Another Attack on Conventional Wisdom? Reviewing the Rookie Season of Larry Bird

Yesterday I argued that it’s possible that the Seattle SuperSonics, despite the loss of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, might improve this next season.  And if that happens, we can expect much of the credit will go to rookie Kevin Durant, even if – as the post argued – it’s the plethora of average veterans that might be most responsible for Seattle’s ability to avoid a complete disaster in 2007-08.

Today I want to focus on a team that should be a bit more competitive than the SuperSonics.  Whereas Seattle might improve a bit next season (or not, as I said, that projection was mostly guessing), the team that’s expected to make the most progress in the standings in 2007-08 is the Boston Celtics. 

Last season the Celtics only managed to win 24 games. Denied a chance at either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, general manager Danny Ainge managed to turn the 5th pick in the draft, Al Jefferson, and a collection of average and below average players into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.  And now James Posey, one of the few above average free agents, has joined this roster.  Posey explained his choice as follows:

“It was a chance to win a championship,” said Posey, twisting his new No. 41 green jersey in between his hands while talking to the media. “It feels good to be a part of the tradition. I’m very excited for the opportunity to win.”

Yes, Posey thinks a 24 win team from last season is going to contend for a title next season.  For this to happen, the Celtics must make a mighty leap in the standings.  At the very least, Boston must win 50 games in 2007-08, which means this team must improve by 26 games.  Only seven teams since 1973-74 have made such a leap in the standings.  And one of these was the Boston Celtics in 1979-80.  Today I want to review what happened back in 1979, a review that I think tells us something about Garnett and today’s Boston Celtics.

A Bit of Celtic History

The Celtics won eleven titles from 1957 to 1969.  After missing the playoffs in both 1970 and 1971, Boston appeared in the post-season for six consecutive campaigns, winning the title in 1974 and 1976. Then in 1977-78 and 1978-79, the proud Celtics again missed the playoffs. 

Once again, though, the Celtics could not be kept down for long. After winning only 29 games in 1978-79, the Celtics won 61 games the next season.

Most fans would suspect that the key was the addition of Larry Bird. Bird was the 6th player taken in 1978 (yes, Bird was one of those infamous 6th choices), but did not join the Celtics until he led Indiana State to the NCAA title game in 1979 (a game I remember talking about in 3rd grade).  In Bird’s rookie season he led the Celtics in scoring, rebounds, and steals.  But he also led the team in turnovers and personal fouls.  Given all this, was Bird really responsible for Boston’s improvement?

The Celtics of the Late 1970s

To answer this question, let’ s first look back on the two Boston teams that missed the playoffs in 1978 and 1979.  After taking the title in 1976, Boston declined to 44 victories in 1976-77.  The next season the Celtics slide continued, as the team only managed to win 32 games.  Despite this paltry wins total, Boston still had some talent.

The top player on the Celtics in the 1970s was Dave Cowens.  Complete box scored data was not tracked until 1977-78. One can still look at what data was kept prior to 1977, and via some guesstimates of the missing data, create an estimate of Wins Produced.  Such a process results in an estimate of an estimate (since Wins Produced itself is just an estimate).  Nevertheless, from 1970-71 until 1976-77, it appears that Cowens produced about 129 wins and posted a 0.300 WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes).  Although these are crude estimates, I think it’s safe to say that Cowens was pretty good.

In 1977-78, despite the Celtics inability to win much, Cowens was still quite good.  He produced 17.1 wins (or more than half the team’s final tally) and his WP48 was 0.255 (these are better estimates since we do have complete data for 1977-78).  The Celtics also had a rookie named Cedric Maxwell, who had a 0.313 WP48.   Maxwell, though, only played 1,213 minutes.  Consequently he only produced 7.9 wins.

After Cowens and Maxwell, the only above average player on the roster was Kermit Washington, who like Maxwell, only played limited minutes.  The combination of Cowens, Maxwell, and Washington produced 30.8 of the team’s 36.1 Wins Produced.  This means that players like John Havlicek, Dave Bing, Sidney Wicks, and Jo Jo White produced very little in 1977-78. This does not mean that these four players were never good, but it does tell us that 30 years ago, this quartet were not very productive (one should note that both Havlicek and Bing never played again after this season).

In 1978-79, Cedric Maxwell saw his minutes more than double.  His production of wins also rose to 15.5, which was more than 50% of the team’s Wins Produced. After Maxwell, though, the Celtics did not employ a single above average player (okay, Earl Williams was above average but he only played 273 minutes).  Cowens dropped off considerably, posting a WP48 of 0.074 (while only producing 3.9 wins). 

Cowens also served as head coach of the team for the final 68 contests.  Not only was Cowens the coach unable to get much from Cowens the player, a collection of famous names- Tiny Archibald, Jo Jo White, Billy Knight, Bob McAdoo, Don Chaney, and Marvin Barnes – combined to produce only 0.1 wins.  In other words, these famous players from NBA history gave the Celtics and head coach Cowens virtually nothing.

Bird’s Rookie Season

In 1978-79 the Celtics employed 18 different players.  The next season, Larry Bird’s first campaign, only twelve players wore Celtic green.  Of these twelve, five were above average.  This list of above average players included Maxwell [11.9 wins and 0.208 WP48], Archibald [12.2 wins and 0.205 WP48], Chris Ford [6.1 wins and 0.139 WP48], and M.L. Carr [6.1 wins and 0.146 WP48].  Additionally, the Celtics still employed Cowens (only as a player) and acquired Pistol Pete Maravich in mid-season.  These future hall-of-famers combined to produce 2.6 wins, so neither did much (a result for Pistol Pete that shouldn’t surprise).

Okay, enough about unproductive aging stars.  What about Bird? 

Earlier I hinted that Bird really wasn’t the key to this team.  But I was just kidding.  Bird, as he was throughout his career, was extremely productive his rookie season.  He produced 18.8 wins and posted a WP48 of 0.305 (a mark that was actually well below his career average).  Clearly Bird led this team in Wins Produced and was “the key” addition to Boston.

That being said, Bird was not a one man show. Let’s think back to the 1977-78 squad.  That team had a very productive Cowens, but because Cowens had little help, the Celtics only won 32 games.  And had Bird joined a Celtics team that didn’t have any other productive players, he would have suffered the same fate as Cowens in 1977.

Basic Lessons

As a professor I have an annoying habit of always trying to think of the lessons any story I tell is conveying.  From this particular story we learned two things:

1. Larry Bird was really good. And that’s what conventional wisdom says also.  Which proves that I can agree with both conventional wisdom and Bill Simmons on something.

2. More importantly, this story tells us that having one productive player will not get a team into the playoffs.  We saw this with the Cowens led Celtics of 1978 and again with the Maxwell led squad of 1979.  This means that had Bird joined a team without any other productive players, his rookie season would not have been fun.

Beyond this point, I want to tie this whole story back to the career of Kevin Garnett.  For much of his career, KG has been much like Cowens in 1978.  The Kid was producing wins, but it was hard to tell because his teammates weren’t helping.  Now Garnett has a chance to be like Bird in 1979-80.  Finally Garnett will be playing with other players who can help him produce wins.   

One Last Question

Let me close with one more question.  What caused Tiny Archibald to improve so much?  To see how much, here is the Wins Produced for each Celtic in 1977-78, 1977-79, and 1979-80.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Archibald in the comments section.

Table One: The Boston Celtics of the Late 1970s

– 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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