Were the Fab Five all Fabulous?

The Fab Five. Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard, and Chris Webber were Michigan freshman who all started for a team in the NCAA title game. As sophomores these five repeated as title participants. Yes, these five lost both championship games. But years later few people can name five players on the teams that actually won the NCAA title in 1992 and 1993. The Fab Five, though, have not been forgotten (and I am not saying that just because I grew up in Detroit).

Of course, not all the Fab Five were equally talented. Jackson never played in the NBA and King only appeared briefly in two seasons. Rose, Howard, and Webber, though, have done quite a bit more. Each of these players was a first round draft choice and each are still playing today. And each has earned more than $100 million in the Association. Clearly these three were the primary weapons on the Fab Five. Yet the data tells us, these three were also not equally productive on the basketball court.

A few day ago I noted that Jalen Rose, despite being paid more than $100 million to play in the NBA, has not been an above average basketball player. What of his two talented teammates – Juwan Howard and Chris Webber?

For fans of Washington’s NBA team, Howard and Webber might bring back a few memories. Howard was drafted in the first round by the Washington Bullets in 1994. A few months later the Golden State Warriors traded Webber – the first player taken in the 1993 draft and rookie of the year in 1994 – to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and three first round draft choices. For the next four seasons Washington would enjoy the talents of the Fab Two.

The results were not exactly fabulous. In four seasons the Bullets-Wizards (Washington was renamed the Wizards in 1997 in an effort to stem Washington D.C. crime – and no, I have not seen a study of the impact of this name change) only managed to win 146 games, or 36.5 contests per season.

Of course we need to put that in perspective. In the five seasons before Webber-Howard arrived the team only won an average of 26.4 games per season. And in the five seasons after Webber was traded to Sacramento, the Wizards only won 30.3 games per campaign. So the Fab Two years in Washington may not have been great by NBA standards, but by Washington standards these were the glory years.

One might wonder, though, of the two Fabs, which offered more? If we review the 1994-95, 1995-96, 1996-97, and 1997-98 seasons we see that in these four seasons Webber and Howard consistently posted the highest per game scoring averages on the team. So clearly these two players led this team to whatever success it achieved.

Okay, that last statement is true if all you look at are points scored. When we consider Wins Produced we tell a very different tale. If we look at how each player impacted team wins it is clear that Webber was the most productive Michigan alumnus employed in Washington. Howard only produced 11.7 wins in these four seasons, and posted a Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] of 0.049. Webber had a WP48 of 0.191 and produced 32.8 wins. Given that an average NBA player has a WP48 of 0.100, Webber was clearly far above average and Howard was far below.

If we look at each player’s career performance we see that these four years were not an aberration. Howard has never posted an above average WP48 while Webber, before he was hurt in 2003, was always well above average.

If we break these players down in terms of the individual statistics we can see that Webber has been above average in his career – on a per-minute basis relative to the average power forward — in terms of points scored, rebounds, steals, assists, blocked shots, and shooting efficiency. In contrast, Juwan Howard has only been above average in terms of points scored and assists. And his below average shooting efficiency negates his overall scoring numbers. Again, if you are above average in scoring just because you take an above average number of shots, you are not really helping your team win. Shots need to consistently go in to produce wins.

For Webber’s efforts he was paid more than $140 million through the 2005-06 season. With 108 career wins, this works out to about $1.3 million per win. Howard has been paid $124 million for 18 wins, or nearly $7 million per victory. In sum, Howard has been more than a bit overpaid in his career.

At least, this is true if winning is what you are buying. If points are your thing – and as we indicate in The Wages of Wins teams seem to focus on points in salary negotiations – then Howard may not have been a bad buy. Through the 2005-06 season Howard had scored 14,517 points. Given his career earnings, he has been paid $8,551 per point. Webber had scored 16,463 through last season. Per point he has been paid $8,526. Yes, Howard has charged about $27 more per point. Of course he needs more shots to get his points, so perhaps the extra charge is for the extra effort his scoring takes.

Just to summarize. If the focus is on wins, Howard has not been a good buy. If the focus is on points, he is about as good a buy as Webber. Unfortunately, it is wins that draw fans and allow people to keep their jobs in the NBA.

One last question: Could we have looked at what these players did at Michigan and known that Webber was going to be the better NBA player, or that Howard and Rose would not be very productive? I will answer this question in a future post. For now a hint — yes, you could have suspected what these players were going to do in the NBA based on what they did when they were fabulous at Michigan.

— 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

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