What if your team Lost its Leading Scorer?

Posted on May 17, 2011 by


A few years back the 76ers send Allen Iverson – their leading scorer – the Nuggets.  At the time, people predicted doom for the Sixers.  Philadelphia, though, actually improved without Iverson (and the Nuggets really didn’t improve with The Answer).

A similar story recently played out with Carmelo Anthony.  This time it was the Nuggets that lost their leading scorer.  And again, people predicted doom for the Nuggets.  But doom never really happened.

And yet another similar story happened when the Grizzlies lost Rudy Gay (the second leading scorer in Memphis) to injury this season.  Memphis was 31-26 after the game where Gay was injured.  Without Gay, Memphis was 15-10, and for the first time in franchise history, won a playoff game and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

In each of these examples, the loss of a scorer led people to forecast doom.  In each case, the team losing the scorer managed to survive and even improve.

Readers of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins understand this basic story. Scoring is overvalued by many NBA observers.   Top scorers do not always have the impact on wins that people imagine.  But no matter how often this story repeats, each time a scorer is lost we still see the same arguments offered by adherents to the conventional wisdom (for example, this week the Grizzlies insisted they would never dream of letting Gay depart).

Last week I looked at what we could expect to happen to each team in 2010-11 if their leading producer of wins departed and was replaced by an average player.  Today I want to examine what would happen to each team if their leading scorer departed.  In other words, are there other stories like Iverson, Melo, and Gay in our future?  Or on the flip side, how often do leading scorers really make a very big difference?

The answer to these questions starts with the following table. This table reports the leading scorer on each team (in terms of total points scored).  It also reports these players’ WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes], Wins Produced, the team’s Wins Produced, and the team’s Wins Produced if the leading scorer was replaced by a player who was average (average WP48 is 0.100).  The final column reports the change in Wins Produced if the leading scorer is replaced.

In reading the table, negative numbers in the last column indicate the team will be worse without their leading scorer.  For 19 teams, this is the outcome indicated by Wins Produced.  And for four teams – Memphis (Zach Randolph is the leading scorer), Miami, Orlando, and Minnesota – the decline if the leading scorer was replaced by an average player is more than ten games.

The exact opposite story is told for the Toronto Raptors.  If Andrea Bargnani was replaced by an average player, the Raptors would be expected to improve by more than ten wins.

Ten other teams could also expect to improve if their leading scorer was replaced by an average player.  After the Raptors, the teams that would improve the most are the Nets (Brook Lopez is the leading scorer) and the Sacramento Kings (DeMarcus Cousins was the leading scorer).

Here are the problems with each player:  Bargnani can score, but he can’t rebound.  Cousins can rebound, but so far he hasn’t scored efficiently.  And Lopez has problems rebounding and scoring efficiently.  But since all three can take shots – and accumulate points – one suspects that all three would be thought of as irreplaceable by their respective teams.

Let me close by noting a few other names on the list.  One suspects that Monta Ellis, Danny Granger, Amare Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson would also be mourned by their respective NBA fans if they departed.  But these four were below average last year.  And that means, all four could be replaced relatively easily.

– DJ