Millsap or Boozer?

Posted on December 18, 2008 by

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Last December I posted a new story every single day.  Such a schedule allowed me to touch upon virtually every story-line in the NBA.  To finish this next book, though, I have had to cut back to only three posts per week.  And with my schedule limited, I now have to be much more selective in choosing the topic of each post.

For example, for this post I first thought about Rajon Rondo.  Kevin Arnovitz – at TrueHoopargued a few days ago that Rondo is currently playing at an All-Star level.   Rondo’s numbers support this argument.  In fact, Rondo is currently the most productive player on the Celtics. Yes, I think that’s quite a story.

But before I started working on the column I started thinking about the New York Knicks.  Last summer the Knicks fired Isiah Thomas and hired Mike D’Antoni.  And suddenly the team is not quite as crappy as they were last year. So did D’Antoni make a difference? Or is there another explanation for the decline in crappiness?  Yes, answering those questions would be a good story also.

Sloan Repeats Himself, Again

As I was working on telling that story, Owen Breck – a frequent commentator both here and at Knickerblogger – sent me a quote that got me thinking about the best NBA team in my current home state.

“He (Deron Williams) was struggling in his game, because if you don’t execute, the point guard doesn’t get anything done,” Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. “And other guys just were looking to take shots. They weren’t looking to win the game. They were looking to take shots.”

This quote comes from Wednesday night’s game, which saw the Jazz win despite only scoring seven points in the first quarter.  Sloan’s quote captures one of the primary arguments offered in The Wages of Wins.  NBA players have an incentive to take as many shots as possible, because more scoring leads to more pay.  But the incentive to take shots is not always consistent with winning games.  And as we saw in the preseason, Sloan seems to spend a fair amount of time telling his team to focus less on scoring and more on winning.  Perhaps if players in the NBA were paid to win – not paid to take shots – Sloan wouldn’t have to keep repeating himself.

The Jazz are on the Free Agent Clock

Speaking of paying players, much attention has been paid to the free agent class of 2010.  Teams appear to be making decisions that jeopardize both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons in the hope of landing LeBron James, or Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh, or…. Yes, there is some talent available in two years. But before we get to that particular market, there’s the free agent class of 2009.  And it turns out, there’s some talent available next summer as well.

Two of the most productive players happen to play for the Utah Jazz.  Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com reports that Carlos Boozer will definitely be on the market next summer as an unrestricted free agent.  And Paul Millsap will be available as a restricted free agent.  Here is what we know about each player:

  • Each player is primarily a power forward.
  • Each player is capable of starting for most NBA teams.
  • The Jazz are not likely to start both players.

Given these three points, for the Jazz to bring back both they would have to pay starter money to a player coming off the bench.  Further complicating matters is the fact the Jazz have already made substantial financial commitments to Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, and Deron Williams.  In the past, Larry Miller – the owner of the Jazz – has publicly stated that he is unwilling to pay the NBA’s luxury tax. Although he may have softened this stance recently (at least, that’s what the Sheridan article indicates) it does look like the Jazz are probably going to have to make a hard decision.

Before we get to the decision, let’s first look at the productivity of Millsap and Boozer.  And this look begins with an examination of the entire team after 27 games this season.

Table One: The Utah Jazz after 27 Games

Table One reports the two standard views of a team.  First we have how many wins the team could expect given what the players did last year (given the minutes this year). Then we have an assessment of how each player has performed this season.

One issue leaps out when you look at the Jazz. The team has been devastated by injuries.  The two most productive players from last season – Boozer and D. Williams – have missed a combined 28 games this year.  The team has also had to play games without Okur and Kirilenko.  If the limited playing time of these players persisted, the Jazz would only expect to win 44 games this year [given what these players did in 2007-08].  Instead, the team is on pace to win 50 games. 

This small leap can be mostly tied to Millsap, the player who has posted the biggest improvement.  Last year Millsap posted a 0.126 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  This is an above average mark, but far short of the 0.213 WP48 posted this season.

Millsap’s improvement leads some to ask if the team would be better off keeping Millsap and letting Boozer depart.  Three issues work in Millsap’s favor. 

  • He is the younger than Boozer.
  • He is a restricted free agent, and that should limit his salary offers.
  • He takes fewer shots per game (and scores less), and that should limit his salary offers.

So Millsap is younger and cheaper.  But can he match Boozer’s productivity?

Table Two: Comparing Millsap and Boozer

For an answer we turn to Table Two, which compares what Millsap did this year to what Boozer did in both his career and last season (since Boozer hasn’t played much this year).  The data suggests that these players are fairly similar. Both players are above average with respect to shooting efficiency, scoring, rebounds, and steals. Millsap is above average as a shot blocker, while Boozer is the better passer and bit less prone to commit personal fouls. 

If we put the whole picture together – via Win Score – we see that Boozer offers slightly more.  And it’s important to note that we are comparing Millsap at his best to the average productivity of Boozer.  In other words, Boozer has already shown that he can be even more productive.  We are not sure that Millsap will keep getting better (he might, but then again he might not). 

Making the Decision

So what should the Jazz do?  This might be one of those basketball decisions that come down to personalities.  It can’t thrill the Utah Jazz that Boozer went from saying he wouldn’t comment on his impending free agent status to issuing the following statement to ESPN.com:

“I’m opting out. No matter what, I’m going to get a raise regardless,” Boozer told ESPN.com. “I am going to opt out, I don’t see why I wouldn’t, I think it’s a very good business decision for me and my family, but I’d also like to see what happens with the Jazz and stay here.”

This comment was not greeted with much enthusiasm in Utah.  For example, columnist Kurt Kragthorpe noted (see Boozer-backing takes a holiday):

“The level of self-interest to which Boozer stretched is disappointing. His whole approach was to shelve the subject of his contract until after the season. For some reason, having not played for 15 games because of another of those mysterious, difficult to quantify injuries that characterized his early years with the Jazz, he chose to field a question about it Wednesday night in New Jersey. What was he thinking?”

Kragthorpe was not the only one to question Boozer.  Here is what Boozer’s boss had to say:

Jazz owner Larry Miller, in his weekly radio appearance on KFNZ 1320 AM, called Boozer’s comments “one of the top 10 stupidest things I’ve ever heard an NBA player do in 24 years.”

“Carlos knows better,” Miller added. “He told [Jazz general manager] Kevin [O’Connor] he just screwed up, but that doesn’t fix it, so what do the fans think now?”

Given Boozer’s comment – and the reaction this inspired — it’s possible that Utah might decide to let Boozer go and devote their limited resources to Millsap.  Such a decision could save money.  But it can also cost wins.  As noted, Millsap is not quite as productive as Boozer.  And furthermore, unlike Boozer, Millsap will not have Millsap backing him up.

Although letting Boozer go might lead to a decline in wins, I think teams sometimes are willing to accept more losses if it means they will have fewer headaches.  And I think fans are okay with this trade.  At least, right up until they get to see the additional losses.

– 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.