The Story of the Human Eraser

Posted on August 27, 2007 by


Recent developments in Seattle suggest that the SuperSonics may soon be departing.  As an economist I should say something about what Seattle should do to keep this team (Seattle shouldn’t do much) or what Oklahoma City should be willing to do to attract this franchise (again, not much), but today I want to take a more optimistic and uplifting look at Seattle sports.  Specifically, I want to take a look back at the first team in Seattle professional sports history to play for a title. 

The Association – a league driven by stars with mass appeal both around the country and the world – really began when Magic and Bird joined the league in the fall of 1979.  Just prior to this event — in the summer of 1979 — Seattle and the Washington Bullets met in a re-match of the 1978 championship series.

About two weeks ago I observed that the 1978 Bullets were perhaps the worst NBA champion in history.  The Sonics of 1978-79 had an efficiency differential – offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency – of only 2.5.  Since 1974, only three teams won a title with a worst mark (Bullets of 1978, Celtics of 1976, and Rockets of 1995).  Just focusing on the Sonics, there have been eleven teams in the history of this franchise who posted a better efficiency differential than the 1978-79 squad.  Still, none of those teams won the title.

The Top 10 Centers in 1977-78

The story of 1978-79 begins the previous season.  And the story of 1977-78 campaign begins in the middle.  Table One reports the top centers in the NBA – in terms of Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] – in 1977-78. 

Table One: The Top 10 Centers from 1977-78

I was only eight years old at the time, but having collected basketball cards in the late 1970s I am somewhat familiar with many of these names.  Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld, Artis Gilmore, Bob Lanier, Moses Malone, Marvin Webster….

Marvin Webster? Okay, you got me with that one.  I had never heard of Marvin Webster.  And here he is on a list of top centers from 1977-78 before such names as Dave Cowens and  Swen Nater.  Table One only reports the top ten centers, but I can tell you a few names not reported who also rank behind Webster.  This list includes Darryl Dawkins (ranked 13th) , Bob McAdoo (ranked 14th) , Dan Issel (ranked 16th), Alvan Adams (ranked 18th) and  Robert Parish (ranked 19th). And yet, before I looked at this season, I had never heard of Marvin Webster.

Marvin the Magnificent – the Early Years

Basketball tells us that Webster was known as both Marvin the Magnificent and The Human Eraser.  He was drafted with the third pick in the 1975 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks.  But he began his career in the ABA with the Denver Nuggets, who took him with the first overall pick in the 1975 ABA’s draft (a fact I discovered when I looked him up in the Sporting News NBA Register from 1987).  His first season in the ABA he only played 398 minutes, but still managed to grab 174 rebounds and block 52 shots.  These numbers tell us that per 48 minutes he was capturing 21 boards and blocking more than six shots.

In 1976-77 the Nuggets and Webster joined the NBA.  That season Webster played 1,276 minutes and per 48 minutes, grabbed 18.2 boards, blocked 4.4 shots, and produced a 0.279 WP48.  Again, average is 0.100, so the Human Eraser was pretty good. 

Despite this performance, Denver traded Webster to the Sonics.  With Webster on board the Sonics improved from 40 wins in 1976-77 to 47 wins and a trip to the NBA Finals in 1977-78.  Table Two, where the Wins Produced and WP48 for each member of the Sonics in 1977-78 is reported, indicates the impact Webster had on this team.

Table Two: The Sonics in 1977-78

Webster was the top player on a team that reached the NBA Finals.  Of the 45.3 Wins Produced created by Seattle’s players, 15.7 were attributed to Webster.  Certainly Gus Williams, Downtown Freddie Brown, and Dennis Johnson also played well. But it was Webster that led the way.

And in the playoffs, the story was the same.  In 22 playoff games, Webster averaged 13.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots while leading the Sonics to game seven of the NBA Finals.

Despite this performance, Webster was allowed to depart for the New York Knicks as a free agent in 1978.  And given the loss of this talent, one would expect this team to decline.   But that’s not what happened. Without Webster, as Table Three indicates, the Sonics actually improved. And when the season was over, this team had won an NBA title.  So what happened?

Table Three: The Sonics in 1978-79

The Latter Years of the Human Eraser

My plan was to close this post with the tale of this championship team and how it managed to overcome the loss of the Human Eraser.  But as I was writing the story I could see that this one post was going way too long.

So let me hold off on the story of the 1979 champions for tomorrow.  For today, let me close with what else I have learned about Marvin Webster. 

As noted, Webster signed with the Knicks in 1978.  He played six seasons in New York, but as Table Four indicates, his productivity was nowhere near what we saw in Denver or Seattle.

Table Four: The Career of Marvin Webster

Webster’s decline can apparently be attributed to injury.  He was above average his first season in New York.  But in 1979-80 he only played 298 minutes, which suggests a significant injury.  One of my co-authors, Rich Campbell (who is a bit older than me), told me that he remembers Webster suffered a serious knee injury.  If this is the case, it apparently destroyed what looked to be a promising career in 1977-78.

After leading the Sonics to the NBA Finals in 1978, Webster only produced 17.3 additional wins in his career.  Yes, he produced almost as many wins in 1977-78 with the Sonics as he produced the last seven years he played.

In the story of the Human Eraser we see that performance can be changed dramatically due to player injury.  Looking back at Tables Two and Three we see that Jack Sikma performed quite differently his first and second season in the NBA.  What caused Sikma’s sudden change in productivity?  It is this story I will tell tomorrow. 

In the meantime, if you know anything more about Webster, please let me know in the comments.  It’s interesting that a player who was this good has become almost forgotten in NBA history.  Or in my case, never known about in the first place.

– 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