The Best of the Rest at the One-Third Mark of the 2008-09 Season

Posted on December 23, 2008 by

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One-third of the 2008-09 season has been completed.  And three teams – the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and LA Lakers – have risen to the top.  Although the majority of the season still remains to be played, it seems likely that the eventual NBA champion will come from this trio (and thankfully, it’s certainly no longer the case that the Lakers are the clear favorite). 

We can expect as the season continues to unfold that more and more attention will be paid to this threesome.  But there are 27 other franchises in the Association.  And of these 27, one might wonder which one is the most deserving of a little bit more attention?  In other words, which team is currently the “best of the rest”?

For an answer we turn to efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  Before we get to the identity of the fourth best team, let’s first note which teams do not currently hold the title “best of the rest” (as of the games played Monday night):

  • The New Orleans Hornets might have the most productive player in the game in Chris Paul. But they are only ranked 5th in differential.
  • The 6th ranked team is one that many thought would contend for a title in 2009. But the Houston Rockets currently rank far behind the top trio in the league.
  • Last year the Utah Jazz ranked 4th in differential. Injuries, though, have caused the Jazz to fall to 10th in the league (behind Portland, Denver, and San Antonio in the Western Conference).

Howard and the Magic

To find the “best of the rest” we have to look outside the West and think about Superman and the Magic Kingdom.  Yes, the team currently ranked fourth in efficiency differential is the Orlando Magic.

After 28 games the Orlando have a 6.7 efficiency differential.  In some years such a mark would mean the Magic would be considered clear contenders for the title.  But Cleveland, Boston, and the Lakers currently post differentials of 14.3, 11.2, and 9.5 respectively.  Although these numbers might decline some as the season progresses (then again, maybe they won’t), it seems unlikely the gap between the Magic and the top three will close.  Nevertheless, as Table One indicates, the Magic are on pace to win 58 games. So although this team might not win a title in 2009, Orlando is still having a very good season.

Table One: The Orlando Magic in 2008-09

When we look at the individual players, we can see the source of these wins.  Obviously the most productive player on the Magic is Dwight Howard.  Howard is currently on pace to produce 25 wins this season or 44% of the team’s total.  In other words, Howard is a contender for Most Productive Player (he currently ranks behind Chris Paul and LeBron James).

The Main Sidekick

Although Howard is the clear leader in Orlando, he’s not a one man team. The second fiddle on this team is Rashard Lewis. 

No, that’s not right.  Lewis – who appears to be logging most of his minutes at power forward – is actually below average (because he appears to be logging most of his minutes at power forward). 

How about Hedo Turkoglu? Turkoglu was the second most productive player last season. This season, though, Turkoglu has also become a below average performer (following a pattern where every other season he is below average).

Okay, if it’s not Lewis or Turkoglu, who is Howard’s primary sidekick? 

For an answer, think back to the man who assisted Howard on the Superman dunk.  Yes, it’s none other than the much maligned Jameer Nelson.

Currently Nelson has posted a 0.251 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], a mark that is more than twice the output of an average player (average is 0.100).  This is certainly the best mark of Nelson’s career.  But one should note that Nelson was above average last season [0.189 WP48].  He also posted a 0.151 WP48 in 2005-06.  In sum, Nelson has been a productive player in the past.  So what he’s doing this year is not a complete surprise.

The Other Big Men

Beyond Howard and Nelson, the Magic have also received above average performances from Tony Battie, Courtney Lee (just barely), and Marcin Gortat. 

Once upon a time, Battie was an above average performer.  In fact, as a Celtic – where he played from 1999 to 2003 — Battie was consistently an above average player.  But after leaving Boston, Battie stopped being good.  At least, until this year.

And then there is Gortat, a player who is so famous his NBA.com bio is currently missing words.  We do know that Gortat replaced Howard in the starting line-up on December 15th of this season.  And against the Golden State Warriors, Gortat scored 16 points with 13 rebounds.  Prior to this game Gortat’s entire career production – with respect to scoring and boards – consisted of 30 points and 31 rebounds.

Although Gortat has not played much, he has played well when given a chance.  Last year Gortat only played 44 minutes.  His WP48, though, was 0.271.  This year he has played just 133 minutes and his WP48 stands at 0.267.  Both marks are well above average and suggest Gortat could be a productive NBA player.  But with only 177 minutes played, we can’t be sure.

Nevertheless, one wonders what would happen if Orlando gave Gortat a bit more playing time. Cleveland (with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, and Anderson Varejao), Boston (with Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins), and the Lakers (with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum) have all found some success playing big players.  In other words, the top teams seem to think that bigger is better in basketball. 

Perhaps the Magic could learn from the example of the NBA’s top teams. Maybe the Magic could let Lewis log a few more minutes at small forward (where he is above average) and let Gortat (or Battie) spend a bit more time with Howard at the power forward-center slots.  If that happens, the gap between the Magic and the top trio might (and I repeat the word “might”) close a bit.  And maybe we can have a foursome compete for the NBA title in 2009.

– 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.