Talking Boston and Memphis Fans Off the Ledge

Posted on May 23, 2007 by

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Last night was the NBA’s annual celebration of the league’s biggest losers – the Draft Lottery. Given that this draft offers two major talents — Greg Oden and Kevin Durant — the “winners” last night were Henry Abbott’s Portland Trail Blazers (one definitely should read Abbott’s discussion of last night) and the Seattle Super Sonics. At this point we expect Oden to be in Portland and Seattle to take Durant (or maybe the other way around).

The conventional wisdom was that anyone picking third would be unhappy. That doesn’t seem to be entirely true since 1) there is more to this draft than Oden and Durant and 2) if Atlanta did not get one of the top three spots it would have surrendered its pick to Phoenix. So it’s a safe bet that Atlanta is thrilled to pick third. And I am sure they are also thrilled to be picking eleventh as well.

As for the fourth and fifth slots, we might have a pair of unhappy campers. Memphis and Boston entered the evening with the best shot of landing Oden or Durant. And there was some evidence, especially with respect to Boston, that a substantial effort was made to improve the odds of landing Oden and Durant. Nevertheless, the lottery gods (and/or David Stern — not to create conspiracy theories, but is it possible that Stern made sure Boston was not rewarded for their less than stellar efforts down the stretch?) did not smile down on these franchises. In essence, all that losing was for nothing.

Rookies are Generally Bad

Having read a bit of Bill Simmons lately, my sense is that right now he needs to be talked down off the ledge. Certainly it’s the case that all that losing didn’t lead to the promised reward. Still, fans of the Celtics (i.e. Bill Simmons) and the Grizzlies shouldn’t be too unhappy (and fans of Portland and Seattle should not be planning any championship parades just yet). Although Oden and Durant might someday develop into top players, there is reason to suspect that it may take some time. To see this, consider the average Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] for each level of experience from 1993-94 to 2006-07.

Average WP48 by Year of Experience

As the above table indicates, the average first-year player has a WP48 of 0.047. Second-year players offer 0.076. It’s not until a player’s third year that the mean performance approaches the NBA average of 0.100. Now the results should not be thought of as a sophisticated analysis of peak performance in the NBA. All I am offering is simple averages which suggest that rookies tend to struggle in the NBA.

Of course one problem with the simple averages is that I am lumping together players who are “bad” – and consequently only play a short time in the NBA – with those who develop and have long careers. So perhaps I am overstating how bad rookies generally play.

How the NBA’s Best Performed as Rookies

So let’s take a different approach. Consider the top 30 players in the NBA in 2006-07.

The NBA’s Most Productive Players in 2006-07

As one can see, the reign of Kevin Garnett has ended. After four consecutive years, KG has now slipped to second. The new MPP (Most Productive Player) is Jason Kidd, who last took the top spot in 1998-99. Although this is not the promised comment on the MVP, one can see that Dirk Nowitzki finished 8th while Steve Nash was ranked 6th.

One could go on and on about each player on this list (for example, one could note that these 30 players produced 37.5% of all wins in the NBA this past season), but I would like to focus on the right-hand side of the table. There it is reported what each of these players – again, these are the top 30 players in the NBA in 2006-07 – did their rookie season.

All of these players produced at least eleven wins last season. But only five managed to hit the eleven win mark their rookie season. In fact,30% of today’s top performers were below average as freshmen in the NBA. This tells us that many of today’s best didn’t start out on top. And from the other side of the coin, even if a team’s draft pick stumbles out of the gate, it’s possible for a player to develop later on. Examples of players who developed after initially performing poorly include the aforementioned Nash and Nowitzski, as well as Chauncey Billups, Chris Bosh, and even LeBron James. The experience of James and Bosh suggest that it’s possible for Oden and Durant to struggle as rookies. This is something Portland and Seattle fans should consider.

There is also good news in this table for fans of Boston and Memphis. Two-thirds of these players were not taken with one of the top three choices in the draft. So although Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Elton Brand, and LeBron James – all former number one choices – have indeed developed into top performers; teams have also received high levels of productivity from players like Carlos Boozer, Ben Wallace, Manu Ginobili, and Gilbert Arenas. Each of these players were taken in the second round, or in the case of Wallace, not drafted at all.

The Lessons Learned

So how happy should fans of Portland and Seattle be today? And how unhappy should fans of Memphis and Boston be? The crude analysis offered here suggests that rookies tend not to be saviors. Yes, they can develop into top players, but it tends to take time. So Portland and Seattle fans are going to need to be patient.

As for fans in Memphis and Boston, the analysis suggests you don’t need the number one pick to get a top talent. Of course, although it’s true that even second round picks can develop into top NBA performers, most draft picks do not end up ranking among the NBA’s best (obviously). In sum, although it’s possible that Memphis and Boston can still find that talent that will turn their teams around, the odds are probably stacked against that happening.

Hmmm… so I am saying that it’s still possible that Boston could pick a great player, but this is not too likely. Clearly we don’t want me out there talking people off the ledge.

– DJ

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