The Benefit of Low Expectations in Philadelphia

Posted on March 6, 2008 by


Ed Stefanski became general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers last December.  He took over a team that not only had a losing record this season, but had sported a negative efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) in each of the past four seasons. 

In general, when a new leader takes over an organization that has not achieved success, changes are made in the organization. Two weeks ago, though, Stefanski defied this expectation.  Despite the Sixers inability to win more often than they lost under the coaching of Maurice Cheeks, Stefanski decided to extend the contract of Cheeks.  And of course we wonder why.

Achieving “Ain’t Badness”

Currently the Sixers have a record of 28-33.  But when we look at efficiency differential we see a team with a mark of 0.0.  The Sixers score 101 points per 100 possessions.  And they allow 101 points per 100 possessions.  These marks are consistent with an average team.  Yes, average isn’t good.  But it ain’t bad either.  Apparently “ain’t bad” is good enough to get a coach an extension in Philadelphia.

Why is the bar so low for Cheeks?  One suspects that this is because of the Allen Iverson trade.  Iverson is considered one of the greatest players of all time (not here, but in some places).  In general, when a team trades such a player, the team gets much worse.  Consequently it’s considered an achievement for the Sixers to achieve “ain’t badness” after such a move.

What’s odd about this perception, though, is that Philadelphia was 5-19 when it traded Iverson in 2006-07, and 30-28 the rest of the year (a result that was not a surprise).  Given this record without Iverson last year, one would suspect that Philadelphia would have entered this season with loftier expectations.

And if we look at Table One, we see why expectations should have been higher.

Table One:     The Philadelphia 76ers after 61 games in 2007-08

Table One offers two projections of the 76ers.  The first assumes that what the players did last year on a per-minute basis will be offered again this year.  The second projects what we have seen so far to the end of the season.

Based on what we saw last year, the Sixers should be on pace to win 45 games. Instead, given the team’s efficiency differential and Wins Produced, this team is only on pace to win 41 games. In sum, one might argue that the Sixers have under-achieved this season.

Okay, that’s a stretch.  There really isn’t much difference between 41 and 45 wins.  In essence, the Sixers are really performing as expected.  Yes, Reggie Evans has declined (primarily due to a large drop-off in shooting efficiency).  And Willie Green has progressed from truly awful to just bad (primarily due to an increase in shooting efficiency).  But most players on this team are doing pretty much what they did last year.  And consequently the results are pretty much what you would expect.

Learning a Lesson

At least, it’s what you would expect if you looked at Wins Produced. If you focused on scoring , the loss of one of the league’s leading scorers should have sent the Sixers into a tailspin.  And when that didn’t happen, you might think it was due to the brilliance of the coach.

All of this brings us to the morale of the story. There is a demand to fire George Karl, because his team is not winning as much as people expect.  Meanwhile, Cheeks gets an extension from a new general manager because his team didn’t collapse.  From these two stories we learn that a coach can thrive when inefficient scorers are traded away.  Likewise, when a coach sees an inefficient scorer added to his team, it might be time to make reservations with the moving company.  It’s probably only a matter of time when the disconnect between expectations and reality results in someone asking you to live someplace else.


Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at 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.