Winning After the Loss of Jameer Nelson

Posted on February 10, 2009 by

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As of Sunday night the top four teams in the NBA – in terms of efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) – were as follows:

1. Cleveland Cavaliers [10.8]

2. Boston Celtics (9.9)

3. Orlando Magic (9.0)

4. LA Lakers [8.8]

And here are the next four teams:

5. Portland Trail Blazers (3.9)

6. San Antonio Spurs (3.4)

7. Denver Nuggets (3.3)

8. Houston Rockets (3.1)

As we have known for some time, the top four teams in the league have clearly separated themselves from the pack.  So it seems a good bet that the eventual NBA champion will reside in Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, or LA.  This means there is a chance – if Cleveland or Orlando finish on top — the Larry O’Brien trophy will move to a city it has never been to before.  And this is something that doesn’t happen often in the NBA.  Of the 29 cities currently hosting an NBA team, fifteen have never hosted an NBA champion.

Of the two upstarts, Cleveland currently has the best chance. In fact, LeBron and the Cavs are the current favorites.

Losing Nelson

That being said, Orlando – the subject of today’s post — does have a chance.  This chance, though, was recently diminished by the injury to Jameer Nelson.  As Table One notes, Nelson has been the second most productive player on the Magic.  The loss of such player – coupled with the strength of the competition in the East – suggests that the Magic will be the team left out of the conference championship in the East. 

Table One: The Orlando Magic in 2008-09 after 50 games

From Table One we see that Nelson posted a 0.256 WP48 this season.  His replacements at the guard spot – Anthony Johnson, Tyronn Lue, and (maybe) J.J. Reddick – all hover around the 0.100 mark (Lue has typically hovered around the average mark).  Given how many minutes Nelson played per game this season, it looks like the Magic need to replace 1,000 minutes the rest of the way.  A bit of simple math reveals that moving from 0.256 to 0.100 across 1,000 minutes will cost the Magic about 3.3 wins.  And this moves the Magic from about 63 wins to about 60. 

Before Nelson was hurt it seemed unlikely Orlando would finish ahead of Boston or Cleveland.  The injury to Nelson appears to seal this fate.  But it doesn’t cost the Magic the third seed.  The current fourth seed in the East – the Atlanta Hawks – boasted a 1.5 efficiency differential on Sunday night.  Such a mark would rank 9th in the Western Conference (and is well behind the Magic).  So although Orlando has lost its second most productive player, it looks like this injury will not cost the Magic its current playoff position.

Winning in Orlando

Certainly the third seed in the playoffs is quite good.  This is especially the perspective of the teams ranked lower than Orlando.  That being said, Orlando is relatively close to the other top teams in the NBA.  And although the loss of Nelson doesn’t help, there might be some things this team could do right now to close the gap and better contend for a title in 2009.  Here are two possibilities:

1. Trade Rashard Lewis

Yes, Lewis is an All-Star.  And if he was playing small forward, that selection might be justified.  But Orlando plays Lewis at power forward, and at that position he has problems.  So why not send him to Phoenix for the disgruntled Amare Stoudemire (ESPN’s trade machine says this works)?  This would give the Magic a legitimate power forward. And it would give the Suns…well, I am not sure how this helps the Suns.  This post is about the Magic, though, so we will skip that detail.

If the Suns won’t deal, here are two other trades that could also help:

Send Lewis to the Utah Jazz for Carlos Boozer (assuming he gets healthy) and Matt Harpring (this is not a good trade for Utah)

OR

Send Lewis and Brian Cook to the New York Knicks for David Lee and Stephon Marbury (not sure the Magic should play Marbury, though).

2. Finding Help on the Bench

One could play with the Trade Machine all day.  Although that’s fun, it’s quite possible the Magic would not want to do anything to break-up a 60 win team.  So what else can Orlando do to close the gap?

Here is an idea that might be filed under “thinking outside the box.”

Looking back at Table One we see one very productive player who is not getting minutes.  As I noted last December, Marcin Gortat has demonstrated in very limited minutes that he can help.  At that time Gortat has posted a 0.267 WP48 in 133 minuutes.  Gortat has now played 321 minutes and his WP48 is 0.269.  The sample is still quite small. But it looks like Gortat — who currently is the second most productive player on a per-minute basis on the Magic (if we ignore the 29 minutes Adonal Foyle has played)– can help.

Of course we can’t be sure Gortat will be productive in extended minutes (although there is some evidence that he can).  It does appear, though, that playing Gortat more could yield substantial benefits.

The alternative to this strategy – barring a trade – is to keep doing what the Magic have been doing.  That strategy, though, appears to leave the Magic just short of the Cavaliers and Celtics. And that probably means no title comes to Orlando in 2009.

So I think it’s time to play Gortat. The upside is the Magic will move closer to an Eastern Conference title.  And the downside… well, there really isn’t one.  It appears there is nothing Atlanta can do to close its gap with Orlando.

– 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.