Superman, Shaq, Magic History, and Reader Comments

Posted on June 7, 2009 by


On Thursday I had the privilege of giving a seminar at BYU.  The subject was the next book and it was fun talking with the students about some of the stories we will tell. 

While I was having fun, though, the usual Thursday post in this forum was skipped.

To make up for this, here are a few items of interest (hopefully):

Superman vs. Shaq

Adrian Wojnarowski has written an interesting column detailing Shaquille O’Neal’s behavior towards Dwight Howard (and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).  Apparently Shaq believes there is a substantial gap between Shaq and Superman.

In an effort measure the gap, here is a ranking of every player who has ever played for the Orlando Magic.

Table One: Ranking the Orlando Magic (1989-90 to 2008-09)

As one can see, Superman tops the list.  Fans of Shaq would note that Howard produced his wins in five seasons while Shaq only played four years in Orlando.  In Shaq’s fifth season, though, he only produced 13.3 wins and this would not be enough to close the gap.  Shaq did post a higher WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] in Orlando, but that’s primarily due to the fact Howard started playing at 19.  If we look at what each player did from the age of 20 to 23, the WP48 of each player is essentially the same (not that a 0.329 vs. 0.306 is really that different in the first place).  So it doesn’t look like Shaq can claim he was ever that much better than Howard.

Here are a few more observations from Table One.

  • Tracy McGrady is ranked 4th in the history of the Magic.  As one can see, once upon a time McGrady was a very productive NBA player.  That is no longer the case today.  With the Magic he posted a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minute] above 0.200 each season.  He has not done this for the Rockets since his first season in Houston.  And now that he is 30 years of age, we might suspect that McGrady is not likely to reach the 0.200 mark again.
  • Nick Anderson is currently second on the list.  The next players on the list who are still active with the Magic are Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson.  Turkoglu would have to produced 58 more wins to catch Anderson, and given Turkoglu’s level of production and age, that seems unlikely.  Nelson could catch Anderson, but he is going to have maintain his current productivity and stay healthy. If that happens (and those are big ifs as Nelson ages), Nelson will catch Anderson in five seasons.
  • Scott Skiles is currently ranked 10th.  Nelson should pass him next season, but I am not sure Skiles is remembered for being an average point guard. 

Readers Explain Randomness

My last post on the random nature of the playoffs resulted in a number of comments that suggested the point of the post was being missed.  While I was getting ready to post a reply, though, readers jumped in with comments explaining the role randomness plays in the playoffs.So rather re-write my argument, I thought I would just post some of these comments.

from Zach:  

I thought it would be useful to post the wiki on Fooled by Randomness:“Taleb sets forth the idea that modern humans are often unaware of the very existence of randomness. They tend to explain random outcomes as non-random.
Human beings: overestimate causality, e.g., we see Mosques in the clouds instead of understanding that there are just random clouds that appear to our eyes as Mosques (or something else); tend to view the world as more explainable than it really is, i.e., we look for explanations even when there are none.
Other randomness misperceptions discussed:
Survivorship bias. We see the winners and “learn” from them, while forgetting the huge unseen cemetery of losers.”

I think it’s instructive because this comment thread certainly supports that the argument that many people are very resistant to the idea that randomness is a plausible explanation for unexpected events.

I also happen to think this is an important argument in case Cleveland’s management decides to over-interpret their loss and try to match up better (e.g. ditch the productive Varejao for a multi-talented but unproductive player like Al Harrington).

from Jim Glass:

I don’t see what all the fuss is about here. A lot of people seem too grossly over-estimate by how much Cleveland was supposed to be better, and so think some sort of special explanation for the upset is necessary.

Cleveland won only 7 more games than Orlando out of 82, in conference only 3 more out of 52. That means they won 1 more game per 13 played, or per 17 — yet there was only a max of 7 games in the series. With such an objectively very small difference between the teams each game between them was basically a coin flip with a coin just slightly weighed against Orlando.

Cleveland’s expected advantages were only one-half game or less out of seven.

Specifically, the full season W-L pcts give Cleveland an expected probability of winning a seven-game series of about 67% (about 63% by the confenence w-l %) which means Orlando had a good one-in-three chance of winning the series on the plain face of things — and one-out of-three ain’t any kind of historic upset. (There are many more sophisticated ways of projecting expected w-l but they give very similar results.)

So “Orlando won with matchups” … duh, of course they did! They were a 59-win team, of course they had some matchup advantages. That doesn’t change the chance element of the series at all. Cleveland had advantages too, which go ignored when they lose. Fans see who won, then look backward and come up with your explanation of why they won. Orlando’s matchup advantages paid off! (Except in the two games they lost.)

But if the only thing different in the entire series had been that Cleveland won all the close games determined by luck, so Cleveland had won in six, nobody would be talking about Orlando’s matchup advantages — even though they would have been totally unchanged. They’d be talking about how the great LeBron dominated, etc.

And have no doubt that those close games are determined by luck. Sports fans are loath to think that games — especially crunch-time playoff games, and thus championships! — are determined by luck and chance, so they come up with beliefs like “great teams win close games, with character, guts, top coaching …”, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Vince Lombardi’s record with the Packers in games decided by 7 points or less was exactly .500.

Bill Walsh’s with all his 49er championship teams was 43%. All baseball sabremetricians know one-run games have chance outcomes. As a Knicks fan back from the Red Holzman championship era of smart and great basketball, Isiah pretty much put me off the NBA so I haven’t followed it closely recently. But a few years back when I last checked the NBA for this, Detroit with the best record in the NBA was just a tad over .500 in close (5-pt or less) games, and Portland with the worst record in the league was very close to .500 too.

Great teams stomp on other teams, and split their close games when they don’t. Rotten teams get stomped on by other teams, and split their close games.

In a Cleveland-Orlando series, where the W-L differential between the teams is 0.085 — only 8.5 games per 100 — *every game* is fundamentally close. That is all the explanation needed for any outcome. Playoff series, as Billy Beane says about baseball, are basically weighted crap shoots. Then the fans and sportswriters afterward come up with all the dramatic rationalizations they want for what happened.

more from Jim Glass

 in response to this statement “The nature of sports is that the ‘better team’ is the team who wins in any given competition (single regular season game or playoff series).”

This is exactly wrong. Ring Lardner knew “the race is not always to the swift … though that’s the way to bet”.

Upsets happen all the time, in the playoffs as well as the regular season. In baseball, the Cards won the World Series a few years back after an 82-win season. Were they the best team in baseball?

The nature of sports is that the goal is to win The Championship. You build as good a team as you can because that *increases your chances* of doing so. The best team has the best chance. But it does not guarantee winning.

The best team/competitor often doesn’t win, at Wimbledon, the Super Bowl, wherever. It is reality-denying to ignore the role chance plays in these competitions, and so deny that “the best” may lose.

And it is no slight to The Champion to admit it is not the best team/competitor — because the whole goal of building a good team is to win the championship … and if you win the championship with the 2nd best or 3rd best team, no matter … you have **achieved your goal**!!

Believe me, if you are at tennis player who goes into Wimbledon as the 16th seed and win it all, everyone will hail you as The Champion, nobody will think you are the best player in the world, that won’t bother you a bit, you’ll be proud as a peacock about it the rest of your life, and have every right to be.

It’s the same for the upset Champion in every other sport.

and even more from Jim Glass

in response to this comment:  this comment thread certainly supports that the argument that many people are very resistant to the idea that randomness is a plausible explanation for unexpected events.

Yes, and this behavior although intellectually irrational is easily explainable both in evolutionary terms for people generally and for coaches and players in the sporting world in particular.

Say success is determined by a combination of things you can control, plus random events you can’t control (well, as it actually is). To maximize success of course you want to focus on the things you can control and forget the things you can’t, put the latter out of your mind. This is true even if the ratio of impact they have on your life is 10% what you do and 90% random chance. You still want to totally maximize what you get out of that 10%.

You don’t want to wander around distracted by all the random things that can do you in at any moment … how your success or (failure) is unfairly due to chance … how your rival’s success is due to dumb luck … etc. Wasting mental resources on such makes people more prone to failure — and thus more likely to be removed from the gene pool.

So natural selection has culled people to be largely blind to the randomness of life, and instead to see causation everywhere. Even, very often, where it’s not.

And pro football coaches never, never say to their teams, “You know guys, more than 50% of all NFL game outcomes are determined by random chance”, even though it is true.

and in response to this comment: I also happen to think this is an important argument in case Cleveland’s management decides to overinterpret their loss and try to match up better (e.g. ditch the productive Varejao…

Yes, while you want the players’ efforts focused entirely on what they can control, coaches and GMs had better know the difference between what they can control and what results from dumb luck.

If you are a coach you had better not punish/reward players for chance events, or you will be heading for problems.

I’m old enough to remember Vince Lombardi, and one of the curious things about him was that while he was so tough he would often tear his team a new one even after they won a one-sided game, after close loses he was supportive of his team. “Sometimes the clock runs out on you when you happen to be behind” was one of his sayings. If outcomes of close games indicated team character then Lombardi of all people would’ve raged after close loses — but it was about the only time he was philosophical. I mentioned he had a .500 career record in one-score games.

Similarly, if you are a GM and your team puts together a good record solely by winning more one-score games than anyone else in the league, you’d better not think “We’re really good, good teams win close games, this proves it, we can stand pat”, or you’ll be heading for a fall. And if your team puts together a top record in the league by stomping other teams all year, then gets eliminated from the playoffs in a tough, one-score game, against another good team, you’d better not think, “Damn, we have everything but character and leadership under pressure, so I’m going to fire the coach and shake up the line-up”, or you could be taking a knife to your own throat.

from Brian Tung:

One need only read the comments here to appreciate how difficult it is to understand randomness and statistical conclusions. Hell, I do it for a living and I don’t understand it nearly as well as I’d like.

I’m not even sure where people claim Berri is supposed to have “dismissed” matchups. All I see is him claiming that Orlando’s series win did not demonstrate that Orlando matches up better with Cleveland than vice versa. He specifically did not claim that Orlando does NOT match up better.

It’s a subtle point, but one I think must be understood to read this post properly: Just because something doesn’t happen to show that something is true doesn’t mean it isn’t; it just means it hasn’t been shown. I get the feeling that many people are inferring (incorrectly) that the result must be either all superiority, or all randomness, and that Berri is saying it is the latter. On the contrary, it is always a mixture of the two (in any interesting contest), and it is the latter that makes it impossible to reliably determine the former–at least in any timely fashion.

As an aside, I’m pretty sure that when folks like Barkley say that “the better team always wins a seven-game series,” they are not saying there’s something magical about seven-games series, as much as they’re defining “better” as “wins a seven-game series.” At least, that’s the way I’ve always understood them.

By the way, these were not the only good comments.  Hopefully these comments help people understand the role randomness plays in the playoffs and the tendency people have to invent explanations after the fact.  If not, perhaps Zach, Jim, and Brian (and others) can step in again and help clear up the confusion.

– 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.