Addition by Subtraction

Can a team add wins by subtracting a player?

Consider the case of Maurice Taylor. A few weeks ago Isiah Thomas waived Taylor. Was this a good move?

Consider Taylor’s career thus far. In nine seasons he has posted averages of 11.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Per 48 minutes, his averages have been 21.3 points and 8.8 boards. These numbers suggest that he can score and occasionally grab a rebound.

For this effort he has been paid – according to Basketball-Reference.com (a great site for stats) – nearly $45 million. Last year with the Knicks he was paid $9.1 million, which tells us that in the NBA market he is regarded as an above average player.

If we look a bit deeper into Taylor’s numbers this appears to be an odd assessment of his talents. Consider two sets of numbers – Taylor’s per-minute career averages and the per-minute performance of an average NBA power forward. Such a comparison reveals that Taylor is above average in scoring – posting 0.444 points per-minute. This exceeds the per-minute mark of 0.401 offered by an average power forward.

But with respect to rebounds, steals, assists, and blocked shots, Taylor is below average. He is above average with respect to turnovers and personal fouls, but these stats reduce a team’s ability to win. So his above average ability to lose the ball and commit fouls is not helping.

Still, Taylor can score. But, unfortunately, that is all he can do. And when we look at shooting efficiency we see that he is also below average in that category. The average power forward will score 0.968 points per field goal attempt [(PTS-FTM)/FGA)]. Taylor has a career mark of 0.939. In not-so-simple words, Taylor scores at an above average rate because he takes an above average number of shots, which he misses at an above average rate.

In sum, Taylor appears to have one positive attribute. But when we look at his scoring in terms of efficiency, we see that his one apparent skill is actually a negative. Consequently, we can expect a team that subtracts Taylor to probably improve.

These numbers are available to everyone. So why would three teams with access to these numbers agree to pay Taylor close to $45 million?

The answer can be found in The Wages of Wins. Via an examination of what determines salaries in the NBA we demonstrated that scoring totals dominate how much a player gets paid. Shooting efficiency, rebounds, turnovers, and steals were not found to be important. And one should note, a similar result has been reported in the economics literature for about two decades.

In economics we talk about money illusion. If we double both your income and prices you should not believe you are any better off. If you do, then you suffer from money illusion.

In the NBA we appear to have a case of scoring illusion. A player can score more points, yet do so inefficiently. He can fail to offer any other contribution to his team other than inefficiently produced points. And still NBA teams feel that the player’s ability to score helps the team win and therefore there is need to pay handsomely for his services.

Luckily for Knicks fans, the illusion appears to be fading for Isiah. He cut Maurice Taylor. He drafted Renaldo Balkman and signed free agent Jared Jeffries, two players not known for their scoring but capable of contributing in other ways.

This may be too little, too late for Isiah. As previously noted (see HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE), Isiah built a roster of scorers who were not capable of winning many games. Fixing this probably goes beyond the moves he has made. Still, he is taking steps in the right direction. And that is good news for fans of the NBA’s most expensive team.

For fans of the Sacramento Kings there is bad news. Soon after Taylor left New York he joined the Kings. And that would be a case of subtraction by addition.

- DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say