Shots That Are Destined for Nothing But Hot Air

This story has already received a fair amount of attention at ESPN. Marc Stein at ESPN.com penned a column last week examining the plethora of players who did not play last season but hope to play in 2007-08. And then this morning, Kelly Dwyer – subbing for Henry Abbott – also noted the number of active seniors hoping to re-join the Association. At the end of Dwyer’s column was a link to an ESPN Insiders entry posted by John Hollinger, which covered similar ground.

So the basic story has been touched upon. Still, I am going to make a small effort to add something worthwhile to this discussion.

My focus is going to be on two of the most prominent players on the list – Reggie Miller and Allan Houston. Currently each is an NBA analyst, Miller with TNT and Houston with ESPN. The similarity between these two extends beyond their current occupation. Each player was an NBA shooting guard who was known for his outside shooting. Miller leads all players in NBA history with 2,560 three point shots made. Houston is currently 11th on this list, but actually converted his shots from beyond the arc at a higher rate than Miller. Houston made 40.19% of his three point attempts while Miller converted only 39.47%. Okay, not much of a difference. Still, technically Houston was more efficient from downtown. And given that Houston is six years younger than Miller, it looks like Houston would be the better bet in 2007-08.

The problem with this assessment is that basketball is not just about launching bombs. And when we look at all that these players did, we see that Houston was not nearly as effective as Reggie Miller.

Like the discussion of Pistol Pete, it’s useful to compare each player to what we see from an average shooting guard.

Table One: The Average NBA Performance of Reggie Miller and Allan Houston

The temptation with each player is to focus on scoring, but I think it’s useful to focus a bit of attention on what each player did with respect to the non-scoring aspects of the game. In terms of rebounds, steals, assists, and blocked shots, both Miller and Houston were below average. With respect to personal fouls each was above average. Finally when we look at turnovers we see that Miller was above average (meaning he did not turn the ball over as often as you would expect), but Houston was again below average for an NBA shooting guard.

Okay, what do these differences mean? Let’s first focus on Houston. Per 48 minutes, Houston cost his teams 1.5 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 1.3 assists, and 0.2 blocked shots. He also committed 0.2 more turnovers. Although he committed 0.2 fewer personal fouls, overall his non-scoring efforts did not help much. To see how much, consider that each rebound, steal, and turnover are worth – in absolute terms – about 0.033 wins. Assists, blocked shots, and personal fouls – again in absolute terms – are worth about half that amount. Given these numbers, Houston’s discrepancies with respect to the non-scoring elements of the box score cost his teams about six wins per 82 games (given that Houston played about 34 minutes per game in his career).

Repeating this analysis for Miller reveals that his difficulties with respect to the non-scoring elements cost his team about 2.2 wins per 82 games (again, given that Miller also averaged about 34 minutes per game in his career).

Okay, so we see when each player wasn’t shooting he wasn’t exactly helping. And Houston was especially a problem with respect to the non-scoring aspects of the game.

Of course, when it came to shooting, both players were an asset to their teams. The average shooting guard scores 0.96 points per field goal attempt [(PTS-FTM)/FGA]. Houston scored 1.00 points per shot from the field, so he was certainly above average. Given that he took 20.4 shots per 48 minutes, Houston’s ability to score at an above average rate added 0.7 points per 48 minutes. And what are these points worth to an NBA team? About 1.7 wins. That’s it.

Now let’s turn to Miller. Miller scored 1.09 points per field goal attempt in his career. He took 17.6 shots per 48 minutes, and hence he scored 2.2 points more per 48 minutes than you would have expected from an average shooting guard. These 2.2 points are worth an additional 4.3 wins over an 82 game season. Miller was also able to get to the free throw line and convert at higher rate than the average guard. And this ability also created wins for his team.

If we put it all together, we see that Miller was able to overcome his deficiencies with his shooting. Houston, though, was not.

Table Two: The Season-by-Season Performances of Reggie Miller and Allan Houston

When we look over the career numbers for each with respect to both Wins Produced and Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48], we see what Miller and Houston meant for their respective teams. In every season Miller played, he was above average. In every season Houston played, he was below average.

And that is another feature of NBA performance that I often emphasize. Year after year we see that players who are well above average stay above average. Players that are below average remain below average.

So what can teams expect if they sign Houston or Miller? Both are now older and age does make a difference. Given that Houston has never been above average, we can expect an older Houston to still be a problem. Miller, though, has always been above average. But one wonders if that’s going to be true at 42 years of age.

In reading over the analysis of Stein, Dwyer, and Hollinger the same story was told. And I think their conclusion would also be reached by any NBA analysts, including Houston and Miller. It’s probably a good idea that teams let each player continue in their role as NBA talking-heads. A team taking a shot with either of these senior citizens can expect such a shot to catch nothing but hot air.

– DJ

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