View Full Version : Interesting but somewhat geeky NY Times opinion piece/analysis on "false superstars"

Slick Pinkham
07-25-2006, 09:20 AM
This was published a more than a month ago, but I found it interesting. Sorry if it has been already posted.


The N.B.A.'s Secret Superstars

Published: June 10, 2006
Bakersfield, Calif.

THE N.B.A. finals tipped off Thursday night, and while most reports of the Dallas Mavericks' victory over the Miami Heat focused on the stars — Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal of the Heat and Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry of the Mavericks — few mentioned two players who were arguably just as important to the result: Antoine Walker and Erick Dampier.

To understand why these two gentlemen mattered, one has to look beyond the standard focus on points scored and consider a new way of judging athletic performance: whether a player's actions — both scoring and non-scoring — help his team win or not.

For several years now, baseball professionals (and rotisserie-league wannabes) have used so-called sabermetrics to judge a player's objective value based on his individual statistics. Of course, because one bats or pitches in baseball without the help of teammates, it is easy to separate a player from his team. Plus, the numbers in baseball are easy to understand: a home run clearly creates more wins than a single.

Basketball, however, is a true team sport, and thus the numbers are not as obvious. Which is more valuable, a basket scored or the assist that made it possible? Is a rebound more valuable than a blocked shot?

This is not such a mystery if we are judging the individual impact of, say, Michael Jordan, a player who excelled at every facet of the game. Most N.B.A. players, though, are not "Like Mike." Rather, they contribute in only one or two aspects of basketball, and ascertaining the relative value of such diverse talents is difficult.

To make it possible to compare the apples and oranges, it helps to look at each statistic in terms of how it contributes to wins. So, along with two other economists, Martin Schmidt of the College of William and Mary and Stacey Brook of the University of Sioux Falls, I developed an algorithm that measures a player's "wins produced" for his team.

The algorithm begins with the factors tracked for individual players: points, field goal attempts, free throw attempts, turnovers and so on. Then, through a fairly standard statistical analysis, it links these factors to team victories. What we find is that each point, rebound and steal has relatively the same positive impact on wins. Each field goal attempt and turnover has an equal negative effect. The other statistics — like free throw attempts, blocked shots, assists and personal fouls — do matter, but to a lesser degree.

After an entire 82-game season, we take all these numbers and decipher how many wins every player in the league produced for his team. How accurate is this system? Well, when we add up the wins of each team's players, the results are shockingly close to the official standings. By our measure, Dallas should have won 57.4 games this regular season, and the Heat 51.2 games. In actuality, they won 60 and 52, respectively. For the past 10 seasons, the average difference between our projection and the actual number of games won by each of the league's teams is only 2.3 wins.

So what does this tell us about individual players? Well, one result is obvious. The players who excel at many aspects of the game produce a lot of wins. In the six years Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to the N.B.A. title, he averaged 23.4 wins per season. Versatile players like LeBron James, who produced 20.4 wins for Cleveland this year, and Kevin Garnett, who produced 26 for Minnesota, also dominate.

But there are players who score a lot but also have a significant deficiency or two, like poor shooting efficiency or lots of turnovers. These players often have a level of win productivity far below expectations. This group includes supposed superstars like Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers and Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets, who this season combined to produce only 13 wins for their teams. Among players in the finals, the Heat's Walker, a three-time All-Star, produced only 1.7 wins; and Jerry Stackhouse of Dallas, who has averaged 20 points a game in his career, actually cost his team a third of a win overall this year.

Our system also shows that it is possible for a non-scorer to produce high numbers of wins. For example, extreme rebounders like Ben Wallace and Marcus Camby have produced much higher win totals than fans might expect. Wallace led the Detroit Pistons with 20.1 wins produced this season while Camby, despite missing a third of the games because of injury, produced 13.7 wins to lead Denver.

So, who are the "best" — or most productive players — on the teams vying for the title? Each team has at least one player who does many things well. On Dallas it's Nowitzki, who produced 18 wins this season; the multitalented Wade led the Heat by creating 18.2 victories. O'Neal played in just 59 games this year, so his 8.5 wins produced was low by his standards; but in his career he has averaged 21.3 wins produced per 82 games played.

Certainly, saying those three players are great is hardly a shock. What might be surprising, however, is the importance of some non-stars. After Nowitzki, Dallas is led in wins produced by Dampier, a low-profile center, and starting forward Josh Howard, who each accounted for 7.8 wins. For the Heat, Wade and O'Neal are primarily assisted by the workmanlike forward Udonis Haslem (7.0 wins produced) and O'Neal's backup, Alonzo Mourning (5.7 wins produced). Of these role players, only Howard averages more than 15 points per game.

So why do I think Dampier and Walker were vital to Thursday's outcome? Dampier scored only eight points, but he was efficient: making three of four shots and adding seven rebounds. Walker, on the other hand, scored an impressive-seeming 17 points, but he took 19 shots and turned the ball over an astounding six times in the loss.

What should you watch for in the N.B.A. finals? When looking at the scorers, think about efficiency. And keep an eye on role players like Dampier and Haslem. What the non-scorers do matters, and in fact, it is those players who might ultimately decide who gets to be crowned N.B.A. champions.

David J. Berri, an economist at California State University at Bakersfield, is a co-author of "The Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sports."

07-25-2006, 09:26 AM
Of course the role players matter but its the superstars of the team that are called upon to win the game at crunch moments. Role players could be 'efficient' the whole game but with the game on the line you go to your superstar and thats why they are looked at highly and remembered more then the role players.

I dont really understand his point in the article.

07-25-2006, 09:41 AM
If you ask anyone in Denver around the time when Melo was hitting about 10 game winning shots this year, I don't think they'd say Camby lead them to most wins.

07-25-2006, 11:40 AM
Can't hit a game winning shot if you are down by 8. Don't need a game winning shot if you are up by 8.

Clutch shooting/performing is one part of a huge equation.

07-25-2006, 12:28 PM
Can't hit a game winning shot if you are down by 8. Don't need a game winning shot if you are up by 8.

Clutch shooting/performing is one part of a huge equation.
Denver won a lot of games last season that they shouldn't have...Melo was the reason.

07-25-2006, 01:32 PM
Denver won a lot of games last season that they shouldn't have...Melo was the reason.

I didn't watch the Nuggets much, but (if this theory is spot on) I'm guessing that there were several games in which his actions (or lack of actions) hurt the ability of his team to win.

There are two types of failures in basketball.

a) failures that are perfectly normal in the flow of a basketball game (missing a jumper when a play is called for you, having the ball stolen from you by a great defensive play)


b) failures that go outside the normal flow of play (taking shots you cannot hit, throwing passes away).

The inability to understand the differences between these two is the reason why the Knicks suck so bad.

Like I said, I don't know Carmello's game very well, and this might be an anomally in the data. But there is a possibility that for every great game he has he follows with a stinker, and they cancel each other out.

The Nuggets seem especially prone to long losing streaks and early playoff exits, so I wouldn't be shocked if that was the case.

Will Galen
07-25-2006, 05:35 PM
Shoot! I would be really interested in seeing the Pacers player ratings for the past few seasons.