like a winning strategy.


frankenduf brings up an interesting point about playoff basketball. It seems as though each of the remaining teams is relying more heavily on their experienced players as we get deeper into the playoffs. PJ Brown (a non-entity during the regular season) has completely replaced Powe as the celtics PF coming off the bench. This indicates a belief among coaches that experience beats out youth when the season is on the line and all a coach needs is a few good minutes from a bench player. Does statistical analysis back up this theory? Are experienced players indeed more effective in the playoffs than youngsters (holding on else equal)? I'm especially interested if this holds true for the role players, like Powe, etc. If anyone is aware of a paper on this topic, I'd very much appreciate a link.


Answer: Doc Rivers is a horrible, horrible coach who is utterly unable to establish passable rotation patterns.


Way to go out on a limb and pick the two number one seeds. :)

Robin Reeves

Since they are so into the statistics, maybe he doesn't match up well with Detroit in their calculations. That strikes me as the most obvious non-injury answer.


Leon Powe Fan Site Ha. I love it. I've gone there a few times and the site always makes a great case for why Leon should be playing.


It's worth noting that countthebasket.com recently compared a number of different player ranking metrics, and Leon Powe ranked in the top 10 in Win Shares, Wins Produced, and WARP. The same can be said of the Piston's Amir Johnson, who is almost literally the last person on the bench despite ranking FIRST in Adjusted Plus/Minus.

Link: http://www.countthebasket.com/blog/2008/05/28/comparing-player-ratings/