Pistol Pete — An Early Answer

Henry Abbott – of TrueHoop – posted a lengthy story on Kobe Bryant on Monday entitled “To Be Determined: Kobe Bryant’s Place in History”. Towards the end of his story (which is a lengthy but good read) is a comparison of Kobe and Pistol Pete Maravich. Just like Pistol Pete, Kobe is the leading scorer on a team that does not contend for a title. Just like Pistol Pete, Kobe is often accused of dominating the ball and reducing the involvement of his teammates. And just like Pistol Pete, Kobe appears to respond to this criticism by, at times (apparently) refusing to shoot.

Although Kobe’s team has not been a contender since Shaq departed in 2004 (and as it is currently constructed, will not contend in 2007-08), the inability to win consistently cannot be attributed to Kobe. Of all the players taken in the 1996 draft, Kobe has been the most productive. This past season Kobe produced more wins than any other shooting guard in the Association. In sum, Kobe is a really good basketball player (although with a career WP48 – Wins Produced per 48 minutes — of 0.202, he would not be defined as a Super-Star).

What of Pistol Pete?

Abbott’s mention of Pete Maravich led me to wonder — exactly how good a player was the Pistol? Yes, he was a legendary scorer. In college he averaged 44 points per game. Although he was less prolific as a pro, he did finish his career with a per-game average of 24 points.

His teams, though, were never consistent winners. In his first nine seasons Pistol Pete only played for a winning team once, and overall, his teams had a 0.425 winning percentage.

Midway through his tenth season he was waived by the Utah Jazz and a few days later was signed by the Boston Celtics. Boston finished that season with 61 victories. But given that Maravich only played 442 minutes for the Celtics, though, it’s hard to attribute Boston’s success in 1979-80 to Pistol Pete.

Of course, the Kevin Garnett saga in Minnesota demonstrates that even one outstanding player cannot make up for a poor supporting cast. So perhaps Pistol Pete was truly outstanding, but was just cursed with teammates who were less than capable. In fact, this seems to be the conventional wisdom with respect to his career.

So we have two possibilities. The conventional wisdom is that Pistol Pete was a great player but cursed with bad teammates. The alternative to this story is that Pistol Pete, despite his prodigious scoring, was really not an effective player.

To settle this dispute (which is probably not a dispute beyond the confines of this forum), let me begin with my memory of Pistol Pete’s performance in the NBA. Pete Maravich began his NBA career in 1970 and retired ten years later after the 1979-80 season. When he retired I was ten years old, so I never actually saw him play. So much for my memories.

I have seen the highlights, and he certainly looked like a great basketball player. Of course, highlights tend to be about the good things that people do on the field of play. In other words, highlights tend to make everyone look good. What we want to know is how good Maravich was in between the highlights.

Although I never saw him play, some people managed to watch every game he played in the NBA. And these people recorded every point he scored, every shot he missed, every rebound he grabbed, every assist, and every personal foul. Starting with the 1973-74 season people started to note each offensive rebound, defensive rebound, steal, and blocked shot. And in 1977-78, someone noted every turnover he committed. In sum, the people who watched every game Maravich ever played left us with a wealth of information we can use to evaluate his performance.

We can find this data today at Basketball-Reference.com. Or you can look at the following table where Maravich’s career averages are detailed (as well as the performance of Kobe Bryant and an average NBA guard today). As we can see, Pistol Pete was no Kobe. In fact, I think the evidence suggests that Pistol Pete was not even “good”.

Table One: Maravich’s Career Performance

What people remember most about Maravich is his ability to score. He finished his career with 15,948 points, for – as noted — an average of 24.2 points per game.

In The Wages of Wins we observed that scoring totals are often what people focus upon in evaluating players. But it’s shooting efficiency (along with rebounds and turnovers) that matters most when it comes to wins and losses. And when we look at efficiency we see that Pistol Pete misfired quite a bit.

We can see this when we consider how many points he scored per field goal attempt. Of his 15,948 career points, 3,564 came from the free throw line. This means that he scored 12,348 points from his 14,025 field goal attempts. A bit of simple division reveals that Maravich scored 0.88 points per shot from the field (which is exactly the same mark he had in college). An average player from 1973-74 to 1979-80 scored 0.94 points per field goal attempt. In sum, Maravich was below average as a scorer. Yes, he was prolific, but this was because he took a large number of shot attempts.

What about other aspects of Maravich’s performance? Per 48 minutes he averaged 5.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 3.7 personal fouls. Relative to players today (the table looks at players from 1993-94 to 2004-05), his rebounding totals are above average for a point guard and about average for a shooting guard (Maravich probably played a bit at each position). His assist numbers are below average for a point guard, but above average for a shooting guard. And his propensity to commit personal fouls was average for any guard. One should note that were more rebounds to be had in the 1970s, so his above average rebounds could be just a product of his era.

When we turn to steals, blocked shots, and turnovers we have less data to work with. Steals and blocked shots were only kept for the last seven years of his career. His numbers indicate, though, that he was about average with respect to each. As for turnovers, we only have three years of data. And for these three years he appears to quite turnover prone.

If we put the whole picture together we see that Maravich was above average with respect to scoring, but his inefficient shooting tells us that his ability to score did not help his team win. And he was not exceptional with respect to any other aspect of the game. In fact, with respect to turnovers, he was quite poor.

Looking at these numbers, I think it’s hard to conclude that Maravich was actually a very effective NBA player. So it’s not surprising to see that his NBA teams, which were built around him, didn’t often win.

By the way, I think you can make the argument I have made – i.e. Maravich was not a very effective player – without looking at a Wages of Wins metric. Still, you will note the above table does report the career Win Score for Pistol Pete (based on his last seven years as a pro). Per 48 minutes, Maravich’s Win Score was only 3.2. This is quite a bit below average for a guard (and only a third of what Kobe offers), which again tells us that Pistol Pete tended to misfire in between all those wonderful highlights.

An Early Answer

Let me close this post with the following observation: When we look at Pistol Pete we see an inefficient scorer who tends to commit turnovers. The inability of his teams to win is often blamed on his teammates, but it was Maravich’s performance that probably played an important role in the lack of team success we observed. Regular readers of the WoW Journal will note that this story is quite similar to what we have said about “The Answer” – Allen Iverson. Like Maravich, Iverson is a prodigious scorer. Like Maravich, Iverson is turnover prone. Like Maravich, Iverson’s teams have tended to be less successful. And like Maravich, Iverson’s teammates tend to be blamed for the many losses seen on the court. In sum, it looks like Pistol Pete was an Early Answer.

- DJ

The following posts have more on The Answer – Allen Iverson

One Correct Prediction

Creating Shots in Philadelphia

Early Returns on Iverson and Anthony

Iverson Goes to Denver

An Allen Iverson Comment

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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