The Best of 1980 – Bill Laimbeer?

Posted on June 5, 2007 by


Jerry Seinfeld has observed that a sports fan will “love” a player when he plays on the fan’s team, then “hate” the same player when he plays elsewhere. For Seinfeld, this means fans are not rooting for players and teams, but just for clothes.

Certainly I am not immune to this tendency. The clothes I root for are worn by the Detroit Pistons. And when a player wears these clothes, I tend to raise my appreciation for that player’s talents. To illustrate, consider Bill Laimbeer.

Laimber was one of the most hated basketball players in the NBA when he played. It was hard at time for opponents of the Pistons to see what function Laimbeer served on the court beyond physically abusing more talented players (and perpetually whining). Still, fans of the Detroit tended to think Laimbeer was a key player on the back-to-back championship teams in the late 1980s.

In today’s New York Times, Jere Longman offered a lengthy profile of Laimbeer. After years away from basketball, Laimbeer has returned as the head coach of the Detroit Shock. In this capacity he has led the Shock to two WNBA titles in the past four seasons.

Longman’s story is an excellent read, especially if you wore Pistons attire back in the 1980s. The story did more than entertain me last night when I returned from class. It also led me to wonder exactly how good a player was Bill Laimbeer?

I began my study of the NBA back in the mid-1990s (yes, I have been doing this awhile). Given when I started, my own collection of player data extends back to the 1991-92 season. That season Laimbeer played 2,234 minutes and produced 1.7 wins. His Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] stood at 0.036, which is well below the average mark of 0.100.

In 1991-92 Laimbeer was 34 years old. Two years later he was out of the NBA. So that season was hardly Laimbeer in his prime.

I have not calculated Wins Produced prior to 91-92, so I can’t simply scan back through my files to see how Laimbeer performed early in his career. Fortunately, we have PAWSmin. PAWSmin is Position Adjusted Win Score per minute, which as I have noted previously, has a 0.99 correlation with WP48.

Although I don’t have the data collected to calculate PAWSmin, thanks to (run by Justin Kubatko – the likely winner of the True Hoop Stats Geek Smackdown), we need not despair. Kubatko’s website gives us the career performance of every single player who ever lived.

Looking at Basketball-Reference we learn that Laimbeer played more career minutes than any player who debuted in 1980. Second on the list is Kevin McHale, the only Hall-of-Fame player in this class. So how does Laimbeer compare to McHale?

Let’s start with the numbers.

Table One: Bill Laimbeer vs. Kevin McHale

As the above table notes, Laimbeer and McHale actually offered similar levels of productivity in their respective careers. Laimbeer finished with a 0.082 PAWSmin while McHale’s career mark was 0.071. We can utilize the strong relationship between PAWSmin and WP48 to provide some perspective on these numbers. Laimbeer’s estimated WP48 for his career (given his PAWSmin) is 0.231. McHale’s career WP48 was 0.214.

Although these player produced a similar number of wins, how these wins were produced differed. Laimbeer was a much better rebounder, capturing 0.306 boards per-minute; while McHale only garnered 0.236. Although McHale was not as strong on the boards, he was a very good scorer. Per game McHale scored 17.9 points with a points-per-field goal attempt {PPS = [PTS-FTM)/FGA]} of 1.11 (average is about 1.0). Laimbeer finished his career with a PPS of 1.01 and a per-game scoring average of 12.9.

Although the productivity of each player was similar, perceptions have not been the same.  McHale was elected to the Hall-of-Fame (and Laimbeer was not). McHale has also survived as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves despite an inability to build a consistent winner around the most productive player (Kevin Garnett) in today’s game. Meanwhile, Laimbeer continues to win championships in the WNBA while being ignored for every coaching job in the NBA.

Certainly come of the difference between how McHale and Laimbeer are regarded is a result of their different personalities. Still, one suspects that the McHale-Laimbeer story is but one more example of how one produces wins (scoring vs. non-scoring) is as important (if not more) than the wins themselves.

By the way, tomorrow I plan to offer a preview of the NBA Finals. For a preview of my preview, check out Henry Abbott’s TrueHoop’s Stat Geek Smackdown.

– DJ