Drafting Auerbach

Posted on March 19, 2009 by


Thoughts this week have turned to the NCAA tournament.   At least – thanks to Erich Doerr – that has been the case in this forum.

For most people – including President Barack Obama – the tournament is watched with one eye on the TV and one eye on their brackets.  While the teams battle for a title, everyone else is battling for the all-important bragging rights (and hopefully Erich’s analysis has helped on that quest).

For many NBA fans, though, the focus is a bit different.  The NCAA tournament provides an opportunity to see a wide variety of players — who might someday contribute in the NBA – compete against top college talent.  So for NBA fans one eye is on the game, one eye is on the brackets, and one eye is dreaming about how such and such talent will impact their NBA team’s fortunes for years to come (did I just give NBA fans three eyes?).

As all of our eyes watch these future prospects, I wanted to take a look back on a time when at least some prospects were evaluated without the benefit of watching the player. 

Drafting Russell

This story was originally told in “Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game” by John Feinstein and Red Auerbach (a great book that I highly recommend). 

Auerbach became the head coach of the Celtics in 1950.  Actually Red was not just the head coach, he was also – as his book describes – “general manager, chief scout, and marketing guru”.  For the first six years with Auerbach calling the shots the Celtics were consistently good, but never able to advance past the Eastern Division Finals.

Then in 1956 Auerbach got a call from his Bill Reinhart, his old college coach. Reinhart had just visited the West Coast and seen a player from the University of San Francisco named Bill Russell.  When Reinhart returned from California he called Auerbach and said: “I’ve seen this guy who can make you into a championship team. You have to get this guy.”  Reinhart went on to discuss the defensive skills of Russell.  He also added that Russell didn’t have much of an offensive game.  But Auerbach – as his book notes – needed a center who could rebound.  Yes, rebounding is kind of important and the Wisdom of Red Auerbach — as detailed previously — minimized the importance of scoring.

Feinstein and Auerbach noted that teams in the 1950s didn’t have a scouting department.  Often Auerbach simply relied on his friends for advice.  And consequently, without ever seeing Russell play, Auerbach did the following to acquire the center from the University of San Francisco.

  • The Celtics had the 7th pick in the draft. This pick was sent to the St. Louis Hawks, along with Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan, for the 2nd pick.
  • The Rochester Royals had the first pick. Auerbach had the owner of the Celtics (Walter Brown) call the owner of the Royals (Les Harrison) with the following deal: Brown — as president of the Ice Capades — would send the show to Rochester for one week if the Royals didn’t take Russell. Harrison agreed and the rest is history.

Any fan of the NBA draft today can’t help but be amused by the story Feinstein and Auerbach tell about the acquisition of Russell.  It’s unlikely that any team can acquire Blake Griffin (not that Griffin is going to be as good as Russell) for a draft pick, two players, and one week of the Ice-Capades.  And one would also expect that any team drafting Griffin would have at least seen him play before the draft.  The world was obviously a bit different in 1956.

Auerbach and the 1977 Draft

It would be great to look back at those drafts from the 1950s and see how well Auerbach chose relative to his peers.  Unfortunately we don’t have complete NBA data back to 1956.  The data needed to calculate Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] was not available until the 1977-78 season.  Consequently, the first draft we can look at via Wins Produced is the draft that took place in 1977.

To understand the 1977 draft one has to look back at the 1976 NCAA tournament.  That year the Indiana Hoosiers took the championship after completing an undefeated season.  The Most Outstanding Player in that tournament was Kent Benson.  After Benson graduated from Indiana in 1977 he was taken with the number one pick in the NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. 

This selection repeated a strategy Milwaukee followed eight years earlier.  In 1969 the Bucks also had the number one pick and selected an outstanding college center named Lew Alcindor. Alcindor – better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – led the Bucks to the NBA title in 1971.  The results with respect to Benson, though, were not quite the same.  Benson lasted less than three seasons in Milwaukee before being traded to the Pistons for Bob Lanier.  Benson did manage to surpass the 0.100 WP48 mark (this is average) in four seasons in Detroit [1981-82, 1982-83, 1983-83, and 1985-86] but his career average was only 0.071.  In sum, Benson was not exactly a stellar number one choice.

So who would have been a better choice?  If NBA teams in 1977 could predict the future exactly, and Career Wins Produced was their metric of choice (two big ifs), then the first round in 1977 would have played out as detailed in Table One.

Table One: Revisiting the First Round of the 1977 Draft

The first choice would have been Jack Sikma, the center from Illinois Wesleyan who the Seattle Super Sonics took with the eight pick. After Sikma we see the Bucks actually redeemed themselves somewhat with Marques Johnson (when went third in the draft).

After these two players we see a player selected by Red Auerbach.  The Boston Celtics won the NBA title in 1976.  And in 1977 the team finished with a winning record.  Consequently the Celtics only had the 12th pick in the 77 draft.  With this pick, though, they selected a forward out of UNC-Charlotte named Cedric Maxwell.  When we look at Wins Produced we see that Maxwell produced 88.6 wins across his career.  This surpassed the career marks of Otis Birdsong (selected 2nd), Walter Davis (selected 5th), and Bernard King (7th).  Each of these players were

  • taken before Maxwell
  • averaged at least 20 points per game in a season at least four times
  • appeared in at least four All-Star games
  • and never played on a team that won a title.

In contrast, Maxwell – who was selected lower, scored less, and never appeared in an All-Star game – produced more wins and played on two NBA title teams. In sum, Maxwell was the type of role player celebrated by the Wisdom of Red Auerbach.  Of course one does have to ask, did Auerbach actually see Maxwell play before he was drafted?

– 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.