Predicting Unhappiness for Jermaine O’Neal

Posted on October 21, 2007 by

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In 2003-04 the Indiana Pacers were the best team in the NBA.  At least, they won more games than anyone else.  When we look at efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) we see that both the Spurs and Pistons were a bit better that year. Still, the Pacers were pretty good and Jermaine O’Neal was both a productive and happy member of the team.

The Pacers Fall Fast

The next season was the Ron Artest incident. As a result, Artest saw his minutes fall from 2,714 in 2003-04 to only 291 minutes in 2004-05.  As Table One indicates, the loss of Artest cost the Pacers 6.3 wins.  The team, though, fell 17 games in the standings.  How did the team fall so far so fast?

Table One: The Pacers in 2003-04 and 2004-05

Beyond Artest, there were three other issues.  First, as indicated, Indiana’s efficiency differential says the team should have won 56 games in 2003-04, not the 61 we observed in the final standings.  Secondly, Reggie Miller finally saw his age catch up to him.  In 2003-04, Miller produced 9.4 wins with a per-minute performance that was twice as good as an average NBA player.  The next season – Miller’s last – he was only average and his production of wins was cut in half. 

And finally there was the drop-off in the performance of Jermaine O’Neal.  In 2003-04 he produced 8.8 wins.  Injuries and a 25 games suspension cost him in 2004-05 and his minutes and per-minute productivity both declined.  The result was five fewer wins.

If we put it all together – the Artest incident, worse luck, Miller’s age, and O’Neal’s suspension and injury – we see why the Pacers went from title contenders to only an average NBA team in one year.

The O’Neal Injuries

The next two seasons – detailed in Table Two – the average Pacers persisted.    

Table Two: The Pacers in 2005-06 and 2006-07

Part of this is the loss of Miller.  The Pacers have still not found a replacement for Miller at shooting guard.  The bigger issue, though, might be the persistent problems with O’Neal.

O’Neal arrived in Indiana in 2000.  His first four seasons in Indiana he averaged 77 games, 9.5 Wins Produced, and a 0.166 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  The past three seasons he has averaged 55 games, 4.8 wins, and a 0.119 WP48.  In sum, O’Neal has gone from an above average player who was quite durable to an average player that is injury prone (average WP48 is 0.100).

One suspect, of course, that the injuries and productivity go together.  After 41 games in 2006-07, O’Neal had produced 5.1 wins and posted a 0.190 WP48.  From Table Two we see that O’Neal produced 5.6 wins in all of 2006-07.

If you produce 5.1 wins in the first half but only finish with 5.6, we can guess you had a bad second half.  And when we look at WP48 we see that this is true.  O’Neal only posted a 0.019 WP48 in the second half of last year.  In sum, he became a below average player. 

Mark Montieth of the Indianapolis Star revealed why O’Neal suddenly declined.

People tend to forget how much promise they showed last season after the trade with Golden State. Their victory at Memphis on Feb. 3 improved their record to 26-21 and was their sixth win in the previous seven games.
O’Neal finished with 25 points and 17 rebounds. Jamaal Tinsley added 25 points and nine assists. Ike Diogu had 19 points and nine rebounds off the bench.

That high point disguised the start of their downfall, however. O’Neal suffered cartilage damage to his knee that night. While he had some big games later in the season, his play dropped off, particularly at the defensive end.

O’Neal’s injury and the fact Rick Carlisle “lost the team” through mismanagement off the court and micromanagement on the court were the primary factors in the 11-game losing streak that kept them out of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

The numbers confirm Montieth’s story.  After the injury O’Neal became a far less productive player.

It has been said that injuries are no excuse.  For me, though, injuries are The Excuse.  Injuries impact performance and thus alter outcomes.  And hence, it is injuries that are the ultimate problem for any attempt to forecast the future in sports.

Predicting Unhappiness

Still, people love forecasts.  So here is my forecast for the Pacers.  I predict that O’Neal will be unhappy in Indiana in 2007-08.

What is the basis for this forecast?

When the 2006-07 season ended O’Neal was one of many players to suggest he wanted a trade (with so many trade demands, one wonders why David Stern didn’t just place a new franchise in Las Vegas and stock it with all the disgruntled stars).  Like almost every other unhappy celebrity in the NBA, O’Neal did not get the trade he sort of asked for.   And not only did the Pacers not trade O’Neal, the team didn’t do much of anything to improve the roster.  

Had O’Neal stayed healthy last year the Pacers might have won more than 40 games and made the playoffs.  With O’Neal healthy this year, the Pacers might still be able to do the same.  But if this is all they do, will O’Neal by happy? And if O’Neal isn’t happy, will he still produce?

The Pacers had nine players log more than 1,000 minutes back in 2003-04.  Of these nine players, seven were above average.  Last year the Pacers again had nine players who logged 1,000 minutes.  But only four of these were above average (O’Neal, Jeff Foster, Mike Dunleavy, and Darrell Armstrong).

And that is ultimately why this team fell from the top of the league.  Talent departed and these players were not adequately replaced.  Yes, Danny Granger and Troy Murphy can be above average performers.  But this team simply lacks enough top talent to compete with the NBA’s best.

O’Neal, like Kobe, is likely to be unhappy collecting millions while working for an average NBA team.  And average is what I think the Pacers can be.  In fact, if all goes well, maybe this team can be a bit above average.  The problem is that O’Neal thinks he deserves to play for a title contender.  Unfortunately, that is not what I see in Indiana.  When O’Neal finally realizes that the Pacers are not really much better than what they were the last three seasons, I predict unhappiness will come to Indiana.  Such unhappiness may disrupt this team.  This disruption could cause what looks to be a perfectly nice average campaign to descend into a below average experience for Indiana and their fans. 

So here is the solution to the problem. Perhaps someone should explain to O’Neal that average is “not bad.” Yes, it’s “not good” either.  But it’s definitely “not bad” and sometimes “not bad” is okay.      

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given 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