The Historical Nets Return

Posted on September 22, 2009 by

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A few weeks ago Scott Howard-Cooper of SI.com penned the following: Nets are putting the pieces in place.  The article focuses on why fans of the New Jersey Nets should be optimistic. Here is part of Howard-Cooper’s story:

Suddenly, there is a lineup of the future:

PG — Harris, 26 years old, an All-Star, good defender.

SG — Lee, 23 years old, 45 percent from the field and 40.4 percent on three-pointers in the regular season as a rookie before getting hurt early in the playoffs and struggling against the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

SF — Williams, 22 years old, arguably the best perimeter defender in the draft, a strong rebounder at 6-foot-6 and with enough ball-handling skills that some teams would have considered him a potential point forward. Not that Williams — who isn’t a great shooter and has been knocked for lacking focus — is a sure thing. One executive said before the draft, “He could be a substantial player. And he could be out of the league in three years.”

PF — Maybe Yi, 22 years old the night before the season opener. The Nets would obviously love him to take control of the position, but he shot only 38.2 percent last season and lost his starting job in late March. Power forward is New Jersey’s greatest uncertainty.

C — Lopez, 21 years old, All-Rookie team, very good offensive skills with the chance to reach double-figure rebounds.

The Nets are set at point guard and center, and those are the toughest spots to fill. They have reason to be encouraged at shooting guard and small forward. The obvious reality check is that Harris is the only elite player at his position right now. Stars win games, and stars especially win playoff games, but the current roster is mostly complementary pieces.

Fans of the Nets might read such an article and start dreaming of the days when the Nets will be in contention.  When I read this article, though, I had a different reaction.

New Jersey History

This reaction begins with what the Nets looked like before the 2001-02 season.  Across the Nets first 24 seasons in the NBA the team averaged 32.9 wins per season and only won more than half their games seven times.  And never once did the team win more than 49 games.

In 2001 Jason Kidd arrived.  Across the next seven seasons the Nets averaged 45 wins per season (winning 52 games in 2001-02), won at least half their games six times, and reached the NBA Finals twice.   Kidd was a big part of this success.  As a Net, Kidd produced 135.4 wins and posted a 0.347 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  To put that number in perspective, the Nets have won 1,128 games since the franchise entered the NBA.  Twelve percent of these wins can be linked back to Kidd. 

To see how much Kidd meant to New Jersey, let’s look back to these seven years and imagine what the Nets would have looked like had Kidd been replaced by a player who was just as productive as Kidd’s actual teammates. 

Projecting the Nets without Kidd

2001-02: 37.5 Wins Produced

2002-03: 40.3 Wins Produced

2003-04: 37.1 Wins Produced

2004-05: 20.9 Wins Produced

2005-06: 24.6 Wins Produced

2006-07: 17.2 Wins Produced

2007-08: 15.9 Wins Produced

Average performance without Kidd: 27.6 Wins Produced

Looking at the numbers, it appears the Nets from 2001-02 to 2007-08 without Kidd look similar to the Nets from 1977-78 to 2000-01 (when Kidd didn’t play).  In sum, the Nets have historically been a bad NBA team.  And only the play of Jason Kidd changed that reality.

Looking Back and Forward

When we look at the 2008-09 season we see the story continue.   As Table One indicates, last season the Nets did receive above average performances from Vince Carter, Devin Harris, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Simmons. 

Table One: The New Jersey Nets in 2008-09

These above-average players, though, only combined to produce 27.9 wins.  And since the remaining eleven players could only produce about seven wins, the team was once again below 0.500.

And looking forward we see a more dismal picture.  Vince Carter – the team’s leader in Wins Produced in 2008-09 – has departed for the Orlando Magic.  This departure leaves the Nets with the following depth chart (taken mostly from ESPN.com, with Wins Produced numbers from the 2008-09 season).

First String

PG: Devin Harris (8.0 Wins Produced, 0.154 WP48, 2,494 minutes)

SG: Courtney Lee (3.0 Wins Produced, 0.075 WP48, 1,939 minutes)

SF: Bobby Simmons (4.3 Wins Produced, 0.119 WP48, 1,729 minutes)

PF: Yi Jianlian (0.0 Wins Produced, 0.001 WP48, 1,421 minutes)

C: Brook Lopez (5.4 Wins Produced, 0.104 WP48, 2,501 minutes)

Second String

PG: Keyon Dooling (3.4 Wins Produced, 0.079 WP48, 2,074 minutes)

SG: Trenton Hassell (1.2 Wins Produced, 0.053 WP48, 1,094 minutes)

SF: Jarvis Hayes (0.4 Wins Produced, 0.011 WP48, 1,832 minutes)

PF: Tony Battie (1.7 Wins Produced, 0.067 WP48, 1,202 minutes)

C: Josh Boone (1.3 Wins Produced, 0.063 WP48, 995 minutes)

In addition to these ten players, the Nets also have these players:

PG: Rafer Alston (4.4 Wins Produced, 0.087 WP48, 2,447 minutes)

SG: Chris Douglas-Roberts (0.5 Wins Produced, 0.037 WP48, 584 minutes)

SF: Eduardo Najera (-0.3 Wins Produced, -0.038 WP48, 319 minutes)

PF: Sean Williams (-0.9 Wins Produced, -0.123 WP48, 366 minutes)

In the draft the Nets added Terrence Williams, who appears to be one of the better players chosen last summer.  Unfortunately, even if Williams is an above average rookie, this roster has problems.  Based on last year’s performance, only three veteran players exceeded the mark of an average player [0.100 WP48].  And only Harris exceeds the 0.150 mark (and only barely).   

Harris argues that this roster is equivalent to a “quality” team: “If you look at our team from top to bottom, we don’t have a lot of big names, but we have a lot of good players.” —G Devin Harris stressing the Nets can be a competent, quality team without superstar players.

When we consider past performance, though, the Nets this next season look quite similar to the historical Nets.  This team has a few productive players.  But no one on this roster has shown that they can produce wins in large quantities.

To illustrate the problem of not having one extremely productive player, let’s imagine that Devin Harris is as productive in 09-10 as he was last season and everyone else on the roster manages to match the productivity of Bobby Simmons [the second most productive returning veteran with a 0.119 WP48].  Such a roster, consisting entirely of slightly above average players, would only be expected to win 51 games. 

Of course, the Nets don’t have such a roster. What they have is a roster where the second most productive returning player is Bobby Simmons, and every other returning veteran offered less.  And this means the 2009-10 season will not likely be a happy one for Nets fans.

Looking back at the words of Howard-Cooper, it doesn’t appear we disagree on the likely outcome of the 2009-10 season.  Where we differ is on the assessment of where this team is going.  Howard-Cooper sees some building blocks in place and consequently sees a glass that is half-filled.  When I look at this roster, though, I see one huge building block that is missing and therefore the glass is more than half empty.  And until a truly productive player is added to this roster, the Nets before Kidd will once again be the norm. 

– 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.