The Utah Jazz in 2005 had the third choice in the NBA draft. Needing a point guard, they had a choice between Deron Williams and Chris Paul. The college numbers of the two players clearly indicated that the best choice was Paul.
The data reported in Table One comes from each player’s last season of college basketball. As we can see, Paul was superior with respect to shooting efficiency from the field, free throw percentage, scoring, rebounds, and steals. Not surprisingly, Paul posted a much higher Win Score per minute (0.256 vs. 0.150). Although college data does not tell us everything about a player’s pro potential, the differences between Paul and Williams in college should have given the Jazz second (and third, fourth, and fifth) thoughts about passing on Paul.
Nevertheless, the Jazz selected Williams. Unfortunately for the Jazz, the rookie production of each player confirmed the college numbers. Paul produced 18 wins his rookie campaign, a mark for freshmen that in the past fifteen years has only been bested by Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. Williams, meanwhile, produced 0.9 victories his rookie campaign. The difference was not just seen in Wins Produced. Paul went on to be Rookie of the Year, a unanimous selection to the All-Rookie team (voted on by the coaches), and was also named the starting point guard for Team USA in the 2006 World Championship. In sum, few people would argue last summer that Williams was even close to Paul as a player.
The sophomore campaign for each player went differently. Williams improved dramatically, producing 9.2 wins and posting a Wins Produced per 48 minutes of 0.149. The Utah Jazz also improved, going from 41 victories in 2005-06 to 51 wins this past season. Beyond improving in the regular season, Williams has apparently shined in the playoffs. Utah is currently playing in the Western Conference Finals, which hasn’t happened since John Stockton and Karl Malone led the franchise to the NBA Finals in 1998.
The dramatic improvement in the performance of Williams and the Jazz has caused an equally dramatic change in people’s assessment of his value. Although many of have voiced this sentiment, I think Henry Abbott of TrueHoop put it best yesterday:
I know he is not getting his fair share of attention without help from me, but how great is Deron Williams. Would you trade him for Chris Paul? Would anyone? This is also instructive when it comes to assessing the draft. Chris Paul has been declared the better pick on the short analysis, but the more important analysis is much longer.
Abbott is not alone in thinking that Utah’s run in the playoffs has vindicated the decision to take Williams over Paul. Unfortunately, I think the data still tells us that Utah’s selection was incorrect.
Comparing Williams and Paul in 2006-07
Although Williams did do better his sophomore campaign, it’s still the case that Paul is more productive. Paul – who missed substantial time due to injury – still managed to post 13.2 wins this past season. Only Chauncey Billups, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd produced more wins from the point guard spot. Furthermore, Paul’s WP48 of 0.270 ranked 14th among the 127 players with at least 2,000 minutes played (Williams ranked 49th). The difference between Paul and Williams is similar to the difference between Kobe Bryant (WP48 of 0.234) and Tayshaun Prince (WP48 of 0.135). Should the Lakers trade Bryant straight up for Prince? Would anyone suggest such a move?
The difference between Paul and Williams can also be clearly seen when we look at the individual stats:
With respect to rebounds, steals, turnovers, personal fouls and free throw percentage, Paul is still the more productive performer. Williams does offer greater shooting efficiency from the field and a few more assists, but these two areas where Williams is better is not enough to close the gap between the two players.
Again, I do not think one needs Wins Produced and Win Score to see that Paul has clearly been the better player. He was better in college and better in the pros. Yet people still wish to argue that Williams is now equal or superior to Paul. What has caused this confusion?
Change Your Teammates, Change Your Evaluation
There is one area where Williams has consistently bested Paul. In both college (where Williams played at Illinois and Paul played at Wake Forest) and in Utah, Williams has played on the better team. We can see this when we look at the both the Utah Jazz and New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets these past two seasons.
In his rookie season, the teammates of Williams produced 33 wins and posted a 0.090 WP48. This past season the performance of his teammates improved to 39.4 wins and a WP48 of 0.112.
In contrast, Paul’s teammates only produced 15.3 wins and a WP48 of 0.043 during his stellar rookie season. This past year his teammates only offered 23.6 wins and a WP48 of 0.065. Yes, Paul did have Tyson Chandler as a teammate, but after Chandler and Devin Brown, every other teammate was below average. In fact, the Hornets allocated nearly 6,500 minutes to players whose production was less than zero.
And this is why Paul is not playing in the conference finals. His absence is not an indictment of his lack of productivity, but rather of the inability of the Hornets to surround Paul with productive players. Unfortunately, analysts have trouble separating what a player does from his teammates. Often when teammates are poor, the assessment of a “star” declines. Likewise, when teammates are better, the assessment of an individual player improves.
Is Williams a Prime-Time Performer?
Not only does Williams have better teammates, but Williams and these better teammates have spent the past six weeks playing prime-time basketball. Meanwhile Paul has been out of sight and out of mind.
Should sixteen playoff games change the conclusion we reached from two seasons worth of NBA regular season games (and a collection of college contests)? Perhaps they should if we now have evidence that Williams is really a “prime-time performer.”
What is a prime-time performer? In The Wages of Wins we reviewed a paper I wrote with Erick Eschker. This paper defined a prime-time performer as a player who raises his level of play in the post-season. In other words, he played best when the games mattered the most. Paul has been unable to lead his team into the playoffs, so we can’t see if he has this quality. Williams, though, after 16 playoff games has clearly demonstrated… okay, not really anything (by the way, we find little evidence that any player in the NBA is a “prime-time performer”, a point I made in talking about NFL quarterbacks last January).
Williams offered a per-minute Win Score of 0.141 in the regular season. After 16 playoff games his Win Score per-minute is 0.153. Yes, that is a bit better. But Williams is still offering less than what Paul routinely brings to the table.
It should be emphasized that Williams is indeed a “good” player. He was above average in the regular season. He has been above average in the post-season. And he is one of the reasons Utah has made it the conference finals. Of course, he is not the only reason. Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, and Andrei Kirilenko also have helped. We should also not ignore the Warriors upset of the Mavericks, since without this event the Jazz would have faced Dallas in the second round (and likely lost).
Although Williams did play well in the regular season, and has played well in the playoffs, his overall level of productivity still pales in comparison with Paul. And although I doubt the Jazz and Hornets would consider swapping point guards at this time, if such an offer was made, the Jazz would be foolish to pass on Paul a second time. Because as good as the Jazz were this year with Williams, they would still be better with Chris Paul.