Creating Shots in Philadelphia

Posted on March 5, 2007 by

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Scoring is king in the NBA. At least, as we argue in The Wages of Wins, scoring is the primary factor behind what a player gets paid and who wins post-season awards. But when we look at Wins Produced we often see scorers, especially inefficient scorers, ranked lower than the player’s pay (or ability to win post-season awards) would suggest.

Although people can see that Wins Produced is clearly linked to wins, giving up on what one believes about NBA’s scorers appears difficult in some circles. Consequently a few people have invented a story to justify why scorers are truly the best NBA players. This particular story centers on how hard it is to create shots in the NBA.

Creating a Shot in the NBA

Imagine an NBA team hired a 6’3”, 37 year old player from Cal-State Bakersfield. The scouting report on this player – who we can call DJ — is that he can only go right (left handed dribbling never worked for him), he can’t rebound, and he can’t (or won’t) pass the ball. Plus he is really slow. I mean, really, really slow. Despite these deficiencies, he loves to shoot. Give him the ball in a game and he will launch a shot. If he is double-teamed he will shoot. If he is triple teamed he will shoot (after all, what’s better than hitting a shot over three defenders?). Although he is prolific at taking shots in pick-up games, given his many physical deficiencies, scouts wonder if DJ could really get his very poor shot off against the athletes employed in the NBA.

And those scouts would be right. A non-NBA player would probably have trouble launching a shot towards the basket in the NBA (although one NBA scout did assure me that I would be able to throw the ball in the direction of the basket against NBA talent, hence in effect, creating a shot). But when we say something is hard in sports, we typically don’t refer to how hard it is for a non-athlete. Hard or easy is an assessment we make with respect to the talents of an average professional athlete. So although it might be “hard” for DJ to take a shot in the NBA, is it truly “hard” for an NBA player to create a shot?

The 76ers this season have conducted an experiment to test this hypothesis. At the start of the season, Philadelphia’s offense was dominated by Allen Iverson. In fifteen games Iverson averaged 24.4 shots per game. Given a team that took about 80 shots from the field per contest, Iverson was responsible for more than 30% of the team’s field goal attempts. And although critics noted that Iverson had trouble shooting efficiently, defenders of Iverson argued that there was no one else on this team who could “create” a shot. Hence this team needed Iverson to launch 24 shots per game in the direction of the basket. In fact if Iverson did not take these shots, Philadelphia would not take many shots at all and thus have little chance to win.

Despite this argument, Philadelphia decided to try and live without “the Answer”. Earlier this season, with a record of 5-19 (5-10 with Iverson in the line-up), the 76ers traded Iverson to the Denver Nuggets for Andre Miller (plus Joe Smith and two first round draft choices). While Iverson had averaged 23.3 field goal attempts per game in his career, Miller’s average for his career was only 11.3. In other words, replacing Iverson with Miller meant the 76ers would have to find a way to “create” at least twelve more shots per game. Given how “hard” it is to create shots, Philadelphia looked doomed.

We are now 36 games into the post-Iverson era in Philadelphia. And the early returns suggest that the difficulty NBA players have creating shots is somewhat over-stated. After 18 games, which was just prior to the trade (and when I downloaded the data), the 76ers averaged 79.9 field goal attempts per game. After the trade (over the last 38 games because I also downloaded Philadelphia’s data after 22 games), Philadelphia has averaged 79.0 field goal attempts per contest. In sum, Philadelphia is taking 0.9 fewer field goal attempts per game without Iverson.

This result illustrates exactly how difficult it is for NBA players to take shots. Iverson took 24.4 shots per game. With his shot attempts going to zero, 23.5 of these shots were suddenly taken by someone else on the team. And it would be 24.4, but apparently without Iverson the 76ers have decided to play at a slightly slower tempo. In sum, Iverson’s supposed ability to “create” shots was way over-stated. With him gone, other players on the 76ers have obviously learned to “create” their own shots.

The NBA Efficiency Problem, Again

The Philadelphia experiment suggests that NBA players don’t have trouble “creating” shots. Take away a “chucker” and NBA players are not going to choose to dribble around in circles until the shot clock expires. Nevertheless, metrics like NBA Efficiency and John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in effect give players credit for just taking shots. As detailed previously, (see Do We Overvalue Rebounds? and A Comment on the Player Efficiency Rating) a player can score high in NBA Efficiency and PER simply by taking a large number of shots (as long as a player exceeds a very low shooting percentage, more shots means a higher rating). Consequently, Allen Iverson looks like an above average player according to these metrics. When you remove the credit for “creating shots” and require that a player actually uses his shot attempts efficiently – an approach taken by Wins Produced and Win Score – Iverson is no longer very different from an average player.

Philadelphia in 2006-07

We can see this when we look at the 76ers this season.

Table One: The Philadelphia 76ers after 60 games

Iverson played 15 games for Philadelphia this year, producing 0.075 Wins per 48 minutes [WP48]. This is below the mark of an average player (0.100) and also below what Iverson did last year (0.127) and in 2004-05 (0.154).

Andre Miller has played 35 games with the 76ers and posted a WP48 of 0.159. This is below his career mark entering this season (0.184), but still better than the mark posted by Iverson in any of the years he played in Philadelphia.

Given the career marks of each player, one should expect that the 76ers are better with Miller than they were with Iverson. And the record confirms this expectation.
Before the trade the 76ers were 5-19. After the trade the 76ers have been 17-19. At the time of the trade I predicted that Philadelphia would be a 0.500 team with Miller, and that is just about what they are.

Now it’s important to note that my earlier forecast had problems. My forecast assumed that both Chris Webber and Alan Henderson would stay on the team and that C-Webb would play major minutes. I also thought with Webber would take most of the minutes at power forward and that Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver, and Willie Green would man the shooting guard and small forward slots. This meant that Rodney Carney would basically stay on the bench. Well, Webber went to Detroit and although Carney can’t produce, he still plays more than 17 minutes a contest.

Despite the chronic problem I have forecasting coaching decisions, my general forecast was correct. The 76ers are better off without Iverson (and as detailed last week, the Nuggets do not appear to be better off with “the Answer”). In sum, given that the 76ers got Miller, Smith, and two first round draft choices for an aging, inefficienct scorer, this trade was a steal for the 76ers.

That being said, although the Iverson trade clearly helped this team, it’s still not the case that Philadelphia is a “good” team. Last year the 76ers were led in WP48 by Iguodala (0.211), Dalembert (0.171), and Iverson. This year, the team is led by Iguodala (0.201), Dalembert (0.157), and Miller. Despite this threesome, Philadelphia still is without any productive talent at power foward. And depending on whether Iguodala is a shooting guard (where he played last year) or small forward (where he plays some this year), the team lacks another productive player at the 2 or 3 spot. Adding to those deficiencies in the starting line-up, the team also lacks depth at every position.

Going forward the 76ers do have three first round draft choices in 2007. So part of the team’s problems could be solved via the draft. Of course building through the draft is difficult. It is difficult to know exactly how college players will play in the NBA (although you can know something looking at college data).

So it’s not entirely clear what players Philadelphia should acquire in the future. What is clear, at least when we look at Wins Produced, is where Philadelphia needs to improve as it builds a title contender.

– DJ