Disagreeing with Agent Zero about Caron Butler

Posted on January 18, 2008 by

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Today’s post is going to focus on the relative merits of Caron Butler and Carmelo Anthony.  But before we get to those merits, though, I want to start with something noted by Henry Abbott at TrueHoop.

Maxing Out Arenas

Abbott posted the following story on Tuesday:

Gilbert Arenas Throws Down the Gauntlet to the Wizards

Abbott’s story links to a blog entry from Agent Zero where he makes the following statement about his pending contract negotiations:

I want to get a six-year deal. I want to be a max player. If my team decides that they don’t want me here any more and they’re going to go in a different direction, then I got to look elsewhere. For me to look elsewhere, I want to go find a championship team who’s a championship contender. I’m going to have to take less money, but I’m willing to do that to win a ring. If my team doesn’t want me, then I’m going to another team and I’m going to take less money to go there.  

Abbott offered the following interpretation of this statement:

I’m sure he doesn’t mean it this way, and maybe we’ll have a clarification soon, but it seems like Arenas is saying that he’d play for passion, and to win in some other city. But if he has to play with these scrubs in D.C. …

Meanwhile, “those scrubs” just beat the Celtics twice in a row.

And, looking at it from the other side, if you had a championship quality team, would you use your mid-level exception on a guy who dominates the ball? Having Gilbert Arenas on the floor re-orients the stars in your offense. (If you’re Cleveland, I think the answer is yes. But San Antonio? Phoenix? Dallas? You can love Arenas from here to the moon, and still swallow hard before noodling with your roster in that particular way — especially when you consider that he’s little, not a great defender, and injury prone.) 

More than anything, this might be an example of why players angling for maximum deals should probably have agents manage the process. It would be smart to avoid even the slightest chance of needlessly pissing off the only good team on the planet that can afford to give you big money.

When I read Abbott’s story I immediately thought that a post examining the value of Gilbert Arenas would be a good idea.  But it turns out; I already wrote such a column four weeks ago.

Surviving the Loss of Agent Zero

After reading over what I said last month I realized that I didn’t have much more to say on the subject.  As I noted in December, Arenas is definitely a “good” player.  But he’s not a great player.  And it has to give the decision-makers in Washington something to consider that without Agent Zero – the player demanding the maximum NBA salary –the team is posting the best efficiency differential seen in Washington since 1979.  One would think the loss of a player who truly deserves maximum money would have a more severe impact on a team’s fortunes.

Agent Zero on Caron Butler and Carmelo Anthony  

Not wishing to go over this topic again, I decided to go look at what else Gilbert Arenas had to say.   In the midst of a very lengthy post was the following observation:

Caron Butler ain’t getting credit for what he’s doing. He’s never gotten credit for what he’s done for us. He’s been in the shadows a little bit of me and Antawn, but it’s the Big Three. There’s no order of priority. He’s just as important as the two of us are to the organization and he’s showing it right now how smart of a move it was bringing him aboard for Kwame Brown. He’s given us more than we expected from him, a lot more.
If you list the top three-men in the league, for me, it goes:
1. LeBron
2. Carmelo
3. Caron

Okay, I can agree that LeBron is the best small forward.  But Melo ahead of Butler?

Butler vs. Melo

Let’s just go right to the data.  Table One reports what these two players have done across their respective careers, what they did last season, and their performance in 2007-08.

Table One: Comparing Butler and Anthony

The statistics in Table One are separated into three categories: Scoring, Possessions, and Miscellaneous. I am not going to talk about the miscellaneous stuff (assists, blocked shots, and personal fouls), where each player is pretty equal.  What I am going to focus on is scoring and net possessions.

Scoring Totals vs. Scoring Efficiency

When we look at scoring, one might quickly conclude that Anthony has the clear edge.   Per 48 minutes, Anthony consistently scores more than thirty points.  Although Butler is above average, he can’t match this output.

But in evaluating scoring, totals shouldn’t be our focus.  The key is efficiency.  In other words, players should not be rewarded for simply taking shots, but rather for getting the shots they take to go in the basket.  Rewarding shot taking ignores what the Wizards have done this season.  Without Agent Zero, a prolific hoister of shots, Washington has simply found other people to shoot.  Again, taking shots is not the skill that needs to be considered in evaluating performance.  Making shots is what matters.

Of course when it comes to making shots, Melo did have the advantage prior to this season.  His level of shooting efficiency, although below average for his career, still bested Butler.  This year, though, a different story is told.  As noted last month, Butler has both increased his shot attempts and shooting efficiency in 2007-08. 

I would emphasize that Anthony still has the advantage with respect to getting to the free throw line.  And that’s an important skill.  But his advantage with respect to efficiency from the field has vanished this season. Consequently his ability to produce more wins than Butler via scoring has also vanished.

The Net Possession Story

As I often note, player evaluation tends to stop with scoring. And as I often note, the other stuff in the box score does matter.  When we turn to possessions – rebounds, steals, and turnovers — we see where Butler has the clear edge.  Although Anthony has the advantage this year on the boards, Butler has the advantage with respect to steals and turnovers.  When we look at net possessions (rebounds +steals -turnovers), we see that Butler has a 1.6 advantage per 48 minutes this season.  Given that each possession is worth about 0.033 wins, per 48 minutes the net possession difference between Butler and Anthony is worth 0.052 wins.  Or, if each player logs 3,000 minutes this year, Butler’s advantage with respect to possessions is worth 3.3 additional wins over an 82 game season.

When we look at Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], we see that Butler in 2007-08 is on pace to produce 17.2 wins with a 0.257 WP48.  Anthony’s WP48 stands at 0.115, which is actually a career high, but well behind what Butler is offering.  And when we look at Wins Produced, we see that Melo is only on pace to produce 7.3 victories. 

It’s important to note that Butler doesn’t just best Anthony this season.  Turning back to Table One we see that Butler’s Win Score- a metric (like Wins Produced) that considers all box score stats (scoring, possession, and miscellaneous) – is consistently higher than the mark we see from Melo. This is true this season, last season, and across each player’s career.

Summarizing the Story

Agent Zero is right to be impressed by his teammate.  Butler is playing amazingly well this season.  But I would argue he should be even more impressed than he has indicated.  When you look past scoring, you can see that Butler has clearly produced more than a Carmelo (a player currently on pace to start in the 2008 All-Star game).

Let me close by noting that this story may not be entirely welcome news for Arenas.  If we focus strictly on scoring totals – as is often the case – then one might argue that Arenas is a maximum contract player.  But if we go beyond points per game, and consider the impact of all the statistics on wins, then we conclude that

a. Butler is more productive than Melo (good news for the Wizards) and

b. Arenas might not be worth maximum money (bad news for Agent Zero)

The first statement might make Arenas happy.  I am pretty sure the second statement, though, is something Arenas wouldn’t believe.  But both the data — and what the Wizards have done this season — suggests that maximum money for Agents Zero may not be a good investment for the folks in Washington.

UPDATE: Commentator Dan noted that the numbers for Carmelo Anthony in Table One for 2007-08 were incorrect.  Turns out I switched the labels on 2006-07 and 2007-08.  When you get the labels right, it changes my analysis of net possessions.  It is still the case the Butler has the advantage, but it is not as big as I originally stated.  The WP48 and Wins Produced numbers, though, are still what I said originally.  Butler is worth about 10 more wins than Anthony this season. Thanks to Dan for catching this error. 

– 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.