A few weeks ago, with little fanfare, Greg Ostertag retired. Ostertag was the second to last player taken in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft and he spent virtually his entire eleven year career as the often maligned center for the Utah Jazz. Across this career he averaged less than five points per game, suggesting that Ostertag was merely another “big stiff” owing his NBA career to the fact he grew to be more than seven feet tall.
Ostertag, though, was not exactly a “big stiff”. To see this, consider the career of Joe Smith, the first player taken in the 1995 NBA draft. Smith has not had the career expected of a player taken with the first pick overall. Still, he has averaged 12.4 points per game, nearly triple the scoring efforts of Ostertag. Of course, as I often say in this forum, it is wins that matter in the NBA, not scoring.
In Smith’s career thus far he has produced 29.3 wins, or one fewer win than Kevin Garnett – the fifth player taken in 1995 – produced during the 2004-05 season. So Smith’s wins production has been a bit disappointing. To see this point a bit better, consider Smith’s production per minute. In our book we discuss a player’s Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48). Since an average team will win about 0.500 games per 48 minutes played, the average player will have a WP48 of 0.100. In four of his eleven seasons Smith was above average, although never by very much. If we look at his entire career, his WP48 has been 0.064. In other words, on average, Smith is a bit below average.
Now let’s look at Ostertag. Despite playing more than 7,000 fewer minutes than Smith, Ostertag produced 44.3 wins – or 15 more victories – in his career. Ostertag also posted an above average WP48 in eight seasons. For his career, his WP48 was 0.144, which is also above average.
Does this mean Ostertag is “better” than Smith? Having seen both perform I think it is likely that Smith would win a game of one-on-one with Ostertag. But the game the NBA plays is not one-on-one. It is a game of five-on-five. In such a game, rebounding matters as much as scoring. And that was a skill Ostertag offered. The average center captures one rebound every four minutes he plays. In his career, Ostertag averaged one rebound every 3.6 minutes. It may not sound like much, but that little difference in rebounding rates between Ostertag and an average center is worth 1.5 additional wins over the course of an 82 game season.
It is true that Ostertag could not score. He was an inefficient scorer from the field and the free throw line. But basketball is not just about scoring. Ostertag could rebound, and as Ben Wallace demonstrates each night for the Pistons, rebounding is a skill a team needs if it wishes to win consistently in the NBA. So perhaps it should be with greater sadness that Utah fans bid farewell to Ostertag. Maybe he was not such a “big stiff” after all.