Bad Days in Sacramento and the Hawks Sort of Soar

Posted on January 15, 2009 by

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A few days ago I was asked by a journalist to comment on the Sacramento Kings.  Specifically, I was asked why the value of this franchise isn’t what it used to be.

The explanation offered by some (like people associated with the Kings) is that the economy in Sacramento is the problem. Although I think the local economy isn’t helping, I argued that the biggest problem is the quality of the product on the court. 

Sacramento History

Once upon a time the Kings were synonymous with bad basketball.  The Kings arrived in Sacramento in 1985 and proceeded to post an efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) below -1.0 for thirteen consecutive season.  The last season in this string was the 1997-98 campaign.  That year Sacramento’s differential was -5.87 and the team only won 27 games (only the 1990-91 Sacramento Kings — when the Kings posted a -6.94 mark — offered a lower differential).

As Table One indicates, the 1997-98 Kings were led in Wins Produced by Billy Owens, Mitch Richmond, and Michael Stewart.  This trio produced 23.3 wins.  Unfortunately the rest of the roster produced fewer than three wins.  In fact, after the team’s top threesome, there was not a single player who played more than 500 minutes and posted an above average WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]. 

Table One: The Sacramento Kings in 1997-98

In 1998 Chris Webber – and Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac (and Jon Barry, Lawrence Funderburke, and Scott Pollard) – came to town.  This infusion of talent led the Kings to a winning record in 1998-99. And from 1999-2000 to 2005-06, Sacramento posted a positive efficiency differential each season.

In 2006-07, though, the happy days in Sacramento ended as the team’s efficiency differential fell to -1.84. Then last season the differential was only -2.29, the worst mark since the 1994-95 campaign.

Although the past two seasons were bad, it’s nothing compared to the disaster that’s the 2008-09 season. After 40 games, Sacramento’s differential is -9.03.  To put this mark in perspective:

  • No team – not even the Oklahoma City Thunder – has a lower differential this season.
  • No team – in the dreadful history of this franchise – has posted a lower differential.

Yes, this edition of the Kings is the worst edition ever.

The Bad Kings

So why is this team so bad?  For an answer we turn to Table Two.

Table Two: The Sacramento Kings after 40 games in 2008-09

From Table Two we see that the entire population of above average Sacramento players (who have played at least 200 minutes) consists of one player. Yes, Brad Miller is the only above average player employed in Sacramento. 

If we look at what these players did last year we see this population double.  Kevin Martin, who has been hurt this season, was very good last year.  So Martin’s injury has hurt more than just Martin. 

But even if Martin was healthy this team would be struggling.  This team – like the 1997-98 edition — simply doesn’t have enough talent.  And ultimately – I think – this is why the value of this franchise has fallen.  According to ESPN.com, the Kings – a team that sold out every home game two years ago — are currently ranked last in attendance.  This decline in attendance is clearly associated with a decline in the quality of the team on the floor.  And the performance of this team is clearly related to the player selections this team has made.

The Hawks Soar (sort of)

One choice the Kings made was sending Mike Bibby to the Atlanta Hawks.  This season Bibby has posted a 0.205 WP48 and is on pace to produce 12.1 wins. Had the Kings kept Bibby, Sacramento would currently …. well, they would still be bad.  But Bibby is clearly helping the Hawks be good.

If we look at Table Three, we can see that Atlanta – a team with a 1.89 efficiency differential – is currently on pace to finish with between 45 and 46 Wins Produced.  Although such a mark falls far short of the where the top teams in the NBA will finish, it’s much better than the past performance of Atlanta’s players suggests.

Table Three: The Atlanta Hawks after 38 games in 2008-09

Atlanta’s improvement can be linked primarily to three players.  As noted, Bibby is playing very well.  In fact, Bibby – in his eleventh season – is having his best season ever.  And this improvement is tied to the fact Bibby is making fewer mistakes.  His shooting efficiency – especially from beyond the arc – has never been better (in other words, he is missing fewer shots).  And he has also dramatically reduced his turnovers. 

Although Bibby’s improvement is the biggest change in Atlanta, the play of Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia should also be noted.  Both of these players were very bad last year (Pachulia had injury issues).  This year each player is slightly above average. For Williams, the specific changes – like Bibby – can be seen with respect to shooting efficiency and turnovers.  Pachulia’s improvement is primarily tied to rebounds.

Beyond this trio, the Hawks are also receiving above average contributions from Al Horford and Joe Johnson.  And perhaps contrary to popular perception, it’s the former that is producing more wins.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, Horford is out indefinitely with a bone bruise.  Without Horford in the line-up this season the Hawks have lost to Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Dallas.  They were also blown out by Orlando in the game he was injured.  Although the team did manage to defeat the Clippers and Wizards without Horford, one suspects a prolonged absence from Horford will cause problems in Atlanta.

If Horford does return quickly – and Bibby, Williams, and Pachulia keep playing well – Atlanta can expect to continue winning more often than they lose.  And that means attendance in Atlanta will continue to be better.  Atlanta was last in attendance in 2003-04.  Just two years ago the team ranked 26th in the league.  This year the Hawks rank 21st.  In other words, as the team has done better on the floor, the team has also done better at the gate.

As I noted at the top of the column, this is the primary reason why the bottom line of teams will change.  It’s ultimately the product on the floor that drives attendance and revenue.  In other words, when a team sees its franchise value fall, it should look first at the value of the product it’s placing on the floor.

Spam Notes

A few people have noticed difficulties in posting comments.  Apparently some comments  — that seem okay to me – are being caught in the spam filter.  If that happens to you, please let me know (my e-mail is berri@suu.edu).  I will do my best to rescue your thoughts (even the “not so good” thoughts) from the filter.

– 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.