Jason Kidd Really Did Help the Mavericks

Posted on September 24, 2008 by


In 2006-07 the Dallas Mavericks – led by league MVP Dirk Nowitzki — posted the best mark in the NBA with 67 victories.   And then they met the Golden State Warriors in the first round and the dream came to a very quick end.

In the summer of 2007 the Mavericks made very few changes.  But with essentially the same roster, the team declined last season.  After 53 games the team’s record stood at 35-18.  This is certainly a respectable mark, but a pace to win 54 games is quite a letdown after what the Mavericks and their fans saw two years ago. 

The letdown inspired the decision-makers in Dallas to take action.  In an effort to return to the top of the Western Conference and the NBA, the Mavericks traded Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Keith Van Horn, Maurice Ager (along with draft picks and cash) to the New Jersey Nets for Jason Kidd, Malik Allen, and Antoine Wright. The key players in this transaction were Harris, Diop, and Kidd.  Essentially the Mavericks were sending their starting point guard and a productive big man to the Nets for Jason Kidd.

As noted at the time, this trade should have helped the team (see Can Kidd Save Dallas?).  But after Kidd joined the roster, the Mavericks posted a record of 16-13.  And then in the first round of the playoffs the team was defeated in five games by the New Orleans Hornets.  Such results clearly indicate that the Kidd acquisition didn’t help.  Or does it?

Wins vs. Efficiency Differential

In evaluating the quality of a team we tend to look at wins and losses.  After all, the object of the game is to win. Certainly teams that win more must be better than those that lose (or win less often). 

Those that look at statistics and the NBA, though, have a different perspective.  Although wins are often a very good measure of team quality, a team’s efficiency differential – offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency – is a better predictor of future success (an example of this point is my discussion of the NBA Finals last June).

What does efficiency differential tell us about the Kidd acquisition?  At the time of the trade Dallas had a differential of 4.3.  When the season ended, the team’s differential stood at 4.9.  For a team to increase its differential from 4.3 to 4.9 in just 29 games, that team would have to post a mark of 6.0 in the final games of the campaign.  In other words, the Mavericks clearly improved after Kidd came to town.

Yes, the Mavericks were again losers in the first round.  But remember, the Hornets had home court advantage in this series.  And the Hornets posted a differential of 5.7 last season.  In sum, these teams were not that different.  In such a situation, it’s not surprising to see the team with home court advantage win.

The Nowitzki Story

We can see the Mavericks improved after the trade.  But why exactly did they decline in the first place?

A few days ago I posted a story on the decline of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983-84.  In this column I argued that the key event was the drop-off in the performance of the team’s leading Wins Producer, Moses Malone.  Although Malone was a top ten player in both 1982-83 and 1983-84, the difference in the former and latter season was still eight wins.  And such a difference was a substantial part of the team’s overall decline.

A similar story actually played out in Dallas in 2007-08.  Just before Christmas I wrote the following column about Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks:

The Missing MVP

This post indicated that the problems in Dallas could be linked almost entirely to the play of Nowitzki.  And with respect to Nowitzki, most of the problem was a decline in his shooting efficiency (specifically his performance from beyond the three point arc).

Now let’s look at what happened after Kidd arrived:

Table One: Dirk Nowitzki, before and after Kidd

Table One reports Nowitzki’s stats before the acquisition of Kidd, after Kidd came to town, as well as what he did during the entire 2007-08 and 2006-07 campaigns.  The numbers clearly indicate that Nowitzki’s performance improved after Kidd came to town.  His adjusted field goal percentage increased from 49.2% to 54.6% (and his performance from three-point range improved from 29.1% to 48.1%). 

When we turn to Win Score per 48 minutes, we see that Nowitzki posted a 16.2 mark in 2006-07.  Before Kidd came to town, Nowitzki’s mark was only 14.1.  Again, this is above average, but not quite what he was when he was named MVP.  With Kidd on board, Nowitzki’s mark rose to 16.3.  In sum, the numbers indicate the acquisition of Kidd solved the primary problem in Dallas.   Nowitzki was able to return to his MVP form.

The Mavericks in 2007-08 and going forward

So if you’re a Dallas fan, the numbers I have reviewed might give you optimism for 2008-09.  And if you look at the following numbers, your optimism might grow even further.

Table Two: The Dallas Mavericks in 2007-08

From Table Two we see that the Mavericks have the following above average players returning in 2008-09: Nowitzki, Kidd, Eric Dampier, Josh Howard, and Jason Terry.  Diop has also returned to the fold.  Such a collection does suggest this team could be quite formidable.  But there are two factors that might prevent this team from winning its first title in 2009:

1.  Kidd is old.  Kidd entered in the league in 1994.  Glenn Robinson – the first player chosen in that draft – last started a game in 2004.  Like Robinson, most of the other players from that draft are not in the league anymore.  The few that remain are no longer counted on to produce significant quantities of wins for their current employer.  Kidd, though, must produce for Dallas to seriously contend.  Although Kidd was very productive last year – producing at a level in Dallas that was quite similar to what he did in New Jersey in 2006-07 – we know this production cannot continue forever.  At some point, Kidd’s production must decline.  If that happens in 2008-09, then Dallas will have problems. 

2. Even if Kidd doesn’t decline, the Mavericks have a bigger problem.  The LA Lakers are an incredibly good team.  Even if everyone on Dallas maintains his production levels from 2007-08, I don’t think this team is better than the Lakers (or the Celtics).

In sum, I think the numbers tell us the Kidd move made this team better.  But I think the numbers we see in LA (and Boston) tell us that Dallas is not likely to win a title in 2009.

– 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.