The Setting Suns

Posted on August 31, 2008 by

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Once upon a time Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill were two of the most dominant players in the game.  Ten years ago (the 1997-98 season) Grant Hill produced 16.7 wins for the Detroit Pistons.  That same season, Shaquille O’Neal posted a 0.311 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] for the LA Lakers (average is 0.100).   As recently as the 2002-03 season Hill posted a 0.328 WP48 for the Orlando Magic while Shaq’s WP48 stood at 0.336 (again for the Lakers).

In the last few seasons, though, age and injury had taken its toll on both players.  After the 2002-03 season, Hill’s career marks stood at 109.3 Wins Produced with a 0.284 WP48.  In sum, Hill was one of the best players in the NBA from 1994-95 to 2002-03.

After missing the entire 2003-04 campaign, though, Hill has only produced 19.0 additional wins [with a 0.127 WP48] in his career.  In other words, Hill has become very close to an average NBA player.

Turning to Shaq… after the 2004-05 season Shaq had produced 236.2 wins and posted a 0.344 WP48 (included a 0.306 mark in 2004-05).  In the last three seasons, though, Shaq has only produced 17.1 wins and his WP48 has fallen to 0.175.  So just like Hill, Shaq has faded with age.

Despite these numbers, though, both Shaq and Hill were key players in the rotation of the Phoenix Suns this past season.   And their performance demonstrated that age is something that ultimately defeats all professional athletes.

The Acquisition of Shaq

Across the past four season the Phoenix Suns have performed as follows:

2004-05: 62 wins; 7.20 Efficiency Differential

2005-06: 54 wins; 5.59 Efficiency Differential

2006-07: 61 wins; 7.37 Efficiency Differential

2007-08: 55 wins; 5.09 Efficiency Differential

Such marks are consistent with an elite NBA team.  But these marks did not result in an NBA championship.

After 48 games of the 2007-08 season the Suns led the Western Conference with a record of 34-14.  In addition, their efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 6.20 would have ranked 5th in the NBA this past season (behind Boston, Detroit, the LA Lakers, and Utah).  In other words, Phoenix was definitely an elite NBA team.

Despite this level of success, Steve Kerr – the general manager in Phoenix – decided to trade Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal.  As Table One reveals, Marion’s WP48 with Phoenix in 2007-08 exceeded the 0.300 mark.

Table One: The Phoenix Suns in 2007-08

Meanwhile Shaq’s mark in Miami was below the 0.100 level.  So in terms of the productivity numbers at the time of the transaction, this move didn’t look like a winner.  When we consider that The Matrix is also six years younger than Shaq, it certainly looked like Kerr – and these are his words – was a “moron.”

At the time of this transaction I made the following observations:

1. The lead the Suns have over the five Western teams noted above is quite small.

2. If Andrew Bynum returns (and produces), the addition of Pau Gasol means that the Lakers are likely to surpass the Suns this season.

3. Even if the Bynum does not return (and no other team passes the Suns out West), the Boston Celtics are still better than the Suns this season.

4. Given #2 and #3, the Suns – as currently constructed – were not likely to win an NBA title in 2008.

5. Marion was also reportedly unhappy and planning on leaving the Suns after this season.  If Marion departed, there was no one in the free agent market the Suns could sign in 2008 to replace his productivity.  This means that the Suns are likely to fall behind the top teams next year.

Given all this, Steve Kerr knew the Suns – if they did nothing – were not likely to win a title in 2008 or 2009.  And that means Steve Nash – who turns 33 on the 7th of February – might never win a title in Phoenix. So something had to be done.

In addition to these observations, I also noted that although Marion was more productive than Shaq it’s possible that Shaq would play better in Phoenix (but even if this happened, an improved Shaq would still not be as good as Marion).

When the season ended we could see that much of what I thought would happen last February did come to pass.  Shaq did play better in Phoenix.  His WP48 was 0.227, a mark consistent with what Shaq did in Miami in 2005-06 (when the Heat took the title). Such a mark, though, falls short of what Marion offered Phoenix, and the team’s efficiency differential suffered. In the 34 games with Shaq the efficiency differential of this team was only 3.54.  This is easily the worst mark we have seen in Phoenix since Steve Nash arrived in 2004, and suggests that Phoenix was no longer an elite NBA team (ten NBA teams posted a better mark than 3.54 last season).

Of course Shaq was not acquired for the last 32 games of the regular season.  It was the playoffs that Kerr was focused upon.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well either.  Phoenix was once again bounced by San Antonio, this time after only five games in the first round.

So Kerr’s gamble did not pay off in 2008.  Yes, he was correct that Shaq would play better in Phoenix.  But even a better Shaq was not quite as good as Marion.  And as a result, the team’s outcome worsened.

Setting Even Further

So was Kerr a “moron”?  Consider the following two scenarios for next season. 

Scenario One:  Kerr does not acquire Shaq, but Marion walks away from Phoenix in 2008.

In this scenario the Phoenix Suns might have had a more successful 2007-08, although it is unlikely that this team – even with Marion – could have won an NBA title.  For 2008-09, though, Phoenix would have only had two players who were significantly above average (Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire).  Consequently, Phoenix would have fallen on harder times next season.

Scenario Two: Kerr does acquire Shaq, and Shaq continues to post the same productivity numbers in 2008-09 we saw in 34 games in Phoenix this past season.

Under this scenario the Phoenix Suns have three players who can post WP48 marks that exceed the 0.200 threshold.  Such a team should be able to win more than 50 games, although probably fall short of 60 victories.  In other words, the Suns will be good next year.  Just not as good as Boston or LA.  And probably not as good as they would have been had they convinced Marion to stay (which may have involved finding the money he wants to stay).

When we look at these two scenarios we see that Kerr is not a moron.  His team after 48 games last year was not good enough to win a title in 2008.  And if Marion had his heart set on opting out of his contract, then Kerr had to do something.

That something involves fielding a team of aging veterans in 2008-09.  If a Shaq and Hill could go back in time a few years, the Suns would be an amazing team next year.  But without time travel, Phoenix will likely be good in 2008-09, just not great.

And this means that it is likely that the Suns will lose their last game in the 2009 playoffs.  But this event should be compared to the outcome Phoenix fans will likely see in a few years.  In a very short time age will end the careers of Shaq, Nash, and Hill.  When that happens, Phoenix just might win the last game of the season.  But that last win will happen before the playoffs, not when the playoff concludes.  In sum, when this aging team finally does ride off into the sunset, Phoenix fans will look fondly upon the days when this team was close, but not quite good enough.   In other words, Phoenix fans may soon learn that second place isn’t quite as good as first, but it sure beats finishing completely out of the medals.

– 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.

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