A few days ago I noted that injuries are often “the excuse” for a team’s changing fortunes. As an example, the Hornets were clearly a worse team when Chris Paul and David West were taken out of the starting line-up. Although injuries can spell doom for an NBA team, it’s not the case that all injuries have to hurt.
This week two guards – Jamal Crawford of the New York Knicks and Shaun Livingston of the LA Clippers – have suffered serious injuries. Each of these teams are trying to land a spot in the NBA playoffs and these injuries might lead people to suspect these drives for the post-season have been seriously threatened. Looking at each player’s performance this season, though, and it’s clear that one of these injuries may not be that painful (at least for the team, I am sure it’s painful for the player).
Perhaps a Blessing in Disguise
Let’s start with Crawford and the Knicks. After 58 games the Knicks have won 26 games. Although the Knicks remain below average – despite a league leading payroll – New York is definitely improved over last season. If we look at the Wins Produced offered by the Knicks players, we see this team’s improvement can be tied almost directly to the improvement in the play of David Lee (one of their cheaper players).
Lee posted a 0.197 Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] in 2005-06, a mark in excess of the average WP48 of 0.100. This season his WP48 has risen to 0.394, which means he has progressed from being above average to one of the game’s most productive players. Had Lee not improved, his production of wins would fall from 13.9 to 7.0 this season, and the Knicks would only be on pace to win 25.7 games this season. Given that the team won 23 games last season, we see that without Lee’s sudden advancement the Knicks could not claim that progress has been made in 2006-07. In sum, Lee – before he got hurt a few days ago — appeared to be on a mission to save the job of a coach that still won’t put him the starting line-up.
Okay, enough about Lee. What about Jamal Crawford? Well, he has only offered a 0.031 WP48 this season. So despite his 17.9 points per game, losing Crawford doesn’t look like a devastating development. It’s important to note, though, that the level of devestation depends on who Isiah Thomas uses in Crawford’s place. If Thomas turns to Mardy Collins, who offers a WP48 of –0.166 – which is very bad – then losing Crawford will be a significant problem. Given that Collins has only played 130 minutes this season, Thomas might look elsewhere. One possibility is sliding Quentin Richardson to shooting guard and giving more minutes to Renaldo Balkman. Balkman – the much maligned draft choice of Thomas in 2006 – has thus far been one of the better rookies. If the Knicks do turn to Balkman, then the loss of Crawford could very much be a blessing in disguise. In essence minutes will be tranferred from a below average performer to a player well above average.
An Undisguised Problem
Such a blessing will probably not be seen for the Clippers. After 56 games this team has won 27 games, so this team is a bit below average. Livingston, though, is not the problem. Looking over this team’s Wins Produced reveals that Livingston is one of only three above average players in the regular rotation for the Clippers.
It’s not entirely clear looking at the Clippers roster who will take Livingston’s minutes. What is clear is that this team does not have an abundant supply of above average players. Consequently, it seems unlikely that the player or players who take Livingston’s place will offer the same level of output.
By the way, as I noted back in December, the Clippers problems this year can primarily be attributed to the decline of Chris Kaman. I do not think, as Bill Simmons suggests, that this is about team chemistry. Unless team chemistry has made Chris Kaman play poorly.
In examining the impact of Crawford’s injuries I offered some speculation about how Thomas might re-allocate minutes on the Knicks. It must be emphasized that this is just speculation. In The Wages of Wins we show that if you know a team’s statistics you can project – quite accurately – -the team’s wins. Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between the statistics a player offers in the past and what he offers in the future. Where any forecast of the future breaks down is when I attempt to project minutes. For that, since I do not (yet?) have a model to project how minutes will be allocaed, I literally have to make an educated guess. And my guesses tended to be off because I assume – like a good economist – that teams will play their “most productive” assets. Often, though, this is not what teams do. Consequently, my forecasts can appear off.
Perhaps it would be good for me to repeat what we can do with NBA data:
- If we know a team’s statistics we can project wins quite accurately.
- We can also project a player’s future per-minute performance given his past levels of per-minute productivity. These projections are not perfect, but I think are still pretty good.
- Projecting minutes is a problem. So projecting future wins – which is a function of both per-minute performance and the minutes played – is somewhat difficult.
All that being said, I think the numbers tell us that losing Jamal Crawford (assuming David Lee is not seriously hurt) could help the Knicks win a few more games between now and the end of the season. In other words, this does not have to be a devastating loss. For the Clippers, the numbers suggest that the loss of Livingston will likely hurt the team’s charge for the playoffs. Of course, this is not a major loss for this team since even if Livingston stayed healthy, it was highly unlikely the team could defeat any team it faced in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. And that would be true regardless of this team’s “chemistry.”