Evaluating the Top Scorers in 1977-78

Posted on August 20, 2007 by


In my career my two favorite courses to teach have been the History of Economic Thought and Economic History (which is not the same as HET). I probably would have been a historian, but I have found that as an economist I can get paid more to teach the same material (in perhaps a more enlightening fashion). Of course had I chosen to work in history it would have also been quite hard to justify my research in the NBA. 

Such research began in the mid-1990s. At that point Stacey and I began collecting data on the NBA, and as the years have gone by the data set has grown to include each year from the early 1990s to the present.  From this data set was derived the Wins Produced and Win Score models, as well as many of the stories we have told about the NBA.

Over the past few months I have been indulging my taste for history by applying these models to seasons from both the 1970s and 1980s.  One season that has received special attention is the 1977-78 campaign. This was the first season the NBA tracked all the data it currently tabulates for its players. So this is the first season we could examine via Wins Produced. 

Last June I examined the Portland and Philadelphia squads from that season.  Then last week I looked at the Washington Bullets of 1978, perhaps the worst NBA champion in league history.  After that examination, I was asked in the comments to look at the Seattle Super Sonics from this era.

So last Friday I downloaded the Sonics data from Basketball-Reference.com (the greatest basketball resource in the history of the universe).  After this was done, though, I had a thought.  How long would it take me to download and examine all the teams from 1977-78?  The answer: two days (or one weekend). Yes, this past weekend I did the following:

– Downloaded all the team data from the 1977-78 season

– Re-estimated the wins model and ascertained the value of points, rebounds, steals, etc.. for this earlier time period

– Estimated Wins Produced for each player on each team for the 1977-78 season

The results indicated that the value of points, rebounds, steals, etc… are the same for this earlier time period as they are in more recent years.  In other words, the value of one point or one rebound in 1977, in terms of wins, is the same as the value we see in 2007.  And the model is just as accurate.  The average discrepancy between the summation of Wins Produced and actual wins – in absolute terms – is 2.5 from 1991-92 to 2006-07.  For the 1977-78 season this average discrepancy is 2.4 wins.

Okay, so the model works for the 1970s.  Now for the really important question: are there any interesting stories we can tell with this new analysis?

Of course there are lots and lots of neat stories we can talk about.  For this post, let me just tell one story that is similar to something found in The Wages of Wins.  On page 154 of the book is a table where the top scorers from 2004-05 were evaluated. This table revealed that many players who are good at getting the ball in the basket are also very good at producing wins.  Still other top scorers are not actually very productive at all.

To be included in the analysis you had to play at least 2,000 minutes and score one point every two minutes on the court.  For the 2005-06 season, 33 players met both criteria.  Back in 1977, though, when the game was played at a faster tempo, 41 players managed to meet both requirements.  These players are listed in Table One.

Table One: Evaluating the Top Scorers in 1977-78

When the 1977 season began I was eight years old.  I did start collecting basketball cards in 1978 or 79, so many of these names I remember, although I am sure I saw few of these players actually play.  Still, there are some familiar names.

Topping the list is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the most productive player from that season (it would have been Bill Walton, but Walton failed to play 2,000 minutes because he was hurt after 58 games).  Following Kareem we see a host of famous names, such as Artis Gilmore (perhaps the greatest Chicago Bull before Michael Jordan), George “The Iceman” Gervin (perhaps the greatest San Antonio Spur before David Robinson and Tim Duncan), and David Thompson (perhaps the greatest Denver Nugget before… okay, perhaps the greatest Denver Nugget).

A bit further down we see Adrian Dantley, Bob McAdoo, Dr. J, Bob Lanier (the first Piston I ever followed), and Moses Malone.  All of these are considered great players in the history of the NBA, and the numbers from 77-78 support that claim.

But if we look towards the bottom of the list we see a few scorers who are indeed quite famous, yet not quite that productive (at least, not in 1977-78).Pistol Pete Maravich, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, and Rick Barry were all prodigious scorers.  But in 1977-78, none of these players were above average performers.  The career of Pistol Pete was reviewed last week and that analysis suggested that Maravich was never a very productive player. Monroe and Barry in 1977-78 were only two years from retiring from professional basketball.  So we are not seeing either player in his prime.  Perhaps in a future post I will examine the career of each of these Hall of Fame players. 

For now, let me just make this one observation.  Unlike football or baseball players,  productive NBA players – like Michael Jordan, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, etc… — tend not to have any below average seasons unless they are injured (or really old).  So the fact we see a bad season from Barry and Monroe suggests that these players were not quite as productive as one might suspect Hall of Fame players should be.  Again, that is just a suggestion. 

– DJ