Artest the Savior?

Posted on July 31, 2008 by

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The big NBA news this week is that Ron Artest might be traded from the Sacramento Kings to the Houston Rockets.  Here is how the impact of this trade has been described by two writers at ESPN.com.

John Hollinger (Artest makes it a trio, boosting the Rockets’ offense, title hopes):

The big idea is that Artest, between his scoring and his underrated playmaking skills, will add enough offense to get Houston well into the upper half of the league in offensive efficiency. From there, the Rockets’ suffocating D — with Artest adding yet another stopper to the mix — can accomplish the rest. If it comes to fruition, Houston could find itself hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June.

J.A. Adande (From the edge, Artest gives Rockets a missing element):

Go ahead and group the Rockets with the Hornets and Spurs — not just because they’re in the same division, but because they can legitimately challenge the Lakers for their Western Conference crown.

As one Western Conference scout said when asked about the trade, “Wow. They just moved up, for sure. They were missing that element, that danger, that toughness, that [expletive]. And now they have it.”

In addition to Hollinger an Adande, Chris Broussard now ranks the Rockets trio of Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and Ron Artest as the fourth best threesome in the league (behind the top trios with the Celtics, Lakers, and Spurs).

Artest and the Sacramento Kings

A couple of days ago I posted my initial reaction to this trade: Not sure how Artest dramatically improves the Rockets.  But then again, I haven’t looked at all the numbers yet.  But my first reaction is not as positive as what I saw on ESPN when the story broke.

I have now looked at the numbers and I think my initial view is correct.  To see this, let’s start with what the Sacramento Kings were last year:

Table One: The Sacramento Kings in 2007-08

Table One reports two perspectives on the Kings.  The first looks at what the Kings could have expected given what their players did in 2006-07.  The second reports what the players actually did in 2007-08.   As one can see, the Kings were about nine wins better this past season relative to what you would have expected with the simple assumption that what you saw in 2006-07 would be seen in 2007-08.

When we look over the individual players we see that this improvement can be tied almost entirely to the play of Brad Miller and Beno Udrih. 

Miller’s 2006-07 performance was out of step with what he has done his entire career.  In other words, his 2007-08 production was what we would expect from Miller if we looked at any year other than the 2006-07 campaign.  As for Udrih, his numbers were quite similar to what he did in 2004-05, or the last time he logged more than 1,000 minutes in a season.  In sum, what the Kings did last year was not a really surprise.

Artest, the “ferocious rebounder”?

And what they did was not really about Ron Artest.  Artest only produced 3.7 wins for Sacramento last season.  And when we look at Artest’s career we see that his 2007-08 output is not much different from what we have always seen from Artest.

Table Two: Ron Artest’s Career

Relative to his career numbers, Artest in 2007-08 was basically the same. The lone exception was his shooting efficiency.  But with respect to rebounds, steals, turnovers, free throw percentage, assists and blocked shots; what you saw last season from Artest you saw in his career averages.

The problem for the Rockets is that what you see from Artest is solid production, for a small forward.  This is a problem because the Rockets already have two players at small forward, McGrady and Shane Battier.  As a consequence, John Hollinger reports that his spies in Houston tell him the idea is to line up Artest at power forward

As Hollinger notes, the Kings often did move Artest to power forward last season.  The results, though, were not encouraging.  Despite playing more minutes at power forward than he ever had before, Artest’s rebound numbers were the same as his career marks and less than what he did in 2005-06.  It appears that the Kings moved Artest to the 4 spot but forgot to tell him that rebounding was now a bigger part of his job description.  

Table Two compares what Artest has done for his career relative to an average power forward.  Relative to the average power forward, Artest – for his career – is below average with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, turnovers, blocked shots, and Win Score.  And let me emphasize, relative to an average power forward, Artest is below average on the boards.  So contrary to what you may have heard, Artest is not “unquestionably a ferocious rebounder.” Such production suggests that Houston will have a problem if Artest lines up at power forward.

The “good” Rockets

To see how much of a problem, let’s look at what the Rockets were last year.

Table Three: The Houston Rockets in 2007-08

If we look at what Houston’s players did in 2006-07 and 2007-08, we don’t see much difference.  McGrady offered less and Bonzi Wells returned to what we tended to see before 2006-07.  But most everyone else was pretty much the same.

And what kind of team was this “same”?  Well, it was a “good” team.  The Rockets should have expected to win about 52 or 53 games.  Historically, this would have meant the Rockets were serious playoff contenders.  But in 2007-08, the Rockets Wins Produced (and efficiency differential) lagged behind the LA Lakers, Utah Jazz, New Orleans Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, and Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference.  This means our “good” Rockets team should have expected to lose in the first round of the playoffs.  And of course, they did.

Does the acquisition of Artest change Houston’s prospects?  As we saw in Table Two, it doesn’t look like Artest is going to help much. Here is Houston’s projected line-up with Artest:

Point Guard: Rafer Alston, Aaron Brooks

Shooting Guard: Tracy McGrady, Luther Head, Brent Barry

Small Forward: Shane Battier, Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest

Power Forward: Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry

Center: Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo

When we look at this roster it’s hard to see how Artest makes things better.  At small forward the Rockets have Battier and McGrady.  Artest was a little bit better than both at the three spot last year, but not much better. 

When we look at the power forwards we see that Scola, Hayes, and Landry (assuming he re-signs) all offer more than Artest.  Again the problem is rebounding. Once again I have to return to what was said earlier.  Artest is not “unquestionably a ferocious rebounder.”  Even as a small forward he is often below average on the boards. 

If I may digress for a moment, I think only in basketball can we see a player described as a “unquestionably skilled” at something he doesn’t actually do well.  Often you see this for scorers with low levels of shooting efficiency.  But you also see it with respect to rebounds. 

To put this oddity in perspective, can you imagine a baseball player described as great home-run hitter without hitting many home-runs?  Or a running back described as a prolific rusher without gaining many yards on the ground?  Or a hockey player described as a great scorer without accumulating many goals? My sense is that this disconnect between the descriptions and the numbers really only happen in basketball. 

Okay, enough digression. Back to what the Rockets can expect next season. As noted, the addition of Artest doesn’t help much.  Adding an aging Brent Barry might help, although it’s hard seeing him get many minutes at shooting guard (McGrady and Luther Head are going to probably get most of the minutes at the two spot). 

When we consider that the additions of Artest and Barry probably don’t help much, it’s hard to conclude that the Rockets are much improved.  So we can expect this team to continue to lag behind (and with Andrew Bynum coming back, far behind) the Lakers.  I also don’t see this team necessarily closing the gap on the Jazz, Spurs, Hornets, and Suns. In sum, another first round exit in the playoffs can probably be expected.

Two Caveats

Let me close with two caveats.  First, I have seen people suggest (such as Evan in the comments at the Wages of Wins Journal), that the Rockets could play this line-up:

Point Guard: McGrady

Shooting Guard: Battier

Small Forward: Artest

Power Forward: Scola or Landry

Center: Yao Ming

Such a line-up would be an improvement on what we saw last year, although I don’t think it’s enough to catch a healthy Lakers team.  I also am not convinced we are going to see this line-up play often since it means sitting all the point guards this team has on the roster.

Of course there is one other possibility.  Perhaps some of the Rockets could change their level of productivity.  For example, McGrady – who once was more productive than Kobe – has slipped in recent years.  If T-Mac were suddenly what he used to be, then the Rockets could be much better. 

Although I think a healthy McGrady might offer more, I am not optimistic that Artest will really be much different from what we have seen across the first 18,587 regular season minutes of his career.  And consequently, although I think the Rockets could be better (I don’t think it will happen but it could), I don’t think that will be because this team acquired Ron Artest.

Update: When I wrote this last night I still had Mike James on the roster.  As someone noted in the comments, James is not on this team anymore (oops!).  This means that Evan’s line-up — with McGrady at point guard — is perhaps more plausible. 

– DJ

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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.