At some point in this post I am going to get to the Clippers and Chris Kaman. But let me start someplace else – and yes, I think it’s relevant – before getting to the Clippers-Kaman story.
Why Statistics are Tracked?
This is how The Wages of Wins begins:
Sports are entertainment. Sports do not often change our world; rather they serve as a distraction from our world.
In this sense, sports are like music or movies. But music and movies don’t typically come with a set of numbers that viewers need to see and understand to enjoy the entertainment. Even the most casual sports fans, though, look at some numbers in watching and enjoying a sporting event.
So here’s a simple question: Why do team sports keep track of statistics?
In Statistical Thinking in Sports (edited by Jim Albert and Ruud Koning) I wrote the following:
The purposes behind this effort (tracking player statistic) is to separate each player from his team and connect that specific player’s actions accurately to the team outcome observed. There are two reasons why we wish to separate the player from his team. First, we wish to explain why a specific team has won or lost. Specifically, which players are most responsible for the outcome we observed? From the team’s perspective, though, there is a more important issue. Teams need to know which players to employ in the future. By tracking and analyzing player statistics teams hope to identify the players who will help the team be successful in the future. In sum, statistics are tracked to both explain what we observed in the past and determine what actions a team should take in the future.
Okay, we have an answer to why statistics are tracked. Ultimately we wish to assign responsibility for outcomes and predict the future. What does this have to do with the Clippers?
Looking at the Team Numbers
Two years ago the Clippers won 47 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Last year the Clippers won only 40 games and missed the playoffs entirely. How do we explain this decline?
Obviously, one could argue that this is not really much of a decline. When we look at efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency) we see a mark of 1.7 in 2005-06. Yes, by NBA standards, this is barely positive. Yet in the woeful history of the Clippers in Los Angeles, this is the best the team had ever done. Last year the differential returned to the familiar negative range with a mark of -0.5 (I say familiar because the Clippers have only had a positive differential three times since 1984-85). Although it’s typical that the Clippers wander into the negative range, a movement from 1.7 to -0.5 is not very large. So one could argue that the “decline” we see was not really all that significant.
But such an approach wouldn’t be very fun. Surely there is someone we can blame for the Clippers missing the playoffs. If we look at the Wins Produced on this team (remember, Wins Produced just takes what we know about efficiency differential and applies this to the players) we see that blame can indeed be assigned.
And that someone we can blame is…. Chris Kaman.
Kaman produced 8.6 wins in 2005-06. His Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] was 0.160, a mark above the average level of 0.100. Last year, though, his WP48 fell to 0.061 and his Wins Produced declined to 2.8. Had Kaman maintained in 2005-06 production, the Clippers would have seen nearly six more wins, which would have left this team about where it was in 2005-06.
To be fair, one could make a similar argument about Sam Cassell. Cassell’s production declined 4.3 wins. But let’s face it, he’s old. He was drafted in 1993, which was so long ago that Robert Parish and Moses Malone were still playing. And being old, as Parish, Malone, and many others learned, does wreck your game.
Unlike Cassell, though, Kaman is still young. So why did he decline? Let’s take a look at more numbers.
When we look at the individual stats we see that in 2005-06, Kaman was above average with respect to both shooting efficiency and rebounds. Last year he was well below average with respect to shooting efficiency and his rebounding numbers also fell.
Okay, now we know where Kaman was worse. Why was Kaman a less effective scorer and less capable rebounder?
Before I fail to answer that question, let me review what we do know. We started with a team outcome. The Clippers team performance clearly declined. We then went through the numbers generated by the players and identified a specific player who played a large role in the decline. After that, we then went through and found the aspect of his performance that caused production to decline.
At this point — and we emphasized this in the book — coaching should take over. The coaches can see – when they look at the numbers — where Kaman was worse and the consequences of this decline. Now it’s up to the coaches (and Kaman) to fix the problem.
We have now assigned responsibility. What about the future?
Let’s say the coaching staff with the Clippers fixes the problem with Kaman’s game. Will that return this team to the playoffs? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. Elton Brand, the team’s most productive player, will not play this year. Without Brand this team has little hope of challenging in the West. Yes, the additions of Ruben Patterson and Brevin Knight will help. But Brand is the team’s most productive player. No one else on the roster – with the exception of James Singleton (I was thinking of a post on Singleton, since he is a very productive player who has now left the Association) – offered a WP48 in excess of 0.200 last season. So the loss of Brand hurts.
Still, there is hope for the Clippers. By going through the numbers we were able to identify where the Clippers faltered last year. If Kaman’s issues can be fixed, and Brand comes back healthy, the 2008-09 season might be promising. Yes, that is a few ifs. But for a team with such a miserable track record, a bit of hope is at least something.
For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07
Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
The equation connecting wins to offensive/defensive efficiency is given HERE
Wins Produced and Win Score are discussed in the following posts