The Squid that Saved Don Nelson

Posted on August 24, 2009 by


If the Warriors can repeat their 2008-09 record this next season (and I think they could do much better), Don Nelson will become the career leader in regular season wins for a coach. And if that happens, Nelson will probably be elected to the Hall of Fame.  Such an achievement suggests Nelson is an amazing coach.  All of this success, though, can be traced back to “ The Squid”.

The 1979 Draft

Nelson began his coaching career with the Milwaukee Bucks in the midst of the 1976-77 season.  The Bucks finished that year with a losing record, but in 1977-78 Milwaukee won 44 games.  The next seaso, though, the Bucks only won 38 games. Consequently, Nelson’s career winning percentage in 1979 was below 0.500 (and few would have believed that someday he would be the career leader in coaching wins).

The Bucks held the 5th pick in the 1979 draft.  With the first pick, the LA Lakers selected Magic Johnson.  Magic finished his career with 228 Wins Produced, so that pick appeared to work out.  The next three picks — as the following numbers indicate — didn’t work out as well.

2. Chicago Bulls: David Greenwood (70.4 Career Wins Produced)

3. New York Knicks: Bill Cartwright (38.1 Career Wins Produced)

4. Detroit Pistons: Greg Kelser (6.5 Career Wins Produced)

With these players off the boards, the Bucks were able to select Sidney “The Squid” Moncrief.  Moncrief’s career only had six seasons where he played more than 2,000 minutes.  Despite limited career minutes, he still produced more wins in his career – 126.8 Wins Produced — than the combined output of Greenwood, Cartwright, and Kelser. 

In Moncrief first seven seasons (he never played more than 2,000 minutes after his seventh season) his production was as follows (WP48 = Wins Produced per 48 minutes):

1979-80: 8.5 Wins Produced, 0.263 WP48, Bucks win 49 games

1980-81: 15.8 Wins Produced, 0.314 WP48, Bucks win 60 games

1981-82: 21.1 Wins Produced, 0.340 WP48, Bucks win 55 games

1982-83: 18.0 Wins Produced, 0.319 WP48, Bucks win 51 games

1983-84: 19.0 Wins Produced, 0.296 WP48, Bucks win 50 games

1984-85: 14.7 Wins Produced, 0.259 WP48, Bucks win 59 games

1985-86: 15.7 Wins Produced, 0.293 WP48, Bucks win 57 games

Moncrief’s Wins Produced in these seven seasons sum to 112.8, and the Bucks won 381 regular season contests.  This suggest that “the Squid” was a big reason why the Bucks were so good in the 1980s.

Life Without the Squid

Now let’s imagine the 1979 draft played out differently.  At the time of the 1979 draft, the head coach for the Detroit Pistons was Dick Vitale (the same Dick Vitale who is widely regarded as an expert on college basketball).  Although we don’t know who decided to draft Greg Kelser, one suspects that Vitale had some input into the decision.

Prior to the draft, Vitale and the other decision-makers in Detroit would have noted that Kelser won an NCAA title with Michigan State (and Magic Johnson) in 1979. One suspects – given the NBA performances of Magic and Kelser — that Magic had more to do with that title than Kelser.  But at the time of the draft, Vitale and the Pistons clearly thought Kelser would be a very productive NBA player.  He certainly looked like a “winner” (whatever that means).

What if Vitale and the Pistons, though, were able to separate the contributions of Magic and Kelser?  If that happened, Vitale and the Pistons might have concluded that Kelser was not going to be very good; and then maybe Moncrief is off the board before the 5th pick (and yes, the Bulls and Knicks could have also made a different choice).  So if a different decision was made on draft day in 1979, Nelson and the Bucks wouldn’t have had the services of “the Squid.”

Someone, though, would have had to play Moncrief’s minutes.  Let’s imagine that he Bucks were able to find an average player (i.e. WP48 of 0.100) to take Moncrief’s minutes.  If nothing else on the team changed, the Bucks could have expected to post the following records from 1979-80 to 1985-86.

1979-80: 44-38

1980-81: 49-33

1981-82: 40-42

1982-83: 39-43

1983-84: 37-45

1984-85: 50-32

1985-86: 47-35

An average player is not a “bad” player.  But the difference between Moncrief and “average” is substantial.  And with an average player taking Moncrief’s minutes, Nelson would probably not win 50 games with the Bucks until his 8th full season coaching the team.  One suspects, given how often coaches are fired in the NBA, that Nelson never gets to that 8th season.  If that happens, one suspects that Nelson doesn’t have the same coaching career we currently observe.  He certainly wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to coach in almost every season from 1976-77 to the present. 

All of this suggests that Moncrief is a big reason why Nelson is about to set a record. Yes, there were other productive players on the Bucks (for example, the original MJ – Marques Johnson – was also very good).  But it was Moncrief that led the Bucks to the success we observed in the 1980s.  And without “the Squid” it seems likely that Nelson gets fired by the Bucks and his coaching career goes in a very different direction.

So when Nelson breaks the coaching record this year, let’s hope someone thanks Moncrief.  And when Nelson eventually enters the Hall of Fame, perhaps someone should think about adding Moncrief (yes, he was that good).

UPDATE: Ty Willihnganz of Bucks Diary [] provides an insightful comment on this post.  Here is how Ty’s comment concludes (one should read all he had to say at Bucks Diary):

I guess I would disagree with one of the premises of Professor Berri’s post.  I don’t think the Bucks lucked into Moncrief at all.  I don’t think Gregory Kelser, given the information at the time of his selection, was such an absurd pick (even though Dick Vitale was an absurd NBA coach, to be sure).  Quite the contrary, I think MSU SF Kelser — not Arkansas SG Moncrief — was and would always have been the more conventional choice. 

Moncrief was the reach.  He was the unconventional pick.  Therefore the Bucks created their own “luck” in selecting him.  The Bucks somehow saw in him what I’ll bet a lot of others couldn’t — a seemingly undersized, unconventional player without a position who could nevertheless win a lot of ball games for you with his overwhelming production.

– DJ

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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.