Arvydas Sabonis and other Centers that Aged like Fine Wine.

Posted on August 15, 2011 by

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 Greg Steele is a student at Abilene Christian University and a long-time Houston Rockets fan. Being short and round (and not like Charles Barkley), Greg is a basketball watcher, not a basketball player. As such, Greg was attracted to statistical measures which recognize the contributions of round and clumsy players as well as those of the more aesthetically pleasing players, so the Wages of Wins was a natural fit. Greg is available via email at ges05a@acu.edu

Hall of Fame

Sabonis is in unique company.

This past Friday the 2011 class was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Although Dennis Rodman occupied much of the spotlight (as usual), well-known scorers Artis Gilmore and Chris Mullins received plenty of attention. The inductee who has been overlooked, though, is the tallest of the class: Arvydas Sabonis.

Sabonis was inducted into the Hall of Fame at least partially because he was one of the first international players to jump to the NBA. Unfortunately, Sabonis came along in a time before the globalization of the NBA, and so Sabonis only entered the NBA as a 31 year-old “rookie.” Despite his late start, Sabonis’ short career was very productive. While we have almost no statistical information about Sabonis’ career before he came to the NBA, we can compare his performance after the age of 31 with the 3 best centers in the last 20 years, all of whom played well beyond their 31st birthdays: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal. The chart below compares the performances of the four centers after the age of 31.

Table 1: Wins Produced for Top Centers that played over the age of 30

Hakeem Olajuwon Shaquille O’Neal David Robinson Arvydas Sabonis
WP at 31 20.6 15.4 1.2 13.3
WP at 32 15.6 15.9 17.8 10.5
WP at 33 15.5 8.5 18.4 12.7
WP at 34 10.4 3.0 16.6 9.2
WP at 35 7.0 5.6 13.9 9.8
WP at 36 10.4 12.4 12.9 3.5
WP at 37 2.0 3.7 9.2 DNP
WP at 38 6.6 2.1 Retired 6.1
WP at 39 3.7 Retired Retired Retired
Total WP in 30s 91.8 66.6 90 65.1
Career WP% 33.70% 24.50% 34.80% 100%

 Table 2: Wins Produced per 48 Minutes for Top Centers that played over the age of 30

Hakeem Olajuwon Shaquille O’Neal David Robinson Arvydas Sabonis
WP48 at 31 0.302 0.300 0.390 0.368
WP48 at 32 0.262 0.306 0.348 0.280
WP48 at 33 0.267 0.225 0.348 0.261
WP48 at 34 0.176 0.128 0.311 0.227
WP48 at 35 0.205 0.153 0.281 0.278
WP48 at 36 0.207 0.265 0.269 0.129
WP48 at 37 0.093 0.142 0.264 DNP
WP48 at 38 0.206 0.137 Retired 0.243
WP48 at 39 0.130 Retired Retired Retired
WP48 in 30s 0.205 0.207 0.316 0.256

Clearly, Robinson is the class of the group, followed by Olajuwon, who was better as an older player, and Shaq, who was better as a younger player. While Sabonis’ 65.1 Wins Produced lag significantly behind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, the mean WP48 of Sabonis’ 7 seasons after age 31 is higher than the mean WP48 of Olajuwon’s 9 seasons after the age of 31. Sabonis’ mean WP48 is also significantly higher than O’Neal’s, even though O’Neal only played one more season than Sabonis.

A Tale of Two Cities: Sabonis and Shaq

Shaq and Sabonis. . . foul?

Sabonis is most similar after the age of 31 to Shaq, whose late-career output accounted for only 24.5% of his total career Wins Produced. If we project Sabonis’ career along the same career arc that we see with O’Neal, making Sabonis’ 65.1 WP after age 31 account for 24.5% of his “career” WP, we come up with an estimated 265.7 Wins produced for Sabonis, if he had entered the NBA as a younger man. Shaquille O’Neal turned 20 in his first NBA season, unlike Robinson (24) or Olajuwon (22). Again we find that Sabonis is more directly comparable with O’Neal, since Sabonis was the star of the Soviet Olympic team at the age of 19. Thus, using Shaq’s career arc as an approximation of Sabonis career arc seems reasonable because: 1) The two had very similar production after the age of 31, and 2) both began playing top-level basketball as young players.

Summing Up

As you can see Sabonis easily belongs as a member of this group. It’s somewhat fitting that Sabonis made the hall of fame the same season Shaq retired. While we got to see Shaq play for a very long time, we only got to see Sabonis play at the twighlight of his career. Let’s just be happy that thanks to the Hall of Fame his greatness won’t be forgotten.

-Greg