The NBA Assistant Coaches Make Love Angry

Posted on January 29, 2009 by


According to Don Seeholzer of the Pioneer Press, Kevin Love is angry. (HT TrueHoop)

“That rookie-sophomore (bull),” Love said. “I’m sorry to say, but that’s what it was. I was pretty upset today about it, but I’m not going to let that drag into the future at all. There’s always next year. Pardon my French, but that was just (bull).”

Wolves coach Kevin McHale had a similar reaction before the game.

“I just heard (that). What a travesty that is,” he said. “That’s utterly ridiculous. Who picks that team?”

Although McHale suspected it was the media, NBA assistant coaches are actually responsible for choosing the players who participate in the NBA’s Rookie Challenge.  And these assistant coaches found nine rookies who were more deserving than Kevin Love.

Giving Love to Love

Here is what Henry Abbott – of TrueHoop – had to say about Love just a few days ago:

…if you take:

Every rookie who has ever played in the NBA since 1946 …

Weed out everyone who played less than twenty minutes per game …

And sort them by who gets the highest percentage of total rebounds while on the court …

You’ll find that two current rookies are in the top ten all time. Which is really something.

One of them is Greg Oden, who is ninth at the moment. He’s ahead of people like Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Another 2008-2009 rookie, however, is currently third all time. By this measure he’s ahead of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Oakley, Buck Williams, and Bill Walton (trailing only Clifford Ray and Larry Smith, who were three years older in their rookie years than the boy I’m talking about).

This rookie is also better known for doing something besides rebounding.

But TrueHoop reader Larry has pointed out, and confirms, this player is certainly showing that he’s a special rebounder.

So … who is he? 

Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Here’s the evidence.

His total rebounding percentage is greater than his age, which just about never happens. He’s only 20, but he grabs 21.3 percent of the rebounds while he’s on the court.

The top rookies and sophomores

Although Love dominates on the boards, he’s not much of a scorer.  As one can see HERE, Love currently ranks 13th among all rookies in points scored per game.  Of the top nine rookies, eight were named to the roster of the Rookie Challenge.  The lone exception was D.J. Augustin, whose spot was taken by Greg Oden (the number one choice in the 2007 draft).

A similar story is told for the sophomores.  Each of the top eight sophomores in points scored per game – as seen HERE — was named to the sophomore team (the lone exception was Aaron Brooks).  In sum, just as we often see when we look at other decisions in basketball, scoring dominates the assistant coaches’ choices for the Rookie Challenge.

If we move past scoring, though, we see why Love and McHale were a bit miffed.

Table One: The Top Rookies at the Midpoint of the 2008-09 NBA Season

Table Two: The Top Sophomores at the Midpoint of the 2008-09 NBA Season

Tables One and Two report the top rookies and sophomores as the midpoint (after 41 games) of the 2008-09 season.  As one can see, whether one looks at rookies or sophomores, Kevin Love’s production of wins leads the way.  This is true when you look at Wins Produced or WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].

Obviously much of Love’s production is derived from his ability to get rebounds.  Relative to scoring, rebounds tend to be undervalued by many basketball observers. Certainly scoring is what we tend to focus on in watching a game.   There is also a sense that rebounds are really not about the player who grabs the ball.  This argument tends to note either the issue of diminishing returns (i.e. one player’s rebounds are taken from a teammate) and/or the importance of defense in creating rebounding opportunities.  It certainly is the case that we see diminishing returns in the rebound numbers.  But as I noted a few days ago (and will be discussed briefly in our next book), the effect is quite small.   In addition, rebounds per minute are quite consistent across time.  This suggests that a player’s rebounding numbers are really about the player (not so much the defenders around the player).  And this means that what the T-Wolves are getting from Love today should continue tomorrow (because he really is good at getting rebounds).

Unfortunately for Love, what he’s offering doesn’t get much…. okay, love (had to see that coming).  And this is the problem for all these assistants who someday hope to lead a team.  On the one hand, coaches are often telling players to understand their role and not focus solely on scoring (see HERE and HERE). On the other hand – as Love has learned – scorers tend to capture more than their fair share of attention and love (okay, I’ll stop).  This conflicting message must make coaching in the NBA harder than it has to be.  And it could be solved if coaches simply understood the Wisdom of Red Auerbach

Looking at the Game

Okay, enough on Love’s justified anger.  Let’s talk about the Rookie Challenge.

The sophomores have a six game winning streak in this game.  Although one might think this is because the talent level is declining in the NBA (each year’s rookie class loses to last year’s class), this record is most likely due to the fact NBA players improve early in their careers.  In other words, the natural progression of an NBA player’s productivity means second year players will on average be more productive than rookies.  As a consequence, even before the assistant coaches forgot to put the most productive rookie in the game, it was expected that the sophomores would have an advantage.

When we look at Table Three, though, we see the rookies have some hope. The average rookie named to the Rookie Challenge roster has a 0.082 WP48.  The average sophomore, though, only has a 0.067 WP48. 

Table Three: Evaluating the Rosters of the 2009 Rookie Challenge

If we go back to Tables One and Two, we see that the average sophomore is more productive than the average rookie.  The problem for the sophomore team is that five of the nine players named to the team are NOT ranked in the top ten sophomores in terms of wins production.  The rookie team -despite over-looking Love – has seven of the top nine players.  Consequently, the rookie team – at least in terms of Wins Produced – looks a bit better.

The Second Choices

Of course, there’s one big issue for the rookies.  The worst player in this game – again in terms of WP48 – is Michael Beasley.  Beasley was the second player taken in the 2008 draft and he was expected – based on his college numbers – to be very productive in the NBA.  So far, this hasn’t happened.  Although Beasley is good at taking shots, he’s not good at any other aspect of the game (i.e. shooting efficiency, rebounds, turnovers, etc…).

Although Beasley has clearly struggled, there’s some hope.  Like Beasley, Kevin Durant was the second player taken in the 2007 draft.  And like Beasley, Durant played very badly his rookie season.

After struggling earlier this year, Durant has now improved.  As Table Two notes, at the midpoint of the 2008-09 season Durant is the second most productive sophomore.  And when we look at the entire NBA, a player who was well below average last year is ranked 57th in Wins Produced at the midpoint of this season (hopefully I will get these numbers posted soon).   With 425 players in the league, Durant is now an above average player.  And as noted, it’s expected that such a young player will continue to improve.  So eventually Durant might become the player his fans envision. 

We should remember, though, that even if Durant continues to play well it will not change what he did last year.  In other words, Durant – the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2008 – was not the best rookie last year.  And even he develops into a Hall-of-Fame player, this will not change Durant’s rookie season record.

A similar story can be told about Beasley.  Right now the second choice in 2008 is not a very productive NBA player.  Consequently, like fans of Durant, Beasley fans might wish to express some anger when I say their favorite player – at this point in time – is not a productive NBA player.  This anger comes from the belief – expressed last year by fans of Durant -that their favorite player will someday be a great player.  Even if that happens for Beasley, though, it will not change the fact Beasley did not play well the first half of his first NBA season.  That first-half record is now in the books, and as noted, it’s not a good record.

And if the player we saw in the first half of 2008-09 shows up at the Rookie Challenge, it might be possible for the sophomores to make it seven in a row.  In other words, despite the production advantage the rookie have entering the game, the game’s least productive player might be the one that dictates the outcome.

– DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at 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.