Ranking the Michigan Alumni

Posted on August 26, 2007 by


Last week I posted a less than serious examination of the best NBA players to graduate from the University of Arizona.  The post was a response to the assertion from Gilbert Arenas that he was the best Arizona Wildcat in the Association. As occasionally happens, Henry Abbott – whose mission in life is to report all things basketball (a good mission to have) – linked to the Arizona alumni post at TrueHoop.

The day after the Arenas post appeared I wrote a more serious post – albeit in a delightfully lighthearted fashion (well, I tried to at least) – examining NCAA President Myles Brand’s claim that the vast majority of Division I programs do not make a profit.  I found Brand’s argument to be, to put it mildly, misleading.  Once again, Abbott – who brought the Arenas assertion and the Brand argument to my attention earlier in the week – noteed my post.

So here we have two posts that are mentioned at ESPN’s TrueHoop.  One would expect that given the same attention to two posts we would see a similar result with respect to viewership.

Well, at least that’s what I would expect.  But this is not what happened.  In the day after Abbott’s link to the Arenas story appeared, WordPress reported more than 10,000 page views of that story.  As of now, page views on this post have now surpassed the 12,000 mark. The previous record for page views of a single story at the WoW Journal was held by The Tragedy of Kevin Garnett, a story that has been viewed by nearly 9,000 people since it first appeared in May, 2006.  The Arenas story broke the KG record in less than 24 hours.

The story of Brand and the NCAA, though, was not quite as popular.  As of now, less than 400 people have viewed this column.  Yes, the story on “who is the best Arizona alumni” – which is best described as “not important” – was read by thousands. A story where I argue that the President of the NCAA has made a misleading statement regarding the financial health of Division I athletics, is hardly noticed.

So what lesson have I learned? Clearly people want less than serious stories examining such issues as “who is the best?”  And as is often said in show business, you have to give the people what they want.

Such a mandate tells me that the path ahead at the WoW Journal is clear.  There are currently more than 300 colleges and universities in the NCAA.  Given the interest in the Arizona alumni column, for about the next year I will be looking at one school each day.  At 10,000 page views per day, this means the WoW Journal will see page views pass the 3 million mark in the next year and this forum will certainly become one of the top five business and economics sites (there is an attempt at humor somewhere in this paragraph.  At the end of the column we will get to this).

The Michigan Alumni

Let me start with the school I started following as a child. Basketball-Reference.com tells us that 37 graduates of the University of Michigan have logged time in the NBA.  In examining the Arizona graduates I only focused on those who played at least 1,000 minutes.  For the Michigan alumni we need to add another restriction. Prior to the 1977-78 season, turnovers were not tracked for individual players.  Prior to the 1973-74 campaign, steals, offensive and defensive rebounds, and blocked shots were also not reported for players.  Consequently, players who played all (or most of their career) before these seasons cannot be examined.  For Michigan this means we cannot examine the careers of Cazzie Russell, Bob Harrison, George Lee, Ollie Darden, C.J. Kupec, Craig Dill, and John Clawson.

Despite these issues, we are still left with 21 Michigan alumni, a list that includes Chris Webber, Glen Rice, Rudy Tomjanovich, Juwon Howard, and Campy Russell.  Which of these players was the greatest Wolverine ever to play in the NBA? For now, I just want to focus on these five players. These are the only five alumni of Michigan to have a career scoring average of 15 points per game or more (well, Cazzie Russell also surpassed the 15 points per game mark, but we don’t have complete data on his career).  And since we know that scoring is “the determinant” of player value (regular readers of this forum would read that as a joke), clearly the best player must come from these five (regular readers of this forum probably guess from that statement that the most productive Wolverine must not among these five).

Table One: Five Michigan Graduates

As Table One indicates, if all we focused on was scoring, then Chris Webber is clearly the best Wolverine. With a per game average of 20.9, Webber is the only Michigan player to surpass the 20 points-per-game mark. 

Next on the list is Glen Rice, who has scored more points than any other Michigan alumni.  And unlike the other four players listed, is the only player to win an NBA title.  A few of the more than 50 comments on the Arizona alumni post argued that championships won is the best indicator of player quality.  And if this were true (and I think it’s not), then Rice is the best player.

Of course points scored and championships won is not too “sophisticated”.  What about NBA Efficiency?  When we turn to NBA Efficiency, we still see Webber on top.  But now Juwan Howard takes the second spot.  I don’t know the extent that Webber, Howard, and Jalen Rose debate who the best Fab Five player has been in the NBA, but from the perspective of points scored and NBA Efficiency it looks like Howard has bested Rose (although neither are better than Webber).

The Wins Produced Story

The Fab Five have already been discussed in this forum, and that discussion indicated that Howard has actually been a very unproductive NBA player.  So at least with respect to Howard, NBA Efficiency and points scored may not be the best picture of player quality.

So we turn to Wins Produced.  First, let’s take a slight detour and briefly review a bit of history for the Dallas Mavericks.  In 1986-87 and 1987-88 the Dallas Mavericks were in contention in the Western Conference, winning more than 50 games each season.  In 1988-89, though, the team only won 38 games.  The next season the Mavericks rebounded with 47 victories.  However, from 1990-91 to 1993-94 the Mavericks averaged less than 20 victories a season.  Then in 1994-95 the Mavericks won 36 contests, only to return to an average of less than 24 wins per season over the next three campaigns.

Let’s recap: the Mavericks were good in 1986-87, 1987-88, and 1989-90 and appear to have a brief rebound in 1994-95.  What do these four seasons have in common?  These were the only years that Roy Tarpley played more than 1,000 minutes in a season during his brief and troubled career.

Now I need to emphasize, we cannot attribute these wild swings in the Mavericks performances over a decade solely to the presence or absence of Tarpley.  Still, these swings are evidence that Tarpley – when he was on the court – was a very good basketball player.

When we look at Wins Produced this is the story we tell.  Like I did in looking at the Arizona alumni, I am considering Wins Produced per 82 games.  For his career Webber has averaged 11.2 wins per 82 games.  No, Webber has never played even 80 games in a single season.  But he has played more than 70 on six different occasions.  In contrast, Tarpley only surpassed 70 games twice in his career.  Still, per 82 games, Tarpley – with an average of 12.7 wins – ranks as the top Michigan alumni.  Which makes his tragic career all the more tragic.  Mavericks fans, as well as NBA fans in general, have to wonder what might have been.

What of the other Michigan graduates?

Table Two: Ranking Michigan Alumni

After Tarpley and Webber, the next three on the list are Loy Vaught, Tomjanovich, and Rickey Green.  Tomjanovich was probably a bit better than Vaught, but his career started in 1971 so I could not consider his first three seasons in calculating Wins Produced.  In looking over what numbers are reported for these first three years, though, it’s likely that Tomjanovich’s career marks were better than Vaught.

When we look immediately past the top five we see Rice and Campy Russell, two players in the top five in both points and NBA Efficiency. But you have to look down to the 15th spot to the name Juwan Howard.  Yes, as indicated earlier, Howard has not been a very effective NBA player.  Yes he can score.  But he really does nothing else well. 

Okay, that’s the Michigan story.  Again, for the next year this is all I am going to talk about.  So sit back and enjoy these stories.

Yes, I am joking.  I am not seriously going to do this kind of story over and over again for the next year.  I would much rather talk about Myles Brand and have 300 page views than talk about “who is the best” kind of questions and have 10,000.  So don’t count on more “who is the best alumni stories”.  Not that I will never do this again, but there are more stories we can tell than just this.  For my sake, there damn well better be.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say