Connecting Seattle Past to Seattle Present

Two days ago I wrote a column on “The Human Eraser”, Marvin Webster.  This post argued that Webster was the most productive player on a Sonics team that went to the NBA Finals.  Yesterday I examined how the Sonics lost Webster, again their best player, but still managed to win the NBA title in 1979.  Today I want to connect these two stories from Sonics history to what we see in Seattle today.

The Sonics go from Losers to Winners

Our story begins a bit short of the present. Back in 2003-04 the Sonics managed to win only 37 games.  The most productive player from this team was Brent Barry, who departed for San Antonio in the summer of 2004. Much like the Sonics of the late 1970s, Seattle actually improved after losing its leader in Wins Produced.  In fact, in 2004-05 the Sonics surprised the NBA with a 52 win season.  How did this happen?

Table One: The Sonics in 2003-04 and 2004-05

When we look at a team across two seasons we focus on two issues – changes in the performance of returning players and the difference between the players lost and added.  With Barry departing, the productivity of the players departing Seattle eclipsed the performance of the players added to the roster.  But the Sonics improved because the returning player got quite a bit better.

Much of this was due to young players developing.  Reggie Evans and Luke Ridnour, playing in their third and second season respectively, combined to produced 14 more wins in 2004-05 than each did in 2003-04.  Part of this increase was due to both players getting more minutes.  But most of the leap was simply due to each player playing better.  In sum, much like we saw with Jack Sikma and the Sonics in 1978-79, the Sonics managed to improve because the team’s youth simply became more productive (which often happens with young players).

The Sonics go from Winners to Losers

However, just as quickly as the Sonics rose to the status of contender the team quickly fell back into the NBA’s lottery.  Seattle in 2005-06 only managed to win 35 games.  When we look at Wins Produced, we see that much of this decline can be tied to two players – the aforementioned Evans and Danny Fortson. 

Table Two: The Sonics in 2004-05 and 2005-06

In 2004-05 these two players combined to produce 15 wins.  The next season, though, these two players only produced 2.9 victories.  On a per-minute basis, Evans was still pretty much the same player.  Yes his WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) did decline from 0.294 to 0.204, but 80% of his decline in Wins Produced can be tied to a decline in minutes played (part of which was due to the Sonics trading him to Denver).  As for Fortson, his productivity decline was due to both a drop in minutes and a drop in performance (both due to injury, if I recall correctly). 

The drive to regain contending status in 2006-07 focused on improving from within.  With the exception of Mickael Gelabale, every player who played significant minutes in 2006-07 was with the team in 2005-06. 

Table Three: The Sonics in 2005-06 and 2006-07

Unfortunately, as Table Three indicates, the hoped for improvement didn’t happen. In fact, Ray Allen and Ridnour actually got a bit worse, with the latter regressing to what he was as a rookie.  For Allen, who is now 32, the issue was injury (but hopefully, for the Celtics sake, not age).  For Ridnour, well maybe someone can tell me in the comments what the problem was.

First Impressions of 2007-08

This summer the Sonics repeated what they did in 1978 and 2004.  The team lost its most productive player.  Actually, in 2007, the team did a bit more.  With the loss of Rashard Lewis and Allen, Seattle lost its best two players from 2006-07. To put these losses in perspective, consider that the Sonics only won 31 games last season.  Fifteen of these victories, or nearly half, came from Lewis and Allen. Given these departures, the Sonics future in 2007-08 looks pretty bleak.  In fact, it’s so bleak that Oklahoma City basketball fans may not even want this team (okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit).

Now some may point to the additions to this team.  The Sonics won the lottery, so to speak, and were able to take Kevin Durant with the second pick in the draft.  And the trade of Allen to the Celtics brought back the fifth pick in the draft, which turned out to be Jeff Green.  Although I still expect Durant to be a good NBA player (despite his immensely disappointing effort in the NBA’s summer league, which was reviewed HERE and HERE), young players in general tend to be bad.

Yes, I know the general theme we see in Sonics history.  The team loses a great player only to see a young player blossom into a productive star.  Such blossoming, though, happens consistently after the first year.  So expecting Durant and Green to replace Lewis and Allen as rookies seems a bit much to ask.

Thus heading into my analysis of the Sonics I fully expected to discover that this team was clearly headed for another lottery pick in 2008. 

Looking at the Numbers for 2007-08

The Wages of Wins closes with a section detailing how much of what we thought when we started our analysis turned out to be contradicted by the numbers.  Yes, often it turns out we are wrong (at this point Marty and Stacey would no doubt chime in that often it is I who is often wrong). 

And, after looking at the numbers, I think my first impression of the 2007-08 Sonics might be wrong.   Just to be clear, I don’t think this is going to be a repeat of 1978 or 2004.  The Sonics are not going to be contenders next season (at least I think that’s unlikely).  But I also am not sure this team is destined for another high lottery pick.

To see this, consider the veterans this team will employ next year.

Table Four: Seattle’s Veterans in 2007-08

The Sonics have eight players on their roster who have played at least three years in the NBA.  Nick Collison, Earl Watson, Chris Wilcox, Damien Wilkins, and Ridnour were all with the team last season.  Delonte West and Wally Sszerbiak were added via the Ray Allen trade, while Kurt Thomas was given to the team by the Phoenix Suns. 

There are a variety of ways to look at these players.  We can look at what these players did last year, an average over the past three seasons, or each player’s career average (the careers of West, Collison, and Wilkins have only been three years).  Regardless of our view, the story is basically the same.  With the exception of Wilkins, who probably will not play much in 07-08, these players tend to hover around the average mark.  None of these players are truly outstanding.  But none are immensely bad either. 

What does it mean to be average in the NBA?  An entire team of such players should expect to win 41 games (or be average).  In other words, just looking at these eight players, it looks like the Sonics might be better than what they were last year.

Now what happens if we add in the rest of the roster?  At center the Sonics have Robert Swift, Johan Petro, and Mouhamed Sene.  These three players represent the Sonics latest efforts to bring in a productive center (unless you count Michael Cage as a center, the Sonics have not had much production from the five spot since the days of Jack Sikma).  And so far, all three have been below par.  Sene has barely played, so we can’t make much of the fact that his productivity has been in the negative range.  Petro, though, has played 2,792 minutes in the NBA and thus far has produced -1.3 wins.  So he clearly hasn’t helped and at this point, it seems unlikely that he is going to develop into a productive player.

Swift, though, is the greatest center to ever to make the leap from Bakersfield High to the NBA.  Unfortunately, he missed all of 2006-07 because of injury.  In 2005-06, though, he played 987 minutes and posted a 0.054 WP48.  Yes, he is below average.  But at least he’s not in the negative range.

After the veterans and the centers, the Sonics have Gelabale, Durant, and Green.  Gelabale posted a 0.031 WP48 as a rookie.  Again, below average but not dreadful.

For Durant and Green we only have what these players did in college last season.  Durant’s numbers at Texas suggest he will be an outstanding pro.  Last month I looked at the players selected in the June draft, and as the following re-posted table indicates, Durant was the best swing man selected.

Table Five: Analyzing the 2007 NBA Draft

As for Green, the above table indicates that there were six swing men taken after he was selected in the draft who produced more last year in college.  So these numbers suggest that Green might not help much this next season.

A Bold Projection

Okay, we have a bunch of numbers.  So let’s put it all together and make a bold projection.  This projection assumes that I can guess how coach P.J. Carlesimo will allocate minutes (which is a bad assumption).   My guess is that the center position will be primarily played by Thomas, Swift, and Wilcox.  Wilcox will also spend some time at power forward, a position that will also be played by Collison.  At small forward we see Green and Szczerbiak, while Durant (and I have a source with the Sonics that claims this is true) will play shooting guard.  The remaining guards are West, Ridnour, and Watson. 

As the last table of this post indicates given my projections for minutes played,  and assuming each player did what he did his most recent season played (for Durant and Green I am using a very crude projection based on what they did in college last season), the Sonics can expect to win 37 games. 

Table Six: Projecting the Sonics in 2007-08

In other words, the team could be slightly improved over what it was last year.

If you change the projection from what the players did last year to what they did across the past three seasons, or even their career marks, the projected wins rises into the low 40s.  So it’s possible that the Sonics could even contend for one of the last playoff spots.

Now I have to emphasize, this is really guesswork.  I do not know how minutes will be allocated on this team. And there is no way to project injuries, which can easily wreck any forecast.  Still, I think it’s at least possible that the Sonics could once again lose their best player and actually improve.  And so the story in Seattle continues (at least for a little while longer).

– 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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