Whatever amount Drew Gooden was discussed last season, he's probably glad he didn't hear it. In the first season of a five-year mid-level exception contract, Gooden played only 35 games as he struggled with plantar fasciitis, a notoriously hard-to-deal-with foot condition. His 860 minutes were largely ineffectual, particularly on offense, as his shooting dropped to a career-worst 33.1%.
Drew was really just the sludge icing on the cockroach cake that was Milwaukee's Wild Offseason Adventure '11. John Salmons cashed in on his stellar 30-game run with the Fear The Deer Bucks, then promptly retired without actually informing the coaching staff. Corey Maggette tried to single-handedly rescue a floundering offense by shooting a billion free-throws, which naturally earned him an extended stay on the bench. All the while Drew Gooden sat and watched as his feet throbbed. It was worse than anybody could have expected, none more so than reigning (at the time) Executive of the Year John Hammond.
Gooden is the only remaining relic of that ill-fated summer (you'll forgive me for ignoring Larry Sanders and Jon Brockman, who are either too young or too inconsequential to pass judgement on). As a testament to his own skill and smarts, Hammond was able to erase many of those mistakes with little cost. He traded back in a "weak" draft and snagged two players who have exceeded expectations. He brought in a few role players who have contributed nicely, and it's tough to say Stephen Jackson has done a whole lot of damage even as he fumes on the bench. All the while, the bald-headed vestige of off-season futility has "quietly" gone about vindicating himself and his GM.
Let's get the first part of this discussion out of the way: Drew Gooden is still overpaid. It isn't so much the dollar amount as it is the length of the contract. After all, Gooden currently ranks 16th in PER among power forwards (even if he's been playing center, he's still a natural 4), ahead of significantly more expensive players like Carlos Boozer and David West. Of course, Drew's career leading up to his signing with Milwaukee never gave any indication that his contract would provide value, especially with the final year representing his age-33 season. There's no way to call Gooden's deal justified without being flat-out revisionist. In single-year terms, however, he's living up to it.
So ignore those looming three years and 20 million dollars for a second, and allow yourself to appreciate Drew Gooden's current season for what it is: a zany, unpredictable, sometimes-superficial-but-always-entertaining campaign of positive production. It's not always pretty, and it hasn't exactly translated into a successful season for the Milwaukee Bucks. But at least Gooden has put to rest the encroaching notion that he's just not very good at basketball.
There's still a lot of ire directed Drew's way. Bucks fans assume that if he's on the court, he's messing something up, particularly on defense. The numbers don't lend him much credit: 82games.com says the Bucks are a whopping 11.8 points per possession better on defense with Gooden on the bench, a figure too massive for me to believe without some qualification. Sure, he's a huge defensive downgrade from Andrew Bogut, but there's likely just one other guy in the NBA who isn't. Gooden is decently mobile and he's quick to get off the ground. Many of the tools are there, he just falls far short of Bogut's all-seeing, all-knowing defensive mastery. The fact is, Milwaukee's defense has taken a big step back all over the court this season, and it can't all be on Gooden. If nothing else, I don't find myself constantly smothering my face with my palms when he has to stop an opponent from putting the ball in the basket.
What he's given back on defense, however, Gooden has been at least partially reclaiming on offense. He's leading the team in per-minute scoring, and he's doing it with reasonable efficiency thanks to his surprising proclivity for drawing fouls and excellent shooting at the stripe. Looking exclusively at the games he's started, the numbers are rosier yet: 9.1 rebounds and 20.5 points per 36 minutes on 54% true shooting.
Of course, if we're cutting Gooden slack on defense, his offensive production has to beat what the Bucks were getting from Bogut. Turns out, Bogut settled at 54% true shooting during his breakout '09/'10 season. Last year he fell to 49.6, and in his 12 games this season (consider them as you will) he's down to 46.5. Probably not an even exchange, considering how hard it is to quantify what Bogut brings on defense, but it's a least partially analogous to replacing a fast center-fielder with somebody who has a little more pop to his bat. When you're dealing with the resources a team (and market) like Milwaukee has at its disposal, zero-sum games are the only ones you can afford.
It's not just the production, though, it's where that production is coming from. Gooden is shooting a healthy 61.7% at the rim, but he's taking most of his shots in that long-two region. Many of those have come off pick-and-pop looks with Brandon Jennings. The problem? He's shooting just over 40% from that range. That's a problem. The Bucks can't achieve success with their starting center favoring a shot that only goes in 40% of the time. Thankfully there's another force at work, even if it demonstrates players' misunderstanding of probability more than anything else. Opposing centers essentially never guarded Bogut outside of about 10 feet. With Gooden swapped in, there's at least some floor-spacing potential. It's not unreasonable to think that spacing has opened up the paint for cutters a bit more, a welcome change from the ball-stopping and ineffective post play Bogut was displaying before his most recent injury.
The focus of this whole discussion is, I'll admit, a bit narrow. Gooden wasn't brought in to be the starting center and a primary scorer. He was supposed to stand opposite Bogut under the basket, grabbing rebounds and tipping in misses. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, extended time with the full-functioning pair sharing the court has been hard to come by, and now the future of Milwaukee's entire frontcourt has been cast in doubt.
I'm a firm believer in advanced metrics. I can appreciate plus-minus, or the hollow-ness of basic box score stats. At a certain point, though, ignoring stretches of 20-plus scoring performance simply becomes irresponsible. No NBA team wants to claim Drew Gooden as a "featured" player, and I'm sure (well, I hope) the Bucks realize what they're getting out of him right now is about as much as anyone could hope for. That doesn't mean we can't appreciate it while it's happening.