Spoiling the Fun in Milwaukee and Oklahoma

Posted on August 14, 2008 by


Trades are always fun. Change, especially for losing teams, tends to be greeted with enthusiasm.  At least, that’s what we saw this week with the six player trade involving the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Oklahoma City Whatevers. 

As a dispassionate economist (or something like that) who is not a fan of the Bucks, Cavs, or Whatevers, I like to think I am more objective.  So here is my first “objective” impression of this move:

The Bucks and Whatevers apparently have decided that building a playoff contender is too difficult.  Consequently, each team had decided to assist an existing playoff team so that they at least have someone to root for in the 2009 post-season. 

Moving past the glib first response, here are a few more reasons why I don’t see these moves as helping Milwaukee or Oklahoma City.

The Bucks Break-up a Trio

As I noted a few weeks ago (see At Least We Have the Bucks), the Milwaukee Bucks were led by three players in 2006-07 and 2007-08: Andrew Bogut, Mo Williams, and Michael Redd.  These three players produced 63.4% of the team’s wins two years ago (Ruben Patterson produced another 29.6% of the team’s wins) and 87.4% of Milwaukee’s victories this past season. 

Williams is now going to be replaced by Luke Ridnour and/or Damon Jones.  Last year Ridnour posted a 0.006 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], while Jones had a mark of 0.047.  Both players fall short of what Williams offered [0.122 WP48].  In sum, this move doesn’t help Milwaukee get any better, although it may free up some time for Ramon Sessions (0.239 WP48 in limited minutes last year).

Yes it does give the team cap relief (as John Hollinger notes, only eventually). But cap room – by itself – doesn’t win basketball games.  So if you are a Bucks fan and read the following from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Garry Howard (Hat Tip to Henry Abbott at True Hoop),

Add it all up and you get . . .

Cap room and a playoff berth.

At least, we know they now have cap room after jettisoning the remainder of Williams’ contract, which was valued at $43 million over the next five years.

With a starting lineup that should look like Ridnour (PG), Redd (SG), (Richard) Jefferson (SF), Charlie Villanueva (PF) and Andrew Bogut (C), the Bucks will have an infinitely better roster. And now that the team has a coach who can actually lead on this level, the future is vastly improved.

you should not be budgeting for 2009 playoff tickets just yet.  The five players that Howard identifies as potential starters on this “infinitely better” combined to produce 17.1 wins last year.  Yes Ridnour and Jefferson have played well in the past.  But their recent performances are not encouraging. So unless Milwaukee’s bench is just amazing (and even with Sessions playing often and well, that’s not going to happen), the Bucks subtracting one of the few “good” players from the 2007-08 roster is not a move that will likely result in a playoff team next spring. 

Lost in Oklahoma

As for Oklahoma City, let me digress for a moment and discuss how bad this team was in 2007-08.  Prior to this past season, here are the three worst teams in Seattle since 1973-74 (the first year we can calculate offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and efficiency differential).

1984-85: -5.30 efficiency differential, 31 wins

2005-06: -3.16 efficiency differential, 35 wins

2006-07: -3.03 efficiency differential, 31 wins

Clay Bennett purchased this team in 2006.  So he inherited a bad team that didn’t improve much in his first year of ownership.  And then last year, as Bennett was looking to move his team to Oklahoma – and consistent with the plot of the movie Major League (a point I made a few weeks ago) – the Sonics managed to reach historic levels of “badness.” The team’s efficiency differential of -8.75 was easily the worst in franchise history. 

And when we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced, we see that this result was not surprising. 

Table One: The Seattle Super Sonics in 2007-08

If we take as given the performance of Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, the Sonics should have expected – given what their veteran players did in the past – 13.7 victories in 2007-08.  The improved play of Nick Collison and Kurt Thomas allowed the team to get to 17.7 Wins Produced.  Given this meager Wins Produced total, it’s not surprising that of the players Seattle employed who played at least 100 minutes last year, only three – Collison, Thomas, and Earl Watson – were above average in 2007-08 (average WP48 is 0.100). 

Thomas was essentially given to the Spurs last year (for Francisco Elson and a likely low first round draft choice).  And in the lottery this year the Sonics selected Russell Westbrook, a likely replacement for Watson.  Erich Doerr’s draft analysis is pessimistic on Westbrook, so it’s not likely that Westbrook will come into the league and post above average numbers ini 2008-09.

Collison finished last year in Seattle’s starting line-up, but did spend the majority of the year coming off the bench.  If Westbrook takes Watson’s starting slot, and Collison returns to the bench in 2008-09, it’s possible that the Oklahoma City Whatevers will field a starting line-up without a single above average performer. 

Of course Oklahoma City fans shouldn’t worry.  According to Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman (again Hat Tip to Henry Abbott at True Hoop), Desmond Mason is just “the kind of player every franchise can use.”  This is the same Mason who produced -2.3 wins the last time he played home games in Oklahoma (in 2006-07 when the Hornets played games in Oklahoma City). 

Mason, though, is not coming alone.  Oklahoma City has also added Joe Smith.  Smith has produced less than three wins per season in his career.  Hardly the production you would expect from a number one pick, and hardly the production Oklahoma City will need to field a winning team. 

Okay, it doesn’t look like Mason and Smith are really going to help.  Yes, it’s not likely Ridnour and Griffin (the latter because he doesn’t get to play much) weren’t going to help either. But the question is whether this move really makes Oklahoma City better.  And when we look at the roster assembled in Oklahoma City we do not expect to see a winning team.  In fact, one wonders if this team will be the worst team in the league in 2008-09.  With only two above average performers – Collison and Watson – it certainly looks bleak. 

As noted a few weeks ago, though, the Memphis Grizzlies only have one above average player.  So the Grizzlies are favored to win the race to the depths of the league.  Plus, it’s possible that Kevin Durant could finally live up to the promise of his college numbers (it’s also possible he won’t also).   Unfortunately, even if Durant turned out to be amazing (where amazing is a WP48 of 0.200), Oklahoma City is still going to see a losing team next season.

Before moving on, let me comment once again on the wonder that is cap room. Like Milwaukee (again, as Hollinger notes), Oklahoma City does get cap relief from this move.  Cap relief, though, by itself, doesn’t win games.   Games are won because you acquire productive players.  You can do this via draft choices and/or free agency.  But just having the opportunity to select players – as we see if we review past draft choices and free agent selections that failed – is not good enough.

We can imagine, though, that this cap room and future draft choices will someday turn into amazing talents. While we are imagining, though, we have to face the reality that for 2008-09 this team is not going to be very good.  And this team is going to have to acquire a number of productive players before this reality changes.   

Saving LeBron?

Let me close by commenting on how this move impacts Cleveland.  Delonte West finished the season as the point guard in Cleveland, posting a 0.150 WP48 for the Cavaliers.  This mark was consistent with what West did as a starter in Boston in 2005-06 and 2006-07 (0.141 WP48 in these two seasons).  The WP48 posted by Williams this past season (0.122) was the best of his career, so it doesn’t look like the move from West to Williams really helps.  If the Cavs could have both West and Williams, though, the backcourt in Cleveland – which has been a weakness for awhile – would be much improved.  It’s not clear, though, that Cleveland is going to re-sign West (and if anyone has any firm details on this, please post a link in the comments).

Let’s imagine, though, that West does play in Cleveland next year.  If that is the case, Cleveland will be surrounding LeBron with the following list of above average players: Ben Wallace [0.177 WP48], West [0.150 WP48], Zydrunas Ilguaskas [0.160 WP48], Anderson Varejao [0.136 Wp48], and Williams [0.122 WP48].

A few weeks ago I posted my review of the Cavaliers (see Building a Winner in Cleveland?).  In this review I noted the importance of building a team around LeBron that would make him want to stay beyond 2010.  The acquisition of Williams – and the retention of West – will lead to more wins in Cleveland.  And more wins means LeBron is more likely to stay. 

At least, assuming someone in Europe doesn’t offer LeBron ownership of a small  nation to play overseas.  If that happens, the supporting cast in Cleveland isn’t going to matter.

– 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.