Assigning Blame in Cleveland

Posted on November 10, 2009 by


Every once awhile a sports fan might notice that there is a world outside the games we watch and play.  And when we look we quickly notice one important difference between the “real world” and the wide world of sports. In the “real world” it’s hard to figure out who is responsible for the outcomes we observe.  For example, who should we blame for the government’s slow response to Katrina?  Every person asked claimed it was someone else’s responsibility.  Or consider the problems in the U.S. automobile industry?  Again, ask anyone and you are sure to learn it was someone else’s fault.

In sports, though, a person can’t so easily hide.  We know which team won and lost each contest.  And player statistics allow us to move from these team outcomes to the individual players.  As has been noted before, player statistics are specifically tracked so teams can assign responsibility (or blame, if you will) for outcomes to the individuals.

To illustrate, consider the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has a 4-3 record after seven games in 2009-10.  Before the season started Cleveland was considered a serious contender for the 2010 NBA title.  And if the Cavaliers finish with four wins in their final seven games, that dream can come true.  Such a mark at the start of the regular season, though, suggests trouble.

Cleveland’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 4.9 is consistent with a team that will win about 53 games.  This is hardly the record of championship contender.  And when we look at the individual players we can see who is responsible for Cleveland’s struggles.

Let’s start this exercise with how Cleveland’s players performed last year:

First String

PG: Maurice Williams [7.1Wins Produced, 0.119 WP48]

SG: Delonte West [7.3 Wins Produced, 0.163 WP48]

SF: LeBron James [27.8 Wins Produced, 0.436 WP48]

PF: Anderson Varejao [8.1 Wins Produced, 0.168 WP48]

C: Shaquille O’Neal [7.9 Wins Produced, 0.167 WP48]

Second String

PG: Daniel Gibson [0.6 Wins Produced, 0.015 WP48]

SG: Anthony Parker [6.3 Wins Produced, 0.114 WP48]

SF: Jamario Moon [8.4 Wins Produced, 0.194 WP48]

PF: J.J. Hickson [1.0 Wins Produced, 0.070 WP48]

C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas [3.4 Wins Produced, 0.093 WP48]

As noted in the last post, this starting line-up has the potential to rank among best line-ups since 1981.  And the bench isn’t too bad, either.  At least, that’s what we would think looking at last year’s numbers.

Now let’s look at what these ten players have done this season.

 First String

PG: Maurice Williams [241 minutes, 0.023 WP48]

SG: Delonte West [94 minutes, 0.022 WP48]

SF: LeBron James [265 minutes, 0.448 WP48]

PF: Anderson Varejao [227 minutes, 0.286 WP48]

C: Shaquille O’Neal [178 minutes, 0.145 WP48]

Second String

PG: Daniel Gibson [155 minutes, 0.085 WP48]

SG: Anthony Parker [230 minutes, 0.026 WP48]

SF: Jamario Moon [71 minutes, 0.061 WP48]

PF: J.J. Hickson [54 minutes, -0.283 WP48]

C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas [154 minutes,-0.020 WP48]

With numbers in hand we can now assign responsibility.  Although this team is off to a less than thrilling start, it doesn’t look like we can blame LeBron James, Anderson Varejao, or Daniel Gibson.  Each of these players is actually doing more than he did last season.  And Shaquille O’Neal – who I think some people have blamed – is actually pretty close to what he did last season.  Given his age, that might be the best Cleveland fans can hope for.

When we look at the other six players, though, we see some players who have not produced at the level we saw last year.  Hickson and Ilgauskas – who were each below average last year – are now in the negative range.  Williams, West, Parker, and Moon – who were each above average last year – are now below average. 

It’s very important to note that three of these players have yet to play 100 minutes. So forecasting out of this sample is not something we should do.  The point of this exercise is to simply identify the specific players who have started slowly.  And that exercise says LeBron, Varejao, Gibson, and Shaq (at least, given his age) are doing fine.  The other six players, though, need to step it up if the Cavaliers are going to truly contend this season.

Let me close by noting a problem with a record from the start of the season.  Had the Cavaliers started 29-5, and then won only four of their next seven games, Cleveland fans wouldn’t notice much.  The team would be 33-8 and still on pace to win 66 games.  But when the team starts 4-3, it becomes hard to imagine that a 29-5 run is just around the corner. Given what these players did last year, though, it’s possible for Cleveland to start winning much more frequently.  In sum, in a few months this November record might be a very distant memory.  And all those players we are blaming today might once again be celebrated in Cleveland.  

 – 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.