Did the Pacers Lose a Star?

Posted on June 29, 2008 by


Although the deal is not official, it’s been widely reported that the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors completed a trade prior to the 2008 draft.  The Toronto Raptors will get six-time All-Star Jermaine O’Neal.  The Indiana Pacers are adding four non-stars: T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston and the draft rights to Roy Hibbert. 

The general rule of thumb in the NBA is that the team that gets the All-Star in a trade is the team that comes out ahead. This rule is consistent with the idea of “Bobby Layne Rigidity”, offered by Walter Neale in a 1964 article (appearing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and titled: “The Peculiar Economics of Professional Sports”).   According to Neale – as the name Bobby Layne Rigidity implies — a team cannot replace one good quarterback with two poor signal callers.

Likewise, it’s difficult in the NBA to substitute a collection of non-stars for one star player.  As noted previously in this forum, the Pareto Principle appears to hold in the NBA.  In other words, roughly 80% of wins are produced by 20% of the talent.  Consequently, when a team loses a major wins producer, it tends to suffer.

Losing an Unproductive Star

Of course there is one exception to this story.  If the player in question is an “unproductive star”, then the issue of Bobby Layne Rigidity goes away.  For example, the 76ers lost Allen Iverson – a “star” player who is not quite as productive as popular perception indicates – and actually improved. 

Similarly, one suspects the Pacers loss of Jermaine O’Neal should also lead to additional victories. To see this, let’s first consider the career of J. O’Neal.  

Table One: The Career of Jermaine O’Neal

As Table One indicates, once upon a time J. O’Neal was an above average player, but not a “star”.  Although NBA Efficiency still indicates he is above average, Wins Produced tells a different tale.

This is what I said about O’Neal last January. 

When we look at O’Neal’s career we don’t see a major star.  His career WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] is above average, but a mark of 0.143 (prior to the 2007-08 season) pales in comparison to the top players in the game.  Still, O’Neal has generally been a good player and he did lead his team in Wins Produced for three seasons.

What makes O’Neal “good” is his ability to get rebounds and block shots. Shooting efficiency, though, has been a consistent problem.  Except for the 2002-03 season – again, his best year – O’Neal has always been below average with respect to getting his shots to go in the basket.

And this season the inefficient scoring issue has worsened. In addition, O’Neal is now below average on the boards.  As a consequence, his overall productivity is now well below the average mark.

As noted, these were my words in January.  And these were the same words I used when I noted that J. O’Neal is the most overpaid player in the game.  

With respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, steals, and turnovers, J. O’Neal is below average.  So although he’s still taking and blocking shots, his overall contribution is below par.  

The Pacers in 2007-08 and 2008-09

Once we realize that J. O’Neal is not quite as productive as his star status suggests, this trade looks much better for Indiana.  The team is losing a player whose wins production was in the negative range last season.  And in return, the Pacers are getting Ford (WP48 of 0.160 last season), Nestrovic (WP48 of 0.104 last season), and Baston (WP48 of 0.161 in very limited minutes last season).  Plus the Raptors gave up their first round pick in 2008 (Hibbert).  Put it all together, and the Pacers look like a better team after this move.

It’s important to remember that – despite an underperforming O’Neal – the Pacers were not a terrible team in 2007-08.

Table Two: The Pacers in 2007-08

Table Two indicates that this team’s Wins Produced (based on the team’s efficiency differential) summed to 37 wins.  Had the Pacers won this many games the team would have been tied with the Hawks for the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs (Indiana actually finished one game back).  Adding a very productive point guard and a serviceable center to this roster, while losing a player who didn’t produce any wins last year, has to help the Pacers return to the post-season.

And we have to remember that in addition to the O’Neal trade, the Pacers also acquired Jarrett Jack (0.098 WP48 last season) in a draft day trade that also netted guard Brandon Rush.   Given these moves, the Pacers will now have the following collection of above average veterans in the rotation: T. J. Ford, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, and Jeff Foster.  In addition, the Pacers have three more players who are right around average (Danny Granger, Jack, and Nesterovic).  If Rush and Hibbert can come in and produced positive wins (not above average, just greater than zero), the Pacers should definitely improve.

I should note that Erich Doerr – who has done an excellent job of using Win Score to evaluate the 2008 NBA Draft – is also very positive about the moves the Pacers made around the draft.  

The best Win Score draft goes to the Indiana Pacers for picking up solid players in Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert. Both are NBA-ready and excellent Win Score prospects. Along with their trades, the Pacers are primed to pass .500 this season and are a franchise on the upswing.

If the analysis Doerr and I offer is to be believed, the Pacers are right now strong candidates to return to the post-season in 2009.  Of course we will know more when the roster of the Pacers – and every other team – is finalized. At this point, though, the evidence suggests that losing O’Neal was a good move for the Pacers.

Does this mean that this trade is bad for the Raptors?  I will try and answer that question in my next post.   And that answer is not as clear as one might think.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

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.