Surviving the Loss of Agent Zero

Posted on December 20, 2007 by

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In 1977-78 the Washington Bullets won the NBA title.  The next season, this team won 54 games and appeared in the NBA Finals.  And then this franchise descended into the depths of the Association.  Across the next 24 seasons, the Washington franchise never won more than 44 games and only finished with a winning record five times. 

And then, Gilbert Arenas came to town.  Although his first year was not a success, the Wizards have finished with a winning record each of the past three seasons.  And each time, Agent Zero led this team in Wins Produced.  In sum, as the following list reveals, Arenas is a very good player.

Season: Wins Produced, WP48

2006-07: 11.0, 0.180

2005-06: 11.1, 0.157

2004-05: 12.3, 0.181

2003-04: 2.2, 0.052

2002-03: 6.8, 0.114

2001-02: 3.0, 0.123

Career before 2007-08: 46.4, 0.142

Surviving the Loss of Agent Zero

This season Arenas has only appeared in eight games.  And with a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.017, Arenas played quite poorly. 

Despite the poor play and eventual absence of Arenas, the Wizards – as noted a few days ago – posted a 13-10 mark after 23 games.  With an efficiency differential of 2.4 (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency), this team was on pace to win 47 games.   If this happened, this would be the best record posted by a Washington team since that NBA Finals experience in 1979. 

So how could this happen?  To find an answer, let’s go back to the approach I offered earlier in the season.  Specifically, I am going to offer two projections. The first assumes the players on the team will perform as they did last year.  The second will look at what will happen if the players on the team keep playing as they have this season.  Each perspective is offered in Table One.

Table One: Projecting the Wizards after 23 games

If each player maintained what he did last year (except for the rookies), this team would be on pace to win 34 games. Instead, as noted, this team is on pace for 47 victories.  When we look at the second projection – based on this year’s performance – we see that majority of this leap can be tied to the improved play of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood.

Butler and Haywood Defy the Usage Story

To see how these two improved, consider Table Two.

Table Two: Haywood and Butler after 23 games in 2007-08

Relative to last year, Haywood has improved with respect to rebounds, blocked shots, and scoring.  Surprisingly (at least to me), the change in scoring is not related to improvements in shooting efficiency.  No, Haywood is simply taking more shots from the line and the field.  And perhaps surprising to some, the increase in Haywood’s shot attempts has not caused his shooting efficiency to decline.

The same story is seen with respect to Butler. With Arenas out of the line-up, Butler is taking more shots.  His shooting efficiency (except for Wednesday night), has increased dramatically.  Although Butler has also cut down on his turnovers (despite having the ball more often), it’s his increase in shooting efficiency that’s primarily responsible for his increased productivity.

More on Usage

One of the stories people tell about basketball is that star players create their own shots.  Consequently, star players should not be credited for just making shots, but they should also receive extra credit for just hoisting the ball in the direction of the basketball.  I have been skeptical of this approach for two reasons:

1. There does not seem to be much of a relationship between shooting efficiency and shot attempts.  

2. Even if there was such a relationship, the usage story is really not a part of how productive a player has been.  It seems to me that this story tells us more about why a player is productive.  And I have always been in favor of treating the how and why questions separately.

Back to Arenas

Returning to Arenas and the Wizards, do we see evidence that this team cannot get shots off without Agent Zero?  Last year this team took 83.2 field goals per game.  After 23 games, this team took 83.4 field goal attempts per game.  So shot attempts have gone up slightly.

When we turn to adjusted field goal percentage, we see the Wizards had a mark of 49% last year.  And this year, after 23 games, the Wizards mark is 49%. Yes, without Arenas the team is taking basically the same number of shots with the same level of efficiency.

This result leads me to ask two questions:

1. Does all this “prove” the usage story is bunk?  No, this doesn’t “prove” anything.  It’s interesting, though (at least, I think so).

2. Is there any evidence Agent Zero is missed? Yes, but it’s free throw attempts where we see an impact.  Last year this team took 29.6 free throw attempts per game. This year the team is only taking 25.2 shots from the line each game. 

This result highlights one of the under-appreciated aspects of a typical star’s game.  Stars get to the free throw line.  And the charity stripe is a very effective place to create points.

The Big Question

Although this team misses Agent Zero’s ability to get to the line, the team is still winning without him.  Let’s assume Arenas does come back from his injury and can return to what we saw the past three seasons.  Given this team’s ability to win without him, should Washington pay the major contract Arenas demands to keep his services?

If Arenas can return to what we saw in the past, and Butler and Haywood maintain their levels of efficiency, the Wizards could be a 50 win team in 2008-09.  In other words, Arenas will definitely help.  But even though he has been the best player on this team for three consecutive years, he’s not one of the very best – i.e. top ten – players in the league.  At least, he’s not if you look at Wins Produced.  This is a point I made in the following columns:

The Washington Wizards: The Anti-Nets

Star Power and the Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards in 2005-06

The problem with signing Arenas is that his scoring (where he is a top ten player), on the current NBA’s market, costs more than the value of his wins.  And so re-signing Arenas may not be worth it.

Of course, all that assumes Arenas can come back this season and demonstrate he is healthy.  If he can’t, but somehow heals before 2008-09, perhaps Washington will not have to overpay to keep Agent Zero.

Then again… yes, you can go around and around on this.  In the end, one thing is clear.  It certainly looked like Arenas was due a maximum contract last summer. But with his injury, and the team’s success without him, that’s not as sure anymore.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also 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

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.