Iverson really a scrub?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Basketball is a sport that tracks more statistics than perhaps any sport besides baseball, and yet there has been very little mainstream work done toward applying a player’s statistics to see how he affects a team’s chances of winning a game, as has recently become popular in baseball. This lack of understanding of the value of a player is the reason that Steve Nash was twice voted the MVP of the NBA by sports writers who continue to ignore statistical models that suggest he wasn’t even the best player on his team and wasn’t the best player at his position.

There are now more resources than ever to help even the most casual fan better understand the value of a player and challenge the conventional wisdom of sports writers and analysts. ESPN.com’s John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating measures per-minute offensive efficiency, while 82games.com has helped popularize the plus/minus system, which simply tracks a team’s net point total with and without a given player on the floor.

The most controversial of the new wave of scientific metrics is the Wages of Wins model, developed by economists David Berri, Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook and detailed in the book by the same name.

The creators of Wages of Wins argue that they have solved the problem that previous models, such as Hollinger’s PER, suffered from, which was overvaluing scoring and not giving enough weight to turnovers and missed field goal attempts. By utilizing regression analysis, a common technique in economics, the model effectively determines the relative weight of each statistic on generating wins.

A May 29, 2006, review of “The Wages of Wins” by Malcolm Gladwell examines two controversial points that the authors make. First, according to the Wages of Wins method, through the 2005-2006 NBA season, Allen Iverson was only the 116th best player in the league on average during his career. In fact, in his MVP season in 2000-2001, 90 players created more wins for their teams than The Answer, an eight-time All-Star.

Shocking? Absolutely. Even more shocking is when the authors argue that energy player Jerome Williams, who averaged 6.6 points per game during his career, was once among the best forwards in the game.

“The Wages of Wins” provides stunning insight into Nash’s two aforementioned MVP seasons. He was responsible for fewer wins on average – 18.6 – than fellow point guard Jason Kidd (23.7), and far fewer than Kevin Garnett (26), who has generated the most wins in the NBA in five of the last six seasons.

The basic premise of “The Wages of Wins,” according to its authors, is that statistics are often interpreted incorrectly. It seems that intellectually lazy sports analysts continue to refer to Kobe Bryant as the best player in the world when Luol Deng, the 22-year-old forward the Lakers asked the Chicago Bulls for while in trade talks about Kobe, was worth more wins last season (14.9) than Bryant in his 2005-06 campaign (14.3).

Here’s the simplistic model that sports columnist Bill Simmons offered in his column bashing the Wages of Wins system: “Just add up the point, rebound and assist averages for franchise guys during the playoffs: If the number tops 42, you’re probably talking about a pantheon guy.”

Basketball is a complex game that many, including myself, love and dedicate countless hours to watching, reading and thinking about, and it’s extremely hard to come to a unanimous conclusion on which player is most valuable.

That said, using these types of statistical comparisons can help fans make better informed decisions on these topics. I’m not so sure that Jerome Williams was a superstar, but maybe it’s time the people who get paid to cover basketball embrace a new, more scientific and less subjective way of thinking.

Tom Trudeau ’09 generates more wins than Eddy Curry.

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