How to Lose Your Best Player and Win a Title

Today I want to continue where I left off yesterday, discussing the Sonics team that won the title in 1979.The Sonics played for the title in 1978 but were defeated in seven games by the Washington Bullets.  As detailed in Table One, the 1977-78 squad was led by The Human Eraser, Marvin Webster (the subject of yesterday’s post).

Table One: The Sonics in 1977-78

Erasing the Eraser

Webster signed a free agent contract with the New York Knicks in the summer of 1978.   Sam Goldaper of The New York Times reported in 1984 the following with respect to the Knicks signing of Webster (hat tip to slackerjoe for finding and linking to the Goldaper article yesterday):

On Aug. 28, 1978, he (Webster) signed a five- year contract for $650,000 a year with the Knicks. The signing and the compensation award to the Sonics, which stripped the Knicks of Lonnie Shelton, a first-round draft choice and $450,000 in cash, set up a long court battle.

Shelton produced 2.5 wins for the Knicks in 77-78.  With the Sonics in 78-79 he was even less productive, producing only 0.2 wins in 2,158 minutes.  Given that Webster produced 15.7 wins for the Sonics in 1977-78, the move from The Human Eraser to Shelton was not a positive for Seattle.  At least that’s the story we tell when we look at Wins Produced.

But when the 78-79 season ended, not only was Seattle better without Webster, the Sonics managed to win the only title in Seattle professional sports history.  How was this possible?

Surging Sikma

Let’s start our answer with Table Two, which reports both the actual wins of the 78-79 squad as well as the summation of Wins Produced.

Table Two: The Sonics in 1978-79

If you look at both Tables One and Two, the big change that leaps out at you is the productivity of Jack Sikma.   Sikma produced only 4.5 wins in his rookie season in 1977-78.  His sophomore season, though, he led the NBA champions with 13.0 victories.  Yes, the Sonics were helped by Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, and Downtown Freddie Brown (as they were in 77-78), but it was Sikma that was the team’s most productive player.

Diminishing Returns and the Sophomore Surge

As has been noted many times in this forum, NBA performance, relative to what we see in baseball and football, is fairly consistent.  Often what you see is what you are going to get.  That being said (again), these are not robots we are analyzing.  Player performance in the NBA can indeed change.

And it’s possible to identify a few factors that cause player performance to be different.  Yesterday’s post – and slackerjoe’s comment – indicated that both injury and disease appeared to diminish the performance of Marvin Webster over time.  And time itself, or player age, is also a factor that causes performance to change.

Beyond injury and time, though, other factors matter.  In the book we discuss roster stability and coaching.   With respect to the latter, more recent research (that I have completed with Mike Leeds and Mike Mondello) highlights the impact some coaches – although not all – have on player performance.

With respect to Sikma, though, the issue does not appear to be injury, roster stability, or coaching.  Looking over the numbers it appears that there are two issues that we suspect caused Sikma to suddenly improve between 77-78 and 77-79.

The first is the law of diminishing returns.  When you add very productive players you can expect the productivity of others to decline.  Similarly, when a productive player is taken away, the productivity of those left on the team will rise.  As detailed in The Wages of Wins, a good example of this is Michael Jordan’s first retirement.  Without MJ, the productivity of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant increased dramatically.  Likewise, one suspects that the departure of a player like Webster might have caused Sikma’s output to rise.

Although diminishing returns is a good suspect, there’s another possibility.  A sophomore jinx is often cited when a player’s performance declines after his rookie campaign.  In the NBA, such a jinx is not the norm.  No, typically we see a sophomore surge.  Specifically NBA players typically have their biggest improvement in performance between the rookie and sophomore seasons. 

For Sikma such a surge might have been expected. Sikma remains the only graduate of Illinois Wesleyan to play in the NBA.  Coming from such a small school one might expect it to take Sikma some time to adjust to the NBA. 

The Career of Sikma

Okay, we have two stories. Sikma might have improved because of diminishing returns.  Or he might have improved because he simply gained experience in the league.  Let’s see if the numbers tell us which story is most likely.

Table Three reports the career performance of Jack Sikma.  For the issue at hand we want to focus on what he did his first two seasons.  Of course, our perspective on these two seasons is improved when we consider what he did the rest of his career.

Table Three: The Career of Jack Sikma

With numbers in hand, let’s focus first on the diminishing returns story.  The loss of a dominant rebounder such as Webster should cause rebounds for other frontcourt players to increase.  And we see this with respect to Sikma (though not with respect to Shelton who saw his ability to rebound decline when he joined the Sonics).  Per 48 minutes, Sikma’s rebounds increased from 14.5 to 16.4. 

Sikma’s mark of 16.4 was actually his career best.  After the 78-79 season Sikma’s rebounds per 48 minutes declined a bit, although throughout his career he was generally above the NBA average.  One would suspect, though, that if Webster was holding Sikma back his rookie season that Sikma’s rebounding totals would continue to remain just as high after year two.  But that’s not what we see, hence one begins to suspect that diminishing returns is not the entire story.

And this becomes even clearer when we look at the other numbers.  In Sikma’s second season we see an increase in free throw attempts (which led to an increase in scoring) and a decline in personal fouls.  In other words, it looks like Sikma started getting more calls going his way.  We also see improvements with respect to shooting efficiency (both from the field and the line) and assists.  The across the board improvement in Sikma’s performance suggests that what we saw in 1978-79 was more about a player becoming acclimated to the league, as opposed to diminishing returns kicking in.  Or to put it another way, it’s hard to see how a non-scorer like Webster was holding down Sikma’s performance with respect to scoring and personal fouls.

Before moving on to the point of this post (as if there is one), let me briefly comment on the rest of Sikma’s career. Over the next several seasons the overall productivity seen from Sikma generally stayed high.  In six of his first eight season he posted a WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) that exceeded 0.200.  Again, average is 0.100, so Sikma was generally twice as productive as the average player. 

At the age of 30 we see a dip in Sikma’s performance.  He was still above average, but not quite as good.  The Sonics at that point traded Sikma to the Bucks, where he went on to play five more seasons. The first three of these he managed to post above average numbers, but finally age took its toll and Sikma finally retired after the 1990-1991 season.

The Big Picture

So how do you lose your best player and still win the title?  It helps to have another player on your roster who is about to improve dramatically.  The big picture, though, is the state of the NBA in 1978-79.  The best three teams in that season were the Washington Bullets, Seattle SuperSonics, and Phoenix Suns. These three teams won 54, 52, and 50 games respectively. 

In 1979-80 the Sonics, as defending champions, were actually a better team.  The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) improved from 2.5 to 4.4.  Wins also increased, from 52 to 56.  But at the same time, the Lakers added Magic Johnson while the Celtics added Larry Bird. The 76ers also improved from 47 to 59 victories.  As a result, the Sonics never even made it back to the NBA Finals, losing to the Lakers in five games in the 1980 conference finals (after which the Lakers went on to defeat the 76ers in the finals).

The Sonics of the late 1970s demonstrate that it’s possible to lose your best player and win a title.  But I am not sure that this story provides any lessons another team can learn from and follow.  At least, I am not sure a team can systematically reduce the quality of the top teams in the Association.

Another Human Eraser story

This post has already gone on too long, but I want to close with an excerpt from the above cited Goldaper article (again, which appeared in The New York Times in 1984).  The following nicely summarizes the career of Marvin Webster, a player who was one of the top ten centers in the NBA, if only briefly (again, hat tip to slackerjoe):

In 1975, playing for Morgan State University, the 7-1 Webster was voted the outstanding player in the small- college ranks. The Denver Nuggets, then still in the American Basketball Association, made him their first- round draft pick and their offer of $1.5 million over five years was better than the one made by the Atlanta Hawks, who had made him their top choice in the National Basketball Association draft.

Several days after he had reported to the Nugget training camp, he was hospitalized with a recurrence of hepatitis, which he first had in his junior year in college.

In May 1977, in a three-team, multiplayer deal, Denver traded Webster to the Seattle SuperSonics. 1977-78 Sonic Season Best

The 1977-78 season with the Sonics was the best of Webster’s pro career. He averaged 14 points and 12.6 rebounds and played a major role in helping lead Seattle to the National Basketball Association championship round against the Washington Bullets. After Washington beat the Sonics for the title in a seven-game series, Webster became a free agent.

On Aug. 28, 1978, he signed a five- year contract for $650,000 a year with the Knicks. The signing and the compensation award to the Sonics, which stripped the Knicks of Lonnie Shelton, a first-round draft choice and $450,000 in cash, set up a long court battle.

Webster never became the standout center the Knicks had hoped for, although he has become a valuable asset in Brown’s two-team system. Playing with the second unit, Webster’s defense, intimidation and shot- blocking, have made him the mainstay of a team that has become noted for its pressure defenses.

- 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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