Trading David Lee for Kobe Bryant Straight-Up: Shrewd Sabermetrics or Laugh Test Flunkie?

In Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver devoted an entire chapter to comparing the individual rating systems of several NBA analysts. He argued something that I, and most people who do informed analysis, subscribe to: Any system of statistical analysis cannot only be internally consistent, but must also pass the “laugh test.” A statistical model can be built elegantly and beautifully and pass many confidence intervals within its own logical parameters, but if it’s results are absurd, then there’s obviously a need to return to the proverbial drawing board. Oliver thought of the “laugh test” as a litmus. It’s a very broad, absolutely basic determinant of whether a statistic is logical or not. If your rating system projects the best players with the best numbers, then it’s probably onto something. On the other hand, if your rating system argues that Jerome James is a better center than vintage Shaquille O’Neal, then you better recheck your assumptions.

While no single computation can perfectly encompass the entire contribution of a basketball player, John Hollinger developed a system to sum up a player’s boxscore contribution and express them in one number. Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a sophisticated equation that goes so far as to adjust for the yearly value of possession and the pace a team plays. In Hollinger’s analogy, PER serves as a way of considering players from different positions, allowing an “apples to oranges” comparison. But while PER is a handy little number, what it doesn’t do is convert statistical efficiency into actual wins. That’s where Dave Berri’s Wages of Win (WoW) steps in. WoW takes the same boxscore statistics that PER uses and converts it to a formula that measures how many wins a player produces. This metric can evaluate a player’s total contribution over the course of a season and break it down per minute. Like PER, WoW serves as a way to summarize a player’s contribution in one number.

Now, let’s ask PER who were the most productive basketball players on the planet this past season. PER picks these as its starting five:

1. Dwyane Wade SG 29.2
2. Dirk Nowitzki PF 27.9
3. Yao Ming C 26.7
4. Tim Duncan C 26.4
5. Kobe Bryant SG 26.3

Nothing to laugh at here. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing team. Wade is the best player, slightly ahead of Dirk, who is just a bit ahead of Ming, Duncan, and Bryant, who are in a dead heat for third best. If you were starting a basketball team and were given first pick at any player in the NBA you couldn’t go wrong by picking any of these five players. They’re the best of the best. Granted, PER isn’t intended to be the final word on basketball performance, but it is a good starting point for figuring out relative worth. Would you trade your 15 PER performer for a 29 PER man? Almost certainly. Of course you’d take into account team composition, need, age, defense, contract terms, but all else being equal, you’d be doing your team a service by having the greater PER over the lesser. And if the PER was almost twice greater, like say Dwyane Wade over Jamal Crawford, well, then there’s really no thinking involved. Of course you’d rather have Wade. It’s a no-brainer. In fact, by this measure, you’d rather have Wade than any single player on the Knicks current roster.

Now, WoW gets to pick its own top five. Note that in order to compare WoW to PER we’re using Wins Produced per 48 Minutes (WP/48), since these are both rate stats:

1. David Lee PF .403
2. Jason Kidd PG .403
3. Marcus Camby C .371
4. Shawn Marion F .370
5. Carlos Boozer PF .351

Look at that again. David Lee led the NBA in wins produced rate. Um…really. So according to this sophisticated, statistical model, the most productive professional basketball player on the planet is David Lee. The best. On. The. Planet. Let me say that being a die-hard Knicks fan, I will be the first to argue that Lee is an All-Star caliber forward. He’s cool, he’s great. He’s an out-of-the-box rebounding, ambidextrous-finishing, no-look passing, efficiency machine. He’s awesome! It’s just that, you know, he really doesn’t create much offense. He’s more of a great glue guy than a centerpiece. And that’s why he’s not exactly a superstar.

Now, I really love the guy. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade our man for the world. Oh, wait. Yes. Yes, I would. I’d trade David Lee in a heartbeat. For Tim Duncan. Or Yao Ming. Or Dwyane Wade. Or Kobe Bryant. Or Dirk Nowitzki. Or Lebron James. Or Amare Stoudemire. Or…OK, you get the point. I’d trade him for at least a dozen players who aren’t just All-Stars, they’re legitimate championship-level franchise cornerstones. Yet, right there in plain black and white, Wages of Win’s assumptions fail Oliver’s “laugh test.” WoW argues that Lee is the best player in the entire league, and that’s ridiculous.

WoW makes a very big deal about bucking conventional wisdom. And sure enough, statistical analysts are the ones who’re supposed to be bucking said conventional wisdom. At the Wages of Wins Journal, Berri argues that “perceptions of performance in basketball do not match the player’s actual impact on wins” because “less than 15% of wins in the NBA are explained by payroll.” However payroll isn’t a good measuring stick of perception due to the complexities of a closed system like NBA free agency. There are a host of factors on why a player may be overpaid from the talent available to the desperation of the team involved. In other words conventional wisdom thinks Rashard Lewis is overpaid at $126M, too.

So although conventional wisdom has a tendency to be wrong in some areas, figuring out sport superstars is not one of its weaknesses. There usually is a consensus on the league’s best players from both statistical analysis and conventional wisdom. The cream of the crop in the NFL are Peyton Manning, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Larry Johnson whether you go by the numbers or eyes. In MLB it would be Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, and Johan Santana. At the top of the ladder of player evaluation, conventional wisdom is pretty much dead on.

According to WoW, David Lee (.403) is a far more productive player than Kobe Bryant (.242). Since teams with more productive players win more games than other teams, then Lee is better for your basketball team than Bryant. But why stop there? The Knicks could trade Renaldo Balkman (.272) straight up for Dwyane Wade (.255) and lose productivity. That’s right. WoW is arguing that if a Lee for Kobe, and a Balkman for Wade trade went through, then the Knicks would be a worse team for it. They’re arguing that Bryant and Wade, at the cost of our two young, talented forwards will hurt the Knicks’ productivity. You’ve got to be kidding me.

As the Knicks GM, would I pull the trigger on a Lee for Bryant deal? Is there even a debate? Who wouldn’t? Oh, right, WoW wouldn’t. WoW doesn’t even think it’s close. We can all disagree on which player is the very best (or the most productive), but WoW’s results are “laughable.” Dave Berri has criticized PER in the past, but before people can begin to take WoW as seriously as a tool for evaluating player performance as PER, it’s obviously going to have to address what caused this terrible absurdity in its rating process.

Mavericks, Raptors Stave Off The Grim Reaper

Down 3 games to 1, both the Dallas Mavericks and the Toronto Raptors won last night to force a game 6 in each of their respective series. The similarity didn’t end there. Both teams took double digit first quarter leads, only to lose them down the stretch. Dallas had to rally from a 9 point deficit with only 3 minutes to go, while Toronto had to curtail a Vince Carter drive & kick-out three pointer to Nachbar with a 2 point lead in the final possession.

Both teams are led by their big men, who have had trouble. Toronto’s Chris Bosh has had trouble scoring on Jason Collins, and has been in foul trouble most of the series. In game 5, Bosh picked up his second foul only 7 minutes into the game, and was on the floor for a total of 24 minutes. Meanwhile Nowitzki was ridiculed publicly by his coach for not being aggressive enough against the undersized Warriors. Dirk seemed to shy away from the ball in the second half of game 5 until the final minutes.

Normally I’m not big on the NBA’s first round, but these two series combined with the splendid Rockets-Jazz matchup have made the first round quite fascinating.

K-Dawg Tearing It Up

Bravo to Kelly Dwyer for these gems:

I love watching Dallas’ Jason Terry and Golden State’s Baron Davis go at it, especially while taking into context their respective career arcs. Both were drafted in 1999, with Davis going to a ready-made playoff contender in Charlotte that had hopped up the lottery. By his second season, he was starting on a conference semifinalist. Terry, meanwhile, had to toil away in relative obscurity with the Atlanta Hawks, earning an unfair label of a wild chucker on a bad team. The Hawks stunk, but it was Davis that boasted the chucker instincts, while Terry honed his craft with a more subdued screen-and-roll attack with whatever defensively challenged power forward the Hawks brought in that year.

Now they’re going back and forth in the midst of an ultra-exciting first round matchup between the Warriors and Mavericks, and I have to wonder if Terry’s regressed a little. The stats are there (almost 20 points a game), but his shooting percentage is down, and he was killing Dallas in Game 4 with his inability to get Dirk Nowitzki the ball. Nowitzki deserves plenty of blame for not being more aggressive, and he is being zoned away from easy looks for most of the game, but Terry has to find ways to lob him the rock with the 6-7 Mickael Pietrus guarding the Maverick All-Star. Dallas is done if he doesn’t.


It isn’t first-time playoff jitters, or shot-happy point guards, or a lack of energy — the real reason Toronto’s Chris Bosh is having an up-and-down postseason is the defensive play of New Jersey’s Jason Collins. Bosh is averaging just under 18 points per game on 43 percent shooting, down from a regular season that saw him throw in 22.6 points per game while making half his shots. Though Bosh has had his moments during Toronto’s first-round series, Collins’ athletic defense, exemplary footwork and exquisite timing has kept the Raptor big man from taking over.

Collins continues to be underrated. We’re not saying he should be playing 30 minutes a night; his pathetic offense and poor rebounding can hurt a team in the long run. But he’s as good a defensive player as this league boasts. The idea that he garnered zero Defensive Player of the Year votes (or, one less than Kobe Bryant), that hurts.


A recent trend you shouldn’t pay much attention to: commentators pointing to field goal defense allowed as a way of gauging defensive aptitude.

Now, it certainly helps a team’s defensive case if it holds the opponent to a certain mark from the floor, but it’s far from an end-all stat. For instance, Chicago led the NBA in field goal percentage allowed during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, but were those Bulls teams the best defensive team in the NBA? Hardly. Scott Skiles’ team sent its opponents to the free throw line at an alarming rate, and its rash of turnovers on the other end allowed for several extra possessions per game in which the opponents could throw in a bucket or six. Neither of these realities can be accounted for when pointing to field goal percentage defense.

At the end of the day, just go with points allowed, adjusted for pace, as your end-all. Ironically, Chicago led the NBA in that stat in 2006-07, despite finishing second to the Houston Rockets for the lead in field goal percentage defense. The difference this season? More calls going in Chicago’s favor, and less chance for the opponents to alter the score from the line.

AND there’s more. He starts the article talking about Kirilenko, using 82games, and what team would benefit most from getting him (and no it’s not the Knicks). Think about it for a second before you read the article. Which team would most benefit from AK-47? Dwyer hits on a few other things, including the Bowen-AI-‘Melo relationship, Jason Kidd’s series, Antonio Daniels and Rich Kelley.

Small Ball, Smaller Ball

The hot basketball story of the playoffs is how the Golden State Warriors used a ?small ball? strategy to upset the host Dallas Mavericks in game one of their opening round playoff match-up. Golden State?s head coach, Don Nelson, sought to maul Dallas with the superior quickness of a smaller, more versatile line-up that could switch defensive assignments at will, effectively sticking Dirk Nowitzki with a body wherever he turned.

The Warriors started a point guard, three shooting guards, and a combo forward at ?center.? Their tallest starter was 6?9?. Small, right? Sure, except Dallas wasn?t much bigger. They came out with two point guards, two small forwards, and a power forward as their ?center.? It?s not like the Warriors were mites among giants. They were undersized at exactly one position: Al Harrington giving up three inches to Nowitzki. This wasn?t a case of just the Warriors going small?the entire game was small.

Between DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier, Dallas employed professional centers for only 18 minutes of game time. The Warriors used their own professional center, Andris Biedrens for 8 minutes. Nelson is said to have done this because he wanted to exploit match-ups, but it?s a more curious move than publicly imagined when you considering the facts. If anything, center was the one position that Dallas this season had trouble defending, allowing opposing pivot men a healthy 16.9 PER against them. No other position fared better than average against Dallas. If you looked at the numbers and wanted to attack Dallas, you would have thought to start Biedrins?not to mention the fact that the giant Lithuanian had a monster game against them when Golden St. interrupted their winning streak.

Therefore, what makes the Warrior?s strategy of replacing Biedrens with a guard is that it goes away from what’s already been successful. Yet, it worked. Now it’s up to Dallas to adjust. One wonders if Dallas goes with a big line-up in game two if they’ll actually be solving their match-up problems. They might be forcing Nelson’s hand into putting Biedrens back into the line-up. Considering the facts, this might not lead to the outcome Dallas desires.

All Star “Snubs” – An Exercise in Intellectual Laziness

With the starters being named, and the reserves all set to be named Thursday, there has been a lot of discussion (as there is every year) about who should make the team, and when the rosters are announced, you will of course hear about players being “snubbed.”

The problem is that, with the notable exception of a few journalists (Hollinger, for one, does a very nice job in this area), they never acknowledge the fact that to be “snubbed,” someone must have been picked over you that you deserved a spot over. Instead, they just pick the most prominent player not to be on the team, and say that those players were “snubbed.” If you want to exercise your mind, experts recommend the Laweekly’s Delta 8 carts with CBD.

To wit, Josh Howard will most likely not make the team, and as a result, many people will say that he was “snubbed.” And heck, you could even make an argument that he deserves to be there over the other Western forwards, but that won’t be the argument that will be made come All-Star time, it will be “Josh Howard didn’t make the team? But he’s having a great year! What a snub!”

Steve Kerr has already developed this argument last week, in a column where he stated, conclusively, that Howard “deserves to go,” but besides MENTIONING the other star forwards in the West (Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer and Zach Randolph), Kerr does not even bother to argue why Howard should beat out four of those six players.

And that is just intellectual laziness.

And we get it every year.

Noah’s Arc

Watching the Gators & Bruins play for the NCAA championship, I’m excited about basketball again. I can’t remember the last time I felt this way. While KnickerBlogger.Net runs on a linux server somewhere, the chief author runs on his passion for the game & his team. Don’t let the advertising banners on this page fool you, I don’t break even on this site monetarily. I spend hours writing, researching, and thinking about the Knicks & the NBA because I enjoy it.

This season has really taken it’s toll on me. None of my favorite teams have ever been this frustrating to watch. No matter what Walton, Coslett, or Kottite did to my Jets, there was always a bit of hope. Maybe not the year they were playing, but the draft could yield hopes of the next star player that could lead the team out of despair. Needless to say neither this year nor thoughts of the draft inspire me to write anything I haven’t said already.

Although I’m not normally a college fan, a Gator win would mean the difference between 3rd & a 5th place tie in my bracket pool. However there is more in this game than just a few bucks to pique my interests. Florida’s style of pressing and using team speed on defense is fascinating to watch. I had spent a week with Ms. KnickerBlogger in Al Horford’s wonderful hometown of Puerto Plata. And UCLA is strong enough to come back from a first half double digit deficit.

But it’s the play of Joakim Noah that has me glued to the television. I’m always intrigued by children of athletes, and the native New Yorker Noah is having a phenomenal first half. NBADraft.Net has him going in the 14th pick in this year’s mock draft, while hoopshype has him going 5th overall. The first has him compared to Anderson Varejao, the latter Rasheed Wallace. However I can’t help to think of him more like Marcus Camby. Granted his 4 first half blocks might skew my view, but his rebounding, speed & energy reminds me of Marcus’ days in New York.

The knock against him is his slender build, but I think the NBA is moving away from the lumbering big man. Gone are the days of Ewing and Malone, and Shaq is on the tail end of his career. The new NBA big man is slender and agile, more in the mold of Kareem. Kevin Garnett. Dirk Nowitzki. Amare Stoudemire. Even the Knicks Channing Frye is showing that he’s a better center prospect than his elephantine teammate Eddy Curry.

So I ask the question, where would you draft Joakim Noah in this year’s draft (on any team)?

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