Speeding Up Time for Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons declares the following in the May 21st issue of ESPN the Magazine:

Fifty years from now, some stat geek will crunch numbers from Duncan’s era and come to the conclusion that Kevin Garnett was just as good. And he’ll be wrong. No NBA team that featured a healthy Duncan would have missed the playoffs for three straight years. It’s an impossibility.

Not to assume the label of “stat geek”, but had Simmons sent this article to me directly, he could have seen 50 years go by in a few minutes.

Let me start by noting that the above quote is taken from an article entitled “Tim Duncan is the Best Player of the Past Decade – And It’s Time You Noticed.” In this article Simmons “crunches” plenty of numbers. Yes, he does it in a non-systematic fashion, but his defense of Duncan does rest upon some numbers. Unfortunately, he doesn’t compare Duncan’s numbers to Garnett. All he does is declare that since Garnett’s team can’t consistently make the playoffs, he must not be as good as Duncan since the Big Fundamental is a playoff fixture.

Looking a bit deeper into the numbers, we see that there is a problem with The Sports Guy’s story. As has been noted in this forum more than once, the talent surrounding Garnett is generally quite bad. Consider the 2006-07 season. The top three players on the Timberwolves in terms of Wins Produced – without the initials KG – are Ricky Davis (5.5 Wins, 0.087 WP48), Craig Smith (3.6 Wins, 0.113 WP48), and Trenton Hassell (2.6 Wins, 0.057 WP48). Remember, average Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] is 0.100. So two of Garnett’s top three teammates last year were below average.

Now compare this threesome to the top players on the Spurs who don’t have the initials TD. Duncan gets to play with Manu Ginobili (14.1 Wins, 0.330 WP48), Tony Parker (10.1 Wins, 0.194 WP48), and Brent Barry (7.5 Wins, 0.221 WP48). A bit of math reveals that Duncan’s top three teammates produced close to 32 wins. Garnett’s top three only offer about 12 victories.

And this is the same pattern we see throughout each player’s career. The following table details the production of each player over the past 10 years, as well as the wins production of each player’s teammates.

Table One: Comparing Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan

Looking at these numbers we see that in the past decade Garnett has produced more than Duncan. And on average, Garnett has produced more than all his teammates combined. In contrast, Duncan’s teammates – on average – have nearly doubled Duncan’s production. The best season for Garnett’s teammates was 1999-00, when KG’s fellow Timberwolves produced 27.5 wins. The worst season for Duncan’s teammates was 2002-03, when Duncan’s fellow Spurs only produced 29.9 wins. As one can see, every single season of his career Duncan has had a better supporting cast than Garnett.

Bill Simmons, though, doesn’t see this. In the same article he states: “(Duncan’s) best teammates have been David Robinson (who turned 33 in Duncan’s rookie year), Manu Ginobili (never at top-15 player) and Tony Parker (ditto). In fact, Duncan has never played for a dominant team… Zoom through San Antonio’s past 10 rosters on basketball-reference.com some time. You’ll be shocked. Tim Duncan has never played on a great basketball team. Not once.”

Give credit to Simmons, he did correctly identify Duncan’s top teammates. But he has woefully underestimated the productivity of these players. Robinson played six seasons with Duncan. In these six seasons The Admiral produced 81.7 wins and posted a WP48 of 0.304. Ginobili has played five seasons with Duncan and in this time has produced 53 wins and a WP48 of 0.261. Like Robinson, Parker has also been a teammate for six seasons. Parker’s career wins production stands at 41.7 while his WP48 is 0.128. Amazingly, Parker has actually improved every season he has played, going from a WP48 of 0.040 his rookie season to 0.194 this year.

As for the “never a top-15 player” argument – Ginobili was the fifteenth best player in Wins Produced this past season (and the 16th best in 2004-05). In 1999-00, Robinson was ranked 9th in the league, while in 1997-98 The Admiral was the 5th most productive player.

In contrast, the best season by a Minnesota player (not named Garnett) was Sam Cassell’s performance in 2003-04. That season Cassell produced 12 wins, which ranked 20th in the league. In 2000-01, Terrell Brandon ranked 32nd in the league with 10.8 wins, while the season before Brandon ranked 25th with 11.3 victories. And those three performances complete the list of Minnesota players who managed to reach double figures in wins while being a teammate of Garnett.

As the above table noted, Garnett has been more productive than Duncan. The difference is not very big, but Garnett has offered more. Still Garnett has not seen much team success. Perhaps Simmons is right, though. Maybe if Garnett did more the Timberwolves would be just as successful as the Spurs.

Over the past ten years the Spurs have averaged 58 wins per season, while the Timberwolves have only averaged 45. How much more would Garnett have to do for his team to achieve San Antonio’s success? Garnett averages 23 wins per season. To move his team from 45 to 58, though, he would have to average 36 wins per campaign. Such an increase would move his WP48 from 0.358 to 0.559. Garnett’s productivity over the past 10 seasons is already more than any other player in the past decade. Still, if Garnett increased his productivity by 56% then the Timberwolves would be just as good as the Spurs.

Is it reasonable to expect on player to consistently produce 36 wins each season? Michael Jordan’s best season was 1988-89, where I estimate he produced 35.5 wins and posted a WP48 of 0.524. So we are only asking Garnett to consistently eclipse the production of Jordan at his best. Perhaps it would be easier if Kevin McHale – the only general manager Garnett has known – would simply find him better teammates.

The moral of this story is that players do not win games. Teams win games. If you surround an exceptional talent with other productive players, your team might contend for a title. But if you surround an exceptional talent with unproductive talent, your team has a good chance of missing the playoffs entirely. And there is nothing one exceptional talent can do to change that basic fact.

- DJ

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