The Playing Time Illusion

Imagine a baseball player with nine years of experience. Across his first eight seasons he bounced around baseball playing for seven Major League teams. For none of these teams was he ever more than a player off the bench. His batting average for these eight seasons was only 0.250, which is below average. Given that he normally had 200 at-bats per season, that translates into 50 hits a year.

Suddenly in his ninth year he lands on a team that just happens to lose the starter at his position to injury. So this player is now in the line-up everyday. When the season ends he has 400 at-bats and 100 hits. Of course he still is batting 0.250, which is below average (and if it helps, imagine his OPS both across his career and in his ninth season is a below average mark of 0.650).

After nine years of batting 0.250, would we expect other baseball teams to be impressed by the 100 hits in his 9th year? And would we expect the media to report that this player has improved in his 9th year?

Baseball fans are accustomed to looking at efficiency measures like batting average, slugging average, and OPS. Consequently, in the scenario I just described one would expect our baseball player to be treated the same way after his 9th season as he was treated after his 8th campaign. Yes, he can play Major League Baseball. But no one is under the delusion that he is an above average player or worthy of any different treatment because he happened to land a bit more playing time.

Basketball, though, is a different story. The basketball stats the media often reports are per-game averages. With each free agent signing this summer the media reports a player’s per-game scoring average, as well as per-game marks in a few other stats. A player, though, can change his per-game marks simply by playing more minutes (an observation I made about Eddy Curry in March).

One would think that if a player averaged five points per game in 15 minutes, and ten points per game in 30 minutes, people would see that no improvement has taken place. Again if this were baseball, I think that is the story we would tell. But then we see the case of Mikki Moore.

Mikki Moore just completed his 9th season as an NBA player. For many people, this might be a surprise. Moore entered the league in 1998 with the Detroit Pistons. After four seasons where he never averaged as much as 20 minutes per game, he departed the Motor City. In 2002-03 he spent time – well, 43 minutes — with Atlanta and Boston. The next season he played 395 total minutes with New Jersey and Utah. In 2004-05 he cracked the rotation of the LA Clippers, playing 1,178 minutes in 74 contests. The Clippers thought so much of his efforts that he was playing with Seattle in 2005-06.

Last season Moore returned to the Nets. In December the Nets lost Nenad Krstic to injury. The loss of Krstic forced the Nets to put Moore on the court, and boy did he deliver.

Here is how Moore’s season was described by the Associated Press:

The 7-foot Moore had a breakthrough campaign with the Nets last season, averaging career highs of 9.8 points and 5.1 rebounds while making nearly 61 percent of his shots, leading the NBA. He started 55 games for New Jersey while filling in for injured Nenad Krstic, providing energy and veteran experience as the Nets reached the second round of the playoffs.

So Moore had a breakthrough season in 2006-07. Let’s look at the numbers and see where he broke through.

Table One: Mikki Moore’s Career Numbers

Table One reports Moore’s per game averages in 2006-07. It also reports what these per game averages would have been had he simply maintained his career per-minute performance – prior to the 2006-07 season.

Moore played 26 minutes per game in 2006-07. Had he maintained his per-minute marks last season that he had for his career prior to 2006-07, his per game scoring mark would have been 8.9 points per game (as opposed to 9.8). This improvement is almost entirely due to his improved ability to hit a shot, since his field goal attempts per minute were virtually unchanged.

Although his shooting efficiency did improve, his ability to rebound (a very important skill for a center) actually declined. Moore’s rebounding mark should have been 6.2 per game, as opposed to the 5.1 per game we actually saw last season.

When we look at every aspect of Moore’s game, we see a tiny improvement in 2006-07. His Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] was 0.055 in 2006-07. This is slightly better than the 0.044 mark he had for his career entering last season.

Okay, 0.044 to 0.055 is really not much of a change at all. In the end, it looks like the Moore we saw for 26 minutes per game last season was the same Moore that the Nets acquired from the Sonics for a second round draft choice. He is also the same Moore the Sonics signed as a free agent in August, 2005; who the Clippers signed in August, 2004; and who the Jazz acquired on a ten-day contract in February, 2004.

Dave D’Alessandro reports that that Kings have signed Moore to a 3-year contract worth $18 million. According to Basketball-Reference, Moore earned about $10.5 million in his first eight seasons as an NBA player. So the Kings are giving Moore quite a bit more than a 10 day contract. And it’s not as if this is Darko Milicic, who we might believe has better days ahead. Moore will be 32 years old this November. Players in the NBA do not tend to post major improvements in their 30s. What we have seen from Moore for the past nine seasons is likely what we will see from him over the next three seasons. And that production is not likely to be worth $18 million.

If Moore played baseball, his performance would be measured in terms of efficiency. Increases in playing time would not alter how we viewed a player’s productivity. In fact, I suspect in almost any industry people are able to view productivity in terms of efficiency metrics. But in the NBA, the impact of time seems difficult to comprehend. Players double their playing time and double their per-game statistics. Most of us would say “same player.” The NBA sees this player as “twice as good.”

Don’t you wish your bosses were trained by the NBA?

- DJ

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