The Fourth Best Team in the Eastern Conference

Posted on March 31, 2008 by


The top three teams in the Eastern Conference – whether we look at won-loss record or efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) – are the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, and Orlando Magic.  But who is number four?

The top nine teams in the Western Conference – again, whether we look at won-loss record or efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) – would qualify for this spot.  Yes, a team that will not make the playoffs in the West would host the opening playoff round in the East. Unfortunately, the NBA is not going to abolish the conference structure. 

So let’s get back to the question, who is the fourth best team in the East (and 13th best in the league)?  If we focus on won-loss record, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers.  The defending conference champs, though, actually have a negative efficiency differential.  In other words, if we project wins from offensive and defensive efficiency, we would expect the Cavaliers to have a losing record. 

After the Cavaliers we have three teams – Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, and Philadelphia 76ers – with very similar won-loss records (and positive efficiency differentials). Of these three, though, the Raptors – with a differential of 3.1 – are the top team.  Such a mark is consistent with a team that wins 43 or 44 of its first 73 games.  The Raptors, though, only had 37 victories entering Monday night’s game against the Bobcats.   In sum, the Raptors appear to be a bit better than their record suggests.

Although the Raptors are better, they are still not on par with the Celtics, Pistons, or Magic.  And they have three questions that we can think about in evaluating where this team is at and what steps it needs to take to close the gap.

1. Who is responsible for this team’s success?

2. Should the team have selected Andrea Bargnani?

3. Who is going to be the team’s point guard of the future?

Assigning Responsibility on the Raptors

Statistics are kept in sports so that we can connect the outcome we observe for the team to the individual players.  So which players are responsible for the outcome we observe in Toronto?

The answer is reported in Table One.

Table One: The Toronto Raptors after 73 Games

Table One reports two projections of the Raptors. The first assumes the players continue to perform in 2007-08 as they did in 2006-07. The second looks at what these players have done this year.

With respect to either projection, the identity of the top (and bottom) players is the same.  Of the nine players who have played at least 800 minutes this year and who also played in 2006-07, five were above average last season.  This season, these same five players are again above average. And the four who were not above average last season remain below average.  Again, as is often stated here, NBA performance is fairly consistent across time.

Looking at the top five we see the Raptors are led by Jose Calderon, Chris Bosh, Anthony Parker, Carlos Delfino, and T.J Ford. In other words, the Raptors are solid at the two guard spots and their starting center (or power forward) is very good.  Unfortunately, heading into the season the Raptors didn’t have any returning veterans who provided much help at the two forward spots.

Luckily Jamario Moon – who should be voted to the All-Rookie team – has filled in nicely at forward. The remaining front court players (again, once you get past Bosh), though, have disappointed.

Should the Raptors have Picked Bargnani?

And perhaps the most disappointing is Andrea Bargnani.  In 2006 the Raptors had the top spot in the NBA draft.  With this selection they took Bargnani.  In his first season, Bargnani posted a -0.037 WP48.  In other words, he didn’t get off to a good start.

This year his WP48 has fallen to -0.151.  How could a player who was so bad last season get worse?

Last year Bargnani could hit his shot, but his inability to do anything else besides block shots hurt his team.  This year Bargnani still doesn’t do much besides shoot.  But now he isn’t shooting efficiently either.

Critics might say that this performance proves the Raptors made a mistake on draft night.  I would point out, though, that so far the pickings look pretty slim from this particular draft.  Of the players taken in the top ten in 2006, here is the list of players who are currently above average in terms of WP48: Brandon Roy. 

Let me amend that list.  Patrick O’Bryant has been above average, but he has only played 95 minutes this season (spending most of it in Bakersfield with the NBDL). 

So if you were the Raptors, who would you have taken with the number one pick?  Brandon Roy, Ronnie Brewer, and Rajon Rondo are the top first round talents thus far, but the Raptors do not need more guards.  When it comes to forwards and centers, many are doing a bit more than Bargnani.  But above average talent is hard to find. 

In sum, although Bargnani may never become a player you think of when you think of number one choices, I am not sure any other big man taken early in the 2006 draft is going to develop into a productive talent either.

The Point Guard Issue

It’s said that if a team has two quarterbacks, it really doesn’t have any.  Of course in football, a quarterback tends to play the entire game.  The quarterback in basketball – the point guard – can’t play all 48 minutes.  So you definitely need two floor generals.  Nevertheless, teams typically have a clearly defined starter. 

In Toronto, though, the Raptors have two players who see themselves as a starter.  Jose Calderon has started most of the games.  But in the past week, Ford has been put in the starting lineup.

When we look at the data from this season (not just Monday night) – reported in Table Two – the choice seems pretty clear.

Table Two: Jose Calderon vs. T. J. Ford

While both players are above average, Calderon is clearly the more productive player.  He is more efficient from the field and he limits his turnovers.   That being said, I do think Ford is a capable starting point guard. The numbers seem to suggest, though, that he shouldn’t be the starting quarterback in Toronto.

So there you have – as requested by Gareth Lewin (a regular WoW Journal reader) – 1,000 words on the Raptors. 

For my next post I think I am going to address the following statement I saw on TrueHoop.  In a story on the resurgence in Philadelphia is the following statement (made to Henry Abbott):

A veteran Philadelphia beat writer just said to me that “if anyone tells you they saw this coming, they’re lying.”

Look for my next column – “If I’m Lying, I’m Dying” – to be posted soon.

– DJ

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.