What if Don Nelson Embraced Tradition?

Posted on August 11, 2009 by

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The Golden State Warriors traded Jason Richardson to the Charlotte Bobcats during the 2007 draft.  In return, the Warriors received the rights to power forward – and lottery pick – Brandon Wright.  In 2008 the Warriors “earned” their own lottery pick, and selected Anthony Randolph, yet another player who plays power forward.

Given two lottery picks at power forward, it was not surprising to see the Warriors play at this position in 2008-09… Corey Maggette and Stephen Jackson?  Randolph and Wright only played a combined 1,817 minutes last season.  In their place, Don Nelson – head coach of the Warriors – turned to two players who are generally considered a small forward or a shooting guard.

When we turn to Table One we can see the problem with this choice.  Relative to the average power forward, Maggette and Jackson were above average scorers with an ability to get to the free throw line.  Once we move past scoring, though, we see quite a bit of red ink.  And that means, these two players were generally below average with respect to most aspects of the game. Consequently, as a power forward, Maggette and Jackson posted WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] marks that were not only below average, but actually in the negative range.  In contrast, both Randolph and Wright were above average with respect to WP48.

Table One: Comparing Corey Maggette, Stephen Jackson, Anthony Randolph, and Brandon Wright

The Warriors only won 29 games last year, and the problem at power forward was not the only reason for this result.  The injury to Monta Ellis and play of Jamal Crawford also hurt this team.  Still, one wonders what would happen if Nelson was a bit more traditional.  Because if he was, I think the outlook for this team could change.

The current outlook for this team is hardly positive.  John Hollinger at ESPN.com sorted the Western Conference teams into five groupings (inside access required).  The Warriors are in the fourth grouping, with ten teams ranked higher in the conference.  Hollinger’s explanation for this low ranking notes Nelson’s propensity to play a multitude of shooting guards every night.

What if Nelson, though, embraced tradition and decided to play actual power forwards (like Randolph and Wright) at the power forward position?  Imagine the following rotation, with WP48 from 2008-09 (at the listed position) reported:

First String (according to ESPN.com)

PG: Monta Ellis [0.165 WP48 in 2007-08]

SG: Stephen Jackson [0.106 WP48]

SF: Corey Maggette [0.071 WP48]

PF: Anthony Randolph [0.166 WP48]

C: Andris Biedrins [0.277 WP48]

Second String (according to ESPN.com)

PG: Stephon Curry [Rookie player, but let’s conservatively guess 0.050 WP48]

SG: Anthony Morrow [0.115 WP48]

SF: Kelenna Azubuike [0.083 WP48]

PF: Brandan Wright [0.141 WP48]

C: Ronny Turiaf [0.053 WP48]

An average player posts a 0.100 WP48.  Of the ten players above, six are above average at the listed position.  If each starter plays 32 minutes per night, and each reserve plays the remaining 16 (yes, I am guessing), then the Warriors would be expected to win more than 50 games next season.  In sum, if Ellis returns to his 2007-08 form, and Nelson learns to respect NBA tradition, this team can improve 20 games in the standings (assuming player’s performance doesn’t change, no injuries, etc…).

And that would mean there is one more contending team in the Western Conference.  This list already includes Portland, the LA Lakers, San Antonio, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans, Utah, and maybe Phoenix.  If we throw in the Warriors, at least one team that is thinking playoffs in 2010 is going to be disappointed. 

Of course, all of this depends upon Nelson’s willingness to keep his big man rotation confined to Randolph, Wright, Biedrins, and Turiaf.   Hollinger’s assessment of this team depends on Nelson expanding this rotation and staying true to what he has done in the past.  If Nelson follows Hollinger’s expectation, and keeps on looking for little guys to come up big, the Warriors can look forward to another trip to the NBA lottery (and perhaps another power forward Nelson won’t play).

Let me close with a brief comment on something else Hollinger said.  In his discussion of the Blazers he noted the following: “Nobody talks about the Blazers as serious contenders in the West, but we should.”  

When I read this I wondered… does this mean I am “nobody”?

– DJ

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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.

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