Evaluating Talent and the Assessment of Legal Issues

On Friday Andray Blatche was re-signed by the Washington Wizards.  Given that Blatche has only played 860 minutes in his entire NBA career, such a signing seemed hardly newsworthy.  And it probably would not have been had Blatche not recently had some legal issues.

The Associated Press article detailing Blatche’s signing included comments from both Ernie Grunfeld – the Wizards general manager – and his agent, Eric Fleisher.  These comments indicated that despite his legal issues, Blatche is “a good kid”, “a young and promising talent”, and that he “has shown he can be a solid contributor” to the Wizards.

In the article it was noted that Blatche averaged 3.7 points and 3.4 rebounds in 56 games last season.  Points and rebounds per game were the only statistics quoted, which is fairly typical for a discussion of any NBA player.  In other words, the media doesn’t often quote NBA Efficiency, Player Efficiency Rating, Plus-Minus, or Wins Produced in discussing the quality of a specific talent.  Per game averages of points, and perhaps rebounds, assists, or blocked shots, are all you typically see.

One should note that this is not likely to change much in the future.  Baseball stories tend to quote batting average for hitters and earned run average (ERA) for pitchers.  Yes, sabermetricians have developed better measures.  But batting average and ERA are what most fans seem to know, so that is what most stories in the media focus upon.

Evaluating Blatche

Okay, I digress.  Let’s get back to the Blatche story.  Although the AP did not note any statistics beyond points and rebounds, last week I offered an evaluation of the remaining NBA free agents that indicated Blatche was slightly above average with respect to NBA Efficiency per 48 minutes [NBA48].  As the following table indicates (re-posted from my story from last week), Blatche has an NBA48 mark of 21.5, which just surpasses the average mark of 21.4.

Table One: The Remaining Free Agents in 2007

The argument that Blatche has been a “solid contributor” to the Wizards is supported by the NBA Efficiency measure.  As we report in The Wages of Wins, NBA Efficiency is a good predictor of free agent salary.  So although we don’t know how the Wizards assessed Blatche’s contribution, that assessment seems to be consistent with the NBA’s performance metric. When we look at Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48], though, we see some problems.  Blatche only posted a WP48 of 0.038 last season, which is well below the average mark of 0.100.

Delving deeper into the numbers we see where the problems lie.  Blatche is at least an average rebounder for his position, so hitting the boards – a place we often suspect when we think about below average big men – is not the issue for Blatche.   No, his problems are with respect to both shooting efficiency and turnovers. Again, NBA Efficiency does not adequately penalize a player for inefficient scoring.  So this issue is not often caught when we look at the NBA’s measure. And, as we note in The Wages of Wins, both shooting efficiency and turnovers are statistically unrelated to free agent salary.  So apparently, these issues are not emphasized by NBA decision-makers either.

Nevertheless, shooting efficiency and turnovers do impact outcomes.  This past year Blatche scored 0.89 points per field goal attempt [(PTS-FTM)/FGA].  This is quite a bit below the average mark in 2006-07 of 0.99.  He also committed 3.4 turnovers per 48 minutes.  An average big man only loses the ball 2.8 times per 48 minutes, so again, Blatche’s performance was sub-par.

Now it’s important to note that our sample with Blatche is small. After all, he has played less than 1,000 minutes in his career.   So a few more made shots or fewer turnovers and Blatche could look a bit different. Nevertheless, given what Blatche did, it would be incorrect to think he is already a “solid contributor.”

Again, we don’t know how Grunfeld and the Wizards concluded Blatche has been a “solid contributor.”  However, if their assessment relied on NBA Efficiency (or a similar measure), it would seem their assessment was not quite as accurate as it could be.  And this leads to a question that probably cannot be answered.  Had Grunfeld used a different measure to evaluate Blatche, would his legal issues suddenly have been a problem? 

James Posey – the Anti-Blatche

Let’s look at the same issue with respect to a different player. James Posey is well above average with respect to WP48, yet below average with respect to NBA Efficiency.  Posey has also recently had legal problems.  But unlike Blatche, Posey remains unsigned. 

Of course Posey pleaded guilty to the charge of reckless driving and Blatche has yet to be convicted of anything.  And Posey is also older than Blatche, so Posey can no longer be thought of as a “young and promising talent.” 

Still, Posey has been above average with respect to WP48 his entire career.  And except for the 2003-04 season, below average every year with respect to NBA48.  In sum, to the extent NBA Efficiency captures people’s assessment of a player’s contribution – and I think the NBA’s metric does this fairly well – Posey has consistently been an under-rated talent.

So we see an over-rated talent with legal issues given a new contract.   And an under-rated talent with legal issues still un-signed. And from our sample of two we are left with this question: To what extent does the evaluation of performance impact the assessment of a player’s legal problems?

– DJ

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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